Flight of the 34th – Inside One WW2 Bomber Squadron’s Trailblazing Voyage from the U.S. to North Africa

B-26s of the U.S. Army Air Corps’ 34th Bomb Squadron carried out a harrowing flight across the South Atlantic to reach North Africa in the aftermath of Operation Torch. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)“The 34th was the first unit of any kind to make this crossing which would later become routine.”

By Marc Liebman

WHEN THE Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Army Air Corps 34th Bomb Squadron was based at McChord Field near Seattle. It would not be long before the unit, along with its sister squadrons, the 37th and 95th, all three part of the 17th Bomb Group, would see action.

Less than three weeks later — Dec. 24, 1941— one of the squadron’s bombers, a B-25 Mitchell, was credited with sinking a Japanese submarine off the coast of Washington.

In January 1942, the squadron was ordered to move to Columbia, South Carolina to fly anti-submarine patrols off the east coast to help counter the U-boat threat.

In late February 1942, the 17th Bomb Group was asked to provide volunteers for a dangerous mission, i.e. what became the Doolittle Raid.[1] The majority of the crews came from the 34th Bomb Squadron along with some from the 37th and 95th. Their participation in the Doolittle Raid would make the 17th Bomb Group as the only U.S. Army unit whose crews flew missions in every theater of World War Two.

Pilots from the 34th were among the volunteers to take part in the Doolittle Raid. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)With many of the group’s air crews, and all of its planes, carrying out the daring raid on Japan, the Army Air Corps chose to re-equip the 34th squadron with Martin B-26s that were just starting to come off the production lines. Replacement pilots and aircrews, fresh out of training were sent to the unit as well.

In the summer of 1942, the whole 17th Bomb Group moved to Barksdale Field near Shreveport, Louisiana to continue training for a possible overseas deployment. They would not have to wait long.

As part of Operation Torch, the November, 1942 Allied invasion of Algeria and Morocco, the entire group was ordered to North Africa. All told, the journey to the Allied air base at Telergma, Algeria would span 9,400 miles and take 11 days to complete. It would see the 34th complete the U.S. Army Air Corps’ first crossing of the South Atlantic, a hazardous stretch of open water, which unlike well-traveled route from North American air space to the British Isles, featured almost no airstrips to divert to in case of emergency and just one postage-stamp-sized piece of land where the planes could refuel. The flight would push both men and machine to the limit of endurance. But if successfully completed, it would blaze a trail for other ocean crossings. In all, the 17th Bomb Group’s trip to Africa remains a remarkable if not forgotten feat of military aviation.

Allied troops come ashore in North Africa as part of Operation Torch. The 17th Bomb Group was ordered to the region in November of 1942. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)The Voyage Begins
The 17th, including the 34th Bomb Squadron, was first sent to Offutt Field (now Offutt AFB) near Omaha to take delivery of 54 brand new B-26Bs that had only recently rolled off the assembly line. With their new aircraft, the group embarked on their first leg of the journey: a 1,500-mile flight to Homestead Air Reserve Base near Miami. The date was Nov. 16, 1942.

Leg two took the group from southern Florida over the Bahamas what was once Ramy AFB (now Rafael Hernandez Airport) in western Puerto Rico.

Day three took them down the Antilles to Georgetown, British Guyana.

On day four of the journey, 17th hugged the Brazilian coast while flying to Natal, Brazil. En route, one of the 34th Bomb squadron’s 18 B-26s had engine problems and crash landed in Belem, Brazil. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

The flight path of the 34th Bomb Squadron (Image source: CalcMaps.com)Preparing for the Crossing
In Natal, the entire group paused for four days where they learned long-distance, overwater navigation — things not taught by Army Air Corps trainers — from U.S. Navy aviators. In three, six-hour flights out over the South Atlantic, the bomber crews tried their hand at navigation over water and practiced flying what was known as “scouting lines.”

The technique, perfected by the U.S. Navy during the 1930s, involves each airplane in a unit flying line abreast about a mile apart. Since on a clear day large objects are visible on the surface of the water as 50 miles away from altitudes of 10,000, a 17-plane formation could patrol a swath of ocean approximately 116 miles wide.

While in Natal, the pilots of the 17th Air Group would learn something even more important. The B-26s were about to fly across the South Atlantic in an era before inertial navigation systems, GPS, satellite weather forecasting and other late 20th Century navigation tools. And the B-26 itself wasn’t designed for long-range flights; they had no dorsal Plexiglas bubbles, known as astrodomes, from which to take celestial fixes. Nor was there enough room in either the top or tail turrets or the glass enclosed nose to use a sextant.

The training flights in Brazil would include instruction on how to accurately estimate wind-drift over water, a technique of “known error.” Derived from a centuries-old of Age of Sail method of dead reckoning, known error involves a navigator using the direction and speed of the prevailing winds to estimate how far off course an aircraft is at any given moment. When travelling over empty ocean, a pilot can use his heading and air speed to calculate when he will reach his destination – an island for example. If the however the objective does not appear on the horizon at the predicted time, using knowledge of prevailing wind direction and approximate wind speeds, he can estimate how far off course he’s been blown and correct his heading accordingly. This “known error” technique would be essential when crossing from Brazil to the African coast – a distance of more than 2,500 miles.

The planes would need to locate and refuel more than mid-way across at Ascension Island, a tiny 35-square mile patch of land in the South Atlantic approximately 1,450 nautical miles east of Natal.

If the bombers of 34th couldn’t locate Ascension Island, they’d have to ditch in the South Atlantic. With no ships in the area, any rescue would be doubtful. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)Feet Wet
When the 34th took off from Natal for Ascension on Nov. 23, 1942, the pilots were told the winds were probably from the southeast. Ships at sea and Ascension Island itself reported the wind velocity at 10 to 15 knots on the surface. What it was at the intended cruising attitude of 10,000 feet was unknown.

After cruise climbing to 10,000 feet, the pilots set the mixtures at auto lean, the rpm at 2,100 and the manifold pressure at 29 inches. According to the performance charts given to them by Martin, the B-26Bs had enough fuel to fly 1,980 nautical miles at a cruising speed of 171 mph. On the way to Natal and on the three overwater missions, the crews flew at these settings to verify each plane’s fuel burn and learned that the manufacturer’s estimates were optimistic; the engines consumed about 10 per cent more gas than what was indicated in the fuel consumption tables. It was calculated that the B-26s had fuel enough to reach Ascension with just 30 minutes of flight time to spare.

The “point of no return” for the B-26s was 500 nautical miles east of Natal. Beyond this, the squadron would either locate Ascension or run out of fuel and crash. There were no ships strung along the route to pick up any crews that had to ditch.

Beginning in 1940, the British, with American help, began to expand Ascension’s Wideawake Airfield. However, when the 34th took off, the island’s long-range air search radar was not yet operational. Wideawake’s only navigational aid was a low-frequency radio range that could be picked up, on a good day, 20 miles from the island.

If the weather at Ascension not VFR (visual flight rules) and they were forced to fly the radio-range approach, not all the B-26s would even have the fuel to wait their turn for an instrument approach. The nearest alternate strip was a remote, eight-square-mile island of St. Helena, approximately 800 nautical miles into the prevailing wind to the southeast.

Sy Liebman, a second lieutenant at the time of the voyage, was the co-pilot on one of the 34th’s B-26s (S/N 117652). He would later recall in an interview with the author what he was thinking when they pushed the throttles forward, knowing the risks.

“We took off because that’s what we were ordered to do and had confidence in the B-26,” Liebman said. “And frankly, we didn’t know any better.”

As a U.S. Navy aviator, the author has spent many an hour flying over water out of sight of land or another ship. Knowing your only option is ditching if things start to go wrong is a very, very disquieting feeling that never goes away until you land safely.

Today, long overwater flights are routine with hundreds of airliners and corporate jets crisscrossing the world’s oceans every day. But back in November 1942, this was not the case. The South Atlantic transit is unlike the sky-bridge from North America to England that had (and still has) airfields in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland and Ireland. The longest overwater leg is under 800 nautical miles; that’s 250 miles less than the shortest leg the 34th flew.

At 10,000 feet, the 34th droned eastward on leg six for just over eight hours until they reached the point where Ascension was supposed to be, but the island was nowhere in sight.

With less than 30 minutes of fuel in the B-26s, the squadron leader ordered the formation to wheel right to the south on the assumption that the prevailing winds blew them north of their planned course. Ten long minutes later, Ascension was spotted. Soon all planes touched down at Wideawake.

Liebman’s plane’s left engine spluttering out while taxiing to the ramp; the bomber had run out of fuel. His B-26 was not the only one. Several others had to be towed off the runway because their engines quit after their tanks had run dry.

Wideawake Airfield on Ascension Island.On to Africa
After spending the night on Ascension, the 34th was the first to take off on the next leg of the journey. On the ninth day, the squadron would make for Accra, Ghana, 1,400 nautical miles to the northeast on the shorter of the two long overwater legs. Africa is hard to miss in a scouting line, but again, the 34th was blown slightly off course. Nonetheless, all 17 B-26s landed at Accra safely.

Day 10’s challenge was to fly over the jungles of western Africa to the Free French held city of Dakar in Senegal, a short, 1,050 nautical miles away.

Day 11 would take the squadron over the Western Sahara to their final destination: the Allied airfield near Telgerma, Algeria, 1,400 nautical miles to the northeast via a stop in Marrakech to take on fuel and ammunition. Just like flying over the ocean, there are no navigational aids over the desert and few places to land in case of an emergency.

As the planes of 34th, all low on fuel, neared the airstrip at Telergma, remarkably they were refused clearance to land. The base had been hit two hours earlier by Luftwaffe bombers; groundcrews were still filling in the holes in the runway.

After making several orbits of the field, the B-26s finally touched down at Telergma, earning themselves a place in aviation history. They were the first of many flights ferrying bombers from the United States to North Africa by way of the South Atlantic.

The pilots of the 34th would have little time to reflect on their feat. From Telergma, the squadron began flying combat missions in North Africa, and later in Europe that would not end until May 1945.

The 34th Bomb Squadron would fly missions in the Mediterranean and Southern Europe until the end of the war.  (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)The 34th at War
Over the next two-and-a-half years, the pilots and crews of the squadron would learn how to skip-bomb, something they never practiced in the U.S. And, on two missions, they actually carried torpedoes to attack a German supply convoy. The 34th flew level bombing missions against targets to support the North African, Sicilian, Italian campaigns as well as the invasion of Southern France, to say nothing of hitting targets inside Germany itself.

By war’s end, the 34th had flown combat missions from bases in Algeria, Tunisia, Sardinia, Corsica, Dijon and ended the war in Linz, Austria. Sixteen of its B-26s would be lost in combat. Many more would be shot up but bring their crew home. Sy Liebman flew 82 combat missions and would, thankfully, return in December1943.

Marc Liebman is a Naval Aviator who flew combat missions during the Vietnam War as well as Desert Storm. He is now an award winning author with nine novels in print.

The 34th was a pursuit squadron for the first 20 years of its existence. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)From Fighters to Bombers – A Brief History of the 34th Bomb Squadron
By Marc Liebman

The 34th Bomb Group’s story began in 1917.

Originally established as the 34th Aero Squadron, the unit was commissioned and sent to France in World War One to provide operational training to the newly founded U.S. Army Air Service.

After surviving the cutbacks in the early 20s, the outfit was renamed the 34th Pursuit Squadron and began flying a hot new Boeing biplane called the P-12.

In 1932, while under the command of future General Ira Eaker, the 34th adopted its distinctive Thunderbird logo. The squadron’s emblem was steeped in North American Indian lore. The logo is still used by the 34th Bomb Squadron which flies B-1Bs from of Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota.

The 34th Bomb Squadron patch.

During the 30s, the squadron flew P-26A Peashooters before being re-designated the 34th Attack Squadron, 17th Attack Group in 1938 and re-equipped with Northrop A-17s, a light single-engine, two-seater bomber. With war clouds on the horizon, the squadron was re-designated the 34th Bomb Squadron, 17th Bomb Group in 1939 and issued the B-18 Bolo (which was based on Douglas DC-2), which was succeeded by the Douglas B-23, a bomber that was based partly on the DC-3.

With the war raging in Europe, the U.S. War Department accelerated the development of both the North American B-25 and the Martin B-26 along with many other airplanes. The 34th’s B-25As were from the first batch of 40 built that rolled off the North American’s assembly lines in the summer of 1941. 

[1] Just before the request for volunteers was made, 2LT Sy Liebman, the author’s father, arrived at the 34th fresh out of the Army Air Corps Training Command.

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