WWII Memoirs – 1943 to 1945 – They Flew into Battle without Guns
Many unsung heroes came out of World War II, but none were more deserving of that title than the pilots of our squadron. They flew into battle without guns, and often were the first of our forces to make contact with the enemy. And though they flew at excessive speeds they often were no more than targets in a “shooting gallery.”
But they did their own share of “shooting”—with cameras! For ours was a photo reconnaissance squadron, not a fighter squadron. Our pilots didn’t knock down any enemy planes or bomb any targets, but they brought back pictures of landing sites for future invasions, of targets for tomorrow’s bombing raids, or of hidden enemy gun emplacements that had to be neutralized before our troops could attack the area. Our squadron’s mission was to get specific information about the enemy.
And for that reason the recon pilot’s tactics were unlike those of the fighter-pilot. When a recon pilot pulled out of this pass over the target, the cameras were turned off and his mission was over. He was then expected to make a fast get-away. “Shoot and run” could have been those pilots’ motto.
The military facilitated the order for the quick get-away in two ways: They removed all weaponry from the recon planes to discourage the pilots from chasing enemy fighters all over the sky, and they they provided the recon squadrons with one of the fastest planes in the service, the twin-engine Lockheed P-38. Originally designed as a fighter, it was readily converted for reconnaissance work. It had a speed in level flight in excess of 350 mph.
The British, who had used the P-38 in combat, called it “The Lightning,” the Germans, who had faced it in combat, had a more derisive term for it, “Der Goble-schwansiche Teufel,” the “Fork-tailed Devil.”
The P-38’s design had a second feature for getting that plane out of harm’s way: It had two engines! The value of this was forcefully demonstrated in one of the Squadron’s first missions in the combat zone. A detachment from Squadron had been sent to the Marshall Islands to assist in that campaign. On August 15, 1944 a flight of two of our planes, one piloted by Lt. Hall, the other by Lt. Decker, approached Roi Island in the Kwajalein Atoll. Both planes were hit by enemy fire. Lt. Hall’s plane went down (we later learned that he survived the crash, but died in captivity). Lt. Decker lost one engine, but managed to return to his base unharmed.
Lt. Hall was our squadron’s first combat fatality.
The Squadron’s missions were determined by the needs of our military. For example, when we first landed on Okinawa, heavy fighting was raging several miles south of our encampment. So the Army decided that the 28th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron would provide support for our troops on the front line. The Squadron’s orders were simple: A set of the photos taken the previous afternoon of the combat areas will be in the hands of every platoon leader by the following morning. Speed of processing was urgent. Time was a critical factor. The front lines could shift daily.
Our photo lab worked late during those missions, but all the deadlines were met. My department’s job was to put data on the aerial negatives before they went into printing. Often these negatives still were warm when we received them. So vivid were the scenes on many of those photos that I still remember many of the places in which the fighting occurred — Shuri Castle, Conical Hill, Parmashira and Sugar Loaf Hill.
The Island was secured by late June, and by that time the Squadron was also flying other missions and the war effort was shifting north to Kyushu, the southern-most island of mainland Japan.
To photograph targets requiring close-up detail. such as front-lines or landing sites for future invasions, demanded a special kind of mission—a very low-level flight with high-speed cameras aimed at oblique angles. These were high-risk missions. The British had a very descriptive name for them. Because they saw each flight as a roll of the dice, they called them “dicey.” And the term “dicing missions” was adopted by American flyers.
Missions flown at higher altitudes did not face the same risks as the “dicing” flights, but they were not out of danger. Occasionally pilots would come up to our drafting department after a mission to view the negatives of their run and check how well they had covered the target area that day. In the course of our usual exchange over the light table I often asked them questions like, “How was the ‘reception’ (meaning the anti-aircraft fire) up there today?” I recall one’s reply: ” The flack was so thick out there, you could get out and walk on it!”
A second incident of a similar type of mission had a tragic ending. One after noon our communications section picked up a brief, frantic message, “May day! May day! May day!” It was our Lt. Starr. That was the last we heard from him. He was on a mission over Kyushu, and we assumed he had been the victim of enemy anti-airlcraft fire. To this date I have had no more knowledge of the that incident or of Lt. Starr’s fate.
Its been more than sixty years since those pilots of the 28th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron roamed the enemy skies. The squadron was disbanded long ago, and the few P-38s still in existence, are displayed in aerial museums. The exploits of both men and machines are recorded in military annals.
And admiration for those young men is alive in the memories of those of us who still remain. Those pilots received no awards or medals, but we knew the dangers they faced and the value of their accomplishments. Each and every one belongs in that noble legion of the unsung heroes of World War II.
Next Entry: WWII Memoirs – 1945 – You See Things In War That You Can Never Unsee
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