From The Story of ONE ELEVEN By Robert Wolport
On 1 June 1945, another photo mission would be sent to Singapore. This time, Lieutenant jg) Fred Heyler's VPB-111 Liberator would carry special K-17 camera equipment and an army specialist, a volunteer named Staff Sergeant George D. Hayball, to operate it. A Privateer from VPB-106, commanded by Lieutenant Commander "Pappy" Mears, would lead the way to discourage enemy fighters. Aircraft Action Report #104 describes what happened.
Lieut.JG) R. F. Heyler, Al, USNR, piloting a Liberator search plane of this squadron, on 1 June, participated in a coordinated search inspection and photographic mission of Singapore. He was flying with Lieut. Comdr. H.F. MEARS, A3, USN, Flight Officer of VPB-106, a Privateer Squadron conducting simultaneous searches from Palawan.
The planes took off in order to reach Singapore about the time the morning haze and ground fog lifted and when visibility had improved to such an extent that photographic and visual recon- naissance was practicable. They flew through darkness all the way down but, in the area of the Anambas Islands, dawn arrived and the two planes were on parallel courses about 15 miles apart. At this time, they joined in a loose formation with Lieut. Comdr. MEARS slightly ahead, below and to the left of Lieut.(jg) HEYLER. They moved toward the Malay Coast and, at that time, they closed to a tight formation in the same relative positions. Lieut (jg) HEYLER put his radar nacelle down three-quarters of the way in an effort to simulate a belly turret. (This ruse obviously worked as later developments demonstrated).
The planes reached the coast near Cape Punggai at about 0915 Item. They moved across the land on a heading of about 310 degrees. At about this time, two Oscars were spotted some distance away, trailing out of range and making no effort to close. The planes had,- by then, reached a position just west of Kong Kong on the west side of the Johere River. Heavy AA batteries located in the Navy Yard Area and on the moored cruisers opened fire. Twenty bursts were fired and virtually all were accurate as to altitude but none was accurate as to deflection, the closest bursting about 150 yards away. It is possible that the trailing Oscars were giving information on the altitude of the search planes which was then about 11000 feet. This altitude changed frequently, the planes losing or gaining 500 feet while in close formation. No damage was done to either plane by this fire. The pilots were in constant VHF communication throughout the attacks and there was a complete understanding of tactics and maneuvers both before and during the run-in.
While the two trailing Oscars were out of range, two others appeared high and off the bow but, likewise, out of range. The Privateer and the Liberator closed their distance still more until the Liberator's port wing was above the starboard wing of the Privateer. All hands had been alerted and had been at their guns for 20 minutes.
One of the two Oscars ahead of the planes started a run. Because he opened fire
out of .50 calibre range, it appeared that he was using his 20mrn. The initial
run was slightly high from I o'clock and hits were secured in the number 3
engine of the Privateer. The Oscar broke away immediately under the American
planes. The Liberator opened fire with all guns that could be brought to bear
and the Privateer was seen to fire from some but not all of its turrets. A study
of photographs made before, during and after the attack indicate that at least
three of the turrets had changed position during the attack,
indicating they had been fired.
The damaged engine immediately flamed with a gasoline fire and the Privateer
started to lose altitude. The Liberator kept its close interval and went into a
glide to keep up with the crippled leader. The first enemy planes had been
observed preparing for the attack at 0925. Lieut. Comdr. MEARS was hit at 0940.
At that time, with Lieut. Comdr. MEARS leading, the
American planes were over Johore north of Singapore Island and continued in a slight gliding turn toward the water southwest of Singapore Island. The Privateer pilot was obviously endeavoring to make a water landing since the plane was under control although losing altitude rapidly. The engine fire was burning fiercely.
During the descent, only three attempts to attack Lieut. Comdr. MEARS were made and all were beaten off by the superlative airmanship of Lieut (JG) HEYLER and the skill of his gunners. One Oscar came in high at I o'clock and broke off at 200 feet, diving away to starboard. Another made a feint at the Privateer while the cripple was near the water but, when the Liberator opened a concentrated fire, did a snap roll into the Liberator and attempted to make a low portside run which, however, was beaten off successfully.
It was at this time that the gunners shot down an Oscar and they believe that it was the same plane which had hit Lieut. Comdr. MEARS. The Oscar came in slightly high on the bow at 1 o'clock, coming within 200 feet of the Liberator and breaking off trailing smoke from the tail, it pulled up in a stall, flipped over into a power dive and headed straight for the water. A photograph shows it at about 300 feet in a vertical dive and the Oscar is claimed as definitely destroyed. It hit the water a few minutes before the Privateer finally crashed.
In an effort to slow down sufficiently to keep behind and above the Privateer,
Lieut.(jg) HEYLER cracked his flaps to a full 40 degrees and cut power to a
minimum. By this means, he was able to stay in formation but, occasionally, was
forced to spread the interval slightly, both to beat off the attacks and to
fishtail to the side to keep from overrunning. Communication between the two
planes remained excellent. Shortly after the Privateer was hit and the number 3
engine broke into flames, Lieut. Comdr. MEARS told Lieut.(jg) HEYLER that
"I'm afraid I'm going to have to ditch." At 3000 feet, however, the
Privateer reported that the fire in number 3 had gone out and he felt slightly
better about the situation. (It is doubtful that the fire actually was out.
Probably the flames, eating away the interior structures, were merely not in
view). The fire broke out again and once more, Lieut. Comdr. MEARS expressed the
opinion that ditching was imminent. He spoke these last words to Lieut.(jg) HEYLER: "I'm sorry but I am going to have to ditch. Thank you for the way
you stuck with me." Almost as soon as these words were spoken, number 4
engine cut out and the glide of the Privateer increased rapidly even though at
the time it was only at 1000 feet. The star- board wing broke off between the
engines at about 300 feet and then the Privateer flipped on its back, did a
split S and went into the water on its back. The position was 01.IIN - 103.39 E.
The time: 1010 Item. Only
debris was seen. No fires or explosions occurred. All members of the crew of the Liberator expressed the opinion that there could not possibly have been any survivors.
At the time the Privateer crashed (the final 300 feet was covered in an instant), Lieut.0g) HEYLER was at 1200 feet, speed 112 knots and using full 40 degree flaps. His weight was about 56,000 pounds. Thus, he was only a few knots above stalling speed. Anti-aircraft guns were firing at the planes all through the last phases of the descent. Apparently, the planes had progressed out of effective range of the heavy batteries comparatively early in the action and in the latter stages were too low for the guns to be of effective use. Medium calibre AA, however, had unobstructed targets and fired at an intense rate from the time the planes reached a point on the western side ofJohore Strait due west of the Tengah Airfield. AU the fire came from escort vessels, picket boats, merchant ships underway or anchored in the western part of the Singapore area. It, too, was inaccurate but its volume was tremendous. In spite of these facts, it is believed that the Privateer was not hit and certainly, the Liberator escaped unscathed. Lieut.(jg) HEYLER's first concern throughout the descent was protection of the cripple but, occasionally, he was forced into violent maneuvers to throw off the aim of the enemy gunners and their fire control apparatus.
The gradual descent had covered 20 miles in a straight line (the actual distance
was greater) over a period of 30 minutes and had covered an altitude
differential from 11,000 feet to sea level and Lieut.(jg) HEYLER had had to
fight his way all the way down. in addition to the attacks made upon the
crippled Privateer, attacks which the Liberator had fought off, three single
attacks and 8 to 10 coordinated attacks were made by the Oscars. One single came
from the port beam, level. Another was a bow run, almost level, and the third
was from two o'clock, extremely high. When three planes were involved, two of
them were from 10 and 2, slightly high, and one from four or five o'clock low.
However, in none of the three-plane attacks did all three Oscars come all the
way in, one breaking off inside range while the others pushed home the attack.
Then, at the moment of the fatal crash, intensity of the action was stepped up and the second phase of the engagement began, adding many heroic moments to the already startling and courageous engagement. Between 1010 and 1030, Lieut.(jg) HEYLER was run- ning southeast at 45 " and 2500 RPM for a cloud cover he could see north of Lingga. In that run, at least three individual attacks and about 25 coordinated attacks were made by the dozen Oscars and the single Hamp. The individual runs were made first and then the coordinated attacks began, apparently because the Japanese fighters had been sufficiently chilled by the tactics of the Liberator and the skill of the gunners.
First to bore in was an Oscar. He came in on the starboard bow slightly high at
1 o'clock. He made a breakaway to port, trailing smoke and definitely damaged
but, before the crew could watch the results of their shooting, another Oscar
made an attack. The first of this series, however, was definitely so severely
damaged that it is claimed as probably destroyed.
The second Oscar came in at 6 o'clock and passed under the port side of the plane at the seat conclusion of his run. Hits were scored but, no flames and no smoke were observed. The next individual attack was that by the silver colored Hamp. He came in level apparently at fun throttle, and for a few seconds, the crew believed he was attempting a suicide attack but, at a close range, estimated at 50 feet, he pulled up, exposing his belly to the bow, top and starboard waist guns. The .50 calibres pounded into the gasoline cells causing much smoke. Other hits on the plane caused pieces of the wings and fuselage to fly off. The plane disappeared from view and was not followed visually because of another incoming attack. It, too, is claimed as probably destroyed.
This was the last single attack. The others were made by two or three Oscars but
principally by two at a time. The Hamp was not seen again, emphasizing the claim
of probable destruction. In the instances of three Oscars attacking at once, the
Liberator would be bracketed by an Oscar on each side, one at about 10 and the
other at 2 o'clock, and the third would
fishtail behind. Never did au three actually make a simultaneous attack but, on several occasions, the third plane would break off just out of range while the other two came in.
All this time, while the escape run was being made, Lieut.(jg) HEYLER kept his plane at 1000 feet, successfully discouraging an except one belly run but, subjecting himself to point-blank fire from picket boats scattered among the islands in the northern and north- western part of the Riouw Archipelago. Occasionally there were slight altitude changes when it was necessary to turn into the attackers but, generally, the 1000 foot level was maintained in three- tenths cloud cover.
About halfway through the series of coordinated attacks, a lone acrobatic-minded Japanese Oscar pilot stunted around at 9-10 o'clock slightly high at a distance he obviously thought was out of range. He wasn't. The port waist gunner opened fire on him and immediately caused him to smoke, sending him into a controlled glide and putting him out of action. This Oscar is one of the five claimed as damaged.
The single belly run (aside from the snap roll attack made before the Privateer hit the water) was only half-hearted and was broken off at 1500 feet after the Japanese pilot had fired only a few rounds of 20 mm. There were a few scattered low clouds between the point of the Privateer's plunge and the Lingga Archipelago and, on occasion, Lieut.(jg) HEYLER was able to take advantage of their temporary cover. Most of the Oscars had become discouraged or were out of fuel or ammunition and had broken off the engagement. As a matter of fact, only a few were left to carry-on efficiently. One had definitely been shot down. Photographs show the plane in a vertical dive at 300 feet and it was impossible for it to have recovered. A wisp of a cloud passed over the point of impact and the actual splash was not observed by the entire crew. A volunteer Army Photographer, whose part in the mission is described below, reported seeing one plane actually hit the water but, it is not clear which one of the dozen of attackers this was. In view of this fact, it would be entirely proper to claim two definitely destroyed but, Lieut.(jg) HEYLER and his crew insist on being conservative in their claims.
In addition to the one shot down, two were probably destroyed and, at least, five were damaged, some seriously. That compilation accounts for 8 of the 13 planes observed. It is entirely possible that more than 13 planes were involved since it was impossible for the crew to know whether additional planes joined the fight as replacements. No more than 13 were seen at any one time.
So, at this stage there were perhaps only 5 fighters available to carry on. Whatever the number, all but two went homeward. These two, however, persisted in pressing attacks until Lingga was reach- ed with its haven of semi-adequate, low cloud cover. Even then, the Oscars stayed in the area attempting to intercept when Lieut.(jg) HEYLER's Liberator poked its way through the clouds and into open sky. Finally, at 1030, one hour and five minutes after the first Oscars started jockeying into attacking positions, the contest ended and the last persistent fighters turned away.
But, the eventful flight was not over. Lieut.jg) HEYLER was 1025 nautical miles
away from base and virtually that far from any friendly territory, airfield,
atoll or personnel. His antenna had been shot away by both his own fire and the
fire of the Japanese planes. He had his radiomen rig up the command transmitter
and endeavored to get a report of the action
through to base or, to any plane, ship or base. The message was sent blind but, as far as has been determined, was not picked up anywhere. He continued to at- tempt to establish contact for two and a half hours.
Meanwhile, he ordered excess ammunition jettisoned. There was not much left as the gunners had used at least 4000 rounds but, happily, in the spirit of preparedness, extra rounds had been carried. He dropped his bomb bay tanks and set a course for home. He had only 1165 gallons of gasoline left but, conserved his fuel so expertly that he landed with 390 gallons.
After about three hours of flight, he heard VHF snatches of conversation between
Lieut. Comdr. GORDON R. EGBERT, Commanding Officer of VPB-111, and Lieut. FRANK
GIBSON, also of this squadron, who were heading toward Singapore for the
late afternoon coverage. After several unsuccessful attempts, he established
contact with Lieut. Comdr. EGBERT and reported to him what had happened to the
Privateer and that the Liberator was low on fuel. Immediately, Lieut. Comdr.
EGBERT sent a message to base. Unable to reach base, he had the message relayed
through another station. This report
was received by base, but the amplifying report, also sent by Lieut. Comdr. EGBERT, was never received.
Lieut.(jg) HEYLER advised his commanding officer and fellow pilot GIBSON against going into Singapore and urged them to go around, explaining that he was confident that Japanese fighters would be there waiting for them. However, Lieut. Comdr. EGBERT elected to continue his assigned patrol and he and Lieut. GIBSON proceeded on their way. At the entrance to Singapore Straits, they found that weather had closed in the area and, consequently, they patrolled outside the straits and searched northward. Meanwhile, Lieut.(jg) HEYLER had leaned out his fuel consumption to the point that he was using only 135 gallons an hour. He reached base at 1649 and after 14.2 hours in the air and after a running battle that lasted for one hour and five minutes from 11000 feet to 1000 feet.
All hands were safe. No injuries had been incurred and no real damage had been inflicted upon the plane. The only possible enemy- caused damage was the disappearance of the trailing antenna which is presumed to have been shot off by enemy fire sometime during the engagement. The antenna had been put down at the time of the at- tack on Lieut. Comdr. MEARS.
Lieut.(jg) HEYLER highly praised his crew and the Army Photographer who had taken all the excellent K-17 pictures which accompany this report. " I want everybody to know that had it not been for the wonderful work of the crew, we would not have been able to make it. They fought and fought. Their work was outstanding. I particularly want to express my admiration for Norbert James O'ROURKE, the top turret gunner. All his ammunition was exhausted but extra rounds were available. While he fired one gun with one hand, he loaded the other gun with the other hand. It was a wonderful example of quick and decisive thinking. If he had stopped firing to load both guns, I am sure one of the Oscars would have gotten in to us."
The photographer was Staff Sgt. George D. HAYBALL of the 2nd Photo Charting Squadron attached to the 311 Mapping and Recon- naissance Wing. He volunteered to go on the mission and installed the K-17 camera for the purpose of taking pictures of the harbor installations and shipping. MEMBERS OF THE GREW WERE: Lieut.0g) R. FRED HEYLER, PPC Ensign HARVEY H. ROSCOE, Co-Pilot Lieut. D.J. QUINLAN, A (L) Navigator WALTERS, V.J. AMMic(T) BARKLEY, G.B. AOM 3c(T) O'ROURKE, N.J. AMM3c(T) LUND, G.H. AOM3c(T) GONZALEZ, R.C. ARMic EVANS, W.L. Sic (AMM) TRAVY, M.L. ARM3c SRUBA, E.S. Sic (ARM) CARLIN, T.D. AMM2c S