The Big One
Raid on Palau
Like About Bob
One of the 22nd Bomb Group Crews (Hulme is second from the left standing. Crews changed from mission to mission.)
WWII – Pacific Theater – The Air
THE BIG ONE
by Lt. Col. Robert W. Hulme, USAF (Ret.)
On October 10, 1944, all B-24's that could fly were sent on combat mission to Balikpapan, Borneo. The 22nd Bomb Group of the Fifth Air Force was stationed on Owi Island, a small coral island about a mile long and one half mile wide located between Biak Island and Japen Island north of western New Guinea. I was leading "B" flight in the 2nd Squadron. We were to bomb oil refineries and other installations there. Each ship had two bomb-bay gas tanks, 3100 gallons of 100 octane, and all the bombs it could carry. We took off starting at 1:00 a.m.
We were airborne, barely, shortly after 0100 hours. Huge thunderheads were in the area. (One of our ships, flown by 2nd Lt. Kelly, flew into one; it lost 5000 feet altitude and stressed the wings so badly that the airplane was junked. He aborted.) I dodged the storms as best I could and proceeded on the course the navigator had given me before he went to sleep, as all the rest of the crew were doing.
We assembled at a pre-arranged island after daylight and proceeded to the target. Our intercom was out.
The first thing I saw, as we neared the target, was a Jap fighter 10,000 feet above us in a vertical dive. We were flying at 12,000 feet. Smoke was following him. Suddenly he exploded. A puff of smoke and a crescent-shaped wing tip floating like a leaf were all that was left.
Then all hell broke loose. P-38's were above us at about 30,000 feet. (I heard later that Maj. Richard Bong was credited with two kills that day.) Dogfights were everywhere. About this time, a Jap fighter flew into a B-24 directly ahead of me. I think it was from the 19th Squadron. Both exploded. I immediately flew through where they had been a moment before. Nothing was left but smoke. The Japs were dropping phosphorus bombs through our formations. They would explode and send streamers everywhere.
As we approached the target, smoke was already almost up to our altitude from the bombs of ships ahead of us. I was leading the last flight over the target. We had a camera on board, and the operations officer had told me to be sure to get good pictures. We dropped our bombs. Since our intercom was out, I didn't know when the radio operator had finished his picture taking so I continued straight ahead. As the other ships dropped their bombs, they made a sharp left turn back out to sea. After a minute or so (it seemed like an hour), the radio operator told me that he had the pictures. He had to run through the bomb bay after finishing his pictures to advise me.
My flight of three ships was now miles behind the rest of the formation. I immediately fire walled the throttles, racked old 971 up on the left wing and headed for the rest of the formation in the distance. Suddenly I thought of my wing men. They were stuck like leeches right on each wing tip. We now approached the rest of the formation. They appeared to be hanging on sky hooks.
We went by the 2nd squadron like they were tied. Our speed and momentum were so great that we were passing everyone. I told co-pilot Lt. Richard Farver to drop the wheels and flaps. Finally, we slowed down and tagged onto the first group that had gone over the target.
Several of the ships had sustained damage. Some had smoking engines. Some engines were feathered, stopped with their thin edge forward to cut down on wind resistance. (If a damaged engine was allowed to continue windmilling without oil, it was prone to disintegrate and take a wing with it.)
We continued to retrace our route back to Owi Island. After several more hours we were approaching Sansapor Island, which was located about fifty miles west of the northwestern tip of New Guinea. We had a fighter group located there, also some American infantry. I asked Sgt. M.Q. Murphy to check our gasoline. He came back and said we were about out. We landed at Sansapor. It was about dark so we decided to R.O.N. (Remain Over Night).
We were attached to the infantry company temporarily for meals and quarters. After a meal of dehydrated potatoes and Spam, I started back in the direction in which I thought my assigned tent was located. It was pitch black. As I was groping my way along, I fell into a garbage pit that the G.I. cooks had dug to dispose of kitchen waste. It was about eight feet square and deep. I was standing in the pitch dark with greasy water up to my knees. I couldn't get out. I cussed and hollered for about five minutes before a soldier with a flashlight found me. Several soldiers pulled me out of the pit. They showed me to a make-shift shower – a fifty-five gallon oil drum filled with water – so I could get rid of the sour food-grease smell.
Next morning we gassed up. Then we flew on back to Owi Island.
Extremely heavy anti-aircraft fire, Jap fighters shooting and dropping phosphorus bombs, and Kamikazes made this a pretty rough mission. Old number 971's gunners were credited with downing three Jap fighters. We logged eighteen hours. This mission was one of, if not the, longest of the war.
Nose gunner Sgt. Cucurillo was credited with one definite Zero shot down and one probable. Sgt. Hagar Blair, in the rear turret, had one definite Zero. He said that Zeroes were all around us. Suddenly he saw a Jap directly behind us. Hagar said he just squeezed his triggers and the cowl flew off the Zero and he could see the pilot's face. The pilot was killed instantly.
When we have a Squadron reunion, we get together – those who are left of us – for a drink to commemorate our return from "The Big One."