Scootin’ Thunder: WWII Vet Shares Stories from the Cockpit

Story by Randy Roughton

Photo: Image capture from Airman Magazine Online video.

Image capture from Airman Magazine Online video.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Airman staff recently learned of the death of retired Army Air Corps Capt. Bob Houser, age 92. Two years ago, Houser and his daughter Beth allowed Airman magazine a glimpse into his service as a co-pilot on a B-24 Liberator in the Solomon Islands in 1943. In his memory, we are republishing our story that appeared in December 2011.

Only the block letters “Army Air Forces” and the name of the 91-year-old former World War II airman provide clues to the contents on the brittle pages inside the diary’s worn blue cover. Retired Army Air Corps Capt. Bob Houser kept the diary of his experiences as a co-pilot on a B-24 Liberator in the Solomon Islands in 1943. His entries provide a glimpse into a year with a 13th Air Force bomber crew in Guadalcanal. The friendships the Cactus Air Force crew developed and tragic losses they endured in a one-year period included 45 combat missions on the bomber they called Scootin’ Thunder.

Houser’s entries on nights before major bombing missions reveal the emotions the crew members experienced as they tried to rest the night before they took Scootin’ Thunder into a sky they knew would be shared with Japanese Zero-Sen A6M fighters.

“I tried to sleep, but the anticipation of what we were about to undertake kept me awake for another hour or so,” Houser wrote the night before the B-24 crew’s mission in the raid on Munda Airfield, New Georgia Group, Soloman Islands, July 25, 1943. “I lay on my bunk, staring into the darkness, waiting for some much needed sleep. I knew it had been hot on Cactus today, yet I felt a chill I couldn’t shake.”

For years, Houser’s family tried to get him to share his war experiences. His daughter, Beth Houser, remembers looking over his shoulder at the diary when he’d pull it out after a telephone call with fellow crewmembers like retired Lt. Col. Oscar Fitzhenry, the pilot on Scootin’ Thunder. When she asked him about sharing his diary, however, her father’s response would usually be, “Nobody cares. No one is interested in what happened in the Pacific.”

Eventually, Houser turned the diary over to his daughter, who turned his writings into the book, “Scootin’ Thunder,” in 2006.

“The efforts to get him to share have been difficult all along because he, like so many men of his generation, didn’t talk about his service,” she said. “With everything these guys encountered and had to deal with, you see these 10 young men coming together and forming a team and a crew, taking on their responsibility and how it changed them.”

On June 16, 1943, the day he landed on Guadalcanal, Houser saw a Japanese Zero in a dogfight with Allied fighters at 12,000 feet. He’d arrived just as a major air attack was happening over Tulagi, northeast of Guadalcanal. It turned out to be the biggest air victory of the war, with Allied planes shooting down 79 Zeros. That night, the Scootin’ Thunder crew flew its first combat mission, which targeted the runway at the southern end of Bougainville.

Houser, a newspaper reporter in his Indiana hometown before he enlisted a month before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, thought of the name for the B-24, although Fitzhenry and the rest of his crewmates were less than enthusiastic about his choice. Many crews gave their planes exotic names with artwork of scantily-clad women, but Houser wanted a more creative look for their bomber.

Two nights after he arrived, on a return flight from a raid on the Kahili airfield on Bougainville, Houser began what would become a lyrical tradition. He sang popular songs to help fight the monotony of the sight of miles of open sky and sound of the whirring of the B-24 propellers.

“Houser, give us some songs,” 2nd Lt. Bill Garman, the navigator, would call out. One night, he might have chosen “Danny Boy.” On another mission, it would be the Cole Porter song, “Night and Day.”  Houser never disappointed his audience.

“It’s the lack of something to do immediately after you’re engaged in combat,” Houser said. “It’s all off your shoulders. You’ve turned around to go home, and you feel a song come over your heart, so I just started to sing. I wasn’t looking for any hosannas, but they seemed to like it after a while, so it became a regular thing on the way back. I had a whole repertoire of songs.”

He also sang along with an American station the radio picked up on the flight back from a raid on the Buka Passage on July 6. But the mood turned somber when the crew landed. They learned two planes from the 307th Squadron didn’t make it back. One of the crew members was a friend.

The next day, Houser had lunch with another friend, Lt. Gordon Hall, who he knew from cadet training. Two weeks later, he learned Hall was killed, along with his entire crew, when he buzzed the airfield at Buttons [Espiritu Santo].

“It’s almost a life of its own, the electrification that takes off within the camp,” Houser said of how word spread of fellow Airmen’s deaths. “You’re not alone with that information for very long. It buzzes all through the camp.”

A couple of days after he learned of Hall’s death, Houser and the rest of the B-24 crew listened to a briefing from  the 5th Bombardment Group’s commanding officer, Col. Marion D. Unruh, regarding the next morning’s Mundu raid. Five words especially got Houser’s attention and were doubtlessly on his mind as he wrote that night’s entry in his diary while lying in his Quonset hut bunk.

“‘We may lose some people,’” Houser said. “Of all the things he said, that was the thing that knocked us on the side of the heads. But we didn’t, thank God.”

On July 30, after a daylight raid on Ballale, the crew found two holes the size of a basketball in the B-24’s left wing. Fitzhenry gouged a slug from one of the props as a souvenir.

The sight of a Japanese Zero often instilled terror, especially for a bomber crew.

“At first, it looks like a shadow, but then it turns into a plane,” Houser said. “Sometimes, you see a plane sneaking up on you, and you don’t hear them until the rat-a-tat at the hull of your ship. That’s the kind of dread that sweeps over you all of a sudden, because you see a plane with bullets coming out of it flying right toward you. It’s a fright, one that paralyzes some part of you, but you go ahead and mechanically perform your task. Then, there’s the celebration when you get home. Look at what we did today. We nearly got it, but we didn’t.”

The crew lost Scootin’ Thunder for a while when the B-24 was reassigned to the 31st Squadron, and after he took leave in New Zealand, Houser flew transitional flights from the battleship Geronimo.

During a strike on Kahili on Oct. 10, Zeros just missed hitting the plane Fuzzy Wuzzy that Houser’s crew was flying and hit one piloted by Capt. Charles Frampton. The B-24 caught fire, and before it crashed into the sea, three crewmembers in Frampton’s plane parachuted out, but were cut down by Zero gunfire.

Unruh, the 5th Bomb Group commanding officer, was also shot down in his B-24, the Pretty Prairie Special, on Dec. 30. Houser’s crew saw eight men on the beach the next day, but could not rescue them so they dropped supplies. Unruh’s crew was captured by the Japanese. Unruh was taken to Japan, while most of his men were executed. Unruh survived the war, but died in a private plane crash in 1968.

The Scootin’ Thunder crew survived a 65-minute race from an attack by Zeros after a raid on the Kavieng, New Ireland, shipping harbor on Jan. 3, 1944. The crew was practically out of bullets when they saw 16 P-38 Lightnings racing past them to attack the Zeros. On the return flight, they heard radio chatter when Maj. Greg “Pappy” Boyington’s Vought F4U Corsair went down. The Marine fighter ace and commander of the famous Black Sheep Squadron also became a Japanese POW and survived the war before he died in 1988.

“We shared the same sky with him that day, for a few minutes,” Houser said.

Houser was the first of his crew to leave the Pacific, when he received orders to Galveston, Texas, where he served as a flight instructor. He felt a twinge of melancholy as he saw Scootin’ Thunder take off on another mission without him.

Today, the veteran often takes walks with his daughter near his home in Long Beach, Calif. They talk about events he wrote about in his diary, although he jokes she now knows more about his own war memories than he does. Something Houser’s learned in the five years since his diary was published, is that people care about what happened in the Pacific and do want to know about his service on a B-24 during the war. He beams each time a young adult stops to thank him for his service when they see his Scootin’ Thunder cap or jacket.

After serving his country, Houser was hired on as a writer at the Press-Telegram, in Long Beach, Calif. where he worked for the next 40 years. The paper posted a tribute and announcement of his passing here: Bob Houser’s obituary.

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