Staff Sergeant L.D. Jackson
US Army Air Corps — WWII Central Pacific Theater
Electrical Specialist — B-24 Bombers
Mr. L.D.Jackson of Hammond, LA brought out a small, yellowed laminated card with the following inscription on it for me to read as we started our interview. This card is his proof that he had been initiated into the “Domain of Neptunus Rex” for crossing the equator on a ship for the first time. As I read the card he proceeded to describe for me the initiation ceremony…
…”Domain of Neptunus Rex, Know ye that Jackson, L.D. Jr., Cpl. on the 18th day of November 1943 aboard the USS LST 240, Lat. 00-00, appeared into OUR ROYAL DOMAIN and having been inspected and found worthy by my royal staff, was initiated into the SOLEMN MYSTERIES OF THE ANCIENT ORDER OF THE DEEP.”
“When we were initiated…they had big tubs [of garbage] the kitchen kept…for a while and they had a barrel in it and you had to go through that barrel, swim through it and they cleaned us off with the hose and almost pushed us out in the ocean! The Navy did this [to] us – we were the Air Force. But it was fun. I was only twenty years old.
Let’s see … “and respect the bearer of this certificate as one of our trusty shellbacks.”
“See, I’m a shellback. Now you’re not flying over the equator – you have to be on a ship to get this, right here. I’ll bet you’ve never seen one.
I haven’t! I’d never even heard of that.
“Now you learned something.
Mr. L.D. Jackson was a university instructor by profession and is eager to help one understand not just what experiences he had in WWII, but the hows and whys of his experiences as well. I have Mr. Jackson to thank for helping me understand much more about WWII in the Pacific than I did before this interview!
What was your job?
“I was Electrical Specialist on B-24s [in the] Air Force. It was Army Air Force. That’s before it became strictly Air Force. And I became a Staff Sergeant.
Did you choose the Air Force?
“Well in a sense I did, but we had to take aptitude tests the first day we were in New Orleans. You know, not too many of the guys went to college back in those days. But I put that I went to college because I figured that would help me. And it did. Because the first thing they did was start sending me to school. And here I was an electrical specialist and the only thing I knew about electricity was putting a light bulb in. [I laugh] ‘Cause what did we have electrical in our homes? None! Not back in THOSE days.
“So I went to A.M. school – that’s airplane mechanic school. Then they sent me to electrical specialist school at another base. Then I went through a magneto [mag-NEE-toh] school at another place, and on and on and on till I worked myself up to Staff Sergeant.
“And what I did, I kept our planes where they’re in sync. The prop – I don’t know if you knew, but if you saw a plane going on a mission, they’d all get in line and they’d get over here and — boy, they’d rev up their engines! And what they’re doing, they’re checking their magnetos. Well I’m the one who kept the magnetos timed.
“See, the magnetos fired the spark plugs. And they’d watch the RPM of the engines, and they had two magnetos. So they’d take one off and they’d see how much it drops. And if it drops over ten, they can’t fly.
“So I kept the planes flying – HELPED keep’em – me and another guy helped keep the planes flying.
“They couldn’t go on a mission with those planes loaded with bombs to go bomb, you know.
Why were you on a ship on the equator?
“Oh, that’s to get where we were going. You see, the planes flew over [to the island] and our squadron had about 250 of us. They couldn’t get all of us in an airplane, and so the ground crew went by LST. [Landing Ship, Tank]
I see. So where were you headed when you crossed the equator?
“We were going into the Ellice Islands and we went to Nanumea. That was the name of the island that we were on. And I guess it was maybe a half-a-mile wide at the most and maybe a mile-and-a-half long.
That was a little spit of land!
“But the Japs never were on this island.
“Did you ever hear of Tarawa?
“That’s the first [amphibious] invasion that the Americans ever made. That’s Tarawa. Well we bombed, [pointing] here was the Ellice Islands, and Tarawa was right here. So we bombed Tarawa before [we] took it.
“Then they took Tarawa and then they took Makin. I used to fly with them to the next island and get off and wait for them to go bomb. And when they returned, we could fix the plane if [it] needed fixing.
“We landed on Tarawa right after it was taken and they were burying the Japs. Well, they had a stack — a pile of Japs. And there was one — I took his dog tag and his cap – I mean, well, they were burying them [anyway]. Their dog tags were made out of wood. So I took the dog tag and the cap. I [later] went to LSU and there was a Japanese student there and he could read what was on it. This kid [Japanese soldier who had the dog tags] enlisted the same day I did.
“Uh-huh. They were just burying ‘em in holes with bulldozers just pushing them in there.
“Then another time, I was on Makin when they were bombing Kwajalien [Kwa-zhuh-LEEN] and Eniwetak [On-uh-WEE-tok]. And I was on Makin.
“A B-25 is a two engine plane. And the pilot was killed and the co-pilot was coming in and he was badly injured. We knew that because he had radioed in.
“And when he lowered the wheels, only one wheel came down. That co-pilot landed that B-25 with one engine, because the other had cable in it and they couldn’t feather the prop. It would just fall off. I mean when the plane stopped, you could just take the prop off.
“But anyway, he just made a beautiful landing as it skidded down the runway. And he was badly injured. I heard that he lost an eye, but I don’t know if that’s true or not.
“But these are the things that you see even when you’re on the ground. So I’ve seen a lot of plane crashes – not a terrible number, but three or four.
One is enough.
“Yeah, one is enough.
“I saw a lot of B-29’s when we were on Saipan. Siapan is [very close] to Tinian… maybe five miles — and you could see the planes going down the runway taking off. You could see the trucks running [around]. And the planes that dropped the bombs on Japan were from Tinian.
“Yeah, they were B-29’s. And we had B-29’s on Saipan, but when the B-29’s used to come back from Japan, boy the red lights would be on ‘cause they wanted to land and they couldn’t. Then they would just land in the water and lose a B-29. I guess you call that a crash, but they all lived, you know.
They couldn’t land because —
“Well other planes were landing. Too many of them trying to make it back and they were running out of gas and everything. And one of ‘em landed [in the water] close to us…and one of our crew, he reached in and held the pilot’s arm, but he was under the water. He held his arm till his pulse gave away – we couldn’t get him out fast enough.
“And of course we [would] lose planes too. And we weren’t allowed – no…we were “instructed” not to talk to the flight personnel because they could get lost and we would lose a buddy, you see. So they didn’t want us to buddy up. Oh, we’d talk to ‘em – they’d come in and clean their guns, but they never even ate with us. They had their own eating quarters.
“And I pulled CQ one night – that’s Charge of Quarters – and lord, you could hear those guys screaming over there and they’d [say to each other] “oh, you’re alright, you’re alright.” I guess they’re dreaming they’re over a target or something.
“It must have been incredibly stressful…such a strain.
“‘Cause a lot of times we’d lose a plane – we lost one — our plane had 10 or 11 on the plane, on the flight – the gunners, you know, and all that, and all of ‘em was from New York.
“Some would say, “You remember the crew from New York? That’s the one that we lost,” you know.
“Then we had a bombardier fall out [of] the plane. Our bomb bay doors close this way [brings hands down and together]. Well, one of the bombs didn’t go off. He was putting one foot on what we call the catwalk that’s between the two bombs to get to the back of the plane. And the other foot was on the door. Well the bomb fell off and hit the door and he and the bomb went out in the ocean and he didn’t have a parachute on or anything. And oddly enough I know his name – I didn’t know him, but his name is Ford. So the next time they went on a mission they dropped a big bouquet of flowers about to where he was.
“So you go through a lot of things like that.
“And then several times the planes would come in and they’d been shot up by a pursuit plane and one of our guys in a plane got hit and there’s blood all on the inside and you gotta go work in there. So remember now, we were out on the equator. It was hot over there. And you work inside that plane and man, you’d sweat!
“It was great. I loved it. And I worked twelve, fourteen hours a day. No need to go sit in my tent.
You’d just sit there and bake.
“Yeah, that’s it. I mean there was nothing else to do!
“We went to Nanumea and then the next place we stayed was Kwajalein, and then we went to Saipan and all these little places. Now Saipan! We thought we had hit the United States because Saipan was big! They even had a mountain on it. I mean what they call a mountain. I think Saipan was about 15 miles wide and 45 miles long. And they had two air strips and so forth like that. But all these other little islands we was on, only two squadrons could be on it. Like I said no civilians, no city, not anything was on the island.
How DID you pass the time? Just working?
“Uh-huh. And do you know? I never did see an argument. The whole time. I lived like that for a little over two years. I never did see an argument. We were all happy with each other. I’m talking about the ground crew. And we all helped each other.
How many would that have been? The ground crew.
“Let’s see, each plane – I would say a hundred and twenty – but each plane crew had its own crew chief and four mechanics and we had 15 planes.
I didn’t realize there was a separate crew for each plane.
“Right, each plane had a name and you always had a favorite. And when I flew, I always liked to fly on a certain plane – and when that pilot landed, he was just as smooth. He didn’t bounce his plane when he landed. You get to know that – [about the pilots].
In Part 2 of “We Helped Keep the Planes Flying,” Mr. Jackson tells more about his group, the islands, the famous Bond Tour plane “Bolivar,” and actor/pilot Tyrone Power.