80th Anniversary of the B-17 crash at Patag Airfield
When the War came crashing down in Cagayan de Misamis, Dec. 14, 1941
Cagayan de Misamis (as Cagayan de Oro in the island of Mindanao, the Philippines, was then known) got its first whiff of World War II when a B-17D bomber crash landed at the Cagayan Airfield (site of the present Patag Golf Course) on 14 December 1941.
Raul Ilogon, whose father Jesus ran away from their home to join the guerrillas at the tender age of 17, tells how the latter used to tell them how he saw the wounded airmen from that B-17 near their house.
“My father’s family lived in Licoan where the provincial hospital was located nearby. My father said he saw the wounded American airmen on that plane. During daytime they were taken out of the hospital for fear of Japanese bombings and hidden beneath the canopy of century old acacia trees near their house. They were in stretchers and wheelchairs. He saw the look in their eyes that in his young mind was telling him they were going to lose the war.”
What many people didn’t and couldn’t have known then, was that the pilot of that B-17 was going to be feted as a war hero back home in the US, star as himself in a movie that won an Oscar, make a significant contribution to the eventual defeat of Japan, and become a future general of the US Air Force.
Lieutenant General Hewitt Terrell Wheless was born on 31 October 1913 in Menard Country, Texas,
USA. Growing up as a kid in Menard, Texas his classmates nicknamed him ‘Nun’ because “There was
scarcely none of him at all”.
Wheless wanted to become a pilot, but his friends told him he was too short. They bet him a new pair of cowboy boots that he couldn’t make it. Wheless proved them wrong and won the boots.
He began pilot training as an aviation cadet at Randolph Field (now Randolph Air Force Base, a part of
Joint Base San Antonio), Texas, in June 1938, and graduated at Kelly Field (now Kelly Air Reserve Base,
a part of Joint Base San Antonio), Texas with his pilot wings.
He was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in the US Army Air Corps Reserve in May 1939 and was first
assigned as assistant operations officer of the 38th Reconnaissance Squadron at March Field (now March Air Reserve Base), California.
Wheless trained on multi-engine bombers and was eventually assigned to the 19 th Bomb Group equipped with the B-17-C Flying Fortress. In October 1941 he was assigned to the 19th Bombardment Group of General Douglas MacArthur’s Far East Air Force (FEAF).
Initially the FEAF also included aircraft and personnel of the Philippine Army Air Corps. Outnumbered
operationally more than three-to-one by aircraft of the Japanese Navy and Army, FEAF was largely
destroyed during the Philippines Campaign of 1941–42.
When the war broke out, 28-year-old 1st Lt. Shorty Wheless was a Boeing B-17D Flying Fortress pilot
with the 19th Bombardment Group, stationed at Clark Field in the Philippines.
After the Japanese attacked the Philippines on the afternoon of December 8, Wheless and others — along with what was left of the original 17 B-17s at Clark — flew south to Del Monte Field at Tankulan,
Bukidnon on the island of Mindanao two days later.
There, they were some 500 miles out of range of Japanese bombers. On the afternoon of December 14 six of the Fortresses were ordered to attack an enemy invasion force at Legaspi, on the southern tip of Luzon. Wheless’ B-17 was one of the six assigned to the mission.
The Legaspi Mission
Although the Legaspi attack would be the biggest single raid against the Japanese to date in the week-old war, bad luck and mechanical difficulties, which had plagued the 19th Bombardment Group from the beginning, continued.
When the lead B-17, piloted by Lieutenant Jim Connally, began its takeoff run, a tire blew out, forcing the big ship off the runway. As the Fortress slid off the field, its right wingtip dipped to the ground and
The five remaining planes, piloted by Wheless and Lieutenants Lee Coats, Jack Adams, Elliot
Vandevanter and Walter Ford, got off safely, the last plane leaving the runway at 12:14 p.m.
About 200 miles out, the group ran into a spot of bad weather. When they broke out of the storm a few minutes later, Wheless was nowhere to be seen. His No. 3 engine had quit, forcing him to drop out.
From that point on, things went from bad to worse. A half-hour out from the target, Ford radioed Coats, who had taken over from Connally, that he was having engine trouble and was returning to Del Monte. At the scheduled rendezvous point, about 35 miles from where the flight was to make its final turn for the target, Coats radioed that his engines were performing so badly that he was unable to make altitude, and was turning back.
That left Vandevanter and Adams to go it alone. Forced to drop down to 18,000 feet because of cloud
cover, Adams was the first over the target.
After releasing his eight 600-pounders at the line of enemy transports sitting off the Legaspi beach, he
was jumped by five Mitsubishi A6M Zeros.
Adams had two of his engines were knocked out and two of his crew were wounded. Adams’ crew
managed to shoot down two of the enemy fighters during the race for the clouds, but the remaining three Zeros were waiting for them when they came out.
At that point, Adams ‘pulled a cute one,’ according to Harry Schrieber, his navigator. ‘He throttled back suddenly and one Zero overshot us to the left, which our side gunner picked off. Another came up under the stabilizer, and our bottom gunner got his second for the day.’
Losing altitude while still battling the last enemy fighter, Adams decided to try for a beach landing on the nearby island of Masbate, just south of Luzon.
Unfortunately, there was no real beach — ‘only jagged rocks with white surf wrapped around them,’
Desperately looking for a place to land, Adams spotted a rice paddy. ‘Cutting the remaining two motors so we wouldn’t have to climb out of her in flames, he made as nice a belly landing as you could hope for,’ said Schrieber. After a couple of passes over the downed bomber, the lone Zero turned for home.
Vandevanter, in the other B-17, arrived over the target three minutes behind Adams. Fortunately for him, Adams had attracted the attention of all the Zero pilots, so Vandevanter was able to make three
uncontested runs over the target before more fighters appeared and chased him into a cloud bank.
Vandevanter’s plane escaped without a scratch and returned safely to Del Monte.
Meanwhile, the engine trouble that had caused Wheless to drop out of formation had been fixed.
Although he was far behind the other four B-17s, he chose to continue on to the target, knowing that he would likely be attacking an alerted enemy whose defense might well include fighter planes.
That decision would soon vault his name into virtually every major American newspaper and magazine.
In fact — although Wheless didn’t find it out until two days after the mission — only two B-17s had
made it to the target ahead of him. Although the number of enemy planes that jumped him was estimated at 18, in reality it was probably closer to 12. While the running battle with the enemy fighters was in progress, Wheless headed straight for the six enemy transports neatly lined up off Legaspi.
The plane was committed to the bomb run; they were flying straight and level unable to take evasive
action. A gunner called out eighteen enemy fighters, two squadrons, one on the left and one on the right bearing into them.
The bombardier had control of the ship as he lined up the target in the bomb-sight, all Wheless could do was sit still and hope he didn’t get shot down. The bombardier shouted “Bombs away, bomb bay doors closed, kick her in the behind!”
After bombardier released his eight 600-pounders, Wheless’ attention was focused on taking evasive
action and giving his gunners a crack at the Japanese fighter pilots.
Wheless went into a sharp turn and desperately looked for cloud cover. He only saw scattered cumulus clouds, not enough to hide a B-17 for very long.
The Essence of Valor
Gunners Russell Brown and William “Pat” Williams each claimed a Zero before being wounded.
As Young noted in his Aviation History story, the early B-17s didn’t have tail guns. Williams battle
station was in the “bathtub,” a bulge in the plane’s belly that was equipped with twin .50-cal. machine
“I was busy firing those guns,” he said. “They were coming from the left and right.”
Williams was one of the four gunners in the plane’s mid-section. The others were two waist gunners
firing from each side and the radio operator who shot twin machine guns from the top of the plane.
Williams gun jammed, but being a mechanic, he managed to clear them with a screwdriver.
Then W.G. Killin, the radio operator’s guns jammed and he asked Williams to change places with him
and unjam the guns.
“He got into the bathtub,” Williams said, “and instantly his head was blown off.”
Williams, who was hit by a 20mm shell from one of the enemy planes, had his leg ripped open, knocking him out of the fight.
Brown, whose right hand had been nearly shot off, was unable to operate his gun. The job of firing both waist guns went to Sergeant John Gootee, who though himself wounded in the right wrist, kept firing both guns until helped by the bombardier, Schlotte.
The seven enemy planes claimed by Wheless and the four claimed by Adams in his brief fight may seem hard to believe in light of later WWII statistics.
Remember, however, that this was the first time the Japanese had tangled with a B-17. The Zero pilots were unfamiliar with the Fortress’ firepower and the location of its guns.
On the other hand, the system of authenticating a kill by a witness had not yet been put in place by the U.S. Army Air Forces. Had it been, the count might have been reduced to five or less.
Also, it was apparently not possible for a large number of planes to literally swarm all over a B-17.
Saburo Sakai, the Japanese ace who shot down Colin Kelly, said: ‘It was impossible for (a large number
of Zeros) to make a concerted attack against the bomber, for in the rarified air we could easily over
control and collide with each other. Instead, we swung out in a long file, and made our firing passes one after another, each plane making its run alone.’
This was particularly easy against the D-model B-17, since it had no tail gun, relying instead on the gun
in the bathtub position to help cover the tail.
As far as it went, this assessment of the damage was correct. The 5-foot-6, 138-pound Wheless was
struggling for all he was worth to keep the big plane in the air while it was being shot to pieces by
machine-gun and cannon fire from the Zeros.
The running battle with the Japanese fighters, which had begun the minute the plane appeared over the target, would last for 75 miles.
The B-17 had dropped from 9,000 feet to 3,500. First the No. 1 engine was shot up, its throttle cable shot in two and had to be feathered as he could see gasoline spraying out. The gas tank for the number 4 engine was also leaking.
Then, in rapid succession, bullets shot out the radio and the oxygen system and his number 3 engine was smoking.
Then a 6-inch hole appeared in the right wing fuel tank, the result of 20mm cannon fire. After that came a sudden loss of control, when a hail of 20mm fire severed seven of the control cables of the big plane, leaving cables intact for only right rudder, one elevator and both ailerons.
Concentrating on flying, Wheless did not know what was happening in the rest of the airplane.
The radio operator had been killed, his upper gunner had his thigh split from hip to knee by an explosive shell, he lay on the floor crippled, reaching for his gun to fight back with. One waist gunner was wounded and the other manned both guns, ignoring the pain from a cracked wrist. The flight engineer fought on too, steadying his gun with one hand because his other hand was shot away.
By that time, both wheels had been shot flat and the tail wheel had been blown completely out of its
mount. Then there were the three wounded crewmen and one killed in action — with three machine guns jammed or otherwise out of commission. Fuel was spewing freely out of the right wing tank, which meant that a second engine would quit just miles from the Mindanao coast.
It ain’t over till it’s over
Looking for protection from the Zeros on his tail, Wheless ducked into a cloud bank as he left the Luzon coast. When he broke out minutes later, not a Japanese plane was to be seen.
The enemy pilots — either low on ammunition or fuel, or sure the battered B-17, trailing smoke and
gasoline and limping along on three engines, was finished — had given up the chase.
Wheless was afraid to pick up his microphone since he thought everyone in the ship must be dead. He
was relieved to see the navigator alive when he came up to offer a hand and patch up the wounded.
The plane was running on two engines, lost its oxygen system, seven out of eleven control cables, the tail wheel was gone and both of its landing wheels were shot flat. Without much control surface left, there was little Wheless could do but fly straight and level.
As Wheless neared the Mindanao coast, it was getting dark and had started to rain.
After fighting to keep the plane in the air for more than 300 miles, he knew his chances were slim of
reaching Del Monte. When the second engine ran out of gas, with nothing but jungle between the
Mindanao coast and Del Monte, Wheless decided to head for an auxiliary strip at Cagayan, on the
northern coast of the island.
Crash Landing in Cagayan
Afraid to fly other than in a straight line because of his damaged control cables, Wheless would not be
able to check out the field first before coming in. He knew that he would have just one shot at landing.
As he gingerly banked the plane toward the field and started in, he was aghast to see it had been
barricaded in anticipation of its being used by the Japanese. Past the point of no return, Wheless lowered his landing gear, possibly unaware that the tires had both been shot flat.
He could not belly land as there was no way to strap down the wounded. As the plane flew over the
barricaded field, one of the two remaining engines ran out of gas.
The plane landed, hitting a palm tree on the way in, ripped through several barricades, then some 200
yards down the runway the big bomber’s brakes suddenly locked, and after it rolled 500 feet, the 39,000 lbs. aircraft stopped suddenly and went up on its nose for a second before crashing down on its tail. They were down at last, even though it was far from the routine landing the president had implied. After getting the wounded crewmen to the small hospital at Cagayan, the ground crew counted at least 1,200 bullet holes in the plane. Each propeller blade had been hit five or six times.
For his gallant efforts in bringing the shot-up Fortress and her wounded crewmen back to base, Lieutenant Hewitt T. Wheless was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
After the war, Wheless became the Strategic Air Command (SAC) Director of Plans in September 1960,
and in July 1962 he was named its Chief of Staff. In June 1963 he was assigned to Headquarters US Air
Force, Washington DC as the Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff, Programs and Requirements and became
its Deputy Chief of Staff the following February and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general.
In February 1965 he became the Assistant US Air Force Vice Chief of Staff at Washington DC and in
1967 was appointed Senior Air Force Member of the Military Staff Committee, United Nations in
He retired at these positions in June 1968 with the rank of Lieutenant General after 33 years of continuous military service.
He died on 07 September 1985 at the age of 72 in Tucson, Pima County, Arizona, USA and is buried at
the Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Arlington Country, Virginia, USA at Section 30 Site 384-