No account of the early days of the Pacific war is complete without mentioning “Pappy Gunn”, one of the most colourful characters to emerge during the early stages of the Pacific war. He left his mark on a number of desperate undertakings and – Navy man to the core – he wasn’t shy to tell everyone about it. Some of his ‘Sea-Stories’ have become so embroidered in the re-telling that they are to be taken with a grain of salt. But there is no denying that “Pappy” Gunn was a mover and a shaker in those hectic days, when the US military structure crumbled and collapsed under the Japanese onslaught
Paul Irvin Gunn was born in Quitman, Arkansas on October 18, 1900. At the age of ten, Paul saw his first airplane and knew that he wanted to fly. He left school after 6th grade and by “correcting” his year of birth to 1899, managed to join the US Navy.
His hopes to become a naval aviator were dashed by his poor education but he became an aviation machinist’s mate. He spent most of his Navy time at Pensacola where he met Clara “Polly” Louise Crosby, his future wife.
The end of the Great War meant there was no chance of a flying career. Undaunted, he saved his military pay for years, bought a surplus seaplane when his enlistment expired and taught himself to fly. Then, just after he left the Navy, he learned that enlisted men could apply for pilot training and he immediately re-enlisted. After some hassling and rope-pulling, he was sent to flight school from which he graduated as a Navy pilot in the spring of 1925. Over the years, he served as a flight instructor at Pensacola, as a fighter and seaplane pilot with the Fleet and finally as a VIP pilot at Anacostia Naval Air Station in Washington, D.C. He retired from the Navy for the second time in 1937 and was almost immediately employed as a pilot by a Hawaii businessman called Bob Tyce (the first American to be killed during the Japanese air raid on Hawaii.)
In 1939, Gunn was lured away to the Philippines by the wealthy Ariala family and for some time he piloted their twin-engined Beechcraft D-18S. Early in 1941, Gunn convinced the family they should start an airline called Philippines Air Lines (PAL), of which he duly became general manager.
After the sudden and devastating Japanese attack on the Philippine airfields, there was a major shortage of transport planes. All remaining Douglas C-39’s and B-18’s were working overtime and even the scarce B-17’s were used as transports. Appalled by this situation, Major-General Lewis H. Brereton, (commander Far East Air Force – FEAF), commandeered the Philippines Air Lines aircraft and personnel. Gunn and his friend Dan Stickle were sworn into the Army Air Force (with the ranks of Captain and 1st Lieutenant respectively) and Brereton ordered them to use PAL’s aircraft and any others he could lay his hands on to establish an air transport squadron.
The “squadron” initially had 4 aircraft, a Sikorsky seaplane and 3 Beechcraft D-18’s. When the Japanese raided Nielson field and destroyed the Sikorsky, Gunn immediately decided to relocate his 3 remaining (damaged) aircraft to a safer location. Characteristically, he decided to exploit superstition and chose the Manila Grace Park cemetery as his new “field”. His reasoning was that even the most battle hardened Japanese pilots would wince at the thought of shooting up a graveyard. Grace Park had actually been an airfield some twenty years earlier. After it had been closed, the runway been turned into a long driveway. His friends Dan Stickle, Harold G. Slingsby and Louis Connelly helped Gunn to knock down some headstones and remove some pinnacles from tombs to create wingtip clearance. And the new “field” was quickly ready for operations.
For the next few weeks of December 1941, the 3 Beech D18’s flew supplies and personnel around the Philippines, frequently attacked by Japanese fighters and often the target of both Japanese and “friendly” ground fire. To give an example: Gunn was flying a Beech over Cebu on December 13, 1941, when he was attacked and badly damaged by a Mitsubishi A6M “Zero”. Adding insult to injury, “friendly” AA fire from the Zablan airfield caused further damage to the Beech while it struggled back to Nichols Field near Manila. Gunn had barely recovered from his near-crash landing when he was ordered to fly Manuel Quezon, the President of the Philippines, and his family to Mindanao.
On December 22, 1941, the Pensacola convoy reached Brisbane, Australia, delivering 18 P-40’s and 52 A-24’s earmarked for the Philippines and Colonel Harold “Hal” George ordered Gunn on Christmas Eve 1941 to fly pilots of the 17th Pursuit Squadron to Australia. Gunn drew all his military pay and borrowed as much money as he could before he left. He gave it to his wife “Polly” and instructed her that, if she was captured by the Japanese, to tell them he had been killed in a plane crash a few weeks ago.
After a hectic and dangerous flight (see USAAF P-40’s on Java – Part Two), he and his passengers reached Australia where he got involved in assembling the P-40’s. By January 16, 1942, the hastily assembled fighters took off for Darwin, with “Pappy Gunn” upstaging the RAAF by guiding the first group of fighters in his clapped-out Beech D-18S. Upon reaching Darwin, the pilots of the 17th were told the Philippines route was cut and they were re-directed to Java. Undaunted, Gunn guided his charges safely across the Timor Sea and on to Java. He returned to Kupang (Timor) with a spare tyre for one of the P-40’s and decided to fly back to the Philippines to fetch some fighter pilots that had escaped to Del Monte and take them back to Australia before they were captured.
It was not to be. He made it all the way to Zamboanga Point where a Japanese floatplane attacked him and badly shot-up his Beech. He managed to crash-land and, uninjured, set the plane on fire to convince the Jap, still circling overhead, that he had not survived the crash. After a restless night in the jungle, Gunn set out for the small airfield near Zamboanga. He was taken off by his friend Louis Connelly who broke the news that his wife and 4 children were now in a Japanese internment camp.
Safely back in Australia, “Pappy” Gunn became great friends with Major John “Big Jim” Davies, the commanding officer of the 27th Bomb Group (later known as the 3rd Bomb Group). Davies and his men had been waiting in Philippines for their Douglas A-24 dive bombers to arrive. When it became clear these planes were in Australia, Davies and his men had been flown to Brisbane to pick them up and ferry them back to the Philippines. The A-24’s, however, were in such a bad condition and lacking so many essential parts, that only 11 were assembled in time to be sent off to Java.
The 27th became the 3rd Bomb Group by March 1, 1942, but Davies and his men were still sitting on their thumbs, waiting for North-American B-25 “Mitchells” to arrive. Then “Pappy” Gunn and “Big Jim” Davies found out that a whole squadron of them was standing idle in Melbourne. These B-25’s had been part of a priority shipment to the Dutch forces but Java had fallen by this time and the Dutch had no trained aircrew to fly the bombers.
Davies talked to General’s Brett and Eubank and, after obtaining a vague “OK”, took Gunn and the rest of his crews and flew the B-25’s out of Melbourne to Charters Towers. Over the years this “raid” has become another legend (See my post “Not their finest Hour – The Troubled Start of No. 18 (NEI) Squadron RAAF”) but there’s no doubt that Gunn was directly involved in it. Although he was still officially with the Air Transport Command, he took charge of the conditioning of the B-25s for combat, promising to have them ready in “two days.” It took a little longer but on April 5, 1942 the 3rd Attack Group flew the first B-25 combat mission in history as they attacked the Japanese airfield at Gasmata.
The following day Davies and Gunn were called to Melbourne, along with one of the other “senior” officers in the 3rd Attack Group. They were greeted by Brigadier General Ralph Royce, who was in command of bombing operations in the Southwest Pacific. Royce had been directed to go back to the Philippines and carry out offensive operations from Del Monte Field on Mindanao and the B-25s afforded the means of doing so. As it turned out, only three B-17s and eleven B-25s could be made ready for the mission. Gunn was given a verbal order transferring him from the Air Transport Command to the 3rd Attack Group as a maintenance officer and assigned to the mission.
When General Royce tried to confirm Gunn’s Captain’s commission, the Army Air Force bureaucracy balked, complaining that he had no formal flight training; a commission was only possible after going through the formal 6-month training…
Fortunately for Gunn (and the USAAF), the top brass cut through the red-tape and Gunn was in one of the fourteen bombers that left northern Australia for Mindanao on April 11, 1942, their cabins laden with supplies for the airmen stranded at Mindanao but still fighting the Japanese.
The Royce Mission flew three missions from Del Monte, one against Nichols Field outside Manila, the others against Japanese facilities at Cebu City. Pappy Gunn led one element on the second Cebu mission and he and his wingmen are reported to have destroyed at least one Japanese motor launch and badly damaged a merchantman. Reasoning that the attack could have only come from Mindanao, the Japanese attacked Del Monte several times and one of the B-17s was destroyed and the other two were damaged. However, the B-25s were well-hidden and flew another mission the following day.
When General Royce learned that Japanese ground forces were within 24 hours of Del Monte, he decided it was time to abandon the field. The pilots loaded as many American airmen aboard their airplanes as they could and the B-25s departed for Australia. Pappy Gunn was the last to leave and the last to arrive – the long-range fuel tank for his bomber had been shot-up by Japanese strafers and he had to make an emergency repair.
It was by this time people started calling him “Pappy”, partly because of his age and partly because of his rapidly greying hair.
In April 1942, a shipment of A-20 “Havocs” arrived but they had been shipped without either guns or bomb racks. Pappy Gunn advised Davies to pack the nose full of .50-caliber machineguns and use them for low-level attack. Davies liked the idea and Gunn worked up a nose package of six machineguns, with four in the fuselage and one mounted on either side. He was in the midst of the modifications when Major General George C. Kenney arrived at Charter Towers on an inspection tour He found Pappy Gunn working on the A-20s and asked if he could build bomb racks that could carry 27-pound fragmentation bombs. Pappy liked the idea of spreading fragmentation bombs all over a Japanese airfield or troop positions and said it would be no problem.
Kenney was very impressed and informed the (by now) Major Gunn that, effective immediately; he was relieved of his duties with the troop carriers and was transferred to his personal staff. However, he could remain at Charter Towers long enough to train the Army mechanics to complete the installation of the guns and bomb racks on the A-20s.
The A-20 gunships were a feather in Pappy Gunn’s hat, but an even more powerful weapon was to follow. After the A-20 conversion proved itself, Kenney recognized that the best solution to his problem of finding a “commerce destroyer”, an airplane that could be effective against Japanese shipping in low-level daylight attacks, might be a conversion of the B-25. and gave Gunn the OK to start work on his next conversion project.
The first converted B-25s teamed up with the modified A-20s In early March 1943, during the historic Battle of the Bismarck Sea. This epic battle is recorded by US Navy historian Samuel Eliot Morison as “The most devastating attack of the war by airplanes against ships.”
The first low-level attack on the morning of March 3 literally stopped the convoy dead in the water. A second attack later in the day finished the job. Not a single one of the twelve transports in the convoy survived the battle.
Meanwhile, North-American had developed a B-25 packing a 75mm cannon in its nose and Kenney gave Pappy permission to take the first one that arrived in Australia, test it in combat and make it ready for operational duty. Although Pappy was impressed with the Big Gun and made several spectacular kills with it, it was actually not very effective. Most of the cannons were removed and replaced with .50-caliber guns.
The war ended for Pappy Gunn late in 1944, when a fragment from a white phosphorous bomb dropped on the airfield at Tacloban buried itself in his shoulder, causing great pain and rendering the arm useless. Pappy was evacuated to Australia and remained in convalescence until the end of the war. When US troops landed on Luzon, General Douglas MacArthur personally ordered the Gunn family liberated from the Santo Thomas Internment Camp. They were put on an airplane to Australia to join the dad who, in the meantime, had become famous throughout the Pacific.
Peace came and “Pappy” Gunn went back to flying commercial aviation in the Philippines.. He was killed in an airplane crash while trying to avoid a tropical thunderstorm in 1957. His remains were returned to the United States and interred at the US Navy cemetary at Pensacola Naval Air Station, where he had spent much of his naval career. But his memory still lives in the hearts and minds of those who knew him.
“The story of Pappy Gunn” – Sam McGowan – http://www.sammcgowan.com/pappy.html
“The 27th Reports”, stories, extracts from diaries, copies of orders – edited by Capt. James McAfee
“Operation Plum” – Adrian Martin and Larry Stevenson,
“3rd Bomb Group Stories – Paul I. “Pappy” Gunn” – G.J. “Robby” Robinson,
“Paul Irvin “Pappy” Gunn in Australia during WW2”. Peter Dunn, OZ at War,
“Indestructible”- John R. Bruning