The Commemorative Air Force’s SoCal or Southern California Wing in Camarillo, California has been working for roughly two decades to restore the only known example of the North American PBJ-1 Mitchell, a navalized version of the Army Air Force’s B-25 medium bomber. The US Navy acquired just over seven hundred PBJs for US Marine Corps units, and these served mostly in the South Pacific during WWII.
The CAF’s PBJ never saw combat, but they have painted her to represent an example flown in VMB-611.
The aircraft, initially ordered under a US Army Air Force contract as B-25J 44-30988, joined the Navy as PBJ-1J Bu.35857 in early 1945. By 1947, the aircraft was surplus to requirements, and became one of just a handful of PBJs to make it onto the civilian market. She went through more than a dozen owners before joining the CAF in 1985 as a flyer. The SoCal Wing adopted her in 1993, by which point she was badly in need of repairs. A team of mechanics started working on her, anticipating a relatively easy transformation, but as they got more involved, it became clear that the Mitchell had serious corrosion problems, among many other issues. She required a near total rebuild. It was such a daunting task that the aircraft languished, as a mostly dormant pile of parts for much of the next decade. But since 2003, work picked up considerably on refurbishment, so now she is very close to flying once more. This burst of effort is accredited largely to the leadership of Marc Russell, who had the vision and the skills to galvanize the restoration crew in the tasks they needed to accomplish.
This is how the PBJ appeared when Dan Newcomb first joined the restoration team in 2005. (photo by Dan Newcomb)
A lot of structural repairs have been necessary, including the replacement of significant amounts of the aircraft’s skin. The PBJ has more or less undergone a down-to-the-last-rivet restoration. One of the last big hurdles to overcome has been the rebuild of the port R-2600 engine, which the team rebuilt over the past year with the help of AeroTrader in Chino. The team estimates that they need roughly another $50,000 in order to finish the last of the sheet metal work, propeller overhaul and a few other details such, but they hope to have the Mitchell airworthy by early 2015. In order for that to happen though, they will need our help in raising the funds. If any readers are interested in contributing, please do visit the SoCal Wing’s website HERE to find out how.
On her main gear for the first time in two years – Aug.2007 (Dan Newcomb photo).
According to one of the chief volunteers on the project, Dan Newcomb, “We have overcome most of the old non-standard mods on the plane. When we got her, she had an air stair door aft. They had removed the bomb bay and the crew hatch aft. All of the flight control cables were run under the flooring. Most of the floors were plywood. In a past life she had been used as a test bed for an electronics company [Aero Industries of Addison TX] so there were scab patches everywhere. We have replaced most of the fuselage skins top and bottom from the bomb bay aft, installed a new bomb bay [and] a new crew hatch…. We have a crew of about eight guys most of which can only contribute one day a week.”
The photograph below shows the present state of the SoCal Wing’s PBJ. She’s just awaiting a relatively small infusion of cash before she can take to the skies again.
The PBJ is painted to represent an aircraft from VMB-611 flown by Lt.Doit L. Fish. Fish was sadly killed during the war, but his son, David, is a SoCal Wing member, and deeply honored that his father would be memorialized this way. Here, David Fish tells us a little more about his dad’s wartime story.
“1st Lt Doit L Fish, was a PBJ pilot in VMB-611 under command of Lt Col George A Sarles. While I know little history on VMB-413, they served on Emirau as part of MAG-61. VMB-611 was also on Emirau, serving with her sister squadrons in MAG-61 from October 1944 to March 1945 before departing for Moret Airfield, Zamboanga, Mindanao.
Both Lt Col Sarles (PBJ-1D “MB 7″) and my father (PBJ-1J “MB 11″) were lost on May 30, 1945 while on a strike of the Kibawe Trail.
I have a photo of what I believe was VMB-611′s first “MB 11,” a PBJ-1D (BuNo unknown). I do not know its final fate; if it was damaged, lost or replaced. I do know that PBJ-1J BuNo 35243 was a replacement aircraft and it was assigned as “MB 11.” I have been told that the squadron received her sometime in April, and my father’s flight log indicates he first flew her May 7 during a strike on Del Monte.
On May 30, 1945, Lt. Col. Sarles led an all day multiple PBJ sweep of the Kibawe Trail near Davao. In the morning, his PBJ-1D “MB 7″ was hit by AA fire. He and four crew members were KIA. The third pair of PBJs arrived over the area in the afternoon and having been advised that Sarles’ PBJ had been lost, began a search, but to no avail. While making runs on their target, my father, 1st. Lt. Doit L. Fish, flying PBJ-1J “MB 11,” became missing and was never seen again. He and his seven-member crew, including a passenger, were officially declared MIA.
In November 1956, the aircraft wreckage and skeletal remains were discovered near Carmen. What was left of “MB 11″ was strewn over an area of 400-500 feet on a slope about 300 feet from the crest of a mountain peak. Found at the site were two engines, portions of the landing gear, eight .50 caliber machine guns, two .38 caliber revolvers, miscellaneous items, two crewmember’s “dog-tags” and portions of bones.
On July 15, 1957, the eight Marines were given a group burial, with full military honors, at Fort Logan National Cemetery, Denver, CO. As noted by surviving fellow pilots, the book on VMB-611 could now be closed…All planes are in.
It is an honor for me that our restoration crew decided to dedicate our PBJ-1J in the memory of VMB-611 and to name her “MB 11″ in tribute of my father.”
Please don’t forget to visit the SoCal Wing’s website HERE to find out how you can help this PBJ finally take to the skies again! You can follow the SoCal Wing on Facebook HERE too. And there is a Facebook page dedicated to the restoration of their PBJ HERE.
For more pictures of the restoration visit Wabirds News.