Marine Corps B-25 Squadrons Of World War II
By Alan C. Carey - Originally Published May 2002
Day by day, night after night, it was five or six Marines in a twinengine bomber who pounded away at the Japanese. These men served in Marine medium bomber squadrons (VMBs) outfitted with the B-25 Mitchell bomber. Their actions may be described best in a quote from one of their own:
"The mills of evaluation in war grind slow. History, an exacting mistress, will in her own good time assess what VMB413 accomplished. We of the squadron cannot say. We can produce no heroes. We can sing of no glories. The nature of our mission did not lend itself to the spectacular. It was difficult, dangerous, disheartening-and routine.
"The bulk of our attacks against the enemy were at night. Occasionally a fire was started in Rabaul Town; an ammunition dump touched off, a bullseye [sic] scored on a cluster of searchlights. Infrequently an enemy night fighter gave chase. What could not be observed was the effectiveness of that constant heckling over enemy territory. What percentage did we contribute toward the final neutralization of Rabaul in hours of sleep lost, in personnel killed or wounded, in repair and maintenance work interrupted? Some day a line in a history book may give the answer."
E. J. Molloy
3 Aug. 1945, Cherry Point, N.C.
They were a small band of Marines whose veterans feel history has pretty much forgotten about them. In February 1943, the Marine Corps began to receive its first B-25 bombers, which were renamed PBJs. Seven PBJ squadrons reached the Pacific before the war ended: VMB-413, -423, -433, -443, -611, -612 and -613. While 173 men and 45 PBJs were lost in the Pacific campaign, few people today are even aware that Marines flew this bomber in World War II.
VMB-413, nicknamed the Flying Nightmares, was the first Marine PBJ squadron to see combat beginning in March 1944. Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Andrew B. Galatian Jr., VMB-413 began operations from Stirling Island in the Treasury Islands Group. Its primary job was heckling Japanese installations at Kavieng on New Ireland and Rabaul on New Britain.
Harassment missions were flown no matter what the weather conditions were. Heavy rain and strong winds buffeted the PBJs to and from the target. Upon breaking through the wall of foul weather, aircrews had to contend with enemy searchlights, antiaircraft fire and an occasional interception by Japanese fighters. After completing a bombing run, the Mitchell crews then would have to fight their way back through the adverse weather. The losses were exceptionally heavy during the first two months of operation, with VMB-413 losing five aircraft and 27 men mostly through enemy action.
LtCol Galatian was worried about the losses and one day called in his pilots and asked them if the missions should stop. One of the pilots, Capt Robert Millington, reportedly responded, "Sir, we are Marines, and we don't quit!"
VMB-413 didn't quit despite personnel and aircraft losses. The night heckling continued through the weeks to come; yet by May the squadron's complement of combat-ready aircraft was rapidly diminishing due to combat and operational losses.
On 15 May 1944, the first Marine Corps B-25 squadron to serve in the Pacific was relieved by VMB-423 for rest and rehabilitation. After two months of R&R in Sydney, Australia, and Espiritu Santo, it would return to the comBat area in July.
While the Flying Nightmares were away, LtCol John L. Winston's VMB423 began operations. Two weeks after its arrival, the lone PBJ squadron was given a special mission. On 27 May, a crew dropped a 65-foot-long scroll on Rabaul that was signed by 35,000 Oklahoma schoolchildren (they had collected enough money for war bonds to buy a new bomber). Over the target, the scroll was tossed out while the bombardier dropped a salvo of bombs. The scroll floated gently down, being passed by several general-purpose bombs that hit the runway.
In June 1944, Winston's boys packed up and moved to Green Island some 40 miles northeast of Buka and some 60 miles east of New Ireland. Within two weeks, the squadron lost two aircraft and crews to the enemy and the elements. In July, Marine PBJ operations on Green Island doubled in size with the arrival of VMB-433 under the command of Major John G. Adams. While Adams' squadron began operations, VMB-413 went back to business as the squadron arrived at Munda, New Georgia.
On 29 July the Flying Nightmares returned to battle when LtCol Galatian led the squadron on the first daylight mission of the second combat deployment. The squadron's last daylight attack was on 5 May against supply depots in the Tobera area.
Nearing the target, the aircraft climbed slightly and then let down to 150 feet, and the first run was made at this altitude at 200 knots. The first section made its pass over Sipasai Island on a northerly course, dropping eight 100-pound general-purpose bombs near the center of the island and strafing a small auxiliary ship on the southeast coast.
Galatian took his planes in five more times before luck ran out. The Japanese began sending up automatic-weapons fire from the village. The PBJs were hit in the nose sections, engines, cowlings and wings.
On the seventh run Capt Millington, flying left wing in the first section, received an explosive hit from a 20 mm round. The shell hit the lower fixed nose gun, which tore the guns from their mounts, putting them out of commission, shattering the Plexiglas and knocking navigator Joe Decuester from his position. Millington was forced to ditch the bomber, and the crew was rescued five hours later.
During the middle of the month, orders were received, sending the PBJ squadrons to Emirau located 250 miles south of Rabaul and 600 miles south of Truk. As operations from Emirau began, LtCol Dwight M. Guillotte's VMB-443 arrived to participate with the other two PBJ squadrons in the neutralization of the Bismarcks.
In November, an advance element of VMB-611 arrived under the command of LtCol George A. Sarles. On 18 Nov., VMB-611 made its combat debut with a night heckling mission to Kavieng. During the next several weeks, -611 followed the same routine as her sister squadrons with daily strikes against Kavieng and Rabaul.
In 1945 Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 61 had the same missions of heckling bypassed Japanese garrisons. As the focus of Marine aviation continued with guard duty of the Solomon Islands, the commanding general of First Marine Aircraft Wing, Major General Ralph J. Mitchell, was tired of his men being relegated to such duty and wanted to see at least some of his squadrons participate in the Philippine campaign.
Not until December 1944 did the first Marine aircraft arrive at Tacloban, Leyte, when MAG- 12 fighters flew in, escorted along the way by MAG-61 PBJs. However, PBJ units would not begin operations from the Philippines until March 1945. Until then they continued to pound away at the Japanese in the Solomon Islands. MAG-61 would continue harassing the Japanese until the closing days of WW II.
During February 1945, LtCol Sarles received word that -611 would go to Mindanao and conduct low-level strikes in support of American ground forces. Finally, he had a mission for which his squadron was designed. In preparation, Sarles began sending his planes out on low-level sweeps against New Ireland.
While the Emirau-based PBJ squadrons continued with the daily duty of bombing New Britain and New Ireland during early 1945, VMB-611 began its deadly duty in the Philippines. During four months of operations in Mindanao, Sarles' boys pounded away at the Japanese, participating in a small but important part of the greatest land and sea campaign of the Pacific war.
LtCol Sarles' squadron arrived just in time to take part in the occupation of the southern Philippines. By March 1945, U.S. forces were in control of Leyte and Mindoro, Samar, and much of Luzon while guerrilla forces controlled substantial areas of the Visayan Islands and Mindanao.
VMB-611 served under Marine Aircraft Groups Zamboanga (MAGSZAM) and would become the only PBJ squadron to operate in the Philippines during the war. The air group was formed within a few days of landings on Mindanao on 10 March 1945, and it included MAG12, -24 and -32. Its purpose was to provide close air support of ground troops.
Joining MAG-32, -611 immediately began flying long-range patrols over Borneo and Mindoro. On 31 March, VMB-611 began operations when LtCol Sarles led with a four-plane night bombing attack against a concentration of Japanese troops. For the squadron, it was the beginning of a three-month campaign that would see the loss of its commanding officer and the deaths of two dozen men.
During the first two weeks of April, close air support operations evolved into a formidable tactic as MAG-32 was called upon daily to support ground operations. Such strikes proved the effectiveness of close air support that reduced casualties among American troops. They demoralized and reduced the ranks of the enemy by hitting enemy concentrations in the Bukidnon Valley in north-central Mindanao and Del Monte Airfield.
By May 1945, it was obvious that wear and tear began to take its toll on man and aircraft. LtCol Sarles tried to slow the pace of the squadron's combat activities in order to overhaul his aircraft. Yet the constant need for the squadron's service never wavered.
During April and May, VMB-611 flew 173 sorties and dropped approximately 245 tons of bombs, 800 rockets and a considerable amount of machine-gun ammunition. It had caused heavy casualties to the enemy, disrupted troop movements, destroyed supplies, rendered airfields inoperable, destroyed transportation, damaged artillery positions and hurt the morale of the Japanese. The cost to the squadron was nine dead, nine wounded and four aircraft.
On the morning of 30 May, Sarles led seven PBJs to sweep the Kibawe Trail. During the attack, Sarles flew directly over concealed antiaircraft positions, and his PBJ took a hit to an engine. He tried to pull up, but one wing hit a tree. The bomber smashed into the ground and slid before coming to a halt. However, some of the crewmembers managed to scramble out of the wreckage and made their separate ways through the Japanese lines to safety.
During June and July 1945 the intense combat operations of VMB-611 were replaced by occasional night heckling missions and by dropping leaflets that urged the surviving Japanese in the Philippines to surrender.
As MAG-61 squadrons paid daily and nightly visits to Rabaul, in the Central Pacific two PBJ squadrons operated against the Japanese beginning in November 1944. The first was VMB-612 under the command of LtCol Jack R. Cram.
LtCol Cram's previous assignment included a tour as a PBY SA pilot during the Guadalcanal campaign where he was awarded the Navy Cross and given the nickname Mad Jack. Afterward, Cram was sent home to become commanding officer of one of only three squadrons trained to operate at night with radar-- operated bombsights and search gear.
On 28 Oct. 1944, the first PBJs of VMB-612 arrived on Saipan. On 13 Nov. 1944, LtCol Cram conducted the squadron's first strike with an antishipping sweep in the Bonin Islands. Barren, rocky volcanic islands, they lie approximately 120 miles north of Iwo Jima and approximately 800 miles from Saipan.
During his attack, LtCol Cram claimed to have sunk a Japanese submarine and a medium-sized freighter. Two days later, Cram attacked three medium-sized freighters and one larger vessel, and three hits were observed.
The rest of November was a nightmare for the squadron, as two aircraft were lost and 13 men killed. It was a sobering experience for the squadron, which had yet to show its full potential.
During January and February 1945, VMB-612 improved the number of enemy contacts with successful attacks on merchant shipping between Japan and the Bonin Islands. During one such strike, First Lieutenant Clifford James and his crew failed to return to the Bonin Islands. During the Saipan phase of operations, VMB-612 flew 334 missions with 49 attacks on shipping made.
The last squadron of PBJs to arrive in the Pacific Theater, VMB-613, under the command of Maj George W Nevils, landed on Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands. By 23 Dec. 1944, the squadron was ready for action against bypassed enemy islands in the Marshalls and searching for enemy ships. On 6 Feb. 1945, VMB-613 realized this on a raid against Ponape Island.
The raid on Ponape progressed through intense flak. The third section of VMB613 came in at 1,500 feet. The first plane released its bombs and a moment later took a hit in the bottom of the fuselage, instantly killing the navigator. The last plane over the target took another hit. Its right wing collapsed just as the plane came out of a wide turn and leveled out. It crashed at the end of the runway, exploding on impact.
The strike on Ponape was the highlight of a rather lackluster tour of duty for VMB-613. The squadron resumed flying antishipping searches without much luck since the Central Pacific was void of enemy merchant shipping. Supplies for the bypassed Japanese garrisons were being sent by submarine. Instead, -613 attacked bypassed garrisons in the Caroline and Marshall islands.
A forward echelon of six VMB-612 PBJs and their crews moved from Saipan to Iwo Jima on 6 April 1945 and was placed under the control of the VII Fighter Command. Then the southern shores of Japan were in reach of Cram's PBJs. The squadron conducted its first strike on the 10th with a rocket attack on shipping in Kobe Harbor, damaging one small merchant ship.
April saw the loss of four aircraft and crews through three operational accidents and the downing of another PBJ by two friendly fighters. There was very little to show for their actions except for the loss of four aircraft and the deaths of six men. It was a bitter pill to swallow; Cram's squadron suffered further losses as it searched for enemy shipping near the Bonin Islands.
VMB-612 was stationed on Iwo from 10 April to 28 July. It flew 251 sorties with 83 of those targets located and 53 vessels damaged or sunk. On 13 July, echelons of VMB-612 began arriving on Okinawa and were placed under the operational control of Fleet Air Wing 1. They began antishipping sweeps along the northwestern coast of Kyushu.
Even during the closing days of the war and with very few targets, Cram's Rams made an impressive show for themselves. Between 1 and 15 Aug., the Rams flew 31 sorties and claimed to have damaged 20 enemy vessels.
At the conclusion of the Pacific war, MAG-61 Marine PBJ squadrons (VMB-- 413, -423, -433 and -443) were ordered to Malabang, Mindanao, and joined VMB-611 where it had been operating since March 1945. During October, PBJs of VMB-611 flew escort for First Marine Aircraft Wing fighters and SBDs to Shanghai, China, for occupation duty and a show of strength. On 30 Nov. 1945, the MAG-61 PBJ squadrons were decommissioned.
In the Central Pacific, VMB-613 turned over its PBJs for disposal in October and was decommissioned on 21 Nov., leaving -612 as the last PBJ squadron in the Pacific. On 8 Nov. 1945, VMB-612 left for the United States where it was decommissioned on 14 March 1946, officially ending the Marine Corps' use of the PBJ Mitchell.
Editor's note: Alan C. Carey is the author of three books on WW II naval aviation: "The Reluctant Raiders," "We flew Alone" and "Above an Angry Sea." His new book, "Marine Corps B-25 Squadrons of World War II," was released by Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. in April 2002.