The Wargamer

26 May 2017

Book Review: Air Combat at 20 Feet

Selected Missions from a Straffer Pilots Diary reviewed by John Dudek

Published on 20 JAN 2014 7:17am by John Dudek
  1. world war ii, pacific theater, background / research material

If you are looking for a book that captures the gritty feel, smell and taste of low level combat over New Guinea and its surrounding waters during WWII, strap yourself into the co-pilot's seat of a  B-25 Mitchell-C medium bomber and fly with Garrett Middlebrook, the highly decorated, many times awarded bomber and strafer pilot in his book “Air Combat at 20 Feet - Selected Missions from a Straffer Pilot’s Diary”.

The longest single campaign in the WWII Pacific Theatre of Operations involved the fighting in and around New Guinea, lasting from January 1942 until August 1945.  The fighting conditions encountered there throughout the war were endlessly and brutally savage, oftentimes bordering on the primitive, with few prisoners being taken by either side.  A sub tropical climate of dripping high humidity, scorching hot temperatures, combined with disease  ridden jungle conditions meant a general break down in the effectiveness of the fighting men on both sides, as both the Allied and Japanese troops struggled just to survive in a brutal and inhospitable land with few roads and poor communications. It was no less so for the 20th century fighting machines used there, especially the fighter and bomber aircraft used by both sides.  It is sometimes difficult to find a good book that accurately records the unprecedented difficulty of sustaining and waging an air war there, but this book performs admirably on all counts.

Middlebrook's lengthy, 655 page wartime autobiographical narrative of his most memorable bombing and strafing missions has been taken from his extensive combat diary, telling of his 15 month tour of duty in the Southwest Pacific, 1942-43.  Middlebrook joined the US Army Air Corps in July, 1941 and a year later was assigned to the 38th Bomb Group.  As one of its 16 bomber aircrews, he and his fellow pilots flew their B-25's across the Pacific in a series of flight hops from Hamilton Field, California to Australia where he immediately found himself flying bombing raids over New Guinea and many other Japanese occupied islands throughout the heavily embattled region.  He eventually racked up some 65 bombing/strafing missions during his combat tour, while taking part in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea and a number of other notable missions with the Fifth Air Force.

Middlebrook, an astute, intelligent observer, quickly learned many valuable tactical lessons during his growing number of bombing missions that went a long way towards keeping both he and his crew alive during combat.  He always told his fellow pilots to make their bombing runs at odd altitude levels to keep the Japanese aerial spotters and flak gunners on the ground from attaining an accurate bearing on the US bomber's height with their gunnery range finders.  Another valuable lesson he learned was never to fly follow-up missions upon Japanese targets from the same direction or at the same time of day, because enemy flak guns were often moved over night and concentrated to be pointed in the attack's previous incoming direction.  At the same time, the Japanese gun crews would be on full alert during that same time of day, awaiting the next Allied air raid.  As Middlebrook's experience, rank and responsibilities grew, he began making changes in the bomber's basic attack formations, going from flying in a four plane diamond wedge favored by traditional minded  Air Corps generals, to flying a three plane V formation.  This proved to be a better method of attack because many of the Japanese target airfields or other ground targets were too narrow in layout and size to attack using four aircraft flying wingtip to wingtip.  A three plane formation also maximized both their offensive and defensive firepower.

Middlebrook comes across as a dedicated and hard charging, tough hombre who oftentimes carried out single plane bombing missions long after the other planes of his squadron had scrubbed the mission to return to base because of New Guinea's notorious and unbelievably violent, stormy weather.  He quickly learned all of the stories of Japanese atrocities committed against Allied prisoners of war left in their care, some of them his friends.  As a result he soon became remarkably unapologetic and hardened about causing the death of hundreds if not thousands of Japanese troops or sailors in front of his machineguns during strafing missions.  He very descriptively describes firing thousands of heavy machine gun rounds into barges over-loaded with a hundred or more Japanese troops and the effects of seeing dozens of men flying about like rag dolls up and over the barge gunwales as the remaining men aboard were ground up into an unrecognizable mass surrounded with a reddish aerosol mist.  Reading this eyewitness account, one can be left a bit unsettled, while practically being able to smell the cordite from his plane's machine guns.

Another aspect of Middlebrook's narrative is how he dealt with the death of so many of his pilot and crew friends during his long tour of duty.  In peacetime, it's normal to perhaps see a friend or relative's death coming well in advance because of injury or illness.  In combat, many of his friends often disappeared suddenly in a massive, fiery explosion as their planes violently disintegrated or were torn from the sky by a direct hit from flak or Japanese fighter plane gunfire.  On another occasion, he describes seeing his best friend's plane "auguring-into" the ocean at 240 knots, leaving nothing behind but troubled white water with no shroud for either his friend nor crew except for the shattered plane carrying them all to the bottom of the ocean.  Strangely enough Middlebrook was also gifted to experience the incredible resurrection of another friend whose plane he saw destroyed in combat, and the unbelievable joy he felt at their reunion after finding out the friend had been scrubbed from the mission at the very last minute because of the need for emergency dental surgery.

Perhaps the greatest combat epiphany Middlebrook experienced was the conversion of his squadron's B-25 bombers from their traditional bomber role to that of a low level, bombing, strafing aircraft with the addition of 8 forward firing .50 caliber machine guns and a single 20mm cannon in the plane's faired-over nose.  Such a heavy concentration of firepower enabled the planes to be used as a highly effective flak suppression weapon, both against land targets and Japanese ships.  A Browning .50 caliber heavy machine gun of the day fired between 4 and 600 rounds a minute.  Eight of such forward firing weapons would have an immediate and utterly disastrous effect upon the gun crew morale of Japanese ground troops, or sailors aboard ship who came under such a destructive wall of sustained heavy machine gunfire. During any such attack, Japanese ship borne anti-aircraft gun positions were quickly abandoned as their crews fled to take refuge and cover below decks, likewise the flak gun positions located around Japanese airfields or shore installations.  These B-25 converted gunships were one of the most brutally effective combat innovations of WWII. 

General George Kenny's firm, visionary and imaginative leadership role was quickly felt upon the Fifth Air Force as soon as he took command in July, 1942.  A well known innovator, Kenny was never satisfied with the status quo of the weaponry he was issued.  He constantly tinkered and experimented on the planes, making truly revolutionary changes and conversions as he saw fit.  With the aid of the well known, roust-about, maverick pilot and gifted mechanic, Paul Irving "Pappy" Gunn, Kenny soon began making changes to the B-25's under his command.  The plane's useless lower gun turret was removed. and a large disposable fuel bladder tank installed that greatly increased the bombers range.  This enabled it to easily fly round trip bombing missions to the far off Japanese fortress of Rabaul, New Britain and back.  Gunn designed a "honeycomb" bomb rack in the plane's bomb bay that enabled it to carry dozens of 28-lb para-frag "airfield busting" bombs.  The bombs were fitted with parachutes to slow their rate of descent to allow the low level bombers to get well clear of the bomb's explosions,  Using either high explosive or white phosphorous, these bombs proved to be utterly devastating to both aircraft and other soft targets.  Perhaps Kenny's greatest innovation was adapting the proven Royal Australian Air Force "skip bombing" tactics against Japanese shipping.  Attacking Allied aircraft would attack Japanese convoy’s broadside from low altitudes and skip their bombs off the ocean surface like a stone thrown across a brook and into the side of the ship.  With a five second delay fuse in the bomb's nose, the plane could get well clear of the target before the resulting explosion tore the ship apart.  These tactics came into their own during the attacks upon a large troop convoy of Japanese reinforcements during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea in early 1943.  While Allied medium to high altitude bombing attacks had little effect upon the convoy, low level attacking Allied bombers sank every Japanese troop transport and most of their escorting destroyers.

The book has a number of excellent combat photos, many of them taken by Middlebrook himself or his co-pilot during their many missions against the Japanese invaders.  I found the book to be a fascinating account of one man's air war in a little known, yet very important campaign of the Pacific War.  It is a welcome addition to my own library and one I will re-read in the years to come. The book went far in my mind towards filling in a lot of missing pieces of the historical jig saw puzzle of the Fifth Air Force operations over and around New Guinea in WWII.

The book's publisher is Author House and is available in paperback on Amazon for $26.00, or as a Nook book for $6.49 at Barnes and Noble.