If you’re interested in learning more about the 312th Bomb Group and you haven’t done so already, look into adding our book to your collection! Rampage of the Roarin’ 20′s traces the 312th from the Group’s formation stateside through the end of WWII. It’s packed with stories, photos, maps, and a color section that features the art of Jack Fellows! Check out some sample pages on our website.
In March, The Denver Post put up a gallery of 110 amazing photos taken in the Pacific during WWII. Check them out here.
LADY CONSTANCE, the plane belonging to Lt. Gibbons, was having engine trouble on the way back from Hollandia. As Gibbons trailed behind the 312th formation, he discovered that the 30 gallons of fuel left in the tanks would not get him to Saidor or Gusap. He turned back to land in a clearing he saw about 20 miles north of Faita. With the waning daylight, it was much harder for Gibbons to survey the area. Suddenly, the left engine quit and the aircraft crashed into a ridge. Gibbons ended up with a gash on his head, but his gunner Rhodes escaped with minor cuts and bruises. The men spent a long night under a parachute that did not keep out the mosquitoes. Sgt. James left Gusap in search of Gibbons and Rhodes. He spotted them after seeing a flare sent up by Gibbons and dropped rations and medical supplies. Later that day, Maj. William Pagh flew over and dropped a map and a note instructing the men to stay by the plane and saying that there were no enemies in the area.
Lt. James thought he could fly the men out if they built a strip for him to land his L-5. He dropped a map showing a clearing two miles away where he would meet Gibbons and Rhodes. The next day, James was back with more supplies and a note requesting the men to clear an area at least 150 paces long and informing them that T/Sgt. Allen J. Lockwood would be picking them up soon. That afternoon, Lockwood landed his L-4 on the soft strip and realized he would not be able to reach takeoff speed with another person on board. He stayed with the men overnight and helped them clear out more grass. The next day, the ground was still soft, but with the help of the wind, Lockwood was airborne with Gibbons. There was not enough daylight to go back and get Rhodes, who ended up spending the night worrying about Japanese troops. Lockwood returned to the site and retrieved Rhodes the next morning.
Lt. Davidson was flying his plane, THE HELL’N PELICAN II, with two other aircraft lagging behind the main formation making its way back from Hollandia. This three-aircraft flight, led by 1/Lt. Edward T. Cassidy, burned more fuel as they tried to catch up. Davidson knew that he could not stay with the group much longer because he was very low on fuel. He relayed the information to Cassidy and then left the two planes to find a clearing he had passed by not too long ago. He gave his gunner, Sgt. John McKenna the option to bail, but McKenna decided to stay with Davidson. As Davidson lowered the flaps for landing, the left engine cut out, and the aircraft landed nearly 50 yards from the jungle’s edge. The uninjured men climbed out of the lightly damaged aircraft and prepared to spend the night in the jungle.
Davidson’s plane remained where it landed until 1984 when it was salvaged by the Royal Australian Air Force.
The next morning, the men discovered the turret guns still worked since they ran off the plane’s battery. They took turns manning the guns while waiting for help. Supplies were dropped from a P-40 (those disappeared into the jungle), followed by an A-20, and two B-24s. Intelligence officers at Gusap thought the best way to rescue the two men would be for them to meet up with Gibbons and Rhodes, 16 miles to the southwest. The men set off toward the other crew, only to be caught in a heavy downpour that night. This forced the men to find higher ground. The next morning, they returned to the A-20 because their compass had been ruined by the water and they needed it to navigate through the swamp. The next rescue plan was to clear a strip for the “Guinea Short Lines” to land. After spending five days trying to clear the grass, the L-4A pilot decided landing there would not work.
On April 24th, the town of Madang was secured by the Allies. It was decided that Davidson and McKenna should float 60 miles down the Gogol River to Madang. Two one-man rafts were dropped, and the 312th monitored their progress from the air as the crew made its way downstream. They signaled for a five-man raft so it would be easier to stay away from crocodiles in the river. They found the new raft in a tree a day later and received a note saying they were two miles away from Astrolabe Bay, south of Madang. Sixteen days after setting off from Gusap on April 16th, the men made it to the bay, where Australians took them to Madang. From there, two L-5s flew the men back to Gusap. This was McKenna’s third crash landing, and it left him feeling like he would die if he flew again. He was granted a request for ground duty back at the States and boarded a B-25 for Nadzab, the first step in returning to the States. The plane that carried him out of Nadzab disappeared into a storm, never to be seen or heard from again.
The little-known 25th Liaison Squadron was instrumental in the rescue of many downed crews, especially on Black Sunday. Mainly enlisted men flew Stinson L-5 Sentinels and Piper L-4A Grasshoppers, which could takeoff and land on much shorter runways than the bombers.
The L-4 JUG HAID.
Because of this capability, A Flight, the group based at Gusap, received the nickname of the “Guinea Short Lines.” Their symbol of a kangaroo was very fitting for this squadron that hopped all over New Guinea. The “Guinea Short Lines” would play a key role in the rescue of three Roarin’ 20′s crews.
Out of the four crews that had not been accounted for by the end of April 16th, one would never make it back. After ditching in the sea near Yalau Plantation, Smart and Music waited to be picked up by a Catalina. They were never seen or heard from again. The other three crews, 1/Lt. Glen Benskin and S/Sgt. Winifred F. Westerman of the 387th Squadron, 2/Lt. Joseph E. Gibbons and Cpl. Orville J. Rhodes of the 388th Squadron, and 2/Lt. Charles H. Davidson and Sgt. John J. McKenna also of the 388th, had their own stories of survival in returning to the 312th.
Lt. Benskin was flying back from the Hollandia raid with the rest of the 312th when he discovered his radio did not work and he lost contact with his wingmen. Benskin spotted Smart’s plane, THE TEXAN, and followed him for awhile. Smart soon appeared to head for Wewak as he turned towards the Ramu River, so Benskin thought Smart might be lost and flew off on his own. Benskin’s gunner, Westermann, told Benskin that their aircraft BENNY’S BABY did not have much fuel left and that they needed to land. Benskin made a gear-up landing and set down in a kunai grass swamp 200 yards from the Ramu River and 20 miles north of the Japanese-occupied village of Annenberg. The grass spun their plane around and the nose ended up bent sideways, which did not let the canopy of the cockpit open. Benskin was helped out through a window by Westermann.
Benskin’s plane in the kunai grass.
The two men spent the night battling mosquitoes and leeches in the swamp. The next morning, a search plane spotted the men and dropped supplies. With that came a note saying they should walk west ten miles to a native village, but that was nearly impossible due to the thick kunai grass that was up to ten feet tall in some areas.
While the men were building a shelter a few hundred yards away from the crash site, Benskin accidentally cut his knee with his folding machete. It wasn’t long before the wound became infected. At this point, the chance of being rescued was not good. With the Japanese so close by, a rescue plane could not risk landing on the river. After some searching, a suitable site that could be turned into an improvised landing strip was spotted about a mile and a half downstream. The area was cleared by P-40s from the 49th Fighter Group dropping belly tanks and setting them on fire with tracer rounds and then the men received supplies for making the 225-foot strip. Fifteen days after Benskin had landed in the swamp, the men were back at Gusap. They were rescued by S/Sgt. Walter A. James of the 25th Liaison Squadron. James first took Benskin to Gusap and then returned to the crash site for Westermann about an hour later. Benskin had scrub typhus, malaria and blood poisoning due to his leg wound and spent six weeks in the Gusap Field Hospital. His gunner fared much better and was in good condition when the two were rescued.
Lt. Benskin recovering at Gusap.
Stay tuned for part three of the Black Sunday raid.
Larry Hickey, author of the Eagles Over the Pacific book series, will be interviewed by Warbird Radio this Thursday, April 1, at 10AM Eastern Time. He will be talking about the latest book, Rampage of the Roarin’ 20′s. Edward Cassidy of the 388th Squadron in the 312th Bomb Group will also be on this segment. Tune in here.
The 312th was back to attacking Hollandia with bombers from the rest of Fifth Air Force: B-24s from the 22nd, 43rd and 90th Bomb Groups, B-25s from the 38th and 345th, and A-20s from the 312th, 3rd and 417th (a new bomber unit). These 216 planes with 76 P-38 escorts from the 8th and 475th Fighter Groups would be in the air once again on April 16, 1944. The only 312th Squadron not flying along was the 386th.
Bad weather at Hollandia delayed the Group from leaving Gusap until 1055. The crews bombed their targets of barges, stores and fuel dumps in between Sentani Lake and Jautefa Bay. After making their runs, the 312th formed up and headed for Gusap. With decent weather for the first half of the journey back, the men were able to grab a bite to eat while they flew home.
This photo from the Black Sunday raid shows the attacks going on behind the Japanese officer quarters.
As they flew on towards the Ramu Valley, conditions rapidly deteriorated. The planes were near Amaimon, 78 miles north of Gusap, when the weather completely closed in around them. Col. Strauss was in the lead and had to decide what the best way back home would be. He rejected flying to Saidor because he did not know what the weather was like there or if Saidor would be able to handle the number of planes since this base was only a few weeks old.
Strauss and the rest of the formation circled for about an hour in hopes of spotting a break in the clouds. As they circled, visibility improved enough for the hilltops to be seen, and Strauss thought there might be fair skies on the other side. Sure enough, he was right. At 1715, the Group began landing at rainy Gusap. Not everyone stayed with Col. Strauss. There were still 16 312th aircraft somewhere out in the stormy weather. The 312th wasn’t the only group with missing crews. By the end of the day Fifth Air Force could not account for 70 planes.
By nightfall, 12 Roarin’ 20′s aircraft had landed at Faita, Saidor and Finschhafen, four at each base. There were still four crews missing: Capt. Frank P. Smart with gunner T/Sgt. Michael Music, Lt. Glen Benskin and S/Sgt. Winifred F. Westerman, 2/Lt. Joseph E. Gibbons and Cpl. Orville J. Rhodes, and 2/Lt. Charles H. Davidson and Sgt. John J. McKenna.
Smart had been granted permission from Col. Strauss to leave the formation and fly to Saidor. He left with four other planes piloted by 1/Lts. Donald J. McGibbon and Robert J. Findley, and 2/Lts. Robert C. Smith and James L. Knarr.
Knarr landing his plane at Gusap in April 1944.
As they flew, the weather improved and Smart, Findley and Knarr decided to fly five miles offshore to avoid enemy ack-ack, while McGibbon and Smith stayed near the coastline. At 1730, McGibbon heard Smart contacting a Catalina about ditching. As Smart descended, Smith noted that the propellers were working and thought Smart wanted to ditch while he could still control his plane. Smart and Music made it out of the plane safely, McGibbon and Findley radioed Smart’s position to Saidor and two PT boats that seemed to be on their way to the ditching site. Feeling confident that Smart and his gunner would soon be in good hands, the remaining crews flew off to Saidor. The next day, there was still no sign of Smart or Music. The four planes flew over the ditching site and saw the submerged plane, but neither crew member. Their fate is still a mystery.
Stay tuned for part two!
Fifth Air Force began attacking Hollandia on March 30, 1944 with B-24 Liberators escorted by 80 Lightnings. They met 40 enemy aircraft, but did not lose any planes. The next day, the heavy bombers went back and finished softening Hollandia for the low-level A-20 attacks scheduled for April 3rd. The 312th’s A-20s would not be alone in this endeavor. They would be joined by B-24s from the 22nd, 43rd and 90th Bomb Groups, B-25s from the 38th and 345th Bomb Groups and A-20s from the 3rd Bomb Group. The 234 bombers would be escorted by 76 P-38s, which would make this the largest formation of Fifth Air Force aircraft at this point of the war. The 900 mile roundtrip mission would be the longest yet for the 312th. Col. Strauss gave his intelligence officers, operations officers and squadron commanders a thorough briefing the night before Operation Reckless was to commence. He warned the pilots to closely monitor their fuel supply because this mission was close to the 950 mile range of the A-20, and he showed them how to switch between fuel tanks.
The Group left Gusap at 0850 on April 3rd, formed up over Dumpu and met up with their fighter cover. The 312th, recently choosing the nickname of the Roarin’ 20′s, flew to Hollandia with the 3rd Bomb Group. When the planes were about two miles away from Hollandia, a Ki-43 Oscar tried to attack the formation, but was quickly taken care of by the P-38 fighters.
The B-24s started pounding Hollandia with 1000-pound bombs. The B-25s and A-20s made their runs after the heavy bombers came through. The 312th’s goal was to destroy as many Japanese huts, camps, airstrips, storehouses, antiaircraft gun positions and aircraft dispersal areas as possible. While hitting the targets at 30 second intervals, the A-20s dropped bombs and fired their .50-caliber guns, damaged or destroyed several aircraft on the ground and started many fires.
Maj. William Kemble led the 388th Squadron through the heavy barrage of antiaircraft fire, flying his plane up and down to dodge the flak. His gunner, Sgt. William Ernst, had a close call during the flight. A metal fragment from a burst hit a .50-caliber bullet in the chain-feeding mechanism of the right hand gun, causing the bullet to explode and hit Ernst’s dog tag. Ernst was sure he had been shot, but examined himself when he did not see any blood. He looked at his dog tag and realized that had taken the bullet for him. The dog tag was never bent back into shape, but remained a good luck charm for Ernst.
After the day’s mission, the pilots of the 312th discovered they did not need to be so worried about the A-20 fuel supply. They had plenty of gas left, so there would be one less thing to worry about on future flights to Hollandia.
Fifth Air Force attacked Hollandia again on March 30th, March 31st and April 3rd. During that time, they lost one P-38, but destroyed over 300 Japanese aircraft. Sixty Japanese fighters came to meet the groups on April 3rd and, to the dismay of the Japanese, 26 of them were shot down. Gen. Kenney was congratulated by Gen. MacArthur in an uncoded telegram to further dishearten their foe.
Hollandia after Operation Reckless.
Kenney continued organizing missions to Hollandia on April 5-8th. The 312th was sent to Humboldt and Jautefa Bays to take out various military targets including Japanese ships and barges. The Roarin’ 20′s left the bays enveloped in a plume of black smoke that rose over 1000 feet. The Group was not able to attack Hollandia on the 8th because of the infamous bad weather.
Some of the Japanese aircraft after Fifth Air Force bombed Hollandia.
MacArthur wanted to invade Hollandia on April 22nd, however, Kenney wanted to make sure none of the Japanese planes survived the previous attacks and that reinforcements had not arrived. He chose April 16th as the day for the last attack on Hollandia. This day would come to be known as “Black Sunday.”