American B-25 bombers sink 3 Japanese carriers in Sasabo Harbor
Their mission: Sasebo, the Japanese naval base in Nagasaki Harbor. Their target three Japanese aircraft carriers. Capt. Jim McGrath was at he controls of “Luki-Bets,” named for his wife, Betty. It was a B-25 attack bomber similar to the ones Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle’s squadron flew off the carrier Hornet to bomb Japan six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“We dropped our flying torpedoes on the carriers, but we never did find out the results of our efforts during the war,” the 87-year-old former World War II Venice, Fla. aviator recalled. “It wasn’t until after the war we learned two of the three carriers were sitting on the bottom. They had been hit and were assumed they were hit by our torpedoes. “The third carrier was on the bottom half way to Nagasaki. The captain apparently thought he could get the carrier to the repair base at Nagasaki, but his ship went down in the channel.”
All the training paid off for McGrath and 18 other B-25 air crews he flew with. It was January 1944 and his squadron of B-25s was about to go to war. Then they were sent to Eglin Field in Florida’s Panhandle for special training to learn how to drop flying torpedoes.
“These torpedoes hung under the bottom of our airplanes. They had wings. When they hit the water the torpedo had a device that automatically blew the wings off, then it began operating as a torpedo,” he explained.
These were the “fish” his bomber squadron used a year later in the carrier attack at Sasebo that destroyed the three enemy aircraft carriers. When his unit, the 47th Squadron, 41st Bomb Group, 7th Air Force, landed on Okinawa U.S. Marines were still fighting to secure the island. The 82-day fight for the Japanese stronghold was the largest Pacific island battle involving U.S. forces in World War II.
“I was the squadron leader for the 12 B-25s that were accompanied by 72 P-47 fighters. We were all head for Okinawa,” he said. “When I called in the Okinawa tower I was told, ‘Standby, we’re under enemy aircraft attack!’ We kept on going and by the time we reached Okinawa the Japanese had flown off.”
A couple of days after reaching the Pacific island it wasn’t the Japanese that was worrying them, but a 100 mph typhoon that hit the island.
“That first typhoon wasn’t too bad. None of our bombers suffered any damage in the storm,” McGrath recalled. “It was the second typhoon with its 140 mph winds that damaged the tail assemblies of many of our planes.”
They hadn’t been on the island but a few days when they began bombing Kyushu, the southernmost Japanese main island. It was about 500 miles north of their base on Okinawa. Mostly their targets on Kyushu included: runways, railroad yards and docks.
“Our first bombing raid over Kyushu our target was a Japanese airfield. Providing cover for us was a bunch of P-51 fighters. I can’t recall how many fighters went with us,” he said. “We dropped our 500-pound bombs and shot up the place, but the Japanese didn’t put up much of a defense. We were all kinda disappointed there wan’t more enemy activity.”
It wasn’t the Japanese but the weather that caused McGrath and the other members of his B-25 squadron the greatest grief during the war.
“On another Kyushu raid our squadron ran into the tail end of a typhoon. We didn’t know the storm was there until it got dark and started raining like hell. Because of the storm the formation broke up over Kyushu and we all came back on our own,” he said. “One of our B-25s ditched in the water and 13 of the Corsair fighters accompanying us went in, too. Everyone of the crewmen and pilots was picked up by ‘Dumbo,’ a flying boat.
“When ‘Dumbo’ made a sea rescue of the downed B-25 crew it damaged its tail and couldn’t take off. So it picked up the stranded bomber crew that had been floating around in the sea for hours in one-man life rafts 100 miles north of Okinawa. Then the PBY (rescue plane) taxied the 100 miles on the sea all the way back to Le Shima Island, near Okinawa, at night with the rescued bomber crew,” McGrath said. “The story was written up in the Chicago Tribune as the longest taxi ride on record during World War II.
“I just made it back to Ie Shima Island on that fight. When I landed my B-25 its needles were on empty,” he said. “I was lucky.”
By the time Lt. Col. Paul Tibbits and his B-29 Super Fortress “Enola Gay,” dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima Aug. 6, 1945, McGrath and his squadron were ordered to fly to the Philippines. Halfway there they received a radio message commanding them to turn around and come back to Okinawa.
“They thought the Japanese would immediately surrender after we dropped the first atomic bomb. They didn’t, so were called back to Okinawa,” he said.
A few days later, when the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, McGrath was in the air flying patrols over Kyushu.
“They told us to stay 50 miles away from Nagasaki, but they didn’t tell us why or anything. While flying over Kyushu I could see the mushroom cloud from the second atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki.”
“On another flight a few days later over the southernmost Japanese home-island, one of the squadron’s B-25s developed engine trouble. It had to land in what had been enemy territory a day earlier. The bomber crew radioed back to base they had engine problems. They needed parts and a mechanic,” he said. “I flew the parts and a couple of crew chiefs up to them to work on the plane.
“While they were repairing the plane we went sightseeing. We went into the nearest town with our flight suits on carrying our .45 pistols in our shoulder holsters,” McGrath said. “We had no problems at all with the Japanese.”
For the next four months, after the Japanese signed the surrender document aboard the Battleship USS Missouri, he and his squadron cooled it on Okinawa. Then they took a slow boat to Seattle, Wash. in early December 1945. It didn’t make it back to the States until after Christmas. It took them no time to become civilians again and go on with the rest of their lives.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. in January 2004 and is republished with permission.
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