Harold H McDowell: B-25J Betty's Dream Radio Operator/Tail Gunner

The Texas Flying Legends Museum’s B-25J Betty’s Dream, painted in honor of the original Betty’s Dream that flew with the 499th Bomb Squadron of the 345th Bomb Group in the Pacific during WWII, has had many distinguished visitors sit down under her wings and tell their stories. From pilots, to gunners, to navigators, crew chiefs, armorers and admirers the stories have poured in. The love of the plane was been felt by all that witness her. This past April at the 75th Anniversary of the Doolittle Reunion, we were honored to have the families of three B-25 veterans come out and share their fathers and grandfathers stories. John and Patti McDowell, donated their fathers collection of war time photographs and memorabilia so that it could stay with the plane that their father flew in. These are some of those photos and stories of Harold H McDowell, known as Mac, Radio Operator/Tail Gunner of the original B-25J Betty’s Dream.

Harold H McDowell was born July 20th 1924 in Saunemin, IL. Saunemin is a small town outside of Pontiac. After graduating High School, Harold went on to a Radio and Electronic Institute in Chicago, IL where he got his degree. Upon graduating he was drafted. Not wanting to end up in the infantry he enlisted in the Air Force. Once the USAAF found out he had a degree in radio electronics they made him a radio operator. Harold’s military career started on April 9th, 1943 as a Tech Sergeant. He was assigned to Scott Field, IL from July 1943 until February 1944. At Scott Field he learned how to be a Radio Operator, Gunner and Mechanic. From February 1944 until May 1944, Harold was stationed at Yuma Army Air Field Flexible Gunnery School in Yuma, AZ where he learned how to be an effective radio operator as well as a gunner.

One story that his daughter Patti remembers Harold telling them was during gunnery training. They would load each student into the back of a pickup truck and give them a .45 Caliber pistol. The instructor when then tell them to shoot the target as they drove the truck around in a circle. Harold graduated Gunnery School with his medal.

Harold was transferred from Yuma Army Air Field to Greenville Replacement Training Center at Greenville, SC. Greenville was a medium bomber training facility specializing in the B-25 Mitchell Bomber.  Here Harold would continue his training in radio operations and gunnery from July 1944 until October 1944. After completion at Greenville, Harold was assigned to a B-25-J, part of the 499th Bomber Squadron of the 345th Bomber Group. According to John, the crew for that plane was the same that Harold had trained with since basic with the exception of one crewman. Harold would go on to serve from April 1945 until November 1945 in the Pacific Theater.

The 345th Bomb Group was activated in November 1942 at Columbia Army Air Base, SC. Training began in December that year. Crews trained for five months at Columbia before transferring to Walterboro, SC and then overseas. It was at Walterboro that the four squadrons that made up the 345th gave each other their colorful nicknames; 498th – the Falcons, 499th – Bats Outa Hell, 500th – Rough Raiders, and the 501st – the Black Panthers.

In April 1943 the 345th flew to Australia and then on to their new base at Port Moresby, New Guinea where they would become the first full Air Force combat group sent to the Pacific Theater. In August 1943 the conversion began from the medium altitude bomber to a low level straffer. This conversion required the removal of the ball turret, the green house nose and the three forward firing machine guns. In their place was a new belly gas tank, four forward firing .50 calibre machine guns, along with two side mounted .50 caliber guns. Later models, like Betty’s Dream, would have eight forward firing guns in the nose alone. These later models with the eight up front, two on either side of the nose and two in the upper turret brought the total to 14 .50’s for straffing missions.

 

 

The 345th was in combat for 26 months and in that time they racked up 58,562 combat hours during 10,609 strikes. The group was credited with 260 sunk enemy vessels and 275 more damaged. 260 enemy planes destroyed on the ground and 107 in aerial combat. Its units won four distinguished unit citations. The 345th participated in nine major Asia-Pacific Theater Campaigns: New Guinea, Bismarck Archipelago, Northern Solomons, Southern Philippines, Luzon, Western Pacific, China Defensive, China Offensive, and Air Offensive against Japan. One of the last great honors for the 345th Air Apache’s was the escorting of the peace envoys to Ie Shima in August 1945.

Harold McDowell began his military life with the 345th doing practice runs during the New Guinea Campaign and the Bismarck Archipelago Campaign, specifically against Wewak and Rabaul. He was later awarded battle participation for those campaigns. He would be stationed primarily at New Guinea, the Philippines, and Ie Shima Air Field, Okinawa (also known as Iejima). His crew would consist of Captain Charles E. Rice, Copilot Lt W.F. Hardke, Lt W.C. Hilton, Engineer T/Sgt R.F. Rinehardt, and S/Sgt W.W. Ostlund.

Pilot Charles E. “Pop” Rice

Copilot Lt W.F. Hardke

Engineer T/Sgt R.F. Eugene Rinehardt

Harold loved his camera and took it with him often. These are some of his photos from Manila, Manua and New Guinea.

In many of Harold’s photos he is seen without his shirt on. When John was asked about it he said, “Dad always said that’s how it was. It was so damn hot you wouldn’t wear clothes.” One time that forced Harold into an uncomfortable situation when he was called to the CO’s office. He ran down without his shirt on only to find out that he was getting his air medal. His CO said he had to pin it on him so he did. Harold said, “it hurt like hell.”

Another interesting moment was taken with Harold leaning up against the memorial erected for Pulitzer Prize winning American Journalist Ernest Pyle who died on Iejima April 18th, 1945. The memorial was built on the spot of his death by the Army unit he was covering at the time.

Harold photographed just about everything that went on during Army life. From relaxing at base with his buddies, to the daily chores, R and R trips to neighboring islands and towns, he even took pictures out the sides of his B-25 during a mission. Several of his shots that survived today are aerial shots. Harold had a system for developing his film. With true war like scrounging, he would trade his film to the Seabees to develop, when they came ashore to photograph the planes, in exchange for cigarettes.

John stated that his Dad, during his 20th and 21st year of age, was still scared every time he went up in that plane. “They all were. Doing low level straffing wasn’t safe. There’s always people shooting at you. There’s was always something, a pot shot, a fishing boat, a bottle hitting the plane. One time they came in, and the nose gear wasn’t down all the way. All the crew went to the back of the plane to drag the tail on landing. One time a parachute bomb got hung up on the tail of the plane while coming in to land. On a low level pass they were skip bombing along the water and one bomb came back up and hit the plane. First thing the ground crew did when they landed was clean the branches out of the engines. It was a dangerous job.”

“They never used chutes very much. They would set the radio altimeter at zero. With landing gear down, when flying across open seas with landing gear up, they would be at zero altitude. You would sit there and look out and see the prop wash.”

Despite the perils of the job there were still the moments where they acted like kids. One story John and Patti told us summed it up pretty well. “He said that Rice loved to buzz fishing boats. One day they heard a thump, he said what was that, I don’t know. When they came in to land all the ground crew huddled around and there was a four-foot section of mast sticking through the wing. They didn’t realize that the sailing boat had a mast on it. Thankfully they had self sealing gas tanks.”

In August of 1945 the 345th Bomb Group flew one of their most honored missions. John recalls his Dad saying, “Squadron leaders from each of the four squadrons, the 498th, 499th, 500th and 501st were told to fly to this point and wait there. They weren’t told why. After a short while two Betty Bombers painted white with a green cross on their sides came into view. We escorted them to Iejima. The Betty’s carried with them representatives of Japan to begin the peace talks.” While Japan had surrendered in August 1945 it wasn’t official until the signing on September 2nd 1945.

The 345th Bomb Group was deactivated December 29th 1945 at Camp Stoneman, CA. Harold H McDowell left his military career behind after his return to the states in November 1945. We greatly Thank him for his service and all his family for keeping his spirit alive through his photos and his stories.

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