Monday, November 3, 2008

The Seahorse Marines

The Knoxville News Sentinel has a wonderful story about a reunion of the "Seahorse Marines," a group of Marines who flew B-25 bombers in the Pacific during World War II. The Seahorse Marines flew planes the US Army Air Corps discarded. Their mechanics kept them in the air, despite battle damage and a lack of parts. Their pilots flew them on low-level missions and night bombing missions over the Solomon Sea and Bismarck Sea Islands, helping win the War in the Pacific. They lost 9 bombers and 41 crew during their combat in the Pacific, and succeeded in keeping the Japanese bottled up and unable to push into Australia, or go anywhere for that matter. The men of VMB-423, the Seahorse Marines, just had their annual reunion in Knoxville. I bet it was a great time to hear those wonderful stories that we too often forget to take the time to hear. The "Greatest Generation" is called the greatest for a reason, and it's not just because they have great stories. They did great things.

The surviving Seahorse Marines (there are about 50 Marines left from what was a 500 member unit during WWII), tell about flying low-level runs using a plane that some describe as "flying a bank vault." Apparently love-level bombing runs were more fun because there was the excitement of getting shot at. The pilots would fly the plane in the trees or "side slip" through canyons. One of the tail gunners said that he'd look up and see the tops of trees and then he'd look down and see the bottoms of the trees. The radioman and side gunner described the tree-level flying as "squirrel hunting." Okay.... I'm starting to get a picture of the type of young men that made up the Seahorse Marines.

They also loved to do what the Marines called "heckling." On those missions, they'd fly at night and drop a single bomb, then turn and drop another, then another turn and another bomb (you get the picture) until they ran out of ordinance. Heckling missions were designed to pin the enemy down, and they did.

My favorite story, though, demonstrates just how innovative (and sneaky) these Marines could be. Someone found out that a stubby-necked beer bottle made the same whistle as a 100-lb bomb when the beer bottle was dropped out of a plane at altitude. So the Marines would drink the beer before takeoff, fly to a target for a heckling mission, drop a bomb or two, then a couple of those (now) empty beer bottles, then more bombs. According to one of the surviving Marines, "The Japs would get confused in their counting and think the bombing was over. They counted the whistles instead of the explosions. They'd turn the lights back on, and we'd bomb them again." I think I'll agree with the Marine. According to the Knoxville Sentinel reporter, the Marine telling the story "smiled and the rest of the boys around the table, their hats aglitter with seahorses and bombers, laughed at the memory of a night of Marine Corps heckling."

You just gotta love these guys!

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