Captain Hewitt T. Wheless and His B-17 Crew
“Let Me Tell You About Those Guys.”
By Capt Hewitt T. Wheless
(As told to Lee Carson, International New Service staff correspondent).
Washington, May 18, 1942.
Ten minutes away from our bombing target, [Legaspi Bay, Luzon, P.I. Dec 14, 1941] the gunner reports Japs coming in fast on either side and on our tail. We were in trouble all right, but we decided to go on ahead and unload the eggs as long as we were almost there.
The Japs came in like greased lightning. Sgt Russell B. Brown and Sgt John M. Gootee were on the side guns. They got the two coming in on the side. Private William C. Killin, the radio operator, was in the “bathtub” — the tunnel underneath. He had just traded places with Cpl William W. Williams, who was trying to unjam the top radio guns. Just as Killen crawled into the bathtub the Jap on our tail let loose, and Killin was killed. Our number 2 engine was shot out, at the same time as the Jab got the throttle cable.
Things began happening pretty fast then. Williams got it in the hip and it tore his right leg wide open down to and below the knee. Just the same, he boosted himself up and tried to man the radio guns. He was pretty badly smashed up. But he tried.
RIDING IN HAIL OF LEAD
The way the bullets were coming through the fuselage it was like being out in the open in a hail storm. But Sgt Albert H. Cellette — the bombardier — got the beam on our target and unloaded. We dropped about 4,800 pounds of stuff on them while their planes were coming at us like a bunch of hornets from a kicked over nest. Yep — we were sure busy.
I was looking for clouds. When we came in toward the target we had a nice overcast to hide in. But when we came up on the target — wham — no clouds. Completely clear.
The Japs were getting underway — eighteen of them — or there abouts — non one had time to stop and count — were swarming all over us. I was dodging in and out of what cloud scraps I could find. We’d be in one for ten of fifteen seconds, which gave the guys a chance to reload.
My co-pilot Lt Taborek, and I did what we could. But it wasn’t much. Bullets were coming into the cockpit like rain. The instrument panel was shot to hell. A high explosive shell hit the radio and it opened up like a flower. Another one got the No 4 tank and the gasoline poured out.
Ol’ Gootee caught a bullet in the hand and it just ripped his whole hand almost off. Only thing that kept it from falling off was a couple threads of flesh. So he put on a glove to hold his hand on his arm and helped Brown load and aim.
That boy Brown was busy as a two headed cat in a creamery. He ran from one side to the other operating the side guns in the tail. Gootee’d reload for him while he was busy on the other gun. Then one of the Japs got a bead on Brown while he was working over the mess with his gun, shot the sights right off the gun and got Brown in the wrist. Without stopping his relay race between the two guns, he tied a handkerchief around it — tight — and went on shooting.
ANOTHER GUN JAMS
The Navigator, Lt William F. Neenagh, went back to see if he could get Killin’s body out of the bathtub. But he couldn’t get him out. Williams’ gun jammed and Neenagh tried to help him fix them, but it was no go. So he came on back to is post and sort of alternated between what gunners were left.
Cellette was down in the bombardier’s bubble at the guns. But we never get a head on attack so he couldn’t do anything but sit there and be shot at. Another round of fire got our flattener controls so the plane was wobbly as hell. We did the best we could, keeping her on an even keel with the rudder. By this time the fortress looked like a worn out sieve.
About seventy-five or a hundred miles later, the Japs wheeled and went off. Out of ammunition I guess. God knows they threw enough at us. Nobody said anything for a long while.
‘JUST CATCHING ON’
Then Brown swore and said: “Hell, I was just catching on how to get ‘em — and then they have to beat it. Of all the consarn luck!” At that he did pretty well. Between them the boys got six or seven Japs.
We didn’t have but two of the engines left, and all but four control cables were shot out. But we managed to zigzag back the 350 miles. There wasn’t one word spoken on the trip back. They were all too tired, I guess. And not exactly in one piece.
It was dark when we got over the field in the jungle. My front wheels were shot flat and the tail wheel had been shot off long ago. The field [Parade Field, Cagayan City, Mindanao Island, P.I.] had been barricaded against enemy landing, and I could just make out the rocks and stuff that had been scattered around it.
For a minute I didn’t know whether it would be better to pancake in or try to land on those shot wheels. But with a wounded crew I didn’t want to shake ‘em up, so I tried the wheels.
WILLIAMS MAKES IT
Williams had lost a lot of blood — and I was afraid he wasn’t going to make it and the docs saved his leg too.
I came in on the rims — careful — and as we hit the ground the plane nosed over and hung there while I held my breath. Then she settled back and we were all right.
We quickly got some cars and took the crew off to the hospital, and got the Killin kid our of that bathtub — at last.
The men were something I tell you. All they had to say was that it was “one hell of a fight” and they just grinned.
You know they all figure it’s war and we’ve got to lick the Japs. They welcome a scrap — anytime — any place. Sure they’re scared. They’d have to be idiots not to be. But that doesn’t bother them in a fight. They’ll all fight to the end. Take Brown — he’d never been in combat before, and with his wrist plowed open to the bone he manned both those side guns — and Gootee — same thing.
PLANE AWASH IN BLOOD
Williams had one of the ugliest shell rips I’ve ever seen. But he held on. Put a tourniquet around his leg and kept shooting until his guns jammed. I personally don’t know how he did it. That plane was awash with blood.
I didn’t feel much like grinning when I said so long to the boys. They I reported to the commanding officer — Maj “Rosie” O’Donnell. He heard me through with no comment.
Then he said:
“Have a drink, Wheless.”
A lot of guys in the Philippines went right on and fought in Java until that was shot from under them too. I got sent to Australia and missed it — worst luck. Just wait until I get back there. Will I ever get a ribbing about all this “hero” stuff. I’m no “hero.” The heroes are still out there. My crew were the heros.
Well, see you after the war. We’ll get together and throw milk bottles out of ten story windows — just for fun.Epilogue:
Capt H. Wheless, pilot, Australia, USA, then unknown
Lt Taborek, co-pilot, unknown
Lt W. Neenagh, navigator, unknown
Sgt A. Cellette, bombardier, unknown
Sgt R. Brown, side gunner-mechanic, wounded, unknown
Sgt J. Gootee, side gunner-mechanic, wounded, unknown
Pvt W. Killin, top gunner-radio operator, killed
Cpl Wm Williams, “bathtub” gunner-mechanic, wounded. Made his way from the very limited hospital facilities where he’d been left, to find fellows from his outfit, the 19th Bomb Group. Rather than surrender he went into the hills of Mindano to survive as an AGOM, American Guerrilla of Mindanao. His wounds would not heal, after submarine contact, he was shipped out with four others on the Narwhal submarine to Australia where he was put in a good hospital removing remaining shrapnel from his wounds. See Williams story under AGOM’s.
Wheless went from Mindanao to Australia and then to the US for Bond selling tours, and to help make a movie. The media needed a hero and he was “ordered” to play the role. Wheless returned to the Pacific as deputy commander of the 314th Wing located at N. Field Guam, and often flew missions with 30th Squadron of the 19th BG. Ed Whitcomb had roomed briefly with Shorty at Clark Field and kept in contact with Shorty’s daughter.