Pappy Gunn, Wild Flying, Buccaneer Pilot Genius of the 5th Air Force

By John Dudek 30 Sep 2013 0

In the dark and tragic early days of the Pacific War immediately following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, there was little, if any good news to gladden the hearts of most Americans. The nation?s fortunes had reached an all-time low nadir, especially in the Pacific Theatre of Operations.  By early 1942, US tenure in the Philippine Islands was clearly reaching an end.  American air power there had been largely caught on the ground and utterly destroyed by the invading aircraft of the Japanese Empire.  What few US Naval ships there were remaining there had quickly vacated the area to defend the Dutch East Indies. USAFFE troops on Luzon were pulling back into the Bataan Peninsula in order to make a tragic last ditch last stand there.  Stark and sorrowful military defeat seemed to be the only common issue of the day among the Allied powers as all seemed dark and bleak.

Paul Irving Gunn was a hell-raising, ?alpha-male? maverick-warrior type who?d enlisted in the navy in the early 1920?s to learn how to fly aircraft.  He flew bi-planes off the old aircraft carrier USS Saratoga when she was still comparatively new.  In doing so he learned practically everything inside and out of the book about aerial fighting tactics, plus the maintenance and care of aircraft.  He was a naturally-born, tireless and highly gifted mechanic and pilot who could teach aircraft engineers a thing or two about their trade.

Gunn eventually left the Navy and married a fine lady.  They had a number of children throughout the early 1930?s and moved to the Philippine Islands where Gunn helped establish the first civilian airlines there, and was one of its primary pilots and chief mechanics.  Through his growing air line pilot experience he was soon able to learn and commit to memory the territorial map features of most of the Philippine Islands, and those of the Dutch East Indies.  This would prove to be priceless information in the coming days of the war. 

When Pearl Harbor was attacked on 7 December, 1941, Gunn was still flying civilian transport aircraft.  Soon after General MacArthur?s Far East Air Force was largely caught and destroyed on the ground by the Japanese, Gunn was returned to the service as an Army Air Corps Captain.  He was soon flying important military officials out of Luzon to the Island of Mindanao for evacuation.  Gunn was one of the few pilots talented enough to usually avoid, or outmaneuver Japanese warplanes while flying slower, unarmed civilian aircraft.  He commonly used graveyards on Luzon as expedient landing strips to land on, in order to avoid the patrolling and strafing Japanese aircraft who normally gathered above the remaining US military airfields.

In late December 1941, orders were given to evacuate all remaining US bombers and their air crews from Luzon to the comparative safety of Australia.  Gunn carried a number of these experienced pilots and crews through the Japanese air and naval blockade to safety in Australia aboard his overloaded transport airliner.  On his return trips he carried supplies of medicine into Bataan and Mindanao.  On one such mission, Gunn flew in replacement parts for a battle damaged B-17 bomber that was grounded at Del Monte, Mindanao.  After three days of intensive, round the clock field repairs Gunn was able to fly the bomber all the way back to Australia, with the plane loaded with yet more refugee pilots and aircrews.

 It was soon found that there was a decided lack of aircraft mechanics in Australia who could assemble the crated-up US fighters and medium bombers now arriving on the docks of Melbourne, so Gunn volunteered for that role.  He quickly organized assembly crews from the many refugee mechanics he?d personally flown out of the Philippines to assemble the new aircraft, and to repair others that had crashed or cracked-up during take offs or landings.  The seemingly tireless Gunn had many jobs and wore many hats during these hectic early days of the Pacific War.  With his many years experience of flying over the islands of the south Pacific he was ordered to fly the lead plane and navigate for a formation of US P-40 fighter planes flying from Darwin Australia to the island of Java in the Dutch East Indies.  While on Java, Gunn briefly tried his hand at being a fighter pilot by ?borrowing? a Dutch Brewster Buffalo fighter against the Japanese and was quickly shot down as a result.  He survived the crash unhurt, but the many days of trying to find his way back to the airfield through thick jungle temporarily turned his hair white.

At the same time Gunn?s wife and family were placed into a Japanese Civilian Internment Camp in Manila PI. Gunn?s wife told the interrogating Japanese that her husband had been killed in the early days of the war to avoid any possible reprisals against her or her children.

Many of the new, unassembled aircraft that Gunn?s mechanic crews worked on were found to be missing extremely key component parts, so Gunn, being the unorthodox sort of guy he was, started paying personal visits to local, civilian, Australian tool and die workshops.  What he couldn?t arrange to be designed, built and delivered through the warmth of his engaging personality, plus a few kind words, a few pints of beer and shots of whiskey, he would do so at the drawn end of the .45 caliber automatic pistol he always carried.  The newly arrived aircraft were soon fully assembled and sent to the front, with Gunn oftentimes flying the lead plane in order to safely navigate and guide the inexperienced pilots to their final destinations. Gunn repeated this task with many new squadrons of fighter planes sent to the north of Australia.

In the meantime, the Allied forces in the South Pacific were still taking a hellish and seemingly unending pounding from the invading Japanese throughout early 1942.  Rabaul and the entire Solomon Island?s chain fell to them.  New Guinea was invaded and the Japanese stood upon Australia?s own front door step, poised to strike further.  The Australian town of Darwin was bombed on several occasions and all seemed bleak.  What was worse, Allied bombers and their tactics seemed unable to counter, halt, or even slow down the Japanese aerial and naval invaders.

Gunn seemed to have a natural affiliation towards the new B-25 Mitchell medium bombers now arriving for the first time in Australia.  He instinctively knew and respected their aerodynamics and enjoyed flying them while making performance runs, much like a jockey riding a fine race horse.  Gunn soon flew his first combat mission at the controls of a B-25 in one of the last and most destructively effective US bomber missions over Luzon at the time, the Royce Mission in April, 1942.  Ten B-25?s and three B-17?s flew from Darwin Australia to Del Monte, Mindanao, where their planes were quickly dispersed to auxiliary airfields to avoid Japanese aerial detection.  For the next two days, American bombers blasted the docks and harbor facilities of Japanese occupied Cebu and Davao, sinking one Japanese transport ship and perhaps two others.  They also bombed Nichols Airfield on Luzon and were credited with the shooting down of three Japanese aircraft for the loss of only one B-17.  The rest of the US aircraft soon returned safely to Australia packed with even more evacuee pilots, crews and mechanics.

The new B-25 medium bombers were fast, although modestly armed.  They could carry a fair sized bomb load but their range didn?t allow them to fly missions to bomb the important, far off Japanese bases like Rabaul, New Britain from their airfields on New Guinea.  From what Gunn could delve from reading combat reports, the new bombers had only a so-so record of accuracy in bombing Japanese land and naval targets from medium altitudes.  Gunn quickly sought to change all of that.

Pappy nearly doubled the range of the B-25 by removing the plane's lower gun turret in favor of installing a huge disposable fuel tank in its place that could be quickly discarded through the open hole in the bottom of the plane as soon as it emptied. This meant that B-25's could now easily reach and bomb the major Japanese targets without worrying about having enough fuel for the round trip.

Knowing it was sheer folly to bomb rapidly moving naval targets from higher altitudes, Gunn naturally began looking for a way for the B-25?s to be better utilized at much lower attack altitudes, if not right on the deck itself.  The only problem was the B-25?s machine gun armament needed to disrupt the Japanese ship?s anti-aircraft gunners.  B-25?s carried but a single .50 caliber machinegun in the plane?s nose compartment.  Gunn began mentally designing mounts for four, forward firing .50 caliber machine guns in the bomber?s nose, plus an additional four machine guns to be mounted in ?cheek positions? of the fuselage, located immediately behind the pilot and co-pilot?s positions.  With the additional punch of the plane?s upper gun turret pointed forward, this gave the B-25 a total of 10 forward firing .50 caliber machineguns - an utterly devastating destructive punch of offensive firepower. Gunn had already successfully converted a large number of A-20 light bombers into ?gunships? in this same manner, but with far fewer machineguns because of tolerance limitations in the lighter plane?s design. The B-25?s bombardier position was eliminated and his duties were taken over by the bomber?s pilot.  Gunn had an experimental B-25 bomber converted with its glassed nose faired-over and the radically large number of forward firing machine guns mounted inside.  He took the plane for its first performance test flight and quickly found all of the additional machine guns and ammunition did not appreciably affect the bomber?s overall performance characteristics.

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Gunn, now called ?Pappy? because of his advanced age by the comparatively younger men of the 3rd Bomb Group, learned that two dozen lend lease B-25 bombers meant for the Dutch were sitting on an airfield without crews.  Gunn came into Lt. Col. John Davies office and grinned: "Johnny, there's a couple dozen B-25s at Batchelor Field in Melbourne."

Davies was surprised and asked his executive officer if he?d heard anything. The exec shook his head. He had not heard of any aircraft reaching Australia for consignment to the 3rd Bomb Group. Davies then turned to Gunn with a questioning frown.

"They aren't exactly ours," Gunn said. "I think they've been allocated to the Dutch Air Force, but from what I hear they'll never use them because they have no pilots left. The planes are just sitting there, and we've got a war to fight. Why don't we go down and get them?"

Davies grinned. "You mean steal them?"

"They said our planes were on the way," Gunn shrugged. "Who's to say those Mitchells aren't ours?" He leaned close to Davies. "Go see General Eubank; he's a friend of yours. Tell him your planes are at Batchelor Field and you'd like an authorization to pick them up.?

"You're crazy, Pappy," Davies said.   Gunn continued. "All I know is those Aussies could sure use aerial help up in New Guinea. We could give them plenty with 24 Mitchell bombers." Davies flew immediately to see General Eugene Eubank who had been a Philippines acquaintance of his. Eubank welcomed Davies' visit until he learned the colonel's mission.

"If you give me an authorization," Davies said, "I'll take a load of pilots down there to pick up the planes. Gunn says he can have them ready for combat right away."

"If I'm not mistaken," Eubank said, "those Mitchells are consigned to the Dutch."

"They said our planes were on the way," Davies said. "It wouldn't be your fault if we picked up the wrong planes; especially if we mistook those B-25's for the planes Washington promised us."

Eubank pursed his lips. "I don't know; that wouldn't be by the book."

"When did we start going by the book?" Davies asked, as he leaned closer to the general. "We could do an awful lot of damage up in New Guinea with those ships."

Eubank grinned. "What've we got to lose except our necks, and we won't have those anyway if those Nips keep coming on the way they are."

After the 3rd Group commander got the authorization, he flew quickly back to Charters Towers. He rounded up 24 pilots, including himself and Pappy Gunn. When the mail plane landed, his airmen were waiting on the field.

After service crews unloaded the cargo, and tankmen refueled the aircraft, Davies and his men climbed aboard. When the pilot and co-pilot returned to the plane, they were surprised to see 24 pilots crammed inside.

"Okay," the transport pilot shrugged.

The C-47 then took off for the 900 mile trip to Batchelor Field, stopping briefly at Brisbane. By 1700 hours, the ?Gooney Bird? was landing. Most of the ?Grim Reapers? of the 3rd Bomb Group had slept during the trip so they were well refreshed to fly the "hot" bombers back.

With a nonchalant air of authority, Davies presented his authorization to an American Officer at the field. The duty captain, like others around the base, knew little of high level decisions concerning allotments, strategies, or operations. "I wondered who the hell owned these planes," the officer said. "They've been sitting here a couple of weeks."

The captain did not question the authorization. In fact, he called an ordnance NCO to check the fuel supply and to warm up the planes. After a hot meal, the 3rd Group pilots boarded the B-25's. At 1830 hours, as the sun began setting below the Melbourne River, they took off. By 1900 hours, the last B-25 was droning northward.

Not until 2100 hours did somebody at Batchelor Field discover that an air corps Lt. Colonel had taken off with 24 unauthorized B-25's. Within a half hour they were frantically making phone calls up and down the east coast of Australia to determine how Davies had shammed an authorization to pick up the planes.

Meanwhile, Davies stopped at Brisbane's Archer Field to refuel. But, before the 3rd Group pilots could take off, the base commander and a squad of MP's met them with fire in their eyes.

"Colonel, Sir," the major said, "I have orders to hold these planes here in Brisbane and to detain you and your men. Your authorization is invalid and nobody can reach General Eubank to verify your orders."

"Are you questioning General Eubank, Major?" Pappy Gunn suddenly blurted.  Davies added. "We need those planes badly, Major.?

The base commander looked at the pilots in their cockpits wearing a mixture of apprehension and supplication on their faces. Davies' argument about the written authorization was a weak one, for the major had authority from VIP'S. He squinted at the B-25's, their fuselages shaking from warming engines--like anxious greyhounds ready to pursue game.

"As soon as we get these planes," Pappy said, "we'll have them hitting Japanese held Lae and Salamaua on New Guinea within a couple of days."

The major looked at the middle aged Mad Professor. "Are you Captain Gunn?"

"Yes Sir.?

The major grinned. He knew Pappy's reputation;

"Yes", he said, "I suppose you will have those planes ready in a couple of days."

"I guarantee it." Gunn said.

The major looked at Davies, shook his head and sighed. "Okay, Colonel." and the MP's moved away.

Soon, the major stood on the field and watched the Mitchells soar into the sky. He ignored a clerk who rushed out to the field to tell him that FEAF (Far East Air Force) wanted to know if the bombers had been held as requested. Not until the last B-25 had disappeared to the north, did the base commander return to his office to call an aide of General Brett himself.

"I'm sorry, Sir," the major told the FEAF officer, "we're too late. The planes have already taken off."

"What? You let them go off with those bombers?"

"Colonel Davies had a written authorization and he left before I could determine whether or not the authorization was valid."

"You idiot," the aide cried, "I'll have your ass!"

"Yes Sir."

The Dutch reacted furiously at the news of their stolen bombers, but could do little.

Yet, the brazenness of the 3rd Group airmen had not ended. On the same day, while Captain Gunn and his engineering crews readied the B-25's for combat, they discovered the planes did not have bomb sights. The instruments were still in Brisbane. John Davies was shattered, but Pappy promised to get them. He flew at once to Batchelor Field.

With unmitigated boldness, Gunn walked into the Dutch supply building and demanded the bomb sights for the B-25's. The Dutch, already infuriated, wondered how the Americans now had the audacity to ask for anything. The request was refused. The story then prevailed in Melbourne that Pappy Gunn aimed a tommy gun at the depot personnel and ordered them to give up the bomb sights or else. Whether or not Pappy actually made such a threat with a submachine gun is mere rumor, but one thing is certain, Gunn returned with the bombsights for all of the B-25's.

In the summer of 1942, as soon as General George Kenny took command of the newly formed 5th Air Force, he met Pappy Gunn, finding him in the middle of converting A-20 light bombers into ?gunships.?  He was impressed by what he saw, especially Gunn?s mechanical genius in salvaging and building combat worthy aircraft out of wrecked planes. Gunn?s well known innovative qualities were not lost on Kenny who was quite an innovator himself.  Kenny asked Gunn about the possibility of improvising bomb racks in order to carry a large number of lighter ?para-frag? bombs for anti-personel and airfield busting bombardments. These 28-lb.bombs were attached to parachutes to slow their rate of descent and keep the bombers from being damaged from their bomb?s own explosions, making them perfect for low level attacks. Gunn smiled and nodded in the affirmative.  His positive and infectious ?can-do? nature impressed Kenny very much.  Recognizing a kindred spirit, Kenny immediately promoted Gunn to Major and placed him on his personal staff as his ?Special Projects Officer?.   Within a few days nine newly converted A-20?s  with Gunn-designed ?honeycomb? para frag bomb racks made a very successfully,  destructive, low level bombing raid against the Japanese airfield at Buna. Using both their revolutionary concentration of heavier firepower and para-frag bombs to blast the parked planes on the airfield.  Now that the converted A-20?s abilities were proven in combat, Kenny quickly gave his approval for Gunn to convert a squadron of B-25?s into solid nosed, strafing, gun-ships.

Kenny had other pet projects that he quickly brought to Gunn?s fertile imagination for formulation and implementation.  Kenny was a firm believer in low level ?skip-bombing? attacks, whereby a low flying bomber would attack enemy ships by skipping its bombs off the ocean surface, much like a flat stone tossed across water. These tactics were already being used to devastating effect in Europe.  Kenny originally envisioned US four-engine B-17 bombers as being perfect in that role, but Pappy Gunn disagreed, saying the bombers didn?t have enough speed or frontal armament to disrupt the ship?s defensive armament firepower.  Gunn countered by saying the new A-20?s and B-25?s would be perfect for that new role and was soon proving it by making practice, low-level skip bombing runs on a sunken, derelict ship in a nearby harbor.  Before long Gunn was teaching other bomber pilots of the squadron these revolutionary skip bombing techniques.

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For the Allies the fighting in New Guinea continued to be a frustrating, seemingly never ending military campaign, mainly because the Japanese seemed to have the ability to substantially reinforce their island garrisons at will, and without suffering prohibitive losses of ships.  They used large convoys of military transports and heavily armed escorting warships, along with patrolling Japanese fighter planes flying overhead top cover during the entire transit route.  One such reinforcing, resupply convoy had recently made the journey without major losses.  General Kenny decided to change this the next time it was attempted. 

In late January, 1943, after reading his secret ULTRA code dispatches, Kenny detected another Japanese convoy being formed, so he made preparations of his own.  Working very closely with his Royal Australian Air Force allies, Kenny devised a plan to both negate Japanese airpower over the convoy and also sink the maximum number of Japanese shipping possible.

Some 6,000 men of the Japanese 51st Division were being gathered at Rabaul for transport to Lae, New Guinea, as 8 transport ships collected in Simpson Harbor.  They were to carry the Division, their provisions plus some 800 Special Naval Landing Force troops, and a load of drummed aviation fuel to its destination.  Kenny?s reconnaissance aircraft kept a careful eye on the status of this convoy.

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In the early hours of February 28, 1943, the fully loaded Japanese convoy set sail southward from Rabaul with 8 veteran destroyers as their protective escort.  A storm front cloaked their initial movements, but soon blew over to reveal the convoy?s movements to General Kenny?s reconnaissance aircraft.  Kenny immediately put his battle plan into effect and alerted all of his US and Australian air crews.  At dawn on 2 March, 1943, Australian light bombers got things rolling by making low level attacks on the Japanese airdrome at Lae, New Guinea, dropping hundreds of para-frag bombs onto the airfield.  The surprise attack was very effective in destroying most of the Japanese fighter planes on the ground with their highly destructive bombing and strafing runs.

For the Japanese supply convoy and its crews the dawn brought the highly unwelcome sight of virtually all of the US 5th Air Force, plus several squadrons of Royal Australian Air Force aircraft headed in their direction, numbering some 207 bombers and 129 fighter planes.  The 30 Japanese escort fighter planes flying overhead cover were quickly overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers as the vast majority of Australian and US bombers bored straight in on the Japanese convoy at near wave top level. In less than a half hour the Japanese convoy was battered and burning, with every ship having been hit or heavily strafed at least once.  The buzz-saw effects of so many forward firing heavy machine guns in the bombers quickly swept the Japanese ship decks free of living men as the terrified survivors fled below decks. At least 27 of the 38 Allied low-level skip bombs found their way into the hearts of the Japanese transports and destroyers.  One transport exploded and disappeared.  Three other transports were hit, dead in the water and unable to continue.  Of the eight Japanese destroyers, one was sunk outright and four others damaged so badly as to being unable to maneuver any further.

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The Allied aircraft quickly returned to their airfields to repair, refuel, rearm and renew the contest, while the remaining Japanese destroyers and less damaged transport ships pulled hundreds of their half drowned troops and sailors out of the water.  The continuing low level raids saw all but one of the remaining Japanese transports bombed and sunk, and that one too was later finished off that evening by US PT Boats.

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The Japanese High Command was horribly shocked and stunned at the final tally of their losses at the Battle of the Bismarck Sea.  They lost all 8 of their troop transports, four irreplaceable veteran destroyers, between 15 and 20 aircraft and well over 3,000 soldiers and sailors against only two Allied bombers and three fighters missing in action.  The Imperial Japanese Navy immediately sent out an urgent command that never again should troop convoys be sent to within range of Allied air power.  The Japanese base at Lae fell to an Australian ground offensive several months later, and the rest of the Japanese bases on New Guinea were gradually starved out, assaulted and retaken by the Allies in the months to follow.  To sum the battle up, a Combined Fleet officer said after the war. ?This defeat was the biggest cause of the loss of New Guinea.  The Allied victory started here.?

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Pappy Gunn continued working well along with General Kenny.  His converted A-20?s and B-25s continued playing a major role in the increasing Allied victories in the South Pacific.  Gunn was sent stateside for a short time as a consultant for North American Aviation to oversee later models of the B-25 medium bombers.  The final B-25-J model was equipped with 18 .50 caliber machineguns.  These bombers and their crews, using Gunn?s and Kenny?s tactics, continued leaving destruction in their wake, utterly destroying Japanese targets in New Guinea, the Philippines and Okinawa for the remainder of the war.

Gunn, the wild, inexhaustible, maverick warrior, innovator and true mechanical genius, although ordered to stay out of combat, because of his value to the Allied war effort, continued to secretly fly bombing missions against the Japanese for the duration of the war because of his personal vendetta against the Japanese.  His wife and family were in a civilian internment camp on Luzon, PI. and Gunn was not content to stand by and allow the younger pilots make the highly dangerous bombing and strafing missions by themselves.  His wife and children were eventually released safely from the camp and they were happily reunited.  Gunn was finally knocked out of the war by a white phosphorous bomb fragment that lodged in his arm, doing irreparable nerve damage.  Following the war, Gunn returned to his trade as a civilian airline pilot in the Philippines, doing what he loved to do best, flying planes.  He was later killed in a plane crash during a storm in 1957.

Few times in modern history have the actions of a single individual made such a profound difference in the prosecution and conduct of a war.  Paul Irving Gunn was such a man.

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