I was off to Avon Park to learn to fly the Wingless
(Jack) S. Harpster
442nd Bomber Squadron
before graduation and when the odds of my successfully
completing the full course now finally appeared better
than marginal, I was given a choice to as they put it:
“Fly any type aircraft you want - either the B-26 or
the B-24”. Given such a wide variety and range of choices,
I picked the better of the two worlds and fortunately,
at least for me, chose the Martin Marauder B-26.
My graduation orders read to “Report Without Delay”
to the Avon Park Bombing Range in Florida, the home
of one of the B-26 RTUs. Military Services thrive on
abbreviations and RTU stood for Replacement Training
Unit, which was their charter. We were sent there to
first of all learn all about the “Wingless Wonder” and
how to defy gravity - the odds - Old Wives Tales, and
some how return safely to earth. The next assignment then
would be to pick up a crew, preferably one that did
not snore, and learn to get along compatibly with your
other five crewmembers. After completion of training
we then were destined to head for combat in one of the
theaters of war.
‘without delay’ I made it to Avon Park and was surprised
by the small size of the town. Avon Park was, and still
is, a very nice, small, sleepy town about three blocks
long in mid central Florida. It is not far from Lake
Arbuckle, the home of an infinite number of bass, snakes,
and alligators as well as housing a bombing and gunnery
range and some miscellaneous B-26 bits and pieces. In
fact, the very day I reported in, the base was buzzing
with the story of a B-26 skin diving in Lake Arbuckle.
They had lost one on the day of my arrival - an unfortunate
“Welcome to the B-26 RTU”.
Another story I can’t confirm,
but was told was that the Base Officials were concerned
about Avon Park’s profiteering due to the arrival of
so many base personnel. The Brass had held meetings
with the town bureaucracy and pleaded the case of national
defense versus profiteering. To illustrate their point, one military payday, everyone was paid
in Two-Dollar bills. Avon Park of course became flooded
with Two-Dollar bills, which made local officials well
aware of the size and importance of the Army Air Corp
presence and the payroll potential. From then on, financial
negotiations and living conditions became more reasonable
and under control.
eye opener was the length of the long road out to the
Air Base that stretched for miles and miles. Each
side of the black topped road was lined with beautiful
Cypress and Magnolia trees, all decorated with Spanish
Moss (probably just for our arrival). There were occasional
snakes, frogs, and lizards stationed along the way enjoying
the view with me This was to be my beaten path for
the next 6 months. Bus service was available and when
on one memorable day I sat down inside the bus just
next to me was - get this - a real Lieutenant Colonel.
Wow! My heart beat just a little bit faster to actually
associate with, at least to me in those neophyte days,
such a high-ranking officer.
First Impressions of the B-Dash-Crash
Another “I’ll never forget” memory is that of my first
impression of the famous B-Dash-Crash. When I walked
out to the flight line to see what I would be training
in for the next half year, what I saw there looked immense! With
its long cigar shaped body it also
had the appearance of an airplane that was looking for
a fight - a really mean and business like demeanor. A
smart Aircraft Engineer once said that a BumbleBee with
its short stubby wings, by all the natural laws of Physics,
should not be able to fly. But it does. This engineer
also noted that the same thing applies to the Martin
B-26. It just didn’t have enough wing to support it
in other than normal flight. There were some not so
nice names given the B-26 like “The Wingless Wonder”,
the “B-Dash-Crash”, the “Flying Coffin”, the “Widow
Maker”, and some other names I can’t repeat all relating
to a feminine personality from Baltimore with “No Visible
Means of Support”.
handles were somewhat true during early check out and
transition days. For example, there was a B-26 Training
Wing located on the edge of the bay in Tampa, Florida.
This unit earned the nickname of “One a Day in Tampa
Bay”. Of course this was an exaggeration, but in fact
many of their crews did get their fair share of emergency
water related experiences. However, and this is
fact, once a pilot mastered B-26 checkout and went to
combat, the Marauder was a really great aircraft.
had heard all the tales about how hard it was to learn
to fly the B-26, the high rate of sink on landings
and the bar room stories that on a single engine it
flew like a wingless brick. So as I walked around this,
my first real combat aircraft, I said to myself, “You
and I are going to get along just fine - I’ll respect
you and I’m willing to work hard to earn your respect”.
got busy and really applied myself to the many manuals,
books and handouts provided. The first crew listing
came out and I was listed as somebody’s Co-Pilot. Disappointed
and not wanting to continue in that capacity for very
long, I worked ever harder. I spent a lot of time out
on the ramp in the cockpit and also put in many extra
hours down in the maintenance areas learning the systems
and procedures. In addition, we were now getting some
combat veterans returning from B-26 tours overseas and
they were a valuable source of information for me. I
learned a lot from so called “hanger flying” with them.
The effort finally paid dividends. After a few flights
in the B-26 and some stick time in which I was fortunate
enough to show off, I was upgraded to pilot.
check out in the B-26, each new pilot was first assigned
to fly with another recently upgraded pilot and if they
somehow survived a few flights with each other, they
were then lined up with their own crew with whom
they flew thereafter. Can you imagine the feelings of
a crew now being introduced to their newly assigned
pilot? It might go something like this:
here is your new pilot named Joe Doaks, a brand
new inexperienced, recently graduated, Second Lieutenant
who has just been checked out. We think he will
be able to safely and successfully take you off
the ground in this, the hottest and fastest medium
bomber in the inventory, handle each and every in-flight
emergency with expertise, and hopefully bring you
safely back to earth in one piece”.
not so sure that today I would be such a brave and trusting
Crewing the B-26
crew manning consisted of the Pilot, Co-Pilot, Bombardier,
Engineer, Radio Operator, and Tail Gunner. Later on
in combat, a Squadron or Group lead crew would have
a Navigator assigned to them. Also, on a very important
combat mission, a Mission Commander would be on board
the lead ship. He was usually an experienced and high-ranking
individual who would be responsible for important mission
decisions. The B-26 had a removable gold fish bowl shaped
glass bubble on top of the fuselage for the purpose
of taking celestial shots and it was called the astrodome.
This is where the above mentioned VIP Mission Commander
would often dwell during the flight so as to more easily
survey the formation. When asked where the Mission Commander
was, sometimes the jocular reply was that he was probably
somewhere in back with his head stuck up in the Astro
actuality, however, the Mission Commander was a valuable
adjunct to the flight. His seniority and combat experience
often helped with difficult decisions like, “We just
came through a hail of antiaircraft fire, but we were
off axis to bomb. Do we go back and try again?” Or perhaps
some thing like, “Bill What’s His Face has dropped out
with a bad engine. Who falls back to cover him going
home?” Also later on in combat we were introduced to
a new type of crewmember. A B-26 crew who was flying
on somebody’s wing would quite often have flying with
them a crewmember called a Toggle-ier. He was a trained
airman who would open the bomb bay doors and drop the
bombs via a toggle switch when the lead ship’s bomb
bay doors opened and the bombs went away. Due to the
shortage of bombardiers this worked rather well in combat.
Formation Bomb Drop
the adjacent photo one can see a bomb drop by a flight
of B-26s. The wing men and the forth man flying just
below the leader would open their bomb bay doors when
the lead ship did. Then the flight would tighten up
the formation as much as possible and watch very closely
for the lead ships bombs to drop. As you can see, the
bombs from the lead ship are set at a little longer
interval between each bomb and this was for a purpose.
It allowed for a delay in the “Toggle” time of the wingmen
and assured better coverage of the total target area.
is a rough example of what the airborne cameraman crewmember
would take back to base. Of course the actual photo
result would be much larger and with the use of lenses,
much like a 3-D lens, it would reveal a lot of valuable
information to the Intelligence types.
Finally, another member often joined the flight in the
form of an aerial photographer. His efforts were
invaluable in getting Bomb Damage Assessments (BDA),
the very important after action results of the combat
mission’s bombing accuracy. Additionally, he would record
on film the “Tremendous accuracy and total destruction"
we claimed to have inflicted. This person was not a
regular member of a particular crew, but would be randomly
scheduled to fly in different positions in the formation.
Copyright(c) 2003 320th History Preservation. All rights reserved.