CONCORD, N.C. — Wind ripped through the open bomb bay doors of the B-24 Liberator as Robert Aldous held onto the catwalk for dear life.
Aldous and the rest of the B-24 crew were high over Shanghai, China during World War II when the electrical system failed. The 8,000 pounds of bombs the plane carried would not release automatically, so Aldous was forced to climb down into the bomb bay and use a screwdriver to pry the 80 bombs loose by hand.
And the worst part? He couldn’t wear a parachute because of how small the work area was. If he slipped, he was dead.
“I was so scared I didn’t think about getting cold or anything,” Aldous said. “I was just thinking, ‘I’m hanging on tight so I wouldn’t fall out or blow out.’”
Aldous found himself prying them bombs loose two at a time. “I don’t know how long it took,” he said. “It seemed like I was out there for hours, but I’m sure it was only about 15 minutes. I came back, and boy I had white knuckles.”
That white-knuckle flight was Aldous’s last of World War II, but it wasn’t his last bombing mission. After 42 bombing missions as a top-turret gunner flying B-24s in the Pacific during World War II, Aldous flew another 32 missions in the Korean War aboard a B-29, where he served as the left-side gunner.
Aldous recently discussed his wartime experiences from his home in Concord.
His military career started when he was 17 years old. He remembers being a junior in high school when Pearl Harbor was attacked.
“And of course you either joined something or you got drafted, and I didn’t want to be drafted,” he said. So he joined the Army Air Corps.
By Christmas Eve, 1944, Aldous found himself headed to the Pacific to fight the Japanese as part of the 319th bomb squadron, 90th bomb group.
During his two wars, he saw things that have stayed with him to this day.
On one mission, Aldous was manning the top turret when a shell ripped through the right wing.
“All the shrapnel went back and hit the tail gunner in the fanny, and one gunner got it right on the eyebrow, and another guy got hit in the eye. And that’s the last we saw of him after that mission. I think he probably lost his eye,” Aldous said. “Luckily, it didn’t hit anything vital in the wing.”
He remembers being on base during a Japanese air raid and going out the next day to see a Japanese pilot’s body hanging in a tree near a crashed plane. Aldous figured the pilot for a kamikaze, a suicide bomber. Another time, he watched in horror as a transport plane crashed into a bomber, killing 39 men.
Danger was always at hand, even outside of the plane. While in Okinawa, he and another soldier decided to go sightseeing after they finished loading up some bombs. While going down into a canyon north of the airfield, they stumbled upon a Navy fighter plane that had crash landed. As he and the other man approached the plane they could see that it appeared the pilot and gunner were dead.
Aldous jumped onto the wing of the plane and then heard machine-gun fire from behind him. The gunfire was targeting his buddy.
“I looked back and there was dirt just popping up around him,” Aldous said. The two escaped unhurt, and by the time they got out of the canyon there was an MP waiting on them.
“And he said, ‘What’s the matter with you guys? Can’t you read?’” Aldous recalled. “And he pointed at a sign there that said, ‘Restricted area, no admittance, this area hasn’t been cleared of the enemy.’ We had gone in there, and it was the Japanese shooting at us.”
Aldous saw a lot of combat and a lot of carnage, but he also had some interesting moments. For instance, one of the men he knew in the service was working when a cobra came under the man’s desk. The man simply took out his gun and shot the snake in the head.
“We were very skittish after that,” Aldous said.
But Aldous’ friend had an idea of how to deal with the snake problem in future cases. They got the cobra’s natural enemy, the mongoose.
“Then we felt much easier,” he said.
Another incident that Aldous remembers, with a smile, was when they played a joke on one of his comrades. One guy in their crew never took a shower and was a heavy drinker.
“He’d rather drink than take a bath, and he started smelling bad,” Aldous said. So Aldous and the others started moving the man’s bed little by little each day he didn’t shower. Before long they had placed the bed outside the sleeping area. And when the man asked why Aldous replied, “Well, when you start taking a shower, we’ll move you back.”
Aldous also managed to earn a disapproving look from none other than Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of Allied forces in the southwest Pacific. Aldous and some other men were walking down a street in the Philippines when they heard a siren and saw a staff car passing.
“Everybody jumped to the side and started saluting, and it was MacArthur,” Aldous said. But Aldous wasn’t paying attention and didn’t get a chance to salute.
“He turned his face out the window of the car, he looked at me and glared at me until his car got out of sight,” Aldous said.
Aldous served a total of 42 missions during World War II, and still remembers very well that last mission, the one that had him hanging from a catwalk by the bomb bay doors. That mission on July 24, 1945, lasted 8 hours and 30 minutes.
And while it looked like he was finished by the time he was discharged in October 1945, he’d find himself back in the middle of another war just a few years later after signing up for the Air Force Reserves.
Aldous hadn’t really planned on climbing back into a bomber in wartime, but his decision to avoid a discharge lecture would eventually put him back in the air – and back in harm’s way.
After World War II, he was being discharged, but part of the process required taking a lecture about joining the reserves. But if you just went ahead and joined the reserves while being discharged, you could skip the hour-long lecture.
“So to save an hour, I signed up for the reserves,” Aldous said. When the Korean War started up he got a telegram calling him to active duty for one year.
“So I tried to skip an hour and it cost me a year,” Aldous said with a laugh.
So in 1950, Aldous was back in the air, this time over Korea.
“In some instances they were rougher than anything we flew in World War II,” Aldous said, talking about how the combat was far more intense during the Korean War.
He remembers one bombing run where the group was attacked by 26 enemy fighters. He remembers watching an enemy plane come after another plane in their group, hitting the bomber with cannon fire.
“And I could see those flashes and see pieces on that plane fly off and they hit it its number-three engine,” Aldous said. “And in just a few minutes the whole wing just burned.”
In the end, he would fly 32 missions just during the Korean War.
“Between the two wars I had 720 combat hours,” Aldous said. “And if you divide that by 24 you come up with 30 days. So I spent 30 days and nights in combat missions.”
Contact Michael Knox at 704-789-9133.