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The A-26 Invader Fights in the Pacific: Forward


By Joseph W. Connaughton (438th Sqd.) and Gene P. Ryan (439th Sqd.)

The 319th Bomb Group (consisting of the 437, 438, 439, and 440th Squadrons) was activated at Barksdale Field, Shreveport, Louisiana - a hastily assembled patchwork of pilots, aircrew and ground crew from a variety of sources. The core personnel of the 17th Bomb Group, the oldest medium bomb group in the Army Air Corps, tracing its roots back to squadrons that had seen action in World War I was joined by graduates from flight training and maintenance schools and five veterans of the Jimmy Doolittle raid on Tokyo.

The urgency was to get the new, and hot Martin B-26 Marauder medium bomber into combat to support Operation Torch, the planned invasion of North Africa, in the fall of 1942. After a short period of training, the group took 57 B-26 Marauders from Baer Field, Indiana across the 'northern route' to England and on to North Africa. Because of the frigid weather and poor flying conditions only 43% of the planes and crews arrived in North Africa.14% were lost enroute and the remainder finally arrived via the 'southern route' - except for four that didn't complete the crossing.

The group initially used the plane as a low-level attack bomber as recommended by the Martin Company and the Army. Although notable results were achieved, this use of the Marauder proved to be too costly against the extensive antiaircraft armaments of the Germans. Because of heavy losses, the 319th was pulled from combat after 29 missions to be reconstituted with replacement crews and planes.

They had lost 17 Marauders and 47 men killed in only two and a half months of combat. But, they had sunk three freighters, three cargo liners, two barges, one destroyer and probably a cargo liner. Fourteen enemy aircraft were destroyed, 10 damaged and 10 probably destroyed.

During their reconstitution at Rabat, French Morocco they received intensified training in medium altitude bombing by their Operations Officer Captain Randy Holzapple using the Norden bombsight. Holzapple would later be the Group Commander of the 319th until the end of the war. He was determined that this group would develop the necessary skills and strategies to never again suffer such devastating losses. When they returned to combat, after a three-month absence, they went on to achieve the most enviable record of precision bombing in the Mediterranean Theater (MTO).

They participated in the invasions of Sicily, Salerno, Anzio and Southern France. They bombed railroad marshalling yards, rail and road bridges, airfields, fuel dumps, ammunition dumps and troop concentrations in such places as Rome, Florence, Monte Cassino, the Po river valley, the Brenner Pass and Southern France. For their excellence in precision bombing of the marshalling yards in Rome and Florence without damaging any religious edifices they received back-to-back Presidential Unit Citations. They were also awarded the Croix de Guerre Avec Palm by the French Provisional Government for their outstanding air support provided to the French Expeditionary Force at Cassino, Italy.

The 319th was widely known in the MTO as "Colonel Randy's Flying Circus", because of Holzapple's innovative approaches to improving flight performance, bombing accuracy, and safety. The name stuck when Colonel Holzapple began six-ship-abreast takeoffs from Sardinia to cut join-up time by 30 minutes. When the planes took off and landed some said they looked like a flying circus.

It was only fitting that the 319th, distinguished for its outstanding record, should be the first Army Air Force group redeployed to the Pacific. On January 16, 1945 the entire 319th Bomb Group sailed from Naples on the USS West Point--the former luxury liner America--for Boston harbor USA.

The 319th history tells us that sixty-four percent of the original officer personnel and thirty-one percent of the enlisted personnel were retained for the movement to the Pacific. That was a very high percentage. However, when the 319th arrived at Columbia Army Air Base it needed air crews to replace the experienced flyers who did not wish to volunteer for another tour of duty, this time in the Pacific. They needed men who were trained in the new Douglas A-26 Invader, and the place to get them was Marianna Army Air Field in Marianna, Florida. At Marianna they found 47 pilots and gunners and 27 men who were dual-rated as bombardiers and navigators

The men were all assigned as crews, some two-man crews with pilot and gunner; others as three-man crews with the added bombardier/navigator. The training was intense, including ground studies and aerial practice. The crews became proficient in operation of all the aircraft systems. Aerial work included gunnery, formation flying, low level and medium altitude bombing and navigation.

The pilots who were picked to train in the A-26 at Marianna all had the special qualifications needed to fly this very fast twin engine bomber that did not have a copilot. Some had combat experience, mostly in the North American B-25 Mitchell bomber. A few were high-time instructor pilots, mostly in the B-25. But the largest group were those who had just finished obtaining their first pilot rating in the Martin B-26 Marauder bomber, and Russell F. Stechschulte (Steck) was one of these men.

Less than a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor a kid from Lakewood, Ohio nicknamed Steck volunteered for flight training as an Aviation Cadet in the U.S. Army Air Force shortly after his 18th birthday. He passed the difficult written screening exam and the rigorous Form 64 flight physical. Sworn in as a private, he was sent back home as a reservist to await the call to service.

The call came in February, 1943 and he reported for infantry type basic training for a quick introduction to soldiering. The academics of flying came next in pre-flight school, along with an intensified dose of military discipline. Steck did his first solo after about eight hours of flight time in primary flying school, got into heavier, more powerful planes in basic flying school.

Steck's route to the A-26 was not and easy one. He got his wings in May of 1944, Class 44-E, after completing training in twin engine aircraft at the Army Air Field at Pampa, Texas. There were a number of such advanced training schools, located at places such as Waco, Texas, Stockton, California, Altus, Oklahoma, Marfa, Texas, and Douglas, Arizona. These schools were turning out thousands of pilots, and very few being assigned to training in the Martin B-26, a prerequisite to getting into the A-26 training. Most were destined to be a copilot in a four engine aircraft such as the B-17, or end up in troop carriers like the Douglas C-47 or Curtis C-46. For example, the school at Douglas handed out about 500 wings to the graduates of Class 44-E and only 15 of the new pilots were sent to the B-26 transition training field at Del Rio, Texas. At Del Rio, Steck and the Douglas classmates joined a trainee group of 117 for the 15 week course.

Flying the Martin B-26 was not the easiest thing in the world to do. It's landing speed was nearly twice that of some of the twin engine training aircraft. Not all pilots completed the course. Of the 117 that arrived only 52 graduated, and only 24 went on to the A-26 training at Marianna. Steck was one of these that had the 'right stuff'..

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