Fletcher M. Glenn, 22nd Bomb Group 33rd Bomb Squadron

I graduated from Kelly Field, Texas, in the class of 40E as a Second Lieutenant with an “Airplane pilot” rating.

The summer of 1941 found me at Patterson Field near Dayton, Ohio teaching Russian pilots how to fly the B-26s which we were giving them under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program.
With the Lend-Lease program we manufactured the goods and “loaned” them to Britain and her allies. In case you don’t remember the day and hour, we were soon to be allied with the Russians as well as Great Britain and a number of other countries against the German Nazis and were providing these allies with war material. One of the other US pilots helping out with the project was 2nd Lt. Lewis Ford who remembers the project very well.

It was not the easiest thing I have ever done because we had to work with the Russian pilots through an interpreter and communicating an emergency through a third party can be pretty hairy. Airplanes can be very unforgiving. The B-26 had disk brakes for the pilot seat only which provided absolute control of the airplane for taxiing at high speed. The co-pilot has no brakes and the co-pilot’s rudder folds out of the way to gain access to the bombardier’s station. Because of this restriction and the difficulty of communication the Russian pilots actually spent very little time in the pilot’s seat.

We ferried planes from the Glenn Martin plant in Baltimore, Maryland, took them via Amarillo, Texas to McClellan Field in Sacramento, California, where they were taken later and turned over to the Russians via a circuitous route through Alaska and Vladivostok to the Russians. Ted Ford has a picture of one of these B-26s flying on his wing with absolutely no identifying markings on the plane at all.

I was back at Langley Field, Virginia on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The very next day, December 8th we packed up our gear on our B-26 and took off via Randolph Field, Texas, El Paso, Texas to Muroc, California, an old dried-up lake bed and then to March Field. At that time there were less than 2,000 military pilots in the United States with experience senior to me, then age 22. Responsibility and lots of it came very fast.

We lingered in California because the Californians were sure that they would be the next target and didn’t want us to leave them unprotected. We flew coastal patrols until the end of January when we departed San Francisco with our crated airplanes on a ship headed for Honolulu. By the end of February our planes had been uncrated and reassembled.

We spent most of March flight testing them and then on March 25th a flight of 56 airplanes, B-26 bombers, carrying 392 men left for Brisbane, three or four planes at a time to spread the risk, to join MacArthur’s defense of Australia. It was a dangerous trip using only Capt. Cook’s old maps for navigation of the vast expanse of the Pacific. But we had a fine navigator in 2nd Lt. David Nelson and he got us where we wanted to go in fine style. We island hopped first to Palmyra Island which is really tiny, Canton Island, Nandi in Fiji, New Caledonia and then to Amberly Field in Brisbane.

MacArthur now had 72 airplanes and went back to war. Twenty three days later there were very few first pilots alive among the 56 who had left Honolulu. I recall the intensity of those 23 days of living so fast and perilously moment by moment as something that can be brought back only in disconnected segments, like a bad dream. Being so busy just trying to make important decisions from minute to minute, one loses track of other serious matters and there were times of being embarrassed that one can’t remember who is still alive and who was killed where and how. The things that stick in the memory are the little things.

One vivid image that never goes away began about 10 A.M. taking a flight of B-26’s from Port Moresby, New Guinea, to bomb the airport at Rabaul, New Britain. The weather there was down so close to the ground that immediately after the bomb run the formation broke up because of the reduced visibility. Automatically, emergency separation to avoid collision in the clouds went into effect, but that meant that each bomber started back home as a solitary target for enemy fighters. The distance was 900 miles and the first 600 of those miles was over water. Radio silence was broken by a plane in distress announcing that he was going down on the beach only a few miles from the airport they had just bombed. This was considered insurmountable trouble. The plane could fly on one engine indefinitely, but it was not designed to do that with two doors open!

We dropped down through the clouds for a look and miraculously drifted into a perfect intercept. Closing up to confirm, we could see that cripple was indeed not very airworthy. We took up a position to monitor the crash landing so that no fights could complicate matters further. And then radio silence was broken again. The wounded bird wanted to know, “If I try to make it, will you stick with me and report my location if I don’t make it.?” I replied in the affirmative with a silent visual signal because he was only 25 feet away, but it was a solemn commitment of seven men to seven other men to be seriously considered and re-considered as the afternoon wore on.

During the next hour it became evident that the disabled plane was not holding its altitude and the pathetic process began of throwing weight overboard – first ammunition, guns, the celebrated Norden bombsight, anything loose. And still the plane got lower and slower. It got so low that you thought the next wave would be the one to get her, only to miss by seemingly less than 10 feet. It was going so slowly by now that I dared not go that slow for fear of stalling my own plane and the only way I was able to remain behind the other B-26 was by zigzagging to consume the extra miles per hour necessary to safeguard against a double tragedy.

Every minute or two something more came out of those open bomb doors. Six men were, with calm desperation, pulling things loose that can’t come loose, but their lives were hanging in the balance and they didn’t intend to lose that contest. In the next hour everything imaginable came out, and slowly, quietly it became almost believable that stability had been achieved. The weight of its fuel load had been burning away also and the plane had gained back up to 50 feet of altitude. No one dared celebrate for there were two more hours of never being sure, but the landfall was made and the crew walked away from a crash landing in the surf of New Guinea.

On April 22, 1942, we took our B-26, the “Tactless Texan,” on a bombing raid to Rabaul but on the way had to land in Port Moresby with a burned out generator. As you know the prop pitch on a B-26 depends on electricity so we had to get a new one. Another plane crashed and it took us about 20 seconds to cannibalize its generator. We were on the wing of our B-27 changing it out when somebody yelled “air raid” which meant “there they are!” (We had no radar in those days.) I jumped off the wing and headed for a slit trench but failed to make it before a jagged piece of shrapnel screwed into my thigh and the war was over for me.

They took me up into the mountains above Port Moresby where a kindly Dutch doctor dug out the shrapnel. The United States sent in a plane to pick me up. It rolled to a stop at the end of the runway without turning off its engines, they loaded me aboard and took off immediately heading back to Australia.

Along with my airplane I lost most of the pictures I had taken along with my camera and other personal gear. After about a year in and out of hospitals I was assigned to the Performance Test Section at Wright Field near Dayton, Ohio, and spent the rest of war as a test pilot. This was a little safer than being shot at but only marginally so. There was a constant complement of 80 test pilots at all times and the turnover due to accidents was so great that I could not remember who was alive and who was dead among my fellow pilots. To give you a good idea of the mortality rate, Air Force aces Don Gentile and Richard Bong were both killed in the first jet aircraft experimental flights.

Promotions come rapidly during wartime and I went quickly from a 2nd Lieutenant to 1st Lieutenant, Captain, and finally Major and a senior pilot. Testing airplanes brought about flying and being qualified in a wide variety of aircraft. I eventually flew 52 different aircraft including the original research and testing of three versions of experimental Sikorsky helicopters. I am honored to be a member of the “Twirlybirds” helicopter pioneers organization.