Indestructible; One Man’s Rescue Mission That Changed the Course of WWII by John Bruning. Hachette, 2017 paper.
This is a tale from the South Pacific during World War II. Pappy (P.I. or Paul Irving) Gunn was a pilot for the Philippines Air Lines when war broke out in December 1940. Prior to that he had served in the US Navy for twenty-one years. In 1941 he was commissioned into the US Army Air Services where he became a legend for his skill and determination to be part of the fight to liberate the Philippines. Having said this, John Bruning’s claim that he single-handedly changed the course of the war is an exaggeration.
It had been decided that the Allies’ first priority would be the defeat of Germany and its allies; supplying the Far Eastern Theater would be a lower priority. That angered Gunn and other American military serving in the South Pacific intent upon defeating the Japanese.
Stationed in Manila, Gunn had wanted to move his family to a less dangerous place than Luzon. He felt guilty for not having done so before the War began. Meanwhile unbeknownst to Gunn, his family (wife Polly, two sons, and two daughters) had been forced into an internment camp when the Japanese occupied Manila. Gunn hoped that he would receive an assignment which would allow him to find and rescue them, and fly them to Australia. That, also, never worked out. For the rest of the War, neither the family nor Gunn knew that the other was alive. They were only reunited after the Philippines was liberated in 1944.
While the title of Bruning’s book is hyperbole, he, Gunn did devise alterations in the B-17 and B-25 medium bombers that allowed them to fly low enough to drop bombs with devastating effect on Japanese aircraft carriers and troop transport. He was also given small but important assignments. For example, he was assigned the task of flying some of General MacArthur’s headquarter’s staff out of Manila. He also delivered quinine to treat besieged American troops suffering from malaria in Bataan.
It is amazing how unscripted the Pacific Theater seems. According to Bruning’s Indestructible; One Man’s Rescue Mission…, the War was fought from one day to the next. Gunn would propose a mission, and his commanding officer would generally approve it. Or if he, Gunn, thought a mission would accomplish the purpose of defeating the Japanese – and ultimately finding his family, he would, get permission, grab an idle plane, and take off for the target.
The reader soon begins to appreciate the quandaries that arose, given this informal front. Could a target be reached with the amount of aviation fuel that the plane could stow on board and still get off the ground? There was always the trade-off between additional cannons built into the nose of the plane to add fighting power and room for those fuel tanks needed for the greater distances. The Japanese Zeros were a formidable opponent and Japanese pilots skilled. Could Pappy Gunn’s skills off-set these formidable fighter escorts and their pilots?
Perhaps Gunn’s most important contribution to the air war in Southeast Asia was to instruct pilots under his command to fly low, barely above the ocean waves to achieve greater accuracy in their bombing runs. The B-25 had been designed to support ground troops in the European theater and had to be adapted to the precision bombing of Japanese shipping. According to the author, Gunn kept the B-25 alive in those years of aviation innovation.
Gunn was a gifted mechanic as were many of the ground crews on whom he depended to keep the bombers going. But they needed spare parts to do their job. Gunn found the American military warehouse system established in Australia to be as frustrating as the enemy was formidable. Shelves containing spare parts in Brisbane and Darwin were carefully guarded by their staffs. If the supply manual did not specify that they should stock a spare part, nothing would get them to do so. Some of the planes were shipped in crates to be assembled by Australians. There were no instructions and often missing parts, and the Australians were reluctant to improvise.
The author tells stories that encourage the reader to commiserate with the Japanese. He describes Japanese seamen being eaten by sharks after their ship was sunk in the Bismarck Sea with no one to rescue them. And the story of the Japanese teenaged soldier who had the task of going from door to door in Manila to order American civilians to proceed to a detention camp. His rifle and fixed bayonet were taller than he. Bruning describes him as being as frightened as the Gunn family. What would have been his fate in this ghastly war?