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PBJ Oral Histories

Two PBJ pilots look back 50+ years at the same mission

by The Oral History Givers

Copyright 1997 by the Confederate Air Force and The Oral History Givers. All rights reserved.

Originally published in The Dispatch magazine, Volume 22, Number 2, Summer, 1997 edition. If you are interested in subscribing to The Dispatch please write to The Commemorative Air Force, ATTN: Dispatch Editor, PO Box 62000, Midland, TX 79711-2000 or call (432) 563-1000. Reproduced with permission.

The following personal account was provided from the archives of Marine Air Group 61 by Mike Langenfeld, the group's histortian.

Among the first Marine PBJ pilots to see combat with VMB-413 was Bob Millington. In 1995, when he learned that a local high school history class was holding a mark trial of the B-29 crews and President Harry Truman for having used atomic weapons to end World War II, Millington gave a speech on the 50th Anniversary of V-J day. He wanted to give others some idea of the sacrifices made to defend the freedom that the students took for granted, and let them see the need to end the war as soon as possible from another perspective. This is an extract from his speech:

Let me tell you of a personal incident. On July 29, 1944,I was in a six plane low-level bombing and strafing attack on Japanese infantry at Choisel Bay, just off Bougainville. Usually we made one past and got out, but we were told they had no automatic fire, and to keep going back until we had expended all of our ordnance. We made eight passes at tree top level. The enemy used no tracers so we didn't realize we were under fire from automatic weapons. On the third pass my cameraman whose head was out the rear hatch [The hutch was in place of the belly turret, allowing bomb damage assessment aver the target.] had the camera shot away from his eye. On the next pass my tail gunner was badly wounded. The nest pass my radioman, Sam Keith, reported a hole through the starboard wing with gasoline spilling.

Nevertheless, we kept going. On the seventh pass all the plexiglass was shot out of the bombardier's compartment. It was a miracle that my nose gunner, Joe DeCeuster, wasn't killed. The co-pilot pointed to the gauges. We had no RPM on the starboard engine and no oil pressure. After the eighth pass, I pulled up to 1,500 feet and tried to feather the starboard engine. It would not feather, but kept wind-milling. Obviously we had lost all our oil. I applied maximum cruising power to the port engine, but it wouldn't pull the 1,700 horsepower compression of the windmilling engine. Soon we were just off the deck with dangerously slow airspeed. I applied a little power to the bad engine and we slowly got back to 700 feet. Then the bad engine started vibrating and white smoke was emitted by the exhaust stacks.

Fearing fire, I again cut power. Slowly we again descended. By this time I had full power on the good engine. You are supposed to run at those settings for a minute or so. I ran at least five minutes. I was down to 105 knots, at which speed control is lost. I had full opposite rudder and full opposite aileron. We were 50 feel off of the waves, the starboard wing was dropping, I could not raise it. I hadn't reconciled myself to a water landing – I could see Vella La Vella 25 miles or so away, and was bound to make it. However, I wouldn't have made it. In another 30 seconds we would have cart-wheeled and I would have killed all seven of us. Now, I am no damn fool, I knew we were in trouble. I said the shortest silent prayer I've ever uttered, "Father if you ever helped me, help me now."

No sooner had this mental prayer gone through my mind than Jim Merriman, my co-pilot, reached over and pulled the throttle on the good engine – all went silent and this Christian gentleman calmly said, "It's time we landed." We made a good landing and all got out. We had two Purple Hearts, Mert Ward, my tail gunner, and Tommy Thomas, my turret gunner.

There was a bullet hole through the raft I sat on. Six of us were in a four-man raft and I in a one-man raft. We were picked up in one hour and twenty minutes by a Navy PBY.

No one will ever convince me that there is no God … if our critics were on personal speaking terms with God, they would not be so critical of us.

Bob Millington has since passed away but that turned out not to be the end of the story. For it happens that his co-pilot on that flight, Jim Merriman, lives in Midland, Texas, and is active in the American Airpower Heritage Museum's Oral History program. Jim Merriman brings the story full circle.

My name is James P. Merriman, former First Lt., United States Marine Corps Reserve, and I want to tell you about the first Marine Bombing Squadron VMB-413. First let me tell you why I know about VMB-413.

In June 1942, seven months after Pearl Harbor, I joined the Naval Aviation Cadet program with about two dozen other young men eager to serve our country in the war against Germany and Japan. Our local paper, the Lubbock Avalanche Journal dubbed us the "Plainsmen of Lubbock, Texas."

Preflight training took me to Athens, Ga. Primary flight training was accomplished during the winter months at Grand Prairie, Texas. Then Basic and Advanced flight training was accomplished at the Naval Air Station, Corpus Christi, Texas, and at Cabaniss, outlying field of Corpus Christi.

My training took one year, and in June 19431 received my wings and a commission as Second Lt. in the United States Marine Corps Reserve. Then in July 1943, I was assigned to VMB-413 at Cherry Point, N.C., for operational training in PBJs, B-25s.

I believe the history of VMB-413 can best be told by reading from the account as written toward the end of the war overseas by Major Ed Malloy and Capt. Don Hatch. They not only wrote it down but published it in a pictorial squadron book after returning to the States in 1945. Here is their version of VMB-413's history.

This book is dedicated to those who were lost in the service during 1944. To the 33 Marines of VMB-413 who flew and fought and died for the cause of our country, we of their squadron dedicate these pages with the lines of Lawrence Bunyon from "To The Fallen":

They shall grow not old as we that are left to grow old,
Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn,
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
we will remember them.

After going to Cherry Point and joining VMB-413, we went through a training syllabus first at Cherry Point to familiarize ourselves with the PBJ, then we went to Edenton, N.C., for a short while where we practiced formation flying, skip bombing and other activities with the PBJ. Our crew went to Massachusetts on a special assignment to see if the PBJ could drop torpedoes. We discovered that it could, but is was never used for that purpose.

The torpedo was hung from a special rack below the bomb bay. We made several torpedo runs in a bay in Massachusetts.

Our squadron was then shipped to North Island, where we had a brief final training before they placed our 15 PBJs aboard a carrier, the Kalinin Bay, a converted merchant ship. We sailed to Oahu where we spent about three weeks before flying the planes to the South Pacific to engage the enemy.

On this flight from Oahu to Aespiritu in the New Hebrides, we had to go way south in order to reach New Hebrides, because the Japanese held most of the Pacific Islands north of the equator.

We first flew from Hawaii to Palmyra then to Canton, then to Samoa. On the flight from Canton to Samoa, we encountered very heavy rains and a very large front. It wasn't possible to fly over or around it, so the airplanes separated and our plane flew under it. One plane did not make it, and we searched for that about a week, but never found any signs of it.

Then we made the flight from Samoa to Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides, the longest flight (about 1,600 miles). About halfway there, one of the planes lost an engine, but it arrived safely about a half hour behind the rest of the flight.

We stayed at Turtle Bay on Espiritu Santo about a month, waiting On night heckling raids each plane was loaded with as many 100 for our ground crew to come over by ship. After they arrived, we flew up the Slot in the Solomon Islands to a small island called Sterling, where we were stationed about three months. That's where most of our action occurred. Our primary target was Rabaul, at the northern tip of New Britain, where the Japanese had established a naval base and where they had operated for quite a long time to control the Solomon Islands.

Rabaul had been just about neutralized by the time we arrived. Our mission was to keep them from expanding their facilities or being able to give any of our troops or allies in the area any trouble.

We flew two types of missions against Rabaul — Daylight medium altitude bombing mission where we would send up as many airplanes as we could, usually about nine, and single plane night heckling missions.

When we flew our crew was the lead plane, since our bombardier Joe DeCouster was considered the best man in the squadron. Everybody dropped their bombs off of our flight. I see Joe every year now at our reunions.

On night heckling raids each plane was loaded with as many 100 pound bombs as possible. Then it flew around over Rabaul and dropped a bomb every five or ten minutes to keep the Japanese awake and to heckle them as much as possible. This continued all night long with planes relieving each other These night missions were dangerous since the weather during that time of year was very bad. We usually had to pick our way through the thunderheads to get back home.

We lost four planes over Rabaul. Three of them during the night heckling missions and one during a daylight mission. The anti-aircraft fire hit their starboard engine and the plane went down. No parachutes were sighted so we presumed the entire crew was lost. By then we had lost so many planes that we weren't very effective, so VMB-423 carne to Sterling with new planes and fresh crews to relieve us.

The VMB-413 had a short time down in Australia for R & R then went to the island of Munda, about 100 miles southeast of Bougainville to continue operations. We were there about three months. While there, we made low level bombing raids against Japanese on Choiseul and Bougainville.

During one of these raids on Choiseul our plane was hit. We lost our oil pressure on the starboard engine and had to shut it down. In fact when we shut it down, we found the hydraulic system was also gone and we couldn't feather our propeller; so we only got about 50 miles from shore before we had to ditch in the ocean. Fortunately all seven aboard were saved. We were able to get out of the plane and into our life rafts.

After being in the water about two hours, a PBY from Sterling Island was dispatched. It landed near our life rafts and picked us up. Then we were taken back to Sterling where we stayed overnight. The next day we flew back to Munda where we continued our operations.

The next raid that I recall being quite exciting was when our mission was to bomb a beached ship where the Japanese had their Command Headquarters on the southern end of Bougainville. So we got up very early that morning and at daybreak we came over the hill that gave us a view of the ship. We came in at low level and dropped three 500 pound bombs and at least two of them hit the ship, making a pretty spectacular explosion. I remember so well seeing the flashes from the ship's guns as they were firing at us when we approached. Fortunately, they weren't very accurate as we weren't hit.

After that we made two or three more strafing runs on the Japanese before we moved up to Emaru, an island just north of New Ireland. This is where I got my own crew and flew a half dozen missions as first pilot before returning to the states in late 1944, along with most of the rest of VMB-413.

About that time, VMB-433 relieved us on the island of Emaru. The squadrons were then coming over at the rate of about every three months and the marine bombing squadrons totaled about eight before the end of the war. Three squadrons operated in and around the Solomon Islands, and four or five squadrons went to the Phillipines and further north.

When we were still bombing Rabaul from Sterling, we were on a night mission when Mert Ward, our tail gunner, reported a plane approaching from the rear. There were a lot of clouds around so we were able to avoid that night fighter The Japanese were able to send up a plane occasionally, and I believe that one and perhaps two of our planes were shot down by night fighters.

During another night mission we got a little bored. It was a very bright night and we could see airstrips below us. We decided to attack one of those airstrips. We came in just over the tree tops with all 14 guns blazing. We must have hit their ammunition or fuel dump because we created quite a fire that night.

Anyhow, the experiences over there were many and it would take a long time to tell them all.

What has happened to the 550 members of VMB-413 since the war? Each year since 1983, they have been coming together for a reunion, in conjunction with the U.S. Marine Corps Aviation Association at their annual convention. (Last year the group had a reunion outside of the U.S. Marine Corps Aviation Association in Nashville, Tenn.). This year, 1997, we will meet in Colorado Springs, Cob.

The aircrew I was privileged to fly most of my missions with were:

Robert Millington, pilot, from Gridley, Calif.
Joe DeCeuster, navigator/bombardier, from Dover, Ohio
Sam Keith, radiomanlgunner, from Henderson, S.C.
Tommy Thomas, waist gunner, from Panama City, Fla.
Mert Ward, tail gunner, from Beverly, Mass.

Two of our crew members recently passed away. Tommy Thomas, the man who was instrumental in getting us together after the war, and Robert Millington, our first pilot, who died Feb.13, 1997. He was an attorney and historian for the squadron.

But last year, all of the crew members received the distinguished Flying Cross for missions flown against the Japanese in 1944. Sadly, Tommy Thomas died before the award was approved. However, it was presented to him posthumously at his funeral services by Gen. D.X. Kelly, the former Commandant of the Marine Corps.

The DFC was presented to me by a contingent of Marines from Lubbock, Texas, Nov.30, 1996, at the Confederate Air Force hangar in Midland, Texas.

Although the Marine Corps was a few years late in presenting the DFC to our crew and many others in the VMB-413, I can say unequivocally the Marines always live up to their motto, "Semper Fidelis" Always Faithful.

It's been a pleasure and a privilege to tell you the story of VMB-413 as I remember it.

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