Exploring the Aviation Adventure
Lockheed's forgotten warbird
BY RALLS CLOTFELTER
The PV-1's upper turret was a Martin model that had twin, .50-caliber machine guns with a profile interrupter to prevent the gunner from inadvertently shooting his own plane down. When we strafed ground targets and vessels, the turret was turned forward and depressed as far as it could go with one gun on each side of the navigator's Astro dome; as we passed the target, the guns would be swung to stay on it and would be fired straight aft as we left it. If the guns were aimed at any part of our plane, the profile interrupter would stop them from firing (if everything worked correctly!).
This story is about a plane that those of us who rode it into battle see as the greatest medium bomber that ever flewthe U.S. Navy Lockheed PV-1 Vega Ventura. Many of us owe our lives to it, and it seems almost impossible to believe that it is now nearly extinct.
When the U.S. Navy started its War-ending drive straight across the Pacific, it had the Ventura among its arsenal. It was a fast, medium bomber that had been designed to operate from captured Japanese air bases, but it was hardly a new airplane. It was first built in 1938 as a commercial airliner, the Lockheed Model 18; it had been modified for the British when the War started in Europe in 1939, and it was known as the Hudson bomber.
While Lockheed developed this truly great warplane from a pioneer airliner, North American Aviation designed and developed the B-25 Mitchell bomber; it was under-powered and never came close to equaling the performance of the PV-1. The B-25 is frequently seen at airshows and often pictured in aviation magazines, but the PV-1 Ventura is fading into oblivion. It is as though the plane that contributed so much to winning the War was a secret weapon, and it's a shame that the true story of this great plane and its pilots and crews is rarely told.
Bombing Squadron VB-142 was commissioned at Whidbey Island, Washington, on June 1, 1943, with Lt. Cmdr. Clayton L. Miller as commanding officer. After 15 crew-training flights, 15 Venturas were loaded onto the USS Prince-William, a jeep carrier docked at NAS Alameda near San Francisco, for the Squadron's trip to Pearl Harbor. The Venturas covered the flight deck, and their wings extended far over the water. There were no other aircraft aboard, and as we departed late in the evening on August 10, 1943, the word was that we would pick up our escort after we passed the Golden Gate. Early the next morning, I went up to the flight deck to see the escorts, but there was nothing but ocean; it remained that way for the next six days.
VB-142 squadron members take time out for a group photo on Tarawa. They served in the central Pacific from December 15, 1943, to July 15, 1944.
On the third day out, the weather warmed, and gasoline began to leak out of the planes. Their tanks had been filled before the planes were loaded onto the ship, and the fuel had expanded in the warmer weather. This was a major problem because the gas soaked into the wooden flight deck and dripped from the wing drop tanks as they hung far out over the water. The "smoking" lamp was definitely out almost for the remainder of the voyage. To make matters worse, a story circulated on board that if a Japanese submarine were to fire two torpedoes in succession, one would go through the engine room, and the ship would go down so fast that the second torpedo would go over the flight deck. At that point, I fully expected to be burned or drowned before the ship docked.
After offloading at Pearl Harbor, we flew across the island to Kaneohe Bay NAS, and we were deployed to Midway Islandthe U.S.'s most western base. From there, we flew daily patrols, and our enlisted navigators learned how to find their way back to a dot in the middle of the Pacific from 500 miles away. While at Midway, I bolted a piece of steel armor-plating to my gun-turret seat to serve as protection from ground or ship fire; that was one place I didn't want to be wounded!
The other turret gunners and I learned more about aerial gunnery in the Pacific than we had learned at the Naval Aerial Gunnery School in Purcell, Oklahoma. At school, there hadn't been any planes, turrets, or machine guns; we learned to hit moving targets by firing shoulder-held shotguns (equipped with machine-gun ring sights) at clay pigeons.
We arrived on Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll, in the Gilbert Islands on December 15, 1943, with 15 PV-1 bombers of Bombing Squadron VB-142, and we found complete devastation. It was just after the four-day battle for this one-mile-long and half-mile-wide island that resulted in the loss of 1,400 U.S. Marines and 5,000 Japanese defenders. Navy Construction Battalion 74 (Seabee) had repaired and extended the runway to 3,500 feet so it could handle our Venturas. The scene that surrounded our 108 officers and men was one of total destruction and filth; in places, bodies and body parts remained unburied on this hellhole of an equatorial island.
This placewhere not a single undamaged palm tree remained standingwas to be our home for the next seven months, and the stench would never be forgotten. As a land-based Navy bombing squadron, we endured more hardships, flew more hours and made more contacts with the enemy than any carrier-based bombing squadron, and we operated from islands that were hot, filthy and far from being paradise. Our drinking water was hardly potable, and the food barely sustained us. The squadrons aboard carriers would have mutinied if Spam and crackers had been on their mess tables almost every day. We seldom received mail, lived in oven-like tents and only bathed in torrential rain showers or brackish well water.
On the second day after its arrival at Tarawa, the Squadron started its campaign to neutralize the Japanese air bases in the Marshall Islands. The targets were on the atolls of Milli, Maloelap, Wotje, Kwajalein and Jaluit, which ranged from 300 to 800 miles north of Tarawa and on Nauru and Ocean (Banaba) Islands, southwest of Tarawa. According to official records, the 15 planes of VB-142 conducted 302 bombing attacks that delivered 541 tons of bombs, and another 88 tons were dropped on targets while patrolling an area of 600,000 square miles to blockade the Japanese bases. Eleven Japanese supply vessels were attacked; six were confirmed sunk and five were seriously damaged and probably sunk. The first Japanese supply vessel was destroyed by Lt. David Walkinshaw and his crew on January 1, 1944.
PV-1 pilots felt that flying the Ventura was just like flying a fighter. It had a cruise speed of 300mph, and it was very maneuverable (photo courtesy of author).
From our arrival on Tarawa until mid-February, we were bombed almost every night by high-flying Betty Mitsubishi Type-1 medium bombers. When the air-raid signal was sounded, we wasted little time as we ran to the stinking bomb shelter that the Japanese had built with coconut logs. As I watched the Japanese bombers approach and saw our antiaircraft fire exploding, I had mixed emotions. Although I had a profound hatred for the Japanese, I also knew what those flight crews were experiencing and that our situations would be reversed the next day.
Sometimes, the "all clear" didn't sound for an hour or more; then, we would return to our tents only to be awakened later the same night by another raid. On the night of December 25, 1943, a Japanese raid destroyed two Venturas on the ground that had been loaded with bombs, ammunition and fuel for their early morning missions. As those planes burned and the bombs and ammunition exploded, they created an unforgettable Christmas fireworks show as chunks of the Venturas flew across the island.
U.S. Army B-24s staged through Tarawa to bomb Kwajalein, and on the night of January 10, 1944, two of them crashed into the lagoon during takeoff, with no survivors. On that same night, two Japanese soldiers were discovered as they ate in the natives' mess tent. The B-24s had been parked together, and it was believed that those Japanese soldiers had sabotaged the planes by adding water to the fuel tanks.
After seeing the loss of that plane and its crew, and then sighting the target that we had risked so much to hit, I could see nothing there that could justify the loss of those six men. Unlike the other islands, Jaluit didn't have a runway that needed to be destroyed to protect our fleet; it was a long, quiet trip back to Tarawa.
Four days after the raid on Jaluit, our plane found a Japanese supply vessel as it left Alinglaplap Atoll late in the evening to supply the Japanese air base on Maloelap or Wotje. It might have succeeded if it had waited half an hour before leaving the sanctuary of the lagoon. There was just enough light left for us to see the vessel pass through the only entrance to the lagoon. We made our attack to the west with the ship silhouetted in the fading light.
The 200-foot ship had two antiaircraft batteries firing at us as we closed low on the water with our bow guns and turret guns firing; we released our bombs as we pulled up, barely clearing the ship as we crossed over it midship. I swung my turret around and continued to fire aft on the vessel as the bombs exploded. The first three bombs hit the water short of the target, but one 500-pound bomb hit, and two others caused substantial damage. The number-nine crew during this mission consisted of: pilot Lt. J.M. Swenson; copilot Ensign A.W. Keagle; radio/radar operator A.B. Smith; mechanic/gunner R.M. Ringstrom; navigator M.P. Selbin; and ordnance/gunner R.C. Clotfelter.
The most unusual repurcussion of the action at Alinglaplap took place on the following morning. Cmdr. Miller had conducted an investigation into that bombing, and he had decided to replace our pilot, Lt. Swenson, for failing to bomb according to Squadron procedures. Swenson was censored for sinking a vessel in one attack instead of two. The Squadron rules required that when attacking a vessel, three bombs would be used. If it were necessary to drop additional bombs, a separate second attack would have to be carried out. In my statement, I said that I witnessed the release of six bombs and had assumed that they were released in succession because darkness would have prevented us from carrying out a second attack. I didn't mention that I had only 250 rounds of .50-caliber ammunition remaining in the turret after the attack, or that if a second attack had been conducted, that ammunition would have been expended in 10 seconds. Later inspection showed that the nose guns had even less remaining ammunition. I never again left the ground without carrying four extra canisters of .50-caliber ammunition to reload the turret. (continued)