Bill Paulis of Chapin never heard the shot that knocked out the left engine of the two-engine B-25 bomber he was riding in over the South China Sea. He just got a warning from his pilot: “We’re hit. Dump everything.”
Paulis was a radio operator on the bomber and had flown more than 20 missions strafing — or machine-gunning — and bombing Japanese shipping, airfields and troop transports. He and his crew had just bombed a convoy about 20 miles off the coast of China when they were hit.
Along with the rest of the crew, Paulis said he began throwing out everything he could, even guns and ammunition, to lighten the crippled plane as it limped along at only 900 feet above waves, trying desperately to make the five-hour, 1,000-mile trek back to its base in Luzon in the Philippines.
“The plane got us home,” Paulis said. “I didn’t even think about (crashing). I figured if it was my time to go, it was my time to go.”
Paulis, 88, is one of 18 members of the 345th Bomb Group who have gathered in Columbia this weekend for their annual reunion, which runs through Monday. The reunion — which has been in a variety of places through the years — is special this year because the group formed at the old Columbia Air Base 70 years ago.
The group was to be greeted by Gov. Nikki Haley, fly in a vintage B-25 over Williams-Brice Stadium during the South Carolina-Arkansas football game and attend a reception at South Caroliniana Library, among other events. Today at 10 a.m., a monument in their honor will be unveiled at Columbia Metropolitan Airport, site of the old air base.
The Columbia reunion was organized by Mary Sloan Roby, of Baltimore, whose father, Eugene B. Sloan, was a veteran of the group and longtime editor of The State Magazine in Columbia before his death in 1969.
She said the reunion is not just an opportunity for the veterans and their families to get together and reminisce, but also a way to inform younger generations about the sacrifices of World War II veterans, especially those in the Pacific.
“People tend to think that most of the war happened in Europe; the Pacific doesn’t receive as much attention,” Roby said. “These men flew an amazing airplane in incredibly dangerous circumstances. It’s a big part of history and it’s starting to gain its place in history.”
‘I WANTED TO BE A PILOT’
Paulis is a native of Washington state and was raised in the shadow of Mount Ranier south of Seattle.
In early 1944 when he was 18, Paulis enlisted in the Army Air Corps, rather than wait to be drafted, so he could choose his branch of service. “I wanted to be a pilot,” he said.
After basic and advanced training, Paulis wasn’t chosen to be a pilot; but, he was offered a job as an engineer, waist gunner or radio operator on the B-25 — a small bomber made famous when Col. Jimmy Doolittle and his men flew 16 of the planes off an aircraft and bombed Tokyo shortly after Pearl Harbor.
“I chose radio operator,” he said.
Paulis was sent to Columbia, one of the main training bases for B-25 crews and the place where Doolittle’s men volunteered for their historic raid.
Columbia was then, more than any other time in its history, a true military town, Paulis said.
“You couldn’t walk in Columbia and see from one block to the next,” he said. “It was all soldiers and sailors and Marines.”
Paulis asked for service “with any pilot from the state of Washington.” He was granted his wish and assigned to the crew of Lt. Clifford Sisson.
They practiced bombing at Lake Murray, with the crews often showing off and taking chances just to have fun. He said Sisson once flew their plane under the Gervais Street bridge.
“We lost more planes in training than in combat,” Paulis said.
In Columbia, Paulis met his future wife, Ann Lee, on a blind date and later got engaged with a $150 ring from Friedman’s Jewelers.
“I asked her to wait for me,” he said.
‘A SMART WAR’
Paulis’ crew was sent to the Pacific in mid-1944, flying from Columbia to California to Hawaii to New Guinea. There, on the island nation off the north coast of Australia, they began their main jobs of bombing and strafing Japanese shipping, airfields and troops.
“We fought a smart war by cutting off their supplies,” Paulis said.
The planes would fly low over the water or land to make their machine guns or bombs more accurate.
“The called us tree-top planes,” he said. “We would fly so low we would get palm leaves in our cowls (engine air intake covers).”
He remembers one time firing a machine gun out of the rear of the speeding plane and realizing he had just strafed a Red Cross hospital tent.
“I felt terrible,” he said. “But one of the officers said, ‘You’re lucky it didn’t explode. That’s where the Japanese hide their ammunition.’”
While bomber crews in Europe flew a set number of missions, then were eligible to go home, crews in the Pacific signed up for the remainder of the war.
“These guys were attacking shipping or flying ground support loaded up with ammunition,” said Fritz Hamer, a curator at South Caroliniana Library. “They were working in 100-degree heat and humidity. So it was tough. But when you were attacked by the Japanese, it made it even worse.”
‘A CHANCE TO LEARN’
Then there was that terrible day in 1945.
Paulis had been sent to Australia for a little rest and relaxation after his 36th mission. The 345th Bomb Group had by then moved forward to the Philippines to bomb Japanese supply lines between Japan and China.
When he returned to his base after “R&R” he was told that Sisson and the rest of his crew had flown on a mission while he was gone and had never returned. Paulis said he was devastated and wracked with guilt.
He stopped writing Ann Lee. He stopped talking. He became withdrawn. “I was in depression,” Paulis said. Eventually, Ann Lee, having not heard from Paulis for months, mailed back the engagement ring.
Paulis went on to fly with another crew, eventually completing a total of 54 missions. He went back to his hometown of Etonville, Wash.
“I didn’t want to talk to my friends,” he said. “I didn’t want to see anyone.”
Then, one day, he waded into a lake, intent on taking his own life. But something clicked and standing in the lake, he changed his mind.
It was a turning point and the beginning of his healing. “After that, I felt better,” he said.
Paulis would reunite with Ann Lee and move to Columbia.
He last attended a reunion in 2000 in Charleston, when the attendees numbered in the hundreds. Paulis said last week he’s looking forward to meeting the other members of the group, who he hasn’t met before.
For organizers, it is one of the last opportunities to capture the veterans’ stories before they, like their comrades before them, pass on.
“We’re moving from a veterans group to an educational group,” organizer Roby said. “For me, this is a chance to learn a whole lot more about World War II and especially the Pacific.”