Plane shot to hell, 1,000 miles from safety, they took a huge risk to save others

Leonard Porter comes out of a back room of his apartment carrying an old newspaper story.

He’s 96, lean and fit in new sneakers. He points to a line on the yellowed page. The Kansas City Star, Feb. 19, 1945: “Typical of the youngsters softening up the Bonins is a tall blonde of 23 years who has had 28 missions.”

“That’s me,” Porter says softly.

One day during World War II, he was sitting in a tent on Saipan when the flap waved open and a reporter stuck his head inside.

It was Alvin McCoy, a Star reporter who eight years later would win a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering some political shenanigans. But on that day in the South Pacific, he was working on a story about the bombing runs on the Bonins, an island group that includes Iwo Jima.

How about that for luck — clean on the other side of the world McCoy stumbles upon a bomber pilot from back home, a guy who had sat at the soda fountain at Katz Drug.

Porter gave McCoy what he wanted. He told him about flying through heavy anti-aircraft fire, trying to find a target obscured by smoke and dropping bombs to soften up defenses before the Marines landed. The story, with the headline “Plainsmen Do A Job,” ran front page, just below the fold.

The 1945 front page story in the The Star that included Porter.

But Porter didn’t tell him everything. He left out the best part because it was more, say, personal initiative than scripted mission. He hadn’t asked permission first for fear he would be refused.

And it’s that part of the story that makes his voice break today.

Low on fuel, plane shot to hell and a thousand miles from safe landing, he’d put his B-24 and crew at extra risk to go on a rescue mission. He asked his men if it was okay with them. They were all young. Scared and brave above a churning ocean and a world at war, they told him to go.

Porter dropped the bomber out of formation and they went looking for a bunch of guys just like themselves who were in trouble.

They had little chance of finding the other bomber. The sky is a big place.

But then came a jubilant cry and, later, tears of joy from bandaged men that the war that had claimed so many would not get them.

Now, 72 years later, Porter does not care that his actions that day may not have been by the book. A widower living alone in Overland Park, he settles into a favorite chair. He figures it’s time the folks back home got the rest of that old story.

Battle hardened

Porter’s family, including three other kids, lived in the 400 block of Hardesty and he helped with his father’s moving company while attending Northeast High School. Like most kids who graduated in 1939, he knew war was brewing and he’d probably get mixed up in it.

But he wanted to go on his terms.

So after Pearl Harbor, instead of waiting to be drafted, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He wanted to be a pilot. First they sent him to school and then to training and somewhere in there, while dancing at a nightclub — he thinks it was maybe to a Tommy Dorsey record — he met Martha.

They got married. And then off to war he went.

By the time Alvin McCoy stuck his head in that tent on Saipan, his crew was battle hardened after nearly 30 missions, including during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. It was pretty much the same bunch that started out together in training. Except for the one they lost.

“He got caught having sex with a civilian through a chain-link fence,” Porter said. “I had to give him credit for that.”

Iwo Jima and the Bonins, where the Japanese had air strips and radio towers, were key to the American march to Tokyo. In McCoy’s story, he wrote that for 67 days, the American bombers pounded the islands with a constant barrage.

“Taking off from the little island (Saipan) base, the huge four-motored Liberators haven been blasting Iwo Jima, the only big Jap air strip in the Bonins,” McCoy wrote. “They have been pock-marking the field, burning planes and sinking ships within 650 miles of the Japanese homeland.”

Porter is quoted as saying the flak is pretty heavy.

“It comes up in bursts of white smoke and the phosphorous shells shoot out streamers,” he told McCoy. “Naturally it’s not any fun when they’re shooting at you. Sometimes at night they catch us in the searchlights and we have to take evasive action.”

‘They told me to go’

It was one of the early runs on Chichi Jima while taking heavy flak that Porter saw a bomber in the group get hit.

“Right in the tail section, hit hard,” he said. “It fell out of formation and dropped far beneath us, but I didn’t think it was going down. We had to keep going, but I told the crew to try to keep an eye on that plane and see where it was headed.”

Porter’s plane and the others in the group continued on mission and dropped their bombs. Then he had his idea. He decided to go find that plane — if it hadn’t crashed into the sea — and try to help it back home.

But that was something he needed to run past the crew. They had done their duty for the day. He’d be asking them to double down.

“I was risking their lives so I had to share my intentions,” he said during a recent interview. “They told me to go.”

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Porter didn’t know what the brass would say so he didn’t ask.

But he did know that finding a plane far below you, maybe three miles, against the backdrop of the ocean’s breaking waves would be next to impossible. It may have already crashed. Plus, his plane was damaged from enemy fire and he barely had enough fuel to get back to Saipan, so they couldn’t look long.

They went anyway, dropping from 20,000 to 8,000 feet, risking fire from enemy ships and making themselves easy prey for Japanese fighters. After a few minutes, Porter was getting close to ending the search and heading for home.

Then came a cry came from the back of the plane: “There he is!”

Porter saw it, limping along at 5,000 or so. Well off course.

He attempted radio contact. Nothing.

So he gave the bomber a command: “Turn right 30 degrees.”

The plane turned. It could hear but not transmit.

Porter led that plane all the way back to Saipan. He worried it would break apart when they ran into turbulence. But they made it, both running out of fuel upon landing. The co-pilot and several of the crew were dead; the navigator badly injured.

Porter watched the survivors being loaded into ambulances. The next day he went to the hospital to see those men. He first saw the captain.

“When we heard you on the radio, we knew we weren’t alone,” the captain told him.

Then Porter went into another wing and saw the rest of the crew. One had died in the night. He told them who he was.

“This fellow grabbed my hand and wouldn’t let go,” he said. “He yelled to the others that I was pilot from the day before. They all thanked me and everybody was crying. The nurse cried.”

His voice breaks.

“They said I saved their lives. And I guess we did. But I sure wasn’t expecting all that crying.”

Joe Cavanaugh, director at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, said he’s heard lots of stories about impromptu rescue missions.

“But those are usually ground forces, maybe Navy,” he said. “It’s rare to hear that about bombers because they have to stay on mission and this guy definitely was off mission.

“The other plane shot up, no navigator, they would not have gotten back. Sounds like this guy and his crew saved those lives. But that’s what soldiers from that war always say — they did it for the other guy.”

Whiskey, please

Porter thinks everyone else from that day is gone.

The last may have been his bombardier. Porter remembers the last time the two talked. Five minutes after the call ended, the man’s son called and said his father had just died.

“He sounded fine,” Porter said. “Guess he just wanted to talk one last time.”

David Porter, retired from the Kansas Highway Patrol, shrugs at the memory of his father’s rescue.

“That’s just the guy I grew up with,” he said. “That’s the way he was. He looked out for his men and if he could get them back, then that’s what he did.”

David’s wife, Rita, a retired Overland Park police officer, said she hears those stories and thinks of her own son.

“He was about the same age and that seems so young,” she said. “But they went out and did what had to be done.

“He’s my hero.”

Leonard Porter stayed in the Air Force 23 years. He later worked for an airline. He lost Martha in 2009. Pictures of her are all over the apartment. He misses her.

He has photos from the war, medals from the war, including the Distinguished Flying Cross. But no medal from that rescue. He mentioned it briefly in a book he wrote. And he did put it in a report. He never heard anything about it.

He thinks about that day now and then. Mainly along the line of what those guys on the other plane came home to. Their jobs and children and their children.

“I know that plane would have crashed into the sea,” he said. “We went and found them and got them on a heading. They came home and lived their lives.”

As for him, he has no doubt he could fly a B-24 today, even with a bum arm.

And lastly, he says about that mission — and this would have made a great last quote for McCoy’s story — that after bombing runs, the crew would celebrate with a shot of whiskey.

“We had a couple of guys who didn’t drink. After that one, I tapped the top of my glass, I said ‘Put theirs right here.’”

Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182