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Smoky the Brave
How a Feisty Yorkshire Terrier Mascot Became a Comrade-in-Arms during World War II
By Damien Lewis
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In February 1944, as Japanese military advances threatened to overwhelm New Guinea, a tiny, four-pound Yorkshire Terrier was discovered hiding in the island’s thick jungles. A total mystery as to her origins, she was adopted by US Army Air Force Corporal William “Bill” Wynne, an air-crewman in a photo reconnaissance squadron, becoming an irreplaceable lucky charm for the unit. When Smoky saved Wynne’s life by barking a warning of an incoming kamikaze attack, he nicknamed her the “angel from a foxhole.”
Smoky’s exploits continued when she jumped for the unit in a specially designed parachute and famously joined the aircrews flying daring sorties in the war-torn skies. But her most heroic feat was running a cable through a seventy-foot pipe no wider than four inches in places to enable critical communication lines to be run across an airbase which had just been seized from the enemy, saving hundreds of ground-crew from being exposed to enemy bombing.
In recognition of her efforts, Smoky was awarded eight battle stars. Smoky the Brave brings to vivid life the danger and excitement of the many missions of World War II’s smallest hero.
AUTHOR’S NOTE & SOURCES
The time served by Allied servicemen and women during the Second World War was often traumatic. Memories tend to differ and apparently none more so than those concerning operations flown deep behind enemy lines. The written accounts that do exist of such missions tend to vary in their detail and timing, and locations and chronologies can prove contradictory. That being said, I have done my best to provide a proper sense of place, timescale and narrative to the story as depicted in these pages.
Where various accounts of a mission appear to be somewhat confused, the methodology I have used to determine when and how events took place is the ‘most likely’ scenario. If two or more testimonies or sources point to a particular time or place or sequence of events, I have opted to use that version as most likely. Where necessary I have very occasionally re-created small sections of dialogue to aid the story’s flow.
The above notwithstanding, any mistakes herein are entirely of my own making, and I would be happy to correct them in future editions. Likewise, while I have endeavoured to locate the copyright holders of the photos, sketches and other images and material used in this book, this has not always been straight-forward or easy. Again, I would be happy to correct any errors in future editions.
Of particular use during the writing of this book were the 5th Air Force, 26th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron’s own accounts of the war years. These include the Flight Reports, Intelligence Reports and other official squadron records held at Maxwell Air Force Base, in Alabama, USA. The 26th being a photo reconnaissance squadron, the photo archive held at Maxwell AFB also proved particularly useful. So too did the 26th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron’s own war diary, entitled simply ‘Squadron History–Twenty-Sixth Photographic Squadron (L)’. Likewise, the squadron’s more informal photographic and written legend of the war years, entitled ‘26th Photo’, and published by 26th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron, proved hugely insightful.
The image painted on the side of the aircraft’s fuselage was eye-catching. It showed Donald Duck riding on a speeding cloud, one eye squinting down a camera lens as he snapped off a photo of the earth far below, his webbed feet thrust before him, dashing pilot’s scarf and leather flight helmet flapping in the slipstream.
It was the patch of the 26th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron, part of the aptly named Hawkeye Group: their task was to dash across hostile territory at altitude, grabbing daring images of enemy positions–images that would prove key to winning the war.
The pilot flying the powerful but graceful P-38 Lightning–nicknamed the fork-tailed devil, der Gabelschwanz-Teufel, by the enemy, due to its distinctive twin tail planes–was one of the best. First Lieutenant Lee G. Smith, a hugely popular figure in the squadron, was blessed with dark good looks, his square-jawed features set below a steady, self-possessed gaze, offset by a thin, somewhat wry and lopsided smile.
Right now, Smith’s jaw was locked tight as he wrestled with the Lightning’s controls and the demands of flying such a mission.
It wasn’t his aircraft’s capabilities which worried First Lieutenant Smith. Known as a hugely robust and forgiving airframe–the ‘sweetest-flying plane in the sky’ to many–the twin-engine Lightning could take any amount of mistreatment and abuse. It was the photo recce pilot’s age-old adversaries–the weather, plus any marauding enemy aircraft that might be menacing the skies.
Smith banked tightly, turning his head as he did so, scanning the cloud-enshrouded earth as he tried to identify the distant target that he intended to capture on celluloid. At the same time he kept flicking his eyes to either side and behind, as he checked anxiously for hostile warplanes.
The standard combat model of the P-38 Lightning (the ‘P’ stood for pursuit) packed a devastating punch: one 20mm cannon and four Browning machine guns were positioned in the aircraft’s bulbous nosecone, primed to unleash a torrent of heavy-calibre bullets at any adversaries. No wonder it had produced so many combat aces.
But Smith’s aircraft–the F4 reconnaissance version–was a very different kind of machine. A bulky K 22 camera–as large as any man’s torso and operated by a clunky lever bolted to the pilot’s control column–was positioned where the weapons normally sat. In place of the gun button Smith had only a hot switch to enable him to fire off nothing more deadly than… photographs. And whereas normally the pilot was ensconced within a sarcophagus of protective armour, on the photo recce version of the Lightning that was all stripped away to save weight.
Less weight meant more speed, which was the key to surviving such solo dashes through enemy airspace, or so the photo recce fliers reasoned.
The eerie, alien suck and blow of the oxygen mask echoed in Smith’s ears, accentuating the loneliness and isolation of flying such a mission. He was alone on the roof of the world up here–tearing along at pushing 435 miles per hour and 20,000 feet of altitude. Without the oxygen, he’d last barely minutes before losing consciousness.
At such height, the air outside the Lightning was at minus 12 degrees; far colder with the wind-chill factor. So frigid was it that the K22 camera crammed into the nosecone had its own bespoke heating system, to prevent the lenses from fogging up or the mechanism from freezing solid.
Smith was blessed with few such comforts. He was hunched in the unheated cockpit, his clawed hands aching from the glacial conditions and the hours spent gripping the flight controls, his thick sheepskin flying jacket buttoned tight.
The heavens stretched above him, a deep, icy blue. Towards the eastern horizon, the sun peeped a fiery eye above thick clouds, gilding their billowing tops a fierce orange. Smith had taken off early in an effort to catch his target in the fine morning light–the best time to secure the kind of images he was after.
But the cumulus stretched from 3,000 to 14,000 feet, where towering updrafts of moist tropical air punched high into the atmosphere, and Smith found himself having to steer a path around heavy rainstorms. Above the cloud cover the visibility was pretty good at around ten miles, but within the dark and torrential cloudbursts it was close to zero.
It was 12 March 1944, and all that month the squadron had been dogged by bad weather here in the southwest Pacific theatre. Repeatedly, pilots’ Final Mission Reports had concluded with the dreaded words: ‘Unsuccessful due to weather’. It was a phrase that did little to reflect the drama and heartache of being dogged by such treacherous conditions. Even worse was being forced to file the report: ‘Did not take off due to weather’.
At least Smith had got airborne. But in spite of his best efforts, he feared today’s flight was destined to earn that hateful epitaph: Unsuccessful due to weather.
He pressed on, eyes searching for a break in the cloud and determined to bring back something–anything–that might be of use to the Allied commanders presently plotting death and destruction to the enemy. At the same time he tried to ensure that his hunger to bring back some positive results didn’t blind him to the dangers inherent in his task.
He had to avoid creating a ‘contrail’–a double line of cloud formed when the water vapour from the Lightning’s twin-engine exhausts condensed in the freezing blue and froze. Such a trail thrown across the heavens would appear like a giant arrow, leading the eyes of any watchers to the tiny, isolated speck of an aircraft.
Repeatedly, Smith scanned cloud cover, temperature and altitude, running a series of complex computations through his head. At the same time he kept his eyes peeled, checking if the enemy might have left any telltale signs of their own. Spotting their contrails would give him a few precious seconds warning, allowing him to push to full throttle and dive to shake off any pursuers.
The cockpit was freezing cold. Agonisingly so. Smith ran his aching eyes across the controls, checking for any that might have frozen solid, so giving him a potentially catastrophic misreading. Crystals of frozen moisture could even form around the Lightning’s sharply raked canopy, frosting up the windows and obscuring his vision.
Momentarily, his gaze flicked downwards, to the map folded into the knee pouch of his flight suit. He’d been airborne for two hours, and it required pinpoint navigation to bring his Lightning directly over today’s target–the Cape Gloucester headland, set to the far west of New Britain Island, one of the key enemy positions hereabouts.
Menaced by the 6,000-foot volcano of Mount Talawe, and clad in thick jungle and treacherous swamps, any pilot forced to eject over such terrain stood little chance of survival. Below lay a clutch of enemy airbases and ports, ones that Allied commanders hoped to secure as part of Operation Cartwheel, a series of island-hopping missions designed to isolate and neutralize Japanese strongpoints across the Pacific.
But planning such a complex series of amphibious and airborne assaults called for the kind of detailed intelligence that air recce photos supplied, which is why Smith had been sent out to brave the weather this morning.
Smith’s camera pointed vertically downwards and was set to fire off a series of photographs at regular intervals, which would allow him to cover a continuous strip of terrain. Each shot would overlap with its predecessor, forming one uninterrupted image. Each large, 7 x 8.5-inch strip of celluloid would capture a patch of ground roughly one square mile. Such was the quality of the camera equipment that it could capture enough detail to identify individual vehicles moving across the terrain. But only if a weather window opened, and there was little sign of that happening right now.
Eventually, Smith was forced to turn for home–which presently consisted of the airbase at Nadzab, situated on the coast of New Guinea, which lay off the northern coast of Australia. Nadzab Airbase was never the easiest place to land: it had been hacked out of the deep jungle flanking the Markham River valley and was menaced by rugged mountains on either side.
Seven months earlier Allied forces had seized the area in a series of airborne assaults. In response, the Japanese–hungering for revenge following one of their first setbacks in the war–had launched a series of ferocious counter-attacks. Waves of Japanese warplanes flew repeated bombing missions, forcing the men of the 26th Photo Recce Squadron to pitch their tents directly beneath the jungle canopy, in an effort to hide from hostile eyes. Still they’d taken casualties, both men and machines getting blasted on the ground.
Yet there was little that the Photo Reconnaissance pilots could do to retaliate or to fight back. Their planes had been stripped of the guns that would have allowed them to do so–it was up to their comrades in the fighter squadrons. In the meantime, men like Smith had to carry on with the task at hand: speeding through enemy airspace to locate their target, capture it on film, and return as quickly as possible, so that their precious photos could be rushed into Allied commanders’ hands.
As he set a course for home Smith checked his fuel gauges. After being airborne for several hours, dodging the weather and enemy aircraft alike, he might return only to find the airstrip cloaked in cloud. By then his aircraft might be sipping on fumes, and just at the moment when he was forced to delay landing. The Lightning used more than a gallon of fuel every minute, and Smith needed to keep a constant watch on speed and bearing. There would be little scope for loitering above Nadzab, waiting for the cloud to clear.
It took a certain type of temperament to volunteer for such work. A certain kind of courage. Bomber and fighter pilots were accustomed to flying in formation, enjoying the company of fellow aircrew and a shield of friendly aircraft to ward off the enemy. By contrast, the recce pilot flew alone, unarmed and unescorted.
Serving in a photo recce squadron called for a rare combination of common sense, daring, self-reliance and initiative. Such pilots had to make a virtue out of the fact that their aircraft flew unarmed. If his P-38 carried guns, Smith would be tempted to turn and fight at the approach of an enemy warplane. As it was he had no option but to concentrate on avoiding combat, securing his photographs and speeding them back intact.
All too frequently recce pilots failed to return to base. They were flying solo missions across airspace where ‘enemy fire and interception were probable and expected’, as the mission briefings expressed it. More often than not those who failed to return were simply listed as Missing in Action (MIA). The chances were that no one would ever know what calamity had befallen them on their long and lonely flight.
If a pilot went down in the sea there was little likelihood of his body or any wreckage ever being found. If a plane came down on land, a report might filter in from local resistance fighters or villagers, and the wreckage might be identified from its tail number, but it was often difficult to determine whether the pilot had lost his life due to enemy action, mechanical failure or adverse weather.
Such dangers were all too real. A month earlier this had been brought home most powerfully, when the squadron’s Commanding Officer (CO) had been lost in action. The 26th had been founded a year earlier, at Colorado Airbase, Colorado Springs, in western USA. First Lieutenant Sheldon P. Hallett had been appointed its founding officer, and he had been in command ever since.
Fresh-faced and youthful, yet with a direct intensity to his eyes, Hallett had nurtured a fierce pride in the 26th, one defined by rigour. His was the only photo recce squadron to have passed out of training in that autumn of 1943 with an ‘Excellent’ rating. On Sunday 31 October they had deployed from the US, sailing for a ‘secret destination’ on a luxury liner hastily converted into a troopship.
En route Hallett had spoken to his men of the eternal quest for excellence that he wanted the squadron to embody. From the moment they had arrived in theatre Hallett had led from the front, earning enormous respect from all who flew alongside him. But then, on 29 February 1944 had come shocking news: Hallett had been listed Missing in Action. In the blink of an eye the squadron had lost its Commanding Officer, and it would be some time before anything was learned of his fate.
Such unexpected losses could be shattering–especially within such a tight knit unit–but it was offset by the knowledge of the crucial role they were performing here. The squadron’s war diary made proud mention of the ‘highly important pictures of the enemy’s activities and dispositions’ that their pilots were bringing home. It was not an idle boast. The US Army Air Force’s Official Service Journal concluded that photo reconnaissance furnished ‘ninety percent of modern military intelligence. Armies do not move without it.’
So important was their work that President Roosevelt’s son, Colonel Elliott Roosevelt, had been placed in charge of developing the craft of the photo recce squadrons, continuously pushing at the boundaries of what was known and possible. Such knowledge of the war-winning scope of their missions helped put steel in the pilots’ souls.
As he set a course for home, Smith likewise had to draw on his own reserves of steel. He had to remain razor sharp and one hundred per cent focused. A moment’s distraction could prove fatal. He was looking forward to landing back at base, in spite of the failure of his mission. After hours of intense concentration he was dogged by exhaustion, and he longed for the relief that came from simply making it back again in one piece.
He was just off Karkar Island, on the western fringes of the Bismarck Sea, when he spotted something. Far below the thick cumulus swirled for a moment and then cleared. In the break in the clouds a stretch of glistening ocean opened before him. Right in the midst of the water were the familiar forms of two ships, steaming resolutely onwards.
Smith studied the vessels. They were positioned five miles off the coast of Karkar Island and heading southeast–most likely making for Rabaul, on the eastern shores of New Britain, a base that the Japanese had captured from its Australian defenders in February 1942. Under Operation Cartwheel, Rabaul–one of the enemy’s most significant strongholds–was to be isolated by air and by sea, its garrisons rendered impotent.
From such altitude the two ships appeared as little more than pin pricks, but Smith doubted they were friendly. A year earlier a major sea battle had raged here, becoming known as the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. A fleet of Japanese warships and troop carriers had been steaming for Nadzab, to intercept Allied landings. The troopships and their destroyer escorts were caught by Allied warplanes. All eight transports were sunk and 3,664 Japanese soldiers and seamen had lost their lives.
But despite the losses they’d suffered, the armed forces of Imperial Japan remained resolutely committed to holding this region, and supply ships regularly braved the Bismarck Sea. To be certain of the two vessels’ identities Smith needed to take a closer look. He put his Lightning into a shallow dive, dropping to 12,000 feet.
From that height he was almost certain of the identity of the ships below him. During training he’d memorized the photos and diagrams depicted in the Department of Naval Intelligence’s ‘Standard Classes of Japanese Merchant Ships’. The two vessels had all the appearance of the Type D freighter–a 2,300-tonne merchant ship codenamed Sugar Charlie Love in the manuals.
The freighters looked laden with war materiel, but you could never be too careful with such vessels, for the Japanese were in the habit of packing them with unexpected cargo, including Allied prisoners of war. Those fighting in the Pacific had heard of these ‘hell ships’: they transported British, American, Australian and other Allied POWs across the ocean, thousands crammed into bamboo cages stacked into hot and airless holds.
In the months following Pearl Harbor a vast swathe of terrain–from Burma in the north to New Guinea in the south–had been overrun by the Japanese. It seemed as if nothing could stop the Emperor Hirohito’s forces: in spring 1942 the Japanese had launched a raid on Sydney harbour, using a fleet of Ko-hyoteki class mini-submarines. One Australian ship, HMAS Kuttabul, was sunk and the mini-subs had shelled shore positions.
The damage done wasn’t great, but the message sent was heard loud and clear by the Australian people: their nation was under threat of invasion. As Japanese forces scored one triumph after another, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops had been taken prisoner. Those Allied POWs were used as slave labour. Working in nightmarish conditions, they were forced to clear the jungle and build airstrips and railways across territory seized by the Japanese.
The two vessels that Smith had discovered might be packed with such long-suffering Allied POWs. He dropped lower, setting his cameras running. Most such Japanese freighters boasted gun emplacements set in the stern and prow, but at his current altitude he was well out of range. As the camera whirred, he felt a kick of adrenalin. In spite of the terrible weather, he’d found something of possible interest and captured it on film.
Just as soon as he touched down at Nadzab, the ground crew would rush into action. They’d slip the precious roll of film out of the camera, jump into a jeep and dash across to the photolab that lay beneath the dark fringe of jungle. Within an hour at most the negatives would have been developed and dried, and the specialist photo-interpreters would be poring over whatever Smith had found here.
Painstaking research had enabled a calculation to be made of a ship’s speed, based upon specific measurements of the wake revealed in such photographs. That combined with the vessels’ bearing would give a good indication as to both where the ships were heading and their present position. It was then just a matter of whether attack aircraft could be scrambled in time to reach the two vessels while they were still within range.
But first, Smith had to fly like the wind to get his precious images home.
As his Lightning approached the hills that lay to the east of Nadzab Airbase, little did Smith suspect what lay far beneath him, secreted in the jungle shadows. Likewise, the warplane would be invisible to the stray soul hiding under the thick forest canopy. But her ears would be drawn to the distant roar of the twin engines, even as she crouched, fearfully, in the deserted foxhole in which she’d taken refuge.
Abandoned long ago, she appeared like a shapeless mass of tangled, dirty hair. After days lost in the jungle this starving, emaciated animal was barely recognizable. But she was still breathing and still fighting for her survival, and even in such a state a dog’s hearing remains many times more powerful than that of any human.
Perhaps she raised her head a little further and pricked up her ears. If she did, she would doubtless have associated the roar of the P-38’s twin aero-engines with what she longed for most in the world right then–human company, for she was accustomed to the sights, smells and sounds of an airbase such as this. Wonderful companions because they are so affectionate, she was of a kind of dog that hungers for human companionship, and hates being cut off from its two-legged companions.
Left alone for even a short while, she was of a breed that suffers from separation anxiety. After days marooned in the hot and airless jungle, and with little conception of how she had come to be there, the dog’s disquiet and distress was acute. She longed for a human voice; a human touch; someone to scoop her up in friendly arms and to cherish her once more.
As the P-38 thundered onwards one thing was for certain: this tiny ball of matted, dirt-encrusted hair could have little inkling how her fate, and that of the reconnaissance squadron with whom Smith flew were inextricably linked, for all of that lay sometime in the future.
Abandoned in the jungle and lost to her erstwhile human protectors, the future was one of fearful uncertainties.
The angular form of a Willys jeep pulled out from the motor pool at Nadzab Airbase and took to a dirt track that threaded through the jungle. At the wheel sat Edward ‘Ed’ Downey, one of the airbase’s ground crew. With a rugged boxer’s features and a shock of unruly red hair, Downey was forever to be found with a Lucky Strike cigarette glued to his bottom lip.
Where they’d felled and burned the jungle to expand the airstrip, thick kunai grass crowded in on the track, its spear-like heads rising as high as ten feet and blinding Downey to his surroundings. He was more accustomed to the rolling hills of his native Pennsylvania and its heavy winter snows, than to the thick and stifling jungle and the claustrophobic fields of kunai grass. It made for hellish terrain in which to fight.
The track snaked this way and that as Downey gunned the jeep through the toughest sections, which had worsened with the rains. There seemed to be no happy medium to the weather here. When the sun was out it was as hot as an oven. When the clouds built it was oppressively humid, like being trapped in a giant sauna. And when the rains came it was as if God Himself had turned on a giant tap over the airbase.
In places the track was completely flooded and Downey had to slow to a crawl to ease the jeep through chocolate-coloured water as thick as custard. It sloshed about up to the level of his axles. In places it was deep enough to reach to his mudguards, the jeep’s powerful ‘Go Devil’ engine straining to keep the vehicle in motion.
Such terrain took a heavy toll on the unit’s vehicles, and Downey wasn’t entirely surprised when the one that he was driving coughed and spluttered and came to a sloughing halt. Not for the first time since he had been deployed here, he clambered out of the driver’s seat and went to open the vehicle’s hood, trying to avoid the worst of the mud as he did so.
He lifted it, latched it, and leaned over the engine, feeling the heat rise from the straight-four. He reached for and jiggled a couple of wires, checking if those serving the vehicle’s battery were still making good contact. Such damp and humid conditions weren’t great for keeping any kind of machinery serviceable, or weapons for that matter.
As he fiddled with the engine, a P-38 roared across the sky and touched down on the airstrip. One of the squadron’s recce flights, no doubt. Maybe First Lieutenant Smith, making it early back to base. Surrounded by the tall kunai grass, Downey couldn’t see the runway, and his concentration was focused on the engine compartment of the jeep.
He was just about to give the engine a try when he heard a sound from over his shoulder. It was so utterly unexpected, but he could have sworn that he’d heard a dog whining. The sound transported him back to his native Pennsylvania and his childhood years. To Downey, it was a far from welcome noise and one that sparked distinctly unpleasant memories.
He didn’t mind admitting that he was a die-hard dog-hater. He couldn’t fathom his fellow soldiers’ affection for the four-legged curs, nor how they were always going on about how they missed the pets they’d left back home. It didn’t make the slightest bit of sense to him. He was about to ignore the sound–surely he’d imagined it?–when he heard it again: a plaintive whimper coming from just behind where he stood.
Later, when asked, Downey was never able to explain why he went to investigate. But for whatever reason–curiosity, perhaps–he turned and sloshed his way through the mud to the side of the track. He peered, cautiously, into the shadows that seemed to be the source of the noise. There was an abandoned foxhole by the roadside, and Downey had learned to love and loathe those shell-scrapes in equal measure.
During the rains they were invariably thick with clinging, stinking mud. During the drier periods, they became home to a variety of crawling, stinging, slithering life, much of which was lethal. At the very least vicious red fire ants were bound to have set up camp, and he’d learned to his cost what sharing a foxhole with those critters entailed.
But the foxholes could also be real lifesavers. When the enemy warplanes attacked, you had two basic choices: remain where you were and dice with death, or dive into a foxhole and take your chances with whatever jungle life had made a home there.
As he peered into the gloom Downey spied movement. A pair of dark eyes, glinting in the dull light, gazed up at him, imploringly. They seemed disproportionately large for the sodden floor-mop of hair they seemed to inhabit. He heard the noise again–a dog’s pitiful whine. If it hadn’t been for that, Downey would have doubted whether this sad, benighted creature really was a dog at all.
Even as he stared at the animal, trying to fathom what in God’s name the breed might be, Downey saw it try to clamber out of the pit, its tiny paws scrabbling desperately at the earth. It jumped at him, tiny head bobbing upwards once, twice, three times. Downey couldn’t help but admire the creature’s sheer tenacity and will to survive. Perhaps it was that which spoke to him and prompted him to act as he did.
"A heart warming and uplifting story of tiny paws and stupendous bravery"--Bear Grylls
- "Thoughtful...A welcome perspective on life in the Pacific Theater."—Booklist
"A well-researched biography in the war dog genre."
"How a plucky pooch helped with the war effort."
"How a tiny Yorkshire terrier became a WWII hero."
—New York Post
- On Sale
- Dec 4, 2018
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Da Capo Press