Becoming a Hellbird

098  Dick  Success Valley 1939BACKGROUND: The great depression years were long and hard. I had worked my way through private schools—then two years of college. Diary notes show many full days worked for 50 cents. Ranch-hand pay—dawn to dusk—one dollar per day. Not enough—had to work during school terms as well. Example—up at 3:30 AM, feed, clean and hand milk 30 cows, clean barn, all before morning classes.

I had always wanted to learn to fly. Now, 1943, war clouds were gathering. Germany had just invaded Poland. Applied for Flying Cadet training, Army Air Corps—accepted!

Dick as a Flight Cadet with a Ryan ST-16

Dick as a Flight Cadet with a Ryan ST-16

 Upon graduation, I sought overseas duty in Pursuit (Fighters). Fully expected this choice (during cadet training, had won silver medal in aerobatics competition sponsored by Life Magazine and Ryan School of Aeronautics). Instead, was assigned to Training Command, Kelly Field, Texas as a flight instructor.Ryan School Planes

Training Command was expanding rapidly—experienced flight instructors were soon fanned out to open new training centers. I went from Kelly with cadre to open training at Maxwell Field, Alabama (AT-6)—on to Turner Field, Georgia (AT-9). Was there when Japan attacked—we were at war. First reaction at Turner (a small training base—across ocean from enemy—well inland from coast)—keep two training aircraft (each with mounted 30 caliber machine gun) on alert from dawn to dusk—manned by instructor pilots “instantly ready to start engines, take off and engage attacking enemy aircraft.”

Had planned to get married later that month—applied for leave to do so—was called in to base commander’s office. Col. Patrick (old timer—great Commander) said, “Young man, don’t you know we’re at war? What’s this stupid talk about getting married?” When I answered, he said, “Son, marriage is a serious business and it can sure change a fellow’s life. While I’m out here on base, I’m top dog. When I say something, everyone listens—when I ask, things get done. When I go home in the evening, I have a wife, a dog, two cats and a canary bird—I rank right behind that canary bird.”

Marge & Dick

Margie Clark Randolph and Dick Randolph – Just Married!

When I still seemed determined, he said, “How old are you?” I told him. “You know what’s the right age to get married? About 65. Then if you get a good one, you’ll know she was worth waiting for, and if you get a bad one, you won’t have to live with her so long.” In the end, he gave me three days to drive 150 miles, get married and get back to work.

Not long after, I was assigned to Hendricks Field, Florida, for four engine (B-17) training— hoped to move on to a combat unit. Instead, I was assigned as flight instructor at Hendricks, then training squadron commander. I sought every opportunity for combat assignment—always turned down for reason of urgent need for experienced training personnel.

Finally, summer 1943, base Commander (Col. Carl B. McDaniel—a top CO) announced that requests for combat assignment would be considered—priority to those with longest time at Hendricks. My name high on list—held rank of Major at the time. Immediately requested transfer to new organization (58th Bomb Wing) being formed in Kansas—to be equipped with Boeing’s new Superfortress, the B-29. Orders came—report to 462nd Bomb Group, Walker Army Air Field (WAAF), Kansas.

Walker AAF, Kansas

Walker AAF, Kansas

Arrived in Russell, Kansas early November. No on-base quarters—found apartment in downtown Russell (a small, friendly town—many residents of German decent—all very patriotic to America). Especially remember the movie theater—for cheap admission, we could see two feature movies, Fox news, a cartoon and special features. Walker Field was just a five mile drive from town.

NOW A HELLBIRD (name actually came later): Mid-November—checked in at Group HQ—assigned as aircraft commander, 770th squadron. Felt proud to be with the 462nd. Commander, Col. Richard Carmichel—West Point grad—leader of B-17 flight which arrived over Pearl Harbor the morning Japanese attacked—esteemed commander of B-17 Group opposing Japanese advances in the south Pacific. Deputy Commander, Lt. Col. Alfred Kalberer—over 20,000 flying hours—early mail route flyer—pilot for several airlines—flew B-24s in North Africa—led first raid against Ploesti—one of only four aircraft to make it safely back to home base.

Boeing B-29 Superfortress

Boeing B-29 Superfortress

Squadrons had just two B-29s each (most of time in maintenance hangers)—training was primarily in B-17s (an old friend—had over 1,000 hours in this bird). Crews were from two sources—those who had completed B-17 combat tours in Pacific and those with instructor experience at 4-engine flight schools. Plenty of B-17s assigned—but maintenance poor. Air mechanics were training for B-29s—not much inspired to work on those old
B-17s. I felt fortunate with enough B-17 experience to distinguish those maintenance defects which posed serious threat from those which could be tolerated.

Our Squadron Commander, Lt. Col. Sullivan, had already experienced a harrowing B-29 flight. Number 3 engine had failed—propeller “ran away” (sped to extreme rpm)—shaft heated to white-hot, then broke loose. Propeller jumped forward, then spun back into wing and fuselage, knocking plane out of control. Luckily, crew able to bail out.

On formation training flights (B-17s), it was easy to spot training school instructor pilots—we flew in tight formation (easier to hold position). On first night cross-country, I flew on right wing of leader. Each change of course to right, leader made left turn all way around to new heading. Upon landing, I asked leader about this. His answer, “You were flying so close—no way was I going to turn into you.”

After a few weeks, a B-29 came out of maintenance and I got orientation flight with instructor pilot—made a couple landings. Some days after that, was in the operations room—evening—other pilots gone home—operations officer came in and said a B-29 had become available—would I like a night training mission over Potawatomy bomb range? I was delighted.

The mission did not go well. At bombing altitude of 20,000 feet, normal engine and cowl settings, aircraft would not maintain flight speed with bomb doors open. In order to make bomb run, would have to climb above 20,000, then descend and level off at proper speed to drop bomb. After doing this for a couple hours, number 2 engine failed. Returned to base—engine feathered—my first B-29 night landing.

Dick in the Pilot's Seat

Dick in the Pilot’s Seat

Next day, discussed experience with Col. Kalberer (Kal). He told me that B-29 was underpowered—necessary to use higher than normal engine settings to get expected performance—just do it. He seemed to respect my interest in learning all I could about the B-29. Invited me to go along on his next flight—he would demonstrate some of plane’s characteristics. That was start of a friendship which grew close—lasted throughout our military years—on into retirement—until Kal passed away.

Winter weather in Kansas was far different from sunny Florida. One morning it was snowing when I headed by car to the air base. Didn’t seem so bad while in built-up area, but on highway to base, a real blizzard was blowing. Crept along about ten m.p.h. staring to keep sight of white dividing line. Fortunately, almost no traffic. Was concerned about being late to work. But on finally making it to squadron operations, no one was there. I was the only one crazy enough to be out in the blizzard.

One winter day the Group weather officer, Lt. Doyle announced to staff that a major storm was heading in—WAAF to be weathered in for full week. Col. Charmichael was concerned—important to keep flight training on schedule. He directed squadrons to disperse to other bases around country where weather was favorable—fly training missions from there. But what happened? Storm bypassed Kansas. Other bases where our crews went had bad weather. Many of our B-17s were grounded because of poor maintenance condition. No training missions that week. Getting squadrons reassembled at WAAF was a mess. Weather officer gained name, “Foggy Doyle.”

Another weather anecdote. Late one night, was returning to WAAF and called tower for landing clearance. Tower said, “Cleared for landing—weather clear, ceiling unlimited.” I commented they better wake up weather officer and have him look out the window—I was coming in at 1,000 feet in heavy cloud cover. Silence for a couple minutes, then “Cleared for instrument landing—visibility 1/2 mile—ceiling 200 feet.”

As winter moved on, we began receiving a few more B-29s—more of our training shifted to them. I recall a cross-country—afternoon take off—return at night. Flew through a front with heavy thunderstorms—lightning struck plane’s left wing. No significant damage—knocked out running lights and magnetic compass. The BANG did startle crew—but damage being small, confidence in B-29 was strengthened.

At Walker, we were a young bunch—aware of going off to war—loved to party. When party was scheduled at Officer’s Club, costs were billed in advance. After each party we received another bill—for cost of repairs to Club. Second billing always more than first…

tail_gunThe B-29 was not just an upgrade, it was a truly new combat aircraft—first with pressurized cabin—new engines—new wing design—new electronic gunsights (which remotely controlled turrets)—new radar system. Air and ground crews needed great deal of training—past experience and old training methods not enough. Example: Gunners were not sent to regular air gunnery training schools—instead, to special course for electronic gunsight training. My gunners were fine young fellows, but seemed unaccustomed to real guns. Took them skeet shooting (I was no expert, usually bagged 20-22 birds out of 25)—they bagged 2-4 at best. They had never fired an airborne shot. During Kansas training, gunners had only two occasions to fire their B-29 turrets—at stationary objects on a prairie firing range as we flew by—a far cry from taking on enemy fighter attacks. Radar operators did not join crews until we were in India.

As we worked through early months of 1944, flood gates finally opened—B-29s began arriving in meaningful numbers—enough so every crew was assigned its own aircraft.

Boeing B-29 Assembly Line

Boeing B-29 Assembly Line

Crews were hoping for a heavy training schedule to get familiar with their B-29s—shoot some landings, fire guns, drop practice bombs and even navigate a bit. But soon all B-29s were grounded and a hoard of Boeing maintenance technicians invaded the flight line—swarming over our aircraft like a frenzy of ants. Were told they were performing over 100 modifications on each plane. Nothing to do—just wait and wonder. But the day came when they disappeared as quickly as they had come. We had our planes back!

My crew and I climbed aboard for a training flight. Don’t remember what I expected when entering the aircraft, but was shocked. The maintenance people had left so quickly, they had not cleaned up from their work. (Not said to find fault—it was war time—work was fast—get it done and move on—lots of other priorities to attend to). Floors were a-mess with wire clippings, splashes of solder, sheet metal clippings, discarded nuts bolts and screws, lots of curled metal drillings, etc. We cleaned up a bit, then cranked up engines and started taxi to runway. As usual procedure, I tested emergency brakes. Surprise! Right brake controlled left wheels and left brake the right. Carefully returned to our park space on ramp. Watched while maintenance crew uncrossed brake lines to proper position. Proceeded with flight—crew extra careful with every procedure.

More importantly, we were truly grateful for every modification. These beautiful new planes had been rushed into service without normal testing procedures—faults slipped through which otherwise would have been corrected. Boeing did a masterful job building and delivering B-29s under difficult circumstances and high pressure time schedules.

Walker Army Airfield, Kansas

Walker Army Airfield, Kansas

Many other modifications followed—some while en route overseas—many more throughout first six months of operations. By then our aircraft were quite reliable, high performing and effective. Just ask the Japanese who felt their wrath—they called B-29s “Birds from Hell.”

All-in-all, the training period in Kansas—November till early April—was not as normally hoped for in preparing units for combat. Air crews had minimal flight hours in their new aircraft—much left to be learned. But it was wartime—the mission urgent. All involved had done their best. We were a cocky, self-assured bunch—eager to ride our armored, winged steeds into battle.