the gist

THE goods

O.C. Kemp

The Liberator

(Start slideshow at right.)  ‚ÄčOn the freezing plains of Kansas in early 1944, O.C. was introduced to the B-24 "Liberator," the workhorse bomber of WWII. It was an inelegant plane, dubbed the "flying boxcar" by the same men who loved her with unrestrained affection. She could do the job over the crowded cities of Europe or the emptiness of the Pacific. Her payload, range, and durability made her a lifeboat for the ten men inside. While training in Muroc, CA, in the Mojave Desert, O.C. met his crew, officered by co-pilot Norman Olson, navigator Fred Sperling, and Jack Berger, bombardier. They, along with six enlisted men, would serve together throughout the war. By late 1944, they found themselves in Hawaii, awaiting the refit of a new B-24L they would fly overseas... to where, they did not know.

Where is that?

(Start slideshow at right.) On January 1, 1945, O.C. and his crew crossed the International Date Line on their way to Angaur Island, Palau chain, at the bottom end of the Mariana Islands, home base of the 494th Bomb Group, their assigned unit. They had never heard of Angaur. No one had. It was a porkchop-shaped piece of coral just three miles square, but it was mostly flat and long enough for a heavy bomber runway. It would be their home for the next six months. On Angaur they were assigned to the 865th Squadron, one of four squadrons in the 494th, which shared Angaur with the 11th Bomb Group. There were 5000 men on a tiny island just 400 miles east of the Philippines -- their target for the next six months -- softening it up for MacArthur's promised return. The Japanese were dug into the 7000 islands in the Philippine archipelago, holding an entire country hostage. Crew 23A, as they were now known, would be part of 16- and 24-plane raids over the largest of the Philippine islands: Luzon, Mindanao, Negros, and Leyte, where they would face withering anti-aircraft fire and swarms of Oscar, Tony and Zero fighters.

The end game

(Start slideshow at right.)  MacArthur made good on his promise in late 1944, wading ashore on Leyte Island. By early 1945, the Philippines were again in Allied hands and we turned our attention northward to Iwo Jima, just 750 miles from Japan, within striking distance of the giant B-29s now fueling up in the Marianas Islands. Its work done in the Philippines, the 494th was transferred to newly-taken Okinawa, an actual part of Japan where the fiercest battles of the War had taken place. The prospects of an easy conquest of Japan were unrealistic: millions would die in vanquishing this insane, Medieval-minded foe. Older crews, having completed their 40 missions, gratefully went home. Replacement crews like 23A were left to face Japan itself, and it was predicted that a third of the planes flying over Japan would not return. They bombed Japanese-held areas of China and the southernmost Japanese islands and were witness to the horrifying beauty of the atom bomb cloud when they bombed Shikoku Island, just 20 miles across the strait from Nagasaki. And then, finally, the Japanese surrendered. Ceremonies held on the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay ended the hostilities and our boys began going home. By December 1945, O.C. was back in San Diego with his family, grateful to be alive when so many of his friends had perished in this terrible war.