As we recently commemorated Memorial Day, it is a good time to reflect on our Air Force heritage, and those who have flown and fought before us.
***image1***In the desperate, early days of World War II, American Airmen gallantly withstood the tide of Japanese expansion in the Pacific. The 38th Combat Support Wing’s hereditary ancestor, the 38th Bombardment Group (Medium) was one such group of Airmen.
Freshly equipped with the new B-model of the high performance Martin B-26 Marauder medium bomber, the 38th Bomb Group deployed from the Continental United States in the spring of 1942, destined for duty in the South Pacific. But before arriving there, one of the group’s squadrons, the 69th Bomb Squadron, participated with another B-26 unit in the pivotal Battle of Midway.
In May 1942, the initial elements of the 38th’s Air Echelon of the group flew from the West coast to Hawaii. This was the first medium bomber non-stop flight to Hawaii in World War II, some 2,200 miles over water.
In the last 10 days of May 1942, the 69th practiced torpedo bombing with their B-26’s, and in early June that training was put to the test. Capt. James F. Collins, Jr. and 2nd Lt. William S. Watson of the 69th flew up to Midway with two aircraft and crews on June 2, along with two other B-26s from the 22nd BG, where they readied their aircraft and awaited orders to attack the Japanese fleet.
“B-26 Marauder carrying aerial torpedo.” That word came early on June 4, and the four B-26s led by Captain Collins, on standby at their aircraft since 3:15 a.m, took off shortly after 6:30 a.m. and headed for the Japanese carrier fleet. At 7:05 a.m., in diamond formation, the flight sighted the Japanese and moved in to attack at low-level. This was the first time the B-26 was used in combat as a torpedo bomber.
As the aircraft closed in on the Japanese carriers, they encountered intense opposition from enemy fighter planes and anti-aircraft fire from the ships. First were six Zero fighters, which made an initial head-on pass on the Marauders, now descending to 200 feet in preparation for their attack. Captain Collins turned left and right as he moved through the Japanese formation and selected his target, the Japanese carrier flagship Akagi. He closed in to 800 yards before releasing his torpedo as the carrier turned hard to avoid his blow.
The trailing B-26, named “SUSIE-Q” and flown by Lt. James P. Muri of the 22nd BG, followed Captain Collins closely and maneuvered evasively after dropping his torpedo at the Akagi. To find respite amid the maelstrom of fighters and guns, he flew low from stem to stern directly over the Akagi’s flight deck, and right by the carrier fleet commander, Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, who ducked instinctively on the bridge as the Marauder strafed on by him. As he pulled out of his attack, Lieutenant Muri caught a brief glimpse of another B-26 which just missed the Akagi’s island superstructure before crashing into the sea close aboard.
Captain Collins and Lieutenant Muri had little time to assess results of their attack, though they claimed three or four Zeros destroyed on the mission, and returned to Midway heavily damaged. Captain Collins’ ship had more than 180 bullet, shell and flak holes – Lieutenant Muri’s ship was holed over 500 times, including damage to all propeller blades, and his three gunners were wounded. The ships flown by Lieutenant Watson and Lt. Herbert C. Mayes were lost in action with all aboard. Both surviving aircraft crash-landed back at Midway with damaged landing gear and never flew again, though Captain Collins, Lieutenant Muri and their crews rejoined their units and continued the war.
Although the Midway Marauders scored no torpedo hits, the attack led by Captain Collins of the 38th BG was a key event in a sequence of air assaults that disrupted the Japanese carrier formation and flight operations and distracted its fighter cover and anti-aircraft defenders prior to the decisive strike by carrier-based SBD Dauntless dive bombers. It reflects the heritage of boldness and courage of America’s Airmen, urgently taking on a new weapon system for a new mission, training expediently and employing it in combat. The example of the 38th BG’s Midway Marauders inspires us today in the dynamic 21st Century joint combat arenas we now serve in.