Chapter 12

"D" flight was called up.  They were pilot Foster and RO Hershorn, pilot Daniels and RO Farber, and a third crew whose names I don't recall.  Foster and Hershorn were good -- they must have messed up or made somebody mad to have wound up in "D" flight.  Daniels was a renegade, a wild man, and a dangerous pilot.  Farber didn't think he would live through the war flying with Daniels.  "D" flight brought news with them that our air-to-air victory during the long interception from Laohokow to Nanchang had been positively confirmed by Chinese Communists and OSS who were operating in the area.  Ab and I were being put in for a Silver Star!

Our transition training consisted of blackboard sessions, map orientation, and a check ride.  This all went well, and we scheduled our charges into flying a few easy missions at first.  Col. Coleman cooperated with the selection of targets for these first intruder efforts, but Daniels became a problem from the outset.  On his first mission, he and Farber lucked into a train.  The locomotive had pulled into an earthen revetment for protection and Daniels initiated an attack, making several passes and destroying the locomotive (he said).  On the last pass, however, he was either too reckless or he misjudged, and he hit the revetment.  He and Farber made it back to the field all right, but the plane, having bounced off of the revetment itself, was badly damaged.  The bottom of the crew nacelle had actually hit the ground.  There were dirt and pine needles in the gun bay.  The bottoms of the tail booms had been torn open and there were chunks of wood and more pine needles in there.

After debriefing, Ab set Daniels up for another check ride the next day.  Farber and I didn't fly the check ride as it involved the pilot Daniels only, but we were standing by to see how it went.  Before the take-off, Daniels was very braggadocio, talking about "his locomotive" -- it was uppermost in his thinking when they took off.  In his own mind he was already an ace.  With Ab seated behind Daniels in the gunner's compartment, the check ride didn't take long. Then Daniels was back over the field for a landing, making a fairly fast pass down the runway, when he pulled the nose up and slow-rolled that P-61.  Everybody was aghast.  Day fighters sometimes performed a "victory roll," but the P-61 night fighter was redlined against rolls.

When Daniels landed, he was already grounded.  Ab said he would never fly again as a member of "D" flight.  Farber, on the other hand, asked for and received permission to fly every mission "D" flight flew as a second observer, riding in the gunner's compartment.  Farber hoped he might get enough missions this way to make rotation without having to fly with Daniels again.  Enemy activity had heated up and "D" flight was now flying two and sometimes three missions a week. 

Farber had logged several such second observer missions when a mission came up with a degree of difficulty that caused Ab and I to take it.  The target was a steel mill in territory 200 miles to the northeast that was unfamiliar to the new crews.  We had been there before and on this mission we carried two 500-pound bombs.  Farber asked to go along and we agreed, welcoming an extra pair of eyes.  But on the night of our flight, Farber came down with diarrhea and canceled out.

There was a superstition throughout the Air Force that when someone scheduled himself on a mission and then didn't go, something bad always happened to the crew that went.  There had been an instance in our squadron.  I don't think either Ab or I took the superstition really seriously, but it was surely on our minds when Jack Hershorn came up and said, "Look, Farber is Jewish, and I'm Jewish, and if I take his place, it will take the jinx off."  Jack surely didn't have to go, but he meant the offer seriously and we took him up on it, telling ourselves that it was just getting another pair of eyes.  Maybe we were also feeling some relief from the "jinx."

But the jinx was still working, anyway.  The mission went smoothly at first.  We found the target with blast furnaces showering sparks high into the night sky.  We made a strafing run at the factory buildings, and encountered some flak -- 75 mm stuff, which was heavy ordnance and the first we had ever seen.  In daylight, flak bursts are like black puffs of smoke.  At night, the shell explodes, and white-hot metal is flung out and away like the burst of a skyrocket, but it only lasts for an instant.  The flak was accurate and was hitting us.  The gunners could undoubtedly see us, most likely aiming at our cannon flashes.

During our second strafing run we took a hit in the gun bay portion of the crew nacelle, and one of our cannons quit firing.  We made still another strafing run with only three cannons firing, dropped our bombs onto the main factory building, and got out of there.  We had done everything we had set out to do on what was primarily a nuisance raid.  We had taken a lot of hits ourselves, but had inflicted considerable damage on the Japanese target.  Ab was upset because one of our cannons quit firing.  If you are sticking your neck out and getting shot at, you damn well want all of your own weapons working.  As soon as we were within radio range of the field at Hsian, Ab called ahead (in the clear) requesting that the crew chief and the armorer be at the field when we landed. 

On the ground we found Farber and Daniels there, along with the others.  Ab went forward with the armorer to open the gun bay  I had walked to the port wheel well with Jack Hershorn to look at a jagged flak hole.  Daniels, Farber and the crew chief were standing more toward the nose of the plane, behind Ab.  When the armorer, with a special key, unlatched the gun bay doors, the cannon that had malfunctioned fired with a crashing roar in our midst.  It was loaded with a high explosive round in the chamber that in the same instant exploded on the nose wheel door, which was just inches from the cannon's muzzle.

Farber was killed instantly.  Daniels was standing next to him.  He stood there for a moment and seemed unhurt, but then he knelt down and stretched out on his side.  He died a few minutes later.  A tiny piece of shrapnel had cut his femoral artery.  The crew chief on that plane was "Pop" Wilson.  He took shrapnel in his shoulder.  I heard that the hospital in Chengtu was unable to fix it and he was disabled; consequently, he was sent home.

Ab was the closest to the blast, his head being less than three feet from where the shell exploded.  He didn't get a scratch, but his ears were ringing and he couldn't hear anything for days.  Jack and I weren't hit either, although the nav-kit briefcase I was holding at my side was perforated with many pieces of shrapnel that I later found embedded in my navigation manuals inside the briefcase.

The cause of our cannon's firing was the flak we took in the gun bay.  A piece of metal in the gun bay door was bent inward and caught the bolt of that one cannon while it was retracted but still in the process of traveling forward with a high explosive round to automatically chamber and fire.  When the gun bay door was opening, the action of the cannon was released and fired.  Ab and I took the position that the flak burst was the primary cause of the deaths of Farber and Daniels, and of Pop Wilson's injury.  They were all awarded the Purple Heart on this basis.


Chapter 13