The 22nd’s Short-Lived Torpedo School

Early in the war, the U.S. Navy was in need of a fast, long-range torpedo bomber. There weren’t any in the Navy’s inventory that met their requirements and so they turned to the Army Air Force in hopes of converting B-26s into torpedo bombers. Out of the blue, an order from General Brett, the senior U.S. Commander in Australia, came to the 22nd Bomb Group’s C.O., Lt. Col. Haskins, wanting two of his crews and B-26s to report to Melbourne, Australia for torpedo school. Pilots Lt. Frank Allen and Lt. Cooper were chosen to go. Allen specifically came to Haskin’s mind when he thought of Allen’s torpedo lessons in San Diego.

For a week, Allen got the runaround as he tried to get further instructions about this torpedo school before he was told he was on his own. He knew that the Navy had an installation at Pearce Airdrome (north of Perth) and decided to set up the program there. Upon his apparently unanticipated arrival on May 1, 1942, he found out that no one else knew about this project. Fortunately, the Navy promised Allen support and assigned a Commander Robinson to work with him. Robinson, Allen soon discovered, knew everything about torpedoes.

They started out by building dummy torpedoes out of “jarrah” wood (metal resources were unavailable to them), which was a close density to that of iron. Testing started after Cooper and his crew arrived on May 17th. Their B-26 was damaged after it got stuck in the mud and they had to get a different aircraft. Murphy’s Law continued to wreak havoc with the first torpedo test: the B-26’s booster coils burned out and needed to be replaced, its batteries died, and once the plane finally took off, the dummy torpedo was left on the runway because the firing switch shorted out. After all the mechanical issues were fixed, the dummy torpedo was finally dropped on the target. Instead of breaking like a torpedo should, it bounced and somersaulted before finally entering the water and settling into the deep mud somewhere.

In all, there ended up being about ten tests with the wooden torpedoes at different heights and airspeeds before they were finally given real torpedoes with water-filled heads. They tested these for about two months, recording data and taking photos and videos. It was established that the most successful torpedo drops occurred when the airspeed and drop height were equal: at 200mph, drop the torpedo from 200 feet, etc.

Allen, who had been promoted to Captain on May 10th, finally decided they were ready to start teaching in July at a torpedo school at Nowra, 75 miles south of Sydney. Given his previous experiences at Melbourne and Pearce, it’s not surprising that this torpedo school didn’t exist yet and he was supposed to get it started. By August, many of the 22nd’s crews went through Allen’s torpedo school and gave themselves the name of the “1st Torpedo Squadron.” They weren’t too fond of the idea of using B-26s as torpedo bombers because of the impaired aerodynamics and short ground clearance on takeoff.

The training wasn’t too interesting, but the men still entertained themselves. One day, Nowra’s local paper reported on a buzz job: “Yesterday morning when the ‘Birds’ came home to roost, they skimmed the tops of the houses in the town, much to the alarm of residents. Among complaints received at this office, mostly from womenfolk, are that choice lemons were blown off her trees in the garden; another that the force of the air slipstream blew the paint off the roof, while a third lady, suffering an attack of lumbago was seen disappearing down an air raid shelter head first.”

Soon, the men were sent back to join the rest of the 22nd at Iron Range, as they were needed elsewhere. The Navy realized that the B-26 wasn’t the right plane for the job and the torpedo school was closed down in August, thus sending these tests to the 22nd Bomb Group’s records.

Survival of The Reckless Mountain Boys Crew

When we last left off, Capt. Byron L. Heichel and his seven surviving crewmembers had reached the shore near their B-17’s crash site. They noticed a crowd of natives had come to see what all the commotion was about, and the crew attempted to communicate with them in Pidgin English to get help moving three of the crewmen who had been severely injured: James E. Etheridge, Kenneth P. Vetter, and 2/Lt. Marcus L. Mangett, Jr. Heichel and his co-pilot, 1/Lt. Berry T. Rucks, Jr. were also injured in the landing (both had been thrown face-first into the instrument panel), although they were able to move on their own two feet.

They had landed near a plantation called Komalu, which was owned by a German named Rudolf Diercke. That day, he and the Japanese overseer, Tadashi Imamura, were inspecting some construction on the plantation when Diercke was told that an American plane had crashed near his house. Imamura and Diercke went to investigate the wreckage of THE RECKLESS MOUNTAIN BOYS and came across the bodies of the three missing crewmen, two on the beach, one floating 100 feet yards from the B-17. The German arranged for them to be buried with full identification in the local cemetery, then went back about a month later to add crosses with each man’s name on them.

The two learned that the rest of the crew was heading for the mountains and, prompted by Imamura, Diercke wrote a note to be delivered to them by a native policeman that ordered them to surrender to the policeman. Realizing that they had no other choice, the men surrendered. A Japanese war correspondent named Hajime Yoshida filmed Heichel’s injured crewmen laying on stretchers and being carried by the natives. Later, Heichel was separated from his crew and ended up talking with Yoshida, who tried to calm Heichel’s fears about his crew being executed.

Crew in Stretchers

Radio operator M/Sgt. Clarence G. Surrett looks up from his stretcher at Japanese war correspondent Hajime Yoshida.

Some time afterward, Heichel was taken back to Diercke’s house where the Japanese officer attempted to interrogate the pilot. The questioning session didn’t last long, as Heichel was exhausted, his face was swollen from his crash injuries and he couldn’t speak very well, nor write with skinned fingers. Before passing out, he was given a glass of whiskey. The next morning, the pilot was put on a ship bound for Rabaul, then driven to Kavieng. “Late that afternoon, we arrived in Kavieng. Civilians, I presume, maybe Japanese soldiers, kept pulling my hair until my scalp felt like a boil. They pulled me from the truck, dragged me into a dark room, and removed the blindfold and the bindings from my hands and feet. By prying my eyelids open, I could see the room was small, with a dirt floor. The one window had closed shutters, but the cracks between the wallboards provided a deep, dusky twilight. Here the futility of my predicament overwhelmed me … Later, as I tried sitting on the floor with my back to the wall, I was overrun with rats trying to reach the fresh blood still dripping from my nose. I had to take them in my hands and throw them away. They would go away, but return at intervals. I stood in the corner kicking at them. Finally, when I just had to lie down, I wrapped my flight jacket around my head.”

Heichel was at this camp for two to five days before being sent by plane to Rabaul, where he unexpectedly ran into Sergeant Fritz, who was also part of his crew. Fritz ran up to his pilot with tears coursing down his cheeks, saying, “My God Captain, what have they done to you?” and carried Heichel into a shack and laid him on a plank shelf. He then proceeded to inform the pilot of the rest of the crew, Rucks, Mangett, Clarence G. Surrett, Etheridge and Frank L. Kurisko were also at Rabaul. Vetter, who was one of Sgt. Fritz’s best friends, was last seen tied to a wooden post under a house at Kavieng.

The two men shared the space with two other men, one of which had basic medical training. He treated Heichel’s wounds to the best of his abilities. In all, Heichel, Rucks, Surret and Ethridge were at the camp for a week or two before being taken to the Ofuna Prison Camp at Japan. Heichel was again separated from the remaining crewmembers, and put in solitary confinement for a month, where he endured regular beatings. Afterwards, he could mingle with other prisoners and withstood regular interrogations, mainly about the new B-29. At the camp, Heichel met an 11th Bomb Group Olympian: Lt. Lou Zamperini.

Sergeant Fritz, Pvt. Kurisko and Lt. Mangett did not survive the war. Mangett was last seen on May 11, 1943 being escorted to an infirmary in Rabaul. Fritz and Kurisko were executed with other POWs on November 25, 1943 near Rabaul. The four remaining men spent the rest of World War II in various Japanese prison camps. Surret, Heichel, Etheridge and Rucks survived and were able to return to the United States once the war was over.

The day after THE RECKLESS MOUNTAIN BOYS disappeared, the 63rd Bomb Squadron lost another crew. That story can be found here.

Veterans Day

Across the globe, today is a day to recognize those who have served in the military. We don’t always look at this day from the other side though. How do the veterans feel when they are thanked for their service? What about when we call them heroes? David Botti of BBC News took a closer look at the relationship between American veterans and civilians in a short, thought-provoking documentary.

Fatal Attack on The Reckless Mountain Boys

As Capt. Byron L. Heichel and his crew were gearing up for their reconnaissance mission over Kavieng, a Japanese military complex on the island of New Ireland,  on May 7, 1943, they were given a photographer and ordered to fly a photo-reconnaissance mission over suspected construction sites there. Unlike a typical reconnaissance mission, a photo-reconnaissance flight required multiple deliberate passes to get enough photo material. Heichel’s approach path was unchanged, however, and as a result Japanese coastwatchers 100 miles away from Kavieng warned personnel at the base of the incoming B-17.

Soon after THE RECKLESS MOUNTAIN BOYS finished the photo runs, tail gunner Pvt. Frank L. Kurisko alerted the crew to 6 Zeros in pursuit of the B-17. Heichel quickly ascended and headed out to sea in hopes of losing the fighters, but the crew was engaged in combat. The Fortress sustained several hits, including fires in the #3 engine and radio compartment, and the #2 engine was fully shot out. Two crewmen were also injured in the melee. As one of the Zeros passed by the B-17, its pilot reportedly smiled and waved at the 63rd Squadron crew, only to have his fighter raked by gun fire in response. The offending Zero fell away moments later.

B-17 The Reckless Mountain Boys in Flight

This photo of THE RECKLESS MOUNTAIN BOYS in flight was taken shortly before it was lost. The gun barrels of the lower turret are seen pointing down and were in this position when the bomber ditched on a coral reef.

Now down to two working engines, Capt. Heichel still had to shake off several Zeros. Dropping into some cloud cover at 1500 feet, THE RECKLESS MOUNTAIN BOYS had a short reprieve before it was pointed out that they might crash into a mountain at this altitude. Leaving the clouds, the B-17 narrowly missed colliding with a Zero. Three of the remaining Zeros then formed up, pressing one final attack on the damaged Flying Fortress. They shot out another engine and wounded the pilot. As the smell of gasoline filled the fuselage, the decision was made to ditch THE RECKLESS MOUNTAIN BOYS before it exploded.

Heichel brought the plane down on the water, and because of the belly turret guns pointing down, the guns caught a coral reef, forcing the nose down and breaking the fuselage. Several men were injured in the rough landing, including the pilot and co-pilot. The B-17 was in no danger of sinking thanks to the reef it was resting on, but the crew was still in danger of being hit by the Zeros that were now strafing the crash site. Four men who managed to extricate themselves from the wreckage ran for cover, yelling for the others to get out fast. The Zeros soon left and the men waded back to the plane to help the rest of the crew to the beach. Three crew members, bombardier 2/Lt. Oscar M. Linsley,  photographer Sgt. Gilbert A. Flieger and student navigator 2/Lt. Eugene D. Bleiler, had most likely been ejected from the plane during the crash and were not found.

Coming up next week: the story of the remaining eight members of THE RECKLESS MOUNTAIN BOYS.



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Over the last couple of years, we’ve been happy to see our readership and engagement increasing as we keep sharing the stories about the Pacific side of World War II. Now we’d like to know a little more about what you and what you enjoy here. Since we publish books, we’d also like to know a little bit about your book buying habits. Below are two polls with one question each. If you want to elaborate on your choices, feel free to add a comment. We really appreciate your feedback. Come back next week for an exciting survival story!

Returning to the Skies

Nearly 30 years ago, Tony Mazzolini found the B-29 Superfortress known as Doc wasting away in the Mojave Desert. He waded through the process of acquiring the plane from the government and began restoration efforts in 2000. Today, Doc is nearly airworthy. A group called Doc’s Friends launched a Kickstarter campaign at the beginning of October to get donations for the last phase in the long process. On October 22nd, the campaign met its goal with a week to spare.

As World War II fades into memory, so do the links to that time. Without a direct link to events in the past, we lose those strong connections that makes history real for those who didn’t live during those times. Thanks to groups like Doc’s Friends and the Collings Foundation, everyone has a chance to to see these warbirds up close, hear them fly overhead, look inside and even ride in them. Between these and the recording stories from veterans, the links can be maintained longer. People gain a deeper understanding of what they have been taught since elementary school.

It takes years for these planes to become airworthy and a significant amount of time and money to keep them that way. In spite of the costs, giving people an opportunity to see these pieces of history is well worth the effort. Congratulations to Doc’s Friends for working so hard to get a second B-29 flying again. We can’t wait to see it back in the air.

You can still donate until October 29th.

Five Minutes to Midnight

One of the B-25D medium bombers assigned to the 22nd Bomb Group in the summer of 1943, this aircraft joined the 408th Squadron in August 1943. It is believed to have been flown overseas by a crew led by 2/Lt. (later Capt.) Harry J. Copsey, a cowboy from Broken Bow, Nebraska, who was one of 15 crews who trained with their aircraft at Savannah, Georgia, and began their trip overseas in July 1943. The other members of Copsey’s crew on the initial combat missions were 2/Lt. (later 1/Lt.) Otto W. Leib, co-pilot; 2/Lt. Joseph F. Kent, Jr., navigator; 2/Lt. Leonard Teitelbaum, bombardier; S/Sgt. Frederick E. Pelegrin, engineer and turret gunner; S/Sgt. Warren J. Carstens, radio operator and waist gunner; and S/Sgt. Russell W. Lowery, armorer-gunner. Leib, who soon became a first pilot, got his own crew and was replaced by 2/Lt. Jack E. Simonini. Other crew replacements during the plane’s combat tour included 2/Lt. Kenneth W. Gores at Teitelbaum’s position and S/Sgt. James M. Teague for Lowery. The name of the crew chief for the aircraft is not known.

The nickname FIVE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT and its accompanying artwork were painted on the aircraft by 2/Lt. Steve N. Karall, the co-pilot on 2/Lt. (later Capt.) Vernon L. Ruther’s crew, and also the artist for his own plane, SHOT LOAD. Ruther had been the original co-pilot on Copsey’s crew back in the States, but had his own plane and crew by the time combat operations began. The artwork on Copsey’s Mitchell depicted a black bronco being ridden by a cowboy superimposed on a white disc. See the color section for a crew patch done by Lt. Karall that also carried this design. FIVE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT was the name of a famous horse on the rodeo circuit back in the States.

Five Minutes to Midnight

1/Lt Harry J. Copsey, a Nebraska cowboy, is seen in the cockpit of his FIVE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT, named after a famous horse on the American rodeo circuit. The red-lettered nickname with white shadowing was in a style found on most 408th Squadron B-25s. The plane is shown with 21 missions on its scoreboard, which dates the photo to early December 1943. (Charles B. Ullmann Collection)


This artwork was probably put on the aircraft before it entered combat, although the earliest photo available depicts it on the Mitchell in mid-November 1943, displaying 12 mission markers in yellow below the cockpit window. On the pilot’s window ledge the name “Copsey” was written in yellow script, while what appears to be the name Arthur was written below the bombardier’s greenhouse nose panel on the left side. Other markings which were probably done by the squadron painter, S/Sgt. Chester J. McNavage, included a thin yellow vertical band around the radio compass housing, Kelly Green prop hubs and patches on both sides of the horizontal stabilizers, and a nose wheel cover that carried what appeared to be a cattle brand design, probably from Copsey’s cowboy days. By the end of its tour, the name MOAN had been painted on the outboard side of the left cowling ring and presumably the right ring was similarly painted with the word GROAN. This was probably done by the ground crew and appears in a photo illustrating the text for January 30, 1944. Our profile shows the aircraft as it appeared in early December 1943, with 21 mission markers on the scoreboard, of a total of at least 43 which were eventually carried in double rows with 25 on the top row.

Of the 44 known mission flown by this aircraft between October 14, 1943, and January 30, 1944, twenty were flown by the Copsey crew, including both the first and the last. Eight other pilots were at the controls for the other missions. During its B-25 era, the 408th Squadron seldom encountered heavy opposition; no member of the crew is known to have been injured. Nor was any significant damage inflicted on the aircraft by enemy fire. On June 9, 1944, Carstens, Lowery and Pelegrin were crewmen aboard a B-24 that was damaged during a mission to Peleliu, and subsequently ditched off the northern coast of New Guinea with fatal results for Carstens and serious injuries to Lowery. For details, see Appendix II for that date. FIVE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT was transferred to the V Bomber Command Replacement Pool at the beginning of February 1944, when the Squadron began conversion training for the B-24.



This week, we thought we’d try something really different: a profile history from one of our books. In this case, we chose Profile #20 from Revenge of the Red Raiders. Do you want to see more of these from time to time? Let us know in the comments.

A close call in Old Baldy

“…As I sat on the bomb and held on to the rack, bracing myself on the bomb above, I was facing the rear of the plane and I could observe the crew members in the radio compartment. I could see very tense, nervous, whitefaced fellows, apparently scared to death. If they were afraid of what they saw, I am sure that I was doubly afraid as I was the ‘guy’ sitting on the loose bomb.”

This week, let’s take a look back at A close call in Old Baldy

B-17 bomb bay. Used with permission from Robert Schuch.

A Fiery Landing

Nine planes took off for Utarom, a Japanese air base on the west coast of Dutch New Guinea, on the morning of September 28, 1944. The mission was soon cancelled due to bad weather over their target and the A-20 crews headed back to base. Shortly into the return journey, 2/Lt. Kenneth S. DuFour lost oil pressure in one engine of his plane. He shut it down, jettisoned his bombs and told his gunner, S/Sgt. Thomas E. Smith, to bail out if the other engine quit. For the time being, things were stable, and DuFour continued flying back to Hollandia. Above him, 2/Lt. Walter F. Hill kept a watchful eye on DuFour’s A-20.

As DuFour approached Tanahmerah Bay, he followed the common landing procedure of switching from the bomb bay tanks to the wing tanks, only to have vapor lock shut down the remaining working engine. His A-20 went into a spiral dive and DuFour worked furiously to regain control of his plane by easing off the rudder trim and switching on the booster pumps. The engine restarted and the pilot got his plane back in control. For a short time, Hill thought DuFour’s A-20 would plunge into the water and was relieved after he pulled out of the dive. During the chaos, Smith bailed out with Hill watching him float towards the cliffs on the west side of the bay.

DuFour slowly took his aircraft up to 3000 feet in order to clear the mountains that stood between him and Hollandia. When he could not contact the tower, he decided to land on a dirt strip next to the runway. As he attempted to lower his landing gear, only the nose wheel came down. DuFour aborted the landing, determining that he would be better off ditching in nearby Sentani Lake. The descent to the lake was too difficult to control, leading the A-20 to crash into nearby trees instead. During the landing, the pilot was knocked unconscious.

When he woke up, he was surrounded by fuel and fire. DuFour attempted to escape the inferno through the canopy, but it wouldn’t open. Instead, he used a pistol to break the Plexiglas and climbed out of the plane. Soon after getting out, he heard the ammunition exploding. This worried the pilot, as he was unaware that his gunner had bailed out and thought Smith was still trapped.

Meanwhile, Hill landed at Hollandia and headed for a PT boat where he and others would search for Smith. A member of the 25th Liaison Squadron, T/Sgt. James D. Nichols, would help him with the search from the air. As they began looking, they saw a native canoe with Smith sitting in it. Other than minor cuts and bruises, he was uninjured after landing at Cape Korongwabb.

Back in the jungle, DuFour was certain that he landed near Hollandia and walked back in the direction of the base, which happened to be five miles away. After a six hour walk that included several stream crossings, the pilot heard an engine and began walking towards the sound for about 25 yards before he emerged from the jungle surrounding the base. DuFour walked into the closest tent, waking the occupant from a sound slumber.

The soldier drove the pilot to the hospital where he was treated for first, second and third degree burns over 30% of his body. All of his hair and part of his ears were burned off, as well as half the skin on his forehead. His hands and arms were also badly burned. At the hospital, skin grafts failed and he was transferred to the plastic surgery center at Northington Hospital in Alabama, where he stayed for six months. Once he recovered, he returned to flying status near the end of the war.

This story can be found in Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s.