B-26 Marauder 320th Bomb Group

 

Remembrances of the B-Dash-Crash & My Experiences with the 320th
by John (Jack) S. Harpster, 442nd Bomb Squadron

 

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I was off to Avon Park to learn to fly the Wingless Wonder

 

 
 

John (Jack) S. Harpster
442nd Bomber Squadron

Just 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.

So ‘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.

Another 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”.

These 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.

We 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”.

I 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.

After 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:

    “Crew, 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”.

I’m not so sure that today I would be such a brave and trusting crewmember.


Crewing the B-26

 

Normal 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 Dome.

In 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.

 
 

A Formation Bomb Drop

In 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.

 
 

This 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. (Continued)


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