On June 10th 1952 I crawled onto a crew bus at K-8 Korea for the ride to the Operations tent for my first mission with my new navigator. Captain Black, another B-26 pilot, was already on board and we discussed his mission status while on the way to the flight line.
It was to be his 50th and last mission at K-8 prior to his transfer to K-16 where he was to fly special classified missions. I noted that he had a letter in his hand and I asked who it was to. He said, "To my wife."
I kidded Reece about the number of crews lost on their last mission and asked him if he had plenty of insurance to solace his lonely widow. He said he just had the standard $10,000 policy and I said that wouldn't last the widow long. I told him I could just visualize his wife 10 years from tonight in a bar using the very last of her insurance and bemoaning the fact that her cheap husband did not do more for her welfare.
He and I were good friends who always gave the other a hard time, and I played this exchange to the hilt. As we got off the bus at operations Reece put his letter in the letter box and started to enter the building. He looked back at me and saw I also had a letter and said "Who's the letter to, Jim." I replied, "To Joyce." (My wife)
The bravest of the aircrewmen were the navigators and the gunners. The gunners were cooped up in their compartment for the entire mission with limited vision outside and dependent upon the conversations between pilot and navigator for knowledge of how the mission was progressing. The lives of the navigators and gunners were in the hands of the pilots all the way.
I always felt we lost as many crews to pilot error as we did to enemy action. Many of the mission attacks were conducted in the blankets of night with poor outside reference. Many of the evasive maneuvers were violent to avoid enemy gunners. With poor outside reference, many pilots were suckered into pressing the attack too low and flew into the terrain on the pullup. Some pilots flew into traps set for them.
We were Pintail 5 that night and Reece was Pintail 4, with a takeoff 5 minutes before mine. I was assigned the route Green 8 from Pyongyang south to Sariwon and Reece was to work Purple 3 from Pyangyang to Sinanju. My crew was navigator Lt. Bill Petree, and gunner Sgt Stan Brown. Our time in the area on G-8 had expired and Bill reminded me that we were due out of the area at 1:30. It had been an unproductive night and I made one last pass on a possible target before heading for home. I still had three 500 pound bombs in the belly and plenty of ammunition. As we climbed out to leave I caught a bright light out of the corner of my eye and turned around to get a good look at it.
I figured the Commies had us pretty well timed. They knew I was scheduled to leave and they were going to get in lots of movement before the next plane arrived on the route. I went back to get one more crack at them.
Bill Petree reminded me that we were supposed to be out of the area on our way home. I told him, "Don't worry, you're just along for the ride," and I moved around to get into position.
Sgt. Brown had a good look at the target through his gunsights and be said, "It looks like a sucker light, if you ask me." I said, "Nobody asked you, Sergeant."
Well, we started our pass and I was indicating about 435, just above the red line at 420. As I got down I could see that the light wasn't on the road after all.
It was about 300 feet off the road, but we were committed. The first burst came right into the cockpit and exploded behind us. I don't know how many hit us, but it seemed like a dozen. The cockpit filled up with smoke. The instrument panel on my side was destroyed. It knocked my headset off and cut the cord to my throat mike. Bill Petree was cut on the cheek. One burst hit solid on the left engine and stopped it immediately. It cut a bunch of stuff in the bomb bay and short circuited the flap motor and the flaps started going from full up to full down. It cut the landing gear cables and the gear fell down about 45 degrees into the trail position. We were just screwed.
After 3 or 4 minutes the flaps locked into position at about the 15 degree position, the engine fire is out, and we put takeoff power on the engine to head for Cho-do to bail out. Cho-do Island was about 45 or 50 miles away so we made our emergency calls and prepared to ride it out.
Reece did not hear my calls as he was departing the area and was giving his strike report to Control. Control told him to contact Pintail 5, who had a problem. He called me and I told him of our predicament. Since we had no instruments I needed help in finding Cho-do, as it was a very hazy night. He was very close to my position at that time, and in fact had watched with interest the response (flak) that my pass had precipitated. He told me later he thought every gun in Pyongyang must have been shooting at me. In his words, "Old Jim has those bastards pissed tonight". He turned on his landing lights and took up a heading for Cho-do.
Things settled down some and I heard this call on my radio. "Pintail 5".
I said, "This is Pintail 5, go ahead."
I recognized Reece's voice as he respondad, "Pintail 5, this is Pintail 4. Hey Jim, you mail that letter?" You can imagine my response to that. It consisted of a wide range of uncomplimentary comments questioning his parentage, his ancestors, personal hygiene, godliness, etc.
I have three bombs in the bay and I can't salvo then because of damage to the hydraulics. Well, we reached Cho-do, and I told the gunner to go ahead and bail out. He said, "OK, open the doors." and I tell him I can't because we've lost the hydraulics. I told him he would have to go out the side exit. He said he couldn't get out the emergency exit with his chute on because it was too small.
Now I'm going to have to be a hero. I'm going to have to put it down on the water because I know no one has made it out the top hatch. I told the gunner to get ready to ditch and he came back and said, "If you try to ditch it you'll kill us all. Don't worry about me." Imagine that statement in the cold light of day. Imagine the courage it took to say that.
He was right. You can't ditch a B-26, at least not on purpose. I told him I would slow the plane down so he could go out the top. I told him to go over the radio dome and beside the fin and off the horizontal stabilizer and I would give him 30 seconds to get out.
After 30 seconds I tried to jettison the canopy and it wouldn't jettison. The airplane is below single engine speed now at under 150 miles per hour. The clamshells opened up as though on the ground and Bill stood up to get out. On the way out he gets his dinghy caught on the runners of the hatch and he is caught. While I'm working to free him I have to take both hands off the controls and now the airplane is out of control. Finally Bill is free and I stand up to get out and then I got caught. Well, I did get free and pulled the ripcord and made about one swing and found myself down and sitting on a mountain top.
Well, I sat on that mountain all night wondering what had happened to my crew. In the morning I walked off the mountain, down the hill to the radar station and found that the crew was safe but that I was reported dead because the plane had exploded almost immediately after Bill had jumped. He thought I hadn't had to time to get out and had reported that he was the last to leave the plane.
Note: by James Willard Braly, 13th Bomb Squadron.