United States Army Air Corps
The Death of the Ball
by Randall Jarrell
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State, And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze. Six miles from earth, loosed from the dream of life, I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters. When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
Fear and death have many expressions such as those in the above poem. It is the horror of the unknown that awakens a man from deep sleep, sweating, and, at the same time, cold. Statistics impersonally reveal causes of death: the numbers of men and women killed in action, wounded in action, missing in action; death by disease, death by accident, death as a Prisoner of War and many other ways. Death was a constant traveler with the bomber crews of World War II. For most, the best way to deal with the apparition of death was to ignore its skeletal hand on your shoulder and to focus on your job. Otherwise, the burden was often too much to handle. This is the story of one bomber crew member named Jack McAllister.
Lloyd G. McAllister, known to his friends and family as Jack, was drafted into the United States Army immediately after his February 1943 graduation from Forest Park High School in Baltimore. He entered the Army at Ft. Meade, Maryland. Jack received his draft notice prior to his graduation, and as he states, “…they were waiting for me.” Unknown to the 19 year old lad as he was sworn in was the deadly adventure awaiting him which would lead him half way around the world. He would fly above and through the clouds of the Himalayas and would find himself in worlds he had seen only in National Geographic magazines.
The Army knew when it had a “good one”, and Jack was one of those young men selected for flight training. He entered preflight school and underwent testing that ended in October 1943 when he was selected for pilot training. After even more extensive testing and training, Jack qualified for what was called Primary Flying School. The training and flying that followed was intensive. After numerous hours of instruction and flying, Jack was disqualified from further pilot training because he was unable to complete without disorientation the demanding aerobatics that were required of pilots.
Jack was the eternal optimist; he was determined to regain flight status. The Army still realized that Jack was a “good catch.” He was ordered to school for navigator training which began in April 1944. He was assigned to Selman Field, Louisiana with a group of 400 pilot trainees who could not complete the pilot training.
When his training as a navigator was completed in October 1944, Jack was transferred to Gowen Field, Idaho where he was assigned to a B-24 bomber crew. He remembers his fellow crewmen as: first pilot Warner, co-pilot Harley, bombardier Forster, radio operator/gunner Osburn, flight engineer/gunner Barnhardt, ball turret armorer/gunner Cutler, top gunner Benish, tail gunner Woolridge, and waist gunner Momich.
The B-24 Liberator on which Jack would become a crew member was an aircraft that was built in numbers greater than the legendary B-17. The B-24 was a true work horse in Europe, Africa, the Pacific and in the China, India, and Burma area of operations. The aircraft had four Pratt & Whitney engines and was built to withstand a flight ceiling of nearly 28,000 feet. However, during combat operations the aircraft normally operated between 185 – 215 mph at altitudes of 10,000 and 25,000 feet.
This plane was designed for endurance with an 8,000 pound bomb load, and could travel 1700 miles over seven hours. The aircraft was large with a wingspan of 110 feet, a length of 64 feet 2 inches, a height of 18 feet, and a wing area of 1,048 square feet. The normal crew assignments were pilot, copilot, bombardier, navigator, radio operator, flight engineer, ball turret gunner, top gunner, tail gunner and a waist gunner. The flight engineer served as a second waist gunner. The navigator also manned the nose turret guns. The aircraft was equipped with ten 50 caliber Browning machine guns with two each in the nose, top, ball and tail turrets and in waist positions. When taking off on a mission, the men were ready, well trained, and equipped with the best aircraft America could manufacture.
After two years of training and hard work, in February 1945, Jack and the other crew members headed for the sub-continent of India. Their first base in India was Karachi, and, a week later, they were at their next base in Chabua, near the Chinese border. The crew was accepted into the 14th Air Force made famous by General Claire Chennault and the Flying Tigers. The Flying Tigers, known for the shark mouths emblazoned on their aircraft, had been an all-volunteer organization fighting under the nominal authority of the Nationalist Chinese. It was reorganized and taken into the U.S. Army Air Corps after the United States entered the war with Japan. The reorganized outfit grew rapidly and became the 14th Air Force with operations in what was called the China, India, Burma (CBI) theatre of operations. Jack and his crew were assigned to the 308th Bomb Group, 425th Bomb Squadron.
As a crew, Jack and the other flyers were not assigned a specific aircraft, and flew their assigned missions in any aircraft available. There were several models of the B-24 available at the base, and Jack recalls that his pilot had a preference for at least one aircraft that had been named “Hurricane Minnie”. Aircraft were named by the pilots, but Jack has no recollection about the significance of the name…
In March, Jack’s crew switched from bombing to strafing runs using the B-24 as an attack aircraft as they beset Japanese Infantry forces. Jack’s duty as a navigator required him to be in the nose of the aircraft, in front of the pilots on the flight deck, and just behind the nose gunner position. Although not a gunner on the crew, Jack’s secondary job was to be the nose gunner if the situation warranted. The nose of the aircraft was a very exposed position.
Jack told of a Japanese tactic used against the strafing bombers: the Japanese Infantry would mass, which seems contrary to common sense, and would fire in unison at the approaching aircraft. In effect, the soldiers were turning their formation into a large shotgun. Several navigators had been lost in this situation. The Japanese were trained to fight and die for the Emperor, so massing troops before an oncoming bomber was not beyond their understanding of how to fight.
In April of 1945, the wandering crew, still intact, was flown to a forward base in China for operations against the Japanese forces in eastern China. The base, Kwanghan, was located in western China. The bombing runs against the Japanese were under full escort of the premier WW II fighter, the P-51.
Later in April, the news was flashed that President Roosevelt had died, which Jack understates as “…a real shocker.” Despite the president’s death, operations continued in full. On May 7, Jack and his crew learned that the Germans had surrendered and the war in Europe had ended.
By the end of May 1945, most of the B-24’s were being converted into tankers to carry 1,500 gallons of aviation gas across the Himalayas to the forward based fighters. To accomplish this conversion, the guns and armor plate were removed from the bombers, and crews were cut from ten to five men per flight, pilot, copilot, navigator, radio operator and flight engineer.
The bomb bay was converted to carry three 500 gallon rubber bladders all loaded to capacity with the high octane gas needed for the P-51 fighters which controlled the skies above China. These operations were not milk runs, and still required the crews to fly the “Hump”, as the high Himalayas were called. To crash was to be killed in an inferno.
As the operations continued, the casualty count continued. The crews and the planes endured the rudimentary airfields and the terrible conditions and dangers of flying the “Hump.” There were fifteen flight paths that had been charted across the Himalayas none of which were safe nor were the charts correct as to altitude. These routes earned the moniker “the Aluminum Trail” because of the large number of aircraft that were lost during operations. Over thirty peaks rose above 25,000 feet, with Everest reaching over 29,000 feet. The aircraft had to fly between the peaks. When the winds and ice grabbed the aircraft, not much was left but to fly on and pray. Jack recounts one flight where the aircraft was blown off of the area covered by his navigational chart by side winds of over 100 miles an hour. It tested Jack’s training and skills to determine the correct chart and to get the B-24 fuel cow back on a course to home.
Robert Dunnan in his tale, “Flying the Hump” reports on the flying of a B24 gasoline tanker in these words:
The first challenge …was making it up to altitude. After takeoff, the climate inside the airplane rapidly changed from sweltering Indian heat to thin, frigid, high-altitude, requiring oxygen masks and sub-zero temperature clothing. Flying at these altitudes, the weather could change in a split second, with visibility dropping to zero, wing icing, severe turbulence, air pocket free falls that would wrench your stomach and perhaps worst of all, lightening strikes.
The duty was dangerous beyond all measure, but it had to be done, and it was done by men the caliber of Jack McAllister and his crew.
Jack and his crew learned on August 8 that the atomic bomb had been dropped on Japan (Hiroshima), but as Jack stated “…we had no sense of just what it meant to the end of the war.” A second atomic bomb was dropped on Japan (Nagasaki) on August 9, 1945. The next day, as Jack was on a mission, word came over the radio that the war was ended. The crew did not believe what they heard and called for confirmation. That confirmation came, but in September, replacement crews were still being trained and were still flying the Hump. Jack’s notes indicate that, on September 18, the Army Air Force started burning all equipment. The crews were ordered to turn in all issued gear and equipment. Incredible bonfires became the final disposition of all of the materials of war, including the B-24’s which were bulldozed into heaps and burned in place.
By the last week of October, Jack was his journey back. On October 24, he parted with his crew in India. He had elected to take a ship home and the others were transported by air. Jack’s trip home by ship was over one month long with days of storms in the Mediterranean Sea where 30 foot seas pounded his ship. Out in the North Atlantic, additional storms lashed the ship with 50 foot seas. All Jack had to say about the storms was that they were “awesome, scary.” This was from a man who had received the Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster for combat flying hours and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Jack arrived in the United States on December 28, 1945, sailing into New York Harbor under the torch of the Statue of Liberty. On February 7, 1946 he was honorably discharged from the Army Air Corps. Two weeks later, he entered Loyola College in Baltimore, MD–three years after his high school graduation. Jack says his life since then has been long and blessed!
~J. LEE HARLOWE