We got orders to go on the troop train in Tampa. We were going to the Pacific. I am a train “nut” anyway and was in the last car. There was a caboose on the back of the train for safety reasons. It had brake operation capability for the whole train. I kept looking at the caboose and finally stepped over to it. I climbed up in the cupola, the view house on top where I could see out. I rode there nearly all the time across the U.S. It was a great experience for me!
We went through a famous loop called the Tehachapi in California. It loops and goes under its own track. Then we went to Camp Stoneman on the Sacramento River. When the tide came in, it backed up that far and farther. We were processed out from there. We had to get shots and everything before we could go.
We were going to fly over in a B-24 bomber that had been converted into a passenger plane called a C-87 with wicker seats. There weren’t any commercial passenger planes then. We took off from Hamilton Field in California to Hawaii, which took 12 hours. We had 2 hours on land to clean up and get some breakfast, while they gassed up the plane and switched crews. We flew another 12 hours to Canton Island way out in the Pacific Ocean, then on to Guadalcanal. Then we flew westerly to a little tiny island called Biak, which is south of the equator. We had flown four 12-hour (on average) flights and we were worn out! We hadn’t been able to sleep much because those wicker seats weren’t the most comfortable things we ever sat in!
We had a few days to lie around and recuperate. Then we loaded on to C- 47s and flew from Biak, to the central part of New Guinea to Nadzab, which is as far out in “the sticks” as you can get, I believe. The people were very colorful and of great interest to us. They helped us get coconuts out of the trees. We had been trying to get the coconuts with a 45 automatic pistol, but it was hard to do.
At Nadzab, we had no planes and no squadron, just pilots and 4 master sergeants, who were highly experienced mechanics. A C-47 flew in to the coast to a place called Finschhafen and airplanes were brought in by cargo ships. An experienced crew put the planes together and did a fine job! Once they were assembled, we would take them for a test run to check for any problems. If they checked out ok, we just took them over to Nadzab.
At Nadzab, New Guinea one day we had about 20 planes in the air. We had been flying in small groups testing the world’s greatest fighter plane, the P51D. It was rated thus at that time and is still rated as such. We were doing aerobatics of every kind and enjoying every minute of it. Many of us did our show in formation such as two or more planes in a loop.
When we tired of having fun, a few of us headed for Lae on the coast; a very short distance. When we left, I had latched onto our C.O., Steve Wilherson’s wing and was flying as his wing man. He took off in a southerly direction over the mountains. We soon arrived at the southern coast and Steve turned and headed up the coast.
I was becoming a little concerned so I called him, “Steve, where are you going?” He answered, “Why, I am going to follow the coast to Lae and turn up to Nadzab.” Well, I’ll say this, Steve was one of the best navigators I ever saw, but he was heading the wrong way and on the wrong coast and disaster was what we faced. I said, “Steve, you are heading the wrong way and the worst wilderness I ever heard of is all we have ahead of us.” He looked at me like I was crazy and in a pretty huffy manner said, “Well, pal, which way would you go? Which heading would you take from here back to base?” I said I would take a heading of 31 degrees. He said, “Why that’s the other way!” I said, “Well, pal, you’re not kidding, it sure as hell is the other way and we’ve got just about enough fuel to get there! ” He said, “Ok, turn them around and you lead, but buddy, you sure as hell had better be right! ”
Well, I led us back over the mountains and soon I could see the Washam Valley covered with broken clouds. When we dipped down through the clouds there was our airfield about 10 miles ahead of us. Steve said, “Willie, you were right and you just saved my life and I’ll never forget it!” Well, I was going to keep my mouth shut about what happened, but after we landed, Steve told everyone in the squadron about it. Actually, I was very embarrassed to hear him say I had saved his life. What’s strange about this episode is the fact that I have remembered the heading as being 31 degrees all of these sixty years!
We had 35 planes and pilots in the squadron. There were a lot fewer planes early in the game in New Guinea. We flew to Wewak on the Northern coast of New Guinea, which was a Jap hold-out. There were other places around us that were enemy-held, but we had better planes and pilots than they did. The first landing in the invasion of the Philippines was on an island named Leyte in the Philippines. Troops secured the beaches and part of the land area so we could come in and land. They put out landing panels on the beach all hooked together to make a good landing area for us. The panels were about 6 feet wide and 20 feet long, made out of metal and hooked together. The airstrips were narrow and short, but we were able to take off, 2 planes at a time in formation, until we had a 16 plane configuration. The beach sloped to one side, but that didn’t bother us in our take-offs.