Earning his wings

The first five times, it’s all a blur. The bullets rip through the fuselage, the men scream and the bombs explode three miles below. But you feel like you’re just along for the ride.

But then things change. You notice the slightest twitch of the engine monitors. You make out individual crewmembers’ voices. Your senses heighten. “Experience changes everything. That’s a big word — experience,” said Art Cader.

It’s something he has plenty of. The Petaluma born and raised retired chicken farmer piloted 44 missions during World War II over the South Pacific in his B-24 Liberator. He rarely had the benefit of fighter escorts and saw legions of his colleagues go down in flames. But he never lost a crewman or plane.

Six decades after flying in one of the longest and most daunting missions of the war, Cader had a new experience — he was presented with the Distinguished Flying Cross in a ceremony at Travis Air Force Base in June.

“I’m very happy a Jewish person has received one. That was important to me,” he said.

Growing up in Petaluma, Cader spent his youth in the shadow of Hamilton Army Airfield. There was never a time he wasn’t fascinated by aviation. When he was 20, he enlisted in the Army’s aviation cadet program.

There were other Jews in the program, but they “washed out,” he said. He never told anyone about his religion. “It was very important for me to make it,” he said

By Sept. 30, 1944, Cader was a seasoned veteran. Even so, the orders seemed almost undoable: Fly nearly 2,200 miles from New Guinea to Borneo and back again — a distance so great the planes would have to carry fewer armaments than usual to take on extra fuel. Then bomb Japan’s newest oil refinery and head back to base, all without fighter escort.

“You couldn’t go around the clouds, around the weather. You had to go straight to the target or you’d run out of gas,” he recalled.

A 2,200-mile flight doesn’t sound that impressive these days — it’s a roundtrip from the Bay Area to Denver. But for a loaded-down B-24, it was a 15-hour roundtrip that stretched the limitations of the technology of the day — and that doesn’t even take into account the people trying to kill you.

Sometimes the missions bleed into one another, but Cader remembers this one well. There were 23 American planes in the air that day, with 230 crewmen. Cader’s was plane No. 3.

At around 11 a.m. the lead plane circled gracefully to its left and fired a flare. The 22 other planes formed a line to set up a tight bombing formation; only 60 feet separated the tail of plane No. 2 from Cader’s propellers.

“Once you’re set up in formation to go over the target, there was no evasive action or anything. You just had to go down the line.”

Japanese fighters tore into the lumbering B-24s as they moved into formation. There was a ghastly silence after the fighters sped off that was abruptly broken by the cacophony of 1,000 muzzle bursts as the “ack-ack” anti-aircraft fire started up.

Cader kept a steady hand on the stick. His bombardier dropped a series of 250-pound shells on the Japanese oilfields, followed by a round of incendiary bombs, igniting the oil into a hellish blaze. The entire 15-hour flight came down to 90 seconds over the bombing zone. Sixty percent of the bombs hit that day, incinerating the target.

As Cader pulled slowly out of his bombing run, he spotted a lone fighter zeroing in on the lead plane. The Japanese pilot sprayed bullets into the B-24, sending it spiraling toward the Pacific. He then turned on plane No. 2 in an improvised kamikaze run, attempting to collide with the wounded American bomber. Cader gasped as his colleague gracefully lifted a wing in the air and the Japanese plane whistled just beneath.

With the destruction of the lead plane, the formation was ruined. As the American parachutes dotted the sky, Cader pulled his massive plane lower, closer and closer to the lethal artillery barrages belching from Japanese guns. He hoped that if he could distract the fighter planes for a few minutes, the American crewmembers could bail out to safety.

But for the first five Americans out of the door, it was not to be. The fighters machine-gunned the slowly falling parachutists out of the air and riddled Cader’s plane with bullets.

Cader’s action may well have saved the next five men, though — and he knows this because he tracked them down. The men leapt out at the last possible second. One, suffering a panic attack, had to be bodily thrown out the door. They hit the water and were scooped up by a nearby American submarine.

Somehow, Cader “babied” the crippled B-24 back to his base. “When we got home, one of our engineers pulled a big chunk of metal right out of our supercharger. It was like a big rock lodged in there. It could have taken that whole wing off. But it didn’t.”

Cader flew more missions and lost more friends. The Americans won the war. He went home, got married to Selma Fishman and worked on the farm. He’s been married for 58 years and has four children. And he never talked about the war with anyone who didn’t experience it from the cockpit of an airplane.

But several years ago he realized he should have been awarded the DFC back in 1945. He wrote to the government, which not only corrected the situation, but threw him a massive celebration at Travis in May — “with nine colonels and one genera,” he said.

“When this thing came out, I couldn’t walk down the street,” he said with a chuckle. Then he grew emotional. “People would stop me. And all they wanted to say was ‘thank you.'”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.