Editor’s note: Last week, Wes Edens introduced readers to Joe E. Neal, better-known to his friends and family as Gene. In part one of Gene’s story, we learned about his childhood growing up in the Sulphur area. We learned where Gene was when he got “the letter,” and followed along as he headed to Texas to begin training for his service in the Army Air Corps. Come with us now, as Gene completes his training and heads to war. Here is the second installment of Gene’s story.
Part III: Training Joe E. Neal #38-406-087
“[T]wo sky fleets flew unescorted to the heavily defended north German bases for the double-barreled attack. The cost was 26 four-engined bombers, the most severe loss ever suffered by the Eighth air force in a single day’s operations. “ — The Oklahoman, Monday, June 14, 1943.
It was but one article relating to the war appearing on the front page Monday, June 14, 1943, the day when Gene — formal name Joe E. Neal — would be inducted and assigned serial number 38 406 087 at the age of 18 years, 6 months.
Gene boarded a bus and, after a short layover in Oklahoma City, found himself at “Sheppard Field,” located a few miles outside Wichita Falls, Texas. Sheppard Field would later be renamed to its current-day Sheppard Air Force Base.
Having worked on a farm during the Oklahoma summers, Gene was certainly no stranger to a hot day. It was, however, the climate that made an impression on his first day in Texas.
“We pulled up at the gate down there waiting for them to let us in, and this is in July now, and if you’ve never been at Sheppard Field in July you missed a warm day,” he said.
The high temperature on July 6, 1943, in Wichita Falls was 104 degrees . It was the date Gene officially entered active service. The next month would see only two days below 100 degrees, with the thermometer peaking at 110 on Aug. 16, 1943.
Gene’s assessment of having “missed a warm day” had certainly been accurate if, perhaps, not a bit understated. It was also the first day he could recall having pondered his situation with the kind of clarity that comes with being on a bus, with no air conditioning, in 100-degree Texas heat.
“I remember looking down across there, and of course that ground’s all level, and I could see the dust a boilin’ up down there and I could see the boys marching,” he said. “And I thought, ‘What in the world have I got into?’”
The other lasting impression Gene had from Sheppard Field was a particular sergeant with a fondness for yelling, for whistles and for generally making the cadet’s life miserable — as if the temperatures alone had not been enough.
Gene, along with 99 other cadets, would eventually leave Sheppard Field for Kansas State Teachers College in Emporia, Kansas. A photograph dated Dec. 21, 1943, identified the collective group as “Squadron A – 84th College Training Detachment (Air Crew).”
Leaving Kansas, the next stop was Santa Ana, California, where the 100 men of “Squadron A” would be reclassified. Ten would be selected to go on training as pilots, navigators or bombardiers. The others would start training as mechanics, gunners or some other necessary component of the Army Air Corps.
Gene had his eye on training as a mechanic and with that, he left California. Gene would next spend a couple weeks back in Texas, in the Amarillo area, pursuing training as an airplane mechanic. The Air Corps Technical School was located 10 miles east of Amarillo, where training was taking place for bomber mechanics and technicians.
Gene was not the only one that had opted to learn aircraft mechanics and, arriving to Amarillo, he and the Army discovered the training classes were full. The Army reclassified him once again and, once again, he headed back to Kansas, this time to load bombs on airplanes.
“The next morning they took me down on the line, and I went in a big ol’ hanger and saw the biggest airplane I thought I’d ever seen in my life… B-29,” he said. “They was gettin’ ready to go [the B-29’s] so they put me into loading bombs. I didn’t particularly care for that.”
Gene wasn’t particularly enthralled with the Army’s idea that he should be loading bombs, “… not that we had a lot of choice.” After a few days, Gene noticed a flyer on a bulletin board offering slots in “gunner school.” It seemed like a better option than loading bombs, so Gene decided to give that a try and, with that decision, Gene would once again find himself back in Texas.
Harlingen, Texas, is located in the central region of the Rio Grande Valley, about 30 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. It would be the site where hundreds of men like Gene would be trained in the nuances of shooting moving targets while from a moving target.
Gene recalled that many of those targets were being towed by women pilots. Women serving at Army airbases might have seemed unusual to a lot of people at the time, including the United States Army.
At first, the official name for the training area was the Harlingen Aerial Gunner School. That name, or more appropriately the acronym for it, would become problematic when women began serving. The Army decided, appropriately enough, that HAGS would be renamed to Harlingen Army Airfield.
Over the next months, cadets would spend time in both the air and on the ground, shooting targets mounted on tracks. In addition to shotguns, Gene was also training on the .50-caliber machine gun. It was the “.50-caliber machine gun” training that proved memorable.
“I was shooting mine, and it stopped,” he said. “I reached up [grabbing the handle to clear the gun] and charged it, and the shell fell out and went off as it fell out.”
While a .50-caliber machine gun round going off at your feet would be memorable, at least it wasn’t a bomb. Undaunted, Gene completed his aerial marksmanship training and once again packed his bags, headed for Nevada.
Part IV: The birth
of Crew 360
The Tonopah Army Airfield, located in southern Nevada, would become the training site where Gene would meet the nine other men that would become known as “Crew 360.” Together, Crew 360 would continue their training and begin forming bonds of friendship that would continue well past their service in the Air Corps.
Crew 360 was comprised of six enlisted men who “made good friends.” Gene can remember most all of the names and the fact that most of them were either 21 or 22 years old. Gene and the engineer, Clayton “Russ” Russell, were both 20 and, in Gene’s words, became “real good friends.”
Gene and Russ are the last two living members of Crew 360 and last got together in the fall of 2018, some 75 years after they first met. “Pretty good friends” was, like the “pretty warm day” observation, another characteristic Gene Neal understatement.
Crew 360 continued their training, flying, shooting targets and learning how to work together as a crew.
Leaving Nevada, Crew 360 arrived in Sacramento, California, where they were issued their first plane. Gene recalled it was brand new, one with radar, but also one that used too much fuel. Gene and Crew 360 were making check rides, trying to resolve the fuel problem until the Army resolved it for them.
“They finally just jacked it up and put an auxiliary tank in the bomb bay and sent us out,” Gene said.
By “out,” he meant the roughly 2,400 miles across the Pacific Ocean to the Hawaiian Islands. With an advertised range of 2,100 miles, the auxiliary fuel tank loaded in the bomb bay would have been a welcome accessory.
The flight was not without worries. The navigator had miscalculated and determined they were going to run out of fuel before reaching the Hawaiian Islands. The navigator’s calculations were, thankfully, incorrect, and Crew 360 landed their B-24 without further incident.
One of the many things Gene had learned about the B-24 during his training was the location of a good place to take a nap. “When things were dull, I’d take a nap until they hollered at me.”
Gene spent at least part of the trip to Hawaiian Islands napping in a small area of the forward compartment, next to the retracted nose wheel.
Apparently, any concerns of ditching in the Pacific Ocean didn’t warrant waking him up, so he missed out on any discussions that may have taken place about the likelihood of successfully landing a B-24, a decidedly non-amphibious airplane, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The next few days had been consumed hopping from one island to another as their journey across the Pacific Ocean continued. Gene recalled landing at Canton Island, a small spit of land about halfway between Hawaii and Fiji with only one tree and one runway. The crew would spend one day on the tiny atoll before continuing on to New Guinea.
Part V: 307th Bomb Group – The Long Rangers.
Gene recalled by the time they had reached New Guinea, they “had’m whipped by that point,” referring to the battles between U.S. forces and the Japanese. Gene’s recollection was their first two missions had been flown out of New Guinea before heading to Morotai Island.
Morotai Island is but one island in a chain in Indonesia. The island, about 50 miles long and 25 miles wide, had been invaded by Japanese forces in early 1942 and remained a contested piece of ground through 1945. Although the island was officially under the control of U.S. forces, it was also occupied by a small number of Japanese forces.
“There was still Japanese on Morotai. Not a bunch of them, but [and] some of them would slip into camp and steal something to eat every once in a while ... We had enough PT boats in the area to keep them on the islands.”
The fact the island was still occupied would become a notable point in history years after the war had ended. Terou Nakamura, a private in the Imperial Japanese Army, had remained on the island and did not surrender until discovered in 1974, 29 years after the war had ended. Nakamura is widely considered to be the last Japanese soldier to surrender.
The 307th became aptly known as “The Long Rangers.” Many of their missions would take 12 to 15 hours from the time the plane had gone wheels up to their return at touchdown. Those missions, mostly flown from Morotai, would push the B-24’s to the limits of their 2,000-mile range.
Many of the missions assigned to Crew 360 and the other B-24s were attacks directed against Japanese “airdromes.” The purpose of those missions was to destroy enemy airplanes as well as to damage the runways, so that any planes the Japanese could get operational would be unable to take to the air.
While the B-24s did not regularly encounter enemy aircraft at this point of the war, there were occasions when the Japanese air forces would taunt the heavy bombers. In one particular incident, a Japanese fighter had come up and met the group but remained just out of range of the B-24 formation. Part of the reluctance of the Japanese pilot may have been due to Gene firing the .50-caliber Browning machine guns, “just to make sure he knew we were there.”
A declassified monthly report dated May 14, 1945, by Maj. Warren E. Scarr, 307th Bomb Group, told of a very similar encounter:
“Only one enemy airplane was encountered during the month. On 24 April, over Boeleedoang Airdrome in South Borneo, one Float type (probably a Rufe) was seen at a distance of 1500 yards. The fighter made eight or nine feeble passes, never coming closer than 1,000 yards. Lack of fighter interception attests to the success of the attacks our bombers have been making against enemy airdromes and installations.”
The post mission reports rarely included names of the crewmen involved, so we may never know if that particular account was about the specific encounter Gene had recalled. He did say, however, it was the same location, South Borneo, and had been around the same time.
While there may have been a lack of enthusiasm by the Japanese fighter pilots, that is not to say that there were not incidents. One declassified Army report, dated 10 May 1945, from the 307th Wing described four enemy fighters that attacked a formation of B-24s flying at 10,000 feet. One B-24 was lost while the other landed safely, with machine gun fire having damaged the #1 and #4 engines. Bullet holes were found in the #3 engine propeller and the cockpit.
Flying the four-engine bomber back to safety with three of the four engines damaged was a testament to the skills and ability of the pilots in command, a task made even more arduous by the freshly made bullet holes in the cockpit.
On one mission, Crew 360 had been tasked with attacking a Japanese battleship. As the plane lined up in its attack posture Gene, sitting in the nose gunner position, had an unnervingly clear view of the flashes, followed by the unmistakable puffs of smoke from the “Ack Ack” (anti-aircraft guns) that began bursting around the airplane.
“He got us the heck out of there!” Gene recalled.
With a slight crack in his voice and a noticeable change in emotion, Gene concluded that Pilot Ralph Brownlee “was the best guy you ever saw.” It is an understandable admiration given to the man who flew Crew 360 into harm’s way and safely returned them to base on each mission.
Maj. Brownlee passed away Dec. 17, 1995, in Heber Springs, Arkansas.
Gene Neal’s story, as told by Wes Edens in this three-part series, is part of The Ada News’ focus on veterans ahead of Memorial Day. The first installment appeared in the Saturday, May 4 edition of the newspaper, and the third and final installment will appear in the Saturday, May 18, edition. We hope you will join us next Saturday, when the war ends and Gene returns home. We are honored to be able to tell Gene’s story. We’re thankful for the service he and every other veteran has rendered to our nation, our state and our community.