September 30, 2014

Air Corps vet recounts time in World War II

Kevin Bunch
Ed Moll, 88, left his family farm in Melita to serve in the Pacific theater during World War II.
Courtesy of Ed Moll
Ed Moll’s B-24 flies alongside another plane that, moments later, crashed into the water.
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ARENAC COUNTY — Growing up in Melita, Ed Moll knew he did not want to stay on the family farm. When the U.S. government came with a draft notice for him in 1943, he decided to take it as an opportunity to get off the farm and join the service.

Little did he know at the time what he was in store for.

Ed found himself at Fort Custer in Michigan, standing naked in a line with a group of other draftees being counted off to be sent into the Marines, the Navy, the infantry, and the U.S. Army Air Corps, the precursor to the Air Force. Ed said he originally had been counted off for naval duties, but swapped places with the guy next to him who did not want to be with the air forces.

From there Ed went through basic training in Lincoln, Neb. before going to Denver for armament training — the photography class he had been sent to originally was full — and then found himself in Pensacola, Fla. for gunnery training.

“The base was so full they didn’t have a place for us, so we were there for two weeks in a tent at the end of the runway. So every time a plane took off, it would knock down our stovetop,” Ed said.

Due to the lack of space, he found himself sent to Fort Meyer in Florida for training before finishing out in Charlotte, N.C., in a B-17 over Myrtle Beach. He said his plane’s crew needed to be able to shoot a hole through a targeting sleeve to qualify, but things did not go quite as expected. He ended up shooting the cable it was attached to and knocked the sleeve clean off, requiring his crew to take the test all over again.

His training complete, he ended up in New Guinea in September of 1944, stationed on the island of Biak for a time.

“It’s the nearest land to the Equator, and there was not one leaf of vegetation,” Ed said. “It’s all white coral rock. You had to wear sunglasses all day. It would get up to 130 degrees in the day and 110 at night.”

He did not stay at Biak long before being shipped out to the Netherlands East Indies to participate in the retaking of the Philippines. He said U.S. bombers were softening up the Japanese defenses on the island of Leyte so American ships and aircraft could move in and land, and eventually his squadron moved northward to Leyte itself.

“We landed on the island of Leyte right in monsoon season, as it started,” Ed said. “We were there one night, and the water was already almost up to the rims of the airplanes.”

The pilots ended up taking their planes to another recently captured island, but due to weight concerns the rest of the crew needed to travel aboard a ship to rejoin them. Ed said while aboard, the ship’s captain asked him if he would man one of the spare gunnery stations.

“The captain of the ship pointed at me and said ‘I need a gunner, and I heard you’re an expert. We have some .50 (calibers) and need someone to attend to them,’” he said. “I said I had nothing against .50s, but wanted to try something else. I wanted to try the 40-millimeter gun on the ship’s tail.”

About two hours out of Leyte, Ed spotted something, and the gunner’s mate accompanying him confirmed that it looked like a Japanese kamikaze. While the mate kept insisting that Ed to start shooting, he waited until the plane was within 500 yards of the ship before firing, and the third shell “blew him sky high.”

During his time at that base he was caught in the middle of a plane crash after takeoff, surviving only because he had disobeyed regulations and ridden in the turret on the top of the plane to watch them get into the air. He said if he had taken his proper station, he would have been “ground into hamburger” before the plane had managed to stop.

He finally found himself on the island of Mindoro, which was his crew’s base for three months during the campaign. His first night there, the base was hit with a white phosphorus bomb, burning bright and capable of burning through iron, but he survived it.

Ed said the day before Christmas, his base received word that the Japanese navy had been spotted in Manila Bay, so 16 planes went out there to attack. The terrain was unfavorable, however, forcing the planes to come in low between two mountains — a situation he likened to shooting fish in a barrel. The leading planes were supposed to drop their bombs farther up the line, but for whatever reason the plane ahead of them dropped their bomb early.

The bomb hit a ship, and the shrapnel flew up and over Ed’s plane, shearing off part of their tail, injuring their pilot with a hot rivet in the shoulder, and obliterating at least one plane behind them. Ultimately, he said only four planes got out of that attack, and two of those ended up being ditched in the ocean. His own plane had suffered flat tires, and ended up scraping down the landing strip on its belly.

On Christmas Day, his commanders asked for volunteers to get gas drums off of a ship down on the beach, and without anything else to do, Ed volunteered. He said they pushed these drums off the ship into the ocean, where they were pushed to shore for tractors to tug them away. A kamikaze came out and slammed into the ship, and Ed attributes his survival that day to his time back on the farm.

“I saw him right before he got there, and we dove into the water, where it was 40 feet deep and so clear you could see a pebble on the floor,” he said. “The only thing that really saved my life is when we played ‘king of the rock’ in the Rifle River, and we tried to see how long we could hold our breath.”

For much of the rest of his time in the Philippines, he helped strafe Japanese troops on the ground to support the U.S. infantry, succeeding in 49 of his missions. In early 1945, his squadron moved to Clark Field on Luzon, participating in a mission where 172 planes obliterated the Japanese air force, and on other missions his crew dropped fragmentation bombs and napalm bombs in areas where Japanese troops may have been hiding.

“One time we were flying low, and saw four Japanese (soldiers) running for a thatch hut (which was full of ammunition),” he said. “I thought ‘Here’s my chance’ and fired guns at the hut and sent them tumbling, but in my excitement I forgot to take my fingers off the triggers to let (the guns) cool and they ended up melting. We were chased by Japanese planes on way back, but they were afraid to get in gun range — they didn’t know mine were done!”

In June of 1945, Ed’s pilot and other gunner were both injured and were sent home, while he put in for a transfer to a new flight crew. He ended up on a ship to Okinawa, and after a rocky ride through a typhoon, arrived at his new base and flew eight missions out of there.

He said on one mission, 13 days before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, two engines were shot out on his B-24, and due to his seniority, the pilot asked him if they should bring the plane down in the ocean or on a nearby Japanese-controlled island.

“I told him that from my experience, we would have a chance to survive if we landed on the runway, but if we land in the ocean they’ll pick us off one at a time when we try to come ashore,” Ed said. “Few guys survive an ocean landing on a regular plane, so we went for the island.”

Sheer luck brought Ed and his crew through there — after they landed, a jeep drove up with the Japanese commander waving a white flag. As it turned out, the commander had dual-citizenship with the U.S., and had been in Japan taking care of his sick father when the war broke out. The commander was from Wheeling, W.V., and worked with the college there. What’s more, one of the other gunners knew him through his father, and used to visit his home regularly.

“They took good care of us,” Ed said. “He ordered his troops not to touch us. That was something that was never supposed to be known, as it would have put his life in danger as he did something he wasn’t supposed to. He was supposed to kill us.”

Ed’s second-to-last mission took place shortly after the Hiroshima bombing. 11 hours after the bombing, he flew on a plane on a mission to get photographs of the bomb blast and the aftermath.

“We were at 30,000 feet and saw nothing but fire and debris,” Ed said. “I had to call back to Okinawa and break radio silence because we couldn’t see anything, and the debris was so heavy it was clogging up our engines.”

“It made us cry when we saw that,” he added. “Thousands and thousands of people got killed down there. Americans have soft spots.”

Even though the B-24 was only rated at a maximum altitude of 30,000 feet, his commanders ordered them to go up another 2,000 feet. It kept the plane clear of debris, but he said that since their heat suits were rated for -50 degrees and it was now -64, they were pretty cold.

His favorite mission was his last one, however. He flew on one of the planes that went overhead of the USS Missouri for the peace treaty signing, and was charged with taking photographs of the occasion.

“We could look right down and see their fingernails, it was so clear, and that was my best mission of all,” he said. “That was my last one, and I’m 20 years old — I saw stuff most people would never see in their lifetime.”

Ed was discharged at the rank of staff sergeant in December of 1945, returning to Melita to take over the family farm after suffering a bout of malaria and jungle rot. He married his wife, Marcella, in 1947 and started dairy farming. He added a milk route the year after that down into Pinconning, before selling out when a good opportunity presented itself.

His wife worked for Forward Energy, and through her he was offered the opportunity to run a gas station in Au Gres, which he did for three years. At that point, his wife told him she needed his help to raise their kids, and his gas station job was sucking up 12-16 hours of his days.

Fortunately for him, he had been helping out with some of the people who worked at the Grey Iron Casting foundry in Saginaw who had cabins around Au Gres, and they were able to set him up with a job as a mechanic there. He moved down to Saginaw Township to be closer to his wife’s family, and worked there for 25 years before retiring.

Now 88, and on his 32nd year of retirement, Ed said he is still able to do all the things he loves, and his health has held out over the years — he said he has never broken a bone, suffered a heart attack, or had problems with his blood sugar.

“I can still drive, and do all the things I want to do,” he said. “I guess maybe that radiation did me good.”

He has never returned to the western side of the Pacific Ocean, only going as far as Hawaii, but he has taken trips throughout the country and the world. He said he has visited places like Portugal, Spain, the Bahamas, and a variety of domestic locations. One place he still plans on visiting is Alaska, and with a niece and nephew living there, he said he may take a trip next year.

“Just imagine if I had stayed on the farm,” he joked.

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