Menu MSSU

Project WWII: Voices of the Greatest Generation

Pilot flies missions in Southwest Pacific

by Dylan Welker

Chief Leaford Bearskin
Chief Leaford Bearskin served as a pilot
in World War II first in the Pacific Theatre,
then in the Berlin Airlift.

Leaford Bearskin, Chief of the Wyandotte Nation in Oklahoma, served as a pilot in the Pacific theater. He remained in the service and participated in the Berlin Airlift, trained pilots for the Korean War and remained in the Air Force until he returned to his boyhood home in 1982.

He received his training in 1939 in southern California. His training took place prior to the United States entering the war. His training illustrates the lack of preparedness for the impending war.

"Some of us trained with brooms," Bearskin said. "We used them as weapons; we did not have weapons to train with in those days. Throughout eight weeks of basic training we lived in tents."

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Bearskin went to flight school. His dream was to be a fighter pilot, which in those days meant flying the P-38.

"I wanted to fly one of those fighter planes so bad I could taste it." Bearskin said.

He was not assigned to the P-38 fighter plane, but trained to fly the big bombers instead. After his training in Arizona, Bearskin was sent to Topeka where he waited for his assignment.

"In the later part of 1943, I got my orders to go the Southwest Pacific," he said. "We arrived in New Guinea in May of 1943. The first mission that I went on was a recon mission, the Japanese had huge base up above New Guinea. Their largest base was there. They had fighters and bombers that flew out of there. My job was to load the bombs off. The first target would be any Japanese ship that we saw. The weather was bad that day and we flew low altitude almost the whole recon clip. We were out in the air eleven hours that day. We got back and our secondary target was a base on the north part of the island. They had a lot of field artillery there. We bombed it."

New Guinea was split by the allied forces and the Japanese — the allies on the east and the Japanese on the west. Bearskin flew all of his missions off the east coast.

"I went through 46 missions, with my crew," he said. "There are ten men on the crew. We went through all missions without a scratch. They made us flight leaders and later squadron leaders."

As the pilot of the lead plane of a squadron, Bearskin was very humble to say that luck carried these men to safety. He never once took any credit or claimed that he saved those men's lives.

"We were so lucky on our missions," Bearskin said. "When we would go on a mission we had a photographer. Whenever we dropped our bombs the photographer would take pictures of the ground where the bombs hit. They would come back and develop those pictures. That is how we assessed our damage that we did to the Japanese. We would see where the bombs went and whether they were on target. Every time we went on a mission the photographers would flip a coin to see who got to ride with us."

The planes in the air over the Pacific faced several dangers. One of these dangers was the Japanese fighter pilots in the air; another was the fire coming from below. Most of the missions were flown at more than 20,000 feet. Shells fired by the Japanese from below would often bring down the allied bomber planes flying over head. One of these shells passed right through Bearskin's plane.

"We dropped our bombs. The bombardier reported bombs away. I ordered him to close the bomb bay doors," Bearskin said.

It took 11 seconds for the bomb-bay doors to close and before the doors on this occasion a surprise came in through the doors.

"Right after the last bomb dropped and before the doors closed a shell went through our bomb-bay and out the top of the air plane," he said. "If it (the shell) had hit that last bomb that went out, it would have blown our whole plane up. This zero came from way behind us and he came down on us. He shot that dome from around my gunners head."

Once again, the nose gunner did not have any injuries."

One could say it is amazing to look at how small an area these veterans, the nose gunners, were in and that the dome around them could be shot away and the man inside could survive without any injuries. Maybe some luck was involved on those missions.

When the unit was not in the air, the men would go hunting around the base. On one afternoon Bearskin and two other service men went for a walk into the jungle. They followed a trail and came across a big valley.

"We met four native people there," Bearskin said. "One of them could speak a little bit of Pidgin English. We had some carbine rifles. They had a village up at the top of the valley. We let them shoot our carbines a couple of times and they took us up to their huts."

The village was very small and the huts set on poles that were about ten feet high.

They were simple huts.

"When walked up to the village all the women and children ran off into the jungle and hid," he said. "When they found out that we were not going to harm them they came back in. The women wore grass skirts and the men wore little shorts, and that is all they had. This one lady wanted this ring that my wife had given me. I finally got it across to the one who could speak Pidgin English that it was from my wife and they never asked for it again."

Bearskin spoke fondly of his experience in the jungle that day. He was pleased to have met with a culture so different from his own.

"It was wonderful experience to go up and talk with those people," Bearskin said.

Today, Bearskin remains active returning to annual reunions with his unit and fulfilling his duties as Chief of the Wyandotte Nation.

©