Flying With the Jolly Rogers: An Interview With a World War II Bomber Pilot

February 16, 2021 Topic: History Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIBombersJolly RogersB-24Pacific Theater

Flying With the Jolly Rogers: An Interview With a World War II Bomber Pilot

Herbert Goodrich piloted a Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber with the 90th Bomb Group in the Southwest Pacific.

Here's What You Need to Know: The 90th Heavy Bombardment Group, known as the Jolly Rogers, was an element of the Fifth Air Force headquartered in Brisbane, Australia. During World War II it played a crucial role from the Battle of the Bismarck Sea to Leyte Gulf. The Jolly Rogers crippled enemy airpower on the ground and in the air. Their 100- and 2,000-pound bombs were used in support of Allied beach landings and against enemy shipping and airpower. A sign hanging beneath the squadron name proclaimed it to be “The best damn heavy bomb group in the world.”

Herbert Goodrich, a farm boy from Nebraska, enlisted as a cadet in the Air Corps in 1942. He became a B-24 pilot assigned to the 90th and flew 63 combat missions against Japanese targets in New Guinea.

Glenn Barnett: Where and when were you born?

Herbert Goodrich: I was born in 1919 in Fairmont, Nebraska. My father was a farmer, and we lived on 240 acres where we raised wheat, oats, and alfalfa. We had hogs and cattle. All the chores were done with horses until Dad finally got an Allis Chalmers tractor in 1937 for $800. That was the best day of my life at that time.

GB: When did you see your first airplane?

HG: I was about 12 or 14 when an old barnstormer set down in our field. At that time you could take a ride for about $2.50. My father gave me the money for the ride. In high school we went into Lincoln, Nebraska, and paid $5.00 for a ride. Later a plane landed on our field, and the pilot negotiated with my father for some tractor gas. He gave us a ride in exchange.

GB: Where were you when you heard about Pearl Harbor?

HG: We had just gotten home from church. We were getting ready for dinner. We didn’t have the radio on so we didn’t know. A neighbor family came over and told us. We listened to the news for the rest of the day.

GB: Were you drafted?

HG: The Army was going to draft me, but I didn’t want to be in the trenches, so I applied to the Air Corps to be an aviation cadet. There were 150 questions on the test, and you had to answer 90 of them correctly. I got a 113. A friend of mine got an 89. He missed it by one and ended up handling cargo in the South Pacific. I was sworn in as a private in the Air Corps on March 23, 1942, down in Omaha.

GB: What was your basic training like?

HG: From Omaha I entrained for the air base at Santa Ana, California. It was our assignment center. We arrived there on April 14th. We lived in tents, and it rained like the devil in April. We did a lot of close-order drill. I took some tests and was classified as a pilot. On May 28th I was assigned to Rankin Aeronautical Academy in Tulare, California. I finally soloed on June 18th. We flew Boeing PT-17 Stearmans. It was a little biplane with a 220-horsepower Continental engine. After the war they were used as crop dusters.

I scraped a wing on my second solo flight. I figured I was washed out, but they let me pass. In total I had 50 hours flying time at Tulare. It was a tough school, and 44 percent of my class washed out. They were reassigned as navigators or bombardiers.

I was then sent to basic training in the hot months of July and August. We did some formation flying, night flying, and cross-country trips. Two of my friends were flying on instruments when their plane stalled on approach and they crashed and burned. It was a sad moment. At the end of the training I got my lieutenant’s wings.

GB: Were you assigned to bombers?

HG: No they asked us if we wanted to fly pursuit planes or twin engines, and I chose the twin engines. In October I was assigned to Stockton [California] where we trained in AT6s and AT0-20s. I soon soloed in a Cessna AT-17. We had additional training in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Alamogordo, New Mexico. That is where we first flew the B-24 bomber. I had never seen one and didn’t know anything about it. My first impression was that it was too damn big to fly.

GB: What were the B-24’s strengths and weaknesses?

HG: It had the Pratt and Whitney engines. In my opinion it was a better engine than the Curtiss Wright that the B-17 had. However, it had no auto throttle control. I never flew the B-17, but one friend said it flew like a cub while the B-24 flew like a truck. You had to manhandle the controls. You wouldn’t want to ditch in the ocean in a B-24 either. The nose tended to separate from the fuselage.

GB: When did you meet up with your crew?

HG: I arrived in Alamogordo in December and trained there. It was a pretty cold winter. Some of the crews were sent to Topeka, Kansas, to train. En route two of them had their wings ice up in flight and they had to bail out. One of my friends was killed when he didn’t get out in time.

GB: When were you sent overseas?

HG: I got back from leave a day late so they sent our plane to North Africa. I heard that it later took part in the raids on the Ploesti oil fields in Romania. But we were sent to the Southwest Pacific. We had all of our fur-lined coats with us. There would be quite a pile of abandoned fur-lined coats in New Guinea. At about 9 pm on March 18, 1943, we took off from the west coast for Hawaii. Our plane was the “Double Trouble.” There were 11 B-24s and a number of B-25s [medium bombers] with us. We watched as the lights of San Francisco disappeared behind us. We leveled off at about 8,500 feet and flew for 15 hours before reaching Hawaii. We had a little fuel scare for a time because of a misreading of the fuel gauge, but all the planes made it with fuel to spare.

From there we flew to Christmas Island. The poor soldiers there had a faraway stare in their eyes and begged us for any kind of liquor we might have. Some of them had been there for 14 months even though they were supposed to rotate out every six months. There was little to do there, and we felt sorry for them. From Christmas Island we flew to Canton Island. It was well fortified and subject to night bombings by the Japanese, but they did little damage. The night before we got there they bombed the island, and the only casualty was a dog. From there we flew to New Caledonia and then to Australia, arriving on March 24th. We soon discovered that Australian beer was not only good tasting but also very potent. We arrived in New Guinea in April.

GB: So you missed the Battle of the Bismarck Sea?

HG: Yes, but you know every time a new crew came in the old timers would say, “You should have been here when it was rough.”

GB: You were assigned to the 90th Heavy Bomb Group?

HG: Right. We were called the Jolly Rogers after our commanding officer, Colonel Art Rogers. Our insignia was a skull with crossed bombs underneath it. I was in the 320th Squadron. Our squadron insignia was a shark with a twin tail like the B-24s. There were four squadrons in the group. Each squadron had about 12 airplanes. Our planes had an initial takeoff weight of 64,000 pounds, but later models could lift off with 72,000 pounds.

GB: Most of the planes sent to Australia were modified. Was yours?

HG: Yes. They took off the de-icing equipment and an alcohol tank. They had also found a way to put a tail gun turret on the nose of the plane. This gave us tremendous extra firepower forward. Colonel Rogers originally came up with the idea. With the help of a brilliant mechanic named Colonel Paul I. “Pappy” Gunn, the turret modification was made to work. Gunn had been an airline pilot in the Philippines before the war. He was able to successfully mount the turret in most of our B-24s. Gunn was responsible for a lot of innovations that improved our fighting and flying capacity. It was at this time that they took Double Trouble away from us and gave it to another crew.

GB: How did the nose turret work out?

HG: Real well after they perfected it, but once we wanted to see what the red line was on the air speed when we dived. We just about got to that point in our dive when a helluva racket let loose and something flew by the cockpit. The pin that held the nose turret centered sheared off. The turret fell sideways, and the doors fell off of it and ripped the side of the fuselage.