Veterans Day Observance

Raiders in the night

For U.S. Army Air Corps pilot Harlan Price, the waving wheat fields of Kansas were a long way from the South Pacific in 1944 and the elite radar-equipped B-24 that he and his crewmates flew during World War II

Last Modified:
11:57 p.m. 11/9/2002

By Steve Fry
The Capital-Journal


  World War II pilot Harlan Price was a B-24 crew member of the 'Sunsetter" that used top secret radar to sink Japanese ships.
Chris Landsberger/The Capital-Journal

Harlan Price had flown only 15 minutes as a passenger in a biplane before he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, flying lone-wolf missions at night in a heavy bomber to sink Japanese warships during World War II.

By the time he flew 37 missions, Price and the crew of the Sunsetter had sunk four Japanese ships and had contributed to sinking six others. Price and the Sunsetter crew were flying special missions, using "super-secret stuff called radar," a state-of-the-art technology at the time, to spot and sink ships at night.

"It worked like a charm," Price said of the radar.

The Topeka man recently recounted his WWII service in advance of Monday's Veterans Day holiday.

First Lt. Harlan Price was a co-pilot and pilot in the 868th Squadron, a special "search-and-attack squadron" attached to the 13th Air Force in the South Pacific Ocean.

Rather than flying with scores or hundreds of other bombers, the B-24s in Price's squadron flew solo missions and were known as the "snoopers." His B-24, named the Sunsetter to symbolize setting Japan's "rising sun," sported a flat-black paint scheme, had flame dampeners and flew without lights, all to cut the bomber's visibility to the enemy. The Sunsetter was equipped with radar-controlled sighting equipment so the crew could zero in on Japanese targets. In war-time photographs of Price with his B-24 Liberator behind him, blocks of white hide radar antenna mounted on the Sunsetter.

Before the war, Price had lived in Topeka since he was 12 years old and had graduated from Topeka High School.


  Price has put together a scrapbook of items he has saved from the time he served as a B-24 pilot in the Pacific during World War II.
Chris Landsberger/The Capital-Journal

On Dec. 7, 1941, Price was visiting his girlfriend in Wamego, where they were listening to radio music when they heard the news that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Price was 19 when he enlisted in March 1942.

Price joined the U.S. Army Air Corps rather than the U.S. Navy, in part, because "I can't swim," which is ironic for a pilot who would fly hundreds of combat hours over the Pacific Ocean. While flying over the ocean once, he realized he was at least 500 miles from land, looked at the water and thought to himself: "You can't swim. But just exactly how much difference does that make?"

"I never worried about it after that -- never gave it a thought," he said.

Primarily, Price enlisted in the Air Corps because he had always wanted to fly.

"I was always confident (I would be a pilot) because I had super coordination, super eyesight. I knew I had the desire," he said. Price was sworn in in August 1942 and called to active duty in February 1943. Price underwent training at San Antonio, Pine Bluff, Ark., Coffeyville, Altus, Okla., Mountain Home, Idaho, where he first piloted a B-24, and Tonapah, Nev., where he learned high-altitude flying.

When he graduated from pilot training, the Army wanted to know whether he wanted to be an instructor, fly cargo planes or go into combat.

"I despised what the Japanese had done," Price said. "I had hoped I could get involved against the Japanese. I put down combat."

During training, Price got word that FBI agents were checking his background and he wondered why. He found out when he passed muster to enter the search-and-attack program. About 10 days later, he and his crew were pulled from training and shipped to Langley Field in Hampton, Va.

The search-and-attack squadrons were formed following experiments during the battles at Guadalcanal Island, the first South Pacific island recaptured by American troops. During the long battle, nighttime shuttles of Japanese ships brought in troops to reinforce and resupply Japanese forces already on the island.

As an experiment, radar was added to some American warplanes already at Guadalcanal. It worked, and search-and-attack squadrons were organized, including Price's.

For a little more than a month starting in February 1944, Price learned to bomb targets using radar, flying 300 to 1,000 feet over the ocean. Security was so tight that Price didn't even tell Lucille, his wife of a few months, about radar.

"We were cautioned that we would end up in Leavenworth (federal prison) if we even mentioned the word 'radar,' " Price said. "We were good at it from the beginning."

His crew members were dedicated and mature, he said. Price, 20 at that point, was nicknamed "Junior" because he was the youngest man in the crew -- "I had my 21st birthday in combat." The oldest man was about 30.

After training, Price left Lucille, who was pregnant, on April 10, 1944, to start the journey overseas. He would see her again on April 9, 1945. For several days in May, the Sunsetter and crew flew from Sacramento, Calif., to Guadalcanal. Just hours after they landed, they listened as Tokyo Rose, a Japanese propaganda radio broadcaster, welcome the Sunsetter's crew, identifying each man by name, rank and serial number, showing the Japanese had a source of information somewhere along the route, perhaps in Hawaii, Price said. From there, they were assigned to a number of island bases during the next year.

First, Price's crew would run a night mission to bomb a Japanese fighter airfield every three or four days so daylight American bombers wouldn't face so much fighter opposition during their missions.

In September 1944, Price's crew moved to the island of Noemfoor in northern New Guinea, bringing the Americans within range of more Japanese islands and ships, where the 868th would sink hundreds of thousands of tons of ships in the next few months, Price said, and harass Japanese air fields.

In the South China Sea, the crew sank two tankers between October and December 1944.

"It was almost routine," Price said.

Flying at 1,500 feet, the B-24 would spot a ship on radar about 30 miles away, then start its descent. The snooper didn't draw fire because there wasn't any opposition in the sky, he said. Price's crew combined the use of the radar with the bomber's Norden bombsight, itself a closely guarded weapon, to drop a 1,000-pound bomb on Japanese ships.

The bomb was equipped with a one-eighth of a second delay so the bomb could penetrate the deck, then explode, which would more heavily damage the ship than a contact bomb and give Price's crew time to escape the blast.

"In the cockpit at night, you could always tell whether you had a hit or a miss," he said. "At a thousand feet, if the bomb hit a ship, it would raise the plane about 25 feet."

The crew didn't claim they had sunk a ship, only that they had hit a ship or missed it. Submarines confirmed the sinkings of those two tankers.

On another occasion, daylight bombers had damaged a Japanese tanker on the west coast of the island of Borneo, and Price's crew searched for it. They spotted two ships on radar, and it was obvious one was towing the other, Price said. They made a bomb run across the two ships, hitting both with three bombs, Price said. A U.S. Navy aircraft shot photographs of the ships -- a tanker and a destroyer -- as they sank.

The Sunsetter's crew "was probably the only crew that sank two ships in one run," Price said.

In its last 20 or so missions, the crew often would fly 22 hours, spending about three hours of that time searching for Japanese shipping and the rest traveling to and from the search area and refueling.

"It wasn't easy," Price said of the long hours in the air. If Japanese shipping wasn't found, the crew would drop its bombs on a secondary target, often oil storage areas or airfield runways.

Sometimes the crew would spot a target on the ocean, only to have it disappear from their radar because it would be an American submarine, slipping beneath the surface after identifying Price's plane with a radio signal as a bomber. The submarines were on the surface recharging their batteries at night.

Price's bomber never was hit by enemy gunfire, but there were some hairy moments. In one, the bomber was caught in the glare of Japanese search lights, making it so bright "I could have threaded a needle in that cockpit."

Five Japanese fighters chased the bomber, which had to dive steeply to get away. The bomber dived to 100 feet, and Price's tail gunner said he had seen a "helluva splash" when a pursuing fighter pilot apparently overrode his instruments and plunged into the ocean, Price said.

On Oct. 26, 1944, at the Battle of Lingayen Gulf, Price's bomber spotted the Japanese battleship Yamato and 14 other warships, then reported the fleet to American bombers and submarines. The Japanese ships all turned about 20 degrees to one side and sprouted reddish-orange clouds toward Price's bomber.

"Then it dawned on us. Those sons-of-a-gun were trying to kill us," Price said of the anti-aircraft guns the Japanese ships were firing.

Price said the bomber was flying at 200 feet when the battleship fired 18-inch shells, trying to "water-spout us," knock down a low-flying plane with the water spout of a near miss. In the next 24 hours, six Japanese ships in the fleet were sunk by American forces.

Weather also was a foe for the bombers. On one mission more than 19 hours, Price's crew ran into a typhoon and battled the storm, sometimes packing winds of 200 mph, for 15 hours before returning to base. The bomber's tail was twisted, and some of the aluminum skin was rippled. Thinking Price's crew was lost in the storm, officers from other crews had gone to Price's quarters to pack his gear, Price said.

After a year in combat, 19 of the squadron's 32 bombers were casualties, five to Japanese gunfire. The others were overloaded bombers crashing at the end of the runway on takeoff or crashing into the sea. In some instances, entire crews were lost, and in others several aviators were killed. Carrying 27,000 pounds of fuel for their long missions and 4,000 pounds of bombs, the B-24s flew the last 20 or so missions with a gross weight almost 5,000 pounds heavier than the craft's absolute maximum weight, Price said.

Overall, the 868th Squadron aided in cutting off fuel supplies to Japanese fighters opposing American bombers pounding the Philippine Islands and Japan, Price said. When he rotated home in 1945, he had flown 604 combat hours when the requirement to return to the United States was 350 to 400 hours. When he left the Air Corps in July 1945, he had 147 points accumulated for combat and other criteria when he needed only 86.

Combat hours rather than number of missions were counted in the South Pacific because B-24 crews would fly missions over a wider range with a heavier bomb load than the B-17s crews bombing German targets in Europe, Price said.

"But it never got the significant publicity it should have," Price said of the B-24, noting 19,170 of the bombers were built, making it the most-produced plane made by the United States during the war.

After the war, Price was a State Farm insurance agent in Topeka for 37 years before he retired. Price, 79, and Lucille will have been married for 60 years on Jan. 23, 2003. In 1999, Price finished writing "Tales of a Snooper," a 135-page account of his experiences. He printed copies for his two sons, Byron and Craig, and himself.

Price is proud of his crew's accomplishments.

"Our crew had a hand, one way or another, in sinking 10 Japanese ships," he said. "I came home thinking we had made a significant contribution to the defeat of Japan."