Wednesday, October 8, 2014

How Major Jack Cram, USMC, earned the nickname "Mad Jack" and won the Navy Cross

October 15, 1942.  It was literally the darkest day the Marines faced while on Guadalcanal.  The night before, two Japanese battleships swanned into Iron Bottom Sound and blissfully fired more than 800 massive 14-inch naval shells into the Marines' perimeter, killing 42 hunkered-down Marines and nearly wiping out the Cactus Air Force.  Barely a handful of planes were left, and ground crewmen were forced to siphon gas from the tanks of shattered aircraft to fuel the remainder.  And they were needed.

Just 10 miles away - within sight of the Marine front lines - a Japanese transport fleet was unloading men, weapons, bullets and shells, food - even tanks.  Only Naval and Marine airpower could stop them, but there were precious few planes left - and both bomb dumps and fuel dumps were burning following the shelling.

Safely in a rear area, the "chauffeur" - Major Jack Cram, the command pilot of a VIP version of a PYB-5A (the Blue Goose - personal aircraft of Cactus Air Force CO, Marine General Roy Geiger) decided to do something.  His plane was hardly combat-capable, but he realized it could carry two torpedoes in place of under-wing fuel tanks or depth charges.  Assuming some Navy TBF Avengers were still flyable, Major Cram loaded up two torpedoes as "cargo" (along with other vital cargo inside the plane) and flew from the safety of the rear echelon to battered Henderson Field.  He probably planned to drop off these supplies, load up with critically-wounded men and return them to New Caledonia's Noumea, where a hospital awaited them.

But when he arrived at "Cactus" with the torpedoes, Cram discovered that the Navy's surviving TBFs were still not flyable.  Remembering that a PBY had once dropped a torpedo at night during the battle of Midway a few months earlier, Cram ordered the ground-crewmen to adapt the under-wing pylons into torpedo bomb racks, able to do more than just carry torpedoes - he wanted to be able to drop them on enemy targets.

By "the book," that rushed conversion was impossible, but "the book" at Guadalcanal had already been used for cigarette papers or toilet paper, so the Navy and Marine ground crewmen began adapting the pylons to drop live torpedoes.  They had to run wires from the mocked-up bomb racks, through the cockpit's side windows and into the reach of the pilot.

While they did that, Major Cram found a Marine whose brother was a torpedo bomber pilot - and based on that brother's five-minute recollection of what he'd been told about a live torpedo drop, Cram figured out how to execute a torpedo attack against a critical target.  Then, with no torpedo drop-site in his cockpit, and with an all-volunteer crew that did not include a co-pilot, Major Cram took off and began circling, climbing to 5,000 feet - ignored (so far) by the 30 Mitsubishi Zero fighters orbiting the transports at 15,000 feet.  There, he pushed the nose down and began using his PBY amphibian flying boat like a dive-bomber.

Quickly exceeding the plane's red-line not-to-exceed speed of 240 knots, Cram pushed the Blue Goose beyond its limits as it's all-volunteer crew watched in horror as the plane's massive wings flapped, popping rivets and screaming like a banshee while the slipstream howled around them and Japanese AA fire exploded entirely too close to them.  Leveling off, Cram flew barely above the water, shedding speed to reach the torpedoes' not-to-exceed 200 knots. Then, one after another, he dropped the two torpedoes - and amazingly, at least one (and perhaps both) struck their intended targets, sinking one of the six supply-laden transports in the shallow harbor.

Having done the impossible, Cram turned the lumbering flying boat around and headed back home to "Cactus," just ten miles away - but to get there, he had to run the gauntlet of 5 very pissed-off Japanese Zero fighters which chased him all the way back to Henderson Field. The last Zero followed Cram into the landing pattern at Henderson - so intent on exacting revenge that he didn't see a landing F4F Wildcat (with gear down, too) swing in from behind and blast that Japanese fighter out of the sky, right over the airfield. The volunteer gunners fought back, and while the plane survived, it came home with 160 bullet holes, cannon shell holes and shrapnel-torn aluminum holes.

When he landed, Cram was met by General Geiger, who chewed him out in mock outrage for "getting his private VIP transport shot up" - before congratulating Cram and writing him up for a Navy Cross.  The grateful Marines quickly labeled this new hero "Mad Jack," and the name stuck.

Cram later went on to command an experimental Marine night-bomber squadron, and ultimately retired in 1959 as a General officer - still known as Mad Jack.

For my money, he should have gotten a Medal of Honor for that hair-raising mission, but he didn't do it for "credit." He did it because he was a Marine, and even chauffeurs in the Marines are hairy-chested warriors.  The attached painting shows the Blue Goose dropping the first of two torpeckers - and there is a lot of information on the web about the markings of the Blue Goose ... another example of "history you can model."