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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The Problems with the B-26 at Avon Park

 

No Hydraulics!

 

During the first few weeks of my tour at Avon Park, the B-26 was living up to its reputation as a difficult bird to learn to fly. As mentioned, they lost one in the lake the day I arrived. Next, on the third day of my flight schedule two birds were lost. One disappeared in the swamps to the north of the base and was not found for quite a while. A second one was lost at home when a pilot attempting to land with one engine out, over shot the runway and tried to go around. With a dead engine you just didn’t dare turn into the dead engine. Apparently he did and he crashed and burned and all souls on board were lost. I started to have my own aircraft problems as well. Having been earlier certified for solo flight I was flying with my new crew. One day, just as I was cleared for take off and had started the take off roll; hydraulic fluid came pouring out of the left brake and wheel assembly. Not having enough air speed for rudder control and absolutely no brake fluid left for directional control or stopping, we took off on a high-speed tour of the wet marshlands to the right of the runway. The crash crew, fire trucks and ambulance came out, but all we needed from them was a ride back to base operations.


Problems with the Curtiss Electric Props

 

As mentioned earlier, the Curtis electric controllable propellers were quite often a source of trouble. On one occasion I had a run away propeller just after take off and fortunately we were not heavily loaded. Since I could not control the pitch of the propeller and the affected engine was more of a drag than an asset, immediate contact with wheels on runway was desperately required. Again the crash crew was alerted and again they were not needed. All of this was good training and very definitely money in the bank as far as me and my crew’s confidence building was concerned.


The Pilot and the Pitot cover - The Marauder was not only to blame

 

Lastly, there was a mistake that was totally my pilot error. (Nobody’s perfect, especially me!) We had gone out to fly a night bombing mission and later were going on cross-country training. After preflight and just at engine start time, the field was closed down due to the perpetual Florida summer thunderstorms that constantly plagued our flight schedule. Resting for awhile at Base Operations, we were told that the mission was back on and that we had better hurry and get off as soon as possible. In military terminology this was called “Take off ASAP”. We rushed out to the B-26, started engines, and hurtled down the runway. I should have caught the problem sooner and therein is the real boner. Nowadays, with current procedures and techniques, the following would never have happened. As I lifted off of the runway I noted, much too late, that I had no indicated air speed. Zero! I also had a crazy altimeter and my rate of climb was likewise frozen on zero. Bingo - the light came on.

“WHO TOOK OFF THE XXX XXXX PITOT COVER?”

The pitot cover is a small canvas wrapper that is installed on the pitot tube after each flight to protect it from weather and insects. The pitot tube is also the very means and critical component of telling you your air speed, altitude, and rate of climb. Getting no response from any of my now spastic crew, I realized that in the pitch black of night, with no moon, stars or horizon showing I had a problem. Because our pitot tube cover undoubtedly was still firmly and inadvertently installed we were going to have to achieve a best guess and by golly estimate of our airspeed and altitude resulting in hopefully a safe landing.

I alerted the control room and I guess they must have started calling the world, Martin Marietta, the Base Chapel, and the next of kin as the field lit up with flashing red lights from fire trucks and ambulances. Their services were not required, however, as a successful landing was made and then I tried to hide in the darkness rather than answer the totally embarrassing, incriminating question of:

     “Who was supposed to and who failed to, check and remove the pitot cover?”

Later in life I was told that one could burn off a pitot cover by using pitot heat, which was designed to burn off ice if accumulated. Possibly true, but fortunately I had learned my lesson and I never needed to find out if that would truly work.


The Flying the B-26 was a Dream Come True

 

Flying the B-26 was like the realization of a dream come true. Yes, it did eat up considerable concrete on take off roll, but once airborne you realized how to make the ship seem to dance and respond to control inputs just like a spirited horse. Since I flew quite a bit of fighter time in later assignments, I can honestly say the B-26 handled very much like a well designed and capable fighter aircraft. I know very well that the B-26 did a very nice aileron roll. It was possible to trim the bird to hold heading, bank and altitude just as if controlled by an autopilot, which of course it didn’t have. Many times I felt akin to a violinist or musician who was in some way closely attuned to his musical instrument with the capability to make beautiful music.  Most importantly this was done along with the capability to deliver a devastating munitions package to any enemy below.

 One area of caution, which was no problem if handled correctly, was that of operating on single engine. Many were the times that flight crews feathered (shut down) one engine just to practice that type of emergency procedure. Because the very large four bladed propellers for each engine were a little far removed from the center line of the aircraft, with one engine out there was a strong tendency to yaw (turn) into the dead engine. If you were a step ahead of this problem and handled it correctly it was, as they said in those days, “No sweat”. Much like the “Baltimore Lady” mentioned earlier, if you treated her with respect, all would end well.


B-26 RTU in Avon Park Was Divided into Two Phases.

 

Our B-26 RTU in Avon Park was divided into two training phases and there were two squadrons to do that. Initially we were in the squadron that taught B-26 systems, emergency procedures, and normal crew operating routines. This also was where we got our first flights, the airborne training to learn how to take off, some air work, and to practice many landings. After being cleared for solo by some how convincing the experts that we were safe to bring back an intact fuselage every time, we were pared up with a crew and sent to the next Squadron. In this, the advanced stage, the fun really started. This is where we got introduced to formation, gunnery, and bombing; from low, mid and high altitude bombing (Florida cumulus clouds permitting). We also flew a lot of day and night cross country flights, many times over the Gulf of Mexico far out of sight of land which was good training for combat times to come. An aspect I was not too keen about was that of night formation. In combat at night, you would of course have to turn off the normal navigation and wing lights. As I recall all that was left for visual reference were several little blue fuselage lights and the light from the engine exhaust. I was always glad when it was time to break up the night formation flights.

  Skip Bombing

 

Another fun part of the training was that of skip bombing against a flag target out in the lake. This would allow you to get nearly as low as you wanted and skip the 100 pound Blue Boy into the net, if possible. A weird, but still enjoyable mission was that of; if you can believe this, aerial gunnery with the B-26. Another B-26 would tow a cloth sleeve target at the end of a long very long cable. We would make like a fighter with high side attacks and try to hit only the sleeve. I never understood the purpose of a bomber doing this, but sure didn’t argue when scheduled to fly two such missions. Ground gunnery against a target located out in the lake made a lot more sense than aerial gunnery, although truthfully, in combat, I never had this opportunity in a B-26 either.


  Bombing Practice and the Nordon Bombsight

 

 

 

The Norden Bomb Sight

Bombing was done mostly with what was called the Norden Bombsight. This was truly an outstanding piece of precision equipment and was used by just about all of the US bomber fleet during World War II. With this very intricate and classified piece of precision gear, bombs could be optically dropped accurately from the lower altitudes and on up to 30,000’ and above by the heavy bombers like B- 17’s and B-24’s. For the low skip bombing attacks, one of the sights we used was called the APN 20/20, meaning pilots eye ball. Making more sense, the Bombardier in the nose had another string and wire sight called the D-8. For Happy Hour bets we used to see who could get the best hits, the pilot’s APN 20/20 or via the Bombardiers D-8. I’m told that the 319th B-26 Group, who entered combat in the African Theater prior to the 320th arrival, initially used this D-8 sight for low level attacks. They were taking a lot of hits and losses, however, so later the management discontinued that approach and switched to medium altitude bombing. Much the same problem developed with B-26s in Europe. Upon their arrival in the European Theater of Operations, the initial B-26 Group flew their second mission across the straits at low level.  Of the ten B-26s flown, none of them returned as all ten of them unfortunately were shot down by anti-aircraft fire.

During this training some of our lucky crews were alerted to go to Eglin Field for Torpedo Bombing training. I really wanted this option, but it was later canceled. It seems that the B-26 was just too big and too good a target for anti-aircraft gunners and that mission was later dropped from the inventory. Towards the end of our training, we were introduced to Incendiary Bombs, Cluster Bombs, Fragmentation Bombs, and Flares. We were even briefed on the care and feeding of Chemical Weapons and fortunately never heard of that disaster again. It looked like they were getting serious about sending us to combat.


An Unfortunate Collision

 

I have an unfortunate war or pre-war story to relate. Part of our training was that of letting our gunners get airborne practice using the .5 Caliber machine guns. One day, the Squadron was scheduled for a large B-26 formation flight to get some airborne practice (no bullets of course) in gunnery training against some P-47 and P-51 fighters out of Fort Myers, Florida. In all my rated flight time I had always been a time hog. By that I mean I was anxious to get each and every minute of flying time I could. On this occasion, however, my family had plans requiring a trip to Miami Florida and so by my request I was not scheduled. The B-26 formation took off, flew south and was met by the simulated fighter attacks. Sad to relate, but one unfortunate P-47 dove in on a head-on attack, much too close to a B-26. Misjudging his altitude and rate of closure his wing raked the cockpit and scalped off the Marauder’s vertical tail. The B-26 crashed in seconds, flaming all the way down, while the P-47 managed to somehow make an emergency landing elsewhere. I was told that had I been flying on this mission, that would have been my assigned position. I’m eternally sorry for the lost crew, but have to thank the Good Lord for the providential timing!


The Heat is on - The Completion of Training

 

The pressure to complete the training was really on us now. Many days we flew on a morning mission only to eat a hurried lunch and blast off on an afternoon or night mission. In one 48:00 hour period I recorded 3:00 of Link training and 21:00 hours of flying time. The heat was on. Also in keeping with the impending combat assignment, we were issued our own .45 caliber handguns and attended many hours on the target range. Happily no one had any self-inflicted wounds.

Rumors were rampant. One could hear just about any rumored assignment to which you wanted to listen. When we were all issued a full set of very heavy winter, fur lined flying gear, we all said “That’s it - we are going to Alaska”. That made sense because they did have B-26’s flying up there at that time. We should have known that heavy fur lined flight gear naturally meant going to Africa. Right? By now we had been issued so much equipment that I feared they would take only my gear and leave me behind. One fateful day, however, we were told, go home, get your toothbrush and essentials (no wives or girl friends) and report back to the base - to stay. We were restricted to base. After being shipped to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, we were finally herded onto a train with no information as to its destination.  Nobody would tell us anything.  When the troop train finally stopped, the sign we read said Camp Patrick Henry, Virginia. This was it and we were on our way to COMBAT. (Continued)


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