‘Lil’ Hiawatha ‘ barely survived the mission – Capt. Al Miller flew shotgun on a B-24

NOTE: I received this story from Thelma Miller of Venice,Fla., widow of Al Miller Jr., who flew as a copilot aboard the B-24 “Liberator” bomber in the Pacific during World War II. He wrote the story before he died two years ago. Miller flew 30 combat missions including: the Marshall Islands, Maloelap Kwajalein, Eniwetok, Truk and Kusai. He also bombed and photographed Guam during the invasion. The couple retired to Venice in 1981. — Don Moore

By Alexander J. Miller Jr.
Special to the Sun

We left Hawaii and went into combat in a new B-24J. I was flying right seat (copilot) with Larry Crowell (as pilot). We stopped at Johnston Island on our way to Funafuti in the Ellice Islands.

Our first mission was to Wotje in the Marshall Islands, staging through Tarawa. It had just been taken in one of the bloodiest battles our forces were engaged in.

This being our first mission, we weren’t flying the nice, new B-24J we arrived in, but a beat-up old dog named “Lil’ Hiawatha .” On our way to the Tarawa we encountered a front. All planes spread out and went on instruments to penetrate the front.

We had just resumed course when our number-two engine went out. We lost all but our basic instruments — needle, ball and air-speed indicator.

We flew for two hours in violent weather that caused the crew to strap themselves in or be tossed around. Both Larry and I took turns flying the gauges.

As we flew out of the storm, low on the horizon was Tarawa. After landing, the flight crew worked over the number-two engine and got it fixed, or so we thought.

We took off and flew up “The Slot,” the 120-mile stretch between the Ralak and Radak chain of islands in the Marshall group. As we approached the target the number-two engine quit again. We made the bomb run on three engines picking up a few flak holes from anti-aircraft fire.

On the way home, a few Japanese Zeros took pot-shots at us, but they didn’t seem too eager to close and broke off at 300 to 400 yards. It was exciting to hear our 50-caliber machine guns hammering away. This war was not so bad, it was kinda fun. The next mission changed our minds about war.

After landing at Funafuti, we gave our mechanic hell about the faulty engine. He discovered the problem was a faulty coil and fixed it for good.

Our orders for the next mission read, “The 431st Squadron, 11th Bomb Group, 20th Air Force, shall launch a maximum effort strike against Maloelap in the Marshall Islands.”

A “maximum effort” for us meant getting nine B-24s in the air, flying up “The Slot” four and a half hours, getting our bombs on target and fighting our way out. Of course, there would be no fighter escort on this mission or any other.

We flew out of Tarawa once more toward Maloelap. As we flew between Jaluit and Milli we saw in the distance a Japanese reconnaissance plane monitoring our flight. So much for the element of surprise.

We climbed to 20,000 feet, though we normally bombed from 10,000 feet. As we neared our target, I saw what appeared to be a swarm of gnats — enemy fighters!

We were engaged over the target by 40 to 50 Japanese fighters. They followed us out of the target. While some of the fighters moved ahead dropping phosphorous bombs (air bursts), others lined up off to our left and right, moving over us, split S-ing out of the sun right through our formation.

Most of the bombers had sustained flak damage in addition to machine gun and cannon fire from the fighters. A B-24 named MacArthur had taken a bad hit. It was losing gas from a ruptured fuel tank causing a white mist off the trailing edge of the wind.

Larry was flying the controls and I was flying the throttles. This was a system we worked out to minimize fatigue.

As I watched the lead bomber a 20 mm explosive cannon shell hit a foot ahead of the waist window. It hit the waist gunner in the throat and knocked out everyone in the rear of the plane.

I called MacArthur and told them about the casualties in the rear of their plane. About that time, MacArthur called back and told us we had better back off because of their ruptured gas tank. As we backed off 100 yards there was a tremendous explosion! The blast almost flipped us over. MacArthur, 30 tons of plane and 11 men ceased to exist.

This was 2nd Lt. Al Miller shortly after graduating fro aviation cadet training during World War II. He flew 30 missions in a B-24 in the Pacific Theater of Operations. Photo provided by Thelma Miller

This was 2nd Lt. Al Miller shortly after graduating fro aviation cadet training during World War II. He flew 30 missions in a B-24 in the Pacific Theater of Operations. Photo provided by Thelma Miller

We closed the gap where MacArthur had been so there were no gaps in the formation. The Japanese worked us over with renewed vigor.

We took numerous hits. Our in-board right fuel tank was ruptured; we feathered the number-three engine to prevent the leaking fuel from igniting as it flowed over the white-hot turbo-chargers. We also took a hit from a 20 mm that severed all our hydraulic lines and knocked out our radio equipment.

Johnny Nettles, our navigator, was lying in a pool of blood. Red Weinstein, the bombardier, was hit. While I was flying the throttles, a .30-caliber hit the shaft on which the throttles pivoted. It caused both port engines to lose power and the starboard engine to accelerate.

As the power was reduced, our plane stalled and fell off on the right wing at 11,000 feet. Larry and I were fighting frantically to get the nose down. We fell a mile or so before we realized the plane wasn’t going to respond.

As we passed through 5,000 feet, I saw the look in Larry’s eyes. He knew we would be dead in less than 60 seconds!

By sheer strength, I was able to reduce power on the runaway engine. At the same time, Larry managed to increase power on the port engines. The combination worked and the nose came down. We pulled the B-24 out of the dive at 1,000 feet.

We had literally fallen out of the fight. But we were a long way from being out of trouble.

Our wounded navigator was lying on the deck. Looking around all we saw was water and Johnny, our navigator, had no idea where we were and was in no condition to try and locate us.

We decided to fly south because Tarawa lie somewhere south. After a half hour, we spotted an island which appeared deserted. We circled it and asked if anyone wanted to bail out. We had no takers.

At that point, we decided to fly south for another 15 minutes to see if we saw anything. Someone spotted a plane in the distance, which we tried to follow, but because of our slow speed it was soon out of sight.

We continued on this course. It was agreed, when we exhausted our fuel we’d ditch in the sea. Another 10 minutes of flying raised an island on the horizon. It was Tarawa!

We weren’t home-free. We were flying on three engines, spewing 100-plus octane gas. The plane reeked with aromatic fuel fumes. A single spark would turn us into a Roman candle.

We fired a red and white flare indicating plane in trouble, injured aboard. We prepared two parachutes to be popped out the waist windows when the plane touched down. We cut all switches.

Larry did a superb job of setting “Lil’ Hiawatha ” down. We both got the wheel back as far as we could. As we neared the end of the runway, we jumped on the right brake. The plane ground-looped to the right, the landing gear gave way and the wing dug into the coral. We stopped, 150 yards from the mined beach.

Al Miller owned a construction company in Hammond, Ind. He and his wife, Thelma, had nine children, four boys and five girls. Photo provided by Thelma Miller

Al Miller owned a construction company in Hammond, Ind. He and his wife, Thelma, had nine children, four boys and five girls. Photo provided by Thelma Miller

It was a bad day for the 431st. Three planes lost, 21 men dead, three men wounded and every plane, except one, needed extensive repairs.

As for the Japanese, they paid a heavy price, too. They lost five planes, two of which were shot down by Sgt. Jake Lewis and William Neill, both from our crew, seven more enemy planes were listed as probable and eight more were damaged.

The 431st Bomb Squadron licked its wounds and prepared for another day.

His commendations

Capt. Alexander J. Miller Jr. received two Distinguished Flying Crosses and four Air Medals.

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, June 19, 2005 and is republished with permission.

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