Tragedy Above the Bismarck Sea

On February 26, 2943, a Japanese convoy was spotted by Allied forces at Rabaul. At this point in the war, the Japanese were trying to build up their strength in New Guinea after losing control of the Solomon Islands. Fifth Air Force would try to keep a close eye on this convoy, but due to the weather, could not watch it for two days. On March 1st, the weather finally cleared up enough for a 90th Bomb Group crew to see the convoy on its way from Rabaul to Lae. The crew immediately reported the situation as well as the size of the convoy. With six troop transports, two vessels carrying aviation fuel, a boat full of Japanese marines, eight destroyer escorts, and 100 fighter planes, this was not a target to be missed. B-17s from the 63rd Squadron were soon sent to bomb the convoy, but were thwarted by weather. That night, 1/Lt. William Crawford, Jr.’s crew set off to find and monitor the convoy while Fifth Air Force got ready to attack.

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea began on March 2nd with 25 B-17s from the 43rd escorted by 24 P-38s. At one point, the P-38s covering the 63rd Squadron B-17s encountered some enemy fighters. After the engagement, the P-38s had to turn back, as they were low on fuel. The B-17s flew on alone. Soon enough, the crews were spotted the convoy and were delighted to find it without fighter cover. The B-17s were lining up for their runs when several Zeros seemed to appear out of nowhere. In spite of some close calls, all the planes returned to Seven Mile Drome without serious injuries to any of the crews. The next day would be a little different.

Japanese ships burn on the Bismarck Sea

A ship from the convoy burns after it was hit by Allied forces during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea.

The second day of the battle, March 3rd, opened with a frenzy of activity. Planes from the 3rd, 38th, and 43rd were sent to attack the convoy again with fighter cover from the 9th, 39th, and RAAF Squadron No. 30. Before the battle, 3rd and 38th had been practicing a new concept of skip-bombing and this would be the first time the B-25 crews would apply it in an attack. “…It was the greatest show I ever hope to see…The morning was clear and everything was happening at once. I watched the B-25′s score many number of hits, skip bombing. The A-20′s, B-25′s and Beaufighters strafed the decks of transport and destroyers alike and the zeros were attacking anybody and everybody. The P-38’s were having a hell of a fight with them about ten miles west of the convoy. The sky was full of planes. I saw one A-20 or B-25 strafe the deck of a destroyed cause an explosion on the stern which sent doughnut like billows of smoke a thousand feet into the air. When I left for home, at least 10 of the boats were sinking or burning and a lot of our planes still there …”

While the 43rd crews watched the action from above, they also stayed busy hitting the convoy from medium altitude and fending off enemy fighters. At one point, 1/Lt. Woodrow W. Moore in B-17F #41-24356, KA-PUHIO-WELA, was getting ready to make a bombing run when the plane was attacked. KA-PUHIO-WELA dove towards the ocean with its No. 3 engine and radio compartment on fire. Witnesses watched in horror as men bailing out of the plane were machine-gunned by Zeros. The pilot and co-pilot elected to remain with the plane in hopes of regaining control and crash landing in the ocean, only to be killed when the plane split in half and disintegrated before the plane hit the water.

The Moore crew

The 63rd Squadron crew of Lt. Moore poses on the wing of a B-17 on February 28, 1943, three days before the entire crew was killed over the Bismarck Sea. (L. Anderson Collection)

After the crash, some suggest that the B-17 was rammed by Chief Flyer Masanao Maki of CV Zuiho. Japanese records indicate his unit was the only one engaging the 43rd and that he had rammed the B-17. He was posthumously awarded a double promotion for his conduct, though it remains unclear whether or not the ramming was intentional. Another member of the 43rd remembers the Zeros being tightly packed that day and wondered whether or not they would ram the plane he was on.

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea would last one more day before going down as one of the most decisive air-sea victories during WWII. The USAAF and RAAF sunk 12 ships and prevented the majority of the troops aboard from reaching Lae, sending a strong message to the Japanese that they would not be able to reinforce their positions in New Guinea without serious repercussions.

Knocking out the 403rd

On January 17, 1942, four B-17s from the 43rd Bomb Group’s 403rd Squadron had taken off from Milne Bay for a mission to Rabaul. When the crews returned home later that day, they found smoke, a partially destroyed camp, and that the other three B-17s belonging to their squadron had been destroyed as well.

While the four crews were gone, the air raid sirens went off around midday. This was fairly common at Milne Bay and some of the personnel didn’t take it too seriously. For ten minutes men waited in nearby slit trenches. Nothing happened. The crew of FIRE BALL MAIL was getting ready to take the plane up before the alarm, scattered when it went off, then started going back to the plane. They soon heard what sounded like twin-engine bombers and looked up to see 23 Japanese bombers with 48 fighters flying over the base. The crew quickly ran for cover.

B-17 #540 Burns

The 403rd Squadron’s B-17F #41‑24540 smolders after it was hit during the raid at Milne Bay.

C. E. O’Connor, the co-pilot for that crew, later recalled the raid: “After the first bombs hit the rest followed in unison, working up to us like an avalanche and then pounding on past. This seemed like an eternity between the time the first bombs hit and the last—actually it must have been about 35 seconds … When those first bombs hit I started what might be my last act of contrition. I have never felt so close to death. At the same time realizing that I would never know what hit me.” Thankfully, no one at Milne Bay was killed or seriously injured that day.

Camp at Milne Bay after raid

What was left of the 403rd Squadron’s camp after the raid.

The damage from this raid put the 403rd Squadron out of commission. For several weeks, V Bomber Command had been monitoring the 403rd’s situation as it was continually weakening due to combat losses and disease. Approximately a third of the 403rd’s personnel were being treated for malaria at the time. With three more of their B-17s in ruins, the remainder of the Squadron was sent to Mareeba, Australia to regroup and reequip with B-24s.

Christmas in the Pacific Theater

For the men of Fifth Air Force, Christmas was not necessarily a time to take the day off to celebrate the holiday. There were still missions to be flown as the Allies tried to take back the Pacific from the Japanese. Some of these missions, like those of the 386th Squadron (312th Bomb Group) in 1943 were patrol missions. While the 386th was on patrol that year, the 345th, 43rd and 38th Bomb Groups were participating in a major raid on Cape Gloucester.

Three days before bombing Cape Gloucester on the 25th, a 345th B-25, THUMPER, was shot down on a mission over Wewak. The plane crash landed 12 miles from Dumpu, with the crew coming out of the crash uninjured. For five days, the crew trekked along the Ramu River, with a batch of P-40s spotting the men on Christmas Eve. The next day, the crew was seen by a Stinson L-5. The crew aboard the plane dropped supplies for the THUMPER crew. Later that afternoon, the crew received more supplies including ten pounds of turkey and a few other treats for Christmas. They were rescued the following day.

Whether or not any particular group was on a mission varied by year. No matter what, there were always a few hours set aside to enjoy a turkey or ham dinner, attend mass, and enjoy some music. Even though the men were so far away from home during the holidays, they always made the best of the situation.

Dangerous Haystacks

In January 1945, the 312th was flying missions over Japanese territory on Luzon. As the pilots flew around looking for targets, they would sometimes come across haystacks in the middle of fields. These haystacks looked perfectly until harmless until flames erupted from the antiaircraft guns camouflaged by these haystacks. One pilot reported the Japanese positioning antiaircraft gunners in church bell towers as well. The Japanese would also camouflage their machine guns and other materials in hopes of catching the Allied pilots by surprise.

Parafrags over Luzon Railways

Parafrags fall on a train on Luzon

On the 10th, the 312th was out on one of these patrols, specifically bombing highways and railroads north of Manila. At one point, the 388th Squadron was flying near Gerona and picked out a train to attack. On the first pass, pilots had noticed huts and haystacks in the fields. The second time the A-20s appeared over the fields, the haystacks were gone and machine and antiaircraft guns had taken their place. The A-20 flown by 2/Lt. Wickcliff M. Waltmire got caught in the gunfire, crashed, and exploded, killing him and his gunner, Capt. Franklyn D. Rosenburg . Sadly, Waltmire had received a letter from his wife the previous day saying he was the father of a baby boy.
Waltmire’s A-20 was not the only one hit by the antiaircraft fire that day, though he and Rosenburg were the only ones killed. First Lieutenant Everett L. Almon’s A-20 was hit by flack that damaged the hydraulic system, leaving him unable to lower his landing gear. Almon was able to crash-land back at Tanauan without injuring himself or his gunner. The plane, on the other hand, was a total loss.

 

 

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Veterans Day

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 marked the official end of hostilities between Germany and the Allies. This was, as you know, supposed to be the “war to end all wars.” With that sentiment still fresh in the minds of everyone a year later, President Woodrow Wilson declared November 11th as Armistice Day by saying, “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…”

Unfortunately, the peace didn’t last and the world was back at war approximately 20 years later. The US would be involved in yet another war, the Korean War, in the 1950s. These two wars brought about the feeling that Armistice Day should honor all the veterans, not just those from WWI. With that, Armistice Day was officially changed to Veterans Day in 1954.

In 1968, a law was passed to changed the day of observance from November 11th to the fourth Monday in October. This was to go into effect in 1971. Not every state was thrilled with the change and many of the states slowly moved the observance of Veterans Day back to November. A new law was passed in 1975 that officially moved Veterans Day back to November 11th, with the law going into effect in 1978.

 

Over the years, thousands of men and women have served in the military. Here at IHRA, we share the stories of handfuls of men who served in WWII. We have read and written about their experiences in combat and through that, we have developed a better understanding of what they gave up to fight for their country. We want to extend our thanks to all the veterans out there. Thank you for your service.