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Pappy Gunn's B-25s Part 1
There was a time when the Japanese controlled the whole world. Well, if not the entire world then just that little corner of it around New Guinea and New Britain. But that was the corner that mattered to the Americans and Australians who were trying to stem the seemingly inevitable tide of Japanese conquest in 1943. The situation was close to hopeless. The Japanese Zero could virtually sweep the skies of any Allied fighters courageous enough to go up against it. The Imperial Japanese Navy with their Long Lance torpedoes, aircraft carriers and big guns had captured the sea and guarded it jealously. And the Japanese army, battle-hardened and flush with victory, was poised to take all of New Guinea.
“It must have been an angry God who made this place,” an Australian medical officer said of the 3,000 square-mile island. With the rugged Owen Stanley Mountains supplying an almost impassable backbone, the body of New Guinea was one vast jungle. For the Australians an Japanese the most dangerous and debilitating enemy was the jungle—and unforgiving environment that didn’t differentiate between Nipponese or Aussie. Both succumbed to its lush charms. The fliers who fought in the skies above the green carpet carried parachutes that offered little hope if they had to bail out—they knew that the jungle would swallow them up, with little hope of returning them to their comrades alive. It was a green hell on earth, but its position off the shoulder of Australia made it invaluable.
The Japanese supplied their forces by ship, convoys of men and materials that left Rabaul on New Britain, sailed into the Bismarck Sea, passing Gazelle Peninsula and Kimbo Bay, slid through the Dampier Strait and made landfall in the Huon Gulf. These supply runs were not uncontested, of course; P-40s, P-38s, B-17s and B-25s of the Fifth Air Force harassed the enemy ships along the sea route and attacked the off-loaded enemy troops until they sought refuge in the jungle. It wasn’t enough, however—the Japanese, determined, skilled, and resourceful, had the upper hand. New Guinea was in danger of falling and with it Port Moresby, and from there the Imperial Japanese Army could invade Australia.
The first B-25s to arrive in New Guinea were almost too few to matter and they had teething problems. Their only armament was one .30 caliber machine gun in the nose, a twin .50 caliber dorsal turret, and a bottom turret. The radio operator controlled the bottom turret, also armed with twin .50 caliber machine guns through a periscope sight. The sight’s field of vision was severely restricted, making the turret almost useless. In effect, this reduced the bomber’s defense. The B-25 with its two, 2,000
One of the men who waited, but not patiently because Pappy Gunn was anything but patient, was the colonel who commanded the Fifth Air Force Service Command; Paul Gunn. Pappy Gunn because he was older than most of the men who served with, or under him—and also because his experience dictated that he be treated with respect. He was the former director of the Philippine Airlines before he was snapped up by the U.S. Army Air Force and given a captain’s commission. He was inventive, blunt, a terror to underlings, and called the “Mad Professor” for the endless stream of innovations he produced. Most men that flew with him were convinced he was simply mad. His superior was Brigadier General Ennis Whitehead, deputy commander of the Fifth Air Force and just as irascible as Pappy. Together they made a formidable team.
It was Pappy that considered the twin-engine bomber and its sister, the A-20, and found potential in the aircraft far above what the North American Aviation Company had planned. The B-25 Mitchell, named after the opinionated aviator who was convinced that air power would supplant the navy’s big guns, carried a crew of from 4 to 6, had a wing span of just over 67 feet and was just a shade over 54 feet in length. Her maximum speed was a respectable 315 miles per hour and she had a range of approximately 1,500 miles. These specifications changed as the aircraft evolved, ending in the B-25J model. It was the B-25 Mitchell, under the command of Colonel James Doolittle, that took off from the U.S.S. Hornet and bombed Japan in 1942. It was a dramatic attempt to give Americans something to cheer about when the front page of hometown newspapers carried nothing but accounts of Japanese victories and American defeats. But it was a raid that resulted in negligible damage to the Japanese with traditional tactics; high-level bombing by the Mitchell medium bomber.
High-level bombing against ships, despite Billy Mitchell’s enthusiastic comments, simply wasn’t feasible. Ships move—and once bombs are dropped it is easy to track their trajectory. And enemy convoys traveled close enough to land to be protected by land-based aircraft, the formidable Zero.
Pappy Gunn gave the problem some thought, as he did any problem that presented itself, and came up with a solution. Or, several solutions.
The B-25’s bottom turret, virtually useless anyway, would be removed and a droppable gas tank would be installed in its place. The dropping part of this solution was a little tricky—a crewman had to strap himself in so he would not be sucked out of the aircraft as he manually freed the tank. Pappy was also convinced that North American’s twin-engine bomber had a future as a fighter-bomber so he removed the plexi-glass nose canopy, the bombardier’s station, and the bombardier himself. The nose of the bomber was converted into a gun platform; in early models 6, .50 caliber machine guns and a .40-millimeter cannon. Later came a 75-millimeter M4 cannon, 14, .50 machine guns (all stations) and a 75-millimeter T13E1 cannon. Some J-models were produced sans cannon but carried 18 machine guns.
Pappy’s bombers still carried a bomb load, anywhere from 1,700 to 3,000 pounds depending on the circumstances, but now the B-25s could act as buzz saws, slicing through enemy troop transports and cargo vessels with their massive firepower. Some of the crewmen on Pappy’s earliest prototypes (with the Mad Professor himself at the wheel), swore that the plane’s forward progress stopped when all the guns let loose at once. They also swore that Pappy was trying to kill them because he flew the medium bomber like a pursuit plane. “This Major Gunn was the toughest, wildest airplane driver in the Pacific,” one veteran commented in alarm. “We were upside down half the time. We did vertical and horizontal loops, spins, dives, and many near stalls.” Pappy may have been difficult and caustic, but he was not careless or foolhardy—he knew what the bomber could do and he knew how it had to be flown in its new role. He came up with another innovation—skip bombing.
It was very simple and incredibly dangerous. It was like skipping a rock across a quiet mill pound, except it was the ocean and people were shooting at you. B-25 crewmen who were used to flying high above enemy anti-aircraft fire, now had to be convinced to fly directly into the guns at wave height. The bombs were fused to explode eleven seconds from release, giving them time to skip across the water, strike the hull of the enemy vessel, slide to the waterline, and explode. The bomber should be well clear of the explosion, if all went as planned. One training exercise resulted in the loss of a bomber and several men and severe damage to another. Aircraft were so precious that the incident brought on a confrontation between General George Kenny, commanding officer of the Fifth Air Force, and the volatile Whitehead. Kenny wasn’t convinced that Pappy knew what he was doing and they couldn’t risk losing any aircraft in combat, let alone training. Whitehead, certain of Pappy’s skills and as pugnacious as Kenny, didn’t back down. Give Pappy a chance, Whitehead urged, he’s never failed us before. “Just tell them to be more careful,” Kenny finally muttered. What concerned Kenney was a critical lack of both aircraft and crews, and those that he had were beginning to wear out.
Despite the original misgivings of some of the Fifth Air Force crews, they began to understand that they had been given a new potent weapon. Now, speeding at enemy vessels over the wave-tops, pilots could kick their rudders back and forth, spraying the decks and superstructure of the vessels with their machine guns, and cannon. And, on the deck, enemy fighters were denied an opportunity at the bombers soft underbelly.
It appeared that Pappy Gunn had finally provided the Fifth Air Force with the weapon that it needed to stop the Japanese convoys from Rabaul, but the question was, would circumstances and the weather conspire to defeat the Australian and American airmen? The Japanese were formidable opponents whose clever tactics and skill had kept men and materials streaming, unabated, to New Guinea. The weather in this region was always unpredictable, and the enemy was proficient in utilizing it to conceal their ships. The contest for New Guinea was not only to be decided in the jungle; it was to be decided on the rolling, green swells of the Solomon Sea, Kimbo Bay, Huon Gulf, and the Bismarck Sea.