THE PAIN AND THE DETERMINATION
Text: Richard Plos
Photo: John F. Heyn Collection
The second part of this mini-series ended with the successful trials of the first Mitchell modified with the supplemental 0.5 inch machine guns which led to the intense work on rebuilding more aircraft. They were shortly to be in the action to fully prove their advantages.
In March 1943, shortly after the first tests of B-25s modified according to Pappy’s directives, twelve of these aircraft took part in the Battle of Bismarck Sea during which they practically destroyed the whole Japanese convoy with supplies. During the first fifteen minutes they destroyed four cargo ships, two destroyers and all returned unscathed to the base. 3rd AG pilots were so excited by the new airplanes that they did not let Pappy in any of them and only co-pilot’s seat in a B-17, which also took part in the mission (in total 130 aircraft participated in it), was left for him to at least watch how his “children'' fared in combat. He continued complaining about this unfair treatment long after the mission.
Success of the modified Mitchells caught the eye of the top brass in the USA and General Kenney was responsible for this as well since he did not forget to mention Pappy’s share in his communication with the USAAF Commander, General Arnold. He sent him technical drawings and asked him to lobby for the manufacturing of such modified aircraft directly by the North American Aviation factories. A little later, while already in Dayton USA, Kenney met with a group of engineers and designers from the Air Force Materiel Division who explained to him that all was wrong, the aircraft had an upset center of gravity, it was too heavy and in fact could not even fly …” I listened to them as patiently as I could and then explained to them that we had modified a dozen B-25s in this manner and they played a fairly important part in the Battle of Bismarck Sea. And that in the same manner another 60 aircraft were being rebuilt in Australia. Arnold looked at his experts and then kicked them all out of his office” recalls General Kenney in his book.
After that Arnold practically ordered Pappy to show up in Dayton as soon as possible to teach his experts something. Roughly a week afterwards Gunn flew to the USA and reported directly to the boss of North American Aviation, “Dutch” Kindelberger. The following three weeks Pappy literally lived in the Los Angeles factory and day and night worked with the designers on further improvements. When they were finished Mitchell featured not four but six machine guns in the nose and the whole airplane was better balanced.
Easy come easy go
Ironically, Pappy in fact was not authorized to fly Army airplanes since he did not possess USAAF pilot license. In that hectic wartime no one questioned him but one day Gunn approached General Kenney and asked: “General, where can I get those wings you have pinned on?” General answered that he could go to the officers’ mess and buy them but Pappy explained to him what he meant, that in fact he had been flying the Army airplanes “illegally”. Up until then Kenney was not perhaps fully aware who he had dealt with and only now found out that Pappy was a former Navy pilot flying since 1925. So, he immediately dispatched a request to General Arnold’s office that Major Paul Irvin Gunn was to be issued the USAAF pilot’s license retroactively as of December 7, 1941.
However, the message reached some bureaucrat in Arnold’s staff and so two days later Kenney, to his great surprise, read a message stating that Major Gunn was to return to the USA where he will be admitted to seven months long pilot training and if successfully completed will be dispatched back unless he requested another assignment.
A little later, while already in Dayton USA, Kenney met with a group of engineers and designers from the Air Force Materiel Division who explained to him that all was wrong, the aircraft had an upset center of gravity, it was too heavy and in fact could not even fly …
“As soon as I had calmed down, I sent a personal wire to Arnold marked Eyes Only, which told Hap the story of Pappy’s life, suggesting a suitable disposition of the staff officer who had sent me the answer to my original wire, and inasmuch as I believed that Major Gunn knew more about flying than any instructor he had in the United States, I was again asking that Pappy be rated an Air Force pilot.”
recalled General Kenney. Arnold immediately entertained his request and so soon enough, in his office Kenney could pin the pilot's insignia on Pappy’s uniform. Pappy wasted no time, rushed to the financial department and claimed around four thousand dollars as a back pay for the pilot's position…
Then he requested time off and decided to fly to New Guinea where, as he believed, could become a millionaire in the local casinos. He sat on the right seat of a B-25 headed there, all that money stuck in buttoned pockets of his shirt. During the flight the sun was hitting the cockpit hard, so Pappy tucked away his shirt on the back of his seat. He lit a cigarette and decided to let some fresh air in. In one move he jerked the side window open and an immediate pressure drop sucked the shirt out. It disappeared in the blue of the sky and ocean … Pappy looked out hoping that it at least got caught on the tail surfaces, but no luck. So he took over the controls, turned Mitchell around and searched for the shirt on the water surface. Nothing again … He dragged from his cigarette a couple of times, closed the window and after a moment of silence he stated: “Well then. Easy come, easy go …” Shortly after, on May 10, 1943, General Kenney signed the paperwork for Pappy’s promotion to a Lieutenant Colonel which could have been for him at least a small compensation for this loss.
A dramatic view of para-bombs drop. (Photo: Bill Swain)
The Philippines on fire
In the middle of September 1944, the American Strategic Command of the US forces in the Pacific decided to reclaim the Philippines. The landing was to take place on October 20 on Leyte Island near Tacloban port on the eastern coast. In the meantime, the USAAF focused on the oil refineries and fuel dumps in Balikpapan on Borneo where the Japanese sourced most of their aircraft fuel for their Philippine bases with approximately three thousand airplanes located there.
As soon as Pappy learned about the planned landing, he started to devise his own plans. His first thought was to fly one of B-25s rebuilt to version with twelve machine guns to Manila and shoot to pieces hundreds of Japanese aircraft lined up on both sides of two miles long Taft Boulevard Street. The Japanese used it for both the take offs and landings as well as the storage. It was not a bad idea with one problem though, the Americans did not control any base from which a Mitchell could reach Manila. Pappy, who was eager to liberate the Philippines as soon as possible and rejoin his family, was however willing to fly despite the risk of running out of fuel on the return journey. He calculated that point and requested the flying boat pickup. General Kenney of course disproved such an antic. Pappy did not give up and proposed to fly alone after removing both the dorsal and rear gun turrets and instead of the bomb load keeping only the full incendiary ammunition load for the gun machines.
Thanks to saved weight he would attach two three hundred gallon drop tanks under the wings so he would have sufficient fuel for the return flight as well. “He almost cried when I refused this plan as well. I tried to explain to him that for these planned operations I could not afford to spare a single B-25 for the time necessary for all these modifications” recalled General Kenney. Ultimately, he had to reject Pappy’s third idea in which he counted on a clandestine landing in the Philippines, organizing a small army with which, thanks to his terrain knowledge, would give the Japanese hell by attacking from the rear during the landing. Gunn’s effort to return to the Philippines as soon as possible was understood and at the end General had to assign him to another task in Australia just to get rid of him.
Pappy proposed to fly alone after removing both the dorsal and rear gun turrets and instead of the bomb load keeping only the full incendiary ammunition load for the gun machines. Thanks to saved weight he would attach two three hundred gallon drop tanks under the wings so he would have sufficient fuel for the return flight as well.
“Pappy, from the maintenance unit in Australia I want you to recruit a special detachment of some fifty men who can do anything. They had to be able to shoot, dig the trenches, build improvised shelters, install steel plates for runways, repair aircraft, engines, live in the wild and fight even with fists or stones.” On the 12th, eight days before the landings, two C-47 landed at Hollandia where Kenney’s headquarters was, and fifty armed rough men disembarked with backpacks full of tools and spare parts. “These are the men you wanted, General. What now?” asked Gunn. Their task was to start establishing the airbase right after the landing. And so Pappy and his men were transferred under the command of Col. David Hutchinson, the Air Task Force commander.
On October 20, after a thorough shelling and bombing, four American divisions landed near Tacloban and in Dulag twenty miles further south. There were airfields used by the Japanese in both areas but heavily damaged by bombing and too small for the number of aircraft Kenney wished to allocate there. Pappy’s landing craft was rocking on the mild waves. Hundreds of ships, boats and vessels of all sizes around him. It was a force never seen before, a mind-boggling effort of the massive war economy of a country with such industrial might which mankind has not experienced before. Instead of thousands of kilometers he was separated from Polly and kids just by several hundred kilometers. Immediately after the landing he started to build a runway with his construction crew on a sandy perimeter. The heavy equipment has not arrived yet, but Pappy discovered an old bulldozer behind the Japanese lines. At the beginning it would not start but Pappy talked it into that and so the construction crew could start leveling the surface and reinforce it with piled up corral. Gunn’s group also repaired several shelters located nearby and started to build a control tower.
In the anticipation of Japanese bombing, they also dug a lot of trenches in the airfield vicinity. Strafing and bombing materialized soon, in addition the peninsula was only 300 meters wide and there was not enough space. Chaos occurred, disembarked material was nowhere to be placed. This was followed by a heroic effort to build the wider beachhead and put the Tacloban base to the operation in which no other was put in charge than Pappy who managed to organize the help of several hundred Filipinos. Skills of his men came handy in the situation when it turned out that in even after three years of combat the bomb hangers on the Army and Navy bombers were not unified and therefore the bombs from the USAAF supplies could not be used on the Navy aircraft that landed. Pappy however promptly proposed the modifications of the hangers, his men rushed to work on the aircraft with welding machines and sheet metal cutters and soon enough several aircraft were ready for action. In six and half days Tacloban was operational but nevertheless, it was a dangerous place which was constantly bombed and strafed by the Japanese. On October 30, during the bombing raid, Pappy was driving his Jeep in the open area and became a target of one of the attackers. He tried to take cover behind the car but it was not sufficient. The phosphorus bomb explosion threw Pappy away and a fragment penetrated his left hand. He got up, made a couple of steps in great pain and then, moaning, fell and passed out. On the following day he was airlifted to Brisbane, where the best Army hospital was located.
90th Squadron’s Mitchell after the emergency landing at Dobodura base in New Guinea. (Photo: John F. Heyn Collection)
General George Churchill Kenney, one of the architects of the “Skip Bombing” method. (Photo: USAF)
On January 9, 1945, four divisions of MacArthur's Sixth Army landed in Lingayen Bay on the main Philippines island of Luzon to launch the final campaign of liberating the island including Manila, 150 km away. The units kept advancing despite the fierce resistance until January 31 when the headquarters received the message that Japanese let 3700 prisoners, held in Manila’s University of Santo Tomas campus, to starve in addition to several hundreds of POWs held in the old Bilibid jail. Considering their poor physical condition after three years of surviving on minimal food rations it was not clear how much longer they can carry on. Therefore, MacArthur dispatched the 1st Motorized Cavalry Division to march on Manila as soon as possible and liberate the prisoners. Under the command of General Major Vern Mudge the division, after several isolated battles, broke through to Manila where it swiftly attacked University of Santo Tomas area and rescued all prisoners. Among them Polly Gunn with her four children. Col. Hutchinson sought them out as he had promised Pappy before his dispatch to Australia that he would take care of them. He told Polly about Pappy’s wounds and that their transport to Brisbane was being arranged so they could re-unite. It was the first information Polly received that her husband was directly involved in the fighting. She was in rather poor condition; her weight was 38 kilos instead of usual 51. On February 19 she was flown with her children to Brisbane where the whole family reunited after more than three years.
Family together again. (Photo: family archives)
The war wounds
Pappy’s wounds were more serious that it could have seemed. The whole hand nervous system was damaged. The joints were swollen and fingers insensitive. Therefore, in the middle of April he was transferred to the USA to undertake neurosurgery at the military clinic in Auburn. This partially helped but Pappy continued to suffer from severe pain and had to carry his half-disabled hand in the support. However, the inactivity was even worse for him so in September 1945 he returned to Manila and initiated the resurrection for the Philippine Air Lines. At that time, he was already discharged to reserve and could fully return to his civilian life.
Together with Dan Stickle, with whom he had started at the airline, they acquired a couple of surplus Army airplanes which they rebuilt for civilian use. In December the ceremonial re-opening of the operations took place launching the scheduled service to Hong-Kong and Saigon. Pappy did take part in these moderate festivities but then he returned to the hospital in Fort McKinley where he was almost a resident due to the permanent severe pain and need for doctor’s care. In the spring of 1947, he still carried the support for his hand but every now and then he removed it and squeezed the rubber ball in order to stimulate the blood vessels in his hand and invigorate it. He always tried to occupy himself, he scouted for airplanes with sufficient range so as PAL could start flying to the USA and in many ways tried to utilize the benefits of purchasing the cheap military surplus material in the Philippines. In the spring of 1948 while he was again in the USA with his family, he suffered from such pain that he reached the decision to have his hand amputated unless the doctors found out how to control the pain. In the end the amputation was not necessary since Doctor Livingston from Lahey clinic in Boston was able to restore his hands’ blood vessels and also repair some damages of the nervous system.
Pappy, Polly, and Dutch. Three nicknames, three exceptional people. (Photo: family archives)
Life was coming back to his hand and Gunn used every opportunity to squeeze his rubber ball to strengthen his hand. He started to fly again, his energy came back and PAL were successful. And then October 11, 1957, came. Over the Philippines Pappy tried to avoid a severe storm and crashed. There were no survivors …
His former superior, and friend as well, General Kenney, arranged for his last flight home, to the USA, where he was buried. During the wartime Paul Irvin Gunn was decorated with several awards: DFC, Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Air Medal, Purple Heart nine times and WWII Victory Medal. His skills and decisiveness helped develop a new category of combat aircraft and he also contributed to many other areas of the war efforts. In 2008 the Arkansas Aviation Historical Society included him into their Hall of Fame.
The Saga of Pappy Gunn, George Churchill Kenney; Kismet Publishing, 2018 (first issue 1958)
Indestructible, John, N Bruning, Hachette Books, 2016
North American B-25 Mitchell, Key Publishing
Flying Buccaneers, Steve Birdsall, Doubleday & Co. Inc., 1977
General Kenney Reports, George Churchill Kenney, Sloan & Pearce 1949
Pappy and a whale
For the whole week Lt. Col. Gunn waited in Port Moresby at Three Mile, one of its airbases, in order to personally test the newest B-25 version with built-in 75 mm cannon. Pappy fell in love with this version and as soon as he had an opportunity to inspect it with the intention to test it on the first Japanese vessel that appeared in its operational range, General Kenney authorized his temporary reassignment to his former unit. “Men in 3rd Attack Group called him engineer without borders but were proud of his unorthodox approach to his achievements. After all, they were unorthodox themselves.
Gunn did not have to wait too long for the opportunity. Shortly after midday a scout airplane sent a message everybody was waiting for so in fifteen minutes 72 Twin Cyclone engines were roaring and 36 airplanes, one after another got airborne led by Pappy. Bad weather forced the formation to split into three sections, twelve airplanes each, in order to cover the largest area possible and not to let the pair of discovered Japanese ships to escape. The aircraft proceeded above the ocean waves, islets and coral reefs at an altitude of no more than 30 meters. These crews never carried the oxygen masks as they were useless and proudly claimed that if a cow stood in their way, they would have to fly around her … Shortly after 2:30 the formation led by Gunn emerged from behind a rain curtain and pilots spotted the pair of Japanese destroyers.
Both headed toward the fogged area and there was no time to seek the optimal position. Pappy signaled the attack and started firing from 1500 yards. He had six rounds for his 75 mm cannon. The first one hit one of the first destroyer’s superstructures, the second bounced off the deck and destroyed the AA gun post, the third missed and the fourth got buried right in the center of the hull. At that moment Pappy was so close that he had to pitch up sharply and literally jump over the destroyer and turn around for another attack. Problem was that the last hit did not slow the destroyer down. Both Pappy’s wingmen evaluated the situation. There was time left only for a single attack until the destroyer will disappear in the fog so there was a radio message: “Pappy, will you please get the hell out of the way and let us show you how a destroyer ought to be sunk.” Pappy’s response, properly censored and abbreviated was like this: “OK, you knuckle heads, I wish this obscene crock carried a few more rounds of ammunition. I’d show you.”
A pair then showered the vessel with bullets from their 24 0.5 inch machine guns and after that both Mitchells released their 500 lb bombs. After they bounced off the water surface, they “bit” into the hull and the Japanese destroyer broke into halves. The second ship was destroyed by another formation and since there were no other targets left Mitchells set on the return journey. Both wingmen again made formation with Pappy’s aircraft and when the dozen of them approached Cape Gloucester with a small Japanese airfield Pappy spotted a transportation airplane which had just landed. That was an opportunity to restore his tarnished reputation! Mitchell, which appeared right above the treetops, was a total surprise to the Japanese. The first of the two remaining 75 mm rounds hit the starboard engine of the Japanese aircraft, the second one the cockpit. The whole flight continued along the western coast of New Britain, flew over a herd of whales in Solomon Sea, copied the eastern coast of New Guinea and landed at Three Mile home base. The crews gathered with their reports in the operations room, but no one dared to say a word about Pappy’s misfortune while attacking a Japanese ship. They knew too well that his response would be so toxic it could destroy the grass in the vicinity, even the whole jungle. Only one was brave enough to break the silence and carefully asked: “Listen Pappy, did you see those whales in Solomon Sea which we flew over?”
“Yeah, I did” countered Pappy. All of sudden his eyes lit, and he cleared his throat. The men already knew that he was getting ready to narrate one of his legendary stories and they circled around him.
“You may not know but the whale is the most intelligent of all animals. Not only is she smart, but she is also friendly. She likes people and likes to help them out. Had not she been so huge she would have been an ideal home pet. Those whales today reminded me of the year 1930 when I flew with the Navy. It happened during the exercises near the northern coast of Haiti. I flew the catapult launches off the cruiser Omaha and conducted anti-submarine reconnaissance. One day at the altitude of five thousand feet and hundred miles from the aircraft carrier my engine suddenly seized. I was sure about the cause of the failure. You know, at that time the rubber hose connectors were used in the fuel system piping. Those old engines used to vibrate a lot and the engineers were afraid that the piping without such flexibility would break. Sometimes however the gas corroded the rubber and its pieces got into the piping or carburetor and clogged it. I knew what to do if I could land but when I looked at the roaring Atlantic it struck me that when I descended, I would be really lucky if after my landing anything remains on which I could sit until they pick me up.
I spiraled down and searched for a wave which would be smaller than the others when all of sudden I noticed the calm ridge between the waves. So, I touched down on that spot, nicely skidded on the surface and then a mild bump stopped me. Then I looked over the side what I bumped into and learned that I ended up on the whale’s back! I sat there for a while, but the whale did not move. So I asked myself: What is this supposed to mean? But I disembarked, stepped on the whale’s back, opened the engine hood, cleaned the carburetor and fuel piping, installed new hose connectors which I carried in my pocket and closed everything. Then I pulled out the crank handle for an inertia starter, put one foot on the whale and another on the float and cranked the engine until the inertia starter gained enough RPMs.
Then I quickly jumped into the cockpit, turned on the ignition and engaged the inertia starter clutch. The propeller turned, the engine started and that was it! Now the whale… Remember what I said about how smart they were? She knew I was ready to take off! So, she carefully submerged and refrained from flapping the tail so as not to hit the airplane. Some hundred feet in front of me she emerged again, turned against the wind, and created a smooth wave on which I could take off and return to Omaha.”
Pappy stopped talking, looked around, grinned, and waited for the applause which followed of course.
Then he turned around and said: “I think I should check out if Sgt. Evans have prepared my plane for another mission”. Having said that he left the operations room…
The whole paragraph was shortened and adopted from the book The Saga of Pappy Gunn written by General George C. Kenney.
Photo: US Navy