On December 28, 1943, the 312th ground echelon made its way to Gusap to rejoin the rest of the Group. They arrived at the beginning of the rainy season when razor-sharp kunai grass grew up to ten feet tall, insects, rats and snakes roamed freely, and the soil turned into thick mud with all the rain. The men spent countless hours digging ditches to drain the water from the camp. The 386th Squadron started calling themselves “The 386th Engineers” to try and lighten the mood while doing the hard labor. The Group had trouble getting sanitary water, which meant drinking chlorinated water from Lister bags and washing clothes in the muddy Ramu River. On top of that, skin fungus and malaria were two of the many illnesses the 312th had to contend with.They did manage to have fun by playing sports like basketball and volleyball; they also gambled.
With the new year came sporadic attacks by the Japanese on Nadzab and Gusap. Most of the raids prior to January 15th were not taken very seriously. In the past, the Japanese would strafe the base and not cause very much damage. However, on the 15th, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on Nadzab and Gusap in hopes of discouraging the Allies from finishing the base at Nadzab and gaining reinforcements. Early that morning, various aircraft from 68, 78 and 248 Sentai took off from Wewak in poor weather. The pilots from 68 and 78 Sentai focused on shooting up parked C-47s and P-47s on two of the runways at Nadzab. The Allies got to their antiaircraft guns shortly afterwards and chased off the attackers, who flew on to Boram where they damaged four P-47s and three C-47s. Back at Gusap, the 312th was getting ready for breakfast when eight Oscars from 248 Sentai started strafing the base. There was no alert, so the men jumped into their waterlogged foxholes and hoped they would not be hit by the shells. None of the Group’s P-40s were damaged, but it was the last time the men took an air raid lightly. Shrapnel and fragments from bombs and exploding ack-ack shells raining down on the tents convinced them of that.
Throughout January 1944, the 312th started transition training at Port Moresby on the A-20 Havoc. Pilots received two-engine training on B-25D Mitchells before they got in the cockpit of the A-20s. They learned about two features of the plane that could possibly kill the pilot: the vertical stabilizer being in line with the pilot’s bail out path and the engines’ placement behind the cockpit. The gunners did not have to worry about this because they could escape through the bottom hatch. The A-20G could carry 4000 pounds of bombs, had nine .50-caliber machine guns and was built with a solid nose.
Two of the 312th’s A-20s at Durand Airdrome.
The 386th Squadron was the first to train and fly the A-20. The planes arrived from the U.S. by ship and were assembled in Townsville, Australia. Pilots flew to Townsville in a C-47 and would fly back to Port Moresby in their new planes. Of course there was always the occasional adventure while flying back from Townsville.
On January 19th, 1/Lt. John M. Huber, 2/Lt. Eliot R. Young and their gunners, Thomas Smith and James Wannich, respectively, were flying to Horn Island when they became separated from the rest of the formation. Due to an error in navigation, the pilots became lost. They force-landed on Mornington Island, which happened to be 450 miles to the south of Horn Island.
Lt. John Huber’s A-20 stuck in the sand after landing on Mornington Island.
They spent ten days there waiting for help and surviving the elements. A PBY Catalina on patrol spotted the four men on January 28th, picked them up and flew them to Karumba, where they spent the next three weeks recovering from their ordeal. They knew they were lucky to be alive. Throughout the 312th’s stay at Port Moresby, there were several fatalities. 2/Lt. Chester B. Rimer was practicing a bombing run on February 4th when his plane spiraled into the sea with Pvt. Stanley J. Monroe, PFC Morlan B. Priebe and Cpl. Mitchell P. Iler aboard as passengers. On the 22nd, the 388th’s B-25 AVAILABLE JONES disappeared with 1/Lt. Anthony Hartley, 1/Lt. George K. Nichols, Sgt. Claude O. Langlinais, Capt. Samuel D. Perry, 1/Lt. Henry E. Felix, 2/Lt. Leo W. Tiberghien and 2/Lt. Hugh H. Eaton on board. The 388th lost three more members on March 26th when an A-20 carrying 1/Lt. John W. Hoover, Sgt. Warren E. Pelissier and S/Sgt. Louis E. Lawson crashed not long after taking off in a thunderstorm.
Alexishafen before it was destroyed by Allied bombings.
The mission was a success. Three days later, they wrote off their first A-20, O’RILEY’S DAUGHTER, after the pilot forgot to lower the landing gear, which damaged the plane beyond repair. It wasn’t long before the rest of the squadrons would join the 386th in their new A-20s.