Five days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7, 1941, 2nd Lt. John Pickering graduated from the U.S. Army Aviation Cadet Program. He had his wings, but he wasn’t qualified to fly anything but an AT-6 trainer.
On Jan. 30, 1942, he arrived in Melbourne, Australia, and became a member of the 19th Bomb Group that eventually became part of the 5th Air Force. This was Capt. Colin Kelly’s outfit. Kelly received the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously for sinking the Japanese battleship Haruna off Luzon in the Philippines on Dec. 10, 1941. It was later determined it was not the Haruna, but a Japanese cruiser he destroyed.
Kelly and his group of B-17 “Flying Fortresses” were attached to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s forces. What was left of them were run out of the Philippines during the early part of the war. The unit arrived in Australia about the same time Pickering showed up and became a part of their group.
“On my first mission in a B-17 I flew as co-pilot with Capt. Hardisen. He put me in the pilot’s seat when we flew to the big Japanese base at Rabaul,” the 85-year-old Punta Gorda aviator recalled. “I’d never flown a B-17 before and Rabaul was one of the hottest spots in the world as far as enemy airplane were concerned.”
It was a nine-hour round trip from Horn Island, at the north end of Australia, to Rabaul and back. They flew every bomber available — six or eight B-17s — with no fighter support.
“The (Japanese) were waiting for us with Zeros (fighters) and anti-aircraft fire. We were flying B-17 Es. They were the first B-17s to have tail guns and the Japs didn’t know it,” Pickering explained. “They’d fly in behind us and ‘BANG!’ The Zeros were hit by our tail gunner and shot down.”
He recalls being attacked by a dozen or so enemy fighters over Rabaul on that first flight ever at the controls of a B-17. He and most of his buddies in the other bombers made it back to base that day, he said.
“Coming back, we had hydraulic trouble with one of our landing gears. We couldn’t get one wheel down so we had to crank it down by hand. It kinda collapsed when we were landing,” he said. “Nobody was hurt.”
A while later he was sent to pick up a new B-17 dubbed “Chief Seattle” by the residents of Seattle, Wash. where the four-engine bomber was built in the giant Boeing plant there. Instead of returning to the 19th Bomb Group with the new plane he was sent to the 64th Squadron, 43rd Bomb Group based near Darwin, Australia.
In April of 1943 Pickering and “Chief Seattle” along with three or four other B-17s were involved in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea flying out of Port Moresby, New Guinea. Their job was to bomb enemy shipping.
A couple of months later his father received this letter from headquarters:
“Headquarters Fifth Air Force
“Dear Mr. Pickering,
“Recently your son, Lt. John H. Pickering, was decorated with an Air Medal. It was an award made in recognition of courageous service to his combat organization, his fellow American airmen, his country, his home and you.
“He was cited for meritorious achievement by participating in an aerial fight over Kavieng Harbor, New Ireland.
“He was the member of a crew of a B-17 type aircraft on a night bombing mission against enemy shipping in the harbor. Despite intense anti-aircraft fire a successful bombing run was made and two direct hits were scored on a destroyer.
“Almost every hour of every day your son and the sons of other Americans are doing just such things as that here in the Southwest Pacific. Theirs is a very real and very tangible contribution to victory and peace.
“I would like to tell you how genuinely proud I am to have had men such as your son in my command. And how grateful I am to know that young Americans with such courage and resourcefulness are fighting our country’s battles against aggressor nations.
“You Mr. Pickering have every reason to share their pride and gratification.
“George C. Kenny
“Lt. General Commander”
After his first year of fighting in the Pacific, Pickering returned to the United States. By then his bomber had shot down four enemy aircraft and he had flown upwards of 40 combat missions.
“They didn’t keep track of the number of missions you flew, you’d receive a medal for the ships you sunk not the missions you flew,” he said. Pickering left the front with the Distinguished Flying Cross for valor and one Air Medal.
Initially he wound up in Pyote, Texas, flying in the 19th Bomb Group, the same outfit he was with in Australia when he first arrived. He was an instructor pilot who taught young aviators how to fly B-17s.
From there, he went on to B-29 flight training school and became an instructor in the much larger and more technically sophisticated long-range heavy bombers.
“It was altogether different flying the B-29 than the B-17 because they were pressurized for one thing,” he said. “They were starting to have electronics on B-29s like the electrically controlled machine guns.”
On one training flight in a B-29 in early August 1945 they heard the message on the radio the world had been waiting for.
“Hiroshima had been hit with an atomic bomb. A few days later it was VJ-Day (Victory Over Japan Day),” Pickering said with a smile almost 60 years later. “The next day I took my first day off in years and went to New Orleans to celebrate. It was a great place back then.”
After the Second World War he was transferred to the Air Transport Command where he learned to fly the C-74 “Globemaster #1,” the world’s largest airplane in those days.
On July 4, 1948 as a captain flying out of Brookley Field near Mobile, Ala. his commanding officer ordered the whole squadron to report to the flight line by 3 p.m.
“He told us we were flying to Frankfurt, Germany to be part of the ‘Berlin Air Lift,'” he said. “Two hours after we landed in Frankfurt we started carrying 100-pound bags of coal in the C-54 transports we were flying. We could fly in 20,000 pounds of coal a trip.”
The Soviet Union surrounded Berlin and closed it off to the West hoping to starve the inhabitants of Germany’s major city in capitulation. It didn’t happen because of Capt. Pickering and hundreds of other American military personnel just like him.
“We flew two trips a day to Berlin to bring food and whatever else was needed. There were flights arriving at the airport in Berlin every three minutes, around the clock, for months,” he said.
It was during this experience Pickering was recruited as a “Candy Bomber.” A pilot named Capt. Gail Halvorsen dreamed up a plan to drop candy bars from little parachutes to the beleaguered children of Berlin. As the transports flew in and out of the airport in Berlin they would chuck hundreds of candy bars attached to tiny parachutes out the back of the four-engine transports.
Their good deeds were reported in newspapers and over radios in the U.S. Thousands of Americans responded with more candy and more parachutes. Eventually they stopped parachuting the candy to the kids and delivered it by truck to schools in the Berlin area.
Pickering would go on to serve another 17 years in the Air Force. In the Korean War he transported troops to war and injured soldiers back to hospitals in Hawaii.
After that, he flew the embassy run from Washington, D.C. across the Middle East to Saudi Arabia, taking U.S. embassy officers and secret reports here, there and everywhere.
By 1955, he became chief of the Department of Defense’s Visitors Bureau at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. It was his job to greet senators and congressmen who came out to watch America’s latest atomic weapons explode in the desert.
He wrapped up 24 years in the service as a lieutenant colonel with more than 10,000 hours flying time. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1965 as Chief of Requirements for Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons at Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base, Va.
In 1982 Pickering and his wife, “Buzz,” purchased their home in the historic district of Punta Gorda, Fla. However, he considers himself a Floridian since December 1941 when he was sent to his first duty station, Morrison Field in West Palm Beach.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, June 27, 2004 and is republished with permission.
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