Air Apaches

Brave Lit­tle In­di­ans

Flight Journal - - CONTENTS - by Lt. Col. Ro­man H. Oh­ne­mus, USAF, Re­tired, as told to & writ­ten by James P. Busha

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.

Mitchell In­doc­tri­na­tion

“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.”

Low-Level Com­bat

“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)

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