During World War I, one of the squadrons of the 17th Pursuit Group was the 34th Aero Squadron and although they were late comers to World War I, its pilots managed to shoot down six German planes before the war ended. During that time, the squadron adopted the emblem that is now also the logo of the Air Force flight demonstration team called the Thunderbirds.
After the Great War, the 34th Aero Squadron became the 34th Pursuit Squadron. It was renamed and re-equipped as the 34th Attack Squadron in 1936 flying fixed gear, single engine, Curtiss A-12 Shrikes. Right after war broke out in Europe, it was renamed the 34th Bombardment Squadron (Medium) and the 17th Attack Group was re-designated the 17th Bomb Group (Medium). In less than a year, the squadron (and the group) exchanged their obsolete A-12 Shrikes for the almost obsolete, twin-engine B-23 Dragons, a bomber based on the DC-3 to the B-25.
They were also gypsies. In the interwar years, the 34th was based at March Field in California flying P-12s and P-26s and then the A-12s. In June 1940, they began flying missions out of a field in Pendleton, Oregon before being sent, in February 1942 to Columbia, South Carolina where they flew anti-submarine warfare patrols. At the time, the 17th Bombardment Group (Medium) was the only United States Army Air Corps unit flying B-25s.
Shortly after arriving in Columbia, experienced crews were asked to volunteer for a secret mission. Those who left went with their airplanes to Eglin Air Force base and began training for what became the Doolittle Raid. Their departure, along with crews and airplanes from their sister squadron in the 17th Bomb Group, the 95th, left the 34th undermanned and underequipped.
At that time, the U.S. Army Air Corps (this is long before the organization became the U.S. Air Force in 1948) decided to re-equip the unit with a new bomber coming off the production lines – the Martin B-26 Marauder. The squadron moved again from Columbia to Barksdale, LA.
While going through the multi-engine transition training after earning his wings, my father, Second Lieutenant Seymour Liebman’s orders were changed from the 27th Pursuit Squadron, First Pursuit Group that was designated to get the P-38 to the 34th Bomb Squadron. Development and production problems were delaying deliveries of the P-38 so someone in Air Corps headquarters came up with the brilliant idea of sending a group of multi-engine trained pilots to the 34th and 95th. In an instant, Sy Liebman went from a future fighter pilot to a medium bomber co-pilot.
When he arrived, the squadron was down to a single B-25 which was used to ferry crews to the Martin factory outside Baltimore, MD to pick-up their brand-new B-26 Marauders. The drill was that a crew would be flown to the Martin factory outside Baltimore and fly it back to Barksdale. The airplanes weren’t fully developed or equipped and many had to make unplanned stops along the way.
The first B26As they received didn’t have a top turret so they flew the planes
to a modification center at what is now Offutt Air Force Base outside Omaha,
Nebraska to have them installed. The electric propeller governors that controlled the big, 13.5-foot diameter four bladed propellers were unreliable. Often, they wouldn’t let the pilots change the pitch of the blades, or worse, the propeller would go to full flat pitch resulting in an engine overspeed. Any rpm over 2,600 required an engine change.
Over the next few months, the squadron slowly acquired their airplanes and began training. Aircraft reliability, a shortage of parts and, weather limited the number of hours they flew. By September 1942 the squadron was fully equipped with B-26As, flight and ground crews. On September 21st, 1942, the Ground Echelon left Barksdale by train and then by troop ship for England. None of them knew, at the time, that it was the first step to participating in Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa. Those left behind at Barksdale were to ferry the squadron’s 14 B-26s to North Africa. The co-pilot of the eleventh plane in this 14-plane gaggle was 2nd Lieutenant Seymour Liebman.
Even though they had been flying their B-26As as much as they could, none of the pilots or navigators had flown long distance outside the continental U.S., much less over water. Day one of the trek took the squadron to Chanute Field in Illinois where the long-range tanks were installed. Their next stop was Baer Field outside Fort Wayne. There, the guns were installed and tested.
Finally, on November 16th, eight days after the Allied landing in North Africa the squadron’s 14 B-26s along with the rest of the 17th Bomb Group’s 40 airplanes took off from Fort Wayne. After stopping for gas at what is now Opa-locka Airport, they flew to an airfield on the northwestern tip of Puerto Rico later named Ramey Air Force base before it was closed. Today it is Rafael Hernandez Airport.
The next day each squadron took off separately and followed the Antilles until they reached Trinidad and then to Georgetown in what was then British Guyana. After spending the night, they paralleled the coast until they reached Natal, on the easternmost tip of Brazil. About an hour and a half out of Belem, one of the 34th’s B-26s had an engine problem and skidded off the runway, wrecking the airplane. They were now down to 13.
Each of the B-26s were carrying six men: pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, flight engineer/top turret gunner, tail gunner and radio operator. The group and squadron commanders were carrying a navigator who, like most of the crews were right out of the Air Force’s Air Training Command and had no experience flying over the ocean. In Natal, each squadron was assigned a Naval Aviator from the Navy’s patrol community who had experience flying long distances over the ocean.
Their next stop was Ascension Island, a triangular 34-square mile chunk of rock 1,400 miles due east from Natal. My father remembered looking at the chart thinking that the B-26 had, theoretically according to the Army Air Corps Tech Order 01-35EA-1 for their airplanes, a range with the bomb bay tanks full of 1,560 nautical miles. To achieve that range, the Pilot’s Flight Operating Instructions required the pilots to set the engine mixture controls to auto-lean, manifold pressure to 38 inches, adjust the propeller rpm to 2,100, fly at 12,000 feet and maintain 170 knots. Their flight planning indicated they had about 50 minutes of fuel to spare, assuming fuel transferred out of the tanks and they didn’t have other problems with the airplane.
At the time, not much was known about the winds aloft in the South Atlantic. Mariners did know that at the surface, the wind was usually from the southeast. That meant they would have a headwind component that would further reduce their range. In my father’s mind, the first problem was finding Ascension and the second problem was how much of headwind would they face. Aircraft problems were well behind these two.
Ascension Island had a low powered radio beacon. It could be picked up, on a good day, 100-nautical miles from the island. On most days, 50 miles was the norm. The Naval Aviator liaison officer assigned to the 34th briefed them on how to fly a “scouting line” to increase their visible range. In a scouting line, all 13 airplanes in the formation would fly line abreast about a mile apart. At their best long-range cruising altitude of 12,000 feet on a clear day, the squadron would “see” a swath of ocean about 100 miles wide.
To navigate, the Naval Aviator explained a dead reckoning technique called “known error.” Assuming the winds were from the south-south east they needed to maintain a heading toward Ascension knowing that the winds will blow them north of their desired track.
One could estimate the plane’s groundspeed fairly accurately. So, at the end of the estimated flight time, if the island wasn’t spotted or if the beacon hadn’t been picked up by one of the planes, the squadron would wheel south and theoretically (hopefully?) find the island.
The navigators on each squadron commander’s airplane as well as the pilots on each plane was ordered to maintain their own plot and every hour, they compared notes over the radio. Estimated flight time was just over eight hours and they had eight hours and thirty minutes of gas on board, assuming that the fuel in the bomb bay tanks transferred.
According to my father’s logbook, they arrived in Natal on November 21st and the squadron history said the crews rested up for their long ocean flight on November 22nd. When the 34th Bomb Squadron took off on November 23rd, 1942, only three of the aircraft commanders had more than a hundred hours in the B-26. The rest of the crews had, like Sy Liebman, about 70 hours in the airplane, about 20 of which was accumulated on this ferry trip.
The planes were lined up on the runway and topped off before they took off. Once airborne, the squadron commander headed toward Ascension climbing slowly so the trailing airplanes could join up and form the scouting line as they flew east toward Ascension. Six hundred and fifty miles from Natal, they reached the point of no return. If they didn’t find Ascension Island, or if the long-range tanks in the bomb bay didn’t transfer fuel, or if they had an engine failure, they were all going to get wet. And, the chances of being picked up if they successfully ditched were somewhere between slim and none.
Let me digress from the narrative for a minute. At this time in 1942, the U.S. military was already flying fighters and bombers over the North Atlantic. Between the wars, long range seaplanes routinely flew in both directions. We also had airfields in Gander, Newfoundland, Narsarsuaq and Sondrestrom in Greenland and in Reykjavik Iceland. None of these existed in the South Atlantic!
None of these airplanes had IFF, GPS, inertial navigation systems, computers other than a circular slide rule, VOR or TACAN. By 2020 standards, the gyros for the attitude and directional gyros would be considered primitive. They were about to take off and fly 1,400 miles over the ocean in an airplane that was still being developed and designed as they were being built. All the charts in the tech orders had a disclaimer that reads “All figures are preliminary: subject to revision.” These were estimates based on an engineer’s calculations and on what he/she thinks how the airplane would perform. They didn’t have wind tunnel data or computers to simulate the lift and drag of the airframe. To make matters worse, NONE of them had ever done this type of flying before.
To save fuel, the formation cruise climbed as it headed east gradually easing up to 12,000 feet. There, the winds varied by the hour as they headed east from zero to 30 knots. The variability drove the navigators crazy and raised the tension in all 13 cockpits, but the headwind component averaged around 10 knots and the squadron commander kept them flying east.
At the end of eight hours, no one saw Ascension and the squadron leader ordered a turn to the south. Fuel remaining on the 13 B-26s ranged from 20 to 30 minutes while they droned south looking for the island. My father recalls telling the crew to go over the ditching drill and they passed around their copy of the tech order so each man could review it. Everyone in the B-26 was getting tense. Sy’s pilot had the crew ensure everything was tied down. With less than 20 minutes of gas remaining, ditching was now a potential reality.
Ten minutes after they made the turn, one of the airplanes on the right side of the formation picked up the beacon. The squadron leader again, turned the squadron to put the beacon on the nose and a few minutes later, they could see the peak of the extinct volcano on Ascension Island that rises above the surface about 2,400 feet. The squadron lined up based on how much fuel they had and when my father’s B-26 touched down, they figured that they had less than 10 minutes of gas left.
There was no rest for the weary at Ascension Island. The next morning the 34th took off for Accra in Ghana,1,350 nautical miles to the northeast. The scouting line technique was used again, but Africa is a lot harder to miss than a 34-square mile island. Compared to the flight from Natal to Ascension, Sy thought the flight to Accra was easy. They had a slight tailwind until they saw the coast and landed with about an hour’s worth of gas.
From Accra, they cut across western Africa to Marrakesh and then to Casablanca where World War II awaited them. It is interesting to note that my father’s handwritten logbook ends with the Marrakesh to Casablanca flight and the official log books on AAC Form 5s begin. Gone were his terse handwritten entries. What remains are the type written entries that are probably second or third copies made from carbon paper.
Marc Liebman’s thoughts:
As someone who has operated off ships out in the middle of Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans, I still marvel at the Natal to Ascension trip. The 34th took off in an un-proven plane with what we would call “primitive” navaids, a weather forecast we could laugh at and fuel consumption charts that were at best, rough estimates. And yet, they did it without hesitation. When I asked my father in the late 1960s what he was thinking, his answer was, “we had faith and didn’t know any better, so we just went!”