How One Man’s Rescue Mission Really Did Change the Course of World War II

'Indestructible' offers a glimpse of the Pacific theater like you've never before seen. Here,American troops watch columns of smoke rising from the coast of Leyte province in the Philippines after preliminary bombardments leading to the American landings on the first day of the Battle of Leyte, 20th October 1944. Getty Images

The tagline for John R. Bruning’s new work of non-fiction Indestructible sounds like a publisher’s hyperbolic sales pitch: “One man’s rescue mission that changed the course of WWII.” But here’s the thing: It’s not. Paul Irvin Gunn’s time in World War II is the stuff of legends — and its fast-paced, page-turning telling in Bruning’s book does the man’s Herculean feats justice. There’s his daredevil flying over the Philippines — low, unarmed, through thick jungle and often pursued by Japanese fighters; his on-the-fly modifications to bombs and planes (think, blowtorches, screwdrivers, and parts recovered from wreckages); and then his single-minded pursuit to save his family from (spoiler) detention under the Japanese. The book reads more like an overly detailed movie script than a work of historical non-fiction, complete with a heart-wrenching love story and heroic conclusion. Below is an exclusive excerpt from the book detailing a pivotal moment late in the war when Gunn and his crew, under constant fire and bombs, turn a tiny peninsula into a crucial landing strip. —Tyghe Trimble 

October 20, 1944

White Beach, Leyte Island, Philippines

Forty-four-year old Lt. Col. Paul Irvin Gunn gazed out across the placid cerulean sea, awed by the sight playing out around him. Battleships steamed off White Beach, their main gun batteries belching flames and smoke. Cruisers and destroyers loitered nearby, awaiting their turns in the morning sunlight. Overhead, Navy fighters orbited protectively while dive bombers streaked down on targets behind the beach Pappy’s men would soon be storming.

His landing craft rocked in the gentle swells as it churned around its mother ship, its crew awaiting the order to drive in on the beach. Around him, hundreds of ships and boats and craft of all sizes filled Leyte Gulf. It was power he’d never before seen, the awe-inspiring fruits of a total war economy and a united country with industrial power never seen before in human history.

If only such ships and planes existed in 1941. If only this moment had come in 1942 instead of two and a half years after he’d left Manila on that dark and chaotic Christmas Eve.

He was here now at the tip of the spear, helping to ensure MacArthur made good his promise to return. Instead of being thousands of miles from Polly and the children, Pappy was only a few hundred now.

For two hours, three battleships pounded the invasion beach and its rear areas. The massive shells blew meters-deep craters in the soft Leyte soil. They blasted trees to splinters, demolished buildings, bunkers, pillboxes, and supply dumps. Then the battlewagons gave way to their smaller consorts. The cruisers closed on the beach, their guns bellowing in a rapid-fire cacophony. A line of destroyers finished the job just as the order was given to send in the assault waves.

As one, the hundreds of landing craft wheeled for White Beach, a small spit of sand edged by coconut trees and backed by a swamp. The Seventh Cavalry would be the first ashore, eager to redeem their regiment’s honor and erase the stain of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn two generations before.

Pappy Gunn and the engineers assigned to get Tacloban airfield operational would land just behind the Seventh. Once ashore, they would pivot right and start working on the strip as soon as the cavalry troopers cleared the area of Japanese.

The waves of landing craft approached the beach as gunboats rippled salvos of rockets into Japanese positions. Their impacts created an overwhelming roar as they tore apart both man and nature. A few hundred yards out, and every available machine gun threw lead at the beach to force the Japanese to keep their heads down.

The first waves grounded ashore, ramps dropped, and hundreds of well-armed American cavalry men poured onto White Beach. The Japanese defenders were able to respond with only sporadic rifle and machine gun fire.

The Seventh pushed into the tree line, moving fast with tanks in close support. Half the regiment drove west toward Tacloban City. The other half swung right for the Cataisan Peninsula, fighting their way past Filipino shacks and the swamp until they reached the road to the airfield.

Right behind them, the engineers and Pappy’s force of fifty can-doers splashed ashore and chased after the Seventh. Pappy outfitted his team with pistols and submachine guns and packs of extra ammunition on top of an assortment of gear he thought useful once they reached the airfield. They looked rugged and ready, like modern-day pirates on a raiding mission.

They reached the road at the base of the peninsula and made their way north, encountering dead Japanese soldiers sprawled in the sand on either side of the blacktop. By 1600, Custer’s old command had finished clearing the airfield, and Pappy’s crew arrived to assist in any way they could. The engineers set to work lengthening the runway. It would have to extend almost to the base of the peninsula to handle the kind of planes Kenney wanted to base there.

They needed heavy equipment, but their bulldozers and graders had not yet arrived. Pappy and part of his team went off to search for whatever might be of use while the rest of his men began repairing some buildings that could be used as repair shops.

While foraging for gear, Pappy’s crew wandered behind Japanese lines west of the peninsula and found an abandoned dozer. It wouldn’t start at first, but Pappy dug into it and got it fired up. They drove it back to the airfield and turned it over to the engineers.

As they worked, the Japanese attacked. Low-flying fighters strafed the beaches, setting freshly landed supplies ablaze. Others machine-gunned and bombed the men building the runway, and more than once Pappy had to dive for cover. He quickly ordered some of his men to start digging slit trenches on either side of the runway, even as more Japanese aircraft broke through the aerial cordon to bomb ships offshore.

Kenney reached the airfield and found a scene of complete chaos. Incoming Japanese fighters sent men scurrying for cover. Much of what the engineers needed had not yet been landed, including the critical steel mats they would need to lay down and lock into place on the runway to make it usable after rainstorms. The peninsula was only three hundred yards wide, and the strip took up most of that. There’d be no room for revetments or much else, and Kenney quickly calculated he’d be lucky to get seventy-five fighters based there when it was done.

This was the best field they had. Farther to the south, American troops captured a flat stretch of ground near Dulag that was supposed to be turned into another strip. But one look at the boggy place, and the engineers realized it would take herculean efforts to get it functional.

For now, the 420 aircraft aboard Adm. Thomas Kincaid’s twelve tiny jeep carriers provided air cover. That number seemed large, but the Navy pilots needed to patrol above their own flight decks to keep them safe, plus provide antisub missions, scouting runs, and other operations. At any given time, only a few dozen fighters could be overhead to protect the hundreds of vessels in Leyte Gulf.

The Japanese quickly overwhelmed that fighter cover with a myriad of small attacks. The Americans simply could not be everywhere at once, and on that first day, the Japanese set the tone for the invasion. Their pilots would not give up without a fight. In fact, two of them crashed their planes into a pair of Allied cruisers in what was one of the first dedicated kamikaze attacks of the war.

Kenney’s men needed to get Tacloban up and running without delay. Col. David “Photo” Hutchison arrived later that day with the headquarters of the 308th Bomb Wing, the outfit that would form the tip of the Fifth Air Force’s spear in the Philippines. His was a command without aircraft at the moment, but Hutchison made Pappy his airdrome officer. From a fire brigade leader, Pappy was now responsible for the most important piece of real estate in the Philippines.

The engineers reported that they needed something to grade the runway with so that it could withstand use by heavy aircraft. The field had been cut straight out of the jungle before the war and had been used only by light aircraft. Now, before they could lay the steel mats down, they needed a more rugged layer than just the existing sand and dirt. Pappy set off late that day in search of something usable. He returned and reported that a source for crushed coral lay only two miles away. That was good news, and trucks were dispatched to go tap the source the next morning.

The next day, the first deliveries of steel planking arrived. Called Marston mat, these heavy planks were an ingenious and little heralded American invention that ensured airfields could be constructed almost everywhere in the world. They were modular, Swiss cheese-looking planks of steel that could be interlocked in different ways to form a sort of puzzle-piece airdrome. Used all over the Pacific for runways, taxiways, and dispersal areas, these products of North Carolina became one of the keys to victory over the Japanese.

When the first load of Marston mat arrived, Pappy showed up with almost two hundred Filipino volunteers to help carry them into place. Each plank was ten feet long and fifteen inches wide and weighed sixty-six pounds. To build a three-thousand-foot-long runway required thousands of these mats. Getting them into place was always manpower intensive. Pappy had foreseen that and had gone off in search of old friends among the civilian population to ask for help. Over the coming days, he eventually recruited almost fifteen hundred Filipinos for the job.

Nothing went right at first. Only five hundred feet worth of Marston mat arrived. While Pappy’s crews laid it down and the engineers hooked it together, another wave of air attacks hammered the ships offshore. The landing craft crews became so spooked that they didn’t want to deliver their supplies and troops to their assigned beaches, where they would be vulnerable as they disgorged the cargo in the surf. Instead, they made for the nearest point of land—which happened to be the Cataisan Peninsula.

While everyone at the field worked frantically, the Navy’s landing craft suddenly began dumping piles of equipment destined for other units right in the middle of their work space. By the time Kenney arrived for another look at progress on the twenty-third, two dozen landing craft had dumped their loads atop the airfield and construction had all but ground to a halt. Some of the stacks of supplies towered over ten feet high. Kenney was beside himself. He went up to Tacloban to take a look for himself. As he was driving up the peninsula to the edge of the runway, a Japanese bomber streaked overhead and clobbered a nearby landing craft. It burst into flames only a few hundred yard offshore.

At the strip, Kenney saw the problem needed a high-level solution. Somebody with major pull had to get those Navy boat crews to stop gumming up his airfield with stuff his guys couldn’t use. He contacted the Navy, and MacArthur, and said it needed to stop at once. Even then, twenty-eight more craft were about to offload on the airstrip. Desperate to stop this insanity, Kenney ordered Hutchison to bulldoze into the sea any supplies still clogging the airfield on the morning of the twenty-fifth. In the meantime, Pappy volunteered to make sure no other boats would land — by setting up a line of machine guns along the peninsula’s beaches. He kept watch over them, figuring since he was an old salt he’d be able to talk to the Navy crews in their language and convince them to go find another place to dump their stuff. The machine guns would back up his words.

Amid all the logistical issues, the Japanese continued their attacks. Speeding fighters roared over the runway at treetop level in surprise strafing runs every few hours. Other attacks came in at higher altitude, and a radar set that had made it ashore gave the men a bit of advanced warning before their bombs began to fall.

During each attack, everyone would scramble for cover. Kenney witnessed many attacks during his visits to the strip. Pappy and the others endured them all. Once, while standing beside a jeep with Colonel Hutchison, a lone Japanese fighter pilot flashed over the field in a surprise strafing run. Together they dove under the jeep as bullets raked past them.

No matter how close the call, as soon as the Japanese had passed, Pappy would bound up and order everyone back to work. They got so good at it that they squeezed a few extra minutes of work between air raid warnings and the actual arrival of level bombers. Every minute counted when men offshore were dying in this onslaught.

On the twenty-fourth, far out to sea, American scout planes and submarines discovered the Japanese fleet had sailed against the Leyte invasion force. Coming in from multiple directions in several task groups, the Imperial Navy hoped to overwhelm the Americans and break through to the vulnerable transports and cargo ships. They would stand no chance against Japanese battleships, and if they could be destroyed, the entire invasion would fail. It was one of the great gut-check moments of American military history. The Japanese nearly pulled it off.

Throughout the day of the twenty-fourth, American carrier planes bombed the incoming Japanese battleships and cruisers. These attacks sank numerous ships, including the Musashi, the largest battleship ever built. That night, the last battleship versus battleship encounter in naval history took place in Surigao Strait to the south of the Leyte beachhead. The Americans ambushed and annihilated the Japanese task force.

By dawn of the twenty-fifth, it looked like the Americans had scored a great victory. Then the Yamato, Musashi’s sister ship, and her consorts steamed right into Adm. Thomas Kincaid’s force of baby flattops. Those vulnerable escort carriers and their attending destroyers were the only American ships between the Japanese battleships and the transports off the Leyte beaches. In one of the epic naval engagements of World War II, the escort carriers launched their planes and tried frantically to evade the guns of the Japanese fleet while brave destroyer crews made suicide runs to buy the flattops time.

The Navy pilots made desperate attacks against the Japanese behemoths, strafing their decks and dropping bombs. They even launched dummy torpedo runs when they ran out of ordnance and ammo. The Japanese, unable to tell the difference between the real and fake attacks, maneuvered against each one. That threw off their aim as they fired at the fleeing carriers and bought the American sailors a little bit more time.

With their ships twisting and turning to dodge car-sized battleship shells, the pilots could not land and refuel on their decks. The fast carriers, the ones that could hold up to a hundred planes each, had sailed north earlier in the day to attack another Japanese task force. There were no more decks for these courageous aircrew to use.

Except for the unsinkable one at Tacloban and a barely functional strip at Dulag. The pilots flew south even as the jeep carrier USS Gambier Bay went down in flames under a deluge of shell hits. The bombers needed fuel and weapons to help stop this onslaught until better help could arrive, and they prayed they would find it at Pappy’s airfield.

Stacks of abandoned supplies no longer cluttered Tacloban, and the Filipinos were able to lay eighteen hundred feet of Marston mat by the morning of the twenty-fifth. Still, the strip was barely halfway complete. Nevertheless, Navy planes began landing by midmorning. Many of the first ones down crashed at the end of the Marston mat as their tires sank into the soft Leyte sand. The engineers bulldozed them out of the way to make room for others. A joint Army-Navy air control team using radio-equipped jeeps made contact with the pilots overhead and began to guide them in properly. One by one, they dropped down and skidded to a halt, the crews piling out to help refuel and rearm them.

They quickly discovered they faced the same problem the Twenty-Seventh Bomb Group found with its dive bombers back in Australia in the dark days of 1942. Even after three years of war, Army and Navy bomb shackles were still not compatible. Pappy saw the problem and rounded up some of his fire brigade troops. Together, they modified the bombs on the fly with blow torches, welding and cutting tools then sent them back to the waiting aircraft. Loaded aboard safely, the planes took off north to south as others landed in their wake.

The operation continued at a manic pace at Tacloban as the Navy bombers sped north to attack the Japanese in reckless solo runs. Soon more planes streamed in after 1000 when a furious kamikaze attack sank another of Admiral Kincaid’s flattops and heavily damaged three others. In just a few hours, almost half his flight decks had been put out of action. There’d be no Navy air cover for the invasion fleet anchored off the Leyte beaches now. In fact, the dependency inverted as a result of the surprise Japanese onslaught. Kincaid’s pilots were depending on Tacloban and the army now.

Almost a hundred planes landed at Pappy’s field that morning and afternoon. Of the first sixty-five to land, twenty crashed. A few others tried to get down at Dulag, but there were no facilities, fuel bombs, or ammo there yet, and they ended up marooned on the island as a result. Somehow, amid all the broken aluminum and confusion, not a single naval aviator was killed.

The constant air attacks broke the Japanese commander’s resolve, and the battleships turned for home, their escorting cruisers and destroyers providing antiaircraft cover from the ongoing American aerial charges.

While all this unfolded, Adm. William “Bull” Halsey’s fast flattops were fighting a different battle against a Japanese carrier task force to the north. The Imperial Navy counted on that, and they dangled some of their last remaining aircraft carriers in front of Halsey as bait. He took it and steamed north away from the landing area to sink them.

Now, that afternoon, he sent part of his carrier force under Adm. John McCain to go back and help Kincaid out. Late in the day, he launched his bombers at the Japanese battleships fleeing San Bernardino Strait. He did so at their maximum range, knowing full well that many of those planes would never make it back to his ships.

McCain radioed Tacloban and asked if his bombers could divert to the field there. Hutchison calculated that they would arrive after sunset and said no. He had no landing lights, no way to illuminate the runway, and besides, the place was still a mess, with piles of broken Navy planes scattered along the length of the strip.

He thought no more of it until he and Pappy were talking over the events of the day in his tent and his field telephone rang. An air controller told him they had Navy planes in the pattern requesting landing instructions. They were low on fuel and some of them were shot up. It was either Tacloban or the waters of Leyte Gulf.

“I can bring ’em in,” Pappy said. Before Hutchison could ask how, he stood up and bolted from the tent to go scrounge what he needed. He found a couple of metal frying pans and strapped a flashlight to each one’s handle. The light reflected into the pan, creating an instant beacon. Satisfied, he raced to the edge of the runway through a growing rainstorm.

During his Navy career, Pappy spent many years aboard aircraft carriers. He made countless landings at night on pitching narrow decks in all manners of weather and knew that the secret to such dangerous operations lay in excellent coordination with the ship’s Landing Signal Officer (LSO). The LSO stood at the edge of the deck with a pair of brightly colored paddles. As the planes made their final approach, the LSOs would guide them in with arm signals. The LSOs were always experienced pilots and they knew what the guy in the cockpit was going through as he prepared to land aboard. It was an incredibly effective system that remained in use until the dawn of the digital age.

Those flyboys overhead needed an LSO. The weather was growing worse. They were up there, scared, orbiting in darkness, with the half-finished strip their one chance. Pappy gave the word to bring them in, and the air controllers passed it along.

Standing alone at Cataisan Point, face to the sea, Pappy flipped on the flashlights. Instant LSO paddles. He stretched his arms out, like mimicking a bird soaring through the air. Ahead of him, he could see the landing lights of an approaching plane coming down toward him. The pilot saw his lighted pans and knew instantly there was a Navy pilot on the ground guiding him in. He watched Pappy’s arm movements and followed his signals. He banked and slipped to line up on the runway, then Pappy gave him the cut engine sign—a paddle raked across his throat. The pilot throttled down and dropped safely onto the runway.

No time to celebrate. Another plane was coming in. Pappy lined him up and got him aboard safely. A third followed. By then, he’d been standing in the open for quite a while, exposing himself to any lingering Japanese snipers as the rain soaked through his uniform. It didn’t matter. All he cared about was getting those boys down safe. If any of the Japanese snipers still lingering in the area took potshots at him, so be it.

He brought two dive bombers from USS Hancock down safely. They were part of a squadron of twelve that had tried to attack the Japanese battleship task force. Then something totally unexpected happened. An aircraft in the pattern swung onto its final approach. Its landing lights blazed, and its gear was down. Pappy started bringing it in. Down the strip, Hutchison and Kenney watched as the pilot didn’t seem to react to Pappy’s directions. Suddenly, the pilot slammed the throttle forward, pulled the gear up and sped over the edge of the runway. He banked hard left and extended out over the water — directly toward the darkened shape of a landing craft anchored offshore. The vessel suddenly exploded in flames as a bomb struck her and put a torch to a cargo of aviation fuel.

It was a Japanese bomber. The crew sneaked into the pattern and pretended to be a landing American plane until the last possible moment. The pilot pulled off quite a coup, but the attack ended up benefiting the other American planes overhead. The flames from the ship cast a yellow-orange glow across the entire peninsula, and Pappy’s paddles were no longer needed. One by one, the remaining planes touched down safely. Not a single one crashed, and there were no casualties among the crews. Sources vary on how many Pappy brought home, but it was probably somewhere between nine and twenty. He saved a lot of American lives that night with his quick improvisation.

Two days later, Tacloban officially opened for business. Maj. Gerald R. Johnson, one of the Fifth Air Force’s great fighter aces, brought in the first twenty-five P‑38 Lightnings. They landed, refueled, and went to work searching for Japanese raiders.

In six and a half days, the men at Tacloban pulled off a near-impossible feat. They built a usable airfield in the middle of a chaotic war zone while under constant air attack and hobbled by innumerable problems nobody had foreseen. Work on the strip virtually stopped through the twenty-fifth as everyone focused on getting the Navy planes down, refueled, and rearmed, and bad weather hampered their efforts after that. It was an incredible achievement. With the strip open for business and Lightnings buzzing overhead, Pappy returned to thoughts of getting to Manila. Since landing at Leyte, he grew increasingly paranoid that the Japanese would either kill his family or move them out of Santo Tomas if they should discover he was back in the Philippines. He kept a low profile as a result, avoiding all reporters and staying out of the limelight.

The Filipinos who came to work at the airfield for him included a number of guerrillas. Pappy knew some of them, and one of them tipped him off on where the insurgents thought Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita had located his headquarters in downtown Manila. He was the Japanese commander in the Philippines. Pappy went straight to Colonel Hutchison with this intel and demanded a plane so he could go kill him.

Hutchison turned Pappy down. Kenney concurred, telling him he was more valuable alive than any dead Japanese general was to the air force. Besides, if he was shot down, he could be tortured into giving up information that could get his family killed. That thought sobered Pappy. He realized they were right. If the Japanese learned his identity and checked the internee rolls, he had no doubt they would execute his family along with him.

He would go in with the ground troops and be with the first ones through the gate. At this point, that was the only way to be sure he wouldn’t get them killed if another aerial rescue attempt failed.

Hutchison didn’t know quite what to think of Pappy’s change of mind-set.

Just to be sure, he told everyone on the airfield that the mad Arkansan was not to fly on any combat missions. Nor was he to be given a plane under any circumstances. Even then, he worried Pappy would try to steal one. Pappy went back to work around the airfield. His old band of pirates busily constructed a control tower from palm logs cut and dragged up from the base of the peninsula. He oversaw the construction of antiaircraft emplacements and the storage locations for bombs, fuel, and ammunition. The repair shops were now working overtime to keep Johnson’s P‑38s flying. Already they’d been scoring victories, knocking down dive bombers over the invasion fleet only a few hours after arriving on the field.

A typhoon blew in on the twenty-eighth and offered them a short break from the relentless hit-and-run air attacks. But the weather turned the strip at Dulag into a swamp and made the living conditions at Tacloban even more miserable. The next day, with the skies clear, the Japanese returned.

This time, a single Ki‑43 Hayabusa fighter raced over the wave tops of Leyte Gulf, evaded radar detection and surprised everyone at Tacloban. It barreled down the runway bare feet off the ground, its twin machine guns spraying bullets into a line of P‑38s. Jerry Johnson’s crew chief, Jack Hedgepeth, was killed instantly in the cockpit of the great leader’s P‑38, where he’d been cleaning the windscreen before the morning’s mission.

Even with the arrival of one of the best fighter units in the Pacific, Tacloban remained a very dangerous place.

The next day, Kenney was back at the field when four Japanese fighter-bombers appeared over the water, heading straight for the runway. The antiaircraft gunners opened up, but the four were fast and low. None were hit.

They machine-gunned their way down the airstrip, dropping light, sixty-pound phosphorous bombs as they went. They scored a direct hit on an antiaircraft gun crew, killing two men. Farther down the runway, a pair of P‑38s erupted in flames. Kenney was standing next to a jeep with a map spread on its hood, talking to an engineer officer when the attack began. As the fighters strafed their way to him, he and the engineer ducked behind the vehicle. Ten feet away, a burst of machine gun fire tore into a truck, wounding the driver and setting it afire.

Pappy was caught in his jeep in the middle of the attack out in the open. One of the planes zoomed right over him, guns blazing. A split second later, a bomb landed a few feet in front of the jeep.

The explosion blew him out of the driver’s seat and flung him to the ground. He lay sprawled there, unconscious for several moments. Then he sat up and climbed shakily to his feet. He took a few jerky steps, crying out in agony, then collapsed facedown, unmoving, on the cold steel runway he had done so much to build.

Excerpted from Indestructible: One Man’s Rescue Mission that Changed the Course of WWII by John R. Bruning, with permission from Hachette Books, a division of Hachette Book Group. Copyright 2016 by John R. Bruning.