SANTA FE, New Mexico — Thousands of feet above the Pacific Ocean, the bullets were coming fast and the flak was flying. Japanese fighter planes whizzed around like bees as the American forces in their lumbering B-24 bombers tried everything to reach their targets, save fuel and stay airborne for the long trip home.
Tom Pelle, a 20-year-old tech sergeant, was pulling double duty as a machine gunner that October day. That was 70 years ago, but he remembers the battle like it was yesterday.
"They hit every one of us. They shot down seven, and we were almost number eight," said Pelle, who lost his right leg in the battle.
Now Pelle and the few other remaining members of the 13th Air Force's famous 307th Bombardment Group, their family members and Ancestry.com's military records site Fold3 are working to keep alive the group's memory by collecting and digitizing thousands of photographs, military orders and other memorabilia. The records are being posted online as part of a searchable database.
The effort is taking on particular urgency because only a handful of the veterans — known as the "Long Rangers" — are still alive today. Most of them, like Pelle, are around 90 years old.
Historians say the experiences of the 307th Bombardment Group are priceless. Thousands of men were part of the group, including Louis Zamperini, whose story of survival after being shot down over the Pacific is the subject of a best-selling book and Angelina Jolie's new movie "Unbroken," which will be released in December.
Pelle barely survived the battle on Oct. 3, 1944. By the time it was over, his plane had 420 holes in it. He nearly bled to death after having his leg shot off. With each beat of his heart, blood from what was left of his limb squirted onto the side of the plane. Between throwing up and passing out, he could see his crewmates working to save his life, using their belts as tourniquets.
Unlike Pelle and Zamperini, hundreds never made it home.
The 307th completed more than 600 missions, many of them as long as 17 hours over the open ocean with no landmarks. They were usually unescorted, with several gunners aboard each bomber. They had to get past the more agile Japanese fighter planes and anti-aircraft guns stationed around their targets or on the decks of battleships.
Several 307th veterans gathered about two weeks ago in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for an annual reunion. They talked about the upcoming movie and reminisced.
The veterans say the story of the 307th is one of survival. They braved the challenges of navigating the Pacific along with the relentless attacks of the Japanese Zeros. Their focus: Destroying supplies and equipment being used by the Japanese, including refineries and the ships that would transport oil and fuel to enemy installments.
Over the decades, veteran Jim Kendall and his wife, Dottie, amassed a collection of 307th memorabilia — from personal letters and photographs to military orders, maps, aerial reconnaissance images, flags and patches. Dottie Kendall said the couple's mailbox became "an adventure," with new items from around the country showing up every day. Jim Kendall spent hours trying to catalog what had filled dozens of boxes and a series of tall file cabinets.
Jim McCabe, the bomb group's historian, said that with the passing years, the veterans' stories were being lost and there were gaps in the records. That's changing, he said.
The 307th Bomb Group Association used scanners and the help of high school students to continue what Kendall started, but the effort has now gone warp speed thanks to Fold3.
Many people don't know about the 307th given that the group operated in such a remote corner of the world. It didn't help that many veterans refrained from sharing their experiences with family members.
"They're very storied, and people have no idea they were on two missions where they received distinguished unit citations, Silver Stars and earned incredible medals and citations for their bravery," McCabe said. "I think it's important that the families know."