In late 1944, the Americans started to take back the Philippine Islands from Japan. By 1 March 1945, Clark Air Field was activated with U. S. Army and Navy aircraft conducting reconnaissance, interdiction, and bombing strikes against Japanese targets ashore, airborne, and afloat. I was a pilot in VB-104, the "Screaming One-oh-Four," at Clark.
The morning of 17 March—St. Patrick's Day—was unusual. Normally we arose at 0200, but this date I rolled out of my cot at about 0700. After breakfast, our briefing at wing headquarters was routine and short. It consisted mainly of search sector assignments, issuing codebooks, and weather reports. Since we were to patrol regardless of conditions, the weather briefing received little attention.
Of considerable interest—and very much out of the ordinary—was our primary mission of the day. We were to intercept and shoot down an Emily,a Japanese four-engine seaplane, that was reportedly carrying high-ranking Japanese officials. All crews flying this day were elated with the prospect.
My own feelings were somewhat dampened by two factors. One, the search sector where the Emily was most likely to be found had been assigned to crews from another squadron, YB-119. This irritated me greatly because my squadron—and particularly my own crew—was far more combat-experienced than YB-119. We were approaching the end of our combat tour, whereas YB-119 was still in the early stage of theirs. However, the wing commander's assignments were correct, since the YB-119 crews were flying PB4Y-2s—newer, faster, and more heavily armed that the PB4Y-1s we flew.
My second nagging feeling was apprehension about the return portion of the patrol, which would be conducted in the dark, adding to the operational hazards of flying in the forward areas.
We left Clark Field at 0915. Our sector was up the eastern side of Formosa, between Formosa and Sakishima Gunto into the East China Sea, then southward along the China coast. Along with searching for the Emily, we were also looking for Japanese shipping, aircraft,and any targets of opportunity. I recall that after passing Formosa and descending through the clouds, this was one of the rare times we collected a little ice on the airplane. We proceeded in towards the coast of China just above the water. This was our best tactic, both offensively and defensively, when deep in enemy territory. From this altitude we could both fend off fighter planes and attack shipping. However, there was a fog bank lying on the water and I could go in to the coastline only so far. I was then concerned about running into a hill or mountain, as my forward visibility was virtually nil. We then turned to the southwest and proceeded down the coast.
This portion of the patrol was flown about 100 feet above the water and about three to five miles offshore. We were enjoying a relatively strong tail wind when, about 150 miles southwest of Hangchow Bay, I sighted a Japanese freighter leaving a harbor. Further out to sea I could see a Japanese destroyer that appeared to be conducting antisubmarine patrol. I judged her far enough away to be just outside effective gun range. I immediately applied full power and started running in on the freighter for a mast head bombing attack. The Japanese destroyer opened fire on us, but was ineffective.
As we closed in on the freighter, my bow and top turrets opened fire. The muzzles of the top turret guns, twin .50-calibers, were just over my head. The muzzle blasts nearly drove me out of the cockpit—the noise was deafening. Our gunners did a great job; every tracer appeared to be a hit. More importantly, we caught the ship by surprise and there was no return fire. With the engines set at 45 inches of manifold pressure and 2,500 rpms, and assisted by a tail wind, our attack speed was about 235 knots. Just after the bombs had been released and I had pulled up, I could see the explosions on the ship by laying my head up in the bubble side window.
With the destroyer still out of gun range, I circled back, flew upwind,and came in for a high-speed strafing pass and to ensure that we got a good photograph. The ship was burning and had made a 1800 turn. As we passed by the freighter, I observed crewmen jumping over the side. The next day,one of our planes patrolling the area found conclusive evidence that this freighter had been sunk, and we were credited with the kill. The ship was identified as the 3,000-ton Koshu.
Shortly after pulling up from this second strafing run, we sighted two Japanese Jakes. The reconnaissance floatplanes were slightly above and on an opposite course from us, in a right-echelon formation. They apparently did not see us, so staying low on the water, I turned and pulled up to join in as number-three man in their formation. I'd done it before when I was sure that I had surprise—I'd fly in a position behind and slightly to the right of an enemy plane. My gunners were not permitted to fire until we were at point-blank range, thereby ensuring a kill.
As we slid into the number-three slot we were nearly lapping wings. I was impressed with the sleekness and, as with most Japanese aircraft, the very smooth finish. I noted that the aircraft was equipped with radar. It had the "clothes-line" antenna wiring all around the fuselage and wings.
As we took our place beside plane number two, the Jake's rear seat man performed the classic double take: he glanced over at us, turned back to face aft, and then quickly looked at us again. He made no attempt to use his 20-millimeter gun. At that time we opened fire and very quickly the Jake started dropping. We followed him down and observed him crashing into the water.
So far it had been a good day. My thought then was to take on the other plane, but the pilot had used his head and taken off for his destroyer for protection. American pilots had a healthy respect for Japanese destroyers. Their gunnery was excellent, and we rarely caught them by surprise. We therefore turned southward and resumed patrol.
About a half hour after the attack on the Jake, still travelling low on the water along the China coast, I looked up and there, 3 ,000-4,000 feet up and five to eight miles ahead, was the prize of the day-the Japanese Emily. This particular aircraft was a "fat cat;" that is, our intelligence had advised that some of the guns had been removed—and, I assumed, some of the armor—to cut down on weight and assure room for the officials and their baggage.
Immediately upon sighting, I put on full power and told my crew to stand by to attack. My first thought was to pull directly head on into the plane for no-deflection shooting. That's what I should have done. However, I discarded that idea and decided to climb in on a beam attack and, hoping to stay with my prey, to ensure bringing it down. We began a climbing approach, thankful they had not yet seen us.
I made a zoom-climbing 1800 turn into the aircraft at point-blank range. We opened fire and both the top and bow turrets were shooting well. There were numerous tracer flashes, indicating hits, on the deep fuselage. I made another mistake here, by not directing my gunners to shoot out an engine. This would have slowed the Emily sufficiently to ensure a kill. With the zoom climb and turn, a loss of airspeed resulted and temporarily stalled my plane. The altitude difference was more than I could make and still maintain flying speed.
We recovered from the stall, and the Emily was seen flying north—slowly descending, but apparently still in flying condition. We pursued, but were only gaining slowly. My copilot asked me how far I intended to chase; I was alleged to have replied, "All the way to Tokyo, if necessary!"
His query reminded me that we were at the end of our patrol sector and had used a good deal of fuel in our full power settings. I continued to chase for approximately 15-20 minutes, until I sighted the tidal mud flats south of Haimen and Tai-cho Bay. It was then a question of whether to break off the attack and head home, or continue the chase and face the certainty of running out of fuel and ditching at night. With a very sick feeling and great reluctance, I broke off the chase and set course for Clark Field. The joy from sinking the freighter and shooting down the Jake was dulled. I felt I had missed the chance of a lifetime.
Our homeward trip was uneventful, except for apprehension about insufficient fuel and finding the airstrip at night without navigational aids. Thanks to a very strong tail wind, we arrived back at Clark at 2239 with sufficient fuel remaining.
Two days later, while having lunch in the mess hall, I noticed the wing commander, Captain Carroll B. Jones, engaged in gleeful conversation with his staff; they were laughing and patting one another on the back. He waved me over, and I could hardly believe my ears when he said, "You got him! The information we have is that the admiral went down." I returned to my table and informed my two copilots. Later I appealed to a friend who was an air intelligence officer and managed to get a few more details.