‘Sky Queen’ almost shot down by German 88s
This interview first appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, March 5, 2006 and is republished with permission.
Learning to fly a Stearman PT-17 “Kaydet” fabric-covered, two-seat biplane at Carlstrom Field in Arcadia, Fla. in 1943 was a far cry from piloting a B-26 “Marauder” twin-engine attack bomber against a heavily fortified German bridge during the closing months of World War II.
It was Dec. 15, 1944, and 2nd Lt. Edward Ochen , who now lives in Venice, Fla.’s Pelican Pointe Golf and Country Club, was flying his 36th combat mission over Nazi-occupied Europe in a B-26 “Marauder” named “Sky Queen” with his five-man crew.
Altogether he flew 60 missions over enemy territory. By the end of the war he had six battle stars, for flying tactical air support in most of the major battles in Europe, and 13 Air Medals for the combat flights he made.
Ochen was in the 559th Squadron, 387th Bomb Group, 9th Air Force flying out of a base about 40 or 50 miles north of London. The 9th provided tactical air support for ground troops.
“Among other things, we cleared the way for Patton’s 3rd Army, but we didn’t get much credit for it,” the 82-year-old said. “We hit targets like tanks, bridges, ammunition depots and troop concentrations.”
It all began for him the year before when he became an aviation cadet and took primary flight training at Carlstrom Field.
“Arcadia was a cow town with hitching posts outside most of the businesses,” he said. “Each class had 200 cadets who spent two months learning to fly their Stearmans at Carlstrom if they didn’t wash out. There was a 50 percent washout rate.”
After eight hours of flight training, Ochen soloed and never looked back.
In May 1944, a couple of weeks before D-Day, he and his flight crew and the rest of the squadron arrived in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He flew his first combat mission on June 21, 1944, against German fortifications at Bois D’ Esquerdo, France, in support of Allied forces that had arrived on the continent two weeks earlier.
They called the B-26 “The Widow Maker” because it was a tough plane to fly. It was fast, carried eight, 500-pound bombs, was heavily armed with 11, .50-caliber machine guns and was very maneuverable. It was an easy plane to crash if the pilot wasn’t careful, thus the moniker.
Most of the time, Ochen said, “We flew between 10,000 and 14,000 feet. We were in ‘Flak Alley’ all the time. We were perfect targets for German 88 anti-aircraft gunners.”
They weren’t much bothered by German fighters. The ME-109s and the Focke-Wulf 190s wanted nothing to do with them because they could fly as fast as the enemy fighters and carried considerably more firepower.
“We usually flew in flights of six Marauders that had a total of 66 machine guns. We flew in formation with our wings 3 feet apart,” he said. “We could go up with a box of ‘Marauders’ consisting of three flights or 18 planes. Or we could take off with a group which was two boxes or 36 planes. If it was a really important target, three or four groups of more than 100 planes might attack an enemy position.”
It was one of those important targets on Dec. 15, 1944, Ochen will never forget. It was a key bridge Allied forces wanted to knock out near Ruthen, Germany.
“I was flying the lead plane on a pathfinder flight. American forces were getting ready to cross the Rhine River and we were to knock out the bridge at Ruthen to prevent German armored forces from crossing,” he said. “The bridge was heavily defended by German 88 anti-aircraft guns that were horrendous.
“We were flying at 13,000 feet. There was cloud cover at 10,000 feet, so we couldn’t see the target. We were making our approach on the bridge when we were hit by flak. It knocked out the junction box that controlled all the electronics and hydraulics.”
Ochen and the crew of “Sky Queen” weren’t able to complete their bomb run. They were forced to turn back in the face of almost impenetrable enemy anti-aircraft fire.
“The Germans were tracking us perfectly on their radar. Their radar picked off a lot of our planes that day,” he said. “It’s hard to fly a B-26 with no hydraulics. The co-pilot and I had to manhandle the plane.”
Because their “Marauder” was damaged, they had to drop out of formation on their return flight. They would have been easy pickings for enemy fighters if they hadn’t been over Allied occupied France when they were left on their own to find their own way home.
“We had no way to transfer fuel fast enough from tank to tank with a hand pump. So we knew there was no way we were going to make it back to base,” Ochen said. “I thought about putting the plane in the English Channel because we still had our bomb load on board. Then we got below the cloud cover and found a British fighter base on the way back to the channel.
“The plane was still loaded with bombs, so I asked the crew to bail out,” he said. “But they wanted to stay with me and the ship.
“The runway at the fighter base was 3,200 feet. That was much too short. A 38,000-pound B-26 needed a 4,500-foot runway. There was an 1,800-foot concrete runway and the rest was made of layered tar paper that light fighter planes could fly off of with no trouble,” he said.
“We shot off red flares that indicated we were going to make an emergency landing because our radio wasn’t operating. We had good visibility — three to five miles.
“We only had enough fuel to make one pass. By the time we flared out to set the plane down, we missed the concrete strip and tore the tar paper to pieces when we touched down. When we got to the end of the tar paper runway there was an irrigation ditch that was probably 8 feet wide and 6 feet deep full of water.
“On the far side of the ditch was a sugar beet field a farmer had just finished plowing. The plane floated over the ditch and wound up 300 feet into the beet field when the nose wheel collapsed and the Plexiglas nose cone popped out,” Ochen said.
“Moments before we landed I told the bombardier to move out of the nose (his normal position) and go sit in the navigator’s seat He was happy that he did. When the plane stopped we opened the hatches and the crew jumped out in a hurry. Only the tail gunner got a scratch on one arm. That was it.”
Their “Marauder” didn’t fare as well. The nose of the plane was badly damaged in the landing, the nose gear had crumpled and both props were folded under the wings. About the only thing salvageable were the two engines.
The British base commander wasn’t pleased that the American B-26 had torn up the runway, making it impossible for his fighters to take off and land until the damage was repaired. After destroying the Norton bomb sight aboard the “Marauder,” the crew of “Sky Queen” was ferried back to their base in England to fight another day.
He and his crew were back flying in a new “Marauder” eight days later, making more bombing runs over Germany. They would fly another 24 combat missions, until their last one over Holzminden, Germany, on April 4, 1945, about a month before VE-Day, the end of the fighting in Europe.
“We had nothing left to bomb,” Ochen said.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on XXX and is republished with permission.
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Two old aviators talk about learning to fly in a biplane trainer during WW II
This second interview appeared in print in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte on Monday, March 13, 2006 and is republished with permission.
He climbed onto the wing of the old, yellow biplane and peered into the front cockpit of the two-seater World War II trainer like he had just found an old friend after years and years.
Former 2nd Lt. Ed Ochen, of Venice, learned to fly in a PT-17 “Stearman Kaydet” at Carlstrom Field in Arcadia in 1943. He drove down to Gene Naples’ home in Englewood on Friday morning to checkout Naples’ restored Navy N3N biplane, a precursor to the Stearman. It looks almost identical to the untrained eye.
This is the plane featured in last Sunday’s “Our Town” section of the Sun. Naples spent the last 3 1/2 years rebuilding the plane and making it air worthy once more. Actually, he bought two N3Ns that were in less-than-great shape and turned them into one fine reconstructed airplane.
During World War II, Ochen eventually flew a B-26 “Martin Marauder” on 60 combat missions over Nazi-occupied Europe. He was in the 559th Squadron, 387th Bomb Group, of the 9th Air Force.
Naples never made it into combat during the war. However, he learned to fly in an N3N. World War II was over before he could get into combat. Even so, aviation has been his passion all his life.
So there they stood in Naples’ hanger beside his home located along Buckan Field on the north side of Englewood talking airplanes. The 82-year-old combat pilot was telling the 79-year-old airplane restorer about the war.
“Climb up there and take a look in the cockpit. It’s made of aluminum,” Naples told his new friend.
Ochen put his foot on a step stool and then onto the wing of the plane. As he stood there gaping into the cockpit, they talked about the biplane and what made it fly.
“As I recall they had a 12-gallon tank and they would fly for about two hours,” Ochen said.
“Not a Stearman. It had a J-5, 235-horsepower engine with a 43-gallon gas tank and would fly for 2 1/2 hours,” Naples replied.
“Maybe I’m wrong. It’s been so long,” the old bomber pilot said.
Naples explained that his N3N was a bit larger than the Stearman all around. Each wing was about 3 feet longer than a Stearman’s wing. The body was longer too, and the engine was larger. The N3N was built by the U.S. Navy in Philadelphia between 1938-1941 for $25,000 a plane. When Boeing came out with the Stearman, they sold it to the Navy for $9,000 a plane, so the government stopped building the N3N trainer and bought the Stearman.
“The Stearman was an easy plane to ground loop. Half our primary training class in Arcadia washed out because they ground looped the airplane,” Ochen said. “My instructor told me, “You’re not going to solo this airplane the way you land it.”
His instructor gave him one more chance to shape up. He told Ochen the two of them would take a ride the following Monday and see if he could land the trainer properly. He had the weekend to figure it out.
“My roommate was going up that afternoon and he knew I was having trouble landing the Stearman. He invited me to go up with him and practice shooting landings at an auxiliary airport near Carlstrom Field. He showed me how to land that airplane,” Ochen said.
“You gotta learn your engine in a Stearman. You have to steer it in to keep it from ground looping,” he told Naples.
The two old aviators talked about airplanes and flying way back when and how aviation has changed over the years.
“You should see what they’ve got now for flying on instruments. They don’t do anything. The instruments fly the airplane,” Ochen said.
“You have to be a technician today, a computer operator,” Naples added.
Naples offered to take Ochen for a spin in his shiny yellow flying machine. It was a magnificent day for flying a 60-year-old biplane with bright sun and just a little breeze.
Ochen declined because of his ears. He is almost deaf. He uses two state-of-the-art hearing aides. He told Naples he didn’t want to jeopardize what little hearing he had left. He was concerned the airplane’s engine might cause more hearing damage.
But that didn’t stop the ancient aviator from looking longingly at the bright yellow airplane sitting in the hanger and remembering how life was a long time ago when he didn’t have wrinkles.
‘Fact Sheet’ has lots of interesting information
This 3rd posting appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper on Thursday, March 23, 2006 and is republished with permission.
World War II
Several weeks ago, I interviewed Ed Ochen of Venice, who flew a B-26 “Marauder” attack bomber in World War II. He is active in the B-26 “Marauder” Historical Society, located in Tucson, Ariz., which produced a World War II Fact Sheet.
I thought the information on their Fact Sheet was interesting, and I believe you will, too:
* 38.8 percent, or 6,332,000, of U.S. servicemen and women were volunteers.
* 62.2 percent, or 11,535,500, were draftees.
* Of the 17,955,000 men examined for induction, 35.8 percent were rejected as physically or mentally unfit.
* Average duration of service: 33 months.
* Overseas service: 73 percent served overseas for an average of 16.2 months.
* Combat survivability: 8.6 men were killed out of 1,000 soldiers; three died from other causes; and 17.7 received non-mortal combat wounds.
* Non-combat jobs: 38.8 percent of the enlisted personnel had rear echelon assignments — administrative, technical, support or manual labor.
* Average base pay: enlisted men, $71.33 per month; officers, $203.50 per month.
U.S. Active Military Personnel 1939-1945
U.S. Armed Forces Killed and Wounded
Army & Air Force: 234,874
Coast Guard 274
Merchant Mariners 62
TOTAL WOUNDED: 671,278
Allied Prisoners of War
German Prisoners of War
Japanese Prisoners of War
Cost of War Per Nation (not adjusted for inflation)
United States: $288,000,000,000
Aircraft Production All Types
Peak (1944): 96,318
Peak (1944): 26,460
Peak (1944): 40,300
Peak (1944): 40,593
Peak (1944): 28,180
Military Aircraft Losses (1939-45)
United States: 59,296
Naval Losses (1939-45)
United States: 157
Merchant Ship Losses
United States: 866
Other Allies: 1,467
Tank Production All Types
United States: 60,973
* Robert Goralski: “World War II Almanac.”
* Arthur Enock: “This War Business.”
* Trade Division, Naval Staff, Admiralty, London
* Operations Navy, Division of Naval Intelligence