The Last Liberator

The Last Liberator
by Lawrence V. Drake
as related by Vernon L. Drake

Streamy, thick air enveloped the typical morning at the 10th Air Force Base near Pandaveswar, India in 1945. The kind that causes shirts to soak with sweat just walking from the basha huts to the chow hall. Out on the flight line, an excited crew is warming up the engines of the very special bomber. Four huge propellers swirl hot dust against the earth-banked revetment designed to capture at least some of the turbulence created by the big beast.

On this morning the crew has been assigned a special mission to fly a truly unique airplane. They were an unlikely choice since they had earned an unsavory reputation. The fact that the enlisted men of the crew had been “busted” at the Port of Embarkation for pulling a fake assignment to get off kitchen duty added only one of several black marks. They skipped KP and spent the day carousing in Miami Beach. But today, the gunners and bombardier would not be needed. The mission wouldn’t be flying into Burma to attack Rangoon or take out bridges behind enemy lines the 9th Bomb Squadron was known for. Those twelve to fifteen-hour missions were brutal. This detail would be a cakewalk.

The airplane, a B-24J Liberator Bomber, was different from its squadron mates. What appeared from a distance to be special camouflage paint was in fact, the signatures and nicknames of the aircraft workers at the Consolidated Aircraft plant in Fort Worth, Texas. They were the people who had built this last of the two thousand seven hundred and forty-five B-24s assembled there. This one was also special because General “Hap” Arnold had issued orders requiring reports of the airplane’s combat actions to be sent back to Ft. Worth for employee moral purposes. The events would also be useful PR for the general population stateside.

The last B-24 to leave the Fort Worth assembly plant

Jeeps soon arrived in the early morning sunlight with their loads of VIP “brass.” The mission was to fly the Group Commander and Tactical Officers to another base for a high-level conference. A return trip was to be made in the evening… an easy assignment. The VIP passengers were soon boarded in the waist compartment of the rumbling beast, strapped in, and anxious to find cooler air aloft.

The event provided a “heady” moment for a young 2nd Lt. Ralph L. Goodrich, the ship’s pilot. Advancing the throttles, the large bird lumbered out of the revetment and down the taxiway to the near end of the narrow asphalt strip. To demonstrate his skill, Lt. Goodrich called for the engines to be tested “on the roll.” A quick check for incoming aircraft was followed by a non-stop turn onto the runway, squealing the tires as the plane swung around. Four muscular engines roared to life sending the bird rumbling down the tarmac, slowly gaining speed until it gracefully lifted into the air for a picture perfect takeoff. Goodrich beamed with satisfaction.

Smooth air and the good weather cooperated to make the flight uneventful. The big bird sailed gracefully over the green landscape as its valuable cargo traded military strategies within. At the end of the forty-five-minute flight, Lt. Goodrich made an equally satisfying landing at their destination. As the bomber taxied onto the ramp, film crews and reporters awaited its arrival. The young aircraft commander and his copilot 2nd Lt. Vernon L. Drake, shut down the engines following the post-flight checklist while the VIP officers clamored out of the bomb bay doors. Photographers gathered around and clicked away at the brass posing beside the special airplane, making sure the painted signatures got their proper due. An enthusiastic crew crowded onto the flight deck where they smiled and waved from the windows, hopeful that wives and sweethearts might get a glimpse of them on Tinkertown News. The trip had gone well, each crewmember performing their part. They felt proud.

Taxiing out at Pandaveswar

With their mission a success they were assigned to fly down to Dudhkundi, an almost vacated ex-B-29 Base, for another load of “Brass” attending the conference. For the flight crew that had been together since assembly in Pueblo, Colorado, these flights provided a chance to show off their skill. Lt. Goodrich was never shy about demonstrating his prowess at handling an aircraft. Quickly forgotten were the two reprimands he received for flying formation too tight in combat, a habit he had picked up during Transition Training. When the mission‘s flight leader broke radio silence with the order to, “Move out,” the young aircraft commander remarked to his copilot, “the leader just doesn’t know what good formation flying is. Besides, he’s too chicken to turn the formation toward his close-in left wingman.” As a result of Lt. Goodrich’s tight formation, the leader had to take the whole group in a 270-degree right turn, prolonging exposure to enemy action. But that was then. This was Lt. Goodrich’s show now.

The sun had grown hot and the flight crew soaked with sweat as they awaited their passengers on the huge concrete apron where rows of B-29 bombers formerly sat preparing to attack Japanese targets in the Pacific Rim, even Japan itself. A single officer arrived for boarding. Lt. Goodrich recognized him as the Tactical Officer who had been experimenting and training the 493rd crew for low-level bridge bombing using the radio-controlled AZON bombs. The two or three practice runs Lt. Goodrich had made for the program convinced him that low-level bombing was his kind of flying.

The thermometer projecting through the windshield read 135˚F as the Liberator headed down the runway. Takeoff was in the opposite direction from the previous landing, but that didn’t matter since the windsock hung lifeless on its pole. The runway was more than double the length of the one to which the crew was accustomed to using with a full load of bombs and gas. With a long runway and a light load, takeoff presented little challenge. Maybe it was the heat, or hurry to get in the air, or the desire to impress the passenger… whatever, the enthusiastic commander pulled back on the control wheel as soon as he felt the ship getting light. Instead of the normal, “gear up,” signal to the flight engineer, Lt. Goodrich pulled up the gear handle himself and immediately braked to stop wheel rotation before they fully retracted. A sickening sense struck the pilots as they felt the plane, not quite ready to fly, settle back toward the pavement. Copilot, 2nd Lt. Drake, threw the gear handle down… but too late. The gear lock had released and the big wheels were heading for the wells. Screeching rubber and bending metal drowned out the roar of the engines. The nose wheel buckled and the tires on the main gear exploded as the proud bird dropped to the pavement. Powdered concrete dust and smoke poured into the cockpit obscuring all vision as the aircraft hulk skidded out of control down the runway. Blinded by the debris, Lt. Drake’s emergency procedure training took over. He rapidly searched for switches, flipping them off as he went. Once through, he reached out to recheck what he had done and felt Lt. Goodrich’s hand turning switches back on. Goodrich, too, was performing the checklist blindly. After what seemed like several minutes, the terrific grinding and screeching subsided as the big plane slid to rest. A quiet calm came over the cockpit. The crew sat in disbelief for a brief moment, letting the event sink in before springing into action.

Navigator, Lt. Ralph Chaplin, radio operator Pvt. James Coogan, and flight engineer Cpl. Ralph Stinson exited by the top hatch, slid off the wing, and sprinted for the edge of the runway. Lt. Goodrich went out the left side window and dropped ten feet to the ground. Clouded by the subsiding dust, 2nd Lt. Drake could make out through his window the propeller on number three engine still spinning and decided following Lt. Goodrich out his window was the best alternative.

The two pilots lay in the dirt beside the runway with faces and clothes so caked with dust that only their eyes were visible. Getting to their feet, they scrambled to join their crew at the side of the runway where they looked back at the pride of the Consolidated Aircraft workers, lying helpless on its belly, propellers curled back, engulfed in dust and smoke. Not only was the aircraft damaged but so was the ego of a slightly overly confident aircraft commander.

Lt. Goodrich took a quick assessment of his crew. All personnel were safe and accounted for… except for the passenger. As the great cloud of dust settled, the Tactical Commander appeared in the waist window. He called out, “did anyone disconnect the batteries?” Cpl. Stinson said he hadn’t and wasn’t about to go back in. Lt. Goodrich and 2nd Lt. Drake wiped the dust from their faces and climbed back into the crippled hulk. The job was done by the time the fire apparatus arrived. Luckily, there was no fire to put out.

The crewmembers, after being flown to a hospital, were returned to base the same day. Word had reached the base before them and they were greeted by friends who had assumed the worst when they heard that the Last B-24 had crashed. The incident did not impress Command and the crew was grounded during the subsequent investigation. The crewmembers did fly again, but not as a crew for a long time. Lt. Goodrich and 2nd Lt. Drake were assigned as co-pilots to other crews for a period. 2nd Lt. Drake eventually earned the left seat position as Aircraft Commander. Lt. Goodrich also returned as Commander on other aircraft. Both finished out there time in the China, Burma, India Theater and returned home.

From what 2nd Lt. Drake observed, the last B-24 was not badly damaged in the crash. Rumors circulated that she had been broken in two while being drug from the runway. Another rumor emerged that the repaired “Last B-24” did indeed fly again.

*** The End ***