After 53 missions on two continents, a B-25 pilot endured months of maltreatment in a Japanese prison camp.
John Henry McCloskey Jr.’s fascination with flying began in 1930, when as an 8-year-old he witnessed a neighbor buzzing the skies above Pittsburgh in his plane. From that moment on, McCloskey knew that he wanted to become a pilot. World War II gave him his chance. After completing pilot training in early 1943, McCloskey was told that he would pilot a North American B-25 and attended a transition school at Greenville, S.C. Several months later he joined the 434th Squadron of the 12th Bombardment Group (Medium) just in time to participate in one of the most significant actions of the war—the Anzio campaign. McCloskey was interviewed by Nicholas P. Ciotola for Aviation History in 2003. He died in 2005 at the age of 83.
Aviation History: What was it like to go to Europe as a B-25 pilot?
McCloskey: We were supposed to fly our own planes over. I was disappointed when we did not, but that particular series of B-25s had some glitches that had to be corrected. We were taken over there by Air Transport Command. My first bombing mission was in Italy, somewhere around Naples. I flew plane No. 80, which had the name Sad Sack on its side. It had a picture of a poor little guy walking along bent way over, with a 500-pound bomb on his back. We did not necessarily fly the same airplane each time. They just assigned you to an airplane. We had our briefing beforehand and were told exactly what the mission was about, where it was and how we were supposed to hit it.
AH: Do you remember your first mission where you encountered enemy planes or flak?
McCloskey: Yes—the flak more than fighters, because we always flew with high cover, and often the cover came from British Spitfires being flown by Americans. Flak was the big thing we were concerned with. With the night missions, all you could see were flashes, but during the daytime [you would see] the flak bursts. It was a big black burst. Sometimes they would throw in one that would burst red, to keep you aware of the fact that it was there. It was scary stuff because the flak that you would see out in front of you or above you was harmless. What you did not see was down below you. You could hear that hitting the plane, and if that hit the right place it would put an engine out. One piece of flak took the map out of my bombardier’s hands. It came up through the fiberglass nose and took it right out of his hands. Strangely enough, after a while you would just climb in and go—like it was an ordinary practice mission. For me it got to be pretty old after 53 missions.
AH: How many bombers would generally go out on a mission, and how would they be guarded?
McCloskey: We had four squadrons in our group, the 81st, 82nd, 83rd and 434th. We were the 434th. We did everything the others did and flew the same missions. On a mission there were 12 airplanes from each squadron, 48 planes flying in formation. The air cover would be about 3,000 or 4,000 feet above us, just watching what was going on. If any enemies came along, the fighters engaged them. Otherwise they just flew cover for us. Sometimes if there were no enemy fighters they would come down lower and fly formation with us. We did not have to fight off too many fighters. We had tail gunners, and they were pretty good. We did have lots and lots of flak. We flew over Monte Cassino four times, and every time we got shot up.
AH: What role did you play in the attacks at Anzio?
McCloskey: I led the opening mission on the Anzio beachhead with B-25s at the crack of dawn [on January 22, 1944]. We were there to try to mess up their transportation: railroad crossings, railroad yards, roads. When we got to the bay around Anzio, our Navy was sitting down there—looked like a hundred ships. As soon as we turned into land, the anti-aircraft guns shot the daylights out of all of us. When we returned, our bomb doors were hanging open, the nose gear was hanging out and we had 119 flak holes in the airplane. But my two engines were running just fine, and nobody in the crew was hit. We were over that target about four times all told before we broke up their defenses and could move on toward Rome.
AH: Were you ever the pilot of the lead plane?
McCloskey: Well, the first pilot was the captain and the commander of the airplane, and the lead pilot served as the leader of the whole formation. You had to know exactly where your checkpoints were. You are going to fly here, you are going to fly there, then you are going to make your initial point over a certain spot on the ground and fly straight and level from there on in, so that the bombardier can get his sighting down. The first pilot had to be in touch with the navigator-bombardier—it was a combination occupation. If it was a difficult place to find, he would be more of a navigator-bombardier, but if it was a tough target he would be more a bombardier-navigator type of guy. The co-pilot knew what his duties were. He did not have to do much more than pull up the wheels and make adjustments to the power and so forth. These were good, qualified pilots, but some of them never wanted to be a first pilot. They were willing to go ahead and fly as co-pilot. Others were gung-ho. I never wanted to be a co-pilot, and I never was. I just wanted to be the big shot. When you would go out on a long ride and were not on autopilot—which we were not most of the time in the B-25—the co-pilot would do the straight and level flying. When you came to the target area and into the tougher flying, the first pilot always did that. The first pilot usually did the takeoffs and landings. Being the first pilot was more prestigious.
AH: Did you and the other members of the crew realize that the first Anzio sortie was an important mission and expect stiff resistance?
McCloskey: Beforehand, no. We knew we were going to see our Navy there and that it was a sea landing and a ground force combination. We knew it was an important target, but we did not count on it as a more difficult target because we always got flak. More or less, it was just another mission. But we came off that target pretty well shot up. The nice part was that no crew member was hurt and the engines were still going. As long as I flew, I never lost an engine. Not many people were that lucky.
AH: Were there any times when you were attacked by enemy aircraft?
McCloskey: When I was in Italy, the German pilots did not make any real concerted attempts to shoot us down. They did not take too many chances on getting shot down themselves. They would make a pass and break it off when they saw we returned fire. I do not know that we ever shot one down, and I do not know if they shot one of us down. The fighters were much more aggressive against the B-17s and B-24s, because they could not maneuver as well as we could. As soon as the flak would start to come up, the fighters would get out of the way anyway.
AH: What did you do after Anzio?
McCloskey: I flew a total of 48 missions in Europe, and I cannot remember whether Anzio was the 46th, 47th or 48th mission. All of a sudden we were ready to taxi out to our 49th mission, and they called us back. We were told we were standing down. The next day we were on trucks going someplace in the heel of Italy. We were on a boat the next day. We did not know where we were going until we started out into the Mediterranean, and we figured if we turned west we were going to England and if we turned east we were going someplace else. Well, we turned east and went to Egypt. We went to a camp near Cairo and remained there for probably 30 days, for rest and recuperation. From there it was on to Bombay, India. We traveled across India on what they called “40 and 8” cars. They were designed for 40 men or 8 cattle, crude railroad cars. You wonder why, when we had transport airplanes, they did not fly us there. But we went all the way across India on these 40 and 8s. We went to Calcutta up to Kurmitola, and then started flying missions into Burma.
AH: How many missions did you fly in that area?
McCloskey: I was on my fifth mission when I was shot down. We were flying low-level missions, coming down to 200 or 300 feet and even lower. Transportation was our main target. We were flying over a single-track railroad. The idea was just to blow the railroad off the face of the earth. That would prevent the trains from going on that track for a day or two. We had to keep continuously knocking them out and the roads as well. When we were flying against the railroads, we would fly single passes. I had three airplanes, my plane and the planes of my two wingmen, and there were four flights like that. The object was to hit that railroad and knock out as many sections of it as possible.
AH: Why did you fly so close to the ground? Flying that low means you’re more vulnerable to groundfire.
McCloskey: That is what got me. Most of the time you could fly through that and get several bullet holes, but this particular time they probably hit a fuel line in the bomb bay, setting the airplane on fire. My waist gunner had the fire extinguisher, and he attempted to put the fire out. His hands and arms were burned. We were over the jungle, so we knew we could not crash land. So in order to save the crew members’ lives I had to get some altitude in order to bail out. The first thing I did was start a climbing turn toward the west, to get as far away from the target as we could and to get to 1,000 feet. Then you have to make the decision. We were on fire and were not going to put the fire out, so we had to bail out. The first pilot does not go until everybody is gone. You know what you have to do, and you do it. I had already achieved 1,000 feet, so I knew that their chutes would open all right—except whatever happened to my co-pilot. He went a little wild in the airplane. He was the first one to go. I said: “You’re first. Go.” He bailed out, and the chute never opened. Either he hit his head on the way out or the chute failed to open. The Japanese later brought me a couple of family pictures that they took from this guy. They said he landed on the ground with his chute unopened. Once my crew got out, it was my turn. The fire had burned out most of the controls. I got up to get my chute pack between the pilot seat and the co-pilot’s seat. The airplane started to pull up like it wanted to stall, and I did not want it to stall with me still in it, so I reached over and pushed the control column forward, and it just flopped up against the firewall. I just got out of there. As I jumped out, the plane pulled up and spun. It crashed and burned, and I found myself in the top of a tree. There was a limb directly under me. There I was about 70 feet in the air, and I had to lower myself out of my chute to get my feet onto that limb and then see to it that I did not fall off of there before I got it straddled. My uniform was soaking wet. I got onto this limb into the tree and got wrapped around the tree. I got my leg off that limb and started to shinny down the tree. About halfway down it got too big for me, so I slid the rest of the way. I hit the ground right on my bum and also sprained both ankles. That fractured the first lumbar vertebrae. I was not in good shape when I got down.
AH: What did you do next?
McCloskey: I got up and was able to walk a little bit, and walked through the jungle. There was a lot of bamboo about knee-high growing above the underbrush. It was very difficult to get through it. You had to lift it out of the way or try and climb over it. I went back to the plane but could not get near it because it was burning and ammunition inside was going off. I finally came to a prominent path that had a lot of traffic on it. I followed it into a Burmese village.
AH: Were the villagers helpful?
McCloskey: They did as much for me as they could, but they were behind Japanese lines. If they had got caught trying to help me, the Japanese would have burned them out. The villagers put me in an ox cart that delivered me to a little Japanese outpost. They were making all kinds of signs about what they were going to do to me. They piled me into another ox cart, and it was not long, a half hour at most, when we got to this stockade and went through these big gates. There sitting on the right-hand side was the rest of my crew, except for my co-pilot.
AH: What was going through your mind? Did you think that they were going to harm or kill you?
McCloskey: Oh boy, I thought both. My crew was there, but they were sitting there all by themselves. They pulled me past them and turned me over to the Japanese officers, who took me into an elevated platform. They interrogated me, and I tried to let on like I did not know who the crew was. The Japanese were not having any of that. Then they put us together, and we compared notes on what we had said. They were trying to compare what I had said to what my crew said. But we were saying very little. Our training was that you do not tell them anything except your name, rank and serial number. Well, after they kick you around awhile and twist your sprained ankles, you tell them something, so I told them about where I lived in Bellevue, Pa. Before they got through interrogating me they told me all the answers to the questions they had asked me. They knew more about my group than I did. They knew the commanding officer and this officer and that officer, how many in a squadron and the whole works.
AH: What happened after your interrogation?
McCloskey: They finally put me back with my guys, and a few days after that they put us on a railroad car, just an ordinary freight car. We started south and came to the bombed-out railroad tracks. They had to take us back, since they could not take us that way. A day or two after that, they put us in trucks. The idea was to get us to Rangoon; there was a prison camp down there. We were put into this city jail, a building with three huge rooms on the first floor. I guess that is all they had, just three rooms, and a Japanese night guard sat there. We were in our cell with steel bars on the front of it, probably 5 or 6 yards wide and 8 or 10 yards deep. The back of it was a toilet gutter. Up on top of the wall was the water closet. It looked just like our toilet with a rocker on it; if you pulled a string, it would let the water down and wash out the gutter. We got a bar out of that. It was a cast iron bar—the thing that pulled the plunger up—and we were able to break the chain that secured the door. We then had to approach this one guard who we knew went to sleep every night. We had to walk far; Louis Bishop was with me. There were six of us involved in this breakout. Mostly they were my crew, but Bishop was not. He was a fighter pilot. He and I were elected to go and do this first thing, so we tiptoed up to this guard. Bishop had this bar that we had broken the door with, and he came down on that guy’s head. Boy, I thought that he killed him, but this guy came up fighting and making a lot of racket. The noise woke up a Burmese flunky and a Japanese captain, and the next thing you know the place was flooded with armed Japanese. Instead of trying to get out the front gate, we went into a courtyard, and the Japanese were there. I had the guard’s rifle and could not get the bolt home for some reason, so I could not fire the gun. Maybe it was just as well, because if I could have, I would have shot one of them. I got the nozzle end and was going to swing but then I thought, “I’m not going to do any good,” so I just gave up. They took us back inside and beat us all night long. I had a leather belt come around my head and the metal tip hit me in the right eye. It closed that eye just like that. They spent the night and the next several days beating on us. We were sitting on a damp floor in our underpants facing the gate to that big room. At night we lay down, and we hated to see the dawn coming because it would be just another day of bad treatment. They kept us there for about 20 days. I figured the six of us that tried the escape would be singled out. I fully expected to be killed. I really did. You are not really afraid when you know they are going to kill you. You just hope they do a clean job of it. When it looks like you’re not going to get killed, that is when you get scared. They used bamboo sticks to beat us more. They punched and kicked, but they never went after the privates or anything like that. Maybe it was just a matter of principle. We got away a lot better than a lot of other prisoners in Japanese camps. Their guards were much meaner and nastier than the guys we had.
AH: What were the rules about talking to your cellmates? And what about food and sanitation?
McCloskey: The cells were just bars between cells. There was nothing to block our view of each other. Bishop and I were in the first cell. Lofty Westberg and another fellow who was not one of my crew were in the cell next to us. Right across from us were two more crew members. We were not allowed to talk. But at night we whispered back and forth. As for sanitation, there was an ammunition box in a wooden box with metal lining. One of those with the top cut out and a 6-inch opening was our toilet. We would go out and empty that about every three or four days. The cell was maybe 10 feet deep and 6 or 8 feet wide. We were on a wooden platform. As for food and water, we had tins about 8 inches long, 6 inches wide and 2 inches high. We had two of them, one for the water and one for the rice. We would get rice maybe three times a day, but not enough of it. We would put our tins out through the bars to be filled, and when we were lucky, we could get them in without tipping them over. We would eat with our fingers. They would do that maybe three times a day. Once in awhile we would get a little piece of meat or something. If they killed a pig, we would maybe get the bones. It tasted delicious, but we didn’t get enough that you would call it meat. When I got out, I weighed 114 pounds. We were in that cellblock for about seven months. I think this was when they started to see that they were losing Burma. They pulled us out of the cellblock and moved us into another building shaped like a wheel with the center control place, which was the offices, and around that were the compounds. They were huge rooms again. We were put on top. I guess the commissioned guys were on top and the enlisted on the bottom. Once in there, we could go up these steps and go in our big rooms. They were not crowded by any means. During the daytime we would be down walking around the place. We did our own cooking then. Of course, it was just rice with maybe a little piece of meat or bones to flavor it once in awhile. All we did was walk around during the day and talk. Thank goodness this was a good climate. We did not get any tough winter or anything. We had to go all the way around the building to the latrines.
AH: How did your release come about?
McCloskey: On April 24, 1945, they came around and wanted to know how many of us could walk. I thought the ones who couldn’t walk were probably going to be left behind, and they might be killed. So I said I could walk. They lined us up on the 25th, and we started walking. We walked at night. During the day we stayed in a grove of trees or in some village so that we would not look like a target for strafing. On April 29, a Sunday morning, we arrived in a pretty good size Burmese village. They had a little meeting of their own and then gave our major, our ranking American officer, a letter of safe conduct. Then they took off at a dead run. We were free. Of course, I was emotional. The men cried, laughed, jumped around, everything. There were about 120 of us. I was a captain, but I did not know it. My captaincy came through very shortly after I was shot down.
AH: What happened to your family? Had they been told you were missing in action?
McCloskey: They did not know for 11 months and 10 days whether or not I was alive or dead. That was the difficult part for them. I spent all of my time wondering if they knew if I was still alive. They never did.
AH: Where did you go after that?
McCloskey: We wandered around a couple of other different villages and slept overnight. The next morning we wondered what to do. The next thing you know, here came the Indian troops. Boy, they came rushing in there with bandoliers of ammunition hanging all over. Our major had gotten through our lines and told them we were there. They came down and rescued us. In a very short time we were getting on big GI trucks. I had my pans and my chopsticks and I threw my cans in the ditch when I got in the truck. A lot of people said I should keep them. I did not want those damn things. I just got rid of them. We traveled a very short distance in these trucks to where there were DC-3s at a metal landing strip. With very little delay they had us stripped and deloused, put us in British fatigue uniforms and loaded us on airplanes according to rank. I went up and talked the co-pilot out of his seat, and I flew the plane back to India. The captain said, “I am supposed to take you to a British camp, but I am going to talk to our camp.” I said that was fine with me. We went to his camp. It was just one planeload of us, maybe 15 or 18. They treated us royally—they were so thrilled to have us and talk to us. We just blathered our heads off all night. We had a marvelous meal at dinnertime, and we went to see an outdoor movie. The fellow in front of me turned his seat around; he was not paying attention to the movie, he was talking to me. He said, “After the movie we will go over to my place and have a drink.” I said, “Sounds OK with me.” I came in with this British uniform on, and a bunch of guys who were sitting playing cards looked at me like, “Who the hell is he and what’s he doing here?” It was quickly explained to them that I was an American and a first lieutenant. Before you knew it there was a pile of uniforms on the floor and I was in uniform right down to my wings and everything else. Then we left there to go over to the officers club, and there were the rest of my guys still in British uniforms.
AH: Where did you go next?
McCloskey: When we returned to Calcutta, there were a bunch of people who knew we were POWs coming back. Here I am standing there with my single bar, my first lieutenant bar, and this guy from my squadron said, “Hey, you’re a captain now.” That got a big laugh. They took us to the 142nd General Hospital, gave us a pretty quick physical and put us in beautiful wards. Nice clean beds and the whole nine yards—which would be pretty crummy to us now but looked like heaven right then. I gained 56 pounds in 28 days. The emotion was unbelievable. We were eating everything we could get our hands on. I had 11 fried eggs, some hotcakes and sausage for breakfast. We would go to the PX and eat our heads off.
AH: Did you have any contact with your family at that point?
McCloskey: There were no phone calls, but there were wires back and forth. They notified my parents immediately. When they saw the uniform at the front door, they figured, well, it was almost a year and they could expect to be notified that I was assumed to be dead. It read, “The War Department is pleased to inform you….” That was it—that’s when the party started. And boy I tell you, it was really something. The weekend was nothing but phone calls, because my picture was on the front of the Pittsburgh Press. “Flier missing nearly a year and then a telegram.” It was quite a weekend in Pittsburgh. We had quite a weekend, too. We were able to eat everything we wanted, drink whatever we wanted. Nobody was telling us what not to do. A couple days later we were quarantined for obvious reasons, I guess, information-wise and health-wise, too. It turned out about three or four of my squadron people, officers, were there. We were there until May 20—one year to the day from the day I was shot down. Then they put us on a C-47 and we started for the States. We stayed over at Karachi and then flew to the United States. I had orders to go to Washington to be debriefed. I talked to them for a couple days, and then they turned me loose and got me an airplane ride to Pittsburgh. That is when my 60-day delay in rest started. Those were happy days.
AH: Tell us about your homecoming.
McCloskey: My mother and dad met me at the airport with my sister. It was over a year since I had been shot down. When I got back to Bellevue, the parties were everywhere. It was really something. I still choke up a little bit about it when I talk about it. Like I said, the rest of my life has been spent thanking God for turning me loose. And I tell you it is quite remarkable, after what I went through, the wonderful life that I have had since then. There has been more conversation about it in the last six months than ever. Some people just would not talk about it. I thought, “Well, I’ll talk about it.” I did something pretty good. I flew 53 combat missions as first pilot. I was first pilot, not co-pilot. One of the results is my DFC. People see that for the first time and are impressed. I see it for the 10,000th time and I am impressed.
Nicholas P. Ciotola has published numerous books, including Industry and Infantry: The Civil War in Western Pennsylvania (2003). For additional reading, he recommends: North American B-25 Mitchell, by Frederick A. Johnson.
Originally published in the November 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.