“Headquarters must not think too much of your piloting, Commander. Sending Cerberus to keep an eye on ya.” My co-pilot, Tom Anderson, grinned at me and vaulted out of the hatch, landing with an ungraceful thud that sent echoes throughout the cavernous hanger. “Maybe you better let me handle ’er tonight.”
Actually, I was quite impressed by Tom’s knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman Mythologymentioning Cerberus, the three-headed hound that guards the gates of the underworld. Not so sure how the three navigators would feel about that, though. Also, not impressed enough to hand over the controls.
“Or maybe it’s Paul they don’t trust.” Now Jerry Manchel, our radio operator, was the one grinning. He raised his voice as the three airmen approached, “Need to send two watchdogs to keep an eye on you, eh Pauley?” Paul Schoeffler, our crew navigator was one of the three that had drawn the short straw for this mission.
“That’ll be enough, Sergeant,” I barked back at Jerry. “Back to your station, if you please, and finish your sheet. I’d like to get airborne before sunset.” And hopefully before those clouds form up, I added silently. As the crew returned to their duties, I examined the approaching storm. An ominous darkness was spreading out overhead, covering the entire horizon; flashes of lightning could be seen discharging deep within the dark blue mass. “Not good,” I muttered. “Not good at all.”
As World War II was winding down in the Western Pacific, our crew, “Jasper’s Jokers,” found ourselves on the tiny isle of Ie Shima. Our 90th Bombardment Group, a B-24 Liberator outfit nicknamed the “Jolly Rogers,” was one of several Bomb Groups of the 5th Air Force being readied for the final assault on the Japanese Empire homeland. Besides Tom, Jerry, Paul and me, there were six other members of “Jasper’s Jokers” along for that ride…Ken Meier, the engineer, Elmer Schwane, our bombardier, James West, the top-gunner, Frank Baur, the armorer/gunner, Robert Arraj, our nose gunner, and Horace Skinner, the tailgunner (no relation to me, but to keep us straight, he was referred to as “Little Skinner,” which left me with the moniker, “Big Skinner”).
We had been ordered to fly an armed reconnaissance mission along a weather frontal system from Okinawa, northward to the Tokyo Bay area, in preparation for the massive raid against Japan. Although two atomic bombs had already been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Group Brass remained uncertain as to the disposition of the Empire’s rulers. They designed one last overpowering strike in the hopes that this would force the Emperor to realize that immediate surrender was the only viable option left. Our crew was to report back with weather sightings and any other pertinent information that would assist our bombers in carrying out this final assault on the Japanese mainland. As usual, pilots, engineer, radio operator, gunners and navigators (Group, Squadron and Crew navigators) all received separate briefings by a staff member of their specialty, prior to embarking.
As soon as “Mary-Ellen” (the name tattooed on the side of our reconnaissance plane) had been verified a-okay and ready to fly, we strapped in and prepared for take-off. The huge B-24 roared to life, taxied down the runway and became airborne just after 18:30 hours, as the last of the sun’s rays were swallowed up by the now omnipresent storm clouds. Almost immediately, the plane started to buck in the powerful winds bearing down on us from all sides, increasing in strength the higher we climbed. I shouted through the intercom for all hands to secure their stations, and cinched my own restraints up a notchthis was going to be a bumpy ride. Our plane, all nineteen tons of her, was tossed about as if she were a paper toy while violent up and down drafts called for some quick power and piloting adjustments to keep us from being torn apart. To make matters worse, giant raindrops began to splatter against the windscreen, beating a constant rhythm that could be heard throughout the hold. Normally, this would have prevented any visual navigation, except for the fact that the dense cloud cover had already erased the outside world from view. We were engulfed in a pitch-black void, broken only by the incessant bursts of cloud-to-cloud lightning shooting across the sky. Thank God for radar, I thought. Without it, we’d be flying blind.
“Commander? Sir? You better come take a look at this.” A worried-looking Jerry popped his head through the cockpit door and motioned me back to the hold. “I think we may be in trouble.”
Great. Now what? “Take over, Tom.” As I struggled to get free of my restraints and keep my balance at the same time, the Lieutenant took over control of the ship from the co-pilot’s seat. “I’ll be back in a minute. Coming, Jerry.”
Somehow we both managed to get back to the hold without having our heads bashed in from the ongoing turbulence. “Look at this,” the Sergeant’s voice was as close to a whisper that he could get and still be heard above all the weather. Sitting down at his radio station overlooking the right wing, he held up a pencil about three inches from where the copper antenna lead-in wire entered the ship from the outside. A white-hot electrical spark instantly appeared between the two objects. “If we don’t get out of this storm, but quick, all of our equipment is going to fry.”
I watched the flickering light arch back and forth across the small gap, a sense of unease beginning to slowly creep down my spine. “Shut it down. Now. Along with every other piece of non-essential gear. We don’t need to risk”
Paul was staring wild-eyed out one of the hull windows. “Commander! Look!!”
Racing to his side, I peered out into the inky blackness. I could see nothing except the flash of lightning encircling the ship. “What is it, Lieutenant? I don’t…”
And then I sawand understood. I watched in horror as the entire left wing began to glow eerily; the light growing in intensity untilFLASHA giant ball of electricity appeared and started a deadly dance along the edges of the wing, traveling up and over the outside skin of the ship, antenna wires and rudders, until it ran its course and discharged into the atmosphere. It only lasted an instant, but was then immediately replaced by another build-up, and another wraith-like sphere crawling its way over our plane. The propeller blades would build up a brilliant glow just prior to each lightning bolt discharge.
“Oh dear God,” I breathed. “St. Elmo’s Fire.”
Tearing myself away from the incredible sight, I staggered back up to the cockpit and reclaimed control of the ship. The Sergeant was correct; we had to get out of here now. While the amazing light show taking place on top of us was not lethal in and of itself, the path that the “Fire” followed repeatedly took it over the length of both the wingswhich stored the 100-octane aviation gas that powered the ship’s four engines. If a spark somehow managed to breach the containers located within, the explosion would rip the plane apart. We had to get above this storm.
Before I could toggle on my throat mic and announce my intentions to the crew, Jerry once again called up through the hatch. “Commander,” his voice cracked, “Commander, Sergeant regrets to inform you that the radar set” He paused, took a breath and continued, “The radar set has burned out.”
“Burned out?” I fought to control the rage boiling up inside me. “HOW did it BURN OUT?!” The Sergeant started to offer an explanation about the sparks shorting out the equipment, but I quickly cut him off. “Never mind! Get back to your position.” My thumb flipped on the mic switch. “Attention all crew. Secure yourselves and your stations. We’re going up and out of this mess.”
Once all hands reported back secure, we started our torturous ascent. It took a few gut-wrenching minutes during which our Mary-Ellen felt like a shuttle cock in some giant’s game of badminton, but eventually we succeeded in breaking out into a brilliantly moonlit sky.
Beautiful. Now to get this old bird turned around and headed back to base. “Take over again, Tom. I’m going back to plot a course back to base.”
“Good idea, Sir.” The grin was back. “Make the Three Musketeers earn their fare.”
Laughing as I once more unbuckled myself, I traveled back to the hull. Paul and the two other navigators were huddled around a table, talking quietly.
“Hey guys,” I called out, “Work time. Grab your charts and let’s see if we can’t make it back at least for breakfast.” The conversation stopped, but nobody moved.
“Preferably before sunrise, Paul.”
Still, nobody made any indication of complying with my request.
“Lieutenant! That was an order! Move it!!”
Paul slowly stood up and walked towards me. As he approached, I saw that his face had turned a ghostly pale, and the look in his eyes sent a shiver down my spine. “Paul? What’s wrong?”
“Sir. It would appear” Pausing, he glanced back at the table, licked his lips and started again. “Sir. The Lieutenant cannot carry out the order. The Lieutenant does not have his star charts on his person.”
“Well then, use one of theirs.” I gestured vaguely towards the two other navigators, who then shrunk down in their seats, like they wanted to make themselves invisible. Oh no. The dread was back. “Lieutenant?”
Paul slowly shook his head.
You’ve got to be kidding. “Please tell me you’re joking.” Again, he shook his head negative. Numbness hit my legs, forcing me to lean up against the cold bulkhead for support. “None of you? NONE OF YOU brought your Star Tables?” Apparently each of them believed that one of the other two navigators would have his set of tables available for use, and had not bothered to double-check before we took off.
We were now officially lost. No radar, no celestial navigation possible, no way to determine our position, and flying over enemy territory, which, of course, ruled out radioing anyone.
“God help us.”
Hand over hand, I staggered back up to the pilot’s seat and sunk into the chair. Before Tom could ask what was wrong, I ordered him to take up a dead reckoning heading to try and bring us to a landfall over Japan. Anywhere in Japan. At first he did not follow, but then comprehension of the situation took over and he slowly brought the great ship around, following the line of the compass to what we hoped would lead us to a usable landing place.
A silence as thick and heavy as a wet blanket engulfed the ship. Even Mary-Ellen seemed to muffle the hum of her propellers in tune with our terrible crisis. Seven hours into our mission, just after 01:30 hours, we sighted the snow-covered cone of Mt. Fujiyama, the sacred mountain of Japan. It stood there, silent and alone above a solid undercast of fleecy white clouds.
I called back and asked the navigators to try and give us a heading from Mt. Fuji back to our base on Ie Shima, and with a little germ of hope starting to grow, swung the plane around to begin the homeward leg.
Tom and I had often practiced emergency fuel economy measures on previous long, over the water missionsnow we began again in earnest. Following the example of Charles Lindbergh in the South Pacific, we adjusted our speed and manifold pressure, and set extremely lean fuel/air mixtures that buried the needles of the safety and temperature gauges in the red. This technique proved successful in the past in expanding P-38 Fighters’ range, so we hoped it would follow suit and be enough to get us back to base safely. Fuel was a growing concern. Our mission was to have lasted only four hours. We had nearly doubled that already, and still had to cover the distance back. I knew we could make it, but it was going to be tight. Or could we?
The dreary night gradually turned to dawn, and then to full daylight. The vast and empty North Pacific looked more gray than blue as we slowly made our way back home, and the whitecaps of foam topping off the massive waves below us were clearly visible. The good news was that the violent storms of the previous night had rapidly swept away to the east. However, this left a powerful headwind to confront us on our return, forcing the increased consumption of precious fuel in the attempt to merely maintain our present altitude. Since we did not have positive knowledge of our position, as we lacked both wind speed and direction components, I instructed Jerry to break radio silence and attempt to contact our base. Precise direction was now needed to guide us to safe harbor. It was a long three-quarters of an hour before we received any response, but at last the heading came through. I adjusted our course accordingly, and offered up a silent prayer, asking that we would still possess enough fuel to reach Ie Shima.
Our conservation measures called for us to disregard the normal operation routine, and therefore resulted in a gradual descent. To offset the altitude loss and to extend our range as much as possible, I instructed the gunners Horace, Elmer, James, Frank and Robert, to throw overboard all the machine guns, boxes of ammunition, and anything and everything that was not bolted down.
“Does that include extra deadbeat navigators?” Jerry smiled sweetly over at the trio.
“No,” I replied, suppressing my true feelings. “At least, not yet.”
A few minutes later, Kenny Meier, our flight engineer came forward, his face looking as ashen as Paul’s had last night.
“Sir? Sergeant Meier reporting, Sir. Upon checking our tanks, I estimate that with our present weight and speed, we have approximately one-half hour’s fuel supply remaining, at best.”
“Right. Thank you, Sergeant.” Dismissed, Meier retreated back to the hold. Well, this is it. I flipped my mic on. “Attention all crew. Find your ditching positions. Repeat. All crew, man your ditching positions.” Put your head between your legs, I thought, turning the mic back off.
“Ditch? In this beast?” Tom sounded incredulous. “We’ll never survive. Mary-Ellen’s a great gal, don’t get me wrong, but B-24s don’t ditch. They belly-flop and explode. I meanCommander? Hey, are you listening to me?”
“Cliffs,” I whispered. “Limestone cliffs.”
“please don’t crack up on me now, Sir.” The Lieutenant was almost pleading. “If we’re going to ditch this thing, you’re going to have to help. I don’t think I can handle”
“We’re not going to ditch, Tom. Look!” Nodding towards the window, I directed my co-pilot’s attention to the horizon line, where a thin sliver of white rock grew larger and larger as we approached. Ie Shima, at last! The old rock never looked so good!
“Eh, two out of four isn’t bad,” grinned Jerry, who joined us in the cabin the moment we started to taxi back to base.
“Oh yeah? Well how about one?” Tom pointed out the window where engine number one was now silent. It too had run out of fuel. Turning towards the number two engine, three pairs of eyes watched expectantly as the last remaining source of our ship’s power coughed, sputtered, and finally faded into silence.
Jerry shook his head in disbelief. “And all this drama for nothing.”
I turned towards the radio operator, “What do you mean, ‘for nothing’?”
“Talked to base right after we touched down. Japan has surrendered. They’re gonna be bringin’ the peace envoys right through here in less than a week. Should be quite a sight.”
“Oh,” I replied quietly, and left it at that. There was no need to say anything more.
Once we had disembarked, I did a mental disaster checklistit’s not everyday that you have death thrown at you five different ways. Let’s see, first there was the storm. The wind and turbulence alone were enough to take us down. Secondly, the plane becoming engulfed in St. Elmo’s Fire, with the constant thought and fear of explosion. Then, the navigation radio going out, which left us in the hands of the three navigators, all of whom had left their navigation charts back at base. Those were disasters numbers three and four, which could have caused us to be permanently lost over the vast Pacific, and in enemy territory. Fifth, and finally, the fact that we were flying for 15 hours and 45 minutes on fuel supplies that were designed to last much less timeyes, you bet I was giving thanks, as was the rest of the crew.
This true story was written several years ago by Lt. Col. Jasper D. Skinner, who passed away January 14, 2011. The story was edited by Jann Skinner Marthaler, the daughter of Horace Skinner (Little Skinner); Horace passed away in December of 1997. He had served as Jasper’s Jokers’ tail gunner in the latter days of the war in the South Pacific theater. They were Combat Crew #379. The Combat Crew before them (#378) and after them (#380) did not survive the war. To hear the song written about this story, "Jasper's Jokers", click here: JaspersJokers.mp3