Riding out the Storm

While World War II had officially ended in August 1945, men were still stationed in the Pacific in October as groups went through the demobilization process. On October 7th, men from the 22nd Bomb Group were going about their business when a weather announcement interrupted the radio broadcast. A typhoon that had previously been on a northwesterly course that would take it 150 miles west of Okinawa had suddenly veered off that path, headed north towards Okinawa, where it was predicted to make landfall the next day. October 8th started out calm and sunny, but the men kept an ear out for any new information and an eye on the sky. That afternoon, the weather changed drastically as Typhoon Louise began her march across Okinawa.

The camp was pelted by heavy rain and high winds that night, with the weather deteriorating even further the following day. When the men woke up on the 9th, the wind was gusting up to 70mph (112.7km/h). Pilots and crew chiefs kept the noses of their B-24s pointed into the winds to minimize damage to the planes. Out in Bruckner Bay, the Navy recorded a barometric pressure of 989 millibars and falling at 1000 hours. Later that morning, the wind and rain lessened, then stopped as the eye of the storm passed over the camp. For a few hours, the sun was out and it was ominously calm and very muggy. The men knew the storm wasn’t over and braced themselves for round two.

The rain and wind began again around 1500 with a ferocity greater than the Group had already experienced. They hurried to secure tents and buildings as the typhoon’s powerful winds increased. Back in the bay, the pressure had dropped to 968.5 millibars, its lowest recording, by 1600. Three hours later at camp, a group of men were huddling in a four-foot square insulated food locker to avoid getting hit by flying debris as tents and buildings were ripped apart by the howling winds. The storm continued to intensify, only to finally start letting up around the early morning hours of the 10th and completely moved out by the 11th. The men inspected the damage and began the arduous tasks of cleaning up and rebuilding. The Group’s anemometer blew away after recording 132mph (212.4 km/h), though it was estimated that Louise’s peak windspeed at the camp was at least 150mph (241.4 km/h).

22nd Bomb Group Area After Typhoon

The aftermath of Typhoon Louise

Thankfully, none of the 22nd men were killed by what would go down as the strongest storm to hit Okinawa at that time. The Navy was not so lucky. Because of Louise’s quick change, hundreds of Navy vessels had to ride out the storm in Bruckner Bay instead of out at sea. Ships that had laid anchor were dragged back and forth across the harbor or onto dry land, scraping against other ships along the way. The storm killed 36 men, injured 100 and 47 more were missing. Twelve vessels were sunk, with 222 grounded and 32 damaged. Over 60 planes were also damaged.

Bent Flagpole

Taken in front of Group headquarters shortly after the October typhoon, the tremendous power of the storm is evident. The steel flagpole was bent parallel to the ground by the ferocious winds.

Pesky Parafrags

On January 8, 1945, the 345th Bomb Group’s 498th and 499th Squadrons were sent to hit Fabrica Airdrome on the Negros Islands. Between the two squadrons, two B-25s were fatally damaged, but they destroyed three Japanese fighters on the ground. One of the two B-25s, PLANE LONESOME, sustained a hit to the right wing tank by machine gun fire. It burst into flame and crashed in a forest, killing all aboard.

As the rest of the planes left the target area and headed home, one of 1/Lt. John B. Boyd’s wingmen noticed a parafrag was caught on the bomb bay doors of Boyd’s brand new B-25J, #44-29352. When Boyd opened the doors, two parafrags drifted away. A third, caught by its chute, exploded after it struck the fuselage of the plane. S/Sgt. William J. McGrath, the crew’s tail gunner, at first thought they had been hit by flak. When he turned around, he saw a three foot hole in the floor between himself and the radio operator, T/Sgt. Robert C. Dusenberry, blown out windows, a four foot gash in the plane’s ceiling, and a small fire that was soon extinguished by the air rushing through the fuselage. McGrath immediately went to the slumped Dusenberry, who had gone into shock due to his injuries from the blast.

Damage to B-25J #44-29352

The damaged fuselage after the parafrag exploded.

McGrath heard the B-25’s engines change pitch as the aircraft started climbing. He thought the pilot was preparing to order the crew to bail out, but he knew Dusenberry would not be able to do so. He quickly hurried to the cockpit to talk with Boyd and convinced him otherwise, then went back to Dusenberry. Within a few minutes McGrath felt the plane descending and once again went forward to voice his concern about he tail breaking off if they ditched in the water. Boyd agreed to keep the plane flying as long as possible.

After a tense hour, the crew sighted Tacloban, though they knew the landing was going to be rough. The tires on the main wheels were torn to pieces by the explosion and they weren’t sure if the fuselage would hold together. Fortunately, Boyd brought the plane down safely. Once the crew was back on the ground and Dusenberry was on his way to being treated for his injuries, another parafrag was discovered hanging in the bomb bay. It was promptly disarmed by the explosive ordnance demolition squad. The formerly new #352 was salvaged.

You can find this and many other stories about the 345th Bomb Group in Warpath Across the Pacific.

Attacking Babo

Back in April 1942, the Japanese landed at Babo, in what was then the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), on the southern section of the McCluer Gulf. At the time, Babo’s airfield had a single runway, which had previously been used by the Dutch airline KLM. The Japanese built a second runway and Babo became a stronghold for its army and navy missions on the Vogelkop Peninsula—the west end of the island of New Guinea. After Japanese planes from Babo attacked an American amphibious landing at Biak in May 1944, Gen. Kenney hoped to get rid of the nuisance once and for all. With the 388th and 389th Squadrons recently having moved westward to Hollandia, Babo was in range of their low-level bombers. Even so, there were approximately 50 antiaircraft positions on the base, which would present quite a challenge to the squadrons.

Two dozen A-20s were led to Babo by the 312th’s C.O., Col. Strauss, on July 9, 1944. They flew along the Kasira River, six abreast, and were met with what was later described by Sgt. Charles H. Fessler as a “wall of fire” consisting of antiaircraft, machine gun, and possibly mortar fire. While the antiaircraft fire was intense, it was not well aimed, and probably hadn’t been set for enemy aircraft coming in at a low altitude. Col. Strauss’ plane, OLD S, still ended up with damage from ground fire.

The 388th Squadron flew over Babo first. Lt. Wayne C. Hoblit in 2/Lt. Lowell H. Morrow’s A-20, MISCHIEVOUS MARY II, had promised Morrow he would bring the plane back in one piece. Hoblit and his gunner, Fessler, heard several dull, thunking noises against the plane, which then jerked down to the left. Morrow’s A-20 was returned to him with a hole in the starboard wing, several holes in the fuselage, and piece of flak six inches long that landed very close to Fessler’s right foot. The 388th got away with damage to four A-20s and successfully took out three machine gun positions, a radio tower (hit by the right wing of an A-20), blew up a fuel tank, and damaged two Japanese fighters on the ground.

After the 388th’s runs, the Japanese readjusted the aim of their antiaircraft guns and were unfortunately prepared for the second wave of A-20s belonging to the 389th Squadron. 1/Lt. Earl G. Hill’s aircraft received a direct hit over the target, erupted into a ball of flame, lost its right wing and plunged into Bentoni Bay, killing him and his gunner, Sgt. Ray Glacken. A second A-20 flown by 1/Lt. Walter H. Van was hit by ground fire. His A-20 crashed and exploded. He and his gunner, S/Sgt. Gilbert V. Cooper did not survive.

312th Bomb Group A-20s flying over Babo Airdrome during WWII

1/Lt. Kenneth I. Hedges is flying THE QUEEN OF SPADES. He lost both of his wingmen (Hill and Van) on this raid.

The Squadron lost a third plane that day when 1/Lt. Walter S. Sparks’ A-20 was hit in both engines, forcing him to land in Bentoni Bay. Just before the aircraft touched the water, Sparks released the canopy. The plane hit the water, throwing Sparks 50 feet away from his plane. It is unknown whether his safety belt and shoulder harness had come undone or if they even fit correctly in the first place. Both of Sparks arms were broken, leaving him unable to inflate his life jacket. He yelled to his gunner, Sgt. Howard F. Williams, for help. Williams was also injured and fought his way over to Sparks, but it was too late. Sparks slipped beneath the surface. Williams took off his life jacket and dove several times to retrieve Sparks, but could not find him. He was soon rescued by a Catalina and relieved to be away from the sharks circling nearby. Sparks’ body was never found.

From a military standpoint, the attack on Babo was successful. The two squadrons severely damaged the airdrome and dispersal areas, started several fires, hit two fighters on the ground, and destroyed a radio tower, machine gun positions and a fuel tank. The raid also cost the Group five men and three aircraft, which were the heaviest losses to enemy fire at that time. “…however lucrative a target it might be, [Babo] was not yet a suitable target for two squadrons of A-20’s,” observed 312th historian Lt. Nathaniel Rothstein.

Sgt. John Spatharos’ bomber called ‘Steak & Eggs’ crashed in Coral Sea in WW II

Int'l Historical Research Associates:

This week’s story comes from War Tales, a site created by Don Moore. He has gathered stories from local veterans over the years and has been adding them for anyone to read.

Since we concentrate on certain Fifth Air Force bomb groups, we had to share this interesting story about a 3rd Bomb Group crew’s experience with the notoriously bad New Guinea weather.

Originally posted on War Tales:

 Muggie and John Spatharos are shown in their wedding photo. They were married on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, 1944, a week after he was discharged from the Air Force after serving in New Guinea during World War II. Photo provided

Muggie and John Spatharos are shown in their wedding photo. They were married on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, 1944, a week after he was discharged from the Air Force after serving in New Guinea during World War II. Photo provided

When Sgt. John Spatharos of Tangerine Woods, Englewood, Fla. climbed aboard an A-20, twin-engine attack bomber dubbed “Steak and Eggs” at Kila Airstrip on the island of New Guinea during World War II he had no idea what fate had in store for him.

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The Convoy of Rocks

After last week’s sad story and some inspiration from a recent post by pacificparatrooper, it’s time for something a little lighter.

In May 1943, the 90th and 43rd Bomb Groups were the only active heavy bomb groups in the Fifth Air Force (though the 380th was getting situated in the theater and would be fully operational by the end of the month), which led to the development of a friendly rivalry. One 90th crew was flying a reconnaissance (recco) mission on the 15th and reported seeing a convoy along the south coast of New Britain. The 43rd’s 65th Squadron sent out several reccos afterwards to prepare for a larger assault, only to discover that this supposed convoy was actually a chain of small islands. Not surprisingly, the 43rd berated the 90th for this mistake, and the 63rd Squadron’s combat diary noted that “the convoy of rocks, reported by the 90th Bombardment Group (H), on 15 May 1943, has now officially been confirmed.”

Gen. George Kenney wrote about the 90th’s response to the 43rd in his memoir General Kenney Reports. “The 90th Bombardment Group board of strategy went into a huddle to see what could be done to restore their own prestige and, if possible, to humiliate the overproud 43rd.” The 90th extended a party invitation to the 43rd, which was readily accepted, especially after hearing the 90th supposedly had some Australian beer in its possession.

43rd "Headquarters"

Men from the 90th Bomb Group pose outside the newly renamed latrine.

“That evening,” Kenney continued, “as the procession the the 43rd Group jeeps made the last turn in the winding road leading up the hill on which the 90th Group mess was perched, they were horrified to see just off the road an unmistakable Chic Sale [latrine] with a huge sign on top of it, reading ‘Headquarters 43rd Bombardment Group.’ The Kensmen didn’t say a word about it all evening. They helped their hosts eat an excellent meal and consume all the Australian beer and wound up the festivities by thanking them profusely for a fine party. The next morning just as the 90th was tumbling out of bed, a lone 43rd Group B-17, slipping in over the tops of the trees, suddenly opened fire on the Chic Sale with a pair of fifty-caliber guns shooting nothing but incendiary ammunition. The little building blazed up as the B-17 kept on going until it disappeared behind the hills.” The latrine couldn’t be saved.

While Kenney wasn’t pleased with the Group’s reaction, he only said he expected that sort of behavior to not continue in the future. Yet, he conceded, “little silly things like that, which now sound like a species of insanity, were wonderful incentives to morale and set up a spirit of competition and a desire to outdo the rival organization that meant more hits on the targets, a quicker end to the war, and thereby a saving of American lives.”

OUR HONEY’s Fiery Demise

By 1945, the 22nd Bomb Group had its sights set on new targets at Heito, Formosa. As was tradition, the Group Commander, Col. Richard W. “Red” Robinson, made a point to lead the first mission to new targets. The first mission to Heito, on January 16, 1945, was called off before they reached the target, and the strike was rescheduled for the 21st. Capt. Robert W. Hume of the 19th Squadron was listed as the flight leader and the 19th Squadron’s Operations Officer, Capt. Lawrence E. Wulf, was assigned as Hume’s co-pilot and the air commander for the mission.

Col. Robinson wanted to lead the strike, still the first one over a new target, as air commander. With that, Wulf gave up his spot to 2/Lt. Charles P. Heath, Hume’s co-pilot, who was eager to participate in the flight. Altogether, 11 men would be flying on the fully loaded B-24, nicknamed OUR HONEY. That morning, the weather was overcast and misty due to the intermittent rain the night before. Hume taxied to the takeoff position, where he awaited the green light from the control tower. When the ok was given, OUR HONEY started down the runway.

As the B-24 gained speed, it started drifting towards the left, unable to get off the ground. Disaster struck a few seconds later when the aircraft’s left wing hit a spinning propeller of one of the parked Corsair fighters. Six feet of the wing and aileron were hewn from OUR HONEY and thrown into the air. The plane lifted off slightly, only to hit a SeaBee construction vehicle at the east end of the runway, and burst into flames. The inferno set off some of the bombs, nearly collapsing the control tower at mid-field. If any of the crew had survived the original crash, they surely perished in the explosion.

A red flare was sent up from the control tower to signal the rest of the crews to abort their takeoffs and the mission was canceled. Later, once the wreckage had cooled, several members explored the debris for any unexploded bombs. One was found and successfully defused. The others that had exploded in the fire had “cooked off,” which is not nearly as destructive as being set off by detonation devices. Otherwise, the control tower would have probably collapsed.

The loss of Col. Robinson was a heavy blow to the Group. He was well-liked by his superior officers and the men serving under his lead. The Group’s nickname, The Red Raiders, came from the name of Robinson’s first plane, RED RAIDER, after Robinson was promoted to Group Commander. Following Robinson’s death, the nickname became somewhat of a living memorial to him.

That Saga-Writing Kavieng Cat Crew

After last week’s long post, we thought we’d give you a break this time. Meet Lt. (J.G.) Nathan Gordon. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for rescuing three aircrews near Kavieng on February 15, 1944. His crew received  high praise for the daring rescues made that day. Admiral Halsey sent a telegram saying, “Please pass my admiration on to that saga writing Kavieng Cat crew.”

Here’s a short video of Gordon talking about how he saved the men. One of the crews that was rescued by the men on his Catalina was the subject of the previous post. Don’t forget to read their story after you watch the video.

B-26s at Midway

Within five months of the U.S. entering World War II, Japan, hoping to reduce America’s naval capabilities, had its eye on island of Midway. This little atoll, sitting 1000 miles northwest of Honolulu and 2195 miles east of Japan, was the last defense between Japan and the Hawaiian Island chain and an important U.S. staging ground for Pacific operations. Given this, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz ordered that the air and ground defenses of Midway should be strengthened immediately. During the early part of May 1942, the U.S. broke the Japanese code and discovered Admiral Yamamoto’s plans for a surprise invasion. The Japanese would be coming with four aircraft carriers, 11 battleships and 150 other ships. Clearly, Nimitz would need all the Allied air and sea power he could muster.

Midway Island

Midway Island. Source: Wikimedia Commons

By May 30th, the U.S. Navy started sending out PBY Catalinas to search for the large Japanese fleet. The armada was located on June 3rd, and on the 4th, four B-26 crews from the 38th and 22nd Bomb Groups joined the Navy’s attack on the Japanese fleet. The B-26s had been outfitted with a single Mark XIII torpedo for each plane, which the crews had been briefly been trained to use. As the four crews caught up to the Navy TBF Avengers and approached the Japanese carriers, they were intercepted by 30 Zeros. Five of the six Avengers were soon shot down, with the sixth later limping back to Midway with a dead turret gunner.

While the B-26s dove to avoid passes from the Zeros, they received heavy antiaircraft fire from the ships below. “Ever ship in the fleet looked like it was on fire,” 22nd Bomb Group pilot 1/Lt. James P. Muri wrote. “All guns were pointing at us and firing.” Some guns were purposely depressed to send exploding shells into the water where they would send up huge plumes of water directly in the bombers’ paths. 2/Lt. William S. Watson, a pilot from the 38th Bomb Group, approached the carrier Akagi, and took a direct hit to one of his plane’s fuel tanks. Smoke and flames poured out of the aircraft, which was hit again by a swarm of Zeros, then exploded. All aboard were killed instantly.

The three remaining B-26 crews made their torpedo runs, with Capt. James F. Collins of the 38th Bomb Group going first and launching his torpedo against the Akagi. His B-26’s guns were malfunctioning, but nonetheless, his gunners claimed to have shot down two or three Zeros. After releasing the torpedo, Collins hurried into the clouds to try and lose the Zeros on his tail. His crew became lost as they looked for the way home, but saw smoke billowing up from oil tanks hit by the Japanese on Midway’s East Island. With this signal, they flew home and sat through a rough landing as the nose gear collapsed after the plane landed.

1/Lt. Herbert C. Mayes of the 22nd Bomb Group was having a very hard time controlling his plane, SATAN’S PLAYMATE, due to the number of times it had already been hit. As he dropped his torpedo, his plane sustained further damage from antiaircraft fire. The plane was on a direct collision course with the deck of the Akagi, but Mayes was able to pull up at the last second and skim over the top of the bridge. The damage proved to be fatal, and Mayes crashed into the water between the Akagi and the Hiryu. None survived.

Muri, in his B-26 SUSIE Q, was the last to make his run. As SUSIE Q flew towards the Akagi, the B-26 was attacked by a formation of Zeros, taking out the left top turret gun and injuring the top turret and tail gunners. 2/Lt. William W. Moore released the torpedo, allowing Muri to protect the underside of the plane by buzzing the carrier’s deck. While the plane flew over the Akagi, the nose gunner sprayed the area with bullets, killing two sailors, cutting mooring cables and putting an antiaircraft position out of action. With the torpedo launched, it was time for Muri to escape the fray. He dove towards the ocean’s surface, then pushed his airspeed to outrun the Zeros that were pursuing him. They broke off the attack, the B-26 gained some altitude and Muri slowed the plane slightly.

Muri crew

Part of Lt. James P. Muri’s crew that participated in the Battle of Midway. From left (standing): Cpl. Frank L. Melo and Lt. Russel H. Johnson. Kneeling: Lt. Pren L. Moore, Lt. Muri, Lt. William W. Moore and Sgt. John J. Gogoj. PFC. Earl D. Ashley was still in the hospital when this photo was taken.

The crew took stock of their situation: they were over 100 miles away from Midway with a bullet-riddled fuselage, a dead communications system, only an approximate idea of where they were and fuel leaking out of punctured tanks. The fuel was transferred into two unpunctured fuel tanks. A sun observation was taken by the navigator to help set them on a general course, then Muri started a square search to find Midway. Like Collins, he noticed the smoke coming from Midway and flew off in that direction. On SUSIE Q‘s first approach, nervous Marine gunners accidentally fired at the B-26, so Muri pulled up and tried again. This time, the guns stayed quiet and Muri landed on his right landing gear, as the left was inoperable. He and his co-pilot discovered the plane’s brakes had also failed. The plane soon lost speed, the left wing dropped and snapped off the left landing gear and the plane skidded to a stop off the runway.

Both Collins and Muri brought back planes covered in bullet holes. Muri’s crew counted over 500 punctures in SUSIE Q, with damage to most of the plane’s systems. Both planes were written off. All four crews were award the Distinguished Service Cross for their valiant efforts. While losses were heavy on the American side, the Japanese fared far worse with the sinking of four of their aircraft carriers. The Battle of Midway was a definitive point in the Pacific war. From this point forward, the Japanese would no longer have the upper hand.

 


 

You might also be interested in watching a short documentary called The Battle of Midway.

For additional details about the B-26 crews’ experiences at Midway, check out our book, Revenge of the Red Raiders.

We also have a painting for sale depicting SUSIE Q over the Akagi.

Memorial Day

Today we pause to honor those who have fallen in battle.

At the end of World War II, 1/Lt. Rudolph B. Warner, a 38th Bomb Group unit historian, reflected on the 38th’s journey and how the war affected the men in the group: “The outfit looked like anything but a conquering army entering the homeland of the enemy. It is doubtful if any of them paused to remember that this was the end of the road for the expedition that had set sail from San Francisco harbor in that far-away and long ago time when the Pacific war was new. This was the conclusion of a Saga of island-hopping from Australia to Kyushu, of hardships and privation, of losses in men and aircraft and replacements which were heart-breakingly slow in coming, the end of the battle against mosquitoes, malaria and jungle rot as well as the Japanese. The route was well dotted with small white crosses, for it is axiomatic that those who have given the most to achieve a victory do not share in its fruits.”

The End of Gremlin’s Holiday

In February 1944, the Allies had their eye on the Japanese-held staging base of Kavieng. This base was an integral part of the Japanese supply line, as supplies were carried from Kavieng to other Japanese bases at Wewak, Rabaul, Hansa Bay, and Alexishafen. It was decided that to capture Kavieng would hold back efforts to recapture the Philippines for too long, so a plan was set to nullify the military strength of the base. There was to be a coordinated attack between the U.S. air and naval powers, with the air raids striking Kavieng first. To complement the attack, carrier aircraft would strike the shipping fleet base at Truk. Afterwards, the Allies would be able to bypass Kavieng. The 345th Bomb Group was to participate in the raid on February 15th. The mission started off poorly when a B-25 from the 499th Squadron lost an engine and crashed in the jungle during takeoff, killing the entire crew. This would not be the only crash on one of the 345th’s most difficult missions during WWII.

From time to time, various ground officers tried to convince pilots to take them on combat missions so they could get a taste of the action. The 498th Squadron Adjutant, Capt. Robert G. Huff, had managed to persuade pilot 1/Lt. Edgar R. Cavin to let him fly in GREMLIN’S HOLIDAY with Cavin’s crew on the 15th. That day, Cavin was part of the first wave of 498th B-25s to fly over the edge of Chinatown, which was loaded with warehouses, supply dumps, and, much to the pilots’ chagrin, antiaircraft fire. He dropped his bombs on the already blazing target and ascended over the fires below, as he would not have been able to fly through them safely. While he was gaining altitude, the B-25’s belly was exposed to the antiaircraft fire below, and GREMLIN’S HOLIDAY was soon hit. The right engine was afire and burned fiercely as the crew flew 150 feet above the target area.

S/Sgt. David B. McCready heard the “Bombs away,” from Cavin and was about to turn on the rear camera on board when an explosion rocked the plane. McCready’s headset, throat mike, goggles and helmet were torn away by the white-hot blast and he scrambled to get away from the flames that engulfed the plane behind the bomb bay. S/Sgt. Lawrence E. Herbst attempted to use the fire extinguisher from the other side of the plane, but the tiny crawlspace above the bomb bay did not give Herbst enough room to safely use the extinguisher. The fire spread along the right side of the plane, then up to the vertical stabilizer. Cavin knew he had to set the B-25 down in the water before the flame-weakened structure broke apart.

He made a perfect landing, and the crewmembers scrambled to get out of the plane before it sunk. Huff and McCready had both been knocked unconscious by the landing, but woke up and were able to exit GREMLIN’S HOLIDAY before it was too late. Even though the six men had injuries ranging from burns and gashes to severely broken bones, they were all very much alive. Emergency supplies and rafts were soon dropped by passing planes and the more injured men gratefully climbed in the rafts. Cavin joked around with Huff, saying, “Damn it Bob, if I knew it would be this rough, I wouldn’t have asked you to come along today.” Huff certainly got more than he bargained for that day.

Cavin’s crew, along with several others that day (15 men in all), was rescued by Catalina pilot Lt. Nathan Gordon. Because of his courage in going above and beyond the call of duty, Gordon became the first Navy man in the Southwest Pacific theater to be awarded the Medal of Honor. His actions will be the subject of another post. Stay tuned.