Brave Little Indians
The 345th Bomb Group (BG) was first activated at Columbia Army Air Base, South Carolina, in November 1942 and was christened the “Air Apaches.” As a B-25 bomber group, it was broken into four squadrons: the 498th, known as the “Falcons”; the 499th, “Bats Outa Hell”; the 500th, “Rough Raiders”; and the 501st, the “Black Panthers.” The 345th BG was sent to the Southwest Pacific Theater in 1943 and began flying missions from Port Moresby, New Guinea, and earned the recognition of the first Air Force Combat Group sent to the Pacific in World War II.
Although the twin-engine North American Aviation B-25 Mitchell was originally designed as a medium-level bomber, the crews in the Southwest Pacific Theater quickly augmented the B-25 into a low-level strafer, bomber, and all-around tormentor of the Japanese. To accomplish this new role, modifications were made to the B-25s. The bottom turret was removed and replaced with a fuel tank, which allowed for extended range. The three .50-caliber machine guns in the nose operated by the bombardi ernavigator were replaced with four forward-firing .50-caliber machine guns, along with twin side-pack .50-caliber machine guns mounted on either side of the lower fuselage. A “flying fortress” in its own right, the newly improved gunship employed eight forward-firing .50-caliber machine guns along with the twin .50 calibers in the top turret and tail as well as a .50-caliber machine gun at each waist positions.
Although the 345th BG was credited with sinking 260 enemy ships and destroying
260 Japanese planes on the ground and more than 100 in aerial combat during the 26 months of continuous combat, this is the story about
Lt. Roman Ohnemus, “one little Indian brave,” who skimmed treetops and ocean waves at the controls of the B-25.
“I was living in California at the time I tried to enlist in the Army right after Pearl Harbor. I was told I was too young and had to get my mother’s signature, which I did. I knew I wanted to be a pilot after seeing a very sharp-dressed Army aviator, but I had to wait until March of ’43 to begin my flight training. I went the multiengine route and ended up learning how to fly the North American B-25 Mitchell bomber at a desolate, dirty flat place called Lahotta, east of Denver, Colorado.
“It was miserably cold with snow all the time— it was tough living for a kid from California. For some reason, I was having problems getting the hang of flying the B-25, and my instructor was less than impressed with me. Flight after flight, he wouldn’t respond to my questions, and it seemed I couldn’t do anything right in his mind. I thought, for sure, I was going to be washed out. I thought I was done when another instructor came up to me and told me to get aboard and to show him how I flew. He told me to do a bunch of maneuvers, engine-out procedures, and then go shoot some landings. I did all he asked and made the final landing, which I was certain would be my last. After I shut down the B-25, I waited for the bad
news coming my way. He got out and simply said, “OK, you’re checked out in the B-25.” I later found out that my original instructor had gone completely deaf from all the B-25 flying and was forced to retire; he never heard a question I asked him! From then on, it was smooth sailing—until we went into combat. I departed Hunter Field, Georgia, for Australia on May 11, 1944 in a B-25H that had neither a copilot or automatic pilot. It was hand flying all the way between fuel stops. We finally arrived in mid-June 1944 and were assigned to the 345th BG Air Apaches, the 501st Squadron, and I flew my first combat mission in late July 1944.”
“August 11, 1944: Our primary objective was to search for shipping in the Halmahera islands, including areas around Buli
Bay and Yaoe Bay. When we located the enemy ships, we were to attack them at minimum altitudes. There were six of us altogether who launched from our base on Biak. Each of us carried four 500-pound bombs with four- to five-second-delay fuses. The 499th and the 500th squadrons were also part of the mission, along with two squadrons of P-38s flying top cover for us. We were delayed on takeoff
due to a foul-up on times, but our squadron shoved our throttles forward and overtook the group formation en route to the target. I was flying the number two position in the second flight when we arrived at Cape Jawal around 1300 hours. We spotted a large supply dump and saw hundreds of Japanese soldiers on the ground, many running and some firing at us. As we strafed the supply dump and soldiers, we noticed many fires beginning to erupt with heavy black smoke. As we made our first pass, one of the other B-25s spotted a “Sugar Charlie” [a Japanese merchant ship] just offshore from the village. We pounced all over it, strafing and bombing it, and one 500-pounder went right through the amidships. Several Chinese Junk-type luggars [smaller boats] were nearby, so I set my sights on one of them and let go with one of the 500-pounders. I just missed it as a geyser of water shot up near it, and my tail gunner said it was listing to the side as we flew away. Seeing no enemy fighters roaming around, the P-38 pilots wanted in on the fun and dropped down to strafe a half dozen Japanese floatplanes just north of the islands; all were burning after the vicious strafing by the Lightnings. Forty minutes later, we regrouped and flew back to Biak.
“August 17, 1944: Our target was the Miti Aerodrome on the northern tip of Halmahera.
Our mission was to destroy Japanese airplanes on the ground. Each of our six B-25s carried 72 23-pound parafrag bombs that we were to unload at 100 feet over the target. The 499th and 500th squadrons also participated in the attack. After we took off, we joined our “little friends”: P-38s, which I looked upon as guardian angels as they escorted us to the target. When we arrived over Miti, we came roaring over and attacked it with six B-25s line abreast. I flew on the extreme right of the squadron front in the number two position of the first flight. As 272 parafrag bombs began to rain down over the target, it was estimated by our flight leader that we carved a 3,000-foot-wide strip through the center of Miti Aerodrome. My crew, along with the other B-25 crews, reported many aircraft burning on the ground and in the dispersal areas, including two twin-engine “Betty”-type bombers and seven single-seat fighters. After we unloaded our bombs, we strafed the entire aerodrome and saw columns of black smoke rise from the jungle foliage below. My crew and I claimed five aircraft destroyed on the ground.
“From September 1944 on, we continued to island hop as we went after enemy shipping, aerodromes, and troops. Because of our continuing advance, our missions and attacks drew us closer and closer to the Philippine island chain.”
First B-25 to Land on the Philippines: October 28, 1944
“The 501st Squadron was honored to be the first to fly into the Philippines right after the invasion and the first B-25 to ever land on the islands. I was selected to fly a B-25 named Lazy Daisy to Tacloban and deliver several high-ranking officers to meet with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. When we arrived, we found that the runway at Tacloban was still being worked on, and we only had half of it to use safely. Thinking there would be great fanfare, I was a little disappointed when one of the ground personnel came running up to the pilot’s side and said, “Get that airplane out as quick as you can, because the Japanese come over and strafe quite often.” Not to miss a historic opportunity, my crew and I decided we could spare a few minutes posing for pictures. I was in the cockpit giving the old “thumbs up” and the “OK” sign with the two fingers while the gasoline truck was filling up the airplane. Suddenly, I hear this airplane coming in and strafing us. From my elevated perch, I saw people running and diving under bulldozers and trucks.
Up in the cockpit, with those gasoline trucks refilling below, all I could think of was, ‘Oh, boy. I’m in a bad spot!’ I figured if I dove out of the hatch, I’d break my neck, so the next safest place was in the seat because it had that big armored plating in back of the pilot. Lucky for me, the ‘enemy fighter’ turned out to be a P-38 that had come in after being shot up and his guns had inadvertently gone off. As we begin to crank our engines, some soldiers came up to me and said, ‘We have a lot of important people who need to get back to some rear bases. It’s very important.’ I watched as an admiral climbed aboard and a bunch of others, and pretty soon I began to worry that we might be ‘a bit overloaded.’ But I quickly forgot about my problems and passengers when a newsreel fella said, ‘When you take off, can you come back and buzz the field so I can get a picture of the first airplane to leave the Philippines?’ I said, ‘Heck, yeah. I’ll do that!’
“We cranked up and taxied out onto the metal planking runway that was only half done. I got
“As 272 parafrag bombs began to rain down over the target, it was estimated by our flight leader that we carved a 3,000-foot-wide strip through the center of Miti Aerodrome.”
out to the end of the runway, ran up the engines, and started tearing down the runway. The end of the runway dropped off into Leyte Gulf about 20 or 30 feet. As I was about halfway down the runway, it turned to sand and I didn’t know if I was going to make it. I didn’t think I could stop it in time. I decided to give it full power and keep on going. As we went off the cliff, I hollered at my copilot, ‘Gear up,’ and he said, ‘OK,’ so he pulled the gear up just above stalling speed. I settled the B-25 a few feet above the water to keep us from stalling. Barely staggering forward, I got enough airspeed, and I slowly started climbing up.
“As I went up, I remembered the newsreel man, so I leveled off at 200 feet and came around to buzz the field. The photographer was out in the middle of the runway as I came down, buzzing him. I chandelled back up and looked back to see how he was doing; he was lying flat on the ground, and his camera was 10 feet from him. I don’t think we ever got in the newsreel.”
“A 40-millimeter shell had come through the bottom hatch, and had kept going out the right side of the fuselage and exploded into a big hole about 4 feet across.”
Flying Combat with a Princess
“In late October 1944, I was assigned a B-25J model that we dubbed Apache Princess, adorned with an extremely attractive and scantily clad Indian maiden in full headdress.
“Just after Christmas, we had two missions assigned to us in one day. One called for us to hit the kamikaze airfields at Sila Aerodrome on Negros Island in the morning and then hit three or four more in the afternoon. The morning missions went all right, with no problems. We took off for the afternoon missions to hit the kamikaze fields, and as I dropped my bombs on target, I decided
I’d pull up and look around and see what was going on. All of a sudden, the airplane shuddered. I grabbed my throttle and thought maybe the engine had been hit. I climbed up to about 200 feet and asked my copilot, ‘What was that?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know. Engines are all looking good.’ But the airplane was awfully wobbly. I called back to my radio operator, Weinstein, and I said, ‘Weinstein, is everything all right back there?’ He said, ‘Oh, my god. We got a hole back here big enough to drive a truck through.’ A 40-millimeter shell had come through the bottom hatch, and had kept going out the right side of the fuselage and exploded into a big hole about 4 feet across. There was over 300 or 400 shrapnel holes in the airplane.
“I continued going on the rest of the mission because I was a flight leader and the other
airplanes were flying on me, so we continued hitting the targets. We headed back, and I was just wobbling all over the sky and found that I had several of the cables shot away in the back. I couldn’t fly formation, so I told the others to go on ahead and I’d follow behind. Unfortunately, this was not our base where we had taken off from, and this auxiliary strip was a small, short field surrounded by mostly swamp. The squadron C.O. told us that when we took off that he was going to be standing on the end of the runway and watch when we came back to make sure everybody touched down right at the first part of the runway. I told the rest I would land last, and as I came into land, I was 100 feet in the air when the controls froze. I couldn't budge them. I told my copilot, ‘They’re frozen. I can’t move them.’ So we both tried it, with no luck. ‘Hang on,’ I yelled. As I cut the throttle, the Princess stalled out, and we hit the runway hard from 100 feet. The B-25 bounced, and I figured it would drive the wheels up through the wings. As we bounced three or four times, I was able to maintain control using the rudders. As we came to a stop, I thought, ‘Well, we just killed the Princess. There is no way this B-25 is ever going to fly again.’ But I was wrong. Eventually, they replaced the fuselage from the wing back with some other airplane that had nosed in.”
Uninvited Guest: December 28, 1944
“We were to fly a night strike on Clark Field, with a secondary target of Bulan. There were seven of us slotted to fly from the three squadrons, and only four of us reached the target area due to bad weather. It was, by far, my most memorable mission.
“We all carried parafrags and took off from Tacloban in five-minute intervals, because flying formation at night in weather was extremely difficult. It was a stormy night, but it seemed like many of our missions involved a storm. Some of our squadron brass tried to get the people at Bomber Command to cancel the mission. They said, ‘Well, the weather here’s fine. It’s a local storm. Go ahead and take off.’ I had a completely different crew on this mission, as my regular crew had gone on leave down in Sydney, Australia. My tail gunner got sick, so they rushed out another tail gunner for me. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d lost my radios as I headed out. After I took off, they decided the weather was too bad to go on the mission, so they canceled it and recalled everyone else.
“Going on my merry way up to Luzon to hit Clark Field, I blindly followed the procedure we’d laid out to bomb the airfield. As I began my descent, coming across Clark Field at night, there was a bright moonlit night up there. I went right over Clark Field looking for my target, and I didn’t see it, as I went whizzing by somewhere between 50 and 100 feet. After we passed it, my tail gunner said over the intercom, ‘Hey, they just turned on the runway lights.’ I said, ‘Whoops!’ and made a 180-degree turn to go back. The problem was I wasn’t the only one over the airfield. Two Betty bombers were also in the landing pattern. So I pulled up behind the second one and tried to do what I thought would make them think I was going to land with them. All seemed fine as they went ahead and went in to land. I decided I wasn’t going to strafe because my top turret gunner told me there were some fighters up above at 1,500 to 2,000 feet.
“When the last Betty turned final, I followed him in as I dropped my gear and flaps to slow up. As soon as the Betty was on the ground, I pulled up my gear and opened my bomb bay and strung out the parafrags down the runway and on the Betty bombers. Shoving the throttles forward, I took off as low and as fast as I could. They must have figured that something was going wrong because there was some ack-ack fire taking place. As the B-25 clawed skyward, we had to climb up over a mountain and just barely got over the ridge. As we headed back home to Leyte, we passed near our secondary target, which was a bunch of army barracks in the southern part of Luzon. We decided to hit it.
“We began our run to secondary target and set up a racetrack pattern. They said there wouldn’t be any opposition there, no ack-ack or anything like that. I flew the racetrack pattern, strafing the barracks until all my ammunition was gone, and I pulled up to 500 feet and headed for home. My tail gunner called me once again and said, ‘Better get out of there. The flak is breaking about 500 feet in back of us.’ So we hit the deck. As we neared Leyte, it was socked in. Our radio was working again but only intermittently. I called and requested the weather at Tacloban. We had weather code names: ‘Savannah’—‘Savannah 1’
was really good weather, ‘Savannah 2’ was OK,
‘3’ was not so good, ‘4’ was bad. ‘Savannah 5’ was ‘It can't get any worse.’ They came back with ‘Savannah 5.’
“I figured I could get down to about 100 feet and try to go up this little passageway that led to Tacloban; it was socked in right down to the water. I did a 180, and I figured out I was just about out of gas, as we’d been flying for about eight hours. I climbed up to about 6,000 feet; that would put me above the mountain peaks around the area [allowing me to] fly in the direction of the field and Leyte Gulf. If I couldn’t figure out a way to get down, I’d just have everybody bail out. When I got over Leyte Gulf, there was a hole and I could see some ships down below, so I made a frantic dive down and leveled out just over the ship mast. I could transmit sometimes and receive even less. I called Tacloban and said, ‘Can’t find the field. You’ve got searchlights at both ends of the field. Turn those on, and wave them back and forth. I can probably see it through all this fog and rain.” So they turned them on, and I was able to spot the field. Flying at about 100 feet, they gave me landing instructions to the south. But it was so socked in that I couldn’t do it. I said, ‘I can’t land in that direc- tion. I have to try the other direction.’
“Low on gas, almost on empty, I made a circle to line up with the runway, and on the third or fourth try, I told the crew, ‘This time, we’re going to land. No matter what, we’re going to land. We don’t have any more gas to be going around.’ As we lined up, the copilot turned on the landing lights. It was like turning on car lights in a heavy fog. It really blinded me, plus [with] the heavy rain, I couldn’t see out of the windshield. I reached up and flipped them off really quick and then I sort of skidded the airplane so I could sort of see out the side window; it was almost impossible to see out the front window. I got it on the runway, and I was able to get it stopped before it went off the end. The tower called and said, ‘Did you get our last message?’ I said, ‘What was your last message?’ They said, “You’re landing with a tailwind.’
“The B-25 was a great airplane and kept me alive. It was just a little noisy, though, and it made you go deaf. It’s the reason I wear hearing aids now.”
Editor’s note: Lt. Ohnemus continued to fly combat missions in the B-25 with the Air Apaches and was eventually rotated back home in spring 1945.
With seven of John Browning’s .50-caliber machine guns firing in a concentrated column, the B-25 was a fiercesome ground pounder. (Photo by John Dibbs/Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum)
B-25J #016 of the 501st BS at Clark Field, July 1945. (Photo courtesy ofJack Cook)
Lt. Roman H. Ohnemus flew B-25s in the 490th until the spring of 1945. (Photo courtesy of James P. Busha)
The 345th was proud of the record they had built up, and it showed in their entrance sign. (Photo courtesy of Stan Piet)
The crew of B-25D s/n 41-30055 “Rita’s Wagon” of the 500th BS pose with the kitchen sink prior to loading it into their Mitchell and dropping it on the enemy. Left to right: Capt. Max Mortensen, pilot; Tech Sgt. Gerald Paquette, radio operator; Staff Sgt. Bill Bailey, gunner; Staff Sgt. Talmadge Epps, gunner; and Staff Sgt. Neal Ryan, flight engineer/gunner. (Photo courtesy of Jack Cook)
B-25D s/n 41-30669 “Tondelayo” of the 500th BS at Nadzab, New Guinea, in 1944. (Photo courtesy of Jack Cook)
Roman H. Ohnemus (right) and friends between missions. (Photo courtesy of James P. Busha)
Parafrag bombs with delayedaction fuses gave the lowlevel bombers time to clear the area without getting hit by their own bomb blasts. (Photo courtesy of James P. Busha)
Above: “Apache Princess” s/n 43-28152 of the 501st BS shortly before being shot down over Formosa on May 27, 1945. Below: The insignia of the 345th BG “Air Apaches” was proudly displayed on the tails of the group’s B-25 Mitchells. (Photos courtesy of Jack Cook)
Caught by the strike camera of a preceding Mitchell, a B-25J strafer flown by 2ndLt. Francis Thompson of the 499th BS attacks and sinks a Japanese frigate in the Taiwan Straits on April 6, 1945. (Photo courtesy of Jack Cook)