By Pierre Kosmidis
Photos, text and research submitted by Dan Farnham, used by permission
Designed in 1936 by the Curtiss Aircraft Corporation, the CW-20 was originally intended to be an airliner. The first CW-20 was flown on March 26, 1940 and at the time it was the largest twin-engine transport in the world. It had a wingspan of 108 feet and a length of 76 feet.
Curtiss had built the CW-20 as a replacement for the Curtiss ‘Condor’ and other biplane transports, as well as to compete with the Douglas DC-3 which had already entered service with American Airlines. Curtiss wanted a plane that was larger and faster than the DC-3, in order to compete for the lucrative market for civilian transport aircraft.
The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 sidetracked the CW-20’s civilian career and put it into uniform. The U.S. Army Air Force gave the plane the designation C-46 and named it the ‘Commando’.
It was powered by two 2,000 horsepower radial engines, and it had a maximum speed of 270mph and a range of 3,150 miles. The Commando carried a crew of four which consisted of a pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer, and a radioman.
The next production version was the C-46A, which had a reinforced floor that allowed it to carry up to 15,000 pounds of cargo, or 40 soldiers, or 33 litter patients and four attendants, or a variety of other cargos. Large twin cargo doors were added on the left side of the plane, which allowed easy loading and unloading of the plane.
Commandos gained their greatest recognition during the war as the mainstay of the massive air supply operation between the Assam region of India, to supply friendly forces in southwest China.
Flying over a notorious region of the Himalayas known as the ‘Hump’, Army C-46’s flew supplies from primitive airfields to keep beleaguered Allied forces supplied at a time when the Burma Road had been closed by the Japanese Army.
A total of 3,181 Commandos were built during the war, and almost all of them went to the U.S. Army Air Force.
Of that total, 160 Commandos were given to the U.S. Navy for use mostly by the Marine Corps.
The U.S. Navy gave it the designation ‘R5C-1’, which stood for ‘Transport, fifth transport type from Curtiss’ and the ‘C’ was the letter given by the U.S. Navy to all aircraft built by the Curtiss Aircraft Corporation.
In the Pacific, two R5C-1 squadrons flew from Ewa, Hawaii in 1944 in support of the invasions of the Marshall and Mariana islands. Their duties included flying in supplies and evacuating wounded troops, among other tasks they were assigned.
In July 1944, Marine Transport Squadron 252 (VMR-252) was based at Abemama in the Gilbert Islands (today known as Kiribati), and it established a forward echelon at Kwajalein Island.
In September the squadron moved in its entirely to Kwajalein Island. In addition to the usual supply runs, VMR-252 Commandos flew missions evacuating wounded troops from the forward battle areas, and provided long-distance navigational escort for other aircraft flying across the vast emptiness of the ocean to destinations such as Saipan, Guam, and other far-flung bases around the Central Pacific.
VMR-252 was based at Kwajalein Island until the squadron was moved to Guam in March 1945.
There is one Commando wreck in the Kwajalein lagoon, and it is a former VMR-252 plane. It began its military service as a USAAF C-46A, serial number 42-3585.
On December 31, 1943 it was transferred to the U.S. Navy and given the R5C-1 designation, and the Bureau of Aeronautics number 39525 (‘BuNo’ for short). On January 11, 1944 it was delivered to VMR-252, which at the time was at Ewa, Hawaii and getting ready to move to Abemama.
On June 16, 1944 this Commando flew from Abemama to Roi Island. The plan was to provide navigational escort, along with five other Commandos of VMR-252, for a group of F4U ‘Corsair’ fighters which were scheduled to fly from Roi to Saipan.
At the time, the runway on Roi was six feet above sea level and extended right to the water’s edge. As the Commando made its approach, the landing gear struck the edge of the runway.
The plane bounced moderately, but the pilot was able to maintain control and make a normal landing and rollout. Moments later, as the plane turned off the runway, the left landing gear collapsed, causing major structural damage to the left wing, engine nacelle and propeller.
As a result of the accident, the Commando sat out of commission on Roi for the next seven months, until January 26, 1945, when it was transferred to CASU-F-20 for disposal. Not long after, sometime between February 8th and 28th, it was taken out into the lagoon via barge and shoved into the water near Mellu Island.
The Commando came to rest at a depth of 115 feet. The engines, and outer wings past the engine nacelles are missing, as are the tail surfaces. But even though only the fuselage remains, it is still a large wreck. One of the cargo doors on the left side of the fuselage is missing, and looking in through the opening is like looking into a warehouse- the interior is cavernous, especially for divers who are used to the wrecks of smaller, single-engine planes.
In two out of the four dives I’ve done on this plane so far, a lionfish has been spotted occupying the cockpit. And like all the other planes in the ‘aircraft graveyard’, marine life abounds on the wreck.
I’ve heard rumors that the wings and tail surfaces have been spotted not far away, but I have not seen them despite several dives on the Commando and other plane wrecks nearby.
The only separate wing sections I’ve seen in that general area of the “aircraft graveyard” belong to a TBF/TBM ‘Avenger’. That’s not to say they aren’t out there, just that I have not seen them myself, nor seen any photos of them taken by other divers.
As I close this installment of the series, I’d like to give a special thanks to Craig Busby, who provided factory records from Curtiss that confirm the USAAF serial number was 42-3585, prior to transfer to the U.S. Navy.
Both of the references I’d been using in the past had listed incorrect serial numbers, which wasn’t helping my research.
Thanks to Craig, we now know what the USAAF serial number actually was, and the full story of this specific Commando has now been told here, for the first time anywhere.
Marine Corps R5C-1 squadrons never earned much recognition. This is unfortunate, because without those planes, hundreds of wounded soldiers would have died before reaching advanced medical care, and many tons of needed supplies would not have been delivered.
Even though they weren’t given the praise that a lot of other types of planes received, R5C-1 Commandos nevertheless contributed greatly to the war effort, and helped bring about a quicker end to the Pacific War.