Found in the December 1942 issue of Air Force, the official service journal of the US Army Air Forces (formerly the Air Forces News Letter)…
An Old Bag of Bolts
The saga of a globe-trotting B-24
by Major Ben H Pearse, Air Transport Command, USAAF
She was blessed with an assortment of names. To many she was Old ’76. Some called her Red Cap and others The Grayy Train because she carried so many important personages to the four corners of the earth. But the name Old Bag of Bolts seemed to fit her best.
A charmed life
Officially she was just A/C Serial Number 40-2376, a B-24 airplane with a history all her own, as can be vouched for by the scores of men, women and children whose lives she saved – ferry pilots in the North Atlantic, combat crews and refugees in the South Pacific.
It is anybody’s guess what the enemy might have called her. But Old Bolts seemed to have a charmed life while she was trucking precious cargo all over the Pacific combat zone in a dangerous game of hide and seek with Japanese aircraft during those first hectic days of war.
Squat and lumbering on the ground, she would waddle up to the head of a runway like a duck out of water. But once her ponderous landing gear was tucked away she was a creature transformed, manoeuvring her big hulk with the lightness of a toe dancer.
Here, there and everywhere
When Bolts was turned over to the Ferrying (now Air Transport) Command one day last year1, months before Pearl Harbor, she had already cut her eye teeth on dozens of missions. She had reached middle age for a plane of her type, but it was just another case of life beginning at 40.2
As a Ferrying Command ship, Bolts had no regular run. Home was any place she plumped her wheels down. And it was here, there and everywhere on short notice. Her crews had uncalled-for laundry all over the globe. Their baggage included fleece-lined clothing and boots for the Arctic, shorts and mosquito boots for the tropics.
Bolts knew what it means to labor along through the heavy fog and mist of the North Atlantic burdened down with tons of ice. On the South Atlantic run her paint blistered under the equatorial sun; her motors choked through dust storms and wallowed through thunder squalls where St.Elmo’s fire played about the leading edges of her wings and zigzagged eerily across the windshield.
Her crews ate quinine instead of candy as she shuttled back and forth from Washington to Cairo over steaming African jungles and shimmering desert sands. Now and then they would zoom her low and let her chase herds of giraffe to break the monotony. With little more than a wrench and a screwdriver to work with, mechanics would jump out almost as her wheels touched the ground, then sweat in the torrid shade of her wings to change a cracked exhaust brace or broken stack, replace an oil valve, change spark plugs, service the oleos and clean the strainers.
So thoroughly did the factory workers who put Old Bolts together do their job, and so thoroughly did her own mechanics sweat, that her pilots were able to report at the end of each leg of each flight, under the heading of ‘Mechanical Difficulties’, the sweet monosyllable ‘None’.
Hard, clear ice
Not that Bolts didn’t have her moments. Back before her South Atlantic and South Pacific adventures – on one trans-Atlantic round trip to the United Kingdom, for instance. She held ferry pilots as passengers and the trip was routine until two hours out of Montreal on the return hop.
From landfall on the coast of Labrador there had been intermittent, moderate icing of the rime type. Then things began to happen. Without warning, the rime crystals changed to hard clear ice, formed from large, supercooled rain drops.
Bolts was labouring. Second Lieutenant C. W. Dun, co-pilot, turned on the de-icer fluid for her props and the boots on the leading edges of her wings and tail, but the altimeter needle kept sinking. First Lieutenant James W. Anderson, pilot, pushed forward the throttles as the needle continued to turn slowly downward.
At last, when the throttles were wide open, the needles stopped. Dean and Anderson breathed a sigh of relief.
The coating of ice, visible with a flashlight out the side windows, wasn’t getting any thinner. Anderson decided to turn around and try to get out. Bolts reacted sluggishly to the controls. It was like travelling down stream in a heavily loaded canoe, but she made it without losing any of her skimpy altitude. Then, for four hours, Bolts was lost.
Second Lieutenant A. H. Anders. navigator, kept looking for a break in the white mist that would give him a chance to get a fix. Staff Sergeant James A. McVicar, radio operator, listened in vain through the sputtering static for a signal that would give an inkling of their course. The Northern Lights had been acting up; sometimes they interfered with reception, sometimes they didn’t. Now. of all times, they made his earphones sputter like a hamburger stand on circus day. He couldn’t raise a soul.
The passengers in the bomb bay knew well what was going on. If that first long gradual turn wasn’t enough of a tip-off, the crashing of hunks of ice thrown off the propellers against the fuselage behind them left no doubt in their minds. Then the utter blackness of their frigid cell was broken by a shaft of light and a cheerful voice from the pilot compartment forward: ‘Everybody put on your parachutes.’
’Hell yes, it will help’
Staff Sergeant D. D. Greenwalt, engineer, watched the dials on the panel before him for the flicker of a needle that would tell him that Bolts was giving up. The ice built up on the engine cowls until it reached the arc of the props and was knocked back inside, but the carburettor stayed out of the danger zone. The de-icing system worked to perfection. As the ice built up on the tail surfaces, Old Bolts would shake herself all over, but her de-icer would break it loose and all would be smooth for two or three minutes. Meanwhile, her four motors roared on in unison with never a conk or sputter.
Finally, 15 hours after a takeoff that seemed a year away, Lieutenant Anders sped a patch of dark sky and three beautiful stars. He fingered the thumb screws of his octant, herded the errant bubble between the hairlines of the artificial horizon, and quickly figured on a scratch pad before him until he had a line to draw on his chart. He couldn’t tell where he was along that line without a second fix that would give him another line to intersect the first; then X, the intersection, would mark the spot, their position. But the break in the clouds was gone now. He waited, eyes glued to that little glass hatch overhead.
The door to the bomb bay opened and Sergeant McVicar appeared, climbing over ferry pilots packed in like sardines. There had been a break in the radio fog, too, and he had a bearing. Would it help?
‘Will it help? Hell yes, it will help.’
On through the darkness
With his protractor, Lieutenant Anders marked off 191 degrees true from _________ [most likely Goose Bay, Newfoundland] and drew a line that intersected his first line. He measured carefully – 120 miles NNW of LR in Newfoundland – then leaned over and tapped Lieutenant Anderson on the shoulder.
‘Sir, you are now over Labrador flying straight for the Atlantic Ocean. A course of 169 degrees should get you to LR in about two hours.’
Lieutenant Anderson nodded without turning around and bore down heavily on the wheel. The ailerons, elevators and rudder on Old Bolts were frozen again, as they had been intermittently for the past four hours, but after some tugging at the controls Old Bolts slogged around like an obedient dray horse and turned her pug nose towards LR. Pulling back on the controls would not raise her nose an inch, but her four motors chugged on through the darkness until she settled herself gently on the mile-long runway at LR.
No sooner had Bolts rolled to a stop than goggle-eyed ground crews began arguing whether her coating of ice – two to three inches broken off by the de-icer boots – weighed one, two or three tons.
Pearl Harbor attacked
But Bolts had tougher flights than that before her. Her instructions, to be exact, came in a recorrected copy of Operations Order No. 163. That was December 5,1941. She subsequently covered nearly 150,000 miles on the grind – it was really one continuous flight and her engines hardly ever cooled until the very end. Time for her 25, 50 and 100 hour checks flew past unnoticed, all because of the scribbled note that fluttered in the radio operator’s hand as he dashed out to Bolts at Trinidad.
‘Pearl Harbor attacked by Japanese at 0728,’ the note read.3
The name of Ambassador William C Bullitt headed the list of passengers as Old Bolts roared out over the Caribbean. But famous names were soon to become commonplace with Bolts. At Cairo, on the hop going over, a party of high-ranking officers boarded her for an emergency mission to Australia. Then she was loaded down until her sides were about to pop with ammunition and scores of other items badly needed in a hundred spots in the East Indies.
With 100 feet to spare
Maps were scare, good ones, anyway. First Lieutenant Ben Funk, the pilot, picked up some information from a Dutch pilot at Karachi, but he still wasn’t prepared for the short runway at Calcutta. It was marked ‘1,000 yards’ on his map – barely enough for a B-24 loaded until her tyres bulged – but actually it was only 760 yards. Somehow, with plenty of brakes, Lieutenant Funk and Old Bolts managed it – with 100 feet to spare. To get off that runway, Bolts had to leave some gas behind.
On to Rangoon, which the Japs were bombing daily, then to Bandoeng in Java, where the Dutch made quite a fuss over Bolts. They had never seen anything like her 28-ton body close up before. In fact, she was such an unfamiliar sight that an Allied plane looking very much like her had been fired on by Dutch anti-aircraft less than a half-hour before. But Bolts came in without difficulty. (The other ship went to Singapore.)
At Soerabaya, the next day, Major General Lewis H Brereton and Major General George H Brett were taken aboard Old Bolts for a 10,000 mile inspection trip, 3,600 miles of it in a one-day flight from the west coast of Australia to Sumatra.
Things had to be right
There was great need in the Indies for maintenance personnel to service the B-17s that had come in. Bolts was ordered to go from Australia up to the Philippines and bring out as many maintenance personnel as possible. That was late January. The ground crews in the Philippines had been removed from Luzon to a secret airport on Mindanao. Japanese-controlled Davao was only 100 miles away. It was a ticklish job, flying in at night, picking up the crews, and getting out unseen. Bolts had no armour, no self-sealing tanks, and only a few machine guns for protection.
Staff Sergeants Leo Zulkowski and Frank Suyko worked all day on Bolts, checking and rechecking for the afternoon takeoff. The motors had long-sinced passed the 400 hour mark. From Australia to Mindanao and back was 3,600 miles, almost all of it over open water. Things had to be right.
Old Bolts made the trip without incident, although Lieutenant Boselli had to change course five times to avoid Jap-controlled areas. During the last lap of the flight, Captain Hewitt T Wheless, who had flown every mile of the coast in his B-17, stood between Lieutenant Funk and First Lieutenant Charles Bowman, co-pilot, to guide them to the secret airfield. Bolts brought out 25 mechanics in her bomb bay.
Luck was with Bolts
About a week later, Bolts was off for Rangoon with General Sir Archibald Wavell aboard. The Japs had raided a field nine miles from Rangoon a half hour before her arrival. Pilot Funk decided to go to a satellite field in Burma to escape a possible follow-up attack. Luck was with Bolts. That night the Japs raided Rangoon three times. The return to Java with General Wavell was easy.
Singapore fell and the Japs began their first raids on Java. The raids kept Bolts on the alert, staying away from her field while the Japs strafed it. When the air raid alarms came, Bolts would lumber out to the runway, take off, and fly south over the water and wait for the all clear to be given.
Then Bolts was ordered back to Darwin, departing February 19, the day of the big Jap raid. About two hours out of Darwin she got radio information warning her not to come in so she landed a few hundred miles to the south, waited, and then came into Darwin shortly after the attack.
When the Japs went to work in earnest on the invasion of Java, Bolts was called upon for evacuation work. Twice she went back into Java from Darwin, brining out 20 evacuees each time. Luck continued to ride with Bolts. The day after she left Broome, Australia, with the last lot of passengers she had taken out of Java, Broome suffered a heavy raid. After it was over she went back into Broome under cover of night to bring out personnel.
Back to the Philippines
Bolts made a second trip to the Philippines. This time she took in sorely needed supplies for the wounded who had escaped fallen Bataan and Corregidor. In addition to her crew of seven, she brought out 30 officers and men from that secret airfield on Mindanao, including Lieutenant John Bulkeley of Navy PT boat fame.
That was her last trip for Ferrying Command. Within a few days her crew was called back to the States and Bolts was turned over to the Commander of the Southwest Pacific. When Lieutenant Funk and Bolts parted company they had been together nearly 400 hours.
Bolts made one more daring trip after that, back to the Philippines in another rescue attempt. It was her last.
Out of gas
The gas load gave Bolts only a few minutes to locate the Mindanao airfield. She circled overhead trying to get a signal through. The Japs were everywhere; perhaps they had taken the field. Bolts didn’t make contact in the darkness. She headed back toward Australia.
But Bolts couldn’t make it back with the remaining fuel. She headed towards an island for an emergency landing. Her position was radioed to aid in the rescue of her crew.
Then Bolts gave out of gas. She sat down in the water a few hundred feet off shore. After more than 600 hours her motors sputtered for the first and last time. And then only because she lacked fuel.
Members of her crew swam to safety and later were rescued by a submarine. Beyond saving was Aircraft Serial No. 40-2376.
They don’t hand out awards for airplanes, and we don’t mean to get sloppy sentimental over a big hulk of steel, but in our books Old Bag of Bolts went down with a Congressional Medal of Honor pinned to her fat chest.
Some extra info
- USAAF Ferry Command was established on May 29th, 1941 under the command of Brigadier General Robert Olds (father of WW2 triple ace, later Brig. Gen., Robin Olds.) Old Bolts would have been assigned very close to this date. Ferrying Command was re-organised into a new Air Transport Command from the end of June, 1942.
- This is a curious remark: The USAAF received all of it’s first nine B24As – the four-engined backbone of Ferrying Command – new from Lindbergh Field, between June 16th and July 10th, 1941. The serial numbers of these nine ships were in the range 40-2369 to 40-2377, making Old Bolts the eighth and second-last to be delivered. So she was hardly middle-aged, and no-one could have known what constituted ‘old age’ for the relatively new B-24 type anyway.
- Bolts shouldn’t even have been in Trinidad on this day – she should have been at Hickam Field, Hawaii. She was one of two aircraft assigned a super-secret long-range mission to photograph Japanese strongholds at Truk and Jaluit. (Was this the ‘Operations Order No.163’ mentioned above?) Old Bolts and 40-2371 left Hamilton Field, Sacramento CA for Hawaii on December 4th, but Bolts turned back with a mechanical problem.
#2371 arrived at Hickam on December 5th and was waiting to have guns fitted when the Japanese arrived on the morning of the 7th. She was reputedly hit by the first stick of bombs dropped on Hickam’s apron, making her the first US aircraft destroyed by the Japanese in WW2.
Without her ever-attendant luck, Old Bag of Bolts would likely have been the second.