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.


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.

After Dark in the Park

Come meet the president of IHRA!

Author Lawrence J. Hickey will be doing a 15-minute presentation on Pappy Gunn and the conversion of the medium bomber into a low-level strafer as part of the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center’s After Dark in the Park series. This will be held in Theater 2 on September 6th at 6:30pm.

Topics Larry may cover include:

  • the development of B-17 skip-bombing
  • Pappy Gunn and Jack Fox’s strafer idea
  • the A-20 and B-25 strafer conversion in the 3rd, 345th, and 38th Bomb Groups
  • the troublesome B-25G with its 75mm cannon
  • modifications to the B-25J

Larry will be joined by several other experts, including two of our co-authors, Osamu Tagaya and Michael J. Claringbould, in the Pacific field for an exciting evening covering both Japanese and American aspects of World War II. You won’t want to miss it!


New Guinea Weather Thwarts Another Mission

Men from the 38th Bomb Group scrambled for cover as the Japanese raided Port Moresby’s airfields on the night of May 14, 1943. Once the red alert was lifted, it was approximately 0200 hours on the 15th, and not a good night to get some sleep. The air crews were roused from their beds a short time later when they were informed that they would be heading out on a mission to Gasmata at 0300. They were ordered to take out the approximately 40 Japanese fighters and bombers before the Japanese could send them to raid Dobodura around sunrise.

Due to the bad weather over the mountains and the Solomon Sea, crews were told to fly separately instead of trying to maintain some semblance of a formation in the weather. This was to be a long flight, resulting in most of the planes being equipped with wing tanks to give the B-25s an extra 300 gallons of fuel. EL DIABLO II, an unmodified B-25C, had been designated a non-combat plane until this mission when it was assigned to 2/Lt. Garrett C. Middlebrook. Because it had not been fitted with wing tanks, Middlebrook objected to his assigned plane but was told he still had to fly it.

As Middlebrook and his crew took off and headed over the Own Stanley Mountains on a bumpy ride, EL DIABLO II was suddenly caught in a downdraft and fell 2000 feet. The pilots regained control of the plane and the crew continued on in the electrical storm. Halos formed around the edges of the propellers and sparks flew threw the plane whenever lightning struck. At one point, the lightning saved the lives of the crew as it lit a mountain dead ahead. Middlebrook executed a climbing turn and avoided the mountain. By this time, the men weren’t sure of their exact location because of the turbulent weather they were flying through. Middlebrook reasoned that it would be best to fly north for 30 minutes, then over the sea. They finally found calmer air at 800 feet an hour before sunrise, but did not find land from this altitude.

An hour later, the B-25 descended as Middlebrook and his co-pilot, 2/Lt. William F. Noser looked for water, which they finally spotted from 300 feet. There wasn’t enough fuel to get them to the target and back home, so the crew decided to turn around and head back to base. It wasn’t long before they encountered turbulent weather and ascended to avoid downdrafts that could plunge the plane in the ocean and the mountains that were buried in the clouds. The crew did their best to stay out of the bad weather and finally reached the coast north of the Fly River, which was 250 miles away from home. There wasn’t enough fuel left for them to fly back to Port Moresby, so Lt. Middlebrook began looking for a safe place to land. Sand dunes scattered along the beaches were a potential hazard to the plane and the crew, but EL DIABLO II was nearly out of fuel. As Middlebrook buzzed the beach, he noticed a section of 1200 to 1500 feet of flat ground that would be ideal for landing.

The landing gear was lowered, the fuel and power cut, and the pilots landed the plane in the sand. While it was a bumpy landing that broke the nose wheel, no one was injured. The crew got out to inspect the plane and were greeted by a few natives who appeared to mean the crew no harm. After a little while, the crew tried talking to one of the boys who spoke a little English. It was established that an Australian detachment was half a day’s walk away from the crash site and the boy was willing to lead the downed airmen to the Australians. Two of the crewmembers went with the boy while the rest of the men secured the plane’s guns and destroyed the I.F.F. (Identification, Friend or Foe) radio set. Later that afternoon, the two men returned to the crew with a message that the Australians would pick them up by PT boat at the mouth of the Kapuri River that night.

The crew spent the next two days with the Australians before they were picked up by a C-47 that returned them to Port Moresby. EL DIABLO II was later recovered by a barge team, repaired and transferred out of the 38th Bomb Group roster.

Hospital Visitors

This week’s post was written up by our co-author, Edward Rogers.

It was customary for members of a flight crew, especially the pilot, to look in on their comrades if they had been injured or were sick in the hospital. Being part of the same crew formed strong bonds of friendship. 90th Bomb Squadron pilot 1/Lt. Lynn Schmidt visited his turret gunner, Sgt. James A. Carter, at the hospital in Cairns, Australia on June 10th. Carter had been wounded in the legs during a strafing attack on their B-25 #41-12496, DER SCHPY, by Japanese Zero fighters at Seven Mile airdrome on May 9, 1942.

Schmidt summarized the visit in his diary, “Flew to Cairns to see Sgt. Carter.  He was doing fine – in nice clean hospital with pretty nurses, good clean town et. cet. – loaned him my last five pounds – took him books, clothes, mail and the like.”

Two days later Carter wrote a letter of thanks to Schmidt.

“Your visit the other day would have been worth the writing of a dozen letters.  I was never so glad to see anyone in all my life.  Maybe I didn’t act it but I was really pleased to see you fellows.  I deeply appreciate your coming up and bringing the things.  The letters, to me, were worth their weight in radium, because as I believe you know they were the first letters I’ve rec’d.  It took me ‘til late in the night to read them all.

I hope this letter finds you all in the best of health.  I’m still improving.  The cast comes off in five more days but I know I won’t be able to walk on the foot for another week after that.

Will sign off for now so the nurses can mail this.  The best of luck to you on your missions.  Take care of yourself, the crew, and “Der Schpy”.  Give my regards to the others, please”

Very sincerely yours,
Jimmie Carter

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Strafer – Mission to Kaveing

345th Bomb Group B-25s over KaveingMajor Chester Coltharp, commanding officer of the 498th Bomb Squadron, 345th Bomb Group is seen sweeping into the Kavieng, New Ireland Japanese seaplane anchorage, which was Fifth Air Force’s target for destruction on February 15, 1944. Major Coltharp’s B-25D, PRINCESS PAT and 1/Lt. G. D. McCall’s NEAR MISS are the embodiment of the legendary Major Paul I. “Pappy” Gunn’s revolutionary gun-toting field conversion of the B-25 Mitchell medium bomber to the devastating tool of destruction that was to become known as the strafer.

For more information or to purchase a copy of this piece by Jack Fellows, please visit our website.

Ditching Black Jack

A new crew had taken off in the 63rd Squadron B-17 named BLACK JACK early on July 11, 1943. It was the first time this crew flew together as well as the first mission for one of the two waist gunners. The initial part of the flight was more difficult than it should have been, as pilot 1/Lt. Ralph K. De Loach was having a hard time gaining enough altitude to fly over the Owen Stanley mountain range. Before he was able to clear the mountains, De Loach circled near Hood Point three times. Then the gyroscopic compass (heading indicator) began to malfunction. Pressing on, BLACK JACK began to cause additional problems for the crew as the men flew over the Solomon Sea. The #3 engine’s oil pressure dropped to 50 pounds, leading to the engine shaking severely and the crew questioning whether or not they should continue the mission to Rabaul. After a quick poll, they decided to keep going.

When the crew approached Vunakanau, the RPMs in BLACK JACK‘s #4 engine dropped significantly, resulting in a second vibrating engine. De Loach feathered the #4 engine, causing a drop in altitude from 14,000 to 10,500 feet (4.267 to 3.2 km) before beginning a bombing run. The bombardier, 2/Lt. Herman Dias, quickly dropped all the bombs while De Loach got the ailing B-17 away from the target area and Japanese territory. Engine #3 continued to weaken, leaving the crew in a perilous state as the bomber’s altitude continued to drop. By now, the plane was below the tops of the Owen Stanley peaks, which De Loach needed to fly over in order to reach the Solomon Sea. He restarted engine #4, resulting in engine #3 vibrating even more severely than before, in hopes of increasing the altitude. He was able to get BLACK JACK over New Britain, only to run into a thunderstorm. Radio operator T/Sgt. George Prezioso began transmitting their location to New Guinea in case the plane had to ditch.

The plane continued to burn through its fuel and lose altitude, cruising at only 2000 feet (.61km), when De Loach made the decision to ditch BLACK JACK. The crew prepared for the ditching as best as it could while De Loach gave his co-pilot, Lt. Joseph H. Moore, controls for the actual ditching. De Loach thought it best for Moore to execute the ditching since he had experience doing so. Moore intended to set the plane down on a reef, but BLACK JACK instead went over the edge and into the deeper water. The men escaped the plane as quickly as possible, helping their three injured comrades however they could.

Meanwhile, a couple of Australian Spotters were stationed at Cape Vogel when they heard a plane nearby. “The mate and I heard plane’s motors,” Cpl. Eric Foster recalled, “and we went outside to look for it…As it got closer we still could not identify it as we had never seen any of our planes close up. As it got closer it started to climb to get over the cliff. It then banked round to the left and we saw the big white star and heaved a great sigh of relief [that it was not a Japanese plane], not knowing that they were in trouble. We looked away and the next thing we heard a terrific crash. They had crash landed at Boga Boga, a native village about 3 miles from us. The mate and I took off thinking there was likely to be injured. By the time we reached Boga Boga the natives had gone out in canoes and towed them in. When we arrived the Americans said ‘Thank God, Aussies. We didn’t have a clue where we were.’”

A message was soon dispatched to Milne Bay, then forwarded to Port Moresby, where the men of the 43rd learned that the crew was safe and no one had died during the crash. Forty-three years later, in 1986, Australian diver Rodney Pearce found BLACK JACK completely intact. De Loach visited Boga Boga village that year after he was invited by historian Steve Birdsall. Reflecting on the remarkable preservation of the veteran B-17 bomber in the documentary “Black Jack’s Last Mission” De Loach said “I think the way it’s ended up now, sitting under the sea, being encrusted in coral is one of the finest endings it could have had. It was a very proper ending for a gallant aircraft.”

B-17 Black Jack

Black Jack in its final resting place.