Jean Valjean Vandruff
Autobiography Excerpt


WW2 B24 Air Battle, Bail Out, and Rescue by USS Cobia

B24 Liberator In WW2, I was an Army Air Force 4-engine B-24 bomber pilot, 1st Lt. in the 13th Air Force, 5th Bombardment Group, 23rd Squadron. We were called the "Bomber Barons". I made 43 bombing missions in the South Pacific, was shot down twice, and picked up once by an American submarine, the USS Cobia.

It was a mission from Samar Island in the Philippine Islands to Saigon, Indochina, nearly a thousand miles across the ocean, with a stop-over on Palawan Island, above Borneo. Being a super-patriot and very adventurous, I volunteered for this mission, flying as co-pilot for Capt. Benson, our Squadron Commander.

On most bombing missions, we used at least 7 bombers, but on this one, there was our plane and only one other. As we approached Saigon and our target (an oil refinery), 9 Japanese Zero fighter planes attacked us. Each of those 9 planes was shooting at us with 2 machine guns and a 20mm cannon, and our two bombers were firing at them with sixteen 50-caliber machine guns. Being much faster than we were, they literally flew circles around us. Every enemy attack on us was from 11:00 o'clock high to 1:00 o'clock high. If they had realized it, they could easily have brought down both of our planes, because neither plane had a belly turret. Someone made a mistake, and both planes had radar turrets in place of the machine-gun turrets, so we were totally vulnerable there. A radar-plane should only be used in a large formation, where it gets belly protection from the other planes. Going up and down like a porpoise, each Zero could have fired up into our bellies, from below, until they ran out of ammunition, then turned the fun over to their compatriots. It's an amazing thing! I firmly believe the good Lord kept them from catching on. In that battle, 5 enemy fighters were shot down, and 3 of our 4 engines were shot out. In spite of everything going on around us, we were able to get our bombs on the target. As we were flying the lead-ship, the other bomber got off with little damage and returned to home base safely.

If our one remaining operative engine had been an outboard engine, rather than an inboard engine, we would not have gotten out of the city of Saigon, because the plane would have gone into a spin, and the only remedy would have been to glide - about like a rock. As it was, it took the combined effort of both pilots pushing on the left rudder, plus additional help from the automatic-pilot, to keep the plane flying in the desired direction.

A B-24 doesn't fly very far with only one engine, so we headed up the coast toward our "rendezvous-point" - this is a pre-determined location that, if we went down, we would reach that location, by any and all means, and as soon as possible; because it was the one specific spot that rescue forces would come to look for us.

Our #3 engine was hit in the middle of the propeller hub with a 20mm cannon shell, and that engine was set on fire. We were able to put out the fire rather quickly with fire extinguishers, but the splayed-open propeller hub allowed the propeller blades to rotate into low-pitch. We no longer had any control of that engine, and it spun so fast it screamed like a banshee. It was a wonder the blades weren't thrown right through the cockpit, killing us and sending the plane into the sea. That engine kept alternating from screaming speed - causing it to become red-hot - to gradually seizing-up and shaking the plane so violently we thought the engine might break loose from its mountings - but it didn't.

By throwing overboard our machine guns, ammunition and everything else that we could (to make the plane lighter and fly farther), we made it almost 100 miles up the coast to the rendezvous point and started parachuting out of the plane at about 1,500' altitude. The radar-officer's parachute didn't open and he fell to his death. Another young man, 19 years old, was wounded and couldn't swim, but he didn't hesitate a second, as he parachuted into the ocean.

I was next-to-the-last one to parachute out, and I instantly pulled the rip-cord to open my chute. Capt. Benson was the last one out, and the deserted plane - the automatic-pilot unable to control it - immediately went into a slow dive, circling back, only a couple of hundred feet below me, with what sounded to me like a death wail, and ended its circle as it crashed into the water just a few yards from Capt. Benson.

Then everything was quiet - the quietest quiet that I have ever heard. It was actually a delightful experience. Because of my light weight (130 lbs.), I floated down so softly into the ocean, I don't think I got my hair wet. I immediately inflated my little life raft and climbed into it. Every man had a one-man life raft strapped to his parachute harness. It was normally used as a seat cushion.

Each of us had parachuted out through the bomb-bay doors in the bottom of the plane, and were in a straight line, parallel to the shore; but because of the speed of the plane, we were too far apart to see each other. It wasn't long till I saw a Navy Catalina, a twin-engine amphibious airplane coming to pick us up. After rescuing three crewmen, I saw the plane leave, flying over the horizon. It was obvious that something serious must have gone wrong, or they would not have left us behind. What happened was that, on their radar, they picked up enemy aircraft coming - apparently looking for us - and they decided, rather than take the risk of losing themselves, their plane, and the men they had rescued, they should leave and come back the next day. They had no armament, so it was a hard, but logical decision. As the Catalina was barely seen on the horizon, an American submarine stuck its periscope up, looking for Japanese shipping. When the submariner on the scope saw the Catalina disappearing over the horizon, he asked the Captain if they should radio the Cat and find out what it was doing in such an unlikely place. So they called the Cat and found out that we had been left behind, and were asked if the submarine would be able to pick up the rest of us.

Since the sun was getting low, and I was about 5 miles from land, I took out my little nickel-size, light-absorbing compass and plotted my course to paddle in to the shore after it was dark. I had no idea what might await me there. Then I saw a ship in the distance heading toward me. Since I was in enemy territory, I assumed that it was some kind of shore-patrol coming out to capture us. At first, I tried to hide my raft and myself (except my eyeballs) with a blue rubber sheet covering me and the raft; but the boat kept coming toward me; so, under the sheet, I prepared my gun for immediate action. I had heard many stories of the torturous deaths of prisoners, and I had determined that I would not be taken prisoner, but would try to take out at least one of the enemy before they killed me.

How exciting it was when the ship was identified as an American submarine, with sailors on the deck waving to me. They said we were one big grin from ear to ear as we were fished from the ocean.

Herbert (Doc) Starmer climbs aboard after helping to rescue bombardier Gareth (Rocky) Clift from the ocean--Courtesy of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, see LINKS below for more. In the meantime, Capt. Benson had paddled over to the airplane wreckage. There, he found a big 5-man life raft with many provisions - even a hand-cranked radio-signal transmitter - that had automatically been ejected from the airplane and inflated itself; so he sank his one-man raft and took over the big one. When he saw the boat coming, he thought the same thing that I did, flipped the big raft upside-down and hid underneath it.

As the sailors approached the big raft, they wanted to destroy evidence of the crash and get a little target practice with their machine gun, sinking the raft; but one sailor said, "wait a minute" and dived in. He swam over to the raft, turned it over, and there was Capt. Benson. What a pleasant and fantastic surprise!

The seven of us, who were rescued, spent the next 7 wonderful days aboard the "USS Cobia" submarine as it took us to Subic Bay in the Philippines. It was a great experience, and the food was superb. We then hitch-hiked to 4 air-bases getting back to Samar Island, where we would start flying again. Throughout the entire war, I never got a scratch.

It turns out that the USS Cobia (SS 245) had a long and meritorious career in WW2. A rare survivor of the war, it has since become a symbol for submariners the world over and is dry-docked at the International Maritime Museum in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Of its many significant exploits, the record states that "Cobia... then returned to the Java Sea, where on 8 April [1945] she rescued seven men, the surviving crew of a downed Army bomber."

As a parting gift from the crew of Cobia, I was given a silly certificate that reads: "Know ye of these presents that I, Davy Jones, have on this date delivered up one (1) Zeroed Zoomie, Lt. Jean Vandruff, by name, into the custody of the Commanding Officer, U.S.S. Cobia, to dispose of as he may see fit. Signed "Davy Jones", Nan-Hai-Branch, Lat. Twelve N., 4/8/45, Received in good condition, (Albert L. Becker) C.O.----USS Cobia"

Silly Award from Cobia Submarine Crew

That's a "Zeroed Zoomie" hanging from the parachute. The mermaid on the left ended up with a rather large chin, but for pen and ink, not bad. This was done by one of the submarine crew members.

Release, Commentary, and Signatures

It reads: "U.S.S. COBIA, To All Characters:- This is to certify that Jean V. Vandruff is a bona fide life member in good standing of the Dinkum Dunkers of Indo China, having bailed out of his B-24 and been rescued wet, ragged, and ruffled by this submarine on 8 April 1945." [signatures: Jim Marion, Ernie Brown, Sid Henderson, Dan Pelton, Joe Sibley, Bill Henry, John Tufts, L.H. Davis, (unreadable), Phil Rosenwarne, Albert L. Becker]   Below is a picture of me on Cobia's deck.

Me on Deck of USS Cobia

With over 50 million square miles of water in the Pacific Ocean, the possibility that an American submarine might be at that particular spot, and stick up it's periscope at just the right time, is nothing short of a miracle. I have no fear of death, because God has always saved me, and I know I'm always safe in His hands!

"Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice...The peace of God that passes all understanding shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:4&7)

B-24 Liberator

J.V. Vandruff's Full Autobiography

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Jean Vandruff
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