True Stories

Bad Angel

 Reproduced here as originally published in Southern Arizona Guide

Bad Angel 01 502x360On the Saturday following Thanksgiving 2013, 94-year-old, Bill Gressinger, was visiting Pima Air and Space Museum.  We were in Hanger #4 to view the beautifully restored B-29, when I happened to take notice of a P-51 Mustang near the big bomber.  It's name?  "Bad Angel."

He was admiring its aerodynamic lines and recalled enough history to know that until the Mustangs came into service, the skies over the Pacific Ocean were dominated by Japanese Zeros.  Proudly displayed on the fuselage of "Bad Angel" were the markings of the pilot's kills: seven Nazis; one Italian; one Japanese AND ONE AMERICAN.  Huh? "Bad Angel" shot down an American airplane?

Kill Insignias Close 01 504x360

Was it a terrible mistake?  Couldn't be.  If it had been an unfortunate misjudgment, certainly the pilot would not have displayed the American flag.  There had to be a good story here. Fortunately, one of the Museum's many fine docents was on hand to tell it.

In 1942, the United States needed pilots for its war planes... lots of war planes; lots of pilots.  Lt. Louis Curdes was one.  When he was 22 years old, he graduated flight training school and was shipped off to the Mediterranean to fight Nazis in the air over Southern Europe.

Curdes382 232x300

He arrived at his 82nd Fighter Group, 95th Fighter Squadron in April 1943 and was assigned a P-38 Lightning.  Ten days later he shot down three German Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighters.

A few weeks later, he downed two more German Bf -109's.  In less than a month of combat, Louis was an Ace.

During the next three months, Louis shot down an Italian Mc.202 fighter and two more Messerschmitts before his luck ran out.  A German fighter shot down his plane on August 27, 1943 over Salerno, Italy.

Captured by the Italians, he was sent to a POW camp near Rome. No doubt this is where he thought he would spend the remaining years of the war.  It wasn't to be.  A few days later, the Italians surrendered.  Louis and a few other pilots escaped before the Nazis could take control of the camp.

One might think that such harrowing experiences would have taken the fight out of Louis, yet he volunteered for another combat tour.  This time, Uncle Sam sent him to the Philippines where he flew P-51 Mustangs.

Soon after arriving in the Pacific Theater, Louis downed a Mitsubishi reconnaissance plane near Formosa.  Now he was one of only three Americans to have kills against all three Axis Powers:  Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Curtis in Bad Angel 300x212

Up until this point, young Lt. Curdes combat career had been stellar.  His story was about to take a twist so bizarre that it seems like the fictional creation of a Hollywood screenwriter.

While attacking the Japanese-held island of Batan, one of Louis wingmen was shot down.  The pilot ditched in the ocean.  Circling overhead, Louis could see that his wingman had survived, so he stayed in the area to guide a rescue plane and protect the downed pilot.

It wasn't long before he noticed another, larger airplane, wheels down, preparing to land at the Japanese-held airfield on Batan. He moved in to investigate. Much to his surprise the approaching plane was a Douglas C-47 transport with American markings.

He tried to make radio contact, but without success. He maneuvered his Mustang in front of the big transport several times trying to wave it off.  The C-47 kept to its landing target.

Lt. Curdes read the daily newspaper accounts of the war, including the viciousness of the Japanese soldiers toward their captives. He knew that whoever was in that American C-47 would be, upon landing, either dead or wish they were.  But what could he do?

Audaciously, he lined up his P-51 directly behind the transport, carefully sighted one of his .50 caliber machine guns and knocked out one of its two engines.  Still the C-47 continued on toward the Batan airfield. Curdes shifted his aim slightly and knocked out the remaining engine, leaving the baffled pilot no choice but to ditch in the ocean.

Machine Gun 503x360

The big plane came down in one piece about 50 yards from his bobbing wingman.  At this point, nightfall and low fuel forced Louis to return to base.

The next morning, Louis flew cover for a rescuing PBY that picked up the downed Mustang pilot and 12 passengers and crew, including two female nurses, from the C-47.  All survived.

For shooting down an unarmed American transport plane, Lt. Louis Curdes was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.  Thereafter, on the fuselage of his P-51 "Bad Angel," he proudly displayed the symbols of his kills:  seven German, one Italian, one Japanese and one American flag.

The Power of Gratitude

The Charlotte Observer
5/24/2014
by:  Honor Flight Savannah Board Member, Carol Megathlin

I wish I could tell you that WWII veteran Paul Sedelmeyer stormed the beaches at Normandy or shivered in the snow during the Battle of the Bulge. But like many of the young men who enlisted to answer the attack on Pearl Harbor, Sedelmeyer was stationed stateside. He was a Navy man, a crewman on a blimp. Only one American blimp was shot down during WWII. Safe duty, so why should we concern ourselves with Seaman First Class Sedelmeyer on Memorial Day?

Most Americans, even those alive during WWII, do not realize the threat that German submarines posed to our security. They sank American ships near our shores, the explosions sometimes so close that coastal residents felt the shock. On occasion, the subs surfaced at night to slip spies into our country.

Blimps patrolled the Atlantic and Gulf coastlines in an attempt to spot and sink the deadly craft. Deploying depth charges, the crew called in air and sea support to finish the job. Blimp duty, however, was not without its dangers.

Coming off patrol toward their base in Galveston, the crew of Sedelmeyer’s blimp lost their bearings during a sprawling storm. Hopelessly off course, running low on fuel, the crew circled tiny Kosciusko, Mississippi, dropping flares through the night. When daylight broke, the crewmen managed to communicate their distress to the puzzled citizenry. Folks thereabouts still talk about the rescue.

In September of 2013, Sedelmeyer joined dozens of fellow WWII veterans on an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. Honor Flights seek to show appreciation to our war veterans with all-expense-paid trips to D.C. to visit their memorials. Like Paul, these men returned from war, took up the tools of commerce and rebuilt a nation. They rarely spoke of their war experiences. But in 2004, when the WWII Memorial opened on a sweep of lawn near the Washington Monument, something loosened in their hearts.

They crept humbly among the soaring columns, the broad pavilions and dancing fountains. School children asked for their autographs. Strangers stooped beside their wheelchairs to say thank you. Generals, sharp and square-shouldered in their dress uniforms, took their hands and spoke words of gratitude, warrior to warrior.

Amazed by the appreciation, they spoke for the first time of memories long buried.

When Honor Flight delivered Paul back to his family, he was bubbling with enthusiasm. In the ensuing months, he could speak of nothing but his experiences in D.C. He proudly displayed his Honor Flight T-shirt in a place of prominence, pointing it out to all who visited.

Paul was a fit 91 in February, busy with his involvement in the community. Putting away his tools after helping a neighbor, he fell and hit his head on the pavement. Within days he died.

On Memorial Day, or any day, we’re often shy about approaching a stranger to extend a hand and say “thank you for defending our country.” But our words flow like sweet music into the ears of our warriors. Our gratitude affirms the significance of their sacrifice, warming their hearts long after the encounter.

Rarely can we point to proof of this truth, but sometimes we are given a glimpse. It came during Paul Sedelmeyer’s funeral. Just before the lid of his casket was closed forever, Paul’s family slipped something inside.

It was his Honor Flight T-shirt.

The Cup of Brandy That No One Wants to Drink

Recently, in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, the surviving Doolittle Raiders gathered publicly for the last time.

They once were among the most revered men in the United States. There were 80 of the Raiders in April 1942, when they carried out one of the most courageous and heart-stirring military operations in this nation's history. The mere mention of their unit's name, in those years, would bring tears to the eyes of grateful Americans.

Now only four survive.

After Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, with the United States reeling and wounded, something dramatic was needed to turn the war effort around.

Even though there were no friendly airfields close enough to Japan for the United States to launch a retaliation, a daring plan was devised. Sixteen B-25s were modified so that they could take off from the deck of an aircraft carrier. This had never before been tried -- sending such big, heavy bombers from a carrier.

The 16 five-man crews, under the command of Lt. Col. James Doolittle, who himself flew the lead plane off the USS Hornet, knew that they would not be able to return to the carrier. They would have to hit Japan and then hope to make it to China for a safe landing.

But on the day of the raid, the Japanese military caught wind of the plan. The Raiders were told that they would have to take off from much farther out in the Pacific Ocean than they had counted on. They were told that because of this they would not have enough fuel to make it to safety.

And those men went anyway.

They bombed Tokyo, and then flew as far as they could. Four planes crash-landed; 11 more crews bailed out, and three of the Raiders died. Eight more were captured; three were executed. Another died of starvation in a Japanese prison camp. One crew made it to Russia.

The Doolittle Raid sent a message from the United States to its enemies, and to the rest of the world: We will fight. And, no matter what it takes, we will win.

Of the 80 Raiders, 62 survived the war. They were celebrated as national heroes, models of bravery. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer produced a motion picture based on the raid; "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," starring Spencer Tracy and Van Johnson, was a patriotic and emotional box-office hit, and the phrase became part of the national lexicon. In the movie-theater previews for the film, MGM proclaimed that it was presenting the story "with supreme pride."

Beginning in 1946, the surviving Raiders have held a reunion each April, to commemorate the mission. The reunion is in a different city each year. In 1959, the city of Tucson, Arizona, as a gesture of respect and gratitude, presented the Doolittle Raiders with a set of 80 silver goblets. Each goblet was engraved with the name of a Raider.

Every year, a wooden display case bearing all 80 goblets is transported to the reunion city. Each time a Raider passes away, his goblet is turned upside down in the case at the next reunion, as his old friends bear solemn witness.

Also in the wooden case is a bottle of 1896 Hennessy Very Special cognac. The year is not happenstance: 1896 was when Jimmy Doolittle was born.

There has always been a plan: When there are only two surviving Raiders, they would open the bottle, at last drink from it, and toast their comrades who preceded them in death.

As 2013 began, there were five living Raiders; then, in February, Tom Griffin passed away at age 96.

What a man he was. After bailing out of his plane over a mountainous Chinese forest after the Tokyo raid, he became ill with malaria, and almost died. When he recovered, he was sent to Europe to fly more combat missions. He was shot down, captured, and spent 22 months in a German prisoner of war camp.

The selflessness of these men, the sheer guts ... there was a passage in the Cincinnati Enquirer obituary for Mr. Griffin that, on the surface, had nothing to do with the war, but that emblematizes the depth of his sense of duty and devotion:
"When his wife became ill and needed to go into a nursing home, he visited her every day. He walked from his house to the nursing home, fed his wife and at the end of the day brought home her clothes. At night, he washed and ironed her clothes. Then he walked them up to her room the next morning. He did that for three years until her death in 2005."

So now, out of the original 80, only four Raiders remain: Dick Cole (Doolittle's co-pilot on the Tokyo raid), Robert Hite, Edward Saylor and David Thatcher. All are in their 90s. They have decided that there are too few of them for the public reunions to continue.

The events in Fort Walton Beach this week will mark the end. It has come full circle; Florida's nearby Eglin Field was where the Raiders trained in secrecy for the Tokyo mission. The town is planning to do all it can to honor the men: a six-day celebration of their valor, including luncheons, a dinner and a parade.

Do the men ever wonder if those of us for whom they helped save the country have tended to it in a way that is worthy of their sacrifice? They don't talk about that, at least not around other people. But if you find yourself near Fort Walton Beach this week, and if you should encounter any of the Raiders, you might want to offer them a word of thanks. I can tell you from firsthand observation that they appreciate hearing that they are remembered.

The men have decided that after this final public reunion they will wait until a later date -- some time this year -- to get together once more, informally and in absolute privacy. That is when they will open the bottle of brandy. The years are flowing by too swiftly now; they are not going to wait until there are only two of them.

They will fill the four remaining upturned goblets.
And raise them in a toast to those who are gone.

Happy 4th of July!

The Old All-American

image001.gifNavigator - Harry C. Nuessle
Bombardier - Ralph Burbridge
Engineer - Joe C. James
Radio Operator - Paul A. Galloway
Ball Turret Gunner - Elton Conda
Waist Gunner - Michael Zuk
Tail Gunner - Sam T. Sarpolus
Ground Crew Chief - Hank Hyland

A mid-air collision on February 1, 1943, between a B-17 and a German fighter over the Tunis dock area, became the subject of one of the most famous photographs of World War II. An enemy fighter attacking a 97th Bomb Group formation went out of control, probably with a wounded pilot then continued its crashing descent into the rear of the fuselage of a Fortress named "All American", piloted by Lt. Kendrick R. Bragg, of the 414th Bomb Squadron. When it struck, the fighter broke apart, but left some pieces in the B-17. The left horizontal stabilizer of the Fortress and left elevator were completely torn away. The two right engines were out and one on the left had a serious oil pump leak. The vertical fin and the rudder had been damaged, the fuselage had been cut almost completely through connected only at two small parts of the frame and the radios, electrical and oxygen systems were damaged. There was also a hole in the top that was over 16 feet long and 4 feet wide at its widest and the split in the fuselage went all the way to the top gunners turret.

image002.jpg

Although the tail actually bounced and swayed in the wind and twisted when the plane turned and all the control cables were severed, except one single elevator cable still worked, and the aircraft still flew - miraculously! The tail gunner was trapped because there was no floor connecting the tail to the rest of the plane. The waist and tail gunners used parts of the German fighter and their own parachute harnesses in an attempt to keep the tail from ripping off and the two sides of the fuselage from splitting apart. While the crew was trying to keep the bomber from coming apart, the pilot continued on his bomb run and released his bombs over the target.

When the bomb bay doors were opened, the wind turbulence was so great that it blew one of the waist gunners into the broken tail section. It took several minutes and four crew members to pass him ropes from parachutes and haul him back into the forward part of the plane. When they tried to do the same for the tail gunner, the tail began flapping so hard that it began to break off. The weight of the gunner was adding some stability to the tail section, so he went back to his position.

The turn back toward England had to be very slow to keep the tail from twisting off. They actually covered almost 70 miles to make the turn home. The bomber was so badly damaged that it was losing altitude and speed and was soon alone in the sky. For a brief time, two more Me-109 German fighters attacked the All American. Despite the extensive damage, all of the machine gunners were able to respond to these attacks and soon drove off the fighters. The two waist gunners stood up with their heads sticking out through the hole in the top of the fuselage to aim and fire their machine guns. The tail gunner had to shoot in short bursts because the recoil was actually causing the plane to turn.

Allied P-51 fighters intercepted the All American as it crossed over the Channel and took one of the pictures shown. They also radioed to the base describing that the empennage was waving like a fish tail and that the plane would not make it and to send out boats to rescue the crew when they bailed out. The fighters stayed with the Fortress taking hand signals from Lt. Bragg and relaying them to the base. Lt. Bragg signaled that 5 parachutes and the spare had been "used" so five of the crew could not bail out. He made the decision that if they could not bail out safely, then he would stay with the plane and land it.

Two and a half hours after being hit, the aircraft made its final turn to line up with the runway while it was still over 40 miles away. It descended into an emergency landing and a normal roll-out on its landing gear.

When the ambulance pulled alongside, it was waved off because not a single member of the crew had been injured. No one could believe that the aircraft could still fly in such a condition. The Fortress sat placidly until the crew all exited through the door in the fuselage and the tail gunner had climbed down a ladder, at which time the entire rear section of the aircraft collapsed onto the ground. The rugged old bird had done its job.

image004 image005  image006
image007image008

 

Makin Island

 

On 17-18 August, 1942, the USMC attacked Japanese military forces on Makin Island (now known as Butaritari Island), part of the Gilbert Islands in the Pacific.  The raid was among the first American offensive ground combat operations during World War II.  This video recounts the story of the Marines' return to the island to claim their fallen soldiers.