Virgil Byng

Taken from Rice Lakes Chronotype's PANORAMA Volume 125-Number 10 Rice Lake, WI November 3, 1999
Memories Engender Respect for Veterans

Crew of the B-26 Standing in front of the bomber shot down over enemy territory on the second day of the Normandy invasion are its crew members. From left are the pilot, Leroy Sullivan; the co-pilot, Jack Hobson; the engineer, Kev. Peterson; the bombardier, Dick Ivory; the radio operator, Joe Roberge; and the tail gunner, Virgil Byng of Rice Lake. Only Ivory and Byng survived.

Memories Engender Respect for Veterans
Rice Lake will honor all veterans in a lakeside ceremony at 11 am Thursday, November 11. 

These recollections from local WW II veterans are meant to remind us of the debt we owe to those who have served our country in any conflict. 

Virgil Byng of Rice Lake was an 18-year-old freshman at La Salle College in Philadelphia when he enlisted in the Signal Corps in 1943. 

He was already interested in photography and hoped that enlisting would allow him to learn more about the art that would become his career. 

"I knew my number was coming up," he said. "The Signal Corps was a branch of the service that did special services." 

But aptitude tests landed Byng in the Air Force. He took basic training in Miami Beach and armament training with .50-caliber machine guns at Buckley Field, Colorado. 

"I had to take them apart, blindfolded, and put them back together again." 

After gunnery training in Panama City, Florida, Byng was assigned as a tail gunner to the crew of a B-26 stationed in England during the Normandy invasion. The crew also included pilot Leroy Sullivan of St. Paul, co-pilot Jack Hobson, engineer Kev Peterson, bombardier Dick Ivory, and radio operator Joe Roberge. The bombardier dropped bombs from the front of the plane, and Byng fired bullets from the rear. 

"You weren't thinking about [dropping bombs] on people. You were thinking about war targets," he remembered. "I had a big, wide patriotic streak up and down my back. The first mission, I [realized] they were using live ammunition, and I became a scared kid." 

"You never get over it," Byng said. "When you're in the target area and you know the enemy is coming near, you kind of pray and cuss at the same time."

B-26s routinely flew at an altitude of 12,000 feet, and the Germans were using 88 mm guns that were "extremely accurate" at that range.

"It was anti-aircraft fire," he said. "We had balls of tinfoil, like tinsel on a tree, and we'd throw them out of the waste windows to throw off their radar." 

But on May 29, their luck ran out when the plane was hit, lost an engine, and plunged from 12,000 feet to 4,000 feet, before the pilot pulled it out of a tailspin. 

The electrical and hydraulic systems were both damaged, and the propellers caught the wind straight on, like a windmill.

"The altitude dropped every time he tried to turn the plane," Byng remembered. 

The gas light came on when the plane was about 1,000 feet above the English Channel, signaling that the remaining fuel would last about 10 minutes, Byng said. The pilot ordered the crew to bail out and then reversed the order moments later when he spotted the English coastline. 

"He pointed the plane straight down and mushed it in," Byng said. 

Dirt tunneled through the open escape hatch, as the plane plowed through a field criss-crossed with triangular steel girders, to stave off a German invasion, and came to a rest with girders wrapped around the wing. "We were half buried in the ground," said Byng. The men emerged, covered with dirt, but Byng felt lucky. He suffered only a "badly sprained ankle" when his foot broke through the aluminum siding of the bomb bay. 

Byng received the Purple Heart, the military decoration awarded those wounded or killed in action. 

Ten days later, at about 2:30 pm on June 7, the crew was flying at 1,100 feet to find their target in bad weather, when the plane took a direct hit that knocked out both engines over enemy territory. 

"Tanks shot us down with 20 mm rounds that fire very rapidly," he said. 

Again, the plane's communication system had been knocked out. 

"We knew in the back of the plane we had to get out." 

Byng said he and the radio operator snapped their chute packs to their parachute harnesses, as they crawled to the waste windows and jumped out 200-300 feet above the ground. 

"I think he got caught in the tail of the ship and got dragged down," Byng said with tears in his eyes. 

"The B-26 was known as the flying coffin, the flying prostitute, because it was so dangerous," he said. "It had a short wingspan and no visible means of support." 

The plane was on the 32nd of 65 missions it would have been assigned before being retired, he said. 

His parachute barely had time to open before Byng hit a tree. "I saw a ditch 15-20 feet away and I crawled like mad for that," he recalled. I pulled my chute in behind me and realized I was in a patch of burning nettles. 

"I thought, 'To hell with it. Let 'um burn.'"

The sound of footsteps replaced his pain with fear but, when Byng dared to glance above the ditch, he recognized Ivory, his bombardier. 

Sullivan, Peterson, and Roberge went down with the ship. Hobson was machine-gunned on the way to the ground. 

"You know, it's ironic that the bombardier and tail gunner survived the crash," he said. "They're the two hardest spots to get out of." 

Using their detailed, rubberized  maps and a compass, Ivory and Byng began the trek across no man's land, determined to find a farm family that would help them get to Spain, a neutral country. From there, they planned to return to Normandy. Byng was three weeks from his 20th birthday. 

"We ran like mad from one bunch of brush or tree or ditch to the next," he recalled.

And it was, from a ditch, as the two men watched four soldiers stealthily and steadily approach them, that they finally recognized the shape of British helmets. 

"They were Canadians, an infantry group of Winnipeg Rifles," he said. 

"You just came through one of the most heavily mined areas there is," said the Major, inching his way over the ground to demonstrate the proper technique to detect tripwires in enemy territory.

"It just wasn't our time," said Byng. 

The men were escorted to the beachhead, where they stepped "over bodies like puddles in a storm," before boarding a ship to England. 

"Nothing had been cleaned up since D-Day morning," Byng said. 

He was later sent to Rheims, France, where he worked in an office, until the captain arranged for him to be a gunnery instructor in the States. 

While in Paris, waiting for a connecting flight to Scotland, he decided to take in Glenn Miller's opening night, January 5, 1945, at the Rainbow Room, but the big band leader never arrived. 

"He was lost over the English Channel," Byng said. "The seas there are some of the roughest in the world." 

Byng left Prestwick, Scotland, for the United States aboard a four-engine C-54 Sky Master that crashed as it attempted a refueling stop in the Azores Islands west of Portugal. 

The pilot misjudged his approach and banked the plane too sharply to recover. The plane rolled wing over wing, landed upside down and began to burn. 

"When the fire got bright enough, we went and knocked the door open and got out."

Six of the twenty people aboard the plane died. Byng suffered a couple of broken ribs and superficial burns on his hands and face.

Efforts failed to convince authorities that he preferred to wait for the next sea-going ship, and the soldier found himself on a homebound plane the next day. He was hospitalized in Miami and then, because he had been shot down and had evaded capture, was allowed to finish his commitment at any stateside Air Force base. Byng was discharged from Lowry Field in Denver, Colorado on August 27,1945. 

He later attended the Chicago School of Photography and then opened and operated his well-known photography business in Rice Lake for forty years. 

Ed's Pitstop in Birchwood stands in the spot once occupied by Earl DeLong's childhood home. 

"It was evident that we were going into war," DeLong recalled. So, in October of 1941, when he was "going on 19," De Long enlisted in the Marine Corps. 

In January 1942, he was called into active duty and, after boot camp and scout and sniper school in San Diego, was sent to New Zealand with the Marine 2nd Division. 

"The Japanese were just north of Australia in New Guinea," he remembered. 

On Christmas Eve 1942, the 2nd Division left New Zealand, headed for the Solomon Islands, where the Japanese had occupied Guadalcanal. 

"Guadalcanal was the first United States offensive and the first victory  in the war," he said. 

DeLong chuckled, remembering his office assignment there. 

"I didn't want to, but you did what you were told," he smiled. "I typed my first letter seven times."

They returned to New Zealand on Easter Sunday 1943 and, that fall, headed for Tarawa, a British atoll in the Gilbert Islands, measuring one square mile and occupied by Japan. 

"The Japanese had a little airstrip there," he said. "We wanted the airstrip, I guess." 

Each side began the battle with about 5,000 men. The Japanese had cut the island's coconut trees to fortify concrete blockhouses and to build a seawall and pillboxes on the island, which rises only 12-15 feet out of the sea. 

DeLong was part of the first wave of Marines that landed on Tarawa on November 23, 1943. He was one of 21 men thrown into the water when their boat was hit with gunfire in 12-15 feet of water.

"The armor on the side of the boat was only a quarter-inch thick," he said. "We were just like sitting ducks." 

DeLong and two others survived. Almost immediately, a PT boat scooped him up. He was rearmed, given water, and unloaded beneath a 1,700-foot pier. 

"I found two or three other men in my platoon," he recalled. "Everyone got scared, but we had no place to go. You either fought or you got killed. We had pillboxes to knock out." 

Soldiers carrying TNT ran as close to the enemy as possible and threw their charges. Flame-thrower soldiers followed, running as fast as they could with 70-80 pound tanks of fuel oil strapped to their backs. Smoke grenades forced the enemy into the open and hid the movements of the American troops. 

"It was like a football team," he said. "We covered one another." 

"Originally, we had planned five hours to take the island," he said. "It took four to five days."

"We used ammunition from the dead and water from the dead," he said. 

"On the fourth or fifth day, when we left, the U.S. and British flags were raised together," DeLong said. 

When it ended, there were 17 Japanese survivors, 1,200 American casualties, and 2,500 wounded Marines. 

DeLong was later awarded the Silver Star Medal from the President of the United States as platoon leader of Company A, 1st Battalion, 18th Marines, the 2nd Marine Division, for successfully reorganizing and leading his platoon against ten Japanese strongholds in the battle. 

After regrouping in Hawaii, DeLong was sent to Colorado College at Colorado Springs for classes required to enter officers training school. 

"While I was there, they decided to hit Iwo Jima," he said. 

DeLong was reassigned to the 5th Marine Division as a demolition instructor at Camp Pendleton in California. The division was sent to Hawaii in the fall of 1944 and made an amphibious landing on Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945. 

"I think it was on the 19th day, I got hit plum through the middle," he recalled. "We were advancing, and I was in a shell hole. Two fellows in my platoon got hit, and I could hear them groaning. I went out to see if I could help them, and a damn sniper got me." 

Instantly, two corpsmen were at his side. 

"They didn't have to, because they were under fire. They had a stretcher, and they ran like hell and picked me up, and away they went to the little hospital tent behind the lines." 

The bullet entered DeLong's left side and exited through the right side of the pelvic bone. He was paralyzed from the chest down, and the doctor on duty knew there was little he could do. In fact, he declined a trip to the airport, where DC-3s were transporting the wounded to Guam. 

"Usually, they like to take men they think will live," he explained. 

DeLong begged and, when the doctor relented, DeLong found himself lying on the ground with 100 other wounded men, waiting for a plane with room for nineteen patients.

"My brother-in-law's brother happened to be a corpsman on the plane," DeLong said. "He saw me and got me aboard. I never would have made it if he hadn't noticed me." 

DeLong spent the next 11/2 years in hospitals in Guam, Hawaii and, finally, at the naval base in Oakland, California.  His paralysis lasted a year. 

"There were blood clots on the spine and no medicine to thin clots," he said. "And it [the .25 or .30-caliber rifle bullet] cut the sciatic nerve to the right leg. It controls the leg]." 

He has worn a brace on his leg ever since. 

After 36 days of fighting on Iwo Jima, the 1,083 surviving Japanese were taken prisoners. The American death toll was 6,821. 

He was discharged from the Marines in August 1946, while he was still hospitalized. When he was released, a Marine friend offered him a job in the insurance business.

"I didn't know anything about insurance," he said. "But my employer was good enough to hire me." 

He attended evening classes to learn the insurance business and worked for Jewelers Mutual Insurance Company in Neenah 34 years. DeLong and his wife, Dorothy (LaPointe), retired to Birchwood in 1982 and owned the Red Cedar Springs Resort for many years. LaPointe's father had owned the lumber and veneer mill in Birchwood after the war. 

DeLong was also awarded the Purple Heart.

"A lot of guys that didn't' t get shot did a hell of a job, too. A lot of other guys were there, and they didn't get any recognition.

"We had to be [in the war] after Pearl Harbor," he quietly said. "That was a pretty big defeat in Hawaii. The Japanese took care of our whole Navy in the Pacific.

"The American people built our war machine. Lots of women and college students worked in defense plants at night or whenever they could to help. Everybody worked."

Thank you.
Thanks, everybody.

Sergeant DeLong receives the Silver Star

Byng, right, on leave in London