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July 2024
10min read

An Airman’s Sketchbook

On April 6,1942, I joined the 40th Squadron of the newly formed 35th Fighter Group then being assembled at Bankstown, New South Wales, Australia, a suburb of Sydney. The 40th was flying training missions in P-39s, for which I for one was duly thankful, since I had only four hours of flying time in the plane we were expecting to fly in combat and I had never fired the guns.

From Bankstown we were soon sent to Townsville, Queensland, on the northeast coast of Australia. We traveled by train, which at one point had to back up for fifty miles because another train was coming from the north on the same track and we were nearest the only place where there was a parallel track to allow it to pass.

At Townsville we were driven out to a landing strip called Antil Plains that had been constructed in the bush by bulldozing down the gray, clay termite hills that stood like so many tombstones in the scrub grass. There we set up tents for our camp and started training in earnest, flying formation, doing some ground gunnery, and dropping a few practice bombs on a rock offshore in the Coral Sea.

When we had been at Antil Plains only ten days, I awoke one morning with chills, fever, and a monstrous headache. Another pilot, Wally Schroeder, and I were taken to the American hospital that had been set up in a row of private houses built on stilts for ventilation and joined together by wooden ramps. There we were examined, and an American doctor who had spent time on maneuvers in Louisiana told us that he thought we had contracted malaria. The Australian doctors acknowledged that there were malarial mosquitoes, but only on the coast. Later we learned the disease-bearing bugs had come in from New Guinea in the transport planes that made regular runs.


So Wally and I, achy and generally debilitated, were confined to the hospital and put on a regimen of quinine pills that made our ears ring. While there we made the acquaintance of the Australian nurses and even managed to date some of them. Motor-pool transportation was scarce, especially for private social use, so in order to get transportation for a picnic, we rented a horse and buggy to take our nurse friends to the excellent beach at Townsville. All went well until it was time to go home. After we had delivered the nurses to their quarters, we were hurrying to return the rented equipment when the horse ran off, the buggy hit a bump in the road, and I was thrown out and my left arm broken.

At the hospital it was first assumed that I had been in an aircraft accident; when the truth became known, it was treated as a great joke. But unfortunately my arm had a compound T fracture of the humerus split down into the elbow joint. Trussed up in a wire Thomas arm splint with a Kirschner wire keeping my elbow in traction, I was loaded onto a train with other patients and shipped back down the coast to a suburb of Brisbane, where an American hospital had been set up in a former boys’ school at Indooroopilly.


Many weeks later, when I was discharged from the hospital, my arm was so wasted I could close my thumb and fingers around my bicep and the elbow joint was almost frozen at a right angle. I was given a volleyball bladder to squeeze to restore my left hand and spent hours in the nurses’ recreation room at the piano practicing boogie-woogie; its repetitive bass beat proved to be very useful physiotherapy. I also had daily exercise sessions with a two-hundred-pound physiotherapist nurse, aptly named Miss Hand, who arm-wrestled me and lent me her copies of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.

While at Indooroopilly I made several sketches of things around us and continued doing so when I rejoined my squadron. I had spent my college years and four more at Cooper Union in New York City studying art and had brought some sketching supplies with me. The illustrations that accompany this article were made in situ at Antil Plains, Indooroopilly, and later in and around Port Moresby, New Guinea, where the 35th Group went into combat.


In the squadron I was something of an anomaly; no one took my off-duty pastime very seriously. “There goes Pierce with his paint box” was the general attitude of my fellow pilots, who had other occupations for their time off: poker; bridge; a game of battleship played on mimeographed squares furnished by the Special Services officer; Monopoly, played on a strange English board with Bond Street, Fleet Street, Park Lane, Piccadilly, and other British nomenclature printed on it.

When I rejoined my squadron, the 40th was escorting transports flying supplies over the hump at Dobodura and Buna. This was pretty much of a milk run except that whenever the transports were unaccompanied, they were attacked by Zeros from Lae or Salamaua up the coast. In the mountains outside Lae the Australian commandos had a spotter with a pedal-operated portable transmitter whose code name was Golden Voice. He kept moving so the Japanese couldn’t get a fix on him, calling in whenever he saw them taking off. He was our warning system until the Japs finally caught him and staked him on top of a rock in the tropical sun and cut his stomach open.


The Australian ground troops were a doughty lot inured to sleeping in the jungle on nothing but groundsheets and enduring the hazards of that inhospitable environment. When I had a recurrence of malaria, I was put in a field hospital briefly next to an Australian infantry lieutenant with athlete’s foot halfway up his legs; he told me of seeing one of our fighters get shot down and going straight into the ground and told me he wouldn’t trade places with me for the world. I was hard put to explain my reciprocal feelings in the matter.


In the next months, the pulse of the war quickened. We flew more missions and longer ones. Buna and Dobodura were old stuff now; we escorted A-20s to Salamaua and Wau, almost to Lae. Every day was the same: long, wet, miserable, and full of dread, with the rain running in rivers through camp, painting the foliage a lurid supernatural green.

The P-39s were a constant worry: “a good Sunday-afternoon airplane,” as Dirty Jim Miller, our operations officer, put it, but a poor match for the Zero. The Japanese fighter was lighter and more maneuverable and could outclimb and outperform the Airacobra in every way except diving speed.

We were visited nightly by Japanese nuisance raids and even underwent an occasional daylight raid. One clear day, when I was off duty, we heard on the shortwave radio in the mess hall that a large fleet of Jap bombers had been picked up on the radar. When we sighted the long black line of planes approaching, we left the mess hall and headed for the slit trenches.

We watched the double V of bombers glinting silver in the sun and counted more than one hundred. They won’t come this way, we said; they’ll turn off toward the main airstrip, where the big stuff is. A flight of nine did break away, but the others came straight on. As the bombers drew closer, we could hear the wailing threnody of the Zeros above them, weaving like slow flies in the autumn. Then the bombs began to fall, walking up the hills toward us. We huddled against one another, cursing, praying, sweating, and clawing at the earth with our hands. When the bomb detonations stopped, we could see the bombers directly overhead and knew we were no longer in range.

A squadron of P-38s had made altitude and jumped one end of the lead V of bombers, which broke formation and veered off in all directions. Then the horde of Zeros descended on the P-38s, which were pitifully few in number, and they started diving in all directions too. The Australian ack-ack guns behind our hill started firing, and we began to hear the whistling sound of shrapnel fragments falling around us. As the air battle moved over us and out of sight, we could still hear the drone of the bombers, the whine of the P-38s winding up in their dives, and the slow, staccato hammering of the Zeros’ 20-millimeter cannon and the swifter burst of machine-gun fire.


We went back to the mess hall to listen to the shortwave. Radio silence had been cast aside, and the air was full of the wild cries of combat: broken phrases excitedly transmitted, someone’s sweating hand forgetting to depress the transmitter button; cries of “There’s one!” and “Three at ten o’clock!,” something about “big silver fleet!,” and “Watch that son of a bitch!” We couldn’t recognize the voices of anyone in the 40th. Someone said they were probably still trying to make altitude. Then a hysterical voice shouted, “My engine’s on fire! I’m going in, I’m going in!” There was a pause, and then another voice, laconic and detached, said one word: “Hardships.” That was the title of a song we sang, with many verses, the chorus of which was “Hardships, you bastards, you don’t know what hardships are.”


That was the last of the big daylight raids. Afterward more and more of our missions were to the north: Salamaua, Guadagasel, Komiatum—long, boring flights into the distant mountains, circling overhead while the C-47s landed on tiny strips and unloaded their cargoes. Crane your neck, sweat your gas gauge and the weather until the transports finally lumber aloft again. Then herd them home, trying to get all you can from your belly tank. There is no silence to compare with that in the cockpit of a single-seat fighter when your belly tank runs dry and your engine quits fourteen thousand feet over the mountains, and you have ten seconds to switch to a wing tank and hope the engine will catch again.

I came to hate the sky itself. Even on clear days its blue was like a malevolent force that could change instantly and strike at you. Sometimes it was almost a relief when the Japanese appeared and we could go after them following the hours and days of waiting.

In late August of 1943 the 40th and 41st squadrons were reassigned to a place called Tsili Tsili, forty miles inland from Lae, right in the Nips’ back yard. Carved out of the jungle and the mountains, the airstrips formed an X; planes taking off simultaneously on the two strips could not see each other until they were airborne and coming at each other at one hundred miles an hour. The 40th was assigned to the shorter runway, which ended in a deep ravine studded with the trunks of decapitated palm trees like sharpened stakes in a tiger trap. There was no control tower between the two strips; in a scramble the object was to get all the planes airborne as fast as possible. We came to an agreement with the pilots of 41st Squadron that if they saw another P-39 approaching from ninety degrees on takeoff, they would pull up and pass over us.


The escort missions with the bully-beef bombers had come to an end. When we had been at Tsili Tsili only a week, it began to rain. Everything turned to mud. Voracious insects seemed to spring from the soaked earth, and the trickling mountain stream that ran through our camp became a torrent. The pond we used for bathing turned murky and became infested with leeches that clung to our bare bodies and could be removed only by holding lighted cigarettes against their blood-swollen backs.

The transports that brought us food, mail, and gasoline could not land on the short runway and stopped coming. The inactivity and incessant downpour began to fray nerves. Rumors bloomed like jungle orchids: The mosquitoes in the valley carried blackwater fever that made you piss blood; one of the natives in the 41st camp had been bitten by a death adder and died instantly; the ammo was running out; there were Japanese commandos in the hills. Men slept with loaded .45s under their mattresses.

On the first night the rain stopped, a pair of Japanese bombers laid a string of daisy cutters across our camp. It caught us by surprise, and we tumbled out of bed pell-mell and into the few slit trenches that had been dug, piling into the ooze at the bottom. In the midst of the raid one of the enlisted men jumped out of his trench and ran through the exploding bombs to another trench. After the bombing stopped, we asked what the hell was the matter with him. “Gimme a flashlight, and I’ll show you,” he said. In the bottom of the trench was a python at least ten feet long. “I hit that sucker with my bare feet,” he said, “and jumped out again without even bending my knees.”

The raid caused little damage but did nothing to improve our morale, which sank even lower when it began to rain again. There was nothing to do but lie under our mosquito nets all day, nothing to read that hadn’t been read, no game that hadn’t been played to the point of fury. The liquor supply was dwindling, and no matter how the food was disguised it turned out to be bully beef.

Finally, in early September of 1943, we covered a big operation, an amphibious assault landing at Lae. After a red alert at 3:00 A.M. we took off at first light into a gray haze and light clouds. In a few minutes we could see flashing lights that I took to be ack-ack bursts, but as we climbed over the mountains, we could see destroyers broadside in the harbor, shelling the airstrip. I had a quick and somewhat idiotic impression of the big gunfire; it reminded me of the electric eyes of a teddy bear belonging to a cousin of mine that winked when its tail was twisted.


The destroyers were circling in the gray water, and behind them ranged the boats of the invasion fleet deployed in perfect formation. As the barges approached the shore, they moved line abreast and blasted their forward guns into the jungle. Whatever opposition awaited them must have fled at the sight of their numbers.

On September 5, 1943, our squadron covered the dropping of fifteen thousand paratroopers at Nadzab, located in a valley halfway to Lae, and later in the month some of us actually landed at Lae and had a look around. From the time we had arrived in New Guinea, Lae had been like Tokyo to us, a fearful place to be avoided. By the time we got there, it was a depressing and desolate scene. Wrecked planes were everywhere, lying in the ruined state that only a piece of machinery as refined and immaculate as an airplane can achieve. Over everything hung a horrible stench that had to come from newly buried bodies. I sat in a Zero and poked into the devastated interior of the officers’ quarters. Everything was in a shambles; clothing, blankets, rice bowls were strewn in the unmistakable signs of a hurried departure, along with a game of Chinese checkers, a broken phonograph record (“Palais Glide”). We picked our way around, afraid to touch anything, feeling very much like scavenging ghouls.

After that our squadron was moved to Nadzab, where a new, larger strip had been constructed. On November 3 I was told that my orders to go home had arrived. The next day, as I waited for the B-25 courier that would take me to Port Moresby, the alert crew on duty was ordered off on patrol. As I walked across the taxi strip to my transport, the alert flight started up and taxied out to take off. As they went by, each man huddled in his cockpit, helmeted, strapped, and goggled, as identical as the planes themselves, each wearing the same expression, I had a sudden peculiar but overwhelming feeling that I was watching myself.


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