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!”

Targeting the Kanju Maru

By the end of April 1945, Allied forces were dominating the skies over south Luzon and the South China Sea. Japanese transport ships could no longer go between French Indochina and Japan, and as a result a number of Japanese ships were stranded at Saigon, French Indochina. General Kenney called on the 499th and 501st Squadrons from the 345th Bomb Group to take out the ships at Saigon, a heavily defended target, on April 28th. The night before the mission, the crews gathered to hear the next day’s plans as outlined by their strike leader and C.O., Col. Chester A. Coltharp. The men were told that this was to be the most important mission in the 345th’s history before moving into the logistics of bombing the ships sitting alongside the Saigon River.

The third flight of the 501st Squadron was to be led by young 1/Lt. Ralph E. “Peppy” Blount, Jr. His crew was one of 15 B-25 crews heading for Saigon early on the 28th. On the way, two planes from the 499th had to turn back because of mechanical problems. The rest of the B-25s flew on without incident to the predetermined rendezvous point where they were to pick up a fighter escort. Coltharp knew they couldn’t wait long for the fighters to show up, so he broke radio silence to get their current location. It wasn’t good news. The fighters were still 20 minutes away, but they would be turning back because they were low on fuel. To make matters worse, the B-24s that were going to hit the target before the B-25s hadn’t arrived either. Bravely, the 13 crews continued to their target, knowing the Japanese would be ready for them.

As they arrived over Saigon, they were greeted with heavy antiaircraft fire. B-25 CACTUS KITTEN, flown by 2/Lt. Andrew J. Johnson, was soon hit by antiaircraft fire. It crashed and exploded. Peppy Blount and his wingman, 2/Lt. Vernon M. Townley, Jr., headed up the river to find their target, a large freighter called the Kanju Maru, that was guarded by several antiaircraft guns. Townley’s B-25 caught antiaircraft fire on the right engine, which burst into flames. He stuck with Blount as long as he could. Both crews peppered the ship with machine gun fire, then Blount dropped his bombs over the ship. The first bomb created tremendous damage after it was skipped into one side of the freighter and exploded. A second bomb exploded between the bridge and engine room, then the third created a large plume of water between the Kanju Maru and the shore after it blew up.

The Kanju Maru Explodes

The bombs from 1/Lt. Ralph E. “Peppy” Blount, Jr.’s plane explode, destroying the Kanju Maru.

Next, Townley released his bombs before his B-25 took another hit from flak. The second hit proved to be fatal as the B-25 rolled and crashed, with guns still firing. At this point, Blount’s plane was missing the trim tab and half of the right elevator, but could still fly. He pulled away from the ship and looked for other nearby targets, such as warehouses and boats. He came across a sailboat, which he strafed from a few feet above the ground. Too late, he pulled up over the boat, where the mast tore a hole in the right engine cowling, followed by a 10-inch deep hole in the horizontal stabilizer. It became lodged in the stabilizer and broke off.

With all the damage, the flight back was slow and tricky. The plane vibrated severely and couldn’t go faster than approximately 160mph. It took about five hours before Blount made it back to Palawan with only  a few gallons of gas to spare. From there, they joined the rest of the crews for the flight back to San Marcelino. The mission was considered a success and the 501st Squadron was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation for their accomplishments on the April 28th mission.

Truman Henderson’s Jungle Adventure

As is well known, April 16, 1944 was a dark day for Fifth Air Force crews. Many of the men were on missions that day when a front set in, wreaking havoc on their journey home. Thirty-seven planes were lost due to the terrible weather, through crashes, running out of fuel or losing their way. Among the planes lost was one belonging to the 22nd Bomb Group’s 408th Squadron. It was flown by 1/Lt. Robert Stone, who was returning from a mission to Hollandia when the weather moved in.

Because visibility was poor and planes were being tossed around so much, there was a higher potential for a mid-air collision. Stone made the decision to separate from the rest of his squadron and head back home alone. The B-24 was caught in numerous up and down drafts, rendering the plane almost uncontrollable. The pilot continued through the storm for nearly two hours before realizing he was lost and, with no fuel left to spare, he made the decision to bail out. He took the plane up to 18,000 feet where the crew jumped out over the Finisterre Mountains 25 miles south of Saidor. The men experienced snow and sleet during their decent, and soon became separated in the heavy cloud cover.

Bombardier 1/Lt. Truman T. Henderson landed in the jungle alone. He spent the afternoon searching and calling for the rest of his crew, but never heard a reply. With that, he found a somewhat sheltered spot in the jungle, where he spent a miserably soggy night. The next morning, Henderson decided that his best chance of survival would be to head for the coast, keeping in mind that there were still small groups of Japanese moving through the area after the Allies seized it. The allegiance of the natives was also questionable, so he was cautious about any interactions with them, lest they turn him over to the Japanese.

He spent the day trekking through the rugged terrain along a river, only stopping once to eat a chocolate bar. When night fell, he sought the shelter of giant tree roots, where he was unable to sleep. His confidence in his survival buoyed his spirits and he got an early start the following morning. This time, he found a trail, which he followed to a clearing. In this clearing was a garden, full of sweet potatoes, green beans, sugar cane and corn. Henderson called out to see if anyone was around before helping himself to some of the produce. He spent the rest of the day and the night at the garden to gather his strength for the next leg of his journey.

Before setting off again on the 19th, Henderson packed his parachute bag with some of the garden’s produce. He saw a couple of natives, who ran away when they spotted the American. Eventually, it was time to find a spot to rest for the night. His best bet would be to cross the river he had been following and find a good spot there. The river was wide, and it was apparent there was no easy way to cross it. If he fell into the water, the current could easily sweep him downstream and over a 60-foot waterfall. About eight feet into the middle of the river was a rock Henderson could land on, provided he could make the jump. He felt he could do it and leaped off the shore, only to land short of the rock. He hung onto it for dear life, spending about five minutes fighting the current as he struggled to climb on the rock. There, he would spend another night, hoping he’d have the strength to make the jump to the other side the next day.

Morning brought a renewed determination to get to the shore and Henderson successfully crossed the river. After following another trail, he happened on a lean-to, whose occupants again fled when they saw the American. (Henderson later learned that Japanese soldiers were raiding the villages.) He stopped to roast some of his corn over a fire when he saw two local men cautiously heading towards him. After some attempts to show he was friendly, Henderson was taken to a village where he met the chief, who promised to give him a guide to the coast the next day. He was fed very well by the natives, before turning in for the night.

The following three days were spent hiking up and down the slopes and crossing swamps. Henderson learned how to get drinking water by cutting green bamboo canes and how to cook food like that of the locals. When the group reached the coast, Henderson took the opportunity to bathe in the ocean. It was his first bath in a week. On the following morning, they got an early start and encountered an American Army patrol that had been sent out to search for the crew. He went back to the base with the patrol, where he planned on beginning his journey home the next day. After a morning of swimming and an afternoon of target practice, Henderson headed for a boat to Saidor and ran into three of his crew members, who had spent six days making their way to the coast. Nine days after leaving Nadzab, the four men finally returned to the 22nd Bomb Group. The final three members of their crew arrived at Nadzab two days later, all with stories of their journey.

Black Sunday: Part 1

Int'l Historical Research Associates:

“It was the worst blow I took in the whole war.” –General George C. Kenney

Originally posted on IHRA:

The 312th was back to attacking Hollandia with bombers from the rest of Fifth Air Force: B-24s from the 22nd, 43rd and 90th Bomb Groups, B-25s from the 38th and 345th, and A-20s from the 312th, 3rd and 417th (a new bomber unit). These 216 planes with 76 P-38 escorts from the 8th and 475th Fighter Groups would be in the air once again on April 16, 1944. The only 312th Squadron not flying along was the 386th.

Bad weather at Hollandia delayed the Group from leaving Gusap until 1055. The crews bombed their targets of barges, stores and fuel dumps in between Sentani Lake and Jautefa Bay. After making their runs, the 312th formed up and headed for Gusap. With decent weather for the first half of the journey back, the men were able to grab a bite to eat while they flew home.
This photo from the Black…

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Lt. Clifford Taylor Goes to Wewak

Because we like you readers so much, we’re bringing you not one, but two excerpts from Lt. Clifford Taylor’s diary this week. He was a member of the 3rd Bomb Group’s 13th Squadron.

August 17, 1943— Today we went on a mission that was right out of the books & one of the most successful. We were briefed in the morning & found our target to be Wewak, a trip of over 1000 miles. Our take-off time was 615 & we were in slot #9. I was with “Gerry” & we were loaded with 12 clusters of 3 23 lb. parachute frags. Our real target was the Boram strip just off the Wewak strip, where a hundred fighters and bombers were reported, and we were to destroy as many as possible. On this raid we took off knowing that 20 percent of our aircraft were expected not to return due to ack-ack & expecting to get “hopped.” Overhead we had the comforting sight of 50 P-38s & weren’t too worried about “Zekes.” We headed up the south coast of New Guinea past Yule Island & then headed over land. After two hours & forty minutes we arrived at our target. Everything seemed to be in our favor, the clouds went down to 900 feet & we had a nice hill to come around to complete the surprise.

As we dropped thru the clouds we opened our bomb bays came up abreast & started opening fire with our .50s. We were 8 B-25s & between us had 64 guns firing simultaneously. The raid was completely unexpected & the Japs were caught napping. As we came over the drome lines of Zekes were all over. It reminded me of an inspection day at a training school. Before we got over the planes I saw six break into flame & explode by out bullets. As we went over the drome we dropped our para-frags & the strips was completely covered. In our strafing run we caught quite a few Japs still at their planes. I saw two break & run and after running about 25 feet, I saw them stop & crumble in their tracks. A few  less to contend with! We were forced to continue across Wewak strip, as if we turned our bellys toward the ack-ack they would have a better shot at us. About this time we started catching the ack-ack. I saw tow lines of tracers criss-cross over our nose, but by the grace of God we got thru it. As we turned away our biggest worry was  keeping from hitting each other & getting up over the small mountain.

We started climbing & hit some clouds & went on instruments for about 15 sec., as we came out of the clouds we were no more than 25 feet from a B-25 up front. We were quite happy to have missed him. We then headed overland climbing up to 14,000 to get over the mountains. The return trip was uneventful & we landed six hours later, tired yet successful. One B-25 was lost!



August 18th— Today we drew the supply depots up at Wewak. Our take-off time was 645 & I went will Bill Beroch. We were loaded with we 100 lb. 8-11 second delay bombs. We went up with 11 other planes from our squadron, but three had to turn back due to trouble with their planes. We had P-38s as top cover but we knew that this mission would really be rough. Preceding us up to the targets were the “heavy-boys” & our element of surprise was nil. To make matters worse, visibility was down to a half mile & the ceiling lay at about 100 feet. We arrived north of the target & came back over advertising that we were coming down for an attack. We went out the harbor a ways & turned to make our run in.

About this time all hell broke loose from shore. I could see hundreds of places where machine gun fire was coming up from & all around us black puffs of ack-ack kept bursting making us realize how close it was coming. We came in over the peninsula & strung our bombs north of the runway. About this time we caught a burst of ack-ack & threw our left wing up & put us in a sharp turn to the right. I thought sure our right engine had caught it & we were on single engine. I looked out & she was still going, so I breathed a real sigh of relief. We were still flying thru a curtain of ack-ack that was the heaviest I’ve seen. We continued down over the Wewak strip right on the deck & got them there unscathed. As we pulled up away from the target, five “Zekes” stopped our group. One “Zeke” made a pass at an 8th Sqn. ship & put the right engine & nose on fire.

He immediately fell off into a spin & crashed about five miles from Wewak. We later found out it was Sheppard, a boy we came across with. The P-38s then got to the “Zekes” & took care of them, shooting down quite a few. We then headed for home, waiting for a flock of Zeros to come barreling for us. Things went along okay & we got back without further happenings. When we got on the ground, the station had gotten a plot on 200 “Zekes” searching for us, from Lae to Wewak. What saved us was the overcast. Our ship was hit in a couple of places & Craig’s had been hit one inch from their gas line. When we got the reports we found that 2 B-25s were shot down, 4 B-24s & 2 P-38s were also lost. However things weren’t unbalanced as we (all groups combined) destroyed in air and on the ground a total of 272 Jap aircraft. We got complete credit for the Boram strip & of 106 planes there, we destroyed completely 72 and damaged others. Quite a blow to Tojo!

The Squadron Misfits

By June 1943, there were some changes being made in the 38th Bomb Group’s established squadrons, the 71st and 405th. Major Ezra Best took over leadership of the 71st and both squadrons were seeing an influx of new men. The 822nd and 823rd Squadrons had recently arrived in Durand, giving the 71st and 405th a chance to pass along their troublemakers to the new squadrons. The 823rd Squadron leader, Capt. Barney Johnson, suspected that something like this would happen and refused to let most of the men into his squadron. As a result, they ended up with Maj. Walter Krell in the 822nd Squadron.

“Fortunately,” Krell later wrote, “I had been an Infantry officer on active duty before becoming a Flying Cadet. Familiar with the type, and having glanced over their records, I called together about nine of them and had them sit around in a circle. I sat down on top of one of those Army safes that opened at the top and I simply told them that I didn’t want to read their records and didn’t want anyone else to read them either. They would all be given a fresh start with no holdover from previous black marks. I went on about regarding them as the very best men available to do a top job in getting this new outfit off to a good start, and I would always feel this way until they did something to change my mind.” Afterwards, he locked their records in a safe and threw the key into an overgrown ravine. The men were asked to take the safe somewhere out of the way. As time passed, Krell never had a problem with the now-former troublemakers of his squadron. That doesn’t mean they didn’t make things interesting for him once in a while.

Both the 822nd and 823rd set to work building their camps, which consisted of latrines, mess tents, armament storage, ammo dumps, operational and medical headquarters. The 822nd was still missing their officers’ and enlisted men’s clubs, but building supplies were hard to find.

Soon, news got around that General MacArthur would pay Port Moresby a visit. Building supplies were acquired for his quarters and the location was guarded to prevent any filching of materials. Krell’s former troublemakers found out where the supplies were being kept and devised a plan to procure them. One night, they woke Maj. Krell to get permission to borrow a couple of trucks. Krell got out of bed and looked down the hillside. There were 18-20 trucks along with all the non-commissioned men in the 822nd. One look at the scene below told him that his men were getting into mischief. He said, “I’m not going to ask any questions, you haven’t got my permission but I’m not going to stop you. Whatever you’re going to do, you’d better do it right because if you get this outfit in a jam you’ll wish you’d thought it over.” They assured him that they had and went on their way. Krell went back to bed.

When Krell met with General Roger Ramey at Port Moresby the next day, chaos reigned over the news of MacArthur’s building supplies being stolen. The guards had been offered profuse amounts of alcohol and gotten drunk enough to not remember what happened. Krell never mentioned the previous night’s encounter with his men. For the next few weeks, “…there emerged two very nice buildings: clubs for the non-coms and officers,” Krell continued. “Bit by bit, there appeared a few two-by-fours here, a few sacks of cement there. I was always grateful to think we had the right people on our side.”

For Want of an Airplane

As the war progressed in October 1944, the Allies were finally able to return to the Philippines, beginning with the island of Leyte and its one airfield, Tacloban. As always, a new base had its headaches. The Allies soon discovered that the soil on Leyte turned to mud during the rainy season. This thwarted plans for building other airbases on the island. Over the course of a few weeks, there were three attempts to build bases elsewhere on the island that were soon abandoned because the ground was too wet. Eventually, they were able to build a base at Tanuan, located on the east coast of the island. For the time being, Tacloban would serve as the only airdrome on Leyte, which meant that it would become the O’Hare of the Pacific.

Lieutenant Colonel Jim Pettus, C.O. of the 43rd Bomb Group, was given the job of airdrome commander. “There were constant decisions to make, i.e. where were aircraft to park, where to put the maintenance area, hospital, and air evac sites (these had to be accessible day and night), bomb shelters and fuel storage, provide aircraft refueling for transients, tower operation and dozens of other problems,” he wrote. Usually, a service squadron would handle most of the decisions, but there was no room for one at the base. With that, Pettus and his assistants had to do their best to keep Tacloban organized and operating smoothly.

It wasn’t always easy to keep track of which planes belonged to which group, or if someone took the opportunity to “borrow” an entire aircraft. This was the case for the 63rd Squadron. B-24 #42-63903 made an emergency landing at Middleburg Island, then vanished a short time later. A crew was sent to Middleburg to find the plane, only to discover that it had left the island. An assistant operations officer was told to find the B-24 and given a per diem to do so. After about ten days of “searching” Sydney bars and nightclubs, his money ran out, beginning the real hunt for the plane.

The B-24 was finally discovered to be in the hands of the 22nd Bomb Group. They had stripped the gun turrets and turned the plane into a “fat cat,” which brought fresh food and alcohol from Australia. Needless to say, the officer commandeered the plane and the 63rd Squadron enjoyed a nice party that evening. The aircraft’s changing of hands didn’t end there. It was soon taken by Group Headquarters, then out of the 43rd all together when V Bomber Command heard about the new fat cat.