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THE TAKORADI ROUTE - THE JOURNEY TO EGYPT C.B.I.

8)ONDAL BURMA ONDAL


By Bob Dethlefsen.


We continued to operate through Argatela or Calcutta's Dum Dum Airport for the next couple of weeks but no longer without incident. We knew it was coming, so the surprise was not too great when we encountered our first ZERO fighters. Fortunately, the Jap early warning system was not very early so we were well on our way home, and were able to take limited evasive action. Without any type of fighter escort of our own, our best defense was to stick together and keep our return fire concentrated. Nevertheless, the lead aircraft of our third element was seen to pull away, losing speed and altitude rapidly.


An effort was made that afternoon to locate the downed airplane or crew but the fact that it was in enemy territory did not allow for a very intensive search, and nothing was found. Around the fireside that evening the biggest question seemed to be "why weren't we all shot down?". We could see the fighters coming at us and we could plainly see the tracers seemingly right in our face!


Of course, like the ant-aircraft fire, the stuff that looked like it was coming at us, was really ending up far behind. From that time on, we encountered sporadic fighter opposition although it was mercifully always on our way home. The Jap alert would go out when we were spotted outbound and they would try to catch homeward bound. As long as the weather allowed, we dropped our bombs from 10,000-12,000 ft, where the fire from the ground was not too effective. There were times though when cloud cover forced us to descend to much lower levels giving our bombardiers less chance to make an accurate bomb run, and their gunners a much closer target to aim at.


I must say though, that none of our airplanes were ever seriously damaged by ground fire while I was a part of the 490th. There had been damage and even loss of planes due to fighter activity, but no loss of life or serious injury. My turn did not come until my 32nd mission. Once again, we were on the way home when the biggest crowd of fighters that we had ever seen showed up. First reaction was that it was a long awaited RAF escort but, when the tracers started coming, it was obviously not the good guys. 


Just when we thought that we had it made, there was a tremendous explosion just beneath the cockpit floor. One of the engines went wild and the airplane, although under control, began to yaw wildly forcing us to pull out of formation. With nothing better to do, we tried moving the throttle and prop controls and suddenly the engines were almost synchronized, allowing us to once again pull up with the rest of the flight. Very shortly we were back over friendly territory, the enemy disappeared and we were able to back off a bit.


With time to think and take stock, we learned that the bombardier was ok and he learned that there were two pilots still flying. From the backend we learned that the top gunner had been nicked just enough to get a purple heart but not enough to require any more than a band-aid. The turret had been damaged and it appeared that a small piece of one rudder was missing. There was no visible damage up the front but it did appear that we had lost all hydraulic pressure, making a quick refresher in emergency procedures the appropriate course of action.


Long before reaching the airport it was clear that there was no hydraulic pressure so we cranked down some flaps.     When it came time to lower the landing gear our luck held, and the gear fell into the locked position of its own weight. Long approach, one more notch of flaps go down, wheels touch and with very slight use of the air brakes, the five hour and thirty-five minute mission is complete. Climbing down the ladder my knees gave way and I had a bit of trouble walking the first few steps. It didn't hurt to be greeted by the CO who treated us like some kind of heroes, even though all we really did was hang on.


Subsequently, the ground crew found the remains of an explosive shell that had hit the engine and prop control cables for one engine. Neither one had been completely severed, but with half of the strands cut, the cables had stretched about an inch, which is just about the way it looked in the cockpit. The ruptured hydraulic reservoir was in the same area. The war looked different now.


Since it was still a long way to go, from Ondal just to the border of Burma, and then a good bit further to our intended targets, the B-25 maximum radius of action became an important factor. There was a forward British airfield at Argatela that, even though it did not have a paved runway, was capable of handling a B-25 squadron for a short period of time. Therefore, for our first mission, it was decided that we would fly to Argatela the first day, at which time bombs and fuel would be loaded in preparation for the next mornings take-off.


I doubt very much that anyone got much sleep that night, but we were surely wide awake for the before dawn briefing. Target-- Gokteik Viaduct, a railway bridge spanning a deep gorge just before the tracks entered a mountain tunnel. Since every single one of us was on his first mission, there were no veterans, it seemed only natural to follow our leaders and follow the book, just the way we had been training. All ten aircraft got off on schedule, made a slow circle and managed to move into a reasonably loose formation.


Oh, I am sure that there was at least one straggler, it turned out that there was always at least one, until the going got rough, and then it was a TIGHT formation. As we crossed the Chin Hills, the sun was well up and at 12,000 feet, there was nothing to see but solid green jungle for miles and miles and miles ahead. The feeling was hard to explain. Some combination of excitement, nervousness, exhilaration, wonderment and, I am sure, some degree of fear.


As we strained our eyes trying to make  something out below, it seemed absolutely inconceivable to us to think that there could be anyone actually down there fighting a ground war. Of course we also strained to catch sight of expected opposition from Jap aircraft but thankfully, for at least our first go around, there was none. As we approached the target area, and began the bombing run, the little "puffs" of smoke began to appear. If bombs are to hit the target there must be, for at least a brief period of time, a straight and level run and it is at that time that the Ack-Ack is most  effective. 


But not  today. None of our aircraft were hit but then, I rather doubt that any of our bombs did a great deal of damage either. Of course we immediately broke away and headed for home, not completely out of the woods with yet another two hours over hostile territory, suffering only from numerous cases of "dry mouth". Once again we headed for Argatela and closed out the mission in just under four hours flight time. Once again the aircraft were serviced, refueled and rearmed in readiness for a repeat performance the following day.


This time the victim was to be railroad yards at Thazi Junction. Once again there was no opposition enroute but the anti-aircraft fire was a bit more intense. AA fire is something you just don't get used to and it does take some effort to remain calm when you know there are explosions all around you. And you do know that they are exploding all around you because you can see the explosions. If there was any comforting thought, it was that as long as you could see them all was well.


You would never see the one that hit you. This time we had the option of landing again at Argatela or, if fuel permitted, continuing all the way to Ondal. After Five hours and fifty five minutes elapsed time we put down at home base with fuel to spare.  Now we were all veterans. 



USAAF B-25 bombing Manywa gas storage installations Burma. Photo Collection by Chet Rogawski.


 

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