World War II

Local Vets recall 50-year old memories of WWII ...

. . . Russ Priestley, Jim Driscoll and Bob Ross talk with Mirror editors. . .

By the Mirror editorial staff

Editors' note: It was just before Christmas and six of us, all SilverStringers, were sitting around my living room in Melrose having coffee and sandwiches. The occasion was an interview of three in our group who had served in the armed forces during World War II: Jim Driscoll, a sailor in the European Theater; Russ Priestley, an army test pilot, and Bob Ross, who served as a radioman aboard a destroyer in the Pacific.

All together, these three vets spent six years within shooting distance of the enemy, yet none of them pulled a trigger in the duration. Bombs and shells landed nearby regularly, and in one case, a kamakazi plane barely missed the bridge, brushing the bow of Ross's destroyer with its lethal load.

Ironically, a fourth veteran of this action, whose story appears in this special section, is the sister of Driscoll. We urge readers to see the story on Kay Driscoll Bistany, a shock-team nurse who was right behind the lines all through Italy and France. Kay has an outstanding story.

And while each of those three had previously supplied stories for publication in the current series on World War II, the editors thought they could bring out more of what it was like during those war years in a direct interview.

Present are Driscoll, Priestley and Ross, and editors Kay McCarte, Virginia Hanley and Don Norris. This is the first of three parts, concentrating on the story of Russ Priestley, a test pilot in the Pacific Theater. The conversation was tape recorded and edited for continuity:

The interview with Russ ....

DN:  Russ, you were stationed overseas somewhere --

RUSS:  In the Pacific theater. On Guam, for most of my tour. And I went to Japan just after the war was over. By the time I got to Guam, most of it had been secured. It was well established.

DN:  Your job, as I understand it, was to take these aircraft right off the ships, brand new aircraft, and fly them to make sure that they were flyable before they were put on the flight line?

RUSS:  No, they were taken off the ships and the wings had to be attached to them, because the wings traveled separately to save space. Then our mechanics put the wings on, ran the engine, then we flew them, usually from the Naval Base to our place and then we flew a test flight.

DN:  You said in your other story that you flew about 32 different aircraft during that time - what was that? -- a couple of years over there?

RUSS:  Well, not all over there. Starting from the time I graduated from pilot training, which was in late forty-three, to forty-six, it was 32 or 33 different types of airplanes.

DN:  And how many airplanes did you actually fly?

RUSS:  Oh, hundreds, maybe into the thousands.

DN:  What did you have to do to it to prove a plane's worthiness - get it off the ground and then land it again?

RUSS:  No, when they needed fighter planes they were coming over fast - new P51s and P47s and the test flight on that would be -- you'd start right from the time we left the flight line checking things and then you'd take off and fly to 8,000 feet, that's were the turbo supercharger cut in, so you checked different things on the way up, get up there and check the turbos, and if that's OK you start down again, check a few more things, and land -- 15 or 20 minutes. Then go get another plane and do the same thing.

DN:  How many planes in a day?

RUSS:  Oh, sometimes you'd fly as many as 5 or 6 planes. There wasn't even time to load the guns.

VH:  Did you do any steep dives and barrel rolls?

RUSS:  Oh, we did, yeah, but that was when we had time.

BOB:  Extracurricular activities.

RUSS:  But, when they needed them so badly, the fighter pilots were coming in after we got through with them and taking them off to Saipan, Tinian, and, later, Iwo Jima. From Iwo Jima they were escorting the B29s to Tokyo. That's the only point that they could go from - to reach Tokyo and back. That was about 800 miles.

DN:  Those were P51s?

RUSS:  P51s mostly, P47s, too.

DN:  That's a Thunderbolt?

RUSS:  Yes.

BOB:  And the B29s came off of either Saipan or Tinian, one of those islands?

RUSS:  And Guam, too. Guam had two fields, Tinian had a lot.

DN:  Those bombers that you tested, you took up a full crew when you went up, or just you and a navigator or co-pilot???

RUSS:  Pilot, co-pilot, engineer - on the big ones you couldn't get along without the engineer.

DN:  What did he do?

RUSS:  He sat behind the pilot, 90 degrees, in front of this panel of controls. He did as much as the pilot in keeping that thing in air. The pilot was there to steer it but the engineer was doing most of the work - the mechanical work, and in addition to him they would have a fire control, that is the gun specialist, to test out the guns.

DN:  So they were testing the guns on the bombers?

RUSS:  Yeah. Aim them out to sea -- or pick out some destroyer -- (laughter).

JIM:  That's what happened, huh.  

BOB:  Well, every plane that came in, you people had to reconstruct it, test it and verify it before it was turned over to the fleet.

DN:  You mean the ones that were damaged or shot up?

BOB:  Oh, these are new ones you're talking about, aren't you.

RUSS:  The fighters were new ones mostly, but some of them came in damaged, but mostly new ones. The bombers were used, in many ways.

DN:  What do you mean by that?

RUSS:  They came in for repairs for battle damage, or some stupid pilot landing --

VH:  On one wing?

RUSS:  The generals liked to take the B17s and make them their own flying offices.  

DN:  What did you have to do to them?

RUSS:  Well, after they were re-modeled inside, with luxurious quarters for a general, then we'd take that up and test it. It would sometimes change the weight and balance, which is important to the aircraft.

JIM:  You were always the first flyer, right, weren't you, on most of them?

RUSS:  Most of them.

JIM:  Well, couldn't you have had some defective planes that you found when you were up there, going through the procedures? Did you ever have that occasion -- like a loose something -- you were always subject to that.

VH:  Like a bad gasket.

RUSS:  Probably the most serious one was - another guy and I were flying an A26, that's a very fast, light bomber -

DN:  Two engines?

RUSS:  Two engines. One engine quit when were about 100 feet off the ground, so when that happens we immediately pulled to the left, as it was the right engine that quit.

BOB:  And that's when you pray to God, isn't it?

RUSS:  You haven't got time to pray. You reach down where the red switch is and you feather the engine, the propeller, which turns the propeller 90 degrees, which reduces the drag, and that stops the engine. Well, the engine is stopped, but that stops the drag on the propeller guard, and then you have to trim up the plane so that the rudder controls keep it straight and level, and hope you can gain altitude because in that position you have to gain altitude, take a left turn, another left turn and another left to get back into the landing pattern, and with your other hand you call up the tower and say Emergency Landing.

DN:  So, how much altitude did you need before you started your approach? What did you get up to - about 1000 feet? - on that A26 I'm talking about.

RUSS:  Oh, well, any altitude you could attain. That was a light plane and a very strong engine so we were able to - I think the landing pattern was 1500 feet before you (started your descent).

RUSS: There were three other pilots doing the same thing, that is, testing new aircraft.

DN:  Did you ever make a bad landing?

BOB:  He's not going to admit that.

DN:  Did you ever break an airplane?

RUSS:  I never broke one, but I made some that weren't perfect.

DN:  What was the main problem?

RUSS:  The pilot.

DN:  What was your favorite plane?

RUSS:  The P38 Lightning.

DN:  That was a dual fuselage fighter?

RUSS:  Yes, twin-boom they called it. The engines were beside the pilot and then the two booms came back to the tail surfaces with nothing in between. You are sitting in the pod in the middle.

DN:  I heard that that was not a particularly maneuverable machine, on the European front. But you wrote something else.

RUSS:  It couldn't turn as tightly as the P51. The P51 and the P47 were able to maneuver in tight circles better that the P38.

DN:  How did they compare to say the Japanese Zero?

RUSS:  I don't know. The P38 could fly higher and faster at high altitudes, but, there again, the Zero was more maneuverable and could turn inside of it and gain the advantage.

BOB:  And they (P38 pilots) shot down an awful lot of planes. Man, that was a godsend to see them boys coming in when you were out there.

DN:  And you saw the P38s coming in?

BOB:  The P38s, Corsairs, P51s, in fact the P51s were the new ones.

RUSS:  They sent the P40s, an early version, were fighting in China, unbeknownst to most US citizens, before 1941.

BOB:  That's when the Flying Tigers were formed.

RUSS:  That's what it was, the Flying Tigers.

DN:  The P40 was called what? Just a P40?

RUSS:  I can't remember. It had an air scoop underneath that they painted to look like a shark and the P38 was over there, too, early in the war and they sent Colonel Lindbergh, secretly, because he was a colonel in the other war. They sent him over to teach pilots how to thin out their gas mixture to get more range. He was quite instrumental in doing that.

DN:  You say you liked the P38 Lightning. Did you ever fly one just for the hell of it, just go out and take it around for a joy ride? Did you ever do that with any of your planes:

RUSS:  All the time. Because they weren't being used.

DN:  What do you mean, they weren't being used?

RUSS:  There were planes that belonged to a weather reconnaissance outfit that weren't being used in combat during the later years of the war, because the P47s and P51s replaced them. Probably because there was less maintenance on the single engine fighters than on the twin engine fighters and they had more range. The P51 had the greatest range because it was a little lighter than the P47 and they could add the wing tanks, use that gas first and drop them. They could make it to Japan and back - 1600 miles - with no problem. That's what saved a lot of B29s - the fact that they had a fighter escort, over Japan.

The fighters left from Iwo Jima. That's why Iwo Jima was so important to take. There were 21,000 US casualties taking that island It was a god-forsaken place.

BOB:  And a lot of ships sunk.

RUSS:  But Iwo was something they had to have -- it was a strategic position -- once they got there they could have a fighter escort -- they couldn't from anywhere else.

BOB: The B29 would take off from Guam and meet the fighters at Iwo Jima and head on into Japan. The B29 had a hell of a range, but we didn't have a pilot that could leave Guam to go to the mainland. That's what you're saying, right?

RUSS:  Yes.

DN:  But those B29s could only fly at the most 300 miles an hour.

VH:  But they had a longer range.

DN:  Yeah, but, boy, the time involved in getting there and then dropping a load of bombs, and turning around and flying all the way back - man, that's a long journey.

VH:  Well, Doolittle had to go on to China - he couldn't turn around and come back.

RUSS:  He was in a B25. But, you know, you have two pilots, you also have auto-pilot, which we took a lot of flights to different islands when I wasn't testing something or flying cargo into Tinian, Saipan, Iwo Jima, Palau.

(End of Tape 1)
WWII-RUSS2 (Tape garbled here):

BOB:  Were they still searching for them? We used to sit out there and throw shells at the caves and let them think we were coming in. You know, on Guam.

RUSS:  On most of those islands there were Japs.

BOB:  Oh, yeah, they didn?t even know the war had ended.

RUSS:  One of them came out 21 years later, I think it was.

DN:  Did they shoot at you at all when you were testing these airplanes?

RUSS:  No, They were cleared away into the jungle, just living off of snakes and berries. I was in the forward area but I wasn't really in combat. We never saw any Japanese aircraft. They had been pushed out of there.

DN:  It seems you and I talked about the death of a Japanese general who got caught flying his airplane within range of an American base.

BOB:  That was near Rabaul.

DN:  Yeah. We had broken their code and we basically assassinated this guy by anticipating where his plane was going to be at a certain time. Our fighter pilots shot down one very hapless Japanese bomber with this general aboard. He was some very important figure in their forces.

BOB:  Do you remember taking all the jeeps - you where there, I imagine, when it was happening. Do you remember the big pier going out from Organa where they had a convoy running these jeeps out into the water - do you remember that? Maybe that happened before you got there, but once they secured the Island and all of our stuff was there, the Army started taking this stuff and getting rid of it.

VH:  Was it Japanese stuff?

BOB:  This was American stuff. American trucks and jeeps and things and we'd sit out there and watch them driving them damn things, ching, right into the water.

RUSS:  Probably still there.

BOB: You see it happening and you say, 'Gee, what the hell, I'd like to take them home with me and sell 'em.'

RUSS:  We had a place where they parked the planes that came off the carriers after they attached the wings. They were ferried from a Naval air base to our air base, which was about four or five miles away, and the take off area was very short for a P57, which has a huge 2,000 horsepower engine in it, so you have to hold the brakes, run the engine up to its max and then take off. Well, one really hot pilot that we had -- hot was used for guys that thought they were hotshots, you know -- he got in one and he took off, didn't get his altitude and ran into the ship's store at the end of the runway, which was loaded with coke bottles in cases about 20 feet high. Cleared out all those coke bottles and just stopped the engine, got out, came back to us and said, 'Well, got another one?'

JIM:  Which reminds me of a question I wanted to ask. What qualifications did you demonstrate that made you a test pilot, versus someone else. Were there some particular skills that you had or is it just a numbers game to a certain extent?

RUSS:  That you will have to ask the psychologist who tested us every three months. Every three months we'd be tested by a psychologist, about your habits, thoughts and everything else. And they figured out who would make a better fighter pilot, who would a better transport pilot and maybe this guy would make a good test pilot. They figured that I attended to details maybe - whereas a fighter pilot wouldn't give a damn.

BOB:  You have to be brave and crazy at the same time. You say you don't give a damn - you don't give a damn if you get up there and don't know what's going to happen.

DN:  Did you enjoy flying airplanes.

RUSS:  I loved it!

DN:  How come you didn't continue after you got out?

RUSS:  I hated the Army. I saw no reason to stay in because I saw a lot of politics in there. One of them happened to me, but I didn't know it until it was too late. I was under the Engineering Department when I was in the Flight Test Division so that the engineering officer was my superior officer who graded me. He gave me whatever was under 'superior' and I wasn't able to go from First Lieutenant to Captain. As a First Lieutenant I was a Chief Test Pilot near the end of the war - of the five pilots that we had I was the chief test pilot, as a First Lieutenant. The job called for a Major and I didn't find this out until afterwards. He had enough points to go home and he talked to me and said, 'Could you get me to Saipan, I've got a ride home if I can get up there.' I said, 'Sure. Let's take the P61 out.' The Black Widow. So I took him to Saipan and he thanked me and said 'goodbye,' and I took one back to Guam. A couple of weeks later I found out he screwed me for a promotion.

DN:  The military was like that all over.

RUSS:  I didn't like that backbiting and politics, so I figured that I wanted to do cartoons. I was doing that since I was about eight years old.

DN:  Have you ever flown since?

RUSS:  I flew in the Reserve until 1947, when they told me I'd have to wear a full uniform to fly a training plane up at Bedford. I said 'that's it.' Then I got the idea that once again I could fly P47s over at Logan Airport with the National Guard and get paid for it. In the reserve they never paid us. So I was going up to Bedford to fly four hours a month to retain proficiency and flying these planes that I flew many years back that were training planes. I had to borrow my brother's car to do it because I didn't have a car. So, all in all, when they came out with the uniform regulation, I said I'd give up flying.

Four years later, I decided to join the National Guard and fly with them because they were paying. I needed the money because I had married and I think we were on our third kid, so I went over there with my Form 5 which contains all your flying records and showed it to the guy and he looked at it and says, 'Well, you should qualify, here's an application.' I brought that home and put it to the little woman, who was carrying the third child, I think, at the time and she said, 'Well, you can do what you want -- but..' That's when I decided that was the end. She'll be uneasy with me flying so I'll just quit. I'll just look at every plane that goes over.

BOB: That's like me. At some time just after the war and I was given the opportunity to go to Pearl Harbor, and I had gotten married in '46, and came home and talked to Lil and she said, 'Well, I'm not going,' so I had to turn down that shore duty down at Pearl Harbor, because she didn't want to join me, so I ended up on another damn ship.

DN:  She didn't want to go to Pearl Harbor?

BOB:  No.  

(Tape garbled ----- )

DN: ...That was a big Marine Corps battle, we lost a lot of guys there.

RUSS:  Yes, it's the largest of the volcanic islands, there was an active volcano on it - Mount Surabachi, where they put up the famous flag, when they secured it. We used to fly supplies in there from Guam and ...

DN:  Which was what, about 1000 miles?

RUSS:  No, it was about 800, about halfway to Japan. One day I was going back to the plane, got off, had lunch, and they put us in the truck. I looked across from me and who's sitting opposite me but Tyrone Power. He was a Marine pilot. I didn't say, 'Hello, Ty.'

DN:  You didn't talk to him at all?

RUSS:  No. There were about eight of us in the truck--we were all going back to different planes, but another time, on Iwo, they told us, 'you can't take off - we've got a typhoon coming. Here, fill these sandbags and here's a tent.'

BOB: They had officers doing that?

RUSS: If you wanted to survive, you put up a pup tent, secured with sandbags, which there was plenty of -- volcanic dust there to put in the bags and secure the tent. The interesting part was that we were just waiting for this typhoon and we've got a ceiling of about 100 feet and, all of a sudden, I hear from the Operations Tent, they went to a tent, too, with sandbags, that a crippled B29 wants to land on Iwo Jima. The runway is about a little over half the length of the 10,000 foot runway that they normally land on. He was crippled, couldn't see the island and he wanted to land, had to land. That's when I heard about this GCA -- Ground Controlled Approach. They had that guy on radar, just where he was and they coached him in. They'd say, 'Just a little to the left, correct 20 degrees, you're getting too high, lower your nose, and they talked that guy right in to 150-145 feet where he could see the island and there it was -- ZOOM.

VH:  Step on the brakes, huh.

RUSS:  Yeah, they saved that guy, the whole crew of 10.

BOB:  Did they have the GCA set up in trucks at that time, or was it in their own building?

RUSS:  Oh, at that time it was in a tent. I guess, normally, they would be in a small building, but also an interesting part of Iwo, we were there, it might have been the same occasion, because we had to stay overnight, which we didn't normally do, so I went to the Officers' Club, had a beer and looked up at the menu and they've got bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches. I said, 'What's this, are you joking?' 'No, we grow lettuce and tomatoes in hydroponics on this island,' -- the earth there is just useless, you couldn't grow anything in there, but with hydroponics they experimented with it and grew lettuce and tomatoes.

BOB:  When you were over there, did you go on any runs with a fighter group at all when you were operating off of Iwo?

RUSS: No. I wasn't classified as a fighter pilot.

BOB:  A lot of these guys just went out for the thrill of saying they got involved in it - you never did get in as a passenger in one of the fighter planes that carried two people? Old Grumans used to carry two people.

RUSS:  Yeah, but they didn't fly 800 miles to Japan.

BOB:  I don't know what the language was, but I heard people talk about taking a joy ride, just to be doing it to say that they were there.

RUSS:  No. They only joy ride I went on involved another person in a P38. Our crew converted a P38 for another passenger, right behind the pilot, so I was able to take up the crew chief who wanted to fly a fighter. He had never been in a fighter because, of course, it's a single seat. So I took him up, did a few slow rolls, a snap roll, which is more violent, a procedure of a 360 degree roll, so then I said, 'Do you want to do a loop?' He did, so I dove down to gather speed and then went up and over. At the top of the loop, you're upside down and you go down this way. It was then that I looked at him and we're picking up speed and I look back at him and he's got this combined expression of fright and delight. So we went down and finished the procedure and he was really thrilled with his ride in a fighter plane, the only one he had ever taken.

BOB:  When the ship pulled into Norfolk, the Naval Air Station, you could go over and hop rides and, occasionally, I could catch a ride from the Naval Air Station to Logan. That's when the Navy was allowed to land here -- I don't know if it was at South Weymouth, or what, but that used to scare the hell out of me. You'd freeze to death. They would fly from Norfolk, Virginia to land here and I'd come home to see my wife and go back, hoping I could get another flight, so I wouldn't have to pay for it.

RUSS:  What type of plane?

BOB:  I don't even remember. They were just airplanes. They were really something.

DN:  Two engine Beechcraft was what I usually got.

BOB:  Oh, these were regular Navy-type planes.

DN: I went over to Andrews Air Force Base one time, saw a couple of captains and they were going up to get some hours so they took me to Boston.

BOB:  I had a pea coat, it was a heavy coat and it was warm. I had my pea coat on and by the time we landed, my feet were ice, my body was ice - I was freezing.

DN:  How big was it?

BOB:  It was a two-seater. Just the pilot and I was where the crew member was. The pilot was in front and I was sitting behind him.

RUSS:  Piper Cub.

BOB:  No, No. It was a fighter plane. This was a carrier-type plane

RUSS:  We took some of the Navy planes to their destinations, like the SBT divebomber, we called the A24, and your SB2C, we called the A25 -- that's a much bigger one. I took a flight in the States from Oklahoma City to San Antonio, Texas, with a guy in the back and it was uneventful going down. I had to show my instrument proficiency, which means you have a card that says that you passed the test that you can fly on instruments, then you can take off in rough weather, so there was a ceiling of maybe 100 feet and one thing you had to be careful of in San Antonio, Kelly Field, was there was big water tower out there to the left of the runway so I made sure I got up into the clouds, way up, before I turned and went into the take-off pattern - you had to make a left turn and then get up to a certain altitude and then turn on to your course, which was about north to Oklahoma City. We were in the clouds for quite a while and then it disappated, mostly, and by the time I got to Oklahoma City it was clear. But, in reverse, I was with another guy and we flew in a C47 cargo plane into Colorado Springs, dropped off what we were supposed to drop off there, and then we had to go to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. By the time we got to Sioux Falls it was snowing and it was dark. It was late so we had to use the instrument landing there. So we stayed overnight on that one and took off in the morning when the weather was better back to Oklahoma City.

BOB:  Now that was after your Guam experience?

RUSS:  No, prior. I did a lot of flying around the States. In fact, I flew a cargo plane to Hobbs, New Mexico from Oklahoma City, and I'm coming off the flight line and who do I meet but Charlie Sullivan, remember him, Jim?

He was stationed there and I had brought a leather jacket with me that I wasn't wearing, and didn't think I needed it, so I figured I'd leave this here and he said to me, 'You'd better bring that. When the sun goes down here it gets cold.' 'Okay.' Boy, I was glad I had it.

VH:  Were you still in the South Pacific when the war was over?

RUSS:  Yeah.

VH:  V-J Day?

RUSS:  After. I didn't have enough points to get home.

DN:  When did you get home?

RUSS:  It wasn't until July '46.

BOB:  That's about when my brother came home. He was on the Cleveland CL55, a cruiser in the South Pacific and then he ended up in Japan. I think he got home in May, or so. I've kind of forgotten when he came home, but it was '46.

January 20, 1999

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