A different kind of Christmas

This came to me from Jerry Gizdich of Hayward. Enjoy this different take on Christmas.

It was Dec. 24, 1944, on a clear, sunny day, and I was — thanks to my navigation classes — 2 degrees north of the equator at longitude 118 degrees, surrounded by an awful lot of water. On a large-scale map of the world, at this intersection you would find the island of Morotai. This island had been my home for the past several months. Home is where you are welcome. This island was the only one in the vast Pacific Ocean, within my range, that I could attempt to land on without getting shot. And at night, you could not even be sure of this. Nevertheless, the stars and stripes were always there to welcome us back. This was home sweet home.

Four of us were in one tent: two pilots and two co-pilots, four canvas cots, four blankets and no pillows (I really missed this item). There was a dirt floor, no lights and a bomb shelter behind the tent that got a little deeper each day (coral does not make for easy digging). In many ways, life was good. We were located in a coconut plantation that protected us from the sun and the prying eyes of the Japanese, who seemed to spend a lot of time looking us over. A sandy beach and a warm, clear ocean were only about a hundred yards away. There were no bills to pay, few chores and a total absence of political news — the so-called “food” we best leave alone. Our only job was to fly combat missions.

There were some exceptions to the rules. Our commanding officer this fine morning had stuck his head into our tent and caught me lying down. “Hey, Giz,” he said. “I need a good pilot to test-fly a repair job.” The “good” was thrown in when you were asked (told) to do something extra. Thus, here I was sitting on the end of the runway waiting for clearance from the tower for a local test flight. I had five members of the ground crew for company. There was a common belief that a repair job would have less chance of failure if the crew went along. Plus, they enjoyed it. We would make a pass over the part of the island held by the Japanese. Then they would be able to write home and say that they had been on a mission. The ground crew always did one hell of a job keeping these planes running. This time, there was no co-pilot to go through the facial contortions every time you did something the slightest bit different from him.

“Badger 25. Take-off position. You are clear for take-off.”

This message made our little world come to life inside this 2,000-horsepower B25 J27. Today the plane was loaded with five crew members, a pilot (who not long ago was delivering telegrams), 1,000 gallons of high-octane gasoline, 18 50-caliber machine guns, and various incidental parts. And we were all going to move in the same direction if the ground crew and the pilot didn’t mess anything up.

Everything with reach went full-forward: two throttles, two prop controls, two fuel mixtures. And then everything started to shake, rattle and roll. You have never really heard noise until you’ve had a propeller traveling at 4,600 rpm inches from your ear. At this point, there wasn’t much left to do except steer the plane down the middle of the runway.

The idea was to reach 130 mph, our lift-off speed, before running out of runway. The runway was not made of concrete, nor was it several miles long. It was a metal mat with lots of holes in it, laid on top of sand. Someone once measured the length of a fully loaded B25 J27 take-off and then added 50 feet as a safety factor. This distance became the length of our runway. We were now rocking and rolling along like an unbalanced load in a washing machine. We were also approaching 100 mph and quickly running out of runway. My passengers had that “are we going to make it?” look. I just shrugged my shoulders. Then, as almost always, 50 feet from the end of the runway we hit 130 mph. I pulled back on the yoke and off into the wild blue yonder we went.

It was a beautiful day in our part of the world. Up at 5,000 feet, we could see the chain of islands that surrounded us. These islands were part of the Halmahera group, and they were all occuped by the Japanese. Half of these islands had air strips. We paid each other daily visits. They hit us during the night and at dawn. We, in turn, went over to their bases seriously during daylight, with harassing raids at night.

Fifty miles away, on one of their islands, the Japanese had a radio station that broadcasted propaganda messages day and night. The Japanese had promised they would light up our Christmas Eve with “lots of presents.” Since they had entertained us nearly every night for the past two months, we looked forward to Christmas Eve to be “business as usual.” Actually, my outfit was quietly and proudly licking its wounds after covering the Philippine Island landings at Leyte. Soon we would be moved to the next landing in Northern Luzon.

We were back on the ground again, safe and sound, with no complaints from anyone. We were now greeted with the news that for Christmas, there is beer for everyone! At this moment, it sounded like we had just won the war! In camp, the guys had already lined up, canteens at the ready, even though this beer news may have been nothing more than another latrine rumor. Even without the beer, spirits were running high — a welcome change for Christmas Eve.

For a couple of days after the Leyte landings, I was the only occupant of our tent. George Pope, my closest buddy, was shot down by friendly fire as we were providing support to our ground troops involved in these landings. Pope crash-landed on a Japanese air strip that our troops had just taken over. However, it took him about a week to get back to our base. The spookiest part of being alone in the tent was when we hung our rain coats from the ceiling — I would wake up at night and see the coats slowly turning in the wind, like ghosts. I could not stand it any longer and finally took them down.

Our two other tent mates did not return, but soon Pope and I had two new arrivals. Pope felt lucky that he got shot down that day, for the next day we had to hit the Japanese fleet that was escorting the Japanese troop ships to the Leyte Gulf. There were eight Japanese troop ships hoping to reinforce their troops at Leyte. We hit the fleet at dawn and we were able to sink all of their troop ships, plus some of the escorting vessels. Our losses were heavy, but I will save that mission for another story.

At the evening mess, beer was passed out. There were two bottles per person, but — of course — at equator temperature. By the time it got dark, the beer was all gone and everybody was feeling pretty good. It was about this time that the Japanese began to deliver their Christmas presents. Our air raid warning was made in two parts. One warning was made by our 90mm guns, positioned about 100 yards away from our camp. We fired off a round from these guns that I swear you could hear 100 miles away. The shell then exploded at its predetermined altitude and made almost as much noise. The shell also lit up the night sky with a blast of red light that was something to see. Next, the sirens went off, but our ears were still ringing from the 90mm’s, so you could hardly hear them. Hitting our field, I am sure, was not considered a gravy run by our opposition. Our field resembled a huge battleship. Every spot on the field not occupied by equipment and supplies was taken up by some sort of weapon designed to knock airplanes out of the sky.

Normally, when an air raid started we headed for our fox hole — a trench cut in the coral that was about 4 feet deep, 18 inches wide and 10 feet long. On top of each fox hole were two layers of coconut tree trunks. Built into the tree trunks were peek holes so that we could see the show. It may sound strange to say, but an air raid on a defended base was a sight to behold. When the guns went off, tracer bullets filled the sky. The noise was deafening. The shells from the 90mm guns exploded overhead like enormous Fourth of July fireworks. The Japanese dropped phosphorus bombs that exploded 200 feet overhead with large golden-arching streamers. These bombs were designed to eat through the aluminum on our planes, setting them on fire. The burning planes would then cause another explosion — of the planes themselves.

Bombs make their own noise as they are falling through the air — a sort of sucking sound. We became pretty good at determining if a bomb was going to fall in our area by the difference in pitch of this sucking sound. However, this evening, the fox holes were generally deserted. Our warriors were standing on top of them cheering on the night fighters and every explosion in the night sky that may have been the end of an enemy plane. This was sort of like a big, rough game. Eventually, you had to get under cover because all the flak that went up started to come down. This raid lasted about an hour and then it was over for the night.

Pope and I were up bright and early Christmas morning, assigned to hit one of the outer islands that had an enemy air strip. We had to let them know that they had not put us out of business. It really was a beautiful day, without a cloud in the sky. The island was so close that the whole mission would only take an hour. We flew wingtip to wingtip with all 16 guns blazing at tree-top level as we approached. Everything they had was under a canopy of trees, so outside of the air strip we would never see their installation. You had to drop your bombs on the sides of the strip and then head for home. I hate to say this now, but this raid almost felt like a Sunday joy ride. We both picked up a couple of bullet holes but no damage.

That evening, we were all looking forward to a Bing Crosby Christmas move that was to be shown on the beach near our encampment. The beach sloped down towards the water. At the bottom of the beach was the screen. At the top were the anti-aircraft guns. We would sit between the two. If there was a raid, we sure as hell would hear the 90mm guns, as they were now practically in our laps.

The movie had hardly started when we heard the chatter of machine gun fire. Experience had drilled into our reflexes that when you hear a machine gun talking, you waste no time flattening out on the deck. Some gutsy Jap had snuck in on the back side of our island and was making a nighttime low-level strafing run right over our heads. I had buried myself flat in the sand, face down. I turned my head to see if I could see anything, and by God, there were tracer bullets flying so close above, I thought I could touch them. Whether they were from friend or foe, I knew not, for our guns were blazing away. In seconds, it all stopped.

Our movie screen was gone, but we could hear Bing singing a Christmas carol. Someone stood up and yelled “Merry Christmas, everybody!” Then we all stood up, yelling “Merry Christmas” and shaking hands. The action was over and the screen was gone, so we headed back to our tents. Strange, but now it really felt like Christmas.

-Jerry M. Gizdich, 5th Air Force, 38th Bomb Group