Deadly Happenstance

A day after the loss of a crew aboard the B-17 THE RECKLESS MOUNTAIN BOYS on May 7, 1943, several crews from the 63rd Bomb Squadron were sent out on reconnaissance missions. All but one crew returned to base.

Captain Robert N. Keatts was flying FIGHTIN SWEDE along the northeast coast of New Guinea when his crew spotted two Japanese “sea trucks” heading for Madang at 0900 hours. After the war, it was discovered that the ships were on the last leg of their journey from Japan and carried reinforcements, food and the 11th Airfield Construction Unit. Because of the valuable cargo aboard the convoy, it was covered from the air by 11 Sentai, a Japanese fighter unit. At the time of Keatts’ report about the ships, the Oscar fighters were hidden by dense clouds. It wasn’t long before FIGHTIN SWEDE was jumped by three Oscars as it flew out of the cloud cover. A fight was on.

After being hit in both engines by the fighters, Keatts made evasive maneuvers in order to escape from the Oscars. For a short time, it looked like FIGHTIN SWEDE would steer clear of disaster. In a split second, that changed when the B-17 was rammed by Sgt. Tadao Oda. Both aircraft exploded and plunged into the sea. It wasn’t until sometime after World War II ended that anyone knew the fate of FIGHTIN SWEDE’s crew.

During the war, Oda had talked with other pilots regularly about how difficult it was to bring down the B-17. Ramming the plane seemed to be an ideal solution, although, in this case, it didn’t work out as he would have preferred since Keatts had already radioed a message about the convoy sighting. Not long after the Oscar and B-17 went down, nine B-25s from the 3rd Bomb Group arrived with eight RAAF Beaufighters and a P-38 escort. The Allied planes went to work, sinking the “sea trucks” and, in the process of doing so, they took out the 11th Airfield Construction Unit.

Oda was posthumously awarded a double promotion to Second Lieutenant as well as given a commendation. The 63rd Bomb Squadron was left reeling after the sudden loss of two crews in two days.

He Has Seen War

In 2011, HBO released an excellent documentary comprised of veteran experiences from the Easy Company and the 1st Marine Division. Not only do the veterans and their relatives talk about life before and during WWII, but also how it impacted their lives once they returned home. We came across it on YouTube and wanted to share it with our readers.

The Freak Accident

For a sultan in Ternate, August 15, 1944 was like any other day, until a 501st Squadron B-25 took out the corner of his palace’s roof during a raid. Afterwards, he promptly complained to the Allied authorities.


On the 15th, the 500th and 501st Squadron were bombing Ternate, the largest town they attacked since Rabaul, as the Allies continued to push the Japanese further into western New Guinea. The 501st was lead by 1/Lt. Eugene E. Nirdlinger, who discovered while over the target area that his bomb racks were malfunctioning. He turned away in search of a place to salvo his bombs and came upon a ship in a harbor, which would make an excellent target. With 1/Lt. John J. Nolan in QUITCH accompanying Nirdlinger, the two B-25s lined up for their attack.

When they neared the ship, they were greeted by antiaircraft fire. Nirdlinger managed to drop his bombs, then he and Nolan began climbing over a hill and away from the area. As they flew along, S/Sgt. Donald M. Holland, a gunner on QUITCH, saw Nirdlinger’s B-25 go underneath their plane. It pulled up sharply, with its tail hitting the right wing of Nolan’s aircraft, then broke off and crashed into the hillside.


A fireball of burning gasoline boils up from the fatal crash of 1/Lt. Nirdlinger’s B-25 on the hillside above Dodinga Village on August 15, 1944.

Getting QUITCH home was going to be a challenge. The brief collision with Nirdlinger’s plane had wrenched off six feet of QUITCH‘s right wing, with the rest of it bent downward like a flap. This put QUITCH at risk of rolling and the pilots worked frantically to get the B-25 level again. They had to almost fully power down the right engine, but eventually they managed to level out and cautiously climbed to 5000 feet. A few hours later, QUITCH was put into a descent for an emergency landing at Kamiri Airdrome, but didn’t end up making it to Kamiri. The left engine, which had been going at full power since the accident, gave out. Nolan landed QUITCH as smoothly as he could in about three feet of water. No one was seriously injured and the crew was picked up the following day. After his experience, Nolan was too shaken up to fly another mission and returned to the U.S. not long afterwards.

The Ultimate Sacrifice

Art print of Ralph Cheli's B-25 going down over New Guinea. Painted by Steve Ferguson, sold by IHRA

On August 18, 1943, Maj. Ralph Cheli led a strike group from the 38th Bomb Group in an attack against the Japanese airstrip at Dagua, New Guinea, as a part of an all-out low-level B-25 strafer attack against the four airfields in the Wewak complex. Already fighting bad weather across the northern coast of New Guinea, Maj. Cheli’s unit was attacked by roughly ten 59 Sentai Oscars. Soon thereafter, one of the fighters made a five o’clock pass at the lead B-25, its fire ripping into the right engine. Maj. Cheli’s wing burst into flames and he rapidly began losing power as black smoke poured from the engine nacelle and wing. Despite a severely damaged aircraft, Cheli selflessly refused to relinquish leadership of the formation, and continuing his attack across the target, strafing and dispersing his load of parafrag bombs as he went. Only when the attack run was well underway, did he finally turn way out to sea where he quickly ditched the flaming aircraft. His crew was soon captured by the Japanese, and all were eventually executed. Maj. Cheli was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions that day, continuing to lead his force in the attack even though his aircraft was fatally damaged.

This limited edition print can be purchased on our website.

Liberty Belle’s Last Flight

Balikpapan. A Japanese stronghold in the earlier part of the Pacific war. At the time, it was heavily defended by some of Japan’s best pilots, and the Allies hoped to change that soon. General George C. Kenney in particular felt that if Fifth Air Force was to destroy the oil refineries on the island, it would be a huge setback in Japan’s attempt to hold onto its position in the southwest Pacific. Over the summer, Kenney directed the 380th Bomb Group to bomb several refineries in the area, with little success, though they were a factor in some fuel shortages. By September, he was eager to send his forces back to Balikpapan. There were a few missions flown by the Thirteenth Air Force and the 90th Bomb Group, however, approximately 40% of the planes flown on these mission were either lost or too damaged to be put back in service afterwards.

Due to the heavy losses suffered by the Thirteenth during these raids, plans were changed. Kenney soon gathered together reinforcements for what would be the largest raid yet for the Fifth and Thirteenth Air Forces. Among the 22nd Bomb Group crews participating was one from the 33rd Squadron in the B-24 named Liberty Belle, which was flown by 1/Lt. Joseph C. Tafaro. On October 10, 1944, his crew lifted off in the early morning hours with the other 22nd Bomb Group planes and headed for Balikpapan.

Once they neared the area, they were met with phosphorus bombs and aggressive fighters. Tafaro’s crew managed to fight off two Zeros that had singled out LIBERTY BELLE. Unfortunately, one of the two Zeros that they shot flew into the B-24 flown by 1/Lt. Clarey. The B-24’s right wing broke off and both planes plummeted from the sky. No one survived. About two minutes away from the target, LIBERTY BELLE was hit by a 20mm shell in the #2 engine. With Japanese fighters still hovering, Tafaro decided against feathering the engine so that they wouldn’t become more vulnerable to the enemy. It is not known if the tactic fooled anyone at the time.

Balikpapan on October 10, 1944

Balikpapan after the 22nd dropped their bombs on the target area.

Tafaro made his runs on the target, then left as quickly as possible, with Japanese fighters in hot pursuit. By this time, it was obvious that LIBERTY BELLE was damaged and it soon became the target of three Zeros. The B-24 was hit several more times, including the #3 main gas tank. Throughout this time, the plane’s flank was protected by another B-24 flown by Lt. Sewell. Reflecting on the incident, Tafaro didn’t think he would have made it if it hadn’t been for Sewell sticking by. LIBERTY BELLE was chased by the fighters for about 180 miles before they turned around and left the B-24 to its fate.

With little fuel remaining, Tafaro knew his plane wouldn’t make it back home. He and his navigator picked out a landing spot on Batoedaka Island, not too far from the location of the PBY Catalina standing by. The landing was challenging, but successful. Crewmembers tumbled out after the plane came to a stop, then checked for injuries. Amazingly, the only one wounded was the pilot himself, who ended up with head lacerations. Tafaro and his crew spent the night in the plane, then set off the next morning. They encountered friendly natives who took them to their village, where they were fed and housed for the night.

The next day, the men saw a P-38 flying low overhead. They fired a flare, which was spotted by the P-38 pilot and acknowledged with a low pass, waggling wings, and a wave at the crew. It wasn’t until the following day, October 12th, that two P-38s escorting a Catalina appeared overhead. After the men thanked the natives, they were rowed out to the waiting Catalina that took them to Morotai. A C-47 took them back to Owi the next day. To show their thanks to the natives, Tafaro and his crew arranged for seeds, clothing materials and tools to be sent to their rescuers.

B-26s at Midway

Int'l Historical Research Associates:

In early June 1942, the results of the Battle of Midway had a crucial effect on the Pacific war…

Originally posted on IHRA:

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…

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Memorial Day 2015

As we observe Memorial Day on Monday, please take a moment to remember the men and women who paid the ultimate price during their military service. Here is one story where a crew from the 43rd Bomb Group joined those that we remember each year.

Six B-17s were sent to bomb Vunakanau during the early morning hours of May 21, 1943. There was hardly any antiaircraft fire to evade and mission results were good: fires were seen scattered around the Vunakanau area as they left. Sadly, only four of the six B-17s made it back to base. One of the planes that didn’t return was HONI KUU OKOLE. As the pilot, Capt. Williams, was approaching the target area, a Japanese J1N1 Gekko “Irving” night fighter positioned itself underneath the bombers right wing. The fighter let loose with its 20mm cannon directly into the B-17s right wing.  Both engines on the wing burst into flame and the pilot dove in hopes to escape the fighter. Bombardier M/Sgt. Gordon R. Manuel quickly salvoed their bombs as they left the area. When Williams leveled off at 6000 feet, the crew discovered that they hadn’t managed to shake the night fighter, which shot at the B-17 again. This time, both engines on the left wing were hit, putting the plane into a fatal dive.

Soon, the fire spread to the waist section of the aircraft, getting close to the small incendiary bombs stacked on the floor. Crewmembers began preparing to bail out of the doomed aircraft. In total, three of the men were able to bail out of the plane before it crashed and exploded. Manuel opened the bomb bay doors and jumped through the open hatch. As he fell, from his vantage point of approximately 100-200 feet above the water, Manuel saw a second parachute, which he believed belonged to co-pilot 2/Lt. John S. Rippy. He landed about three-quarters of a mile away from Manuel. Sergeant Robert A. Curry, one of the waist gunners, bailed out and made it to shore, only to be captured by the Japanese and executed at Rabaul.

The Aguirres

Richard U. Aguirre sits in a park with his wife, Margaret, in this photo taken before he was sent out to the Southwest Pacific. Aguirre was the navigator on HONI KUU OKOLE when it was shot down over the New Britain coastline on May 21, 1943. He did not survive the shoot down. (CZNBJL Collection via FindaGrave)


When Manuel landed, he was about 300 yards from shore. It took him several hours to swim with one broken leg and the other leg filled with shrapnel. When he reached the shore, he buried himself in dead foliage to keep from being discovered by the Japanese patrols, then fell asleep for a couple of hours. Lt. Rippy was not so lucky. After Rippy swam to shore, he was discovered as he slept by Japanese soldiers, who took him onboard a destroyer and executed him.

When he woke up, he began to walk along the beach, eventually meeting some natives that were working on a dirt road. Once he decided that there weren’t any Japanese among the natives, he stepped out from a hiding place and tried to communicate that he was injured. The leader of the village, Pagnkuf, was among the group and luckily for Manuel, he spoke some English.

For eight months, Manuel stayed at different villages as he eluded the Japanese and recuperated from his injuries. During this time, he was also able to send natives on reconnaissance missions regarding Japanese positions and gun emplacements. This information would aid the Allies, and hopefully his rescue as well. It wasn’t until February 5, 1944 that Manuel finally left New Britain on the USS Gato.

What’s in a Name?

From Ken’s Men to the Air Apaches, units of Fifth Air Force had thought of a wide variety of nicknames for themselves. This week, we thought we’d cover the origins of the sobriquets for the 312th, 22nd, 43rd, 38th and 345th Bomb Groups.

The Roarin’ 20’s: The 312th Bomb Group gave themselves this nickname in late March or early April 1944. For the most part, their insignia of a lion jumping through the zero in 20’s wasn’t added as nose art. The men usually used their group logo for signage and patches.

Ken’s Men: Over their years of service during WWII, the 43rd Bomb Group looked up to three men in particular: Gen. George C. Kenney, Brig. Gen. Kenneth Walker and Maj. Kenneth McCullar. Walker and McCullar were killed in action, but the stories of their leadership stuck with the Group for the rest of their war. To honor them as well as Kenney, they adopted the nickname of Ken’s Men sometime in 1943. The noses of the Group’s B-24s were adorned with Ken’s Men in big block letters.

The Red Raiders: In March 1944, the 22nd Bomb Group began transitioning to the B-24 Liberator. Along with this transition, they moved to Nadzab and soon thereafter decided to name their unit after their redheaded Group Commander, Lt. Col. Richard W. “Robbie” Robinson. The Group also adopted an insignia consisting of a bust of Viking warrior Erik the Red. As with the 43rd, the men of the 22nd also painted their logo on their B-24s.

The Sun Setters: Japan, also known as the Land of the Rising Sun, invaded many countries in the Pacific during WWII. In response, the 38th Bomb Group nicknamed themselves the Sun Setters as they flew missions to keep the Japanese at bay. Between 1941 and 1946, their logo consisted of an eagle sitting on the Japanese Rising Sun symbol, with four bombs converging over the sun. As far as we can tell, there doesn’t seem to be a clear date regarding the adoption of this sobriquet. Similar to the 312th, the men of the 38th Bomb Group didn’t usually add the group logo to their B-25s. The photo below shows one plane that did.

The Air Apaches: The 345th Bomb Group moved to Biak in early July 1944. A few weeks before their move, they had been debating on a new nickname for the Group after the “T.T.T.’s” didn’t hold much interest. Major John “Cliff” Hanna suggested the “Air Apaches” and the men quickly warmed up to it. They organized a contest to design an insignia, which was won by a Native American member of the unit, Sgt. Charles Pushetonequa of the 498th Squadron. His winning entry showed the head of a Native American dressed in a full war bonnet. Men added the logo to their B-25s tails.

B-25 Air Apache_03

VE Day

“The war in Europe was drawing to a rapid conclusion. Word was received May 6 that Germany had unconditionally surrendered and the United States was preparing for VE Day.
It was business as usual for the 38th. While America celebrated, ground support missions were flown against stubborn pockets of resistance and troop concentrations on Luzon. Propaganda leaflets, announcing Germany’s surrender and urging the Japanese soldiers to surrender, were dropped. Very few Japanese aircraft were encountered in the air, or serviceable aircraft found on the ground. They had been destroyed or pulled back for the defense of the Japanese homeland.”
-A History of the 38th Bombardment Group
by John Henry

In his diary, Jack H. Bleuler of the 38th Bomb Group expressed his sentiments on the news: “May 8th & 9th was the celebrating of VE Day in Europe. Germany has surrendered. If we can just hurry up and win over here. Home is not too far off now!”