Jim Horner of Oyster Creek Subdivision in Englewood, Fla. was a second lieutenant and pilot of a B-24 “Liberator,” four-engine bomber who flew 46 combat missions in the Pacific during World War II as a member of the 320th Squadron, 90th Bomb Group, 5th Air Force.
His main enemy was not the Japanese, but the weather and the flying conditions when they took off and landed the bombers in crosswinds on short runways.
“By the time we arrived over there in mid-1944 the Marines and the Navy had already broken the back of the Japanese,” the 95-year-old local man said. “They still had a lot of planes, but they didn’t get very aggressive with us.
“I was 21 when I signed up for the Aviation Cadet Program in the Army Air Corps on July 9, 1941,” Horner recalled. “Nobody wanted to fly the B-24, everybody wanted to fly the B-17 “Flying Fortress,” it was sleek and glamorous. That’s what Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable flew in.’
Horner ended up flying a B-24. It carried a bigger bomb load than a B-17 and it could fly faster than a 17. He flew it in the Pacific were the combat missions were generally longer than in the European Theatre and they were mostly over water which made them even harder.
“When we finished our aviation training in Texas we flew to a field north of San Francisco. It was the departure field for people who were going to fly in the Pacific,” he said. “We were there a couple of weeks getting shots and having our records checked before we flew to Australia.
“We flew our lone bomber from California to Australia, it was quite a flight for a new crew. None of us had ever flown over a body of water bigger than a city lake,” Horner said. “It was a 15 1/2 hour flight from San Francisco to Hawaii and 14 of the 15 1/2 hours was over water. We saw nothing but sea below us for hours and hours.
“The Navy had navigation ships anchored every 700 miles along our flight path in the Pacific that helped us find our way to Hawaii. Every four hours the navigation ships would go on the air with their location. You could use your radio compass to triangulate where the ship was located. We hit Hawaii dead on.
“From Hawaii we flew the next day to a fuel stop that was a little island called Canton, another 1,200 miles away. The second leg of our journey was a much riskier flight because Canton was such an easy island to miss. If you did you could end up like Amelia Earhart and never be found. The following day we flew to Fiji and then on to New Caledonia after that. We finally reached Australia on day five.
Flying from Biak, off the northwest end of New Guinea, we flew our first combat mission during the last week of July 1944. Our target: A Japanese airfield on the northern Philippine Islands,” he said. “We couldn’t make it from Biak to the Philippines on the gas we carried on our B-24. We had to land and refuel on another chain of islands halfway there.
“We took off from Biak at 2 a.m. Marines had just taken the island where we refueled which was the halfway point. As the sun was coming up we set our B-24s down on a too short runway that had been cut out of the jungle for a fighter base by the Japanese and extended by the Marines to accommodate our bombers.
“As several of our crews were standing along the air strip a B-24 pilot attempted to set his plane down. He had landing gear problems when he got caught in a crosswind and crashed. The bombs the plane was carrying were ejected from the bomber and bounced down the runway ahead of the plane. They hadn’t been armed yet and didn’t explode.
“A short while later Marines drove up to our B-24s along the runway and started refueling them from 55-gallon drums of gas. We flew on and bombed the Japanese airfield on the north end of the Philippines and flew back to Biak,” Horner said. “This is probably one of our worst missions.
“I talked with some of the B-24 bomber crews that flew in Europe just before I left to come home. They told me they hadn’t seen any anti-aircraft guns like the Japanese had on Formosa. They were firing five-inch shells that would tear an airplane apart at 30,000 feet.”
By December 1944, just before Christmas, Horner had amassed enough points to go home. He needed 85 points and he had more than enough to take a slow boat back to the states. He flew three combat missions a week for most of the time he was in the Pacific.
“I went back to Biak and waited for the next ship to arrive. When it did the transport had room for 1,010 passengers and I was passenger 1,013, so I had to wait for the next ship,” he explained. “The problem was no one knew when the next ship would arrive.“
Then they heard that Gen. MacArthur’s personal B-24 was flying in from the States. His bomber was custom-fitted to the general’s taste and flown by a civilian crew on a weekly circuit connecting California with Australia and other nearby islands in the Pacific.
“The plane, flown by an American Airlines crew took four of us on the flight back to California. It had beautiful easy lounge chairs and we flew back to the states in style,” he said. “When we got back to San Francisco we saw a bunch of people getting off a ship. We learned the ship was the one we weren’t allowed to board at Biak three weeks earlier. We also learned they had sailed though a storm at sea, had a terrible time with a bunch of seasick passengers. We beat them home by a few hours flying. Our trip was perfect.”
After the war Horner went to work for Ford Motor Company in Michigan in the production control office. After 35 years with the company he retired in 1981. He and his first wife, Mary Ann, had three children: James, Ann and Cynthia. He remarried and his second wife, Genie, had a daughter, Georgina. The couple moved to Englewood in 1992.
Name: James Hartley Horner
D.O.B: 20 June 1921
Hometown: Hazel Park, Mich.
Currently: Englewood, Fla.
Entered Service: 9 July 1942
Discharged: 18 Sept. 1946
Unit: 320th Squadron, 90th Bomb Goup, 5th Air Force
Commendations: Philippine Liberation Ribbon w/`1 Bronze Star, Air Medal with 4 Bronze Stars, Asiati-Pacific Theater Ribbon w/2 Bronze Stars, Presidential Unit Ciotation, World War II Victory Medal
Battles/Campaigns: Pacific Theatre
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Oct. 31, 2016 and is republished with permission.
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