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Bougainville & Carriers

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July 24, 1945

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July 26, 1945

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Interview with Paul Brehm
In March 1942, Paul Brehm was initiated into naval aviation at the Naval Reserve Aviation Base at Kansas City, Missouri, where he soloed and received basic flight training. At NAS Jacksonville, Florida, he completed advance training and received his ensign's commission on December 24, 1942.

His first war time assignment was to the Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO) after receiving orders to VC-40, one of two land based navy squadrons operating in the Solomon Islands. Initially flying from Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, his squadron leap-frogged up the line to an airstrip at Munda, New Georgia, then a beachhead airstrip on Bougainville for strikes on Rabaul, New Britain. By the middle of 1944 he was back in the United States assigned to Bombing 87 (VB-87) which was based at NAS Wildwood, New Jersey. The squadron was by this time flying the new generation of dive bombers, the monstrous SB2C Helldiver, nicknamed The Beast.

After assignment to the aircraft carrier USS Randolph (CV-15), his unit was advised of the desperate new tactic developed by the Japanese, called the Kamikaze, which had been taking a severe toll on carriers and other warships. As a result, the air group was dropped off at NAS Kahalui, Maui for restructuring. With less emphasis on bombers and torpedo planes, a new element emerged; the fighter-bomber. The airgroup was then assigned to the USS Ticonderoga (CV14) which had just arrived from a navy yard on the West Coast after the repair of kamikaze damage. Thus it was that Airgroup Eighty-Seven, came to be aboard Ticonderoga.

Lieutenant Commander Brehm's war time decorations included the Navy Cross, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Air Medal with 6 stars. He was a member of the Legion of Valor and retired to Orange County, California until shortly before his passing in 2002. The interview below was conducted in 1999, around the time he met with former Hyuga crewmembers in Japan.

WTJ: You flew the SB2C dive bomber on the Hyuga and Tone missions, how did it handle?

Brehm: It was called "The Beast," a hydraulic nightmare. Very sluggish on take off, but a good bombing plane. It had a tendency to float on landing. Only one pilot never ditched on take off or caught a fence (barrier) on landing. Weapons were all electrical, charging the cannon was done by turning on the arming switch. This was different from the SBD's armament, which required us to put one foot on the floor (off of the rudder pedal) and use the leverage to manually charge the two fifty caliber machine guns.

WTJ: Speaking of armament, were there any special or new weapons you used?

Brehm: We were first introduced to napalm in early '45. We practiced dropping it on Upolo Point, Hawaii. Also, we were introduced to proximity fuzed rockets. Problem was, in early instances when the rockets were fired they didn't wait to get to the approximate target, they went off and blew up the plane that fired them. When we were using them, we usually opened up the formation, just in case.

WTJ: I notice that flights commonly lost the first plane on launch. Why would such a thing happen so frequently?

Brehm: Because Fly-One used a "Slip-Stick" to calculate take off room. They always cut it too close and said we had enough room for the wind over the deck. We lost a lot of planes that way. Realize that the Captain was interested in launching faster than other ships. Also, when the last plane was off, airborne, or in the drink, the task force could depart the area.

WTJ: What did you mean by "...the cameras started rolling..."?

Brehm: Any time photographers thought there was going to be a crash, they took pictures just to be on the safe side!

WTJ: What happened with battle damaged planes or those that crashed on deck?

Brehm: They were pushed over immediately. Plane handlers hardly had time to try and salvage the clocks before the plane was over the side. If the barrier was torn up, the cherry picker crane was placed in the middle of the deck so you could crash into that.

WTJ: Were there any common problems with returning from a strike?

Brehm: Yes. Because kamikazes were hitting the force, you could not come back directly. You had to go to a picket destroyer with a Aircraft & Ships | Click to see images CAP (Combat Air Patrol), check in and then they would vector you to the TF. If we flew back directly, we took a good chance of being shot down. We lost a lot of destroyers because of this type of duty.

WTJ: Were you ever told what to do if captured?

Brehm: Early in '45 the aircrews were told that they could ignore the old "name, rank & serial number" rule. If captured, tell anything they knew in order to save their skins. The Japs had an idea of what was going on, they certainly knew that the fleet was out there because we were bombing the crap out of them daily! We were not told of future operations, so we never knew what was happening even the next day. At this time we were given blood chits in case we were operating in Chinese water.

WTJ: Were any men from VB-87 ever captured?

Brehm: Yes. During the raid on the Tone, Porter and Brisette went down and were captured. We later found out that they died during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. There is a plaque memorializing them at the Andersonville National Cemetery.

WTJ: What if you were caught on board during General Quarters?

Brehm: The hangar deck was where the armor plating was (5 inches I think). The flight deck and ready rooms were above it, and if hit by a kamikaze, those areas got blown up. When we went to GQ, we went below and had to stay there. Depending on the severity of GQ, the X, Y and Z doors were a problem. You could go through an X door without too much of a problem. I think you had to have permission to go through a 'Y' door after clearance with damage control. No one went through a 'Z' door. They handled magazines and fuel compartment, etc.

The worst thing was being stuck below. The air was stale, and sometimes you would hear guns firing in the distance and they would announce that enemy aircraft were in among the ships. Then the five inch guns on OUR ship would begin firing and we realized that enemy planes were in sight. Then our small guns would all open up and we would think 'Jesus Christ!'

WTJ: Do you have any favorite, or memorable Commanders?

Brehm: At Bougainville our skipper was LCDR "Red" Pennoyer. I didn't fly with him too often, but when I did, it was a pleasure for he was as smooth an airman as I have ever seen. He was also comical to watch, and usually kept those who could see him in stitches. His usual procedure was to fiddle and fuss with the trim tabs on the plane until it was flying along perfectly...all by itself. One time after he got all trimmed up, I could see him take off one glove, and then take off the other. He didn't pull them off, he took them off like a woman does, gently, one finger at a time. Next he pulled out his plotting board, took out a cigarette and put it in his mouth. Then began the hunt for matches. I could see him feeling in his knee pockets, in his breast pocket. I watched him peer into the furthermost corners of his plotting board and then reach for the mike. His rear-seat man jumped like a puppet on a string, and swinging around, extended his hand as far as he could with the precious matches. Lighting the cigarette, he settled back, put on his gloves the same way he took them off, fitting one finger at a time. Then he closed the plotting board and finally looked around to see if everyone was still with him...and watching his performance.

WTJ: How about famous people?

Brehm: After a mission we flew on December 31, 1943, we returned to the main tent at camp and the Fighter Exec was guzzling beer taken from a huge stack of cans in the middle of the floor. Why they had been taken out of their cases I didn't know, but there they were, piled high in the middle of the room. With him was a squat, chunky marine. They were dressed alike, khaki shorts that once had been trousers, cut off with the ends left to fray. The chunky fellow, "Pappy" Boyington, was chewing the fat with the Exec, and when we came in we were introduced all around. We got talking to "Pappy" and learned that all the heat was on him. At this stage of the game, "Pappy" was the leading ace in the Pacific. In order to be leading US ACE, he had to get one more confirmed kill that would put him over the top. He was due for leave but was hanging around, mostly to please the news correspondents who were hounding him to top the list. He'd make daily sweeps over enemy territory trying to find some luckless Jap to make another notch on his guns. But the skies remained empty and there was nothing to kill. "Pappy" was cussing the newspaper men, the General Staff and everybody he could think of. He wanted to go home. He was tired and he vowed that if in the next couple of days he didn't get his kills, "To hell with it all." A few days later, January 3rd I believe, we heard that he was reported missing. He had been shot down, but survived and became a POW.
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