Three Days at Sea

In early April 1944, the plans for invading Hollandia were in full swing. V Bomber Command was doling out orders to soften up the area ahead of time and the 312th Bomb Group participated in one such mission on April 12th. The unit was sent to Tami Airdrome, located 13 miles east of Hollandia, where they bombed and strafed the runway and the aircraft dispersal area.

While heading back to Gusap, an A-20 crew from the 386th Squadron spotted three Japanese luggers and the pilot, 2/Lt. James M. Horton, decided to attack them. He destroyed one and damaged the other two, then pulled up from his run. Horton’s problems began when he didn’t fly high enough to avoid hitting a tree with his left engine. He flew out over the water to put some distance in between himself and the Japanese, but felt confident that he could make it back to Gusap on one engine.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before that confidence disappeared, because the right engine started to cut out as well. There was no way to make it over the Finisterre Mountains now. It was time to bail out. Horton told his gunner, S/Sgt. Alphonse S. Rylko, to bail out, but he refused. He figured that if one of them was injured in the ditching, the other man could help out. Rylko’s foresight would prove to be correct.

The A-20 landed in the water going about 110mph and stayed afloat for about 90 seconds. Rylko escaped with nothing more than a bruised shoulder. Horton was hit in the back of the head by the five-man life raft and got a cut on his hand from broken glass. The men worked together to inflate the life raft, then climbed in. Overhead the P-38s that had been escorting the A-20 circled the downed crew a few times before flying off. Alone in the ocean, the crew was left to deal with a couple of problems: a hole in the bottom of the life raft and rough seas. Their kit had a rubber patch but no glue, so they used chewing gum to fill the hole. The gum patches were not ideal and had to be replaced several times while the crew waited to be rescued.

Before daylight completely disappeared, the men saw a PBY Catalina in the distance, but it never got close to where they were floating. They spent a rainy, unpleasant night in the raft bailing water and repatching the hole. The next day, they saw six P-38s and a Catalina and unsuccessfully attempted to signal to them. That afternoon, it rained again, and continued all night. Horton and Rylko were kept busy bailing water. Their rations consisted of candy and six cans of water, along with whatever rainwater they could catch. The next day, the men tried to get the attention of someone aboard one of the B-25s, A-20s or P-38s that passed by on the way to Tadji. Then a Catalina escorted by a P-38 passed by. It was still raining, making it much harder to see the downed crew. 

Finally, someone aboard a 345th Bomb Group B-25 noticed the men and radioed for a Catalina. It wasn’t long before the Catalina landed, but its fuel tanks exploded, igniting and sinking the rescue plane. Rylko and Horton didn’t see any survivors among the debris. A second Catalina landed in the rough seas half an hour later and everyone on board had to toss heavy objects overboard before the aircraft could take off. Three days after the ditching, the men were finally out of danger and back on land. They drifted about 80 miles away from their ditching site.

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

A Month of Losses

In December 1942, the 3rd Bomb Group, especially the 90th Squadron, was dealt blow after blow as crews and planes were lost. Over the course of the month, the 3rd Bomb Group lost more than 40 men. The first loss on December 5th happened on a night takeoff when a 90th Bomb Group B-25 hit a tree at the end of the runway at 17 Mile Airdrome. Five men were killed.

Ten days later, a 90th Squadron B-25 went missing on a five-plane flight between Port Moresby and Charters Towers. At the time, the 13th Squadron was flying up to Port Moresby to relieve the 90th Squadron, but strong thunderstorms were preventing this rotation. To minimize any losses, C.O., Maj. Donald P. Hall, would only let one 90th B-25 fly down for each 13th Squadron plane that flew up. After the first one arrived, though, five 90th Squadron pilots thought the rest of the squadron was on its way up and took off. They ran into the same bad weather and the B-25 flown by 2/Lt. Alfred Crosswhite, STINKY PINKY, wound up separated from the other four planes and disappeared with 11 men on board. The wreckage was discovered on hilly terrain in July 1943, about 40 miles west of a town named Cardwell.

Five days after storms caused the crash of STINKY PINKY, the 90th lost 11 more men on December 20th, in more bad weather. After a few days in Charters Towers, the 90th was due back at Port Moresby. Seven B-25s loaded with 90th Squadron men took off from Australia and encountered heavy rain on the way to New Guinea. It wasn’t long before the heavy rain turned into severe thunderstorms, tossing the B-25s around in the strong wind. By this time, the planes were in a long line as they flew single file through the turbulent weather. Lieutenant Richard H. Launder was flying behind Lt. Donald K. Emerson, watched Emerson’s plane vanish in the clouds and followed him into another storm. Without warning, Emerson’s B-25 appeared in front of Launder. Emerson pulled up and over Launder’s B-25 in the nick of time, then crashed into the ocean. Launder, who suspected that Emerson stalled and couldn’t recover, circled the crash site, but did not see any survivors.

The final two tragedies of the month, and the year, occurred at the end of December. As with the previous two losses, this 13-plane flight was part of a rotation from Port Moresby back to Charters Towers. This time, it was the 13th Squadron being relieved by crews from the 38th Bomb Group. That day, a B-25 flown by Capt. George “Spikes” Thomas, DEEMIE’S DEMON, disappeared over the Coral Sea. In the days and weeks that followed, no one found any trace of the aircraft or the 11 men on board. Among those lost was Sgt. Eugene J. Esposito of Rutland, Vermont. His family was notified of his status as Missing in Action on February 4, 1943. On August 13, 1943, his family received word that he had been declared dead. Esposito sent his last message to his family three days after Christmas to thank them for a box they sent and extend his Christmas greetings.

Newspaper clipping from the August 14, 1943 Rutland Daily Herald about the death of Sgt. Eugene J. Esposito of the 3rd Bomb Group
Newspaper clipping from the August 14, 1943 Rutland Daily Herald

Hours after the 13th Squadron left for Australia, Capt. William R. “Red” Johnson and the other 90th Squadron officers were starting their New Year’s Eve party at Charters Towers. Johnson, who just finished his combat tour and would be heading home to his wife soon, decided that a couple of his old friends from the 27th Bomb Group should join the fun and decided to fly to Townsville and pick them up. A crew chief went with him as his co-pilot and two privates tagged along for the ride. One decided to stay in Townsville and four new passengers (his friends and two others) climbed aboard. That was the last time anyone saw the men and the B-25. Without Johnson, the party at Charters Towers was a little quieter, as everyone thought his return had been delayed due to weather. A search plane was sent out on January 3rd and someone spotted a burned aircraft about 20 miles southwest of Townsville. Johnson had been flying through rain and low clouds, following the railroad back to Charters Towers, when he hit the base of a mountain. None of the seven men on board survived.

For the 3rd Bomb Group, it was both a tragic ending to 1942 and a tragic beginning to 1943. Forty-five deaths occurring in a single month was difficult to bear. Back in the States, 45 more grieving families may have hung gold star flags in front windows of their homes.

The Champ

This aircraft was in the first batch of B-24s assigned to the 403rd Squadron in May 1943, one of only four B-24s on hand with the 403rd at the end of the month. The 403rd was still in the transition process to the B-24 during this time, and flew missions with a mix of B-17s and B-24s. This B-24 must have made the trip overseas very early in 1943, as it was never refitted with a nose gun turret, nor was the factory-supplied Sperry ventral ball turret removed, modifications made at either the Hawaiian Air Depot or the 4th Air Depot to nearly all Fifth Air Force B-24s sent overseas from March 1943 onwards. Had THE CHAMP enjoyed a longer service life with Fifth Air Force, these modifications would certainly have been made.

43rd Bomb Group B-24 The Champ
THE CHAMP, B-24D-30 #42-40060, was one of the first B-24s the 403rd Squadron received. Note the greenhouse nose, an early design feature on B-24s in the Pacific Theater that was replaced with nose turrets on new arrivals from March 1943 onward. The boxing glove nose art on THE CHAMP is a reference to the 1931 movie of the same name. (Elwyn H. Hansen Collection)


The nose of this aircraft was painted with the nickname THE CHAMP, a reference to the 1931 movie of the same name, along with a brown boxing glove outlined in yellow with lightning bolt ‘action lines’ coming from its front. A scoreboard was also painted under the pilot’s window, which had nine mission symbols by late June, although only eight of the markers carried a star on top. The ninth may have been a mission in which the pilot was forced to turn back due to weather or mechanical problems.

This aircraft had a very short career with the 403rd Squadron. During take off for a raid against Rabaul on July 11, 1943, the landing gear on THE CHAMP was damaged, allowing the hydraulic fluid to drain away. One main wheel remained extended while the other was retracted, but it could not be made to extend even with the manual crank. Captain William R. Gowdy, the pilot, salvoed the bomb load and then circled Seven Mile Drome for hours to burn off fuel before the crew bailed out. Instead of heading out to sea as intended, the pilotless aircraft circled the airdrome until it ran out of fuel, crashing into an uninhabited hillside.

Known missions flown in the 403rd, all in 1943, include: Rabaul, 6/10 (Unknown); Rabaul, 6/25 (Brecht); and Rabaul, 7/11 (Gowdy).

This profile history can be found in our book Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Vol. I. A color profile of THE CHAMP can be seen on page 218.

Target: Clark Field

How big was Clark Field? This photo from our book Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s gives you a little bit of an idea. For more information about the 312th’s participation in the attack on January 7, 1945, read this post.

This target photo map shows Camp Stotsenburg and three of Clark Field’s six runways, part of the objective for the massive Fifth Air Force strafer attack on January 7, 1945. For a larger version of this image, head to our Flickr page. (Edwin A. Wodjak Collection)

Interview with Gert Schmitz

A lot of the interviews we have shared with our readers tend to focus on the American perspective in the Pacific or European Theaters. Gert Schmitz actually fought with the Germans during World War II. He talks about his war experiences, what it was like to live in Germany in the 1930s, postwar Germany and why he left the country. This interview comes from the Memoirs of WWII YouTube channel.

Ormoc Bay – A Dangerous Place

38th Bomb Group B-25 over Ormoc Bay on November 10, 1944

On November 10, 1944, 1/Lt. H. C. McClanahan and his wingman, 2/Lt. A. R. White, formed the third flight in the 822nd Squadron’s attack on Ormoc Bay, on the island of Leyte, in the Philippines. Roaring at minimum altitude, McClanahan and White opened fire on the freighter-transport Kinka Maru. McClanahan’s co-pilot, 2/Lt. W. A. Wolfe, placed one 500-pounder just aft of the ship’s stern. White ended up in a better position over the transport, and his co-pilot, 2/Lt. Robert L. Miller, dropped their string of bombs, managing to get two direct hits on the vessel. One bomb was seen to explode in the area of the forward hatch and the second amidships.

This painting depicts McClanahan and White pulling up from their strafing run, caught in a maelstrom of flak bursts and tracers. In his bid to escape, McClanahan engaged the Yugumo-class destroyer Akishimo, strafing its deck and releasing three bombs just seconds after passing mere feet above the ship’s superstructure. However, McClanahan’s severely damaged aircraft crashed into the waters of the Kawit Straight, southeast of Ponson Island, breaking into four pieces on impact. Lt. White observed the crash and signaled in the bomber’s position before returning safely to Tacloban Airdrome. There were no survivors from the crash. The 38th Bomb Group was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation for this mission.

To purchase a copy of this illustration by Jack Fellows, visit our website.

B-26 Accident at Iron Range

After a successful strike on Lae on September 13, 1942, the 19th Squadron stopped over at Port Moresby to refuel before heading back to their base at Iron Range, Australia. It was a new camp, just hacked out of the Queensland rainforest, and very primitive, lacking many of the more comfortable aspects that the men had gotten used to at other Australian bases.


The trip from Port Moresby to Iron Range was uneventful and Capt. Walter A. Krell lined up his B-26, KANSAS COMET #2, for landing on the new runway at Iron Range. He planned on landing short, then taxiing off at the midpoint so the rest of the formation could land behind him. Without a landing threshold in place, though, he instead touched down on the overrun at the end of the strip. Unseen from the air was a large termite mound that was not cleared away by the engineers. The termite mound broke off the B-26’s right landing gear and strut, causing the plane to slide down the runway completely out of control. Abruptly veering right, it crashed into a compressor truck parked next to the runway.

Man next to termite mound
Here, a member of the 63rd Squadron inspects one of the giant termite mounds found near their camp at Mareeba. The mounds contained a veritable termite city encased in a concrete-hard structure, approximately ten feet high. This is the sort of mound Krell’s B-26 hit while trying to land at Iron Range. (Charles R. Woods Collection)


On impact, the fuselage cracked in half, then both the truck and the plane burst into flames. Krell was briefly knocked unconscious, but revived in a smoke-filled cockpit. His friend and co-pilot, F/O Graham B. Robertson, was pinned in his seat. Krell extracted himself from the plane and ran around to the other side to try and free the unresponsive Robertson. The rest of the crew was able to exit through a gaping hole in the fuselage and Krell climbed in, shifting debris in an effort to free his friend. Soon, the heat and smoke from the flames were unbearable. Ammunition from the bombardier’s compartment was also cooking off, making it took dangerous for the burned Krell to stay any longer.


He climbed out of the cockpit and everyone moved away from the burning B-26 in case of an explosion. The crew’s injuries were tended to by several flight surgeons from different units in the area. Thankfully, the plane never exploded. The wreckage was finally cool enough to go through around midnight and the dead bodies of both Robertson and the truck driver were removed. Back at a field hospital, Krell, who was recovering from his burns, was heard calling, “Hold on! I’ll get you out!” After three days in the field hospital, he was sent to Townsville for further treatment. It was months before he resumed his duties. The rest of his crew suffered permanent injuries from the accident.

This story can be found in Revenge of the Red Raiders.

Air Support Over Biak

Throughout the war, there were times when air units were assigned to aid ground troops as they landed in Japanese-occupied territory. Even though the 63rd and 868th Bomb Squadrons flew specialized B-24s designed for night shipping strikes, on May 27, 1944, they were called upon to hit Biak Island in advance of the Allied invasion. The preliminary strike was carried out at 10,000 feet in the pre-dawn hours. Aircrews had to be precise about their bombings. To keep the ground troops safe, aircrews had to obey several restrictions, such as: staying at high altitudes to minimize the chance of friendly fire accidents, no bombing reefs since it could send coral shrapnel into the ships and no bombing jetties that could be used by the Navy for beach landings.

Once the sun rose, more than 140 B-24s and B-25s were in the air and most of the 41st Infantry Division was assigned to move in on the ground. The 43rd’s B-24s bombed Mokmer Airdrome and the Roeber Area, located south of Borokoe Airdrome. Crews were pleased with the accuracy of their drops. Far below and out of harm’s way, the first wave of Task Force Hurricane was dealing with an unanticipated setback: a westerly current that pushed the transports 3000 yards away from the correct landing beach. Watching the scene unfold, the rest of the crews on the landing craft were able to compensate for the current and landed on the right beach.

Biak
American ground forces invaded Biak Island on May 27, 1944. The 43rd Bomb Group supported this offensive with repeated missions to the Biak area, including Mokmer Airdrome, the subject of this photograph. The scale of that pummeling can be seen by the hundreds of bomb craters on the airfield. (William J. Solomon Collection)

By nightfall, all 12,000 Allied troops were on Biak. While they were met with some resistance, there was so little action that the Allies thought that the bulk of the 4000 Japanese troops had already evacuated from the island. That assumption, as well as the troop estimates provided by intelligence, turned out to be wrong. Colonel Naoyuki Kuzume, in charge of the 11,000 troops on Biak, had spread out his troops in strategic locations along ridges and terraces outside of Mokmer Airdrome and the “Ibdi Pocket,” located between Ibdi and the Parai Defile. In these spots, the Japanese put up a fierce fight against the 41st, keeping them out of Mokmer Airdrome until June 8th. It would take even longer for American engineers to safely repair the bombed airfield, as Japanese troops kept shooting at them from higher elevations around Mokmer. The fighting continued into mid-August, delaying any further invasion plans. As word of Col. Kuzume’s successful tactics to ward off Allied troops spread, other Japanese garrisons would adopt similar strategies in the coming months.

Read more about this mission in Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Volume II.

Repost: Betting Against the Weather

First published in 2015, we’re revisiting a diary entry written after a 1943 mission.


This week, we have an entry from Col. Donald P. Hall’s diary. The C.O. of the 3rd Bomb Group wrote about a particularly exciting mission on July 28, 1943.

Henebry led the 90th [Bomb Squadron] this AM and hit barges beyond Cape Gloucester in New Britain. Got 11 barges. The P-38 escort tangled with enemy fighters and shot down six. All our planes returned. Took 15 B-25s, T.O. 1300 composed of planes from 8th, 13th and 90th to go to north coast of New Britain and hunt more barges. Weather bad on route out and I received call from ground station saying something about a destroyer and transport somewhere en route. P-38s called and said they were going back because of weather. I decided to take a chance and go on without cover and use the bad weather alone. You don’t get a chance at a destroyer and a transport every day.

Buck Good decided to go as co-pilot for me as he hadn’t flown in a B-25 in a long time. He’d just came back from leave that A.M. We hit Cape Bushing on the south coast of New Britain in light rain. No barges. As we rounded the point at Cape Gloucester saw everything at once. 2 destroyers lying off shore (I thought one was transport it was so large). As we headed for them, 20 Zeros passed directly over-head but didn’t attack right then. “Oh Boy!” I thought this is going to be rough.

A Jap air transport or bomber was circling over the boats and four of the boys headed for it. They fired a long burst into it, but it didn’t go down. So all planes except mine headed for 1st destroyer which was by now throwing up lots of ack-ack. Took my flight toward enemy air transport as it landed at Cape Gloucester. 16 Japs passed out of it but we cut all of them down. “Pappy” Gunn flying No. 2 position on my wing laid a 75mm shell under it. The wing caught fire from our bullets by the time it had stopped rolling. Buck Good let go a couple or three bombs as we went over it and that finished it.

Buck Good an I then headed for large destroyer which had not been touched. Looked over my shoulder and saw enemy planes coming from about 10,000 feet, but there was too juicy a target to stop now. I could see that the boys in Henebry’s, Wilkins’, and Hawkins’ flight had the other destroyer burning and were still bombing and strafing it. We dropped down on our run for the large destroyer and it lit up like a Christmas tree as its ack-ack tried to knock us down before we bombed them. While Buck opened the bomb doors for me, I started to tap rudders and rake the deck with my 50’s [nose guns].

You could see Japs all over the decks trying to get cover someplace. We released our bombs as we pulled up to clear the mast, then dropped to the water to get out of their heavy gun fire. As we turned sharply to the left I could see we scored two direct hits as the destroyer rolled back and forth, then began to burn. Oh Boy! Buck and I shook hands on that job!

As we could see the Zeros coming in among us, I wiggled my wings to collect the formation but it was hard to do as they were still in a circle around the first destroyer. I could see that it was finished too. We finally got together and left the target with a few Zeros on our tail. The rest of my flight had been unable to release their bombs, so it was lucky that Buck and I had thrown ours into the sides of the large destroyer.

I knew some of the boys had been hit as the planes couldn’t close their bomb doors. Lt. Nuchols’ plane (13th SQ) I found out later was badly shot up by enemy fighters and rudder about gone. Radioed our report home and came straight home. After the bombing, Nuchols was still flying around and someone saw parachutes descending. Later it was found out that everyone got out except Lt. Nuchols who had lost too much altitude to make it. He crashed and burned about 15 miles from drone. Took his co-pilot two days to get back here.

Received wire from Gen. Ramey and phone calls from others [saying] congratulations in our job. The boys were really happy. We stayed up late to see the photos. Buck said he’s never seen me so happy and excited over the target, but he didn’t exactly take out his knitting either! Only two planes had 300 lb. bombs and rest had only 100 lb. Lucky for us 300 lb. were along and I was glad I had one of the planes with this load.

Captured Near Hainan Island

After a two day break from combat missions, the 345th was back in the air on April 3, 1945. The 499th and 500th Squadrons’ original target, shipping in the strait between Hainan Island and China’s Luichow Peninsula, came up empty and the two squadrons flew on to their secondary target, Hoi How, located on Hainan Island. As the 500th Squadron flew towards the clouds of flak hanging above the Japanese Navy base, navigator Capt. Merritt E. Lawlis began wondering whether or not the flight leader, the pilot on his plane, had previously led any flights. The B-25s weren’t taking any evasive action. Right before he reached out to get 1/Lt. William Simpson’s attention, he suddenly realized that his back was hot.

Captain Merritt E. Lawlis
Captain Merritt E. Lawlis, shown here, was the navigator aboard the B-25 PENSIVE, which 1/Lt. William P. Simpson ditched with flak damage in the bay a mile off Hoi How, Hainan Island, on April 3, 1945. Three of the crewmen aboard the plane were captured by the Japanese and two, including Lawlis, survived imprisonment on Hainan Island until the end of the war. (Merritt E. Lawlis Collection)

Turning around, he saw a fire burning in the bomb bay. It started after shrapnel hit a gas tank in the bomb bay, then spread into Lawlis’ navigator compartment and the top turret. The right engine on this B-25, nicknamed PENSIVE, was damaged, as well as the main hydraulic reservoir. Because of the damage to the hydraulics system, the wheels were now hanging down about a third of the way, dragging the aircraft towards the water below. Simpson prepared his crew for a ditching, then crashed into the water in a bay about a mile away from Hoi How. Above, another B-25 crew dropped a raft for the downed airmen and watched three of them climb aboard. A fourth, 2/Lt. Arthur D. Blum, made a jump from the sinking B-25 to the raft and was instead carried away by a strong current. Simpson never made it out of the plane.

The remaining B-25s circled as long as they could and let the air-sea rescue know the location of the downed crew. Unfortunately, it was too dangerous to pull off a rescue operation, as this crew was too close to shore. It only took about 90 minutes for a Japanese motor launch to show up and fish the men out of the raft. All three: Lawlis, S/Sgt. Charles L. Suey and S/Sgt. Benjamin T. Muller, were burned in the fire. Lawlis had hit his back on the edge of the escape hatch during the ditching, leaving him temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. By the time they were picked up, he was just starting to regain feeling in his legs.

Once on land, they were taken to the commander of the base, where they were interrogated and thrown into jail. Three days after they were taken prisoner, they were forced to walk blindfolded and handcuffed to a medical dispensary about half a mile away, but their wounds were given only the barest treatment. They returned every three or four days and Suey’s infected burns showed no signs of healing. On May 13th, he died of infection and malnutrition. About a week later, Muller and Lawlis were transferred to Samah, which was an improvement over their previous living situation. Their handcuffs were removed and neither man was beaten at this camp. Much to their surprise, they saw a couple of familiar faces: Lts. James McGuire and Eugene L. Harviell. Lawlis watched McGuire’s B-25 go down and didn’t think anyone had survived.

Aside from Harviell, who died on August 10th, the rest of the men survived their internment. Muller came close to death, but the men were freed from the POW camp just in time and taken to a Navy hospital where they received the food and medical care they needed to recover.

This story can be found in Warpath Across the Pacific.