“Real war experiences are always serious, can be fatal, sometimes strange, often bizarre, and later hilarious. My combat service was just like the movies. We flew mostly on dawn patrols, and sometimes a buddy would not come back. I was fortunate to serve in the famous 80th Fighter squadron of the 8th Fighter Group-the ‘Headhunters.’ We flew P-38s-the Twin-Tailed Lockheed Lightning. After New Guinea, we flew our fighter planes into Morotai, in the Dutch East Indies, on D plus 5. The small island is only a few miles long and was lightly defended by the Japanese. American forces had easily taken the harbor and airstrip, moved inland several hundred yards, and set up a perimeter leaving 90 percent of the island to the enemy. South, just across the strait, were the Halmaheras and 50,000 Japanese that had been bypassed and ignored by the Allies.
Strategically, we were surrounded by the enemy, making it mandatory that we get back to our island from each mission. We flew off the captured Japanese grass strip until steel matting was laid down. Our primary mission, besides survival, was to neutralize the Philippine island of Mindanao, so we flew fighter sweeps every day. The invasion of the Philippines was just a few weeks off, but, of course, we didn’t know that.
Since the Japanese controlled the cities and highways of Mindanao, we had permission to shoot at anything that moved after we had cleared the airfields. In the jungles and open fields we often saw guerrillas who waved frantically. It was a great thrill to buzz and salute them.
Back on Morotai we were bombed and strafed several times every night. Our intelligence reports would say that there were about 785 Japanese on the island or maybe 845 since a few barges got through some night, etc. Never were there any reports showing as many as a thousand Japanese on our island. The Navy PT boats patrolled the strait every night, and we dive bombed the airfields across the way.
Our forces on the island consisted of small naval units at the harbor, a thin line of infantry at the perimeter, and our Air Force units-far less than a thousand men. I visited a friend that I had run into on the island, and we talked about our hometown of San Antonio. He was serving in an anti-aircraft unit.
After the invasion of Leyte was secure, my squadron island-hopped to Mindoro, the second Philippine island to be liberated. Again, we took over a grass strip, leaving the mountainous part of the island to the Japanese. From Mindoro we ranged widely across the Pacific-to Borneo, Saigon, Hong Kong, Formosa, and all Philippine islands.
Just before the end of World War II in the Pacific, the Headhunters were transferred to the Okinawa area, and I was sent home. One day on the streets of San Antonio I chanced upon my friend whom I had visited on Morotai. We traded stories, and he told me that he had stayed on Morotai until the end of the war. Then he told me about the Japanese who had come out of the jungle to surrender.
To my disbelief, he said that over 15,000 Japanese marched out and laid down their weapons. He said they streamed out for hours and included admirals in beautiful white and generals in full uniforms with dozens of medals. Do some of us lead a charmed life? It seems that the ‘Headhunters’ do! They could have easily pushed into the sea anytime they chose….”
– Bob Peters