Thursday, January 26, 2012

My New Guinea Diary - Ernest C. Ford


A book is a package prepared by a team of people. Even something self-published is rarely prepared by just the author. Friends and family can act as proof-readers, typist or even fact-checkers. Make it an ‘officially’ published book and you start including designers, copy editors and other such clever people. The wise editor will let a great story have its head and not interfere with the story-telling process. However, this same editor will also tighten up the writing and keep it on track while ensuring the small things like spelling and grammar are consistent and accurate. With Ernest Ford’s My New Guinea Diary we have the incredible story of an American Sergeant Pilot flying C-47 transports over New Guinea’s treacherous terrain when the Japanese still held the upper hand and the Allies were scrambling to reverse their fortunes. While most certainly an attractive tale that needed to be told it is let down by, at times, a complete lack of editing.

The book opens - after the requisite foreword, acknowledgements and a useful timeline of events – on October 13, 1942 with the 20-year old author flying to New Guinea from Australia in formation with 12 other C-47s of the 6th Troop Carrier Squadron (the first USAAF transport unit to be deployed as such). This flight was the culmination of a two-week odyssey involving some epic legs across the Pacific from California and was so secret that only the squadron commander knew where they were going. The aircraft were little more than a month old and the pilots were all ‘green’ combat-wise of course. On the flying side of things Ford had just over 450 hours of flight-time prior to leaving the States - a firm grounding for the challenges that lay ahead.

Landing at Jackson Field in the Port Moresby area the crews quickly find out how tenuous their situation is. The Japanese had pushed their way across the Owen Stanley ranges to within sight of New Guinea’s biggest settlement. No quarter was asked and none was given in what was a particularly brutal campaign fought in the most unforgiving of environments. The crews are briefed shortly after arrival by an Australian Army captain who familiarises them with the tactical situation, basic survival and a comprehensive lesson on how to survive if shot down or having to escape New Guinea on foot. While an extraordinarily detailed briefing and a real eye-opener into just how little chance the men had if left to their own devices in the jungle, the briefing is delivered in the book as though the captain is talking (complete with quotation marks). It, like many ‘instructions’ given throughout the book, is treated as a direct quote which, 60-70 years after the fact, is quite implausible as are his apparent comments about aircraft handling - an Army captain telling aircrew not to hand-turn ‘hot’ propellers! Nevertheless the captain’s descriptions, as written, maintain the exceptional level of detail that is experienced throughout the book.

This level of detail is of most value when Ford describes the living conditions at Jackson and his subsequent combat flying. Beginning first with air drops over kunai grass plains, the author flies with an additional four ‘pushers’ – Australian infantry assigned to push the aircraft’s load out over the drop-zone as fast as possible on each run. Fighter escort for the early trips was a single Royal Australian Air Force Wirraway so, in effect, there was no fighter escort at a time when the Japanese held air superiority. Ford goes to great lengths to explain the challenges of flying under such conditions and several encounters with Japanese aircraft make it clear the man supplements his luck with particular flying skill (others are not so fortunate). Missions were flown in formation or singly and, as it does now, the weather in that part of the world certainly made its presence felt.

Ford was always keen to fly and even volunteered to crew on a Flying Fortress when he was rostered off normal flying duties. This passion to do his job is matched by the skill mentioned above. Not long after arriving in New Guinea, his crew (now including an Australian co-pilot) is sent to perform a solo supply drop near Kokoda airstrip. High up in the ranges, after performing the drops and with the weather closing in, the cargo door comes away from the fuselage and wraps itself around the port stabiliser. What follows is a particularly gripping account of the author’s struggle to return the floundering aircraft and crew to base (parachutes removed to supply the fighter pilots) while having to ‘adjust’ his flying – already hampered by limited control - to counter the cloud and rain showers. None of the aircraft in the squadron had a full instrument panel (no artificial horizon!) at this time and Ford’s regular aircraft, the now damaged Irene, had a cockpit that leaked when it rained. That he gets the aircraft back home safely is certainly not unique among the plethora of wartime stories but it is a clear indication that this man can fly.

With his aircraft out of action and no spares on strength, the author is sent to a ‘sugar resort’ near Mackay, Queensland for a short rest. This and other trips, operational and on leave, allow for interesting observations of 1940s Australia through the eyes of a ‘Yank’. Some are accurate while others are a bit hard to believe (I have yet to meet an Australian woman who lived during that time with wooden teeth – the majority had them according to the author).

One of the recurring ‘problems’ the author has when dealing with administration staff on the ‘home front’ is proving to them he is the pilot in command. Staff Sergeant pilots in the USAAF were unheard of to me until I read this book. The same can be said for the majority of those serving in the Army Air Force at the time as Ford regularly, and vehemently, has to prove his credentials and, consequently, makes some enemies with airfield clerks. Never is this more clear than his Christmas 1942 flight to Garbutt airfield (now Townsville airport). Battling intense weather with no radio contact and a bit of anti-aircraft fire approaching Townsville – not to mention performing an Immelman (in a C-47!) to avoid high ground above 4,000 feet – before landing and stopping on the runway due to lack of fuel, Ford has to contend with ‘acquaintances’ whose job it seems is to make life more difficult for everyone else. During these confrontations, and there are several throughout the book, the author maintains a level head and tends to (verbally) throw his weight around a little knowing he is backed-up by orders or regulations. He admittedly, at times, comes across as a bit of a ‘smart-arse’ but he is always in the right and often gets his ‘opponents’ to eat some humble pie.

With the Japanese being ground back to the northern shores of New Guinea, the 6th TCS is kept busy with many supply flights heading through the mountains to supply the advancing units on the other side. Supplying Dobodura, the author flies two missions before being called on to deliver spares and two mechanics to aid an unserviceable P-38 Lightning. Delivery complete and with the weather rapidly closing in, Ford decides to follow the north coast south-east towards Fall River before refueling and returning to Port Morseby. The weather worsens to such an extent a grassy clearing is selected to land and wait out the storm on. What follows is a stay of at least 36 hours behind enemy lines. This extended ‘adventure’ is only surpassed by the sheer seat-of-the-pants flying required to deliver supplies to Wau – a strip requiring an uphill landing in a short distance with final approach, under fire, over a river and the Japanese controlling three sides of the airfield. Take-off was downhill and often dodging new bomb craters. Ford flew to Wau on numerous occasions and in one two-day period the transport crews delivered more than two thousand soldiers.

The flying and trying life in New Guinea continues unabated with the author completing more than 220 operations before receiving a battlefield commission and the first of his six DFCs. He would go on to fly 364 combat operations before leaving New Guinea in October 1943. When the Korean War began he flew a further 21 operations in a month before enough resources were deployed to allow him to return to regular duties in Japan. An impressive flying career.

It’s certainly an interesting and fascinating story, isn’t it? The writing and editing does not make it easy on the reader though. Indeed, I haven’t had a more frustrating read in a long time. I made a note after reading page 20 – “proof-reading … pretty abysmal, regular spelling mistakes”. Sadly, for the majority of the book, this remains the norm. Place names are misspelt and, on several occasions, words are spelt phonetically suggesting the author dictated part of his story which, in turn, led to the errors due to a lack of follow-up checks.

The book opens, as already described, with the unit’s arrival in New Guinea. This entire event is repeated, unbelievably almost word for word, on page 79. Up to this point only small details had been repeated verbatim but this continues to occur throughout the book. There’s also a few obscure references early on to aspects of the unit’s history or the author’s service which are not explained until well into the read.

There are often extended sections of the book which have no transition or flow between the paragraphs. The author jumps around – “chops and changes” as I wrote in my notes – and tells a story but leaves it hanging before moving on to another anecdote that is usually more or less unrelated. This is particularly frustrating when particular people are talked about. Dates regularly come out of nowhere and, while the book is basically a collection of memories organised chronologically, there is no way to tell when the events occurred unless a date is mentioned. Obviously the majority will have happened in late 1942 through to October 1943 but the author had a distinguished post-war service career and, consequently, met a number of notable people so the occasional story from these meetings will pop up in between flights in New Guinea.

Strangely enough, the spelling, the below-par grammar, the detail and statistical repetition completely and utterly disappear when the author writes about flying. The writing changes from being clunky and disorganised to concise and accurate. The flights to Garbutt, Wau and Dobodura mentioned above – and the overnight stay in the grassy field behind enemy lines – are just some of the well-written passages detailing Ford’s flying that are dotted throughout MNGD. These harrowing accounts are the complete polar opposite, in terms of writing and structure, to the majority of the rest of the book. It’s like a switch has been thrown and is probably one of the more bizarre things I have seen in this genre. The author’s accounts of his actual flying are a joy to read and any enthusiast will marvel at his abilities.

These accounts are certainly the high points of MNGD as the rest is, while a good record of Ford’s time in New Guinea, quite disappointing. The supporting material – the photos and maps – are well-produced on the same paper as the text. The photos in particular are the survivors of Ford’s collection after many were confiscated by the censor in Hawaii as he returned home. This makes what appears in the book all the more valuable as many are of the native people in their traditional dress – a small window into a culture that had war thrust upon it. With regard to the photos, the poor editing that hamstrings the text also makes its presence felt. The first photo to appear in the main body of the book can be found on page 84 while the next photo is on page 85 and refers to a humourous incident … that is not mentioned until page 162! Several captions are also completely wrong. In particular, an aircraft named “Hell’s Angels” is referred to as “Hell’s Bells” and the caption for the photo of the author looking out the side cockpit window of a C-47 says the aircraft is a B-17 when the stencil painted on the aircraft clearly says “C-47”.

There’s a myriad of problems with this book that detract from the quality of the read. Fortunately, they don’t affect the quality of the story. Ford is a spirited and talented flyer with an appreciation for history and a realisation he played his part. This is, more than likely, the first book written by an American transport pilot who flew in New Guinea. At the very least it must be the first written by one of the ‘pioneers’ of the 6th TCS. A rare book if ever there was one and a rare book in this genre as memoirs about combat flying in transports aren’t exactly thick on the ground. Errors and indifferent editing perhaps make MNGD forgettable but Ernest C. Ford is most certainly not!

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