in the South Pacific
The wartime journey
of Erwin Werhand
During the autumn of 1944, Allied forces in the
South Pacific had gained the upper hand against
the once formidable Japanese Empire over the
skies and waves, but their troops were bogged
down in the bitter “Island Hopping” campaign.
General Douglas MacArthur now aimed his forces
towards the Philippines. The losses in men and
equipment were considerable, necessitating the
addition of more tactical air power in the continued conflict.
text Rolf Stibbe
Flying in support of the military campaign in the Pacific Theatre were also the
men of the 823rd Bomb Squadron of 38th
Bomb Group. When they entered combat in
October as part of Lt. General G. C. Kenney’s Fifth Air Force, the group called themselves “The Sun Setters,” determined to put
out the light of Imperial Japan’s rising sun.
Amongst the rank and file of the 823rd BS
stood 2nd Lt. Erwin Werhand. The farm boy
from Medford, Wisconsin, never dreamed
of the scenes which he was to face during the Pacific War. Drafted into the US
Army in July of 1941 and assigned to a medical unit supporting an infantry division,
Erwin’s passion for flying was stirred by
a training incident at Camp Lee, Virginia.
He recalled it: “When we were hiking along
on maneuvers one day, they came at us with
a Lockheed Hudson bomber, and dropped
sacks of flour on our heads to show us that
we were not camouflaged properly. I’d rather be dropping the flour than catching it!”
In the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl
Harbor, the pilot requirements were rela-
xed to allow non-college
educated men to attain
their wings. Werhand
took immediate advantage of the change in policy by passing his
physical and written exam to begin ground
training in Orangeburg, South Carolina.
He successfully completed his primary
training in the PT-17 Stearman and progressed through the AT-6 Texan at Marianna,
Florida to earn his coveted pilot’s wings.
After completing another training stint in
the cockpit of Bell P-39 Airacobra and bailing out over San Francisco Bay when his
plane suffered engine trouble, he transitioned to the North American B-25 Mitchell at
Greenville, South Carolina and remarked:
“I Liked the B-25 and was glad to get out of
the fighter type aircraft. It had enough power to do what you wanted and was quite
maneuverable. I could really fly the thing.
Sometimes I would come in on the approach, cut the throttles and swoop over our
airfield like a fighter.”
After his assignment to the 823rd Bomb
Squadron in Savannah, Georgia he
flew with other crews westward
to California to test their fuel consumption. Upon landing, the bombers
were modified to accept the installation of
an additional fuel tank in the radio compartment. The aircrews were then briefed
about their forthcoming “epic” flight deep
into the heart of the South Pacific with end
destination at New Guinea.
The first leg of the journey took them from
California to Hawaii. While the aircraft
were serviced at Hickam Field, several of
the airmen ventured to Pear Harbor and
viewed the charred hulk of the battleship
Arizona and overturned Oklahoma. “When
you thought of all the men still down in
there, in those ships, it was just horrible.
It filled you with revenge. Let’s get this war