Random Thoughts

Flying home in a B-25

... while posing as a USAF major

by Steve Johnson

The first North American Mitchell B-25 twin engine and twin rudder bomber flew on August 19, 1939. On April 18, 1942, Lt-Colonel Jimmy Doolittle made the B-25 famous by leading a flight of 16 B-25Bs on a morale-boosting raid over Tokyo off the deck of the USS Hornet. The B-25B was not a carrier aircraft. After the raid, some landed in China, some in Russia and some ran out of fuel and the crews bailed out over hostile territory. Many models of the B-25 were produced with various armament options and flying capabilities and were shipped to the USAF, the US Navy, the RAF, Australia, the Soviet Union, China, the Netherlands, Free France, Brazil, Mexico and Italy. After the war, most of the remaining B-25s were stripped of their armament and designated as the TB-25 to be used as crew trainers. My first flight in a B-25 took place just before Christmas of 1958.

I flew as an Airman-On-Leave from Randolph Air Force base in San Antonio, Texas to Andrews AFB in Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC. During my time in the air and while at a small MATS (Military Air Transport Service) base, somewhere in the southeast, where we landed for lunch, I was an Air Force Major. This is how it all came about.

I was stationed at England Air Force Base in Alexandria, Louisiana at the time. I was an Airman 2nd Class and, having been trained as an APG-30 specialist (a tactical “toss-bomb” computer system), I worked on F-84s, F-89s and F-100s. Most of the time, however, I played baseball all over the south for the England AFB “Tigers” and, as a disk-jockey and manager, I ran the base radio station, KENG, at night. I was a forerunner to the Adrian Cronauer character played by Robin Williams in the movie “Good Morning Vietnam.” We were between wars, so that’s what I was doing.

Just prior to Christmas in 1958, I put in for a 30-day leave. It was granted and now I had to figure the best (cheapest and fastest) way to get home to Massachusetts for the holidays. One of the perks of being in the Air Force was that we were able to get a “hop” anywhere we wanted to go if we could find a flight going to our destination and a pilot willing to take us along. I had friends working in Base Operations who found me a flight out of Randolph AFB early the following morning. If I could get to San Antonio by tomorrow’s dawn, I had a free ride to Washington DC. My bags were packed, so I bummed a ride to our local bus station and caught a red-eye bus trip to San Antonio.

I made it to Randolph’s Base ops in time. Yes, my flight was leaving at 0700 and I was about to meet my pilot. Out on the tarmac, I was introduced to a Major and a Colonel, pilot and co-pilot of the B-25 that stood next to us. I was excited! But when I heard their story and the purpose of the flight, I was even more excited. It seems that they both were USAF doctors from Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. and, in order to keep their flight status (extra pay) in effect, once a month, they would fly to Texas, meet with friends, and play a week-end of golf. They could go over to Andrews AFB and requisition a plane for the trip. Between the two of them, they were checked out on many types of aircraft and this time, they just happened to get a B-25.

The plane was probably a TB-25 as I mentioned earlier. It was completely gutted out from behind the cockpit on back. Where the waist gunner’s positions were, there were small windows. The tail position was sealed off with sheet-metal. There was a long bench along each side where I was to sit and, yes, I did have a seat-belt. Before we left, the major told me that I could listen in on their radio contacts with the tower and also their inter-com. Also, he said, it will be cold up there, so I had better climb into one of the flight suits hanging in the back of the plane. That I did, and then noticed that the suit had major insignia sewed onto it. I reminded him that I was only an enlisted man, and I could get into all kinds of trouble for wearing an officer’s uniform. Here I need to explain that these two guys were about the least “military” people I had ever met in the USAF. They were regular guys, doctors out on a week-end holiday and were not about to care what kind of clothing I wore. So off we went, the colonel at the controls, the major in the co-pilot’s seat and major me in the back.

Somewhere over South Carolina, the colonel came on the inter-com and told me that we would soon be stopping for lunch at a small MATS base. He said he knew the cook at this base’s officer’s club and this guy makes the best barbeque ribs on the planet. “We always stop here for lunch,” he said. “Fine with me,” I replied.

As we taxied in and made our way to the Officer’s Club, I remembered my major’s flying suit. (I had my Airman 2nd Class uniform on underneath, so I had to keep it on). “Don’t worry about it,” the colonel said, “Just stick with us and do what we do. And, by the way, don’t forget to return any salutes you may get from the enlisted men.” They both got a big kick out of that.

Needless to say, the ribs were great and we were soon airborne again and on our way to Andrews AFB. I was an officer and a gentleman the whole time, I guess.

At Andrews, I said goodbye to my crew, my rank and the B-25. A helpful airman in base ops gave me directions to the bus station where I caught a direct ride to Grand Central Station in New York City. I was almost home and, so far, I had a delicious lunch and had only paid for two bus tickets. And I was only one day into my leave time. What a way to go!

Here I had to get the wallet out again; this time to buy a train ticket to Boston’s South Station. It was late afternoon by now, so I availed myself of a free service-man’s supper at the USO in Grand Central and then slept with my bag as a pillow on a bench until the train left for Boston early the next morning.

I have no recollection what-so-ever of how I got from South Station to the junction of Route 128 and Haverhill Street at the north end of Lake Quannapowitt in Wakefield. I probably hitch-hiked, as I often did in those days. As I walked north on Haverhill Street, with my Air Force B-4 bag, a kindly person stopped his car and took me as far as the North Reading Police Station, which was my destination. Why the Police Station?

When I left for the Air Force in 1955, we lived at 169 East Foster Street in Melrose. A couple years later, my folks moved to North Reading and, as of this December, just before Christmas of 1958, they had not yet given me their new address. This might seem rather unfriendly of them, but my trip home was to be a surprise, so I didn’t write or call ahead and ask for it. The police in North Reading know everything about everybody and they told me my parents lived at 2 Peter Road, just about a mile or two away. One of the cops gave me a ride home. I had 28 days of leave left and had spent only a few dollars to get from Alexandria, Louisiana to North Reading, Massachusetts. And to fly in a vintage WWII B-25 aircraft to boot. That was a trip to remember.

For Christmas, my folks gave me a ticket from Logan Airport in Boston to New Orleans. In mid January of 1959, I flew, in a conventional aircraft this time, to New Orleans and then hitch-hiked to Alexandria, Louisiana. From there I bummed a ride to England AFB. The next day I was back on the ball-field and in the KENG studio. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you are young and adventurous.


September 5, 2008


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