While I was away on business last week, I received word that Jim Ashford had passed away on April 9. Jim was very helpful to me in my efforts to write about the 362nd Fighter Group, perhaps because I located a photo of his plane “Okole Maluna” for him. I’ll never forget the phone call he made to me after getting a print – “I haven’t seen that plane in 62 years!” he exclaimed.
Later, we got a chance to talk at the 2006 362nd FG Association Reunion in Portland, where he was very pleased to see the little model display we staged in the reunion’s hospitality suite. Later, Obscureco sponsored a decal sheet that was given away in the IPMS/Journal featuring Jim’s “Okole Maluna” in three scales. (Want a sheet? Send me a note – we bought about 10,000!)
Jim Ashford and Chris Bucholtz at the 2006 362nd FG Reunion, Portland, OR
Jim was earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and several Air Medals for his service. He was a member of the Hawaii Air National Guard and a jet pilot for 26 years. Jim retired as a Colonel and the Commander of the Hawaii Air National Guard in 1978
Jim met Anne Landon, a Navy Wave, during the war and they married on January 5, 1946. They raised three daughters and spent much of their leisure time deep sea fishing in Hawaii.
After Anne’s death in 2003, Jim moved to Independence, Oregon to pursue his passion in flying and he built three experimental airplanes – naming them “Okole Maluna,” the same name his P-47 wore.
In 2008, we ran the following article in the Journal to accompany the decal sheet – it gives you an idea of the self-deprecating, friendly nature Jim blessed his friends and acquaintances with:
Few units in the Ninth Air Force can claim the sort of record that the 362nd Fighter Group amassed, destroying thousands of trucks, hundreds of locomotives and even sinking a captured French battleship. But the Ninth Air Force is often overshadowed by the Eighth Air Force, which went to war not only with hundreds of four-engine bombers but with a hand-picked cadre of ace public relations people. This short profile of one pilot is intended to show that bravery in the air was not limited to those who fought over German cities but also to those who fought the Germans on and near the front lines.
Jim Ashford entered the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1942, and, unlike many of his fellow airmen, he had already been overseas – as a native of Hawaii, he had spent all of his life overseas. Coming to the U.S. for training was his first exposure to many things most Americans took for granted. For example, “After I graduated from flight school, I had a train ticket to go all the way to Springfield, MA to go to P-47 training,” he said. “I wanted to stop somewhere and I didn’t know how to do that, so I had to ask some of the guys – ‘how do I arrange this? How do I handle the tickets? How do I arrange to stop and get back on the train again?’ Those kinds of things!”
After a month of training at Bradley Field in Connecticut, on the first two days of August, 1943, the 378th and 379th Fighter Squadrons traveled by convoy to the Army Air Base at Groton, Connecticut, giving the squadrons a bit more rom to train. On Sept. 16, the group moved to Suffolk Air Base on Long Island for gunnery training, and three months later, in preparation for deployment, the group moved to Mitchell Field on Long Island. November 10 saw an advanced echelon of three officers depart for England. Two days later, the entire group loaded equipment, tools, files and personal gear and departed by truck for Camp Shanks, New York, its port of departure.
While personnel were able to steal away into New York for evening adventures during their first week at Camp Shanks, an order finally came restricting them to base and on November 21, the group departed for Hoboken, where they boarded the Queen Elizabeth for the trip across the Atlantic.
After an eight-day voyage, the Queen Elizabeth pulled into Greenock in the UK. The men of the 362nd lugged their equipment off the ship and marched to the train station. After a long trip through Doncaster, Lincolnshire and Cambridge, the train finally came to a stop. From there, it was a truck convoy to Station 159, Wormingford, the group’s new home.
It took exactly a month for the group’s P-47s to arrive. The 379th Fighter Squadron was lucky enough to have a pilot named George Rarey, who had been a commercial artist in New York before the war. Rarey drew portraits of the men and added a study intended as the basis for nose art for their P-47s. One of them was Ashford’s. Rarey picked a phrase in Hawaiian that he thought would be appropriate for Ashford – “Okole Maluna.”
George Rarey’s original sketch for Okole Maluna
“The original study that Dad Rarey did was a “Rarey Bird’ flying upside down over an island,” said Ashford. “’Okole Maluna’ means ‘bottom’s up.’ When Dad Rarey came to paint the cowling, I said, ‘You know, Okole is what you sit on – it’s your ass. So it can mean, your fanny’s up.’ So he said, ‘Well, how about a can-can girl?’”
Profile of Okole Maluna, by Jack Morris
With that, P-47D-10-RE 42-75075 received its unique nose art, with the can-can girl’s skirt intruding into the white identification stripe on the nose. The plane lasted until July with the 362nd FG, then was sent for an overhaul and later transferred to the 512th Fighter Squadron, 406th Fighter Group. It was involved in an accident on August 31, 1944, but was repaired, only to be lost when it suffered an engine failure on March 9, 1945, over Belgium.
“Okole Maluna,” photographed in April 1944 by “Andy” Anderson
While in Ashford’s hands, “Okole Maluna” saw considerable action in the run-up to D-Day. On April 8, the pilots were informed that 70 trains were moving from Arras to Rouen. They found only seven, but shot them up just the same. The 379th made repeated passes, with Capt. Thurman Morrison, Lt. Kent Geyer and Lt. Vernon Ligon knocking out one locomotive and Lt. Clough Gee and Ashford destroying a second. Attacking a train required a bit of technique. “Ideally, you want to be fairly low so that your angle of dive is quite low,” Ashford said. “You don’t want to be coming down at a 45-degree angle because that means you either have to start pulling out earlier so that you don’t smash into the train, and if you’re coming down at a 45-degree angle it takes you more airspace to get that beast turned around.” So you had less time to shoot, he said. “We inevitably took more of them from the side rather than going right down the track.”
As D-Day approached, the Ninth Air Force ratcheted up the pressure on the German railroad network. On June 2, the crews loaded two 500-pounders per plane and the group attacked three different rail lines leading south and west from Amiens. Two locomotives were destroyed and other bombs were dropped on some small rail yards and a tunnel. The 379th did especially good business, putting seven bombs on the tunnel and strafing the yards northeast of Formiere, Ashford spotted a rail trestle in the woods outside Poix and put two bombs on it.
The invasion saw pilots flying as many as six missions a day, and the 362nd lost 30 planes during the month of June. On June 22, the 379th was sent off on a typical mission, to bomb the railroad line at Epernon. “We had many missions where we’d just go out to dive-bomb railroad tracks,” said Ashford. “The idea was to split the tracks. It was an easy mission to do, because if you had a straight stretch of track, you just lined it up with the track. You didn’t have to worry about fore or aft elevation, just sideways correction. You just had to make sure you were on line. If it landed a little short or a little long, it didn’t matter because you hit the track anyhow. But the Germans got very good at repairing these.”
After bombing, the squadron was jumped by German fighters but quickly turned the tables on their attackers. Lt. Gordon Larsen downed a Bf 109, and Ashford almost got a second – but it would have come at a cost. “We were always told that, if you were all ready to start shooting at a guy you’d better check your six o’clock because there’s likely to be a guy back there getting a bead on you and getting ready to shoot you,” he said. “I had this guy nailed. It was only about a five-degree deflection shot. I was in range. Everything was just perfect. I would have hammered this guy. Just before I pulled the trigger I looked behind, and there was a guy I could see who had me in his sights. I know that because I could see his belly and that means he had a little lead on me! I did an immediate break, but I heard his guns go off. I picked up two holes, but that was all. So the guy out in front of me got off scot-free, but by the same token, so did I!”
In July, the group moved to France to a field so close to the front lines that it lost two aircraft on the ground to German shelling. “When we first moved over to Normandy, our field was real close to the front lines,” said Ashford. “The strip ran roughly parallel to the lines, so whenever we were in the pattern for landing we always made our pattern to the north so we would be out of the range of their 40mm. We did one mission in close support of the troops, and I think it was in the realm of 20 minutes from takeoff to landing!”
On August 22, the 379th sent a 12-plane mission to the area around Chartres. During the first mission, after bombing and destroying a tank and 15 other vehicles, the squadron stumbled across a gaggle of 20 Bf 109s around Nantes. “That’s exactly what it was – a gaggle,” said Ashford. “It was like a hive of bees. There’s no question in my mind that there might have been one very well trained man in that whole lot who was probably leading the gaggle, but the others were not very well trained.” In the resulting furball Ashford and Lt. Ronald Hamby each destroyed one fighter, with Lt. L.O. “Doc” Savage claiming a probable. Ashford downplayed his achievement because of the obvious inexperience of the German fliers; “it didn’t take any skill to get one of them.”
While the Luftwaffe began to suffer a shortage of trained pilots, the USAAF faced a glut of hem. “Somebody assumed that the loss ratios in the squadrons would be higher than they were,” said Ashford. “We started to get replacements in. A normal squadron was around 26 pilots. Pretty soon we had near 50 per squadron – double the pilot strength. So what they did was to offer some of the guys – the original pilots in the squadron who were about halfway through their tours – they’d send you home on 30 days’ R&R and then you could come on back. I’d guess about half the pilots took it up. I wasn’t interested in that option. That meant going all the way back to Hawaii. By the time I get all the way to Hawaii, take my 30 days and get back, the war will be over! So I stayed on, and in October my tour was up. At the time, the tour for a fighter pilot was 250 combat hours. And for me, that worked out to 99 missions.”
I am very glad to have met Jim and spent time with him. His was a life well-lived and well-shared. Fair skies and following winds, Col. Ashford!