By ERVIN BRANDON
As told to Celeste and Bill Boyd
Every morning brought another sortie toward South Pacific islands left unconquered as the U.S. Forces moved toward the Japanese homeland. Our crews, flying twin engine PV-1 Ventura planes, made repeated successful strikes to the Marianas, the Marshall and Caroline Islands during the fight for control of the Pacific territory. We operated off places like Tinian, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa after the main attack forces had done their job. Our task was to maintain control of these islands by destroying their airfields and buildings and to provide an air screen for attacks and landings on the islands closer to Japan. We also conducted hard-hitting rocket and bombing missions against picket ships (sentinels) off these islands and enemy freighters off the Japanese coast.
I was a plane captain and gunner aboard a twin-engine bomber, part of a search and reconnaissance unit, and completed sixty air missions with a Navy air squadron in the Pacific Theater during World War II. One of the things that always got to me and still does to this day, was seeing the cost in lives lost after an invasion. On island after island, I saw hundreds of graves in the cemeteries and I always wondered, “Why them and not me?” On the photo of the cemetery at Tarawa I wrote, “All gave some, some gave all.” I didn’t have a good luck charm but I did trust in the Lord to keep me safe if that was his plan for me.
I was born in January 1925 outside the little town of Valley City, North Dakota, sixty miles west of Fargo. My mother bore six children, and I’m the caboose. I had a wonderful childhood with all the freedom brought by living in a rural area. As a young boy I caught fish on a throw line in the Cheyenne River and shared most of my catch with the local farmers, who in turn shared their crops of vegetables with our family. For entertainment we paid a dime and went to the movies in town on Friday nights, went swimming in the Cheyenne River in summer, and generally found ways to have fun that were inexpensive and close by.
My mother, Inge Bottlefson Brandon, was the hardest working woman I ever knew and I owe her the greatest respect in the world. Widowed in 1926, she raised six children by herself, earning a living by sewing and selling dry goods and doing alterations. She carried a small suitcase filled with dress patterns and fabric samples from house to house in our town and, since we never owned a car, she hitched rides to surrounding towns to do the same. If she didn’t sell anything, we’d have nothing to eat. Fortunately, she was such a good salesperson and provider that we never lacked for good meals, and when winter arrived every year we had a basement filled with canned fruits and vegetables.
Both my mother and father came from Norway. My father, Edward Brandon, emigrated to the U.S. with his young wife, Anna Pederson Brandon, in the early 20th century. They traveled to Montana where he worked on a sheep ranch and eventually had his own flock. However, a severe winter in 1910 killed over 14,000 of his sheep. bankrupting him. Soon after that he and his wife came to Fingle, North Dakota, to run a small dairy farm. When his wife passed away, he returned to Norway to find a new bride. There he met and fell in love with Inge Bottlefson. They were married and he brought her to the United States, where they lived in Valley City and raised their family of five boys and one girl. Tragically, my father died of cancer when I was 14 months old. He was buried in the family plot in the cemetery in Fingle. We still have some spaces there, and when I die I expect I’ll be buried there as well.
All the children in my family were expected to find ways to make some money to help survive those difficult depression years. Both my sister, Edna, and my brother, Arthur, worked at the Fair Store downtown for $26 a week and she also worked at the radio station every week. While I was fishing I picked gooseberries to sell and during the late summer my brothers worked in the fields threshing wheat. As soon as I could ride a bike I got a paper route but I also shoveled snow from sidewalks in the winter and dug gardens in the spring.
One summer when I was about twelve, I worked for Northwest Nursery on my hands and knees in the fields, planting shrubbery and pulling weeds, until I had an appendicitis attack and needed an emergency operation. The hospital bill was seventy-five dollars, and we paid it off over several months. In those years there was no unemployment or welfare or food stamps. Everyone in the family found work whenever and however they could. I was in the fourth grade before I knew there was a depression all across the USA.
Winters in North Dakota were very cold and we heated our house with coal. I looked forward to the large delivery truck coming to the house in winter. I watched as the chunks of coal went down the chute and formed a huge pile on the floor of the coal cellar in the basement of the house. We bought the coal on credit when the prices were lower in the summer and when fall arrived, after the harvest, we paid off the bill in monthly payments. Being the youngest didn’t keep me from helping, so everywhere I went I picked up pieces of coal that had fallen from the delivery trucks and brought them home in my little red wagon.
Education was very important to my mother, so we were required to keep up on our homework and take our schooling seriously. My sister, Edna, was the homecoming queen at the college and she and my brother, Monte, were the first ones in the family to graduate from college.
Arizona and California
When I was in junior high school we bought our first car and moved to Tucson, Arizona, because my older brother Earl suffered from extreme asthma, and his doctor said the dry air would help him. After one year the family saw that any jobs to be had were in San Diego, so we moved again. Several of my siblings went to work at Consolidated and Rohr, both of which manufactured aircraft parts for Convair. I got a job checking oil and fixing all flat tires for the Yellow Cab Company in San Diego.
The following year I attended Kearny High School from 8 a.m. to noon on weekdays and then worked at a Standard gas station at Civic and Rosecrans in San Diego, where I ran the night shift from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. all by myself. When business was slow I put my old jalopy, a 1929 DeSoto coupe, up on the hoist and worked on it. This schedule didn’t leave much time for sleep, but when you are young you can get away with it.
I turned sixteen in January of 1941 and wanted to enlist right after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but my mother said no and made me promise that I would graduate from high school. Two of my older brothers were already in the service, Earling in the Navy and Monte in the Army Air Corps. Then Congress passed a law that high school seniors with less than six months to graduate would automatically graduate if they enlisted. I qualified for that and my mother finally relented. So my closest friend “Red” and I (my nickname was “Whitey”) joined the Navy, and we both went through boot camp in San Diego. I had taken ROTC in high school so I had no trouble with boot camp and became my squad’s platoon leader.
Our boot camp ended in June of 1943 and Red and I arrived home on leave just as my senior class, the first ever to graduate from Kearny High School, was lining up for their diplomas. Since we were in the Navy and couldn’t wear any clothing over our uniform we joined the graduation procession in our Navy Blues. I heard one woman ask, “How did those sailors get in here?”
In January 1944 I was sent to Fleet Air Wing 6, Naval Air Station at Whidbey Island, Washington, where I was trained as an aviation machinist and graduated from Aerial Gunnery School. I was then assigned as crew chief/plane captain aboard a Lockheed Ventura VPB-1 medium bomber flying as part of a squadron of eighteen planes, each with a crew of six, including a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, radioman and two gunners. Our plane was identified as VPB 151.
In mid-April 1944, when our training in Washington was complete, we flew south to the Naval Air Station in Alameda, California in our planes, Venturas, which were like the B-25s, except that we had a tail wheel instead of a tricycle landing gear, and two larger engines each with 2800 horsepower. Our planes were then loaded onto the aircraft carrier Sitkoh Bay and all of us headed off for Hawaii. We arrived at Pearl Harbor on May 6, and I was fortunate to visit with my older brother Erling, who was stationed there on a “crash boat,” an eighty-five-foot wooden aircraft rescue vessel. Our equipment and aircraft were unloaded and flown to NAS Kaneohe, Hawaii, on May 7, where further training continued through the end of July. Since the Lockheed Venturas we flew were not built to take off from a carrier, we operated strictly from land.
The battle plan for the Pacific Forces was to capture the main islands across the ocean toward Japan and leave the smaller islands isolated to capture later. In my opinion, one of the biggest mistakes of the war in the Pacific was in the planning for the invasion of the island of Tarawa. No one had realized that the tide would be out at the time of the invasion and all the landing boats were stuck in the coral reefs about 200 yards offshore. The marines had two choices: stay in the boat and get blasted by the huge Japanese guns, or get out and wade ashore walking straight into the machine gun nests firing steadily. The U.S. landing boats were coming into three beaches, Red Beach number one, two, and three, but the landing became just a slaughter. I always wondered why the planners made such a mistake.
My first assignment, in August 1944, was to fly to Hawkins Field on Tarawa Island, which had already been invaded and conquered to provide a base for planes flying to the islands farther west. From August to November we were based on Tarawa conducting bombing and strafing missions against the Micronesian islands of Nauru and Jaluit, as well as Eniwetok and Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands.
On November 18, 1944 we were relocated to Naval Air Base (NAB) North Field, Tinian, Mariana Islands. We landed on the North Field because the West Field was in poor condition. Japanese planes were able to land on short fields but U. S. bombers needed longer landing strips. While we were there, the Corps of Engineers repaired West Field so that North Field could be lengthened for larger planes to land. When I saw the first B-29 land on Tinian I was absolutely awe-struck by the size of it.
From Tinian we began to bomb and strafe the bypassed islands again and again with each of our planes carrying 2,000 pounds of bombs, two .50 caliber guns in the top turret, five fixed forward firing .50 calibre in the nose decking, and another two in the aft facing to the rear. After we dropped our load of bombs the top turret would swing around, so we had four guns facing to the rear as we flew away from the target. We flew daily search flights of 400 – 600 miles and attacked the Yap, Woleai, Rota and Pagan islands.
Most flights we faced heavy antiaircraft fire from the islands, but we had a tactic to avoid getting hit. Antiaircraft shells are set to explode at certain altitudes, so as the enemy zeroed in on our plane’s altitude, we would already have dropped to a different altitude. As we glided we would drop the bombs, and fire machine guns in the nose and the two .50 calibers turret guns. As the plane captain, I was in the tail section with two more guns. We lost two flight crews during our Pacific Theater actions, one whose last radio call was “Preparing to ditch,” with no further communication. The other went down on December 20, the victim of a direct hit from antiaircraft fire over Woleai. I had several friends on those planes and deeply felt their loss. Four Purple Hearts were awarded to our crews because shrapnel penetrated the plane and wounded the airmen.
Our squadron was quite successful at destroying the remaining Japanese bases on these small islands. This was vital because the enemy on these islands could see U.S. Naval and Army Air Corps planes passing overhead and radio Tokyo with information about their numbers and direction of flight. We always bombed the airfields to keep them from mounting any offensive and we also destroyed their supply boats so they’d have no food or ammo.
During January and early February we provided air cover for Cruise Division 5, which was on route to attack Iwo Jima. We also engaged in protecting the Fifth Fleet from enemy ships, submarines and aircraft as they prepared to attack Iwo Jima and the Japanese home islands.
One of our big problems on Tinian was keeping our cots from sinking into the twelve-inch-deep mud at night. We tried a number of things, but our best solution was to find damaged pieces of the netting laid down as a base for the landing strips and put it under the feet of our cots. This helped to avoid waking up in the morning at ground level.
As was true on all the conquered islands, Japanese soldiers still hid in the jungle on Tinian. On November 28, 1944, we had just returned from a mission and staged our plane (reloaded ammunition and prepared it to take off again) which was parked in an individual revetment along an extended coral taxiway. We were headed for chow when three Japanese soldiers snuck out of the cane fields, heading directly toward our plane. They tried to start the plane but a Seabee saw them and started firing, and the rest of us joined him. Knowing they would be captured, the Japanese soldiers pulled the pin on a grenade and dropped it into the cockpit of the plane. Of course they were all killed and the plane was destroyed. We always stood guard on our planes twenty-four hours a day in shifts and I spent many a night trying notto fall sleep knowing that the island still had many Japanese soldiers in the interior. I think that contributed to the sleep problems I still have, to this day.
We were kept on “black out” status due to periodic Japanese air raids and we frequently heard Tokyo Rose broadcast how we were all going to be killed on Tinian and never get home. One day the enemy managed to blow up a complete ammunition dump on the site of our base. The explosion caused some serious damage to nearby buildings. I was grounded for a short while because of my eardrum problems but soon resumed combat missions.
Our sister squadron, VPB152, was on submarine patrol off Peleliu when they spotted what they thought was an oil slick. They flew low to assess the situation and to their complete surprise what they saw were several small life rafts filled with sailors from the sunken ship USS Indianapolis. This was the ship that had delivered the atomic bombs to Tinian in preparation for their flight to the Japanese mainland.
As the Indianapolis headed east toward Leyte Gulf, through the Philippine Sea, it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sank in twelve minutes. There were 1,196 men aboard, and about 300 of them went down with their ship. The remaining 900 tried to survive in lifeboats in the shark-infested ocean, with almost no food or water. When the PV1 plane spotted them, it had been four days since their ship sank and only 316 men were still alive, having watched their shipmates go crazy from drinking salt water, or be eaten by the sharks, who bumped the life rafts to force men into the water. The PV-1 dropped all their flotation gear and radioed for help before continuing on their flight. Eventually other planes were sent, and they rescued several hundred men, who were treated and then put on a hospital ship.
We were on Tinian for six months before being reassigned to Iwo Jima in March of 1945. We were the first medium bomber to land on Iwo Jima after the invasion of the island, and we provided picket boat sweeps through the end of May. It has been estimated that as many as 25,000 airmen were saved by having Iwo Jima as an available landing area for damaged B-29 aircraft.
I had the good luck to see several USO shows while we were stationed on the islands early in the war, including Bob Hope and Jerry Colonna when they came to entertain the sailors. They and the beautiful girls that were in the show sure had a way of improving the morale.
We were relieved in June of 1945 by VPB152, and we headed back to Tinian and from there, to Naval Air Station Kaneohe, Hawaii, and then the continental US.
Returning to the States
Over sixteen months, I flew in sixty combat missions before it was finally time for our crew to return to the US. Six planes had to be flown back to the mainland, so we drew lots and our crew was one of those chosen. We put on extra fuel in drop tanks because the first leg of the flight was beyond our range but as we flew toward Hawaii and tried to transfer extra fuel into the regular tanks, it wouldn’t flow. So we went back to Tinian to have it fixed and took off again.
This time we landed on Eniwetok and our brakes failed so we had to stay and get them fixed. We stopped at several other bases and in the meantime the crews of the other five planes were living it up at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu. As we took off from Palmyra, we lost one of our high-tension ignitions, so back we went. This time, the Navy finally sent a B-24 to pick us up. Eventually we landed at Pearl Harbor, boarded the carrier U.S.S. Breton and headed back to San Diego. We never did get to go to the Royal Hawaiian.
We were all debriefed in San Diego and our aircraft was decommissioned on June 30, 1945. Since I was still on active duty, I was sent to radar school in Oklahoma, prior to being transferred to Jacksonville, Florida. While attending radar school in Oklahoma City, I met my future wife, Lucille, at a skating rink. She was a beautiful girl and I fell for her the minute I saw her. I was always good at roller-skating, could skate backwards, spin, and do a reverse airplane spin. Naturally, I had to show off a little and managed to get her attention. We dated for the months of my radar schooling prior to my transfer to Florida and I found out that her sister lived in San Diego. After I finished further training in Florida I picked her up in Oklahoma City on my way home and we drove back to San Diego, where she stayed with her sister.
I was awarded three medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross, which allowed me an “early out” of the service. I was discharged December 22, 1945, and Lucille and I were married in April of 1946. I had served two years, nine months and twenty-one days, and was twenty years old when discharged.
After the War
I enrolled in San Diego State University in 1946, and we moved into housing on the campus. Shortly thereafter Lucille got pregnant, so I needed to go to work and put my schooling on hold. I was hired by Narmco, where they made fiberglass parts for Convair airplanes. In the course of my work I hatched a few new ideas for using fiberglass and so I was transferred to the Research and Development Department, where I worked with their top engineers. We invented the first tubular fishing rods made out of fiberglass, and after awhile I decided that I wanted to try my hand at running my own company in San Diego.
I got together some capital to manufacture the tubular fiberglass fishing rods and opened a small plant, which I called Palo Verde Tackle Company in El Cajon. During the next three years I was so engrossed with the business that Lucille finally filed for divorce. Later I sold out to the St.Croix Corporation in Park Falls, Wisconsin. I moved to Wisconsin and lived there for a year to set up the plant before I moved back to San Diego and became a real estate agent. Unfortunately I purchased more property than I sold, and when there was a slight dip in the market I went broke. By that time Lucille and I had divorced.
I moved north to Los Angeles and I went to work for LASCO, a manufacturer of plastic parts, bathtubs, plastic piping, and fiberglass panels for the building and recreational vehicle industries. In 1948, Lasco opened a new plant in Kentucky and sent me back as plant manager. There I met the original Colonel Sanders, and the governor declared me an official “Colonel of Kentucky,” an honor conferred on people who have rendered particularly fine service to the community. While living there I met and married a new sweetheart named Virginia, and we both caught “basketball fever” along with the rest of the community where everyone lived and breathed basketball.
While I was in Kentucky, I left LASCO and went to work for Filon Corporation, a division of British Petroleum located in Covington. They also had a main plant in Los Angeles and transferred us back to California. Filon built fiberglass sheeting for the building industry, and the sides of recreational vehicles, and translucent panels and skylights for greenhouses. When the environmental regulations in California got too strict Filon opened a new plant in Jonesboro, Arkansas. I transferred there and worked my way up to be the senior plant manager. In 1993 we received a number of orders from China, and they sent six of their engineers to the U.S. to train for six weeks in L.A. and six more weeks in Covington. In 1994 I went to China with these engineers to set up a Filon factory there. I stayed for several months, and when the plant was finished, I took time to see all the famous places such as the Great Wall, the Ming tombs, etc., as their guest.
Filon also had an affiliate in South Africa so I lived there and visited Kruger National Park to see all the wild animals in their natural habitat. I have put together several albums of my travels around the world and enjoy browsing through them. Unfortunately my first wife, Lucille, had some very serious health problems and I had to leave Kentucky and go to California to assist in her care.
VPB-151 had reunions every 18 months or so for the first few years after the war but now, because I was the youngest crew member, I’m the last one living. I joined the VFW here in Sonora and it’s made a world of difference to me. I’m now the Membership Chairman for the Sonora VFW and belong to the honor guard, which participates in the funeral of any vet whose family requests it. This includes a 21-gun salute, flag folding, several prayers, and then I blow Taps on my ceremonial bugle at the end of the service. I am very grateful for the support I’ve received from the local VFW.
In 2010, I was one of six guests of honor at the Sacramento Air Show in where a volunteer read my service history and I was presented with a beautiful keepsake photo of our plane and me with my Distinguished Flying Cross. We were wined and dined and had the pleasure of flying around the Sacramento Valley in a restored B-17. One of the pilots who flew a B-29 during the Cuban missile crisis was there, as well as some of the Tuskegee Airmen.
I have two sons, James (64) and Ronald (62), both of whom live here in Sonora. I am thankful for them, for living in this great country and for my good health.
Growing up I was a hard worker, but my time in the Navy helped me develop a can-do attitude and the perseverance to bring a project to a positive conclusion. These attributes were a great help to me throughout my career.
Mr. Brandon, 91, wrote the following in April 2016 as an addendum to his memoir about his WWII service in the US Navy as a member of VPB-151, Crew #6. He hopes to reach either any surviving veterans from that squadron (see list at end of narrative) or their families “so they can see what their daddy did during the war.”
What is a “Bat Outa Hell’? It is the insignia of Squadron VPB 151. Bats generally fly at night. We generally flew at night. Bats have an invisible radar. We have an invisible radar. That’s where the comparison ends.
The bat journey looks for something to eat. Our journey ends with a path of destruction. Our “bats” have 5-50 caliber machine guns in the nose, fired by the pilot, two more 50 caliber machine guns in the top turret, fired by the turret gunner, two more 30 caliber machines in the tail fired by the plane captain, and 2000 pounds of bombs in the bomb bay.
Most offensive missions were timed to take off at such a time that would put us over the target area at the first daylight.
A “glide bombing” approach was generally used from about 6000 feet down to 3000 to 4000 feet. We came out of the night like a “bat outa hell,” did our job and we left the same way.
Their radar picks us up as we approach the target and the search lights scramble all over to pick us out of the night so the anti-aircraft gunners could start targeting us. Most black puffs of smoke are the shells bursting at preset altitudes. The “glide” descent was designed to confuse the altitude for the gunners. As the shells exploded, shrapnel flies in all directions. We had three occasions where shrapnel penetrated the plane and injured crew members. They were:
Wallace E. Daughety
Robert Allen Swank
Leroy Allen Vanek.
They were all awarded Purple Hearts.
Crew #10 was hit with a direct hit on a mission to the Wolia in the Carolinas. The impact was seen by an accompany plane. Most flights involve two or more planes. The crew members were:
Lt. Kelly C. Sandy Jr.
Lt (S6) Eugene C. Hall
August Hamer Middleton
Hugh Eldon Wright
Richard Herman Knudson
Everett Herbert Hull.
All listed as “Missing in Action.”
That was the origin of the “Bat Outa Hell” insignia.
The “Ventura” medium bomber was a lot like the B-25, that was used on the historic “Tokyo Raid”, except it had heavier engines (P/W 2800 HP) and required a runway to land or take off. Total weight over 30,000 pounds made it very difficult to ditch. If you survived the impact, you have 15 to 20 seconds to get out and into your life raft. Crew #14 did not make it. Their last radio message was “preparing to ditch”. A search proved fruitless and six good friends were lost. They were:
The general offensive plan to take over the Pacific region of the war was to take out the major Japanese base in each area and let the medium bombers land and neutralize the smaller Japanese bases that were bypassed. This would keep them from any offensive threats.
Flying “blind” at night was a totally different experience, as it was sometimes necessary. There is nothing below you except miles of deep blue water. You are closely listening and watching for any sign of malfunction in any instruments or engines.
The first stage of the offense was to take Tarawa where we landed, as soon as the airfield was secured and we assumed this responsibility, as well as working with the “fleet”, in their move “westward.” The next targets was the Marianas, Guam, Tinian, and Saipan. When the islands were secure we landed on Tinian. Where Tarawa was mostly hard-pack coral, the Marianas were lush and muddy. Our base was North Field Airbase.
The “Sea Bees” quickly started to build “West Field” for our base. North Field was quickly reworked for use by the B-29’s. Flying from distant bases, they would be low on fuel when they reached Japan and without fighter protection, they were easy targets for Japanese fighters. This is why Iwo Jima was so valuable as a safe haven for damaged B- 29’s. It is estimated that as many as 25,000 airmen were saved by having Iwo as a landing site for damaged B-29’s. Then, the longer range P-51’s showed up and provided escort. We celebrated our move to West Field, as we had Quonset huts instead of worries about our cots sinking in the mud at night.
I flew over 60 missions starting at Tarawa, then on to Tinian. When the flag went up on Serabachi in late February, we landed the first of March. We were the first medium bombers to land and operate off lwo Jima. We were there March, April and May. In June, we were relieved by VPB 152, and we were ordered to bring six planes back. The pilots drew straws and we had to fly a plane back. The rest of the squadron flew back to Hawaii by Naval Air Transport. They were lodged at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel until we got there. We started the long trek home, island to island. On the last leg of our journey, we wound up on Palmyra.
There, we had ignition problems that were beyond our ability to repair. The Captain sent a B-24 down to pick us up. We got back to Hawaii and went right aboard a carrier, the U.S.S. Breton, and headed for San Diego. We never did get to the Royal Hawaiian.
I had earned three Air Medals and after 60 missions, I received the Distinguished Flying Cross, which allowed me an “early out” at the age of 20. I went in six months out of high school.
We lost two planes with their crews and my plane was totally destroyed on the ground. We normally stood guard on our planes 24/7, but in this case, we had just returned from a mission and went to the Mess Hall for something to eat. As we were exiting the Mess Hall on Nov. 28, 1944, we were greeted with a massive explosion from the airfield. Three or four Japanese “holdouts” came out of their hideaways and snuck aboard the plane. A guard at the next revetment saw them and fired in the air. This started more firing and rather than surrender, they dropped a grenade in the cockpit, causing the loud explosion. This left a complete mess of airplane debris and body parts.
NOTE FROM BOB GILL to Mr. Brandon:
Thanks for the article covering our squadrons history during those “troubling times.” There are just a few of us left. You’re 91 and I’m 94. The rest are in the same bucket. I guess we are all waiting IN THE “Ready Room” for “landing instructions for the next reunion.” The article will mean a lot to them and much more to the relatives of the members who didn’t come back. “The Ready Room” name has long been used as a focal point to coordinate and plan any major activity such as a military operation where all details are coordinated. In this case it is used to plan all reunions.
I’m sending you the last large squadron insignia to display as you see fit.
Bob Gill, Radioman from Crew 9