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Project "X"

A retelling in the Artist's own words

I graduated from the United States Army Aviation Cadet Flying School at Shreveport, Louisiana five days after Pearl Harbor as a 2nd Lieutenant and pilot and reported to Westover Field, Springfield, Massachusetts for duty. This was where I had enlisted nine months earlier, just 20 miles from home.

The life of this new 2nd Lieutenant couldn’t be better. I was assigned a suite of rooms in the BOQ (Batchelor Officer’s Quarters) and had a "batman" who shined my shoes and my Sam Browne belt almost as well as he drank my shaving lotion. My days were spent flying as co-pilot in B-18A’s out over the Atlantic looking for German submarines. I was even able, one cold December day, to take a PT-17, open cockpit trainer, and execute the usual procedures for pilots to show-off their aerobatic skills to their parents over their hometown. All this came to a jarring halt on December 31, 1941.

Helen, my girl friend from Art School in New York, and I had arranged for her to take the train from New York City to Springfield to attend the New Year’s Eve activities with me at the Officer’s Club. That morning I was aboard a Douglas Digby (B-18A), in a snowstorm, looking for submarines from 500 feet while scouting the area east of Boston. We completed our mission and returned to Westover where I was met by an enlisted man who informed me that he was the driver that was to help me clear the base. I was to get winter and summer gear and report to Westfield at 3:00 pm to take an American Airlines flight to Norfolk, Virginia. I was being transferred to Langley Field.

It took some frantic scurrying by myself and my family to arrange for my brother to meet Helen in Springfield, for me to clear all the base functions listed on a long check list and to inform my family that I was probably on my way overseas. Helen arrived and Brother Bill, at her request, put her on a train back to New York. I cleared the base and was driven to Westfield in time to catch my flight (DC-3) and my mother and grandmother made it to Westfield in time to see me off.

After stops at New York and Richmond, I closed up the terminal at Norfolk at midnight waiting for transportation to arrive from Langley across the bay. The ferries had quit running and I arrived at Langley about 0300 hrs after a great circle course around the bay to the BOQ at Langley. What a great way to spend New Year’s Eve!

The next morning I was introduced to 1st Lt James O. Cobb and a brand new B-17E, #12481, that he and a flight engineer had just flown in from the Seattle factory. I joined them to be their co-pilot and a few days later we flew south to MacDill Field at Tampa, Florida.

Our five day stay at MacDill was spent preparing the aircraft and loading it with a ton of supplies such as wing jacks, spare tires, .50 cal. machine guns, medical equipment, extra life rafts, etc.,and personal baggage. At 0300 hrs on January 11, 1942, less than a month after my graduating from Flying School, we took off over Tampa Bay staggering into the air with all that equipment and an aircraft that was now holding nine crewmen. Thus we became part of Project "X".

Our Clearance Form listed the following crewmembers:

* Pilot 1st Lt James O. Cobb
* Co-pilot 2nd Lt Paul W. Eckley, Jr.
* Navigator 2nd Lt Johnnie Riola
* Bombardier Sgt L.W. Hay
* Engineer Cpl E.W. Harbaugh
* Asst. Engineer Pvt B.F. Narel
* Radio Operator Pfc J.E. Dambacher
* Asst Radio Op Pvt C.B. Morris
* Medical Pfc L.H. Hillman

At about 0400 hrs we left the Atlantic coast over the sparkling city of Miami enroute to Trinidad. We landed at Piarco Airport in Trinidad after 13 hours and 45 minutes of flying time and spent the night in true tropical style under a mosquito net, cot bed and a tent, while guarded by U.S. Marines.

The next morning we departed Piarco and flew a short distance to Waller Field to gas-up. We were briefed that our next stop was to be at Belem , Brazil, at the mouth of the Amazon River. Departing Waller Field we completed the flight in 8 hours and 15 minutes landing in Belem as darkness was falling. We left our aircraft in the hands of a U.S. Marine guard who asked that we leave one of our .45 cal handguns in one of the engine nacelles. The marines were not supposed to be armed in neutral Brazil but even a marine can’t guard very well with only a billy club. We piled into taxis and ended up at the Grande Hotel. I have since learned that there were many more Grande Hotels in the world… somewhat like, but way before, Holiday Inns or Hiltons.

We stayed here for a few days as we found a broken primer line for the main cylinder on one of our engines. We also had to perform a 50 hour inspection of the aircraft. I found out that the ring cowling on the engine nacelles could have been designed better to enable their removing and replacing. It sure was a difficult job. We departed on January 15, 1942 for Natal on the northeast tip of South America. After a flight of 6 hours and 25 minutes we landed at the PanAir field at Natal. We were Americans, flying an American heavy bomber, and we had the same landing rights as a German Airline flying German JU-52’s using the same landing rights on the same field at the same time. Of course, it helped that Brazil was then neutral. We didn’t bother them and they didn’t bother us. After two hours on the ground we were all gassed-up and briefed by PanAir weather personnel. They informed us that flying across the pond to Sierra Leone was to be no problem. We departed about 2015 hrs. for the long flight to Africa.

The first hour, until darkness set in, was uneventful as we climbed to 9,000 ft. It was then that we encountered the first of many thunderstorms. For the remainder of the night it was one thunderstorm after another with Lt Cobb and myself both on the controls due to the severe turbulence. We would break out of one thunderstorm only to view fierce lightning directly ahead with a solid overcast above. We went higher and onto oxygen and were still in weather. We went lower and were in weather. We had icing conditions, heavy rain and hail, and constant turbulence. Our navigator naturally could not get any star shots but we kept him busy with course changes from one thunderstorm to another. Our radio operator could not get any contacts to help us. Finally, Lt Cobb conferred with the navigator and decided that, since we had reached our point-of-no-return that we should return to Natal. On the way back, the flight conditions remained the same. We probably went through the same storms we had encountered on the way out. We now were on oxygen all the time. Finally, we began to circle and wait for daylight because we thought we were back over Brazil and didn’t want to continue flying inland. We were now in a clear weather area, still overcast but free of storms, and when it became light enough we saw nothing but water in all directions. We had been circling for over an hour and now we flew on a westerly heading for another hour before we saw the coastline of South America. The red lights warning us of low fuel had been on for some time as we let down to a lower altitude. The pilot wanted to know which way to turn when we hit landfall and the navigator said turn right. We turned right and almost immediately spotted a cleared area on the coast that had a white circle in the middle. We flew over this airfield at low altitude and made a 180 to land. After touch down we stopped rolling rather quickly as the sand field slowed us down. It took almost full throttle to taxi back to a corner of the field where there was a small shack. We had landed a loaded B-17, four-engine heavy bomber on a small field cleared for a weekly Waco bi-plane flight that brought mail to this remote fishing village. Acarau was a very small fishing village with no roads in or out. Immediately after landing the Mayor and all the local townspeople greeted us and set up a table and tablecloth under the wing of our aircraft and food and local beer quickly appeared out of nowhere. We had landed about 400 miles northwest of Natal. When I filled out the flight time forms we recorded ten hours and fifteen minutes of night time and four hours of day time for a total of fourteen hours and forty-five minutes of flying time. It was then that I realized that both Lt Cobb and myself had sat buckled in our seats for the whole time. Never once did we relieve ourselves.

The townspeople spoke Portuguese and sadly we found that none of our crew could even speak broken Spanish. We soon had an interpreter ‘though when a lawyer who had been educated in Rio appeared and with his broken English we began to realize our hopeless position and how far we had strayed off course from our starting point.

About noon a U.S. Navy PBY Patrol plane spotted us as they flew up the coast and started to circle around. We could not make radio contact so they dropped a note telling us to fire a red flare if we needed medical help and to fire a green flare if we needed gas. We fired a green flare and immediately set fire to the surrounding sand dunes. The Catalina flew around for awhile and then they dropped another note." Fuel will be coming overland from PanAir at Fortaleza."
Thus began our fiesta with the townspeople of Acarau. We were invited to stay and to eat in their homes and invited to join them in the courtyard of their church every evening for partying, dancing and singing. The courtyard was the only paved area in the town. It was decorated with strings of lanterns and bunting. We were the guests of honor and they were our gracious hosts. I had trouble negotiating about in their homes as I was over six feet tall and all the pots and pans and gourds and dried items hanging from the rafters hit me at about my eye level. Lt Cobb and myself declined the offer to sleep over and spent the nights in the plane. Food and beer was delivered to our crew each day under the wing.

A few days later an antiquated Ford pick-up came chugging through the brush back of the beach dunes up onto the airfield. A driver representing PanAir had arrived with barrels of 100 octane in the rear of the truck. He had driven from Fortaleza by driving up the beach until he came to a stream and would then find a place to ford the stream and get back to the beach. It proved to be a long trip. The rest of our day was spent cranking the fuel by hand through a chamois into the empty wing tanks of the B-17. We had previously stepped off the length of the field from corner to corner into the prevailing wind from the sea. This would give us a takeoff roll estimated to be about 2,400 feet in soft sand. The field was surrounded by a barbed wire fence 3 ½ feet high.

The next day we loaded our crew aboard then taxied to a far corner of the field and with ¼ flaps Lt Cobb applied full throttle. It seemed forever for us to get off the ground at 100-105 mph and we bounced once on the field, went through the barbed wire, bounced again and staggered into the air. We flew back over the town buzzing the field and our Acarau friends as we headed off to Natal. Since our oxygen was exhausted we spent some time attempting to replenish our tanks from local U.S. Navy aircraft, then spent a comfortable night in another Grande Hotel.

The next evening we were again briefed by PanAir weather people who said the same thing about weather along the route to our destination at Freetown, Sierra Leone in Africa. We departed at dusk and climbed to 9,000 feet and sailed all the way across without seeing a thunderstorm. Because of the star shots the navigator could make we hit our landfall just where he anticipated and right on time. A very pleasant 11 hour and 45 minute flight.

After a three-hour rest we departed the British base at Freetown and flew down the coast for five hours and forty minutes to the Pan Am base at Accra, Gold Coast (now Ghana). After landing it was discovered we had somewhere ground through five ply of the right main gear tire. We have wired the States to get another main gear tire but realize that it will take some time for one to get to Accra. We were grounded indefinitely.

Pan Am has taken care of us real well bunking us at Teschi, a college adjacent to the airfield. At meal times we are given free cigarettes and free beer. The town has a blackout every night but that didn’t stop us from going to the local cinema. In the mean time our days were spent reading, greeting other B-17 crews passing through Accra, going into town or to a nearby beach. I spent some time designing and painting nose art on our aircraft. Our aircraft is called "Topper" showing a top hat and a tomahawk on a circle. The top hat means we can be first class and the tomahawk means we can take care of anyone. But we can’t do it without a tire. Some of the planes coming through here have names painted on them such as:

* Mad Russian 
* Sparky
* Mickey Finn
* Gopher Gus
* Chattanooga Choo Choo
* Ground Gripper
* Jungle Jim
* Taps for the Japs
* Malicious

One day we gave away our other good tire to another B-17 crew so they could continue on. Now we need two tires. Bought a pair of mosquito boots at the British Commissary nearby. They are real comfortable. One evening we went to a see a local boxing card. It had some strange names for the athletes such as: Siki Suck Quarco, Influenza Amarty Squirrel Attoh and Lincoln 12. The last bout was the best fight although the Zulu Kid beat Lincoln 12.

Lt. Cobb, with two of our enlisted men, left by plane for Freetown one day after we heard that a B-17 had crashed there and the main tires were still good. While they were gone I read a book by Hans Habe entitled "A Thousand Shall Fall". It was a book about aviation and had a Bible scripture verse on the title page that read, "Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday. A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee." Psalm 91:5-7. This was scripture that talked to me. Reading it confirmed to me that although I was going into combat, that "it" was not going to happen to me. I was positive about my being a survivor in this war. During my 24 years as a pilot, there were many times when I should not have been so fortunate but I did survive. I found out when I was 57 years old that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ had me in the palm of his hand all those years although at the time I did not know Him personally. He protected me on that dark night takeoff from Tampa in the loaded B-17 when I pulled up the gear on command from Lt. Cobb then started to turn off all the four fuel booster pump toggle switches. Lt. Cobb slapped my hand real hard and really got my attention for I had my hand on the four fuel cutoff toggle switches right next to the booster pump switches. At that time we could have had a very quiet 5 seconds before we crashed into Tampa Bay. I found out later that the manufacturer eventually placed spring-loaded covers over the fuel cut-off switches. I never again tried to turn all the booster pump switches off at one time. Ever after, they went off, one-at-a-time as I eyeballed the fuel gauges.

He also protected me when I was the target on airfields that were bombed, shot at when our parked B-17s were being blown up by low flying Japanese Zeros, when a slit trench was the only protection from flying shrapnel and machine gun bullets and cannon fire, and when Japanese Zeros attacked us on our bomb runs over Rabaul. He also protected me when engines were shot up and we returned from bombing missions and landed safely. He protected me as I flew C-54’s on the Berlin Airlift, flying coal to Berlin in 1949 during the Russian blockade and during all kinds of weather. He protected me numerous times when an emergency required immediate action and sometimes caused a forced landing. Like the time a gas line burst and fuel flooded the engine nacelle of a B-25 Mitchell on takeoff. We landed safely and came to a stop as the fuel continued to pour out of the engine in a stream as big as your thumb… and with no fire as I shut down the engines.

Lt Cobb returned with the two tires and the mechanics placed them on "Topper" and we were now ready to continue on. Our next destination was to be Kano, Nigeria in the heart of Africa, bordering the south side of the Sahara. We landed at the British base after four hours and thirty minutes. Cobb and I were invited by a British Officer to go in his car into town for dinner. His English car was about four feet wide, just wide enough to pass through the narrow entry into the walled city of Kano. On the way back out we stopped at a gathering of Bedouin merchants outside the main gate to the city and shopped for trinkets. The architecture of the walls of the city and of the homes was similar to adobe. I am sure camel dung must have been used. The whole visit was some experience. We departed about four hours later at sundown bound for Khartoum, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Flying all night there was not much to see but when the sun came up it has huge and blood red. The flight was nine hours and twenty minutes and we landed at the Khartoum civilian airport. After sleeping all day we went into town that night to the Great Britain Club where we actually saw English chorus girls. Had a good supper and floor show but didn’t see much of the town. I vividly recall two things about Khartoum. One was the British Medic and the huge needle that he used to give me an inoculation I needed. My left arm was useless for two days. The other item was the flies. If you walked into the wind they completely covered your back. If you had to walk down wind, it was better to walk backwards. Very tenacious.

Departed early in the morning for Aden, located between the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. The flight took five hours and five minutes. Again, on landing we were well taken care of by the British at this RAF base. On the ground for only about an hour and a half, we departed for Karachi, India (now Pakistan). We were briefed to stay off shore of the Arabian Peninsula because of how they treated you if you had to make a forced landing. It was a night flight and we had good weather all the way. We landed at the Karachi civilian airport after eight hours and thirty minutes with all that we started with and were put up at a beautiful, big hotel in the terminal building with our plane about forty feet outside our bedroom window.

Again, we took off at dawn and flew for five hours and forty minutes to Bangalore, India. Located in the middle of the India peninsula we made our first landing on grass. Most of the landings up to then were on clay, sand or just plain dirt. Here the grass was lush and green. There were many monkeys jumping about in the trees. We had a runaway supercharger that needed attention so were delayed proceeding on until morning. The night was spent in a first-class hotel in town. (West End Hotel) I was surprised to find out that one of our B-17’s traveling through had to have an engine change. No problem, for a local factory adjacent to the airfield had a contract to build P-36 fighter aircraft and they were installing a P-36 engine in the B-17. I never did find out how well this came off.

On February 12, 1942 we departed for Columbo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). It was a short trip of only two hours and forty-five minutes. Again, landing after a rainstorm on grass, Lt. Cobb had to ground-loop the aircraft that slid on the wet grass and our tail wheel and one main wheel got stuck in sand. We were really stuck. But, no problem! The natives produced some elephants that were nearby and presently we were unstuck! We spent the night at another first-class hotel. This one was located above the beach where the waves crashed all night on the rocks below our room. I would like to visit this hotel again sometime.

We were ready now for the long over water jump to Bandoeng, Java. At take-off the sky was angry looking but we could see a hole to get up through after dark. We climbed to 13,000 feet dodging storms… in and out and around them… but mostly in them. However, our good fortune held forth and we got through Friday the 13th OK. Dawn came and we could see clouds at all levels. Went down to 500 feet to follow the coast of Sumatra down to Sunda Strait that separates Sumatra and Java and continued around to the city of Batavia (Jakarta) as we had been briefed. We were to follow the railroad that went east from Batavia, then south then southeast for a hundred miles up in the mountains to Bandoeng (Bandung). This was not an easy thing to do for the tall trees and the rain clouds made it difficult to follow the tracks. We were fortunate. Landing at the civilian airport we taxied to a stop next to another B-17 at the terminal. We had flown twelve hours and forty minutes. As we left our aircraft a Dutch Brewster Buffalo fighter aircraft buzzed the field upside down then came around and landed. I was impressed. But I was soon to discover that we were now in the middle of the war. This was the combat zone.

As we passed the B-17 parked next to us we noticed that it was badly damaged. It was pulverized with bullet and cannon holes. The tail empennage was severely damaged. We went inside and the crew was scattered about sleeping on the granite floor as best they could. I found out that a Flying School classmate of mine, 2nd Lt. F.P. Smith, and two other crewmen had bailed out over the Java Sea as the aircraft went into a spin after an engagement with Japanese Zeros. None were wearing life preservers and were 250 miles from shore. The pilot had recovered from the spin and made an emergency landing here at Bandung. Naturally they were exhausted. Welcome to combat!

We departed in the afternoon with another plane that was to lead us to our combat station but were forced to land with the other plane at an alternate field as our leader had an engine "conk" out on them. This flight was two hours and 25 minutes to Djogjakarta. The next day, Sunday, February 15, 1942, we took off and were led to our final destination, Singosari Air Base at Malang in eastern Java. Our one hour and twenty-five minute flight got us there just before dark. It was a grass field that was heavily camouflaged with the B-17s parked, in most cases, under the high trees surrounding the open landing area. It had been a former Dutch Air Force Base and the quarters were satisfactory if rather spartan. We slept under a mosquito net that was hung from the high ceiling, on an army cot complete with a Dutch Widow, a large round pillow. The buildings had stone walls and marble floors. From this base, we and our aircraft would join up with the survivors of the Philippines and the relics they had been flying. The veterans (two months now) were glad to get the new B-17E’s.

My trip from Massachusetts to Malang was about 16,000 miles and took us a month and four days. Our flying time was one hundred and twenty one hours and ten minutes. Project "X" was now complete for us and B-17E #12481.Project X

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