The Japanese pilots were good. They came right out of the sun. No one knew the American B-25 Bomber was under attack until holes started appearing in the fuselage and a deep and sickening thud began to reverberate from the number one engine. After everyone started yelling, and the gunners opened up, there was one helpless moment when the Japanese fighters were turning for another attack when there was time to think about family and home… but suddenly, the number one engine exploded with a burst of oil on the windscreen and the pilot-side prop began to freewheel faster than ever designed. Suddenly, everyone knew it. The B-25 was going down; there was only water below, and between the bedlam of the freewheeling prop and the black oil streaming across the windscreen, there were the little winking lights of the Japanese machineguns as they lined up for another run.
Ed Shanks moved to Marco Island after retiring from the Rustoleum Corporation in 1974. He soon found employment and another career at the Marco Beach Hotel as director of personnel. For Ed, everything was interesting and every moment precious. As with many veterans of war, close to death encounters can often enhance daily life in a way that no Hollywood scenario could ever create.
The following is the true story of an American hero in World War II. It is a word painting of an amazing experience of a command pilot of a B-25 bomber in the South Pacific and how Edwin M Shanks watched a miracle happen and how his life and the lives of his crew were changed forever.
“It was the Army Air Corps back then,” Ed explained. “After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, every American knew we were in for a fight.”
After Ed joined the Air Corps and did his basic training, he learned to fly airplanes at Lovell field in Chattanooga Tennessee. With a winning personality and an excellent aptitude for leadership and multi-engine airplanes, Ed Shanks was promoted and found himself as command pilot and officer in charge of a B-25 bomber and its crew of five.
Ed and his crew were soon stationed in Rabaul in the South Pacific and used an airfield and runway that had recently been chopped out of a steaming jungle. There were unbelievable groves of palm trees, and as Ed explained, “Just when you thought you would be able to fall asleep and get some rest, another coconut would drop from a nearby tree and everyone would be awake again. It was either coconuts dropping constantly, air raid sirens, or Japanese planes making an attack even before the air raid warnings could be sounded.
“We didn’t sleep much,” Ed confessed.
Just after his first week in Rabaul and his seventh bomber mission, Ed and his crew were flying back to the coconut airfield when they were attacked by the two Japanese fighter planes coming out of the sun.
The B-25 is a wonderful and very powerful twin-engine aircraft, but the Japanese fighters had the advantage. With the number one engine seized and the broken propeller windmilling uncontrollably, Ed lowered the flaps to reduce speed and prepared to ditch in the ocean. The only good prospect for the moment was the attacking Japanese had already declared a victory and were flying away toward home. The pilots aboard the enemy aircraft could already see their counterparts in the Japanese army coming out from a nearby island to capture the downed American airmen.
When the clear-blue and white-capping waves finally arrived and became much bigger than they ever looked from cruising altitude, the big twin-engine bomber bounced once with an incredible shudder and was then embraced by another big splash and the warm Pacific water.
As well as she was built for the air back in Detroit, the B-25 wasn’t much of a boat. When three tons of metal, crew, and hissing hot engines plowed into the waves, everything broke loose—including the tail gunner’s leg, which was instantly broken in two places.
With the B-25 settling lower and water beginning to rush in over hastily opened hatches, Ed and his crew pulled the wounded tail gunner out and inflated the emergency raft. After everyone was aboard and paddling away from the plane, it soon became obvious why the Japanese pilots had not waited around. About three miles in the distance, there was an island, a beach, and two Japanese gunboats heading out to the ditched Americans. Even with the distance from the downed plane to the island everyone could see the Japanese flag and the fluttering image of the imperial rising sun as the enemy boats were rapidly approaching.
No one aboard the raft said anything because there was nothing to say. Everyone knew and everyone had heard what happened when Army Air Corps boys were captured by the Japanese. No one wanted to think about slashing samurai swords and the inevitable, but as the enemy boats continued to approach with the flaming red circle and streaming sunbeams of the Japanese rising sun, all attention was focused on how much time remained before everyone on the raft was either decapitated or a prisoner of war.
With so much dreaded concentration and focus on the approaching Japanese boats no one heard the big Catalina flying boat, until the ungainly aircraft, lovingly known as a “Dumbo,” roared overhead and made a perfect landing. When the Japanese boats began firing their weapons and rising spouts of water began marking the near misses to the downed B-25, the rescue raft, and the flying boat, the passage of time for the downed American crew ground to a halt. The few minutes required for the big Catalina aircraft to maneuver over to the flimsy emergency raft were violently divided when a Japanese gunner scored a direct hit on the sinking B-25.
With the flying boat rolling in the waves between the spouting cannon shells and the B-25 crew helping the wounded tail gunner aboard, the sudden roaring engines of the rising Dumbo drowned out any possible conversation.
After the ungainly Catalina was safe and airborne, and the Japanese gunboats were left far below, a tan and sandy-haired Australian pilot turned from his seat beside his co-pilot and opened a leather flight case. He then cracked a grin as he passed back a bottle of Scotch. He obviously recognized Ed’s officer’s insignia among the dripping wet uniforms and calmly offered the bottle to the wet and soaking pilot.
“Here mate.” The pilot grinned again. “You look like you could use a drink.”
When Ed and his crew returned to Rabaul and the coconut-landing field, the airfield commander took Ed aside. “Good job on ditching the plane and getting everybody back, and don’t worry—we have a new B-25 waiting for you and your boys.”
“Sir,” Ed began, “I don’t know if I can do this anymore. That was the most terrible thing I can ever imagine. Being shot down and then almost captured, I just don’t think I can do it
“Son,” the Commander began. “You’re going to get into that new plane tomorrow and do your job. Because if you don’t, and the other boys won’t, then we just won’t have anything to go back home to.”
After a long restless night with dropping coconuts and snoring crew members, the next morning, Ed climbed back into the left seat of a brand-new B-25 and flew 68 more missions. For the rest of his life, Edwin M Shanks never had another bad day.
Tom Williams is a Marco Islander. His debut adventure novel “Lost and Found” was ranked by Sport Diver Magazine in the top five books to: “Must take on vacation.” His second book “Surrounded by Thunder—the story of Darrell Loan and the Rocket Men,” was awarded the gold medal for non-fiction in the 2013 Florida Book Awards.