Bloody Tuesday

Weather, another constant foe of aircrews, once again put a damper on Fifth Air Force’s plans to attack Simpson Harbor on October 26, 1943 and then again on the 29th. Everyone was on edge. The Third Marine Division was slated to invade the beaches of Bougainville on November 1st, covered by a strike from the air. With the weather still not letting up, the Marines’ plan went on as scheduled without the strike. After days of waiting, the weather finally cleared up on November 2nd.

This raid would target the shipping in the harbor instead of Rabaul itself. 57 P-38s and 75 B-25s (covered by other P-38s) were sent out to take out the harbor’s shoreline defenses and drop “Kenney’s Cocktails” (phosphorus bombs) to hinder the enemy’s view of the attack, then hit all the shipping possible. There were hundreds of guns on the shore to protect the harbor. When members of the 3rd Bomb Group’s 13th Squadron attended the briefing for the mission, Richard Walker remembers it being a “very somber affair.” Realizing the type of defenses that they would be facing, it “was pretty much a prediction that all of us would not be coming home.” The crews sat “gray faced and quiet…”

Nevertheless, the men got in their planes and flew off to Simpson Harbor. Soon, the harbor was complete chaos. Smoke from the 345th’s phosphorus bombs unexpectedly rose at least 400 feet high, obscuring the the view for the 38th crews, who also discovered that some of the ships had moved and decreased the target area. On the approach to the harbor, the 13th and 8th Squadrons ended up going off course, which went against the original attack plan. Maj, Raymond H. Wilkins was leading the 8th Squadron and realized this mistake too late. He quickly tried to let the 13th Squadron’s leader know, then broke off and tried to get the 8th back to their original attack angle of 225 degrees.

Strafing a Ship

The Japanese were ready by the time the 8th Squadron entered the harbor, as the 3rd Bomb Group’s 90th Squadron had left shortly beforehand. In the center of the harbor and at the far left of the formation, Wilkins made a sharp vertical banking right turn to attack a destroyer. This move left his B-25 completely vulnerable to gunfire, which badly damaged his plane during his attack. Wilkins skipped a bomb into the destroyer, then attacked a transport with a second bomb. Afterwards, he saw that only a cruiser remained before the harbor could be cleared. He strafed the cruiser to draw attention away from the other B-25s following him, and, in the process, exposed his plane again to antiaircraft fire. The left wing of his plane was hit, then crumpled, sending the aircraft into the water.

For his heroic actions, Maj. Wilkins was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. He and his crew became part of the 45 men that were lost that day, which would come to be known as “Bloody Tuesday.”

The Battle of Leyte Gulf: October 23-26, 1944

Approximately a week prior to the start of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the 345th Bomb Group’s ground echelon was aboard two troop transports in Humboldt Bay, waiting to find out where they would be setting up their next camp. On October 20th, they found out that they would be heading for Leyte Island. They reached San Pedro Bay, located on the eastern side of Leyte Island, on the 29th. Their transports joined the hundreds of ships already in the bay in the rain, a predecessor of the typhoon that would blow through that night. It wasn’t until November 13th that the men left the ships and began to establish their new home at Rizal, followed by quick moves to Dulag and Tacloban.

Raiding Rabaul

Fifth Air Force sent 100+ B-25s and Beaufighters and 87 B-24s in a decisive blow against Japanese air power in Rabaul on October 12, 1943. This was to be the first in a series of strikes that would last until mid-November to render ineffective Japanese air power in the area for the remainder of the war. The entry below was taken from the diary of Kenneth Rosebush, a 3rd Bomb Group pilot with the 90th Squadron.

October 12, 1943

The Attack on Rabaul. It was a big one: Rabaul. Rabaul was the Japanese Bastille of the southwest Pacific. Its very name struck fear into your heart. We had numerous false reports that Japanese Tokyo-express, aircraft carriers, and warships (only), were either leaving or going into Rabaul. Each time, over several months, we would be alerted and hat to sweat it out. This time it was a “go” for several Rabaul airgrounds, supply camps and personnel areas at Rabaul (in New Britian). At the briefing the night before, the question came up who would provide the cover for the 90th. True to form, John Johnson (C.O. of the 9th Squadron of P-38 fighters) volunteered. The 9th was our favorite fighter squadron and we had an excellent relation with them. The fighters really dread being caught down low, because the enemy then has all of the advantage. But, Johnny volunteered the 9th for low coverage, and I had a P-38 on my wing when we made our run on Arapahoe airdrome.

Rabaul in Sept 1943

This reconnaissance photograph of the Rabaul area was processed by the 2nd Photographic Intelligence Detachment, Fifth Air Force, during September 1943

Col. Henebry was the flight leader of the whole strike force, and I was on his left with (with Lt. Chapin as my co-pilot). We were only part-way to Rabaul when my gunner came forward and told me our spare gas tank was leaking. This was a 500-gallon tin can designed to give us more mileage, but was a real hazard if hit by enemy fire. It spent most of the flight at the rear of the aircraft tightening claps, etc. I finally got the leak stopped. I’d be damned if I was going to turn back on this mission to Rabaul. Shortly before we reached our run on the airfield, a Japanese aircraft got in front of me. If I altered my course a bit I could’ve had him “dead to rights”. I started to do that, and then changed my mind. He belonged to that P-38 flying on my wing. I made my run on the airfield firing my 8 .50-caliber machine guns and dropping anti-personnel bombs. The run was made at our usual altitude of about 20 feet above the ground. We were expecting fierce antiaircraft fire and zero interception, but evidently we caught the Japanese completely by surprise. There were many reports of Japanese standing on their porch of housing looking around, as if it couldn’t happen here. And, mechanics and other service personnel were standing around by their planes, as if nothing was going on. We really caught them by surprise, and the damage to our aircraft was almost nil. I don’t know the exact damage we did to them, but on this mission it was significant.

Ambush in Bashi Channel

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Hoping to repeat an earlier rescue of the remaining Japanese Army soldiers from Guadalcanal in February 1943, the Japanese planned a similar operation for about 700 airmen trapped on the northern coast of Luzon, near Aparri, codenamed Operation Badorio. Scheduled to begin January 31, 1945, the operation called for a swift dash from Formosa across the Bashi Channel by three IJN destroyers: Ume, Kaede, and Shiokaze, with a scheduled arrival at Aparri in the middle of the night. Unlike the Guadalcanal rescue attempt, this one was well known to Allied intelligence. They put two squadrons of the Sun Setters, the 405th and the 822nd up to strike the three rescue destroyers. Fourteen P-47s from the 39th and 41st Fighter Squadrons of the 35th Fighter Group engaged Zeroes flying top cover duty over the destroyers.

In the picture, 2/Lt. Donald H. Martin’s B-25J passes over Shiokaze, which remarkably remained nearly unscathed in the attack. Ume, seen in the background,was not so lucky. A direct hit from 1/Lt. James P. Wilhem, another 822nd pilot, penetrated to the engine room of the Ume, devastating the ship. The Kaede (not seen here) also received major damage. The two seaworthy destroyers were forced to turn back for Formosa for repairs, dooming the rescue attempt. Although the 405th Squadron lost one of its crews in the battle, the mission was a great success as it had prevented the rescue of critically important Japanese aviation personnel, preventing their further threat to Allied air operations in that theater.

The 43rd Departs for War: Part 2

About two weeks after leaving the late winter weather behind in Boston, the Queen Mary stopped in the tropical city of Rio De Janeiro on March 6, 1942. While the men weren’t allowed to leave the ship, they were quite content to take in the view of the city surrounded by lush, green mountains and the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer. “…A symbol of peace in a world torn by war,” remarked PFC. Ducharme.

The ship’s appearance in the harbor didn’t go unnoticed by the Axis. Messages from Nazi radio installations and an Italian spy ring were sent off containing information about the Queen Mary‘s course, position and time of sailing. After supplies were loaded and the ship was refueled, the Queen Mary set sail on March 8th, heading for Cape Town, South Africa. Josef Jacob Johannes Starzicny was arrested by Sao Paulo police on the 10th for sending the message to the Nazis. Eventually, an Axis spy ring was also disrupted by the Brazilian police and American Special Intelligence Service agents.

The occupants aboard the ship experienced nothing more than rough seas on this leg of the journey. A portion of the men had their first bout with seasickness as they sailed through waves that sometimes topped 30 feet. Six days after leaving Rio, the Queen Mary steamed into Cape Town’s harbor. The city’s backdrop of black cliffs were a stark contrast from the green mountains that the men had seen at their last stop. Men were told that there wouldn’t be any shore leave this time either, leaving them feeling more restless and anxious than before. Once again, the ship was restocked and on its way by March 15th. Soon, the troops were told they would stop in Fremantle, Australia, then disembark in Sydney.

Before they could reach Australia, they had to cross the “Roaring 40s,” a rough patch of sea with waves rocking the ship hard enough to send people flying from their chairs and dishes from tables and leaving more of the troops seasick. Three small fires broke out in different parts of the ship on March 22nd, making everyone aboard very nervous. Finally, the Queen Mary reached Fremantle the next day for refueling and resupplying, then sailed on to Sydney on the 24th. The last part of their voyage was difficult as well. Temperatures hovered around freezing and the water was the most turbulent that they had encountered on the trip. The troops were briefed on the Japanese military and warned about potential air or sea attacks.

Ships in Sydney Harbor

On the 27th, the men were greeted with the welcome sight of two destroyers coming out to meet the Queen Mary. They packed their bags, then celebrated the end of the voyage on the prom deck. The next day, the ship anchored outside the harbor, as it was too tall to clear Sydney’s Harbor Bridge. Soon enough, the men left the ship and headed out in the rainy weather to their quarters at Randwick racetrack.

The 43rd Departs for War: Part 1

For nine years, the Queen Mary was a luxury passenger liner that had been commissioned by the British Cunard Line. August 30, 1939 marked its final peacetime cruise across the Atlantic, and as per request by Winston Churchill, it would be retrofitted and used as a troop ship for the next few years. While Gen. George C. Marshall was hesitant to accept Churchill’s offer, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower knew the Pacific theater was in dire need of additional troops. Since this would be the fastest and most efficient way to send additional men, Eisenhower ordered to proceed with Churchill’s idea. The ship went from carrying approximately 2000 passengers in peacetime to around 16,000 troops, the size of an entire army division. Because of its speed and passenger capacity, Hitler supposedly put a $250,000 bounty on sinking this integral part of the Allied troop transport system.

Early on February 17, 1942, the 43rd Bomb Group boarded a troop train at their base in Bangor, Maine for a destination that was still unknown to them. After riding for nine hours, the men arrived at the Port of Embarkment at Boston Harbor, where they would board the Queen Mary. They spent a cold night on the ship, then watched the US coastline fade into the distance at noon on the 18th. There was no public send-off because the ship needed to leave in secret so it could avoid being targeted by German U-boats. Still, a small crowd had converged on the dock to wave goodbye–a comfort for the men and a concern for the ship’s captain about how long their journey would stay secret.

Queen Mary

One of the three largest passenger liners in the world, the Queen Mary was a luxury ship during peacetime, as seen here. After refitting, she was capable of carrying as many as 15,000 troops in a single voyage, making her crucial to the war effort. Her importance to the Allies was so great that Hitler reportedly offered a $250,000 bounty to any naval captain who could sink the gigantic ship. By the end of the war, the Queen Mary had carried a total of 765,429 military personnel over a distance of nearly 570,000 miles.

The Queen Mary was escorted by two destroyers at first, but sailed too quickly for the WWI-era destroyers to keep up, and soon left them behind to sail south alone. Meanwhile, then men on board hadn’t been told of their destination and began wondering where they would be going. The ship sailed by the eastern Florida cost, then reversed its course and dropped anchor near Key West, Florida. Two tankers quickly refueled the ship, which was guarded by six sub-chasers and a flying boat during the process. Originally, the vessel was going to stop for fuel in Trinidad, but a submarine was seen lurking in the waters. It was rumored that a U-boat sank the tanker that would have refueled the Queen Mary.

Life aboard the Queen Mary wasn’t too bad for the 43rd. Since the unit wasn’t full of draftees going through basic training, most of the men lived on the B deck, which was only two floors below the open-air main deck. Their rooms comfortably held nine men each, who enjoyed sleeping on deep, inner spring mattresses. The only downside was needing to keep the portholes closed at night, keeping the rooms hot and stuffy. Soon, the quality of food became an issue for the men. The ship’s British crew served the men meals consisting of kidneys or mutton stew–foods to which the Americans were not accustomed. The complaints were addressed on March 2nd during an officer’s meeting and the Americans were happy to find roast beef, macaroni, bread and jam, and coffee at lunch that day. The men were also introduced to the British custom of afternoon tea and went from being puzzled to gladly adopting the tradition.

A typical day on the ship was spent doing calisthenics for an hour in the morning on the sun deck, weapons classes and inspections, as well as fire and boat drills. The guns were fired every day, both as practice and to get the men used to the noise. Free time was spent watching movies or live shows, exercising in one of the Queen Mary‘s two pools, playing poker, and attending religious services. The ship traveled from Boston to the tropics in less than a week. With the heat of their tropical location, sleeping in the cabins became extremely uncomfortable and difficult. On March 1st, the Queen Mary steamed southeast and rumors of a stop at Rio De Janeiro began to fly.

Continue to part 2…

The Ordeal of the Herry Crew

When Maj. Williston Cox, C.O. of the 38th Bomb Group’s 71st Squadron, took off aboard MISS AMERICA on August 5, 1943, he had no idea it would be the last mission he would fly.

That day, his squadron was assigned to attack shipping targets near Alexishafen, New Guinea. Cox was riding along as the mission commander. After meeting up with their P-38 fighter cover at Mt. Yule, the crews flew on towards the target area, where they were greeted with heavy antiaircraft fire from Madang Township. Capt. Robert Herry, the pilot of MISS AMERICA, was nearing Madang when his B-25’s right engine was hit and severely damaged. While Herry managed to keep the plane under control, there was no way it would make it back to Allied territory. He set the plane down near Wongat Island, about three-quarters of a mile away from Madang.

Sinking 38th Bomb Group B-25

MISS AMERICA sinks after pilot Capt. Herry was forced to ditch the B-25 near Madang.

Herry’s tail gunner, S/Sgt. Raymond J. Zimmerman, died in the crash. The rest of the crew fared better with only superficial wounds and headed towards the island. Unfortunately, the crew was discovered on Wongat Island by natives who turned all but one crewmember over to the Japanese. The navigator, Lt. Louis J. Ritacco, was hiding in a tree at the time and wasn’t discovered for four more days, but would join the rest of his crew in prison. Herry, Cox, co-pilot 1/Lt. Robert J. “Moose” Koscelnak, and radio operator T/Sgt. Hugh W. Anderson were taken to Madang, where they were held for about 12 days.

Before Cox was locked in prison, he was separated from the rest of his crew and interrogated. He was beaten for not answering any questions, and only then allowed to join the rest of his crew in prison. On their third day as captives, a Japanese interpreter was brought in to interrogate the men. Cox asked if the Japanese would take him to speak to the commander at Madang, but was told the commander wasn’t there at the time. Once the commander returned, Cox’s request was granted.

The Japanese commander tried to question Cox regarding base locations, the number of U.S. planes in New Guinea and which unit Cox was from. He did not provide the commander with answers and cited international law that protected soldiers from disclosing such information. Prior to the war, Maj. Cox had completed three years of pre-law and was well-versed in these matters. He asked the commander to give his crew food and water, as they had only been given sustenance once in the last four days. They were fed, and later questioned as well.

Over the next five days, the crew was questioned by a Japanese intelligence unit and endured beatings when they refused to answer. Afterwards, they were left alone for two days. The next day, Cox and Herry  were separated and told they would be taken to Rabaul for more questioning. On the way, they were stopped by a group of Japanese soldiers who took Herry back to prison. Completely separated from the rest of his crew, Cox was taken to an Alexishafen airstrip, tied to a coconut tree for three days and beaten. In that time, he was never given food and water only twice. Following this ordeal, Cox was taken to Rabaul, where he would stay until November 11, 1943.

Maj. Williston Cox

Major Cox before he was taken captive in August 1943.

From there, he was sent to Omori Prison on Tokyo Bay, where he managed to survive for the rest of the war. Maj. Cox weighed only 115 pounds when the POW camp was liberated on August 29, 1945. The rest of the crew was executed on August 17, 1943.

Raided!

Official message from Gen. MacArthur’s headquarters: “On the morning of August 17th, twenty-four Japanese bombers attacked the aerodrome at Port Moresby, which resulted in slight damage to installations and a few casualties.”

For three days, the 22nd Bomb Group had been in standby mode at Seven Mile Drome as they waited for their next big mission. Each B-26 was loaded with six 500-pound bombs, fueled and parked in the open, as revetments had not yet been built. The ten crews were camped out next to their planes, ready to move at a moment’s notice.

During the last couple of months, the Japanese had been keeping an eye on the situation in New Guinea and decided it was about time to improve their prospects there. They decided to move troops and artillery from Rabaul to Buna, and would need a distraction for a successful move. This distraction would come in the form of an air raid on Seven Mile on August 17, 1942.

That morning, Capt. Gammon heard that a Japanese raid was imminent. He ran to his plane, calling to Bauman to start the engines and get ready for an immediate take off. Three bursts from an antiaircraft gun were heard, signaling a red alert. Their early warning system failed and caught everyone completely off guard. As the men scattered, 24 “Betty” bombers in perfect formation approached the airfield at 20,000 feet. Puffs from antiaircraft fire dotted the sky, but were too low to hit the incoming Japanese.

Gammon climbed aboard his plane and headed for the runway with a small crew. As he took off, bombs fell all around his plane, exploding violently, and sending shrapnel into the aircraft. Some of the pieces landed on the bombs in the bomb bay. Quickly, Bauman released the bombs in order to keep the aircraft in one piece. Gammon kept close to the hills to avoid drawing any attention from the Japanese, then circled the runway until the debris was cleared and it was safe to land. He eventually landed with 200 holes in his plane and a shot-up right tire.

When the red alert sounded, Capt. Gerald Crosson was taxiing to the runway with a full crew. He was about halfway down the runway when the bombs began falling and one exploded about 20 feet in front of his B-26’s left wing. As flames from the explosion engulfed the plane and crept towards the bomb bay, the crew abandoned the aircraft as quickly as they could before the bombs exploded. The co-pilot, RAAF Sgt.-PIlot Logan, had been incapacitated by the explosion, so Crosson stayed back to pull him from the bomber. Just as Crosson and Logan took shelter in a crater from one of the bombs, the bombs in the plane blew up. The two men were helplessly caught in flames and a shockwave from the blast. Once the raid ended, Logan and Crosson were loaded into an ambulance. Logan did not survive the journey to the hospital.

Black Smoke

After the raid was over, the 22nd tallied their losses. The message from MacArthur’s office about the raid minimized the results of the surprise attack. One report listed four of their planes as destroyed, as well as three from other groups, and 25 damaged. Pieces of planes, clothes, guns and much more littered the airfield. One thousand barrels of gas and oil burned at one end of the runway, sending plumes of smoke 1500 feet in the air. The Group lost its tower and Operations shack in the raid. The spot where Gammon’s plane had been parked was turned into a giant crater five feet deep and 15 feet wide. For the next 24 hours during the cleanup, delayed action bombs would explode every four or five minutes.

The 345th and Operation Postern

For a number of weeks, General Kenney had been working on a plan to take Lae out of Japanese control. Operation Postern, as it was known, was approved by Gen. MacArthur and put into effect in early September 1943. The 345th Bomb Group took part in the huge raid on Nadzab on September 5th. That morning, 48 B-25 crews from the 345th were joined by two more B-25 squadrons to soften up the area. They completed bomb runs from approximately 1000 feet and also released 20-pound fragmentation bombs. The B-25s were followed by A-20s from the 3rd Bomb Group’s 89th Bomb Squadron, which laid down a smoke screen to cover the 82 C-47s that were dropping paratroopers from the 503rd Parachute Regiment. Kenney and MacArthur observed the entire operation from above in B-17s that circled the area.

Paratroop Landing on Nadzab

As the paratroopers jumped from the C-47s, the B-25s dropped down to 100 feet and strafed whatever targets that might hinder the regiment as it moved towards Lae. Some of the 499th’s pilots were having trouble keeping their eagerness in check as they almost overran another squadron while they strafed vehicles and buildings. While the 498th Squadron’s 1/Lt. Ralph R. Robinette was making a second pass on a target, the right engine on his plane, VULTURE’S NEST, was hit from behind by .50-caliber tracers. With a faltering engine, Robinette pulled away from his attack and headed for home, followed by the rest of his flight. He managed to get back to Jackson Strip without incident, but Robinette knew he was in for a rough landing. His hydraulic system was severely damaged and the right landing gear would not lock. As a result, Robinette landed on two wheels, damaging the tail and the right wing. VULTURE’S NEST was salvaged. The pilot later found out that Robinette’s tent mate, 1/Lt. Theodore O’Rear was the culprit who had accidentally shot out Robinette’s engine.

Overall, Operation Postern was a success. A landing strip was ready for C-47s by the 7th, with two more strips added during the following week. U.S. and Australian forces worked together to flush the Japanese out of the Lae area. Within a few months, Nadzab became a major staging base for the Allied forces in New Guinea.