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The Life and Death of an Airman in the AAF, 1942-45.

Introduction

The "Air Apaches" of the 345th Bomb Group were one of the most feared medium Bomb Group of the SWPA from 1942-45. They perfected low-level "gunship" type of attacks, the B-25J models being armed with 8-50caliber machine guns in the nose and 4 attached in sidepacks. In this article, published in a local magazine in the fall of 1995, I trace my uncles path from induction through training, on to the 345th and to his death on April 6, 1945 in a huge ship-busting mission off the coast of Amoy, China. I have spent years researching his relatively short career in the AAF, and included information from Lawrence Hickey's definitive history of the 345th called "Warpath across the Pacific" as well as declassified intelligence reports, written and oral interviews.

Article

On December 7, 1941, the United States was thrust into the greatest war in history; four days later it became a two front war, as an unprovoked Germany declared war as well. This was an unenviable position for any nation to find itself, and the unprepared United States began to face the challenge from two of the most efficient military machines the world had ever known. The needs for resources and men on both fronts would certainly cause friction in the military leadership, as well as in the halls of the government itself. However, in order to insure that the vast oceans on both coasts would continue to help protect the U.S. from direct invasion, a strong naval and air presence was vital. Thus began on of the largest naval and air buildups in the history of the world. On February 5, 1942, the Fifth Air Force was formed and set up HQ on September 3, 1942 in Brisbane, Australia. The Fifth found itself responsible for the defense of Australia and the Southwest Pacific, currently under siege by the Imperial Japanese military machine. The 345th Bomb Group found itself as part of the defense, and eventually the liberation of that part of the Pacific. Lawrence Hickey, chronicler of the 345th exploits, states that "no theater of operations was so vast, none so hostile environmentally as the Pacific. The unique obstacles encountered there make the accomplishments of the 345th the more remarkable."1

The accomplishments of the 345th are legendary, and the role that they played in sweeping the Japanese from their Pacific conquests vital. The men of the 345th, particularly the air crews, fought a brutal, bloody war with no quarter asked and none given. They fought an enemy they were told was sub-human and were instructed to kill anywhere and any time they could. Sometimes, they were hero's, sometimes their courage failed them. Most did their job and went home, carrying with them some sense that what they had done was important.2   This is the story of one such young man, who did not return home to his family fifty years ago. He is typical of so many young men in those days; idealistic and patriotic. Thousands joined after Pearl Harbor, thousands more as they became old enough. These men, now grandfathers, defeated the most powerful and militaristic alliance ever assembled in history, not so that they gain anything for themselves, but so that people could live free.

Kenneth Bridges had always wanted to fly; the war would give him that chance. After graduation from Fairport High School in 1940, Kenny had been working for a machine-tool company in Rochester, New York, a short distance from his home in the small town of Fairport. He planned to eventually become a farmer as his father, but Pearl Harbor changed all that. By late 1942, Kenny was determined to join the Army Air Corp (AAF), although he could have avoided the draft and worked on the farm. His parents attempted to talk him out of going, but to no avail. Prior to World War Two, the education requirement for aviation cadets was at least two years of college. Once the war started, the military could not afford to be so picky; they needed men to man the machines of war, and to fight with them. Thus, the AAF began taking High School graduates that passed certain tests and a physical exam. On February 1, 1943, 334 men from the Rochester area enlisted, Kenneth L. Bridges among them. They were sent to Atlantic City, New Jersey to begin their basic training. Kenny stayed in Rm. 733 of the Hotel Dennis in Atlantic City, with four other enlistees; Chuck Yackiw, John Cox, Bernard Kreuzer, and Harland Doebereiner.3  After six to eight weeks in Atlantic City, Kenney and his group were surprised to find themselves heading back from whence they came: Rochester. The local paper ran a story in early May, detailing the instructional schedule of the cadets at the Rochester airport for the next five months. The picture accompanying the article showed Cox, Kreuzer, Doebereiner and Kenny Bridges. (Yackiw had fallen ill and was left behind in Atlantic City).

From Rochester, AAF training goes by in a blur of places and names. First to Nashville for assignment (August 1943), then Montgomery, Alabama and Maxwell Field for PreFlight(September-October 1943) then to Americus, Georgia for Primary flight training (November-December 1943). (Picture of Kenney as an Air Cadet)  January, 1944 found Kenny in Greenwood, Mississippi, participating in Basic Flight training, and from there to Columbus, Mississippi for Advanced flight training and graduation from the class of 44-E in May, 1944. (Pictures of Kenny training: Beside a T-6, in the cockpit of a T-6, another in the cockpit of a T-6- rear view.)Training was rigorous at times. Al Barbour, a friend of Kenny's during his training period (due to both last names beginning with the letter B) stated that "we seldom got off base, and there was no place to go when we did other than the USO or a bowling alley. All the bases seemed to be near small towns. We had classes, marching, obstacle courses all day, homework after supper. We had to learn Morse code, weather, aircraft engineering, physics, flight rules, cockpit procedures as well as actual flying. We often trained on Link trainers to learn to fly on instruments while safely on the ground."4  

After Columbus, Kenny was assigned to the Southeast Training Command (Third Air Force). They flew AT-10's and trained to be co-pilots in medium bombers as the Western Training Command was training pilots. Kenny went first to Columbia and then to Greenville, South Carolina, spending most of his time training in B-25 Mitchell medium bombers. From Greenville he went to Hunter Field in Savannah to be assigned to a crew, then head west toward the fighting in the Pacific. On October 15, 1944, Flight Officer Bridges joined pilot Richard Kimble, navigator Charles Wolf, and crewmen Raymond Usnick, Peter Nekhay and Vincent Biunno in a B-25 Model J, and were ordered to go from Hunter Field to McClellan Field, in California. (Pictures of Kenny in Training:  Looking out of a B-25 cockpit, beside a B-25 with Al Barbour.)

Arriving at McClellan Field outside of Sacramento, the crews had to wait until the planes could be readied to go overseas. For nine weeks they stayed in hotels in the area, waiting for their aircraft to be fitted with long range carburetors that burn fuel more efficiently, allowing them to make the journey to Hawaii. Al Barbour, who had also traveled to Sacremento with another crew, recalls going to the base finance office to get a days pay for "wine, women and song." Kenny preferred the USO and other service clubs to the "wilder" night clubs in the area. He met and fell in love with a local girl; he even gave her a ring and met her parents. Barbour thought at the time that if they had stayed a week or two longer, Kenny might have tied the knot. Shortly before Thanksgiving, 1944, all AAF personnel were restricted to base, and the crews left singly in the middle of the night for John Rodgers field, Oahu, thirteen hours away.

Kenny Bridges, Al Barbour and others like them were flying the latest model B-25 to come off the North American assembly line, the B-25J. The B-25 had originated in 1938 when the AAF had issued a circular proposal for a twin engine medium attack bomber, Spec. #98-102. North American, of Inglewood, California, produced a twin engine, twin tailed bomber with tricycle landing gear, high wing and clean aerodynamic configuration. The pilot and co-pilot sat side by side with the bombardier-navigator in a glass nose protected by a .30 caliber machine gun. There was a dorsal turrent manned by a radio-gunner, and two other .30 caliber guns mounted on the midline of the fuselage. The maximum bomb load was 1,200lbs., it carried 476 galleons of fuel and was powered by 1,100HP Pratt and Whitney engines. Gross weight was 19,500lbs.5   In January, 1939 the first NA prototype (NA-40-1) was flown, and then a second prototype with improvements was tested shortly afterward (NA-40-2). The original was found to be underpowered, so the engines were changed to Wright Cyclones (1350HP) which increased the aircraft's speed. The NA-40-2 was destroyed in a crash in the spring of 1939, but the AAF liked the potential they had seen and asked for some further modifications to the original design. The third prototype, NA-62, was improved aerodynamically with a smoother nose cone than before and a tail cone with .50 caliber guns for rear protection. On September 10, 1939, the AAF approved and gave the plane the designation XB-25. The war in Europe sped production of the original contract of 184 planes. The most famous version of the B-25 would be the B-25B, used by Jimmy Doolittle in April, 1942. As the war progressed, North American responded to suggestions from the flyers themselves, and improvements and updates were constantly being made, and by December, 1943 production of the B-25D stopped in North American's Kansas City plant to begin production on the B-25J, which was the last and most numerous model produced, 4,318 being produced during the last two years of the war. This was the type of plane flown by Kenney and his crew to the Pacific. It carried a crew of six, a ton and one half of bombs, and had a top speed of 332 MPH. The J model will also be adaptable to other roles in the field, especially important to the men of the 345th Bomb Group.

The 345th Bomb Group was activated on November 11, 1942, in Columbia, South Carolina, by Third Air Force order #275, and four squadrons designated 498, 499, 500, 501 assigned to it.6  The 345th started with 40 officers and 350 enlisted men, commanded by Jarred V. Crabb. Full strength, the 345th would contain 250 officers and 1250 enlisted men. The first two weeks were spent on paperwork and administrative details. The first B-25 arrived in late November, 1942, which enabled the 345th to start training right away. From Columbia they moved to Aiken and then Walterboro, SC. The group was originally trained as a Medium Bomb Squadron, which should have relegated it to bombing enemy targets from 8,000-12,000 feet. However, events in the Pacific were to dramatically change the 345th's missions. In Australia, at a rear base of the Fifth Air Force, Major Paul "Pappy" Gunn was experimenting on B-25's. Gunn removed the bombardier-navigator from the greenhouse nose, covered it with metal plates and mounted eight .50 caliber guns. The B-25 "Strafer" had been born. The strafer was a brilliant weapon for use against enemy airbases and sea power, so vital to the war in the Pacific. The 345th's original destination was England, but on April 6, 1943, these orders were canceled, as Fifth Air Force commander Major General George C. Kenny had come to Washington to plead for more B-25's, backed up by recent strafer successes in the Bismark Sea. The 345th picked up new aircraft in Savannah (Hunter Field) then back to Walterboro, where names were chosen for the squadrons. The 498th became the "Falcons," the 499th the "Bats outa Hell," the 500th the "Rough Raiders," and the 501st called themselves the "Black Panthers." The group then flew to El Paso, Texas and then on to McClellan. At the end of April, they moved to Hamilton Field north of San Francisco, and on May 1 they made the thirteen hour flight to Hickam and Bellows Fields. From there they flew to Christmas Island (7hours), then some flew to American Somoa while others flew to Canton Island. Then on to Fiji (5hours), New Caledonia (5hours) and then to Australia. By June, 1943, the 345th had moved to Port Moresby, New Guinea and had entered combat.

Richard Kimble, Kenny Bridges and crew stayed in Oahu on Thanksgiving, the officers eating dinner at the officer's club, all you could eat for $1.00. Kenny wrote home that day, mentioning he had done laundry that morning and had played football that afternoon, though he spent most of his time in the sack. He also related "By the way, I'll write you from each one of my stops and let you know where I am in the manner I described before. Al hasn't arrived yet, but I expect him any day now. I will be in the Fifth Air Force. My next post should be very interesting, completely surrounded by Japanese bases. To get there we have to go within 26 miles of a Japanese base. I suppose when I get there I'll still have to get more training before I go on a mission. That always seems to be the case. Everywhere we go, we get more training...7

Al Barbour did meet up with Kenny here, and they left together. They island hopped, spending each night on a different island airbase, populated by natives and a few maintenance and service people. From Hawaii then went to Christmas Island, Canton, Tarawa, Guadalcanal and Nadzab, New Guinea.8 At Nadzab they went through overseas replacement combat crew training. They flew missions with veteran pilots against bypassed Japanese bases and heard lectures about what not to do. Kenny wrote home on December 14 from Nadzab: "I am still living like a boy scout and will probably be here a couple more weeks. We have finished classes and should start flying any day now. To be truthful I don't care for it out here living like boy scouts and sleeping under mosquito netting etc... Yesterday was beer day. Each man gets six cans of beer a week. The crew are glad I don't drink because they get my beer. I would like a nice cold drink of water though."9

Al Barbour and Kenny parted company at Nadzab, Barbour being assigned to the 38th Bomb Group and Kenny heading to the 498th of the 345th. They only saw each other once more, at an airfield in Lingayen Gulf, where they spent the day together going over old times, the war and Kenny's fiancé, whom he suspected of being unfaithful. The two would never see each other again. (Picture of Kenny with Al in the Philippines)

During the summer and fall of 1943, the 345th operated out of Port Moresby, attacking Salamaua, Wewak, Nadzab as well as Rabaul. In August, the group flew to Australia for conversion to strafers. The bottom turrent was removed and faired over and an extra gas tank put in its place. The greenhouse nose was rebuilt and four .50 caliber guns mounted on a small metal nose cap. Two machine gun side packs were put on each side of the plane, just below the cockpit, giving the B-25's eight forward firing .50's. The gun switch was wired to the cockpit on a button on the pilot's control wheel. The 345th returned to New Guinea in September, anxious to test their new aircraft. The .50 caliber machine guns would give them a tremendous advantage as they literally chewed up everything in their path, and the members of the 345th quickly learned to get their planes down and use them at close range. Crew chiefs often shook their head in disbelief as planes came home with green propellers from the jungle foliage, coconuts wedged into nacelles, and even pieces of Japanese ships blown into the planes. The Mitchell strafers used their guns and parafrags on strikes at Japanese jungle bases, but developed a basic attack plan on Japanese shipping which developed from experience. In order to use the firepower of the Mitchell most effectively, they would approach low, usually on the stern of the ship. The liked to come in stern to bow, which they felt gave them a larger area for bombing and restricted the enemy's anti-aircraft fire. It was also easier to stay with a ship evasive turns in this fashion. As the Mitchell approached in a shallow dive, it opened up with the .50's in the nose and sidepacks. This much fire often disabled much of the ship's defenses and also caused a great deal of confusion, which enabled the pilot to bomb accurately. The B-25 would fly over the ship's mast, then head "down on the deck" and take evasive action in making their escape. The element of surprise was essential; crews were instructed to make only one pass over enemy shipping. If an enemy was waiting and ready for you, a B-25 at that height would be difficult to miss.10

In December, 1943 the group moved up to Dobodura, which kept the planes from having to fly over the Owen-Stanely mountains for each mission. Nadzab was the next move, and they continued to hammer the Japanese on the islands around New Guinea. While at Nadzab, the group experimented with the B-25H, which incorporated a .75mm gun in the nose along with four .50's. Instead of a co-pilot, they had a cannoneer to load the gun. Though potentially a deadly weapon, the gun caused the plane to be nose heavy, slower and the blast usually filled the cockpit with smoke. The crews claimed the plane seemed to stop in mid-air when the gun was fired.11  The B-25H was replaced in August, 1944 by the B-25J. The J model could have the clear bombardier nose or be converted with a kit supplied by North American, into a strafer with eight .50's in the nose, giving the plane a total of eighteen .50 caliber machine guns, fourteen firing forward. This easily made the J model the lethal medium bomber of the war, a virtual gunship.

From Nadzab the 345th moved to Biak where they concentrated on clearing up Japanese airfields from New Guinea to the Philippines, and sea sweeps throughout the Dutch East Indies. January, 1945 saw the group move to Tacloban, Leyte where they focused on the northern Philippines, as well as Luzon. Following the advance of U.S. forces in the islands, the 345th moved up to San Marcellino, just inland from Subic Bay, where they supported troops on Luzon and went after shipping in the South China Sea and off the coast of Indochina. Kenny and his crewmates joined the 498th squadron at Biak, but wasn't there long before moving up to Tacloban. Kenny wrote home from Tacloban on February 9, 1945 on his sister's birthday; "I wish I could send you the little Filipino boy that stays around our tent. He is four years old and his name is Rodricoes. He is real cute. He got bitten by a monkey one day and I doctored the cut and put a bandage on it. Now he stays around the tent a lot and every time he gets a scratch he wants me to bandage it for him."12  Kenny flew almost twenty missions from Tacloban and San Marcellino before being killed. The engineer-gunner, Raymond Usnick kept a log, briefly describing each mission:13

1/23/45 Dropped supplies about 30 miles from Manila. 4hrs. 10min.

1/25/45 Bombed and strafed west coast of Bataan/Subic Bay.

2/2/45 Bombed and strafed Luzon Valley and bombed Jap transport at Aparrl. 7hrs. 30min.

2/8/45 Attacked shipping on east coast of Luzon up to Aparrl; bad weather, no bomb run. 3hrs.50min.

2/13/45 Shipping off the China coast; was 60 miles from China.

2/14/45 Shipping off coast of China. 7hrs. 10min.

2/16/45 Flew to Bagaar, bombed and strafed. 1hr. 30min.

2/21/45 Shipping off Indo-China coast. Flew over China for first time. Target was off Bongsen, China. 9hrs. 10min.

3/2/45 Target: Toyahare, Formosa. Dropped parafrags and strafed. 8hrs. 15min.

3/4/45 Shipping off Indochina from Phonrang to Cape Varelia.

3/5/45 Target: concrete gun emplacements, Elfraile Island off Corregidor known as Fort Drum. 2hrs.

3/6/45 Target: Samoh Airfield on Hainan Island. 8hrs. 55min.

3/11/45 Search mission to locate ship that went down yesterday. No luck. 8hrs. 45 min.

3/13/45 Shipping off coast of Hainan. 8hrs. 15 min.

3/15/45 Cat Cover. 2 B-25's fly escort to a Catalina flying boat.

3/17/45 Shipping off China coast from Sanchow to Swaton.

3/24/45 Dropped 1,000lbs bombs on Jap occupied town of Siniloan, Luzon. 1hr. 30min.

3/27/45 Bombed and strafed Caballo Island off coast of Corregidor. 1hr. 30min.

3/29/45 Hit Jap destroyer off coast of Bongson, China. 8hrs.

3/30/45 Went after rest of convoy we hit yesterday. 6hrs. 30 min.

Missions just described were effective as the planes came in low and used their firepower to scatter defenses. The group had adopted the name "Tree-Top Terrors" shortly after converting to strafers, but in the fall of 1944 they had voted on a new group insignia, and the 345th was renamed the "Air Apaches." The 498th squadron painter, Charlie Pushetonequa, an American Indian, won a bottle of gin for his design of an Indian head in a full war bonnet.14

Kenny Bridge's final flight left early on the morning of April 6, 1945. He was not flying with his regular crew, as this was a volunteer mission. The April 6 mission was a ship busting mission involving 24 B-25's from all four squadrons of the 345th. An enemy convoy had been sighted heading E-NE along the Chinese coast near Amoy-Swatow. The visibility was poor when the first strafers arrived in the area, and Cpt. George Musket of the 501st initiated a search pattern as he arrived. At 11:30AM, the 501st planes spotted two frigates and the six planes split into two flights of three each and attacked. Muskett led the first flight across the first ship, damaging it with their nose guns, but failing to connect with their bombs. The first flight continued on to the second ship, and bombed and strafed it as well, Musket scoring a direct hit. The second flight, led by Lt. Ollie Hatcher, dropped nine bombs around the first ship, scoring one direct hit and several near misses, doing enough damage to stop the ship dead in the water. The 499th came in next in two flights as well, and scored two near misses on frigate #1 which then sank within three minutes. The 499th also left the second ship dead in the water, with a huge hole in the stern. When the 498th got there, there was little left, so they took to strafing the Japanese survivors in the water. As Cpt. Frederick Smith passed over the second frigate in plane #305, his tail camera snapped a picture that would later be labeled the "air picture of the year."15   Approximately eighty Japanese crewman can be seen swimming around or hanging on to the side of the hull of the sinking frigate. The search for more ships was on. The 500th squadron, led by Lt. George Schmidt, arrived late and immediately began to search for other shipping. He found another ship ten minutes SW of where the first two had been sunk. Schmidt led the first flight into a rear attack on the target, and ran into a wall of flak. Schmidt pressed his attack, ignoring the exploding shells and tracers all around him. He opened up with his .50's about 700 yards out, short bursts to find the range, then longer bursts until he just held the button down and used the rudder pedals to throw his tracers back and forth across the boat.16   Schmidt's plane took a 20mm shell on the co-pilots side, but he continued the attack. He dropped three bombs, one direct hit and one near miss. Schmidt's wing man missed with two bombs and the last of the three planes took a direct hit through the windshield, the plane smashing into the water 200 yards short of the ship, killing all aboard. The second flight, perhaps spooked by the heavy defenses of the ship, missed with all their bombs. The 500th left the destroyer, still moving at a high rate of speed, for another squadron.

The Japanese destroyer was an Asashio class destroyer named Amatsukazi. (Heavenly Wind) It had participated in the Midway attack, as well as the Solomons campaign and the fighting around the Philippines. It had been photographed March 30 at Yulin Bay, Hainan, where it had shot down an Air Apache plane.

The 498th was coming down the coast as the second flight of the 500th left scene. The squadron leader was Capt. Albin V. Johnson, his co-pilot, F/O Kenny L. Bridges. The Amatsukazi, on sighting more aircraft, turned to the NW and started laying a smokescreen. The events of the next few minutes are confusing and disjointed, as the first three plane element with Johnson in the lead, turned into the attack. Wing man James Manners pulled off, as Johnson kept adjusting his throttle settings making it hard to stay in formation.17  Manners radioed Johnson and requested an attack on the stern of the ship, through the smokescreen, which would have been standard operating procedure for the 345th. Johnson agreed, and told Manners to space himself and ordered the flight to follow at 15 second intervals. However, Johnson and the other wing, Robert Neal, flew wide of the smoke and headed in for a broadside attack! Johnson called for covering fire, saying his nose guns would not work. Johnson and Neal crossed the ship approximately 100 yards in front of the other three planes, piloted by Manners, Smith and Richard Ranger. Johnson's bomb landed directly on the stern of the destroyer, but flak hit the bomber as it roared over the mast, and flames were seen coming from the left nacelle and bomb bay. The plane continued in level flight and made a perfect ditching two miles from the doomed ship. Manners, Smith and Ranger swept the burning destroyer with gunfire and dropped bombs, then hit the deck and took evasive action, eventually turning back to look for the downed plane.18

The plane sank within seconds. Smith claimed to have seen a life raft and one man; Manners saw nothing. Later, two bodies would wash ashore on the beaches of China: Lt. Robert Snyder, Navigator, and Cpt. Albin Johnson, Pilot. Five others lost their lives in that plane: Engineer-Gunner T/Sgt. James Robinson, Radio-Gunner T/Sgt. Wilbert Yorke, Gunner S/Sgt. Marion Collier, Photographer S/Sgt. Frederick Gladych, and Co-Pilot F/O Kenneth L. Bridges.

An after action report, signed by wingman Robert Neal on April 7, stated that the two planesstarted their attack run 2,000 yards out at 1500 feet and by the time they were within 500 yards, they had descended to 200 feet. "Cpt. Johnson's plane made a straight in approach with no evasion whatsoever. His nose guns failed to fire and we were in such a position that we were unable to cover him with ours."19   In 1989, Richard Ranger related that "all I can tell you about the attack on the ship which Cpt. Johnson initiated, is at the time I don't think he realized that it was as heavily armed a ship as it turned out to be. As I recall, there was a great deal of heavy smoke obscuring the ship, probably created by the Captain of the ship to hide what type it was. The attack was well under way when we all suddenly realized this was a much tougher target than had been anticipated. Whether the decision to attack would have been made differently had Cpt. Johnson known at the beginning what kind of ship we were facing is of course, something no one will ever know."20  The Amatusukazi was run aground by her Captain to keep her from sinking, and was scuttled by Japanese planes the next day.

The 345th can be seen as a forerunner to the strategy and doctrine that is practiced with more modern weapons platforms, such as the Army's Apache Helicopter and the Air Force's A-10 "Warthog" ground attack airplane. Simply put, it is this: load them with firepower, get in close, and it becomes harder to miss the target. The Air Apaches became one of the most feared and hated units in the Southwest Pacific and with good reason; by war's end the 345th had sunk 260 Japanese ships and had damaged 275 others. This success, however did not come without great expense. By the nature of their attacks, it would be reasonable to assume that the 345th would suffer heavy casualties. Over seven hundred men of the Air Apaches did not return home. We owe them, and the thousands of others like them, a debt we can never repay.