The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, December 7, 1941, and Germany's declaration of war against us a few days later transformed the lives of all Americans. Routine cares of life acquired a new seriousness as we came to realize what living in wartime America was going to require. Almost overnight, as it seemed, I ceased being a rather unpolitical graduate student in New Haven, Connecticut, and became a very much involved GI doing basic training in Miami Beach, Florida. In late 1944 and early 1945, after many curious experiences in army service schools, I found myself assigned as aerial gunner on a B-24J Liberator of the 308th Bomb Group, 14th Air Force, based near Kunming in southwest China.
Our outfit was something new in the CBI (China-Burma-India) theater: an LAB (Low Altitude Bomber) aircraft equipped for night bombing and mine-laying, and with the defensive and strafing firepower of ten .50-caliber machine guns. Attacking by night at low level became possible for B-24 crews only with the installation, in 1944, of special LAB radar. At the time, as Air Force Headquarters noted in General Order 114, "this Group was the only organization among all the Allied forces in a position to conduct interdiction operations against [Japan's] vital supply line."
Many of our missions were against Japanese shipping in Chinese waterways, the Gulf of Tonkin, and the South China Sea. And some of these were night mine-laying sorties against freighters and sampans bringing in supplies to Japanese armies which, by November of 1944, were advancing on a wide front from Chengchow, deep within southeast China, to French Indo-China. One of their objectives was to destroy several 14th Air Force bases far to the east of Kunming, among them Kweilin, from which our planes and crews were later to be evacuated under Japanese bombardment.*
Even on a low-altitude mission, we needed to reach 20,000 feet and higher to clear the mountain ranges between our base and Japanese targets. We were protected against the intense cold at high altitude by rheostat-controlled electrically heated suits under clumsy leather jackets and pants, heavy fleece-lined gloves and boots. Breathing masks supplied at our stations enabled us to go on oxygen, vitally necessary when we flew above 10,000 feet. Pilot and crew communicated with each other by intercom. At each station in the plane there was a jack box with adjustable settings for sending by throat-microphone, or for receiving with conventional headphones in our leather flying helmets.
A routine mission that became especially memorable for me came on 27 March, 1945. Our target was a line of blacked-out freighters tied up at a major port on the Yangtze River near Shanghai. Special radar equipment would enable us to lay magnetic mines in utter darkness so that no vessel in the column could move without setting off a chain of explosions. We completed the surprise strike as planned, our bulky bomber with 110-foot wingspan dropping mines from a few hundred feet above the river as a fighter plane might. With a sharp banking climb we made good our escape, evading the predictable bursts of ack-ack (antiaircraft fire) from shore and river batteries. ("Let's get the hell out of here!" was the invariable airmen's cry on intercom after the bombardier's "bombs away.") Now we would slowly gain altitude to clear the menacing range of mountains that separated us from our base at Chengkung, several hours away for our lumbering Liberator.
On this mission, I was stationed in the hydraulically powered nose turret, below and forward of the flight deck, seated behind twin .50-caliber machineguns, and hedged in by coils of ammunition. Impeded by all my heavy clothing, I was scarcely able to reach the intercom jack box to my right, or to turn sufficiently to open or close the heavy turret door behind me. But now the moments of greatest anxiety on the mission were over, and we were confident that once again our capable pilots, "Mitch" Salares and "Colonel" Peck, guided by navigator Lee Miles, would return us safely to base.
After some time, however, as I turned my eyes from watching the deep dark of night before me, I glimpsed the faintly lighted oxygen-flow and pressure gauge to my right. This registered the available oxygen in my supply cylinder, and to my dismay it read close to zero. Bad news at our altitude! I immediately tried to call the pilot for permission to leave the turret, but the intercom was unresponsive. I tried again and again, still no contact and the gauge was even lower. In desperation, I resolved to leave the turret without permission and go to the nearest station that had oxygen. Reaching behind, I grasped the door release and pushed it with all my strength. It would not give. I glanced at the gauge again, but now the indicator showed zero oxygen flow. In dismay, I tried to beat upon the heavy turret door with my elbows, but they were too restricted to be forceful, and my feeble yells were lost in the deep roar of four supercharged Pratt & Whitney engines. Then, in desperation, I thought of the emergency trouble light stowed in front of me, grabbed it and waved it violently above my head. Perhaps the pilot would discover my intercom station was malfunctioning and send the radio operator, Jack Christensen, or someone below to the turret door and order me to stop violating security. But there was no response from the flight deck.
Suddenly it came to me that all this frantic activity was causing me to squander what little oxygen might still be trickling through my mask, and I recognized the need to quiet down and be as calm as possible. Almost immediately, I thought to check the intercom jack box, and now it was suddenly clear why I had been unable to contact the flight deck. In my panic, I had failed to realize my elbow had moved the control switch to "Liaison," a sending position only for the pilot. Turning it to "Call," I immediately reached the co-pilot and explained my problem. Soon Rudy Rudisell, the crew chief, opened the door and helped me, more than a little disoriented, to an oxygen connection on the flight deck. I would live to fly other missions-- possibly even become a civilian once more.
I soon learned, however, that someone had indeed noticed my feeble light. As we were carrying our gear to the waiting truck after landing, Lt. Salares, the plane commander to whose alertness we all owed our lives, took me by the arm and commented with surprising restraint, "George, as we began our descent I noticed your trouble light was flashing. Don't use it unless it is absolutely necessary, and then be careful to shield it."
*The final offensive of the Japanese army in east China, 1944-45, is described at length in Barbara W. Tuchman, Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45, (New York, 1970) 483-509.