The story of HE 842, a B24 liberator

I started out writing a fictional story set in our village at Pallavur starting with an object falling out of the skies and crashing into our paddy fields. The much consternation it subjected the villagers to, the investigation of the fallen object and the general furor it created would form the heart of the story. But I pondered a lot on what kind of a mechanical looking object could fall over Pallavur without conclusion. Satellite debris of this size cannot possibly survive reentry. Aircraft jettisoning waste was a possibility, but again they are all way off Palghat, if on a commercial flight path. It was during a study of debris scatter patterns and air crash investigations that I stumbled upon a brief mention of a B24 crash in Palakkad. I was mystified. An American WWII bomber crashing in Palghat in 1958?? How come? Well, let’s find out…..

That B24J liberator must have rolled out of a fleet manufactured in 1944, so many years before I was born. A warhorse of equal acclaim and disdain, the B24 was a fruit of the designers at the Consolidated Aircraft of San Diego, California. With its unconventional shoulder mounted wings and the four supercharged, powerful engines, it stood out as a rugged bomber and was just one among some 18,500 units mass produced during the World War II. The design was perhaps simple in concept but, was actually advanced for the times. Innovative features such as a tricycle landing gear and Davis wing were the new concepts. In its heydays, it served in every branch of the American, Canadian and British forces and was the bomber which decimated the axis powers in the western, pacific theaters, mainly the U boats in the Atlantic. Soon it found itself in the CBI – China Burma India Theater, flying over the Himalayan terrain or the ‘hump’ as the Yanks called it, ferrying equipment and forces to China. Before long, it was to serve the allies splendidly in the SE Asian wars over Burma and other dense tropical forests as well as in the Pacific theater, instilling dread and terror in the minds of the enemy, what with its twin bay bomb payload of some 8,000 lbs. The many B24 liberator models were produced in such short a period that it has been said that more aluminum, aircrew and effort went into the B-24 fleet than any other aircraft in history.

Many pilots who flew it, hated it, cursing the establishment for saddling them onto this beast of a machine, one which was relatively difficult to handle and had a poor low speed performance; even though it’s relatively thick wing provided increased tankage as well as increased lift and speed compared to the Boeing B17. The double fin tail also created many challenges, but remained integral to the thousands built and flying B24’s. As time went by it earned many a nick name, the popular ones being the flying boxcar or even the flying coffin. The Liberator carried a crew of up to 10. The pilot and co-pilot sat alongside each other in a well glazed ‘greenhouse style’ cockpit. The navigator and bombardier, sat in the nose, the radio/radar operator sat behind the pilots, facing sideways. The upper gun turret, when fitted, was located just behind the cockpit, in front of the wing, and was operated by the flight engineer, who sat adjacent to the radio operator behind the pilots. In the tail, up to four crew could be located, operating waist guns. The tail gunner's powered twin-gun turret was located at the end of the tail, behind the tail plane. Though not the most popular, the B24’s took differing roles as transporters, radar jammers, anti-submarine patrols and even as cargo carriers.

As the war dragged along, many B24’s came to the Indian theater, serving the USAF, RCAF and the RAF and based in various airfields, to help out with operations in SE Asia. But this was not the first time India got connected with a B24. Do you remember the story of Sabu Dastagir the Hollywood actor, which I had narrated some years ago? Well Sabu, the child actor from Mysore, had after settling down in California taken up American citizenship and joined the USAF. Being one of smaller build, he flew manning a B24's nose turret gun!

Another B24 story is recounted by a famous C87 Cargo pilot in his memoirs.  In “Fate is the Hunter”, (he hated the B24 C87 cargo, though not the B24 bomber) Ernest K. Gann explains how, while taking off with an overloaded C87 from Agra on a very hot summer day, he barely avoided crashing his plane into the Taj Mahal, dead ahead in his flight path. Digressing a little, let’s see what he did…

The pilot of the big American C-87 transport lined up his machine at the end of the heat-hazed runway at Agra. At the far end of the concrete runway, he could see the Taj Mahal. As the plane speeded up and rumbled along, he noticed with horror that the speed on display was not even half of what was needed. To take off, he had to be at 120mph and to his absolute consternation, he saw it was just 60 mph. Brake now and abort or increase speed? Increase speed was his decision, and throttling up to eighty mph, he saw the trees at the edge looming dangerously on his windscreen. The air speed indicator was still showing just a 100mph and Mann decided to pull back the column, just skimming past the tree tops. And then he saw, almost directly ahead of him and rapidly nearing, the majestic Taj Mahal. On a scaffold near the minaret tip, there were some laborers toiling with some repair work.

Mann states - We were obviously going to knock it down ... Desperate in the seconds remaining, I made a wild decision. I doubted if anyone had ever tried it in a C87 ... 'Hogarty!' I yelled. 'Give me full flaps!'' The plane lost speed, then ballooned upwards, barely missing the spike of a minaret. Workmen on scaffolding repairing the monument cowered back in terror, but the last-second maneuver had saved them, and India’s priceless memorial.

But there is more to the B24 and India as you can infer, so let me continue. Just imagine the contraption, all of 67 feet long and 110 feet wide, weighing 29,000 kg, powered by four 1200HP Pratt & Whitney engines and carrying some 8,000 liters of fuel, coasting along at 297 mph, at heights around 25,000 ft. A plane which was born in the Southern tip of the US west coast in San Diego California, serving in various Atlantic operations, bombing cities to smithereens and helping destroy many a German U boat, going back and forth across the Himalayas and finally bombing the Japanese at work on the dreadful death railway in Burma. It had covered many meritorious years, flown by a succession of nationalities trained in America, until the war finally ended with the surrender of the Japanese.

After the war ended in 1945, a large number (approximately 100 of them) of Consolidated B-24 Liberators were grounded at Chakeri in Kanpur. Britain had originally acquired all these aircraft under the US Lend-Lease terms, which stipulated that they should not fall into anyone else's hands after the war. In fact it is not even clear if this junk belonged only to the RAF, for there were birds of the USAF and the RCAF, in the heap, all once operating out of India, but under the responsibility of RAF. Britain was by now heavily indebted and consequently left in a quandary. There was no place for these planes back home, so the airmen and support staff, part of 322 maintenance Unit at Chakeri decided to vandalize these glorious machines of war before leaving, making them inoperable.

JEH Fail explains all this succinctly in his fine but saddening article. MU staff, torn between the feelings about the aircraft and the hope of ‘Demob’ back home did what they had to. All guns were removed according to instructions from America, and next all equipment useful to the aircraft, such as instruments, radios etc. Control wires were cut, armament ammo chutes destroyed, turret motors broken, even the first aid boxes were removed. Magnetos were removed from the engines rendering all engines useless. Once the aircraftsmen had immobilized the equipment inside the aircraft and the engines the army moved in with tractors and tugged the aircraft in order of their doom numbers for final destructions, smashing up the turret Perspex making holes in the Alclad (Aluminum outer skin) with picks and the dropping the aircraft to the ground by smashing one undercarriage leg, leaving the aircraft like a stranded whale.

Bulldozers were rammed into the fuselages, sand poured into the fuel tanks and instruments were smashed. In between all this, the maintenance staff almost went on a mutiny when a rumor spread that they may be retained in India to service the civilian forces, but it was sorted out quickly when the CO threatened to shoot a mutineer everyday till the mutiny was stopped. Kanpur was left with an immense scrapyard with hundreds of maimed B24’s. By 1947 India had become independent and the dump was handed over to India in Nov 1947.

Who would liberate the liberators? Why would they? Did They? The story takes an amazing and incredible turn. But I will retrace it backwards after going forward 13 years and get back to this in context.

On Wednesday, February 5th, 1958, the B24J consolidated liberator which we started out with, slammed into a mountain side just over 2,500 ft high, somewhere near Nelliyampathy in Palghat (other reports mention Munnar). Visibility was apparently poor around the hills as the blue mountains of Niligiris were perpetually cloaked in dense mist during February. The plane, part of the 6th or 16th squadron, had taken off from Sulur Air Force base in Coimbatore and was perhaps headed towards the Arabian Sea for some naval exercises. Sulur was home to the IAF Administrative College Coimbatore and it appears the aircraft was on a routine mission. The pilot who was to fly it complained of some illness (per one source) and the 28 year old Flt Lt D Kochar took the controls. It was not meant to be, perhaps the plane never achieved sufficient lift, perhaps the altimeter or its sensors were bad, the B24 eventually slammed into the mountains. Why was it flying at such a low altitude, some 70 miles into its flight? Regrettably I have no answers, as a detailed report could not be located.

Reuters reported tersely - CRASH KILLS 10 ERNAKULAM- Ten men were believed to have died when an Indian Air Force Liberator crashed near Munnar, central Travancore, reports reaching here said Thursday. But most other accident report sites mention Palghat, not Munnar. The four dead were (Courtesy Bharat Rakshak pages) are Flt Lt Devindra Kochar (4453), Flg Offr Shashikumar Dattatatray Jadhav (4825), Navs P/O AK Ghosh (5210) and P/O NK Tamhankar (5212). The names of the other six dead airmen are not known.

The crew must have died a sudden death, presumably in flames (I have to make these assumptions due to the lack of any details in the accident report). I am not sure if it caught fire for the records state that the plane was damaged beyond repair and written off. I am also not sure if the crash debris is still in the vicinity or cleared away. It must have been a spectacular explosion with a few thousand liters of fuel catching fire. The debris must have been scattered all over the nearby villages. The villagers must have been astounded, never for a moment believing that something like this would happen. A vast majority would never have seen a plane, let alone a plane crash. If I had a manufacturing serial number I could have traced some of its history through the war, but I could not find any. The Defense ministry statement was also brief and terse, reported in an American newspaper. Accident report sites mentioned Palakkad, Reuters mentioned Munnar and the exact location is not clear, though it is likely closer to the gap and not Munnar.

Interestingly this was not the first crash in the Palghat gap region for Wing Commander Russel in his book ‘Forgotten Skies’ stated - Jack Pickard, the soft-spoken New Zealander, disappeared on the short stretch to Coimbatore where he was ferrying an Albacore. The clouds and rain were down to a hundred feet, and there was only one gap two miles wide at Palghat, between the Nilgiris and the Annamallie mountains, where he could squeeze through to Coimbatore.

It was a sad end for a plane which may have had a distinguished past with possibly the Royal Canadian air force. But think back a bit, after a few glorious years of service in the WWII, it had been abandoned, then partially destroyed at Chakeri. How did it fly again? That is a splendid story, one that can be retold orally much better, after imbibing a couple of Jack Daniel’s. With a load of thanks to Group Capt Kapil Bhargava and K SreeKumar Nair who covered this in their articles, let me summarize the same for your reading pleasure…..

The B24’s had served their purpose, their masters had been ‘demobed’ and their crew were back home learning to adjust to civilian life and post traumatic disorders, some doing better than other. The planes spent years outdoors in the extremes of India’s climate, rains, hot sun, humidity, sand and dust, each of these being an aircraft’s worst enemy!

After independence, it was on October 20, 1947 that the so-called Pukhtoon tribal raiders invaded Kashmir and after much looting and killing reached the outskirts of Srinagar. Hari Singh the Maharaja requested help from India and the fledgling IAF was involved in strafing to push back the attackers. It was at this juncture that the lack of a bomber force was felt by the IAF. In 1948, the US offered to sell B-25 Mitchells, while Britain offered a few war-surplus Lancasters, but the IAF concluded that both types were unsuitable. A few airmen remembered the junkyard at Chakeri. What it they could refurbish a few bombers from the yard of rusting relics?
The Chakeri field with the B24's
It was a classic challenge, something nobody else would have ever even reconsidered today. HAL, then called Hindustan Aircraft (originally owned by W Pawley, an American), experienced in repairing American Dakota’s during the war agreed to attempt a salvage operation. One Mr Yellappa and his team surveyed the yard, identified repairable aircraft, did the required first aid by cannibalizing parts from other B24’s and made them somewhat flyable. But who would fly them? When qualified B24 American pilots contacted quoted an unacceptably large figure, the chief test pilot at HAL Jimmy- Jamshed Kaikobad Munshi took it on singlehandedly. Jimmy now had the job of ferrying B-24s, temporarily patched-up by Yelappa's men, from Kanpur to Bangalore. But then he had neither flown a B24 nor had he experience in any 4 engine aircraft. Rummaging in the hundreds of scrapped planes, Jimmy managed to put together a complete flying manual of the B24J. As he had flown DC-3’s previously, he did understand the P&W engines.

Jimmy’s incredible feat of flying these 42 salvaged planes to Bangalore may seem like unbelievable fiction, but he did bring every single one to its new home in Bangalore flying at low altitude with wheels down. All the ferried B-24s were then overhauled and refurbished while Jimmy tested and cleared them for service.

The Americans hearing about this were dismayed, but when they found that nothing was clandestine about it, they accepted the situation and let matters be for they had abandoned these and written them as junk, leaving no ownership questions on the table. The Indians proved to be brilliant engineers and managed to keep these B24 liberators flying for the next twenty years, 1948-68. The planes went to the Tuskers - 5th, Flying Dragons - 6th and 16th Squadrons. The B24J - HE 842 was one of the two or three trainers at the 16th squadron based in Sulur. Some continued to be used for training until 1981.
The 5th and 16th Squadrons converted to the English Electric Canberra in 1959. The surviving B24’s liberated by Yellappa, Jimmy and the HAL finally faced retirement and were sold as scrap by the IAF. Today five Liberators resurrected from Kanpur are known to be in museums in the USA, Canada and the UK. The 5th, 6th and 16th Squadrons of the Indian Air Force still exist; all operate the British French Sepecat Jaguar.

One of the B24J’s owned by the Collins foundation, still flies, after having undergone further restoration and overhauls back home, in America, is now an incredible 75 years old!!  

As SK Nair stated – The B24’s remain testament to the robustness of an American design and construction, and to the Indian ingenuity and expertise (blended with considerable sweat and toil, and some improvisation!) which kept them flying in India for twenty years longer than anywhere else.

322 maintenance unit and the demolition of SEAC liberators ByJ.E.H. Fail
India's Reclaimed Bombers: The B-24 Liberator Gp Capt Kapil Bhargava

Images courtesy – Wikimedia, weapons and warfare, google maps

I tried very hard to get further details of HE 842, but the plane’s antecedents are not to be found nor is it listed in the Joe Baugher database or the Bharat Rakshak archives. Anybody who can help or know about the specific B24 are encouraged to comment.

Some trivia – 3 companies, viz. Douglas Aircraft, North American Aviation, and Ford Motor Company made the B24’s during the war, but much of the production and quality issues were due to lack of good blueprints and precise bills of material. The B24’s greater range allowed it to be used to attack Nazi submarines in the mid-Atlantic where previously land based aircraft could not reach. The B17 was the press darling and most war movies do not show a B24 in them.