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Panchito, Then and Now
A B-25 story
By: Larry Kelley and Larry Wilson
Specification of the North American B-25J Mitchell
PowerplantTwo Wright R-2600 Double Cyclone fourteen-cylinder air-cooled radials, rated at 1700 hp each for takeoff and 1500 hp at 2400 rpm.
PerformanceMaximum speed 275 mph at 15,000 feet. 230 mph cruising speed. Initial climb rate 1110 feet per minute. An altitude of 15,000 feet could be reached in 19 minutes. Service ceiling 24,000 feet. Range 1275 miles with 3200 pounds of bombs. Ferry range 2700 miles.
DimensionsWingspan 67 feet 6.7 inches, length 53 feet 5.75 inches (bomber version), height 16 feet 4.2 inches, wing area 610 square feet.
Weights21,100 pounds empty, 33,000 pounds normal loaded, 35,000 pounds gross, 41,800 pounds maximum overload. The fuel capacity consisted of four tanks in the inner wing panels, with a total capacity of 670 US gallons. In addition, 304 US gallons of fuel could be carried in auxiliary tanks in the outboard wing panels, for a normal total fuel load of 974 US gallons. A 515-gallon tank could be installed in the bomb bay for ferrying purposes, 125 gallons of fuel could be carried in side waist positions, a 215-gallon self-sealing fuel tank installed in the top of the bomb bay, and provisions could be made for a droppable 335-gallon metal bomb-bay fuel tank.
HistoryMention the B-25 or “Mitchell” to many people, and they are likely to respond, “Oh, the Doolittle Raid”. While the attack on Tokyo on April 18, 1942 was the most famous of its missions, North American Aviation’s magnificent medium played a much larger part in World War Two.
In production from before U.S. entry into the war through VJ-Day, about 9815 B-25s were built. This was the largest production of U.S. twin-engine combat airplanes in World War II. B-25s were used in all theaters of war from Alaska to North Africa to China, Europe to the Southwest Pacific. They were flown by the U.S. Army Air Forces and U.S. Marine Corps, as well as the air forces of Britain, Canada, Australia, Russia, China, Brazil, and the Netherlands East Indies. Post war, B-25s soldiered on in combat or other roles with the U.S. Air Force, and air forces of Canada, Indonesia, and many Latin American countries.
The B-25 was designed as a medium bomber, to operate from altitudes between 8 and 12 thousand feet. Powered by two 1700 hp Wright R-2600 engines, the basic configuration stayed the same throughout production. However, there were many changes in armament, to improve both offensive and defensive capabilities. These variations included 75 mm cannon, or up to eighteen .50 cal. machine guns, and rockets. Some were modified to carry torpedoes, both standard aerial and glide versions. Tactics used in the South and Southwest Pacific included low altitude strikes with straffing and skip-bombing against shipping and para-frag bombs against airfield targets. The airplane was also used for photo-mapping, and as an advanced trainer and fast transport.
The 41st Bombardment Group was the only B-25 medium bomber unit in the Seventh Air Force, and operated in the Central Pacific theater during the period from December 1943 to October 1944. The unit flew over 240 missions, mostly in single squadron strength against Japanese shipping and bypassed islands, and often from low altitudes. In October 1944 the 41st was transferred to Wheeler Field, Hawaii for rest, re-equipment, crew replacements and retraining. Their aircraft were cycled through the Hawaiian Air Depot, where some of their B-25Ds and B-25Gs were converted with the 8-gun “strafer” nose. Other aircraft were replaced by new B-25Js. It was here that B-25J number 43-28147 was assigned to Capt. Don Seiler of the 396th Bomb Squadron. Capt. Seiler named his new plane Panchito after the feisty Mexican rooster from the 1943 Disney animated musical “The Three Cabarellos”.
The crew was composed of both combat veterans and recent trainees. Pilot Capt. Don Seiler and bombardier Lt. Jud Driver, seasoned combat veterans in their early twenties, were both preparing for their second combat tour. Among the replacements making up the rest of the crew were copilot Lt. T. F. Shea, radio operator and gunner Corporal Norm Landry, and an unusual pair of gunners. Corporals William and Robert Miller were identical twins, from Hummelston, Pennsylvania. The Army Air Forces policy, which allowed them to be assigned together was so little known, that they carried copies of it with them. Bill Miller was the flight engineer and top turret gunner while brother Bob was tail gunner and armorer. Bill liked this arrangement since they could check on each other visually while on missions.
In June 1945, the 41st Bomb Group was reassigned, along with other Seventh Air Force bomber units, to Okinawa to participate in the aerial campaign leading to the planned invasion of Kyushu in November 1945. Until other units were transferred from the Fifth Air Force later in July, the 41st was again the only B-25 unit in the Seventh. With their first mission against Chiran Airfield, Kyushu on July 1, 1945, the 41st became the first unit to attack the Japanese home islands with B-25s since the Doolittle raid in 1942. Over the next month and a half, the 41st flew 48 combat or combat support missions against Japanese targets in Kyushu, the island chain north of Okinawa, and Japanese bases in Eastern China. Included were airfields, shipping, transportation targets, and rail facilities. Panchito flew 19 of these missions, including the last combat mission flown on August 12, 1945 against Kanoya Airfield, Kyushu. Announcement of the Japanese surrender caused the mission scheduled for the 13th to be cancelled. This mission was also to include Panchito and Bill Miller retrieved the alert order for this mission from his unit’s bulletin board, an order that had been over-written as “CANCELLED”. He still has this document, neatly folded in his old wartime diary.
Much can be learned of the trials these bomber crews went through by studying official records. But the real flavor comes through talking to the crews, or reading their diaries. Bill Miller kept a simple diary and some samples are illustrative. Panchito’s second mission was on July 10, 1945: “Our first trip over the Jap home land. Sure don’t seem to be Japan - could pass for Penna. woodland. Saw our first flak bursts today - so we wore our “flak suits.”; and later, “My friend Arena - went down in yesterday’s raid. Saw his plane go down in flames after collision with Corsair.” Corporal Raymond Arena was a gunner on the first B-25 lost by the 41st during this tour. Mission records shows the collision actually was between two B-25’s of the 820th Bomb Squadron, the other airplane limped home to base on one engine. On August 9th, flight crews reported and photographed a towering cloud of smoke coming from the Nagasaki area some 75 miles away. From Bill’s diary, “Well if smoke means damage then Nagasaki is ruined. The smoke was visible from Kanoya.” He later added a note in the margin “Nagasaki bomb 11:02am” and a clipping from the base newspaper describing other crews observations of the 20,000 ft plume of smoke over Nagasaki from the atomic bomb.
The August 15th, 1945 entry in Bill Miller’s diary expresses the feelings of many when they heard of the Japanese surrender. “…and at last the announcement came-that Japan has accepted the peace terms. At 5 o’clock (am) -the loudspeaker blaired out “Mission for today cancelled- and all planes will leave for Manilla at dawn”. Boy we were glad.! By noon, all available parking space on the island was taken up by C-54’s, C47’s, and C-46’s – awaiting trip to Tokyo Airfield. Can’t write on paper my innermost feelings- but its wonderful. Now to sweat out transportation home”. Finally the war was over for Panchito and the Miller brothers. The next day, the 41st bomb group packed up and headed for Clark Field in the Phillippes, where their beloved Mitchells were parked for final disposition. The official Air Force records shows aircraft #43-28147 as being “condemned for reclamation” in the Philippines on December 4, 1946. It was finally reported that reclamation was completed July 13, 1949.
The Present day Panchito, B-25J, serial number 44-30734, was manufactured by North American Aviation, Kansas City Ks, and delivered to the USAAF on 16 Feb, 1945. It was transferred to Garden City AP, Kansas, and then in April sent to the 4168th AAF Base Unit, south Plains AAF, Texas for Storage. In 1948, it was transferred to the 3575th Pilot training wing, Enid Ok, (later Vance AFB) where it remained until going through the Hayes conversion to a TB-25N in 1952, and being assigned to 3560th basic training wing, James Connally AFB, Texas. In March 1954, it was transferred to the 102nd Radar Calibration Flight (ANG) Westchester, NY. From there is was transferred to the 137th fighter-Interceptor Squadron (ANG), Westchester, deployed to Charleston AFB, S.C. After that assignment, it was transferred to the 115th fighter-Interceptor Squadron (ANG), Van Nuys, CA, in Sept 1957. In May 1958 it was sent to the Arizona Aircraft Storage Branch, Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ. and dropped from inventory as surplus in December 1959. At that time it was sold to it’s first civilian owner, a fire fighting business.
During the early 1960’s it was highly modified into a tanker to fight forest fires and served in that duty until being sold in 1968 to the Howe brothers in Florida, who modified the tanker further by adding spray bars attached to the wing hard-points and operated if off their grass strip as an orange grove sprayer and mosquito bomber well into the 1970’s. They called it “ Big Bertha”. Imagine the sight of a B-25 screaming along at take-off power, ten feet above an Orange grove, leaving a cloud of mist behind? The noise and sight of a B-25 coming at a mosquito was enough to scare it to death!
By 1978, the B-25 was getting very weary and corrosion from the chemicals was taking its toll. Richard and Bob Howe were now using C-47’s and Beech 18’s for their spraying business. They donated their beloved B-25 to the S.S.T. Museum, in St. Cloud Florida, and arranged with the Florida State Police to block off US-192 in St. Cloud where they landed the B-25 on the highway. While taxiing to the museum, one engine in the weak old bird seized. It had to be towed the last few feet to it’s new home. This once magnificent, powerful, fire breathing beast was now a leaky, corroded, crippled derelict.
Shortly thereafter, the museum went defunct and liquidated its assets. Tom Reilly acquired the airframe and moved it to his storage facility in Orlando. He began a total rebuild back to it’s original “J” model configuration, completing it for it’s new Texas owners in 1986. After arriving in Texas, it got its nose art and markings as “Panchito”, from the 396 Bomb Squadron, 41st bomb Group, 7th A.F.
In the early 1990’s Rick Korf bought the plane, and operated it with the National Warplane Museum in Geneseo, N.Y. Rick moved Panchito to the Valiant Air Command in Titusville, Florida in the late 1990’s.
In July 1992, I was standing in the Oshkosh Warbird parking area, near my UC-78, watching a line of B-25’s coming in to land after flying a tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid. I clearly remember standing there, thinking, “What a magnificent airplane”, never imagining that five years later I would own Panchito, one of the planes I was watching. By 1997, I found myself in the position of being able to buy another warbird. I had been flying my UC-78 for seven years, and still love it dearly, but I wanted something more powerful, and my love of the B-25 directed me to call Tom Reilly and ask if he knew of a good B-25 for sale. Immediately, he responded that Panchito, his favorite restoration, was listed with a broker in Ft. Lauderdale. I asked him to make an inquiry and by that weekend I was the new owner of Panchito. I will always remember standing there with Tom, (after he finished his pre-buy inspection and I had spent the day with the broker handling the paper work), and asking him….. How do you get in it? I had a lot to learn!
Learning to fly the B-25 was easier than I thought. Tom Reilly had trained many pilots to fly the B-25, as well as the B-17, B-24, C-47, and others. Ironically, I found myself following the same training route of many bomber pilots of WW2. During WW-2, aviation cadets first flew the PT-17, PT-19, PT22, PT-23, etc. then went to basic where they flew planes like the BT-15 and BT-13. After Basic, they went to advanced training and flew the AT-6 if going to fighters and the AT-17 (aka: UC-78, Bamboo bomber), AT-9, or AT-10 if going into bombers and transports. After graduating advanced and getting their wings, cadets would be assigned to units where they transitioned into their warplanes. Here I was, following the same course. I had begun flying in the PT-17 and PT-26, and of course the Cessna 150, and 182. I had restored my UC-78 and had been flying it for seven years, had flown a friend’s BT-13, and was now transitioning into the B-25.
The first thing Tom told me was that anyone could fly a B-25. It is an easy, straightforward plane to fly. The trick was getting it to the end of the runway. At first I did not understand what he meant. I had been humbled years earlier by my brother’s Aero Commander with its free castering nose wheel, but had mastered it quickly. How hard could it be? Bill Dodds and Jeff Ethell called it the “Baghdad Dance”. Don Seiler called it the “Conga”. I thought that B-25 free castering nose wheel had a demon in it! Don Seiler, Panchito’s pilot in combat, best described this experience in a 1979 article he wrote in Wings magazine.
“The initial stumbling-block, surprisingly, was taxiing! Learning to taxi a Mitchell was a task that caused fledgling pilots undisguised anguish, bordering on near apoplexy, and required monumental patience on the part of an instructor until his charges developed “feel” for the braking power unleashed by the press of a pedal. The main wheels are equipped with dual multiple disc brakes- 28 pair of Steel and Bronze stators and rotors in EACH wheel-that would, I believe, have been sufficient to stop a speeding locomotive on the proverbial dime. But those discs heated up FAST with excessive applications of the brakes, to a degree that made it possible to warp or even fuse metal, thus bringing much gnashing of teeth among maintenance personnel who had to change them. Use of the brakes was further complicated by the free-castering of the nose wheel. At slow speed - leaving or entering a parking ramp in close proximity of other aircraft, for example - the nose wheel had a disconcerting tendency to kick quickly, first one way and then the other, as uncoordinated applications of the pedals alternately released hydraulic pressure to the brakes. This resulted in what was commonly referred to as a “ conga” with the plane in the hands of a suddenly panic-stricken novice pilot- a humorous and not unusual sight at transition school”.
The other thing that immediately caught my attention was the noise level on the flight deck during flight, especially on take off. Imagine you have a metal bucket over your head with two jackhammers attacking each side of that bucket, and you know how it sounds in a B-25! Now I know why most of the men who flew these airplanes now wear hearing aids.
We base the B-25 and UC-78 at Georgetown Delaware (GED), where we have found a warm welcome from airport manager John Kenny. We can only keep these old warbirds flying with the help of volunteers who share our passion. The skill and dedication of volunteers like Josh Kelley, Paul Nuwer, Jerry Jeffers, Lorie Thomsen, Steve Nuwer, Bobby Snead, Harry Fox, Kevin Smith, Otis Bramble, Dean Caputo, Donnie Parlett, Howdy McCann, Larry Wilson, Lou Ridley and many others, make it possible for me to “Keep-em-Flying”. Just to do an oil change requires a forklift, 74 GALLONS of oil, two empty barrels, and clothing you are willing to throw away when finished. A polish job on the bare metal requires four crews of two, each with a buffer, gallons of Mother’s metal polish, and eight sixteen hour days in the sun! When you walk away at the end of a day of polishing, you look like you have been in a coal mine for a week! The only pay is a cold beer and a bucket of fried chicken, but we have a ton of fun! You forget all the pain when one old veteran takes your hand and thanks you for keeping it flying!
We started to take the plane around the air show circuit and began to meet the Veterans who flew them during the war. I had been around warbirds since the early 1980’s when Jeff Ethell and I would travel together, but the one-on-one with the veterans had never touched me so deeply. Standing under the wing of the B-25, many veterans began to open up about their experiences in Corsica, Italy, North Africa, China, the Pacific Islands, and Okinawa. Many had tears in their eyes as their memories were stimulated by the sight, sounds, and smell of the airplane. It was in the B-25 that many a farm boy became a man. Some told of losing a good friend or crewmember. Stories of dedication to duty and mission, love of country, and shocking losses were, to them, just doing their duty. Stories we call heroic are to those veterans, just doing what they were asked to do. Over the years, I met and became friends with several of the Doolittle Raiders. Nolan Herndon, navigator/bombardier on #10 airplane off the Hornet, best described how all the Raiders feel about their mission. They don’t feel comfortable with being called heroes. They were just ordinary soldiers and airmen who happened to be already trained in the B-25 when the mission was planned. They were no better or worse than any other outfit. When asked to volunteer for a special, but very dangerous mission, they were too young and eager to get at the Japanese, to NOT volunteer. The greatest honor of my flying career was being asked to plan and lead the formation of eleven B-25’s at the 60th Doolittle Raiders Reunion in April of 2002, Columbia, South Carolina.
Standing under the wing of Panchito at the World War Two Weekend, at the Mid Atlantic Air Museum in June of 1998, a soft spoken, white haired man with a briefcase walked up and politely asked to speak to the owner. I identified myself and he said he had something he wanted to show me. Panchito had been the 1980’s Monogram B-25J 1:48 scale model kit, and the box cover had a good color painting of Panchito landing at an island airstrip. He removed from his briefcase the box cover from the model kit, but quickly I noticed a photograph taped to the top left corner. My heart stopped! It was he, Bill Miller, as a 19 year old in Okinawa, July 1945, standing next to his airplane. Yes, it was Panchito. He and his Identical twin brother Bob had been the turret and tail gunners on the crew of B-25J sn:43-28147, the original Panchito. Here stood a living connection to the original Airplane. For the next several hours my questions flowed as he graciously told me the story of how he and his brother went through gunnery training together, and being twins, used a little know Air Corps regulation that parenthetically states, “twins, if in the same branch of service, and if militarily feasible, shall be assigned together—and once assigned, shall not be separated”. They were assigned together to Captain Don Seiler’s crew while at Wheeler field in Hawaii. The following year we stopped off in Bill Miller’s hometown, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to pick him up and take him with us, as an honored guest, to the same event in Reading, Pennsylvania. The whole town must have turned out! Television crews were at Lancaster and Reading airports to film his departure and arrival. The Newspapers ran the headlines “He flew the Unfriendly skies” as they described his wartime duty. Bill flew the entire trip in the turret, his old “ office” in 1945.
At the end of the war, when the 41st BG had delivered their B-25’s to Clark Field for “final disposition”, they were ordered to park the planes, leave everything, and walk away. After Capt. Seiler and Lt Shea left the flight deck, Bill began to quickly remove the 8-day clock from the instrument panel. Seeing an MP approaching, he had to break off the fourth ear of the clock to get it out and left the plane with the clock in his pocket. At his home in Lancaster, it has an honored place on his mantle, and keeps perfect time.
We have accumulated hundreds of signatures of B-25 combat crew on the replica 500-pound bombs in the bomb bay. Once, at an Air show in Columbia, S.C. we were talking to a former B-25 tail gunner from the 5th Air Force. Parkinson’s disease had confined him to a wheelchair, but he wanted to sign the bomb in memory of his many friends who died attacking Rabaul. We ran all over the airport gathering up wheel chocks and boards to build a makeshift ramp to get him high enough to sign and write his message. His signature trailed across the bomb, nearly illegible, and he strained to hold his hand steady. After about five minutes of straining, he had finally affixed his name to the bomb and a short message to his “lost” friends. He still had a tear in his eye when his son pushed his wheelchair back to the VIP tent.
I will forever remember sitting in the cockpit with Col “Tic” Tokaz, former commander of the 340th bomb group, a B-25 outfit, in Italy during WW-2. As he sat there, he developed a blank look and turned pale as he sat silent and stared out the windscreen. I finally asked if he was ok. After a Moment, he replied that the memories were flooding over him like it was yesterday. A mission against German gun emplacements in Italy had cost him his co-pilot, bombardier, and waist gunner. He had to fly a crippled aircraft home with three dead crewmembers, himself wounded. His son and daughter, standing behind us said they had never heard that story. It was moving for us all. To him, he was not something special; he was just doing his duty. The generation of Veteran’s who fought WW-2 is truly the “Greatest Generation”.
Those of us who are honored to own and fly these unique aircraft are only temporary custodians of these icons of our military history. We owe it to present and future generations to wisely maintain and operate these treasures as living history monuments to those veterans who turned back tyranny over fifty years ago to give us the freedoms we enjoy today. We must never forget the sacrifice of the American Soldier, Sailor, Airman, and Marine of World War Two, and subsequent wars, who never refused the call of their country to protect our way of life.