Captain Robert J. Mathieson, US Army Air Force, was my oldest uncle. We lived far from my Dad’s family, and therefore only visited them three or four times while he was alive. But I remember those visits. I remember Uncle Bobby very well. Recently what records we have of his military service were passed on to me. Most of the official records were lost in a fire that burned down the building they were stored in.
Uncle Bobby was a wild man. If you hadn’t known that, reading the letters he sent to his younger brother (my Dad) would make it crystal clear! Of course nothing of that sort was included in the birthday cards he always sent to his mother. After all, he was a Boy Scout!
But maybe it helps in war to be a wild man. Uncle Bobby flew more than forty missions that I know of, at least thirty from New Guinea. He also flew missions into Korea during the Korean War, two or three a week. He flew so many combat missions into Korea, in fact, that his wife wrote in a letter home that his CO ordered him to take a break from combat missions. Which he did. For two days, when it was discovered that, of the five men in his category, two were sick, one was on leave, and the other had just come back from an all-night mission. He was the only one available. What an amazing coincidence! 😀
At the same time he was flying combat missions into Korea, he was flying non-combat missions during which, he told his wife, he was trying to perfect some unidentified gadget that he said would be helpful to every pilot flying such missions. I have not come across a single clue as to what it might have been, which is not surprising. Secrecy is paramount regarding military matters. I wish I knew. My Dad respected Uncle Bobby’s intelligence, and whatever he was working on would have been interesting!
Back to Australia and World War Two: Australia had been attacked by the Japanese in much the same manner as Pearl Harbor. In fact, all four of the Japanese carriers involved in the Port Darwin attack had been in on the Pearl Harbor attack also. When the Japanese were finally pushed out of Rabaul (in Papua, New Guinea) the 13th Bomber Command moved in. Uncle Bobby was the Bombardier / Navigator on a B-24 Liberator with the 13th.
I’m unclear on unit relationships – in the records I received is a unit flag with the logo “Bomber Barons 5th Bombardment Group Heavy”. As of 1938, this was the unit name for the 5th Operations Group. Wikipedia lists them as flying the missions to Balikpapan.
I have a newspaper clipping recording the fact that he was in one of the Liberators which flew those missions to Balikpapan, in Borneo, where the Japanese had large oil and gas refineries. At that time, this was the longest bombing run in history – about 2600 miles round trip. So far that they had no fighter cover. Seventeen hours of flying. They hit their target…
“Approaching the harbor, the first plane dropped its load without encountering any resistance. A massive explosion ensued. The next 11 planes encountered flak but managed to successfully drop their bombs on refineries and ships. The harbor exploded into a ball of flame. Burning oil ran down the hillsides. Lt. Col. Miller found the heat so intense that he was forced to drop his load from 7,000 feet.” (From an unknown magazine article, “Mission to Balikpapan”, Lt. Richard S. Reynolds, that looks like it was published in the 50s.)
In the days following, the group made two more bombing runs on Balikpapan. My uncle’s plane came home with its entire communications system shot out by enemy fire, and a three-foot gash in the fuselage from a Japanese 20mm anti-aircraft gun.
Not all the B-24s made it home. From Lt. Reynolds’ article:
“Their ack-ack is opening up … It has us bracketed. There goes one Lib, then another. Down they go, flaming a farewell to us. I split a beer with one of those guys last night … [a Japanese Zero] crashes into one of our bombers. Both planes explode and fall, twisting and burning. The pilot of that Lib was a buddy of mine.”
After the war, Uncle Bobby never talked much about his service. Some family members thought he might have been distressed by the killing caused by the bombs he dropped, but we’ll never know for sure. I don’t think so, because when the war was over, he remained in the Army. He had a total of about twelve years in, last as a Commander of the US Army Reserve near his home, when he left the military.
One of the photos we have of him shows him in front of some barracks, prone, looking across the sights of a Model 1919 Browning .30 caliber machine gun. I remember him being present and participating during my very first shooting lesson, in Pennsylvania. So I don’t think he had nightmares or guilt over his service.
He was typical of many World War Two patriots. He left a protected job that would have kept him out of the draft to fight for his country. When the war was over, and the next war was over (Korea), he came home. After leaving the Army, he went to work in the Allegheny Ludlum steel mill. He was a member of American Legion Post 266 and Steelworkers Local 1138 in Leechburg, Pennsylvania. He came back to civilian life without experiencing, as far as I know, any PTSD. Granted, dropping bombs from thousands of feet in the air doesn’t give you the same level of stress that even “normal” infantry fighting does. But the times I was around Uncle Bobby, he always seemed relaxed. A newspaper article quoting him after he left the Army described him as “a calm, soft-spoken man”. A little laconic, maybe, not a very talkative man, but he smiled easily, and was apparently at ease with himself and his world. I wish there had been time and closeness to get to know him better. God bless you, Uncle Bobby, for your service, and for your friendliness to your young nephews. I thought highly of you, but never thought to say “thank you for your service” when you were still here. I hope you read this, wherever you are.
On December 15th, 1976, Robert Mathieson Jr was traveling on Route 356 in Buffalo Township, Pennsylvania, when a drunk driver crossed the centerline and slammed head-on into his car. Both drivers were killed. May you rest in peace, Uncle Bobby.