Throughout February, the 312th air echelon was completing training at Port Moresby. The ground echelon kept busy at Gusap by trying to win the drainage battles and building roads and showers at the base. Once the rainy season ended, the Group succeeded in its drainage projects, constructed buildings and sidewalks, and remodeled the quarters. The men also planted vegetable and flower gardens. The 386th and 387th enlisted men decided to build clubs for their respective squadrons. The Group formed a baseball league and a friendly rivalry between the teams of officers and enlisted men, which gave the men another form of entertainment in their down time. Finally, life at Gusap was improving.
Officers and enlisted men of the 312th play a friendly game of baseball.
The men never forgot they were in a war. The return of the air echelon to Gusap was staggered with the 387th arriving on March 7th, the 389th on the 11th and the 388th returning on the 27th. Not long after each squadron arrived came the first taste of combat. The 387th Squadron flew its first combat mission on March 8th, the 389th on the 13th and the 388th on the 29th. March was a difficult month for the 389th Squadron with the loss of four crews. On the 13th, nine planes from the 389th flew a mission to Alexishafen. Maj. Wells led the mission and was hit by antiaircraft fire during the attack, but was able to ditch in the ocean. Col. Strauss left Lt. Hedges to lead the rest of the formation home while he circled over Wells and his gunner, S/Sgt. Jack W. Bachelder. After the two were picked up by a PBY Catalina, Strauss flew back to Gusap.
The seven remaining A-20s flew into bad weather on their way back to Gusap. Hedges was running low on fuel and figured the safest thing to do would be to cross the Finnesterre Mountains and glide into Gusap if necessary. When there was a break in the clouds, Hedges saw three other planes instead of six.
2/Lt. Calvin Slade was a pilot in one of the remaining planes, but he was having trouble keeping his position in the bad weather and decided to leave the formation and turn back. Relying on his instruments, Slade flew to the ocean where the cloud bank ended. From there, he followed the coastline and eventually found his way to the Ramu River and Gusap. The three missing A-20s never made it back.
The next day, the Squadron began looking for the missing crews or plane wreckage but could not find either. The searched continued for a week before the Squadron gave up. The men thought the crews had either run out of fuel or crashed into the mountains. Nearly 40 years later, the aircraft belonging to 2/Lt. Henry J. Miar and gunner S/Sgt. Harley A. Spear was discovered in the Finnesterre Mountains near Saidor. Over the next few years, searchers found the other two planes flown by 2/Lt. Valerie L. Pollard and gunner Sgt. Dominick J. Licari and 2/Lt. Carl H. Hansen and gunner Sgt. Ernest Bustamante. They had flown in formation into the mountains.
The tail section of A-20 #42-54117.
The fourth loss occurred March 22nd when the 389th was flying to Valif Island for another mission. As pilots were maneuvering to avoid being hit by antiaircraft fire, the formation approached the tree-lined coast. 1/Lt. Cyril J. Karsnia’s aircraft clipped a palm tree, flipped over, crashed and exploded on the ground. He and his gunner, Cpl. James B. Caldwell, did not survive. With this accident came the question, was the 389th was jinxed? A quarter of the Squadron’s strength was lost in less than two weeks.
Lts. Edgar Hambleton and Kenneth Hedges put a stop to those thoughts with their narrow escapes. During a mission to Wom Point on March 25th, the 389th was bombing and strafing when an explosion occurred in front of Hamblelton’s plane. Debris from the explosion shattered the windscreen and a piece of glass hit Hambleton’s face. The shard was found to be part of a 500-pound bomb. Hambleton credited wearing his helmet and goggles on every mission for saving his vision and possibly his life.
Two days after Hambleton’s close call, the 389th was once again on a mission to Wom Point. Hedges dove down on his target, but miscalculated his pullout and slammed the rear of his A-20 into the ground while trying to escape a disastrous wreck. While pulling up, Hedges clipped a coconut tree with one wing. The collision ripped off one bomb bay door and left the other attached by the rear hinge, banging against the fuselage. Because the plane was in such poor shape, Hedges told his gunner, S/Sgt. Thomas A. Donovan, to prepare for a water landing. This was aborted when the other bomb bay door fell off and the plane gained some altitude. The new problem was coconut leaves getting stuck in the starboard engine, causing it to overheat. Hedges was able to keep the engine temperature in the “green” zone by continuously changing the power setting, and the plane limped back to Gusap.
Hedges had sent various radio transmissions about his status, and by the time he got to the runway, people had lined up to watch his landing. After he landed, he applied the brakes very hard and caused the landing gear to lock. The plane was damaged beyond repair and became a source for spare parts. Many of the men were amazed that the plane had made it back to Gusap. These two experiences banished the thought of a jinx on the 389th.
Lt. Kenneth Hedges poses with his plane back at Gusap after hitting a tree on a mission to Wom Point.