"Preserving the memory of their Sacrifices!"
(490th Bomb Squadron)
On April 28,1942, the brand new, North American B-25C, serial 41-12513, departed Columbia Army Air Base, South Carolina for Morrison Field, West Palm Beach, Florida. The combat crew onboard was Eero A. Wiitala (Pilot), Robert E. Dethlefsen (Co-pilot), William X. Zeidler (Navigator), Donald M. Wilder (Bombardier), Paul J. Boet (Radio Operator) and William A. Johnston (Gunner). With the eventual destination still unknown, the next four days were spent in final preparations, shakedown inspection and a last "night on the town".
May 3 found us taking off for Trinidad with secret orders, to be opened only after being airborne, to report to 10th Air Force representative at Karachi, India. We spent the night in Trinidad and then it was on to Natal, Brazil with a fuel stop at Belem. More "instructions", inspections and an unforgettable night in downtown Natal took care of a couple more days. And then, it was on to the big time.
May 6, 22:00, '513' and three other fully equipped B-25s, departed Natal, Brazil for Roberts Field, Marshall, Liberia. Although empty B-25s had been flown across by Ferry Command crews, this would be a first time for fully loaded B-25s with inexperienced combat crews. Each aircraft was on its own and "radio silence" precluded any contact between aircraft. And further, Ascension Island as a waypoint stop was still a dream. During the first few hours the only thing of note was the moonrise. As it reflected over the ocean, we were quite certain we were witnessing the burning remains of a ship that had been torpedoed! A thousand miles from nowhere, but that's how green we were.
About half way across, shortly before dawn, we all suddenly became wide awake. The Navigator decided that he didn't know where we were. No problem. We have plenty of fuel. He'll figure it out. Well, after a couple of hours of zigs and zags and heated "discussion" between pilot, navigator and bombardier (a self-proclaimed navigator), we KNEW we had a problem. Fuel was beginning to get low and we still had not settled down to, right or wrong, a steady course.
Finally, since Africa is a big piece of ground and we really had no idea whether we were north or south, it was decided to strike out at a 45 degree angle. It was now daylight but the sun was obscured and the ocean was covered by low lying scud as far as the eye could see. The fuel gauges were approaching zero, the situation was getting tense and we started preparations for ditching. Although Search and Rescue was practically unheard of and the chances of successfully ditching a fully loaded B-25 (ammunition for the guns yet)was not something you would want to bet on, we were ready to give it a try. The radioman had been able to make some contact, so at least someone would know that we were in trouble and probably going down. Unfortunately, no one he could contact was able to give us any direction finding help. Then it happened! Suddenly, with eyestrain at maximum, we saw that we were closing in on what looked like land. With all needles now reading "zero" would we make it?
Not only did we make it, but as we approached it appeared that a belly landing could be made on a narrow strip of beach. We got closer and as we started an approach were able to see a grassy border, deciding at the last second to extend the gear and go for it. A good decision, but when the time came for the nose wheel to come down, the ground was a bit too soft It dug in and collapsed. It had taken almost 12 hours, but here we were on the ground. Unfortunately, we were in Africa, still thousands of miles from the action. Still, everyone safe, no injuries!
Of course the first question was, "Where in Africa are we, and how safe are we?" It didn't take long to find out. Within a very few minutes a couple of natives came running towards us and, since they had a smattering of English, we learned that we were at the southern tip of Liberia, approximately 140 miles south of our intended destination. Shortly thereafter an English missionary arrived on the scene and assured us that, even though we were many miles from nowhere, we were perfectly safe. This was on the normal route between Roberts Field and Accra and, since the word did get out that we were going down on the beach, we were spotted from the air that afternoon. Although the traffic could not be considered heavy, each aircraft that circled to have a look sent the word deeper into the bush.
Here is one such note:
One of the aircraft that circled that first day was a Pan-American Grumman "Duck" that was used primarily to transfer passengers from the Clipper landing site to Roberts Field. From there the passengers would continue their journeys via DC-3 or C-47. The Pan-Am pilot dropped a message stating that there was a river not far from us and they would return the next afternoon to pick up the two "worst off". Or, if none were injured, the pilot and navigator. The Duck was back, on schedule, the next day bringing some halfway decent food. Said he would be back when his schedule permitted and departed with Wiitala and Zeidler. Back again the next day, he left with Wilder and Johnson. Meanwhile for lack of something better to do and anticipating the day that we might try getting the airplane off the beach, I "hired" some more of the locals to lift up the nose and turn the plane around. This was not an easy task, being done on a sandy beach with a distinct language problem to boot. But, it was done.
Although I had plenty of U.S. money, it wasn't much good to these people and how to pay them was going to be a problem. As the clamor for payment got louder, someone, perhaps the missionary, suggested sending some dollars some where so it could be converted to local coinage. This was done by ocean-going canoe, taking two days. They brought back what the local coinage equivalent of $40 in pennies! Now there was a real problem. How much is owed to whom? To settle it, the Paramount Chief of the village set up a table at which he, I, and the missionary sat. The men we'd hired didn't want the missionary to participate because they were afraid they wouldn't be able to cheat as much -- he understood their language. Each person who had a claim presented himself and, after describing what he had done, the Chief decided what should be proper payment. This took quite some time and as the line didn't seem to get any shorter, I began to worry that the box of coins would empty too soon. However, this was not the time for our luck to give out, and sure enough the last coin went to the last man in line. Fortunately, 'The Chief' was more than happy to accept US $3, as was a fellow I had used as an interpreter.
The Duck did not show up on the 4th day. So, it was not until day 5 that Boet and I were finally restored to something approaching the good life. This time the Pan-Am pilot brought down a repair crew with tools and spare parts, tents, food and whatever else to make it a real picnic at the beach. At Roberts Field the big question was, can the aircraft be made to fly again. With my limited years and experience there was little I could offer. With the regular rain and the proximity of a salt water ocean I felt that I could see the corrosion going on before my eyes, and had strong doubts.
In any case, new props were hung, the nose wheel braced (could not be retracted so it would be a gear down flight) and canvas stapped over the greenhouse. One month after "landing", and with a bit of fuel loaded, '513' was declared ready to go. Wiitala and I were returned to the scene, to give it a try. Small trees were laid upon the sand in a row and the tires were slightly flattened to help us get the takeoff roll started. We began moving and, after a few zigs and a few zags, we appeared to be on our way. But no! Just then Wiitala's better judgement told him to abort, resulting in another nosewheel collapse, two more bent props and the greenhouse shoved back another foot.
Afterward, during my walk toward the river, I never looked back, never saw 513 again. We, along with Zeidler, were then sent on to Accra to await further orders. The remainder of the crew had long since moved on, looking for the 'action'. I spent the next five months as the ATC Control Officer at El Geneina, Anglo Egyptian Sudan. (But that is another story, for another time.) By the time I was finally released and allowed to continue to Karachi, the 490th was just being formed and I was the 10th pilot to sign on.
Some time later, a year or more, I ran into someone who claimed to have first hand knowledge of the final outcome for '513'. Supposedly, it had taken almost six months but the plane had again been repaired. This time properly. It took more time to find a couple of pilots willing to try a second beach takeoff. They did get off the ground! Half way to Roberts, the engines gave out and they went down in the jungle. Although there were some serious injuries, both men survived. If there was any parts salvaged from '513', I believe it was done by local Liberians.
Note: Also on that same day (May 6, 1942), another of our 4-ship group which departed from Natal, became disoriented (lost), managing to land north of Liberia in Vichy French territory. Less fortunate than our crew, they were interned for almost a year.