Giff Stowell of La Casa mobile home park in North Port, Fla. was a gunner on an A-20 Havoc twin-engine bomber in the Pacific during his first nine months of combat in World War II. The rest of the war he flew as the nose gunner in “Lucky Strike,” a B-24 “Liberator” in the 380th Bomb Group, 5th Air Force.
“I flew A-20s in the Philippines, but then transferred to B-24s to get more flying time in so I could get back home quicker,” the 80-year-old local man explained. “With the B-24s we started out in New Guinea, then we went to Mandora in February 1944 and from there our primary targets were in French Indo-China, Formosa, Vietnam, and then we bombed China and Borneo.”
The sergeant took the nose turret because he said he felt safer up front.
“When you flew over the target you could elevate your twin 50s and sink down behind your armor plate. And if your guns were nice and high you had a good view in all directions.”
It was 60 years ago, on Feb. 11, 1944, when Stowell flew his toughest mission during WW II as an upper turret gunner in an A-20 over Clark Air Force Base, Manila.
“We flew across the field on the deck. Several of our squadrons knocked out Japanese planes on the ground and other targets of opportunity,” he said. “After our first pass we stirred the enemy up like a bunch of fire ants. As we came around the second time over the target they were shooting at us with everything they had.”
Shortly after joining the 380th Bomb Group as a nose gunner on a B-24, Stowell made several raids on the Balikpapan oil fields in Borneo. Checking a battered green-covered log book he kept, the old aviator explained, “We flew the oil well run on June 19, 23, 25 and July 1, 1944. We came in at 10,000 feet and carpet bombed the area.”
Although the Army Air Corps pretty much controlled the skies by then, there was still a considerable amount of flak thrown at them from enemy anti-aircraft guns. It wasn’t a milk run for the 380th’s air crews.
At one point he saw action near Saigon. Their objective: the Bong Son railroad bridge over a river just outside the capital, now named Ho Chi Minh City today.
“Our skipper happened to be the squadron commander at the time,” Stowell said. “He told the squadron to form up and we’d be right back. We tried to skip one of our bombs into the bridge, but it didn’t work.
“We made four passes over the trestle bridge while the rest of our squadron was up above us. On one of these passes we came right down parallel with the tracks and dropped a bomb on the bridge, but it rolled over the side and exploded after it hit the water causing little damage.
“There were no enemy soldiers around the bridge. There was a Vietnamese guy with a water buffalo in a nearby rice paddy,” he said. “He never once turned and looked at us during the four passes we made over the bridge.
“They offered us a bottle of Scotch if we knocked out the bridge. It was one of the main enemy supply routes for the Saigon area. We never collected,” he recalled six decades later with a smile.”
On May 29, 1944 his squadron hit Keelung Harbor in Northern Formosa, a major Japanese supply base. It was a tough assignment because of the high mountains that surrounded the port city and made it like flying into a bowl for the B-24 crews of the 380th Bomb Group.
It was during these raids the enemy sent up fighters against them. However, they didn’t pose much of a threat since most of the enemy aircraft kept their distance from the heavily armed American four-engine bombers. By then, Stowell said, the Japanese had lost many of its best and bravest fighter pilots at the Battle of Midway.
Possibly the closest he came to death had nothing to do with aviation, but had everything to do with an excursion aboard a transport ship.
“We took a convoy out of San Jose, Mandura for our next destination. We were moving along in a convoy with a bunch of other ships in three separate rows when kamikazes attacked. A liberty ship that was one ship behind us in the next row had a bunch of B-25 guys aboard, they were also carrying aviation gas,” he said. “I was on the fantail when the liberty ship exploded after being hit by a kamikaze. What was left of the ship turned into a giant ball of fire. Then nothing!”
By war’s end Stowell, who was based in Okinawa, had enough points to return home. By then he was flying as replacement crew aboard any B-24 that needed an engineer. He had flown 29 combat missions and was awarded two Air Medals for his efforts at that point.
It was here he had a ringside seat for the Japanese preliminary surrender activities late in August 1945. Lt. Gen. Torasirou Kawabe, vice chief of the Japanese Army’s General Staff, flew into Ie Shima Island just off Okinawa to meet with his American counterpart prior to the official surrender aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Harbor on Sept. 2, 1945. Stowell was there.
A buddy of his took a plane full of “brass” and hopped over to Ie Shima Island. Stowell went along.
“We got over there to Ie Shima and as I remember we climbed up on the roof of a little shack to watch the goings-on. MacArthur (who was still in Manila) ordered that the guards on the tarmac when the enemy delegation arrived all be 6-feet, 6-inches tall. He wanted the Japanese, when they climbed out of their twin-engine ‘Betty’ bombers, to feel inferior walking between these big American soldiers,” he said.
An American delegation was waiting for them a short distance away under the wing of a C-54 transport plane with a preliminary surrender document for Gen. Kawabe to sign. After that the victorious and the vanquished flew to Manila to meet with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, in charge of the surrender ceremony aboard the battleship Missouri a week or so later.
Stowell was about to make the trip of a lifetime himself. He was headed home. After island hopping through the Pacific in a stripped down B-24 they landed in Sacramento, Calif. From there he and a couple of buddies took a train across the country to New York City playing pinochle all the way. He had seen the world, fought in a world war and he was only 21.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, April 4, 2004 and is republished with permission.
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