'Letters to Lee'

 

'Letters to Lee'

 

Date: November 18, 2009
by: Special to the Observer

 
 

Excerpt No. 2
Part III: The South Pacific, 1942 to 1943
Chapter 23: Mission of August 19, 1942

The first thing I knew on the morning of Aug. 19 was someone shaking me awake. I opened my eyes and saw that it was Col. Laverne G. “Blondie” Saunders, our group commander, and I jumped out of bed in a hurry. Col. Saunders had Admiral McCain with him and that really woke me up. It seemed the admiral had received an urgent message that a group of Marines ashore on Guadalcanal were pinned down on Lunga Beach by a Japanese warship that was shelling them heavily while staying out of range of Marine weapons.

They urgently requested air support. Admiral McCain came ashore to see Col. Saunders and find out what the B-17s could do to help. It turned out that ours was the only B-17 on Esprito Santo that was in commission, fueled up, loaded with bombs and with ammunition in our guns and ready to go. Col. Saunders said, “Go get ’em, Eddie.” In 15 minutes, we were on our way.

It took us about two-and-a-half hours to get to Guadalcanal and, sure enough, the situation was just as reported. A ship that appeared to be about the size of a cruiser was steaming back and forth, throwing shells onto the beach, where there was a lot of smoke and some fires burning. We were determined not to waste our four 500-pound bombs, because if we didn’t stop what was going on, there wasn’t anyone else who could. My bombardier, Lt. Al Thom, could do wonders with a Norden bombsight, and I decided to bomb from a low altitude to give the ship minimum time to take evasive action. We decided to bomb from 5,000 feet and knew that at that altitude, the flak would be thick, so we didn’t want to fly through it any more times than we had to. We decided to make one run only and drop our four bombs in minimum train. This setting would release our bombs within a fraction of a second of each other — just far enough apart so that they would not bump into each other and detonate in the air on the way down.

We lined up for our run from the ship’s stern. This reduced his relative speed and also put him in a position where his evasive action in either direction would not present a complex bombing equation. I gave Al as steady a bombing platform as I could, and his corrections were precise and minimal. The flak was quite heavy, but they had over­estimated our altitude and most were bursting above us. When I felt the airplane shudder and lurch upward as the 2,000 pounds of bombs were released from the racks and Al called “bombs away” over the interphone, I cranked it hard left and put the nose down to pick up speed to get out of there.

I could hear the waist gunners yell over the interphone when the bombs hit and knew we’d made a good drop. We had caught the ship in a tight turn, and the near misses must have jammed his rudder, because he continued to steam in a tight circle and burned, with occasional explosions and lots of fire and smoke.

We decided to fly down along the beach to see how the troops were doing. They had been under heavy direct fire for several hours, and we wondered what their situation was, so as to include it in our mission report. I let my exuberance get the better of me and we made a pass along the beach just a few feet off of the water, rocking our wings in salute to those guys who had taken so much. To our surprise, there were a lot of men on the beach, jumping up and down and waving and yelling. They couldn’t hear it, but my crew was yelling just as hard over the interphone. We all had a warm and happy feeling — and a long flight ahead.

Our fuel was running a little low and we had to head back to Esprito Santo. When we arrived, a report from Guadalcanal had beaten us there, and Col. Saunders and Admiral McCain were standing by to meet us.

When the tug had backed us into our hardstand, my crew left the plane smartly and drew up at attention in front of No. 1 and 2 engines. The Admiral went down the line shaking the hand of every crewmember and thanking him for the job he had done. Col. Saunders had a big smile on his Irish face. We were all sitting on cloud nine.

Letter to Lee
Sept. 30, 1942
Another letter from your seldom heard from husband — no need to tell you I’ve been busy as ever and writing has been out of the question. You know that already. Anyhow, I have my outfit out at another base for a few days doing another job in a little different corner of the war. We’ll be back in the old stomping ground again shortly.

Your letters are coming through in fine style, and it is so good of you to write as often as you do. Your letters are all so sweet and dear and they are read and re-read until they are just about worn out. They are the only thing that keeps me going and mean more than you can ever possibly realize.

The old war down here progresses. That’s about all I can tell you about it. I’m getting prouder of this squadron of mine every day. The boys are doing an unbelievable fine piece of work and their spirit is something to see. We sure have a fighting outfit. With units like it scattered all over the world, working like my boys are, we can’t possibly lose. It’s only a matter of time. The American soldier is unsurpassed when it comes to being able to take punishment and to give it out. You just have to make him mad first and then he’s unbeatable.

You wouldn’t recognize the fighting Army of today as the same organization you knew in peacetime, with its formality and red tape and social life. Maybe some day it will revert to its old status and I guess, even now, things haven’t changed too much in the States. Out here, however, it’s a fighting machine and that’s all. If some of the taxpayers could only get an inkling of the job these boys are doing — see how they are living and the conditions they have to put up with, and if they could see the courage and guts they show in combat, it would be an education to them.

Next week:
Part V: China-Burma-India, 1944 to 1945
Chapter 33: Tokyo Rose


• Book signing
Takes place at 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5, at Circle Books, 478 John Ringling Blvd., St. Armands Circle

• Dual book launch
Launch of “Letters to Lee, from Pearl Harbor to the War’s Final Mission,” edited by Cee Edmundson, and “Wyatt’s Revenge,” by Terry Griffin, takes place from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13, at Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant and Pub, 780 Broadway
 

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