Brothers in Arms

Jun 5, 2009

This is the second article in a series that honors the commitment and service of our graduates during WWII, and reminds us of the debt paid to secure our nation's freedom.

Black puffs of smoke from 88 mm batteries dotted the sky ahead. Occasionally, some hit within feet of the bombers, sending metal shards that flecked fuselages and plexiglass turrets with holes. To the crew, it often sounded like a handful of stones tossed onto a sheet metal roof from above, except that these fragments could penetrate the plane’s armor and suddenly snuff out life.

William C. McRorie ‘48 and Leeland Furse ‘48 fully understood the fear involved as flyers trying to avoid the bursts of flak that often brought fighters and bombers spiraling toward earth. The two Flint natives share a friendship that dates back to their days as young schoolboys who often dreamt of flying planes. But perhaps the most indelible memories they share are those of their combat flying experiences in World War II.

The two friends graduated from Flint Central High School in 1941. After their graduation, they hopped into a 1927 Pontiac that Furse had “converted” into a sort of drivable camper and travelled to California for their “senior” trip. Following their return and the attack on Pearl Harbor, they both joined the service. Furse became a Hellcat Fighter pilot based off the USS Randolph air craft carrier and McRorie served as a B-24 co-pilot in a bomber group commanded by the actor Jimmy Stewart.

McRorie, now 87 and living in Flushing, Mich., served in the 702nd Squadron of the 445th Bombardment Group from January to April 1945.  Although he initially trained as a fighter pilot, the Army Air Corps needed bomber pilots. McRorie was not thrilled with the idea of piloting bombers. Nonetheless, he performed admirably, flying 15 combat missions with the same crew and by his own account, feels fortunate to have survived.

Comprised of B-24 Liberators, the heavy bomber group wreaked havoc on Hitler’s refineries, weapon production facilities, train lines and other important targets. The group also suffered some of the most devastating losses prior to 1945, specifically during the Kassel Mission of Sept. 27, 1944, when 26 out of 35 B-24 bombers were shot down by hundreds of German fighters and ground flak batteries. During the entire course of the war, roughly 50 percent of all B-24 bombers were lost to enemy fire, which meant service on a bomber crew was one of the more difficult positions.

By early 1945, the German fighter defense had grown thin due to losses and unavailability of petrol and materials. However, the German flak batteries, which were extremely accurate throughout the war, remained a grave concern for all bomber pilots.

“We always encountered heavy flak on every run,” McRorie explained. “Bombers would get hit and sometimes you’d watch them fall from your formation, with a few parachutes coming out. Sometimes, we wouldn’t see any chutes,” he added somberly.

On one run, McRorie’s squadron made it to the target, but due to cloud cover, the group could not identify the target, which resulted in the squadron turning back. On the way back to their field, they looked for a “target of opportunity” and the lead plan descended to 10,000 feet.

“This was ill-advised,” McRorie said, adding that at that altitude, “our heavy bombers were easy targets for flak batteries.” Nonetheless, the lead plan dropped its bomb load and as soon as they started falling, flak began hitting the formation, knocking that lead plane out of the sky.

After the lead ship was hit, McRorie’s pilot—1st Lieutenant Bill Pelto—banked their ship hard to the left in a dive to avoid another direct flak hit. This proved to be a saving grace: several bursts of flak riddled their B-24 with dozens of holes, but fortunately the crew escaped uninjured.

On another mission during a heavy flak barrage, McRorie recalled a chunk hitting the cockpit window, zipping into the space between him and Pelto, and exiting the plane near the upper gun turret. “No one was injured, but that was a very close call,” he said.

The combat action Furse encountered took place in the Pacific Theatre. His first mission with his flying fighter group was an attack on the homeland of Japan. In addition, his group also flew support missions for the Okinawa invasion and Iwo Jima, and Furse won several air medals. But his most important mission was one that earned him his first of two Distinguished Flying Cross medals.

On May 14, 1945, Ensign Furse’s Group 12 battled the Japanese Naval fleet from the Philippines to Tokyo. At one point, an American dive bomber took flak hits and crashed into the ocean in the middle of the battle with Japanese ships around. The pilot and his gunner clung to a small life raft, floating among the enemy ships less than a mile from shore.

Furse and his “skipper,” Lt. Commander Frederick H. Michaelis, made two strafing runs at an enemy tanker that headed toward the downed pilot and gunner. The craft began to smoke, turned back and before it made it to port, burst into flames.

But the danger was unsuppressed. An enemy plane carrying a bomb attempted a strafing run at the downed flyers, which Furse and his commander promptly shot out of the sky. During their protective efforts, Furse and his commander were shot at from shore batteries. Yet they wouldn’t leave their comrades.

Soon, two seaplanes with fighter escorts rescued the downed flyers. According to the Navy at the time, this was one of the most dramatic sea-air rescues ever and is believed to be the only time airmen were returned after being down so deep in enemy territory.

The official Naval report states the following in awarding Furse and his commander the Distinguish Flying Cross: “Rescuing pilots rated their gasoline supplies with hairline precision, some of them using the last of their fuel as they alighted on their carrier, more than 200 miles away.”

Following their return to the states, McRorie and Furse, both of whom married before shipping out, re-engaged their friendship and spent many days together with their families. They also completed their education at GMI and enjoyed long, productive careers at GM, from which both retired. Both have several children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, with whom they remain close.

Written by Gary J. Erwin