"Aces of The Eighth" by Jack Fellows

TSGT Ben Byland 80th P-38 Armorer

Ben L. Byland – Aircraft Armorer during WWII for the 80th fighter squadron – The Headhunters

Where do we start in describing someone’s life and service for their country?

Well, I guess at the beginning.

Ben L. Byland was born in 1920 and grew up with his dad & mom – Rollie and Maybelle Byland in Huntington Beach and then in Santa Ana in Orange County, California.

During his early years, he hunted in what is now an overcrowded metropolis (but back then was extremely rural territory).

During the Great Depression, Ben kept both his aunt’s and his mother’s kettles full of Rabbit he shot with his single-shot Springfield .410 shotgun (which he put a large beer can over the muzzle to muffle the noise from nightly hunting excursions near newly developed industrial buildings). Ben hunted rabbits in the headlights of his Model T Ford, and said that he never missed a rabbit with his .410.

Ben explored his interest in firearms at a local gun club – Santiago Rifle and Pistol Club, where he learned to shoot black powder 45-70 loads from converted Springfield rifles. Incidentally, Ben eventually became secretary/treasurer of this same club – a position he held for over 30 years until the club’s forced closure in 1980. During his time there, Ben competed both as an individual and as a Santiago Team member in Black Powder Rifle shoots – winning state matches in Fresno, CA. Ben was also part of the team from Santiago that competed against and won matches against Marines stationed at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, CA, and he has won a myriad of other shooting competitions as well.

Ben has enjoyed shooting all of his life and when I was a youth and worked as a pit boy at Santiago Rifle & Pistol Club, Ben was one of normally ten shooters who each Sunday shot their weekly match with .30 caliber bolt-action lead guns. The match consisted of shooting 10 shots each at 10 targets – 100 rounds total. The pot was 2-bits per match. The winner took home the pot of $25. And if any shooter in this group was outside of a quarter with their ten shots, well, they figured they were out of the running that day, such was the consistency and accuracy of these great, fine marksmen. Amongst whom were E.J. (Elmer) Shook, Art Whiting, George Butler, Frank Baxter and others whose names I don’t remember, and Ben himself.

My name is Duane Wieden, and Ben (whom I have known since I was age 7), lives with me and my family in Northern California. Please excuse my writing on Ben’s behalf but at the advanced age of 93, Ben is pretty much beyond writing for himself.
Ben has outlived his wife of 64 years – Miriam Eulabelle Byland, and has outlived most of his former friends and associates, except for my father – Ben Wieden, who served in San Diego in the Navy during WWII, and several others, whom Ben still keeps in touch with by phone.

Ben played as a catcher during junior college and was considering baseball as a career. He took up welding, and took the Navy tests as a welder, but ultimately, decided to train as an Aircraft Armorer.

Ben’s training took place in Denver, Colorado, and from a class of 47 candidates who started, he was amongst the 4 or 5 who did finally graduate as armorers. Ben recalls that during armorer school, each successful candidate had to know every part of every firearm used by the army, be able to disassemble and re-assemble each firearm in the dark, and be able to write down the name of each and every part of a particular firearm on paper. Attrition to the class happened weekly, and the reduction in numbers was severe until only about 10% of the original class remained to graduate.

A week after Ben’s graduation was December 7, 1941 – the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Ben and several friends were off the base in town, and watched a movie when they were recalled to base.
After a lock-down of several days, they were transported in covered trucks to the Denver train station which had been cleared of passengers. They were quietly escorted into railroad cars with blinds pulled down over their windows, and the train made its way to San Francisco where Ben and his compatriots were escorted onto a ship that zig-zagged (each mile) its way across the Pacific Ocean. Ben recalls this trip taking an extremely long time (probably 3 or more times longer than a direct path would have taken them, but this was done in an attempt to avoid being sunk by U-boats).

With a destination of the Philippines, their ship was diverted to the bottom end of Australia where Ben and his fellow soldiers enjoyed a brief hiatus and slept in the big stadium there. Ben recalls that if they would have landed in the Philippines, that he probably would not have survived the war as a week or so after they had been scheduled to land there, the Philippines fell, and most of our soldiers there perished either in the Bataan Death March, in prison camps or in subsequent Japanese purges to hide their treatment of their prisoners.

During their brief respite in Australia, Ben and some fellow soldiers asked the Aussies in a bar & grill joint to make them a hamburger only to find out they had never heard of one.

Ben recalls that they worked their way northward by land in Australia. He says that each city, province or district had their own railed transportation system – like a trolley. It would take them from one end of the rails in that area to the other end, where they would all get out, walk across a wooden bridge and board the next district’s trolley which would continue their journey northward.

Ben recalls that the Aussies tried to make airstrips in Australia for the 80th fighter squadron, but attempts to land on these improvised landing strips resulted only in crashes for our pilots. Ben recalls that one of his first official duties in Australia was to collect body remnants from our pilots who crashed there with a shovel (and he shudders as he tells this).

When his group reached Northern Australia, they set off for New Guinea in a flat-bottom wooden Banana boat and Ben recalls how its captain had to repeatedly dodge the Japanese Navy in order to be able to safely land ashore. “Landing safely” entailed pulling alongside a long wooden dock, de-embarking from the boat and running for cover “while the Japanese were bombing the piss out of the place.” “But we made it,” Ben says.

“We were dropped ashore with nothing,” Ben says. “Nothing to defend ourselves with, no uniforms, no helmets, nothing, just as we were.”

Later Ben was given a bolt-action Enfield chambered in .30-06, a British flat-rimmed helmet, and when I asked him if they gave him a uniform, Ben said, “no, only pants.”

With this meager gear Ben and his similarly equipped compatriots were expected to stop the Japanese from over-running New Guinea and from there moving on to take over Australia.

{Author’s Note: It is with great sadness that I continue Ben’s recap of his WWII experiences for him, as he is no longer with us. His passing on March 26, 2014 at the age of 93 after he never recovered from a chemotherapy treatment he received to treat his Leukemia, leaves those of us who knew him best, heartbroken over his premature demise. We honor him therefore by continuing to tell the WWII stories he only revealed to those closest to him after the death of Miriam Eulabelle Byland, his wife of 64 years. I have done my best to accurately recount the stories gleaned from the many hours we spent at the dining table looking through scrapbooks from the war that Ben’s mother put together for him, while she anxiously awaited for the return of her only son from a war she knew he might never come back from. Most of the rest of Ben’s stories of this period were recounted in the comfort of Ben’s living room, as we spent time together at his home in Orange, CA. Ben’s experiences, recounted to the best of my recollection, are presented to the 80th Fighter Squadron – The Headhunters, as my gift to them in honor of my lifelong friend, Sergeant Ben Lewis Byland GI# 19003956.}

Our previous article left off with Ben having disembarked amidst Japanese shelling on a wooden pier in New Guinea, with no weapon, helmet or uniform – simply with orders to stop the Japanese from taking this island as a stepping stone to conquering Australia.

Ben’s stories of his first days, weeks & months in New Guinea were always sketchy. “It was touch-and-go for quite a while” was all he would say about his first days there.

However, his descriptions of his experiences with those he served with, the environment, his equipment, the natives, the jungle, the dangers they faced daily, and their living conditions, etc., gave me a feeling for the context of his experience there, as I’m hoping it will you.

Two of the items Ben was eventually equipped with were a bolt-action Enfield chambered in .30-06, and a British flat-rimmed helmet.

Ben wasn’t really keen on the British helmet until after he tested its survivability by tossing it and a grenade into one of the many Japanese bomb craters pocketing New Guinea, on several occasions, and finding much to his surprise that it held up quite admirably to the abuse it received. Later, when Ben was ordered to surrender this helmet for G. I. headgear (which he did under severe protest), he said that in comparison the G.I. helmet “wasn’t worth a damn” as it failed the same test that the British helmet repeatedly passed. I believe he also mentioned something about the supply officer not being happy about him testing (read destroying) G.I. helmets this way.

Ben took the opportunity to trade his .30-06 Enfield for an M1 carbine one day when a group of soldiers, all armed with M1 carbines were marching towards thick jungle. Ben said he handed his Enfield with A/P rounds to one of the soldiers, saying, “Take this. Those .30 carbines will never go through the trees those Japs are hiding behind, but this will every time.” The soldier swapped Ben for his M1 carbine, and Ben said that he wondered about the fate of all those soldiers going to face the Japanese, with small arms that could not penetrate the cover the Japanese would hide behind.

Ben loved the little M1 carbine, and when I said that I personally wouldn’t rely on one for shots much beyond 100 yards (maybe 125 yards maximum), Ben said that he had hit targets at up to 350 yards with his during the war.

{ Author’s Note: when I was a kid rock-hounding with my parents and Ben & Belle in the desert, Ben’s M1 carbine is what I would shoot bottles and cans with when checking out a new area yielded no desirable rocks to be found and the sun-drenched, tired youngster of our party (namely me) wanted something enjoyable to do. }

When I spoke with Ben about the Colt Government handgun chambered in .45 ACP (which I have and enjoy), Ben said that he never saw one during the war – not even on one of their officers. Incidentally, Ben said that in New Guinea, officers and enlisted men were not distinguishable by uniform (although enlisted men certainly knew who their commanders were), and never was saluting done as both a uniform difference and a salute could make officers targets for Japanese snipers, so these standard protocols were countermanded by the necessity of circumstance.

Ben recounted how the Japanese seemed to take glee in the strafing (and thus murdering) of American Pilots who tried to parachute “to safety” once their plane had been shot down. 80th Fighter Squadron troops were so angered by this practice of Japanese pilots against our pilots that they adopted a policy of “no prisoners” when dealing with any Japanese soldier. Ben said that he only saw a Japanese prisoner in a jeep heading to be flown out (presumably for interrogation) once or maybe twice, and that Japanese soldier appeared to be high-ranking and not in very good condition. There was “no love lost” in New Guinea between American soldiers and their enemy, the Japanese, to say the least.

Evidently, villagers in New Guinea felt much the same way for in instances where the Japanese had interacted with island natives, the Japanese had killed the men of the village and had raped and sometimes murdered the women. I got the impression from the many photos I saw from Ben that although the natives were very friendly to G.I.s, that this feeling of good will never extended to the Japanese who were known to be a brutal and murderous lot.

In fact, the Headhunters patch displays the face of a New Guinea native – a Headhunter.

The story that Ben told in relation to this was that there were certain natives who wore royal purple attire – a long, open sleeve, loose-fitting shirt – which designated these natives of greater rank, stature and bearing than most of their fellows, and signified them as the “police” or “enforcers” of the island. Ben and his fellow soldiers were told, “If one of these tells you to do something, you do it!” Ben said that these natives wore a gourd on a strap “to hang their dingus in” (as did most male natives), and that these natives carried a long, mean-looking knife they had evidently gotten from the British (while most male natives carried long spears). Ben said that these natives had a separate camp, a small distance from the G.I.s camp, and that at night they would sneak out without making a sound, and would return in like manner during the middle of the night with gunny sacks full of the heads of Japanese soldiers, which they would drop spilling their gruesome contents near the G.I.’s campfire. Eventually, under protest of several officers, this nightly delivery of head trophies was stopped, but it did not stop the headhunter’s activities at night, just their delivery of these “prizes” to the allies.

No, I don’t believe that New Guinea natives cared much for the Japanese either.

Ben said that the British missionaries had gotten the native women to wear grass skirts. They would wear these skirts until dirty and then discard them, donning a new one if one were available.

Female natives went topless, and Ben said that he and his buddies would have their pictures taken with some of the younger and more attractive native women and send pictures to their buddies back in the states with the caption, “See what you’re missing!” It is apparent that for the young G.I.s in New Guinea those young, topless female natives were one of the photographic attractions of New Guinea. { Remember the days when only National Geographic showed topless shots of African female natives in an era preceding Playboy or Penthouse, etc. I do! }

I asked Ben if there was any fraternization between the GI men and female natives. He said that sometimes there was, but when this happened, the GI’s “dingus got infected, turned blue and almost fell off” and that GI was sent back to the states. He said he didn’t know what the natives had or how they survived it amongst themselves, but that it must have been something really bad. Ben later told that during his last days in New Guinea he saw a procession of canoes filled with villagers celebrating the marriage of a tribal girl to a GI, and that several GIs took their New Guinea brides home with them, but this was extremely “few and far between” and by-and-large simply wasn’t done.

I asked Ben about the housing situation in New Guinea. He said that almost all of the huts the natives lived in were built on stilts well above where either the high-tide water would rise to during a storm, and above where the insects could gain easy access to their houses.

Ben said that the natives went barefoot, but for the G.I.s there, one always had to be wary of the insects, and the snakes. Centipedes, scorpions, spiders, mosquitoes, and vipers of various kinds mandated constant vigilance, not to mention the Japanese.

Boots had to be dumped out and visually checked, before they were put on, lest one endure a painful, debilitating bite or sting.

Soldiers slept inside of mosquito netting, and not only slept inside it, but also slept away from the netting itself, as a mosquito could bite through the netting if one was too close to it. As such, one slept like they were in a modern “mummy” sleeping bag, not “all sprawled out” like some of us are used to. It should be noted that Ben always compactly slept on half of a single bed this way, all of the time I have known him.

In spite of his compact sleeping habit, Ben, while in New Guinea contracted both Dengue fever and Malaria, and was required to take a cup of quinine each day (1/2 cup in both morning and evening) for a period of one year upon his return to help make certain that these disease vectors did not become active in the United States through him. His wife, Eulabelle, always claimed that this is what destroyed the enamel on his teeth and made them so bad.

Ben told a story of once, when on guard duty at night, he heard sounds of something stealthily creeping through the jungle floor towards him. It came closer and closer until ready to shoot; he illuminated it with his flashlight only to see a giant spider. Ben said it was big enough that he wanted to shoot it, but didn’t want to get chewed out by his C.O. so killed it by stomping on it with his boot.

Ben said that the Army Air Corps sprayed the jungle and the Japanese retaliated by using poisonous gas. Evidently it took a while to convince the Japanese that what we were spraying nearby our encampments was insect spray to kill the too numerous, dangerous insects there, and not chemical weapons as the Japanese had presupposed were being used against them.

As time passed, friendships were formed with those in one’s camp who were “of like mind.”

Usually, this meant that you bunked (on canvas fold-out army cots) near one another, and that you “watched each other’s backs” as there is nothing like trust given and returned during instances of life & death encounters to know that the person you entrust your life with is worthy of that level of intimate confidence and visa-versa.

Ben formed this close bond and friendship with two other men in his unit, Red and Andy. Andy has been gone now for nearly ten years, and Red passed away just this past year (2013), but in New Guinea they were “best buds,” and amazingly, they survived the war together and upon their return to the states they worked together during their first winter in Oregon maintaining roads during the winter by running huge “snow plows” which would cut & chew up the ice on the road surface and spray it above and off to the side of the road.

During this time, Ben, Red & Andy lived together in a small log cabin where Andy’s wife did the cooking and where Ben & Red were responsible for cutting and bringing in the firewood to use in the wood stove which provided the means for cooking and keeping everyone else warm.

Their feelings for one another and the bond they shared lasted their whole lives, for what can outlive the shared experiences of a close-knit group of men who have relied on each other in life and death, for many years.

To his dying day Ben treasured the knife Red had handed him when they were all in line to receive fighting knives. It was Red’s job to hand them out. Red handed Ben a knife and said, “This is a good one, I picked it out special for you. Maybe someday it will save your life.” I believe they became close friends after that… Incidentally, I have seen this knife, and remember Ben describing knives that were handed out that day. None of these knives were standard issue. They were all “scrounged,” as if folks back home had donated used hunting knives that finally made it to our boys oversees. None of us should be under the misnomer that any of these men were initially well-equipped.

Ben spoke about the slit trenches dug near each man’s cot, so that when you heard the Japanese Zeros coming in for a strafing run you would drop into the trench right next to where you slept and when you had time and were not under fire, you would move to a deeper trench outdoors.

Ben also spoke of being able to gauge the relative size and distance of a bomb, from the sound it made through the air as it fell towards you.

Ben said that their tent was “full of holes” from exploding shrapnel of bombs dropped by the Japanese, but that being in the trenches was the best way to safeguard one’s survival as it mostly limited the direction one could get hit from to “directly above.”

However, even with being dutiful about diving for the trenches whenever the sound of danger was heard, Ben was hit seriously at least once by shrapnel (in the right upper arm), and less seriously other times.

Medicines were rudimentary and in short supply, and with the moist, humid conditions of New Guinea one always had to be concerned about blood poisoning and infections from wounds or injuries.

Ben remembered that the “Docs” lined them up and gave them all a once-a-month going over and inspection and that they had them all take a large pill. I asked Ben what that pill was or was for. He said that he didn’t know, but that they were ordered to take it along with everyone else so they took it. He said that the “Docs” were pretty good about doing their best to keep them all in good health.

Ben said that you tried to dig your trenches perpendicular to the direction that you knew the Japanese would fly, strafe and bomb in, to minimize your chance of getting hit, injured or killed. He told of a time when three newcomers came and begin to dig in the wrong direction (parallel, not perpendicular) to the known direction of Japanese flight patterns; they were told the right direction to dig, but they didn’t listen. The next time the Japanese flew an attack mission, these newcomers positioned themselves in their deep and presumably safe trench only to be hit by a bomb which tumbled down their trench and exploded like an exploding ball hitting pins in a bowling-alley lane. Ben said when the raid was over, you couldn’t even tell that what was left in that trench started out as three human beings.

Ben commented that the Japanese couldn’t really machine parts very well (that they “couldn’t make nuts & bolts worth a damn,” I believe were his exact words), and that sometimes the timing fuses on their bombs didn’t go off, so there was plenty of unexploded Japanese ordinance lying about.

Ben also commented on the worthlessness of Japanese tanks, due to them being made out of extremely thin metal (which I believe Ben said could practically be penetrated by small arms AP rounds if hit right), as compared to American tanks which were much better armored.

As supply lines were minimally established, Ben was issued his first M1 Garand (as were others in his unit), but they still had no anti-aircraft guns to repel Japanese strafing and bombing raids.

Ben recounts of how during a night air-raid he turned the barrel of his M1 Garand “cherry red,” “but Old Betsy kept on shooting and never missed a hitch.” Ben loved the M1 Garand for as he told it, it was the one thing he relied on to save his life daily for over three-and-a-half years, and it never once malfunctioned – never once! Upon examining his M1 Garand the next day, the stock had been badly charred because the rifle barrel had gotten so hot, but it still functioned. Ben told of how six months later when he turned that rifle in for a replacement, the supply officer looked at the charred wood next to the barrel, looked at Ben, shook his head, but said nothing and issued Ben a new rifle.

{ Author’s note: many years ago Ben expressed a desire to own an M1 Garand once again. I literally looked for about 3 1/2 years before I found one that was vintage World War II in excellent condition at a price I could afford, so I acquired it and gave this to Ben. He sat there in his chair with this rifle clasped tightly to his chest, rocking gently back-and-forth – like one would hold a long-lost lover – as tears rolled down his cheeks. Tears down my own cheeks joined his on the hardwood floor. After telling him I loved him, I left him to his memories and the significance of meanings from his past that only he could fathom & unravel. When I returned, I found that he had retired to his bedroom and that he lay, propped up on pillows on his bed, still clasping “Old Betsy” to his chest. It is seldom in life that we can give a gift to someone who has “seen it all and done it all” that will have the type of meaning and significance that we wish all of our heartfelt gifts could have. This is one gift given that I knew had “hit the mark” and was truly appreciated and cherished by its recipient – Ben Byland – my lifelong friend! }

Ben said that his “backup weapon” (other than the knife given him by Red) was a 38 special revolver that he had found in the wreckage of one of our own planes. Part of the cylinder had been burned, but Ben felt that it still had 3 good chambers left, and unbeknownst to anyone, Ben carried it on himself constantly as a “back-up” weapon for the duration of his time in New Guinea.

Eventually a .50 BMG Browning machine gun was installed amidst a pile of sandbags and at last the camp was better equipped to defend itself against Japanese aerial “night raids.”

Ben said that at one point he was given an Auto-Ordinance .45 ACP Thompson Machine Gun. Ben loved this machine gun and used it for guard duty at nights when his orders were to not let anyone past his position unless he had identified and cleared them. Ben said that one night an officer (I believe a Captain) riding in a Jeep ordered his driver to run Ben’s check-point. Ben ordered them to stop and when they didn’t, he cut loose with a burst just in front of the jeep and the driver drove it into a ditch at the side of the road. The officer was hopping mad and although Ben was following orders, he was later relieved of his beloved Thompson and given other duties.

Ben said that what they had to eat was not always the best, and so some of the men went foraging. Bunches of bananas were brought back (which helped), but what the men really wanted was fresh meat. Ben and Andy took one of the big transport trucks into the jungle where they had spotted some water buffalo. Andy shot the water buffalo in the head with standard GI .30-06 jacketed (FMJ) rounds, and the water buffalo seemed unaffected (other than being made a little mad). They drove a little ways off and Ben switched places with Andy and used his M1 Garand with armor piercing (black A/P) rounds and killed the buffalo with a single head shot. That night, everyone in camp had water buffalo steak, but when an officer came in to enjoy the “feast,” and found out where they got the meat, he forbade any further expedition or gathering parties for bananas or buffalo. Evidently a native had complained about some bananas on his plantation having gotten stolen and one of his water buffalos being killed, and the army had to reimburse him (at an egregious cost). Ben said that he later learned that certain “owners” in New Guinea were guaranteed reimbursement for anything they lost (including trees, etc.) due to bombing, etc. Ben shook his head during the retelling of this and said that he thought they were lucky that GIs were there so that they didn’t get murdered by the Japanese and have everything simply taken or destroyed. He continued to shake his head and said “what a crazy way to run a war, but I guess that’s just the way it is.”

Ben recounted how sometimes one army branch would “hijack” certain items from other army branches. I recall him recollecting that his group ended up with a case of canned peaches this way (amongst other things). The trick was not to get caught.

I asked Ben about coconuts for food (as these didn’t seem to be forbidden). Ben looked at me and scowled. He said that they got so sick of coconut as a mainstay that they got to the point that they just couldn’t eat coconut or drink coconut milk. I asked initially how they got the coconuts out of the trees. Did they shoot them down? Ben said no, that the natives learned to climb the trees almost since birth and that their big toes were shaped such that they would almost hook them on either side of the tree and shimmy up one (almost walk up one) using hands and feet with such ease that you would think they weren’t climbing almost straight up. He said that only once did he ever see a native fall doing this (and that native didn’t survive), but for one to fall was extremely rare and almost unheard of. Incidentally, I never saw or heard of Ben ever eating coconut during all of the time I knew him.

Ben said that when he first arrived in New Guinea that the planes (he had forgotten their designation) had only .30 caliber machine guns that shot through their propellers. Ben said that the timing on the machine gun fire had to synchronize perfectly with the propeller rotation or the pilots would shoot their own propellers off. He also commented that these planes were largely ineffective against the Japanese, and that he was involved very little with these aircraft. Ben also mentioned an aircraft with a canon mounted in its center that was reported to almost stall or “move backwards” while firing this cannon in flight. Again, his comments about both of these craft were extremely sketchy, and he underplayed their role for our troops during combat for New Guinea.

During Ben’s “early days” in New Guinea, Ben recollected about a push the Japanese made that would have “wiped us out” had it not been for an “Aussie artillery group. They saved our bacon,” said Ben, adding that “if it hadn’t been for them, the Japanese would have over-run us and that would have been it for all of us.”

Ben mentioned that the Japanese used a bolt action rifle with a cover that upon the last shot would make a distinctive sound; whereby all allied soldiers would pour fire into that location as they knew their enemy could no longer return fire. He said that it didn’t take long for the Japanese to figure this out and to remove that cover from their rifle.

Regarding the jungle in New Guinea, Ben said that there were two levels of jungle, a lower level, where one had to cut their way through with a machete, and an upper level sixty plus feet above the ground.

The 80th fighter squadron hollowed out runways and “hanger bays” in the lower jungle where they would maneuver the aircraft, align, sight in and test their aircraft’s guns and store their planes. Ben said that by using this technique the Japanese never figured out where the 80th Fighter Squadron had hidden its planes.

When Ben told about the war with a spark in his eyes, increased fervor, and real authority in his voice it was when he talked about maintaining his P-38s. Amongst all of his other war memories, maintaining the P-38s was what Ben was proud of most. It was as if World War II really started for him with the arrival of P-38s, not only because that is when the tide turned for the allies, but because Ben considered these “his babies” and tuning and maintaining these with his crew were his singular specialty during the war.

Ben commented that the four .50 caliber Browning machine guns (firing the .50 BMG round), and the 20MM canon in the aircraft’s nose made these formidable planes indeed, and that some pilots wanted their machine guns to shoot straight and that others wanted fire from all machine guns to converge at 600 yards, etc. Each pilot had his preference, and it was Ben’s job to have each plane ready at a moment’s notice, and keep them in readiness he did.

Machine gun accuracy and alignment testing was done in the jungle, under its upper protective canopy – out of sight of the Japanese.

Ben recounts how he was working on one of the P-38s and met a conversant and engaging gentlemen in the cockpit whom he spoke to at length and then resumed his work, only to find out later that his conversation had been with Charles Lindberg (of Spirit of St. Louis transatlantic flight fame), who had come there to help the pilots take off better in shorter distances and give them advice on how to fly longer distances using less fuel.

Commenting on his meetings with famous people, Ben recounted how once home he had seen an aircraft land nearby his group riding horses, and the pilot, a young impetuous lady had run over and told Ben that she would trade him a horse ride for a ride in her airplane. Ben politely declined, and apparently taken back and in a bit of a huff, the young lady had marched back to her plane and had taken off. Someone approached Ben shortly thereafter and asked Ben if he knew who that was. Ben said, “No,” and they replied, “Why that was Amelia Earhart.”

I asked Ben why he had not taken her up on her offer. Ben said, “for one thing, I promised myself after getting home that I would never get in a plane again, and I never have.” When I asked him why, he said that he had seen too many people he knew get on a plane and never come back. Ben also recounted that it was not his horse and that he was with a group of friends who had let him ride with them, so he couldn’t very well give a horse that had been entrusted to him to someone he had never met before “even if she was Amelia Earhart” (I found the way he recounted the last part of this tale humorously amusing, for he hadn’t known it was Amelia Earhart until later after she had marched off in a huff and flown away).

In addition to the 5 guns on the P-38 – four fifty-caliber Browning machine guns and a 20MM cannon, the other critical item housed in the nose of the plane was a movie camera. Ben said that immediately after each pilot landed, two men would arrive in a jeep (one of them an officer) and together they would remove the camera, bag it and take it with them. If I recall what Ben said correctly, these two men had a key which allowed them to unlock the housing so that the camera could be removed from the fuselage. Ben said that this camera was activated every time the pilot pressed the trigger on any of his guns and that it was used to verify his “kills.”

Ben said that the top brass was working through issues of primer ignition and even powder charges until they got things just right in regards to loads for the big-fifties as he called them.

Ben said that one had to remember that the air temperature at 20,000 feet altitude was significantly different than the temperature on the ground, that it was much colder. The air was also less dense (thinner), so usage of fuel was less at higher altitudes.

Pilots would come back complaining that their rate of fire was extremely slow on their big-fifties when they dive-attacked zeros from high altitude.

Ben figured out that yes, the oil supplied for the aircraft machine guns worked fine at ground level, but get up thousands of feet in the air and it “gummed up” and slowed machine gun fire below what was acceptable in a combat situation. After all, when a pilot had a target and pressed the trigger, he wanted that target obliterated not just sporadically hit.

So Ben, in conjunction with feedback from the pilots, began thinning the oil used to lubricate the big-fifty machine guns with kerosene, and eventually got a mixture that worked extremely well as an effective lubricant at high altitudes.

With this “secret weapon” of proper lubrication, the 80th Fighter Squadron went through more ammunition and racked up more kills, than any other squadron in the South Pacific.

The top brass came to investigate why so much ammunition was being used, but from the movies of the effectiveness of the pilots and the number of verified kills made, they went back to Washington, and approved the extra ammunition needed for pilots of the 80th Fighter Squadron.

I asked Ben if he ever told them why so much more ammo had been used and what he had done. With a big smile on his face he said, “Nope!” He further commented that he didn’t believe they ever figured it out.

Ben remarked that the Zeros were extremely fast because they essentially had no armor. “It was almost like they were made out of papier-mâché,” he said, “but our pilots couldn’t out-maneuver them, so they attacked from above,” from higher altitude than the Zeros flew at and flew “right through them.”

Ben spoke of a time before this when supplies ran low. Pilots had previously complained long and loud about the number of tracers at night, that there were too many and it was such a bright stream that it detracted from them hitting their target. So, Ben removed tracers from the links and replaced them with other rounds. But unlike others who serviced airplanes and discarded their tracers, Ben saved his. There came a time when no ammunition had arrived in the normal shipments. So Ben and his crew strung together the only ammunition they had to link together. Their pilot went up as ordered and when he came back he approached Ben and said, “What the hell did you put in my machine guns?” “I pressed my trigger and my target exploded like a Roman candle!” Ben said, “All tracers sir. It’s all that we had!” The pilot shook his head, muttering as he stalked away. “But at least my pilots could still fight” was all Ben had to say when he recounted this, remembering with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye.

Ben said that one of the greatest mistakes he ever made (in his entire life) was to volunteer. When he hesitated, I asked him for more information. “They tell you to never volunteer,” he said, “and I should have listened.” When pressed, he told of a time when top brass came there and asked if anyone knew how the 20MM canon in the nose of a P-38 worked. “Everyone was there,” Ben said, “and no one raised their hand, so like a fool I did.” Ben said, “I was fresh out of armorer school and so I went up, field stripped it, explained its function, and reassembled it in front of the brass and all of the men.” I asked Ben what was wrong with this. Commanders had asked if anyone knew. He did, and he showed them, so what could be wrong? Ben said that since he was a private at the time that the sergeant in charge took this as a personal affront and assigned all types of extra duties to Ben and “made life hell” for him, for as long as he possibly could. However, the top brass remembered, and when they came by to travel to an area where they needed a good armorer and technical advisor they took Ben along with them, because they knew they had someone good, whom they could trust.

In looking through Ben’s photo scrapbooks from the war, I noticed planes sporting paintings of beautiful Caucasian women all either scantily clothed or not clothed at all, and later of these same women fully clothed, and I asked him why the change. Ben talked about General MacArthur coming through New Guinea and mandating that all women on the 80th’s planes be fully clothed. Ben commented that at the same time all New Guinea native females were given T-shirts so that they no longer went topless (how they convinced them to wear T-shirts I do not know). I had always heard great things about General Douglas MacArthur and told Ben this. Ben said that none of the enlisted men could stand this S.O.B., and that they were all happy when he left!

On one of these trips, allied pilots had hit a Japanese airbase and had caught all planes on the ground. They had had a field day, and had destroyed all aircraft on the ground. Ben was asked to look these planes over for anything unusual. Ben called the top brass over and showed them a Japanese chambered .50 caliber machine gun made in Germany (the Japanese .50 caliber round is quite a bit shorter than the .50 BMG used in our Browning machine guns). If memory serves me right it was in the back canopy portion of the Japanese plane. Ben said that the brass were so excited by this find that they had him remove it, crate it up and that they shipped it back with them.

On that trip Ben found a Japanese soldier who had been hit by a .50 BMG round in the center that had nearly cut him in two. Ben said the projectile had nicked a knife that the Japanese soldier had tucked in his belt. Ben said that he took the knife (and other paraphernalia that the soldier had on him) and that he soaked the knife for three days in gasoline to get the blood out. The soldier also carried a flag, and a picture of a woman (presumably his wife).

When I told Ben what the current value of Japanese Nambu pistols and samurai swords from WWII were today, Ben just shook his head as he recounted how many of these he had thrown into bomb craters and covered, so that the enemy could no longer use them.

Ben collected fragments of instrument panel and other useful parts of the Japanese aircraft which he fashioned into knife handles for several knives he made. He commented that he could never get the temper of the blade perfect to please him, and that consequently they just wouldn’t hold an edge like a good knife should. One of these knives was displayed (on loan) for many years in the Crescent City Nevada Museum, and Ben wouldn’t have gotten it back except that he had his GI serial number inscribed on it, and had his dog tags to prove it was his. It was eventually, reluctantly returned.

Ben told of another occasion where he was called upon to go and examine other Japanese artillery. He said that the Japanese had spent many years (possibly even a decade) hollowing out the side of a mountain, where they had installed railroad tracks and a large artillery piece. Ben said that the allies had one “hell of a time” getting to that gun and disabling it, and that it killed many of our men, but they finally got to it and disabled it. Ben examined it and pried the Japanese inscribed plate off of the gun which he kept.

Ben mentioned how our soldiers had cornered Japanese troops numbering in the thousands, and how, although they were offered terms of surrender, the Japanese waded out into the water of a shallow cove, but refused surrender. Ben said that the Japanese soldiers were attacked by sharks that were attracted to the blood of the wounded. Ben said that if any Japanese soldier began to surrender that his own officer would shoot him with his pistol. And he recounted how finally in frustration that the allied forces machine gunned all of the Japanese, killing them because they would not surrender, and they could not leave them living to continue to fight against us. The beach this happened on became known as “maggot beach” due to the millions of maggots on the shores from the many thousands of Japanese who died there.

Ben recounted the time that he finally saw “his first white woman in three years.” She was dressed in a white nurses uniform aboard an aircraft that was flying the wounded out of New Guinea. Ben recalled that she was wearing a Colt Government .45 on her hip (the only one he saw during the war). Ben said that with the sunlight behind her all dressed in white that she looked like an angel to him. Ben was carrying a man in a stretcher that had had his arm nearly blown off, and the arm was hanging by a flap of skin. Ben said that he shrugged his shoulders and started to cut off the flap of skin, but she shook her head and said, “Lay it next to him in the stretcher where it should be just like it is.” Ben did so, and was still in awe of the splendorous vision he had seen – a woman of his own race & kind, all dressed in white and giving aid to men in need.

Ben mentioned a time when they were all lined up for chow, when new arrivals of officer’s rank, stepped to the front of the line, right in front of the base commander. Remember when Ben mentioned that no one on New Guinea wore insignia of rank, well, these newcomers not only wore insignia, but also wore either patches or medals showing that they had received a group citation for an engagement in which they never participated. In front of his men the base commander busted these newcomers down to private, and his men made quick work of making sure that only those actually there wore that citation. I believe that afterwards they offered the newcomers coconuts, which brought both a hearty laugh from those in the 80th Fighter Squadron as well as a bewildered look from the newcomers at what they had perceived as a welcome gift.

Speaking of coconuts Ben related an event that occurred near the end of his stay in New Guinea. As Ben described it, I guess upper ranks had begun to look at the length of combat time various soldiers in New Guinea had served during their time there. Since Ben had been dropped off on a New Guinea pier with the first of the 80th Fighter Squadron sent there, he and a select few other survivors (along with Andy & Red) were in this group. Ben mentioned that a Senator’s son was amongst this group as well, and that during the time this group was isolated in a fenced area beneath the shade of coconut trees, that anyone in this group was restricted from performing normal duties. Ben never said as much, but the implication was that this review may have been insisted upon by the Senator partly because the Japanese threat on New Guinea had been neutralized and because this Senator’s son was in this select group. In any case, while “top brass” was trying to figure out how to reassign and transport this group of men to a non-combat area, a coconut from their “shade grove” fell on the head of the Senator’s son and killed him. Ben said that “all hell broke loose” after that and that his group was immediately transported off of New Guinea. Ben ended up finishing his last 6 months of service behind a desk for the Navy where he obeyed orders and “did his part” but he wasn’t really keen on this, because he didn’t feel that his skills as an aircraft armorer were being utilized as they might have been elsewhere. But Ben was glad that he had made it, that he had survived, and that he (eventually) got to go home, traveling by plane on the last plane he ever boarded and flew.

After Ben returned home (to the U.S.A.) and spent his first winter maintaining Oregon roads with Andy & Red, Ben found himself headed home to see his folks and pick up his life where it had left off as best he could.

He contacted his old boss at Pacific Telephone and Telegraph and told him that he was home from the war and that he needed a job. “How soon can you start,” queried his boss. “Anytime,” replied Ben. “How about now,” said his boss as he threw him a tool belt.

Ben went with him to the first house on their list to install a phone. Ben started to crawl under the house to do the wiring, but his foreman stopped him and said, “I’ll do this, you go inside.”

As Ben was doing the wiring inside and installing the phone there, he said, “I looked down to see the most beautiful pair of green eyes looking up at me that I had ever seen.” A voice said, “My doctor only gives me six months to live.” Ben replied, “You look just fine to me.”

Ben spoke to this young belle about just having returned from the war, and thereafter asked both her and her father’s permission if he could return and show her some pictures taken during the war and spend time with her there. Upon receiving permission, Ben returned faithfully each and every day for the next six months until he and this beautiful, green-eyed, red haired lass were engaged. They were married three months later and thus began their long and happy life together of 64 wedded years until Miriam Eulabelle Byland passed away on April 6, 2011 at the age of 96.

Ben outlived her by nearly three years until his death on March 26, 2014, when he died from the side-effects of a chemotherapy treatment for his Leukemia at the age of 93.

When Belle (as we called her) passed away, I heard heavy thumping noises in the living room and entered there to see Ben throwing his World War II scrapbooks in the trash. I said, “Ben, what are you doing.” “This phase of my life is over, and I don’t want these anymore.” I ask him to reconsider, but his mind was made up. I asked him, “Ben, are you sure.” “Yep,” was all that he said. “Okay, then these are mine” was my reply as I gathered these priceless journals of war-time memorabilia in my arms. “One day Ben, when it is cold and rainy outside and you have nothing better to do, we are going to go over these together, and you will be glad I saved them,” I told him.

Fortunately, we didn’t wait for such conditions for this to happen, or it probably never would have.

At night, when the mood was right and when Ben was in a talking, reminiscent mood, we would lean over these photo albums, in the light of his kitchen table or at his easy chair in his living room, and he would explain to me in story form, his memories of the war. My role was to quietly listen, to ask questions when appropriate, to allow for spaces of silence when mental images and the memories surrounding them proved emotionally overwhelming and to remember what was told me during these intimate evenings…

Although I have all of Ben’s scrapbooks, Ben said that he and his select group of men, the first to be sent off of New Guinea together, reviewed their photographs and decided that “folks back home don’t need to see this” and together burned many photos depicting the more “raw” or uncouth aspects of their wartime experience. So admittedly, what I was shown was an “edited” toned-down version of what these brave men experienced.

Ben’s feeling of accomplishment from the Second World War is that he survived – that he made it home.

Ben never considered himself a hero – although to me he certainly was and always will be!

Ben considered those men heroes “who never made it home” – those who died in battle.

But Ben did make it home!

He touched many lives – amongst whom mine was one of the foremost of lives impacted, with our close bond and friendship enduring for over 45 years from when I was seven years old until his passing.

He married the woman of his dreams and was married to her for 64 years.

He lived to the ripe old age of 93, after having traveled the deserts of the western United States for much of his adult life, and having enjoyed their beauty, magic, and majesty the likes of which only writers such as Zane Grey have come close to accurately depicting.

His memory and influence will be with me always as will the reminder that it was only during the last 3 years of his life that he ever recounted or shared any of his World War II memories, which I have recorded for posterity to the best of my ability, to the honor and memory of Sergeant Ben L. Byland – Aircraft Armorer for the 80th Fighter Squadron, and the men and women who like him, offered to give their all in the great “War to end all Wars – World War II.”

We are very fortunate to have had Duane catalog and record the life of his great friend and mentor. We made him an Honorary LTM as a gesture of thanks. He continues to catalog, copy and record pictures and articles from Ben’s rather extensive albums. Perhaps there will be more to follow!- Tex

Leave a Reply