Black Sunday: Part 1

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 Sunday raid shows the attacks going on behind the Japanese officer quarters.

As they flew on towards the Ramu Valley, conditions rapidly deteriorated. The planes were near Amaimon, 78 miles north of Gusap, when the weather completely closed in around them. Col. Strauss was in the lead and had to decide what the best way back home would be. He rejected flying to Saidor because he did not know what the weather was like there or if Saidor would be able to handle the number of planes since this base was only a few weeks old.
Strauss and the rest of the formation circled for about an hour in hopes of spotting a break in the clouds. As they circled, visibility improved enough for the hilltops to be seen, and Strauss thought there might be fair skies on the other side. Sure enough, he was right. At 1715, the Group began landing at rainy Gusap. Not everyone stayed with Col. Strauss. There were still 16 312th aircraft somewhere out in the stormy weather. The 312th wasn’t the only group with missing crews. By the end of the day Fifth Air Force could not account for 70 planes.

By nightfall, 12 Roarin’ 20’s aircraft had landed at Faita, Saidor and Finschhafen, four at each base. There were still four crews missing: Capt. Frank P. Smart with gunner T/Sgt. Michael Music, Lt. Glen Benskin and S/Sgt. Winifred F. Westerman, 2/Lt. Joseph E. Gibbons and Cpl. Orville J. Rhodes, and 2/Lt. Charles H. Davidson and Sgt. John J. McKenna.

Smart had been granted permission from Col. Strauss to leave the formation and fly to Saidor. He left with four other planes piloted by 1/Lts. Donald J. McGibbon and Robert J. Findley, and 2/Lts. Robert C. Smith and James L. Knarr.
James Knarr Landing
Knarr landing his plane at Gusap in April 1944.

As they flew, the weather improved and Smart, Findley and Knarr decided to fly five miles offshore to avoid enemy ack-ack, while  McGibbon and Smith stayed near the coastline. At 1730, McGibbon heard Smart contacting a Catalina about ditching. As Smart descended, Smith noted that the propellers were working and thought Smart wanted to ditch while he could still control his plane. Smart and Music made it out of the plane safely, McGibbon and Findley radioed Smart’s position to Saidor and two PT boats that seemed to be on their way to the ditching site. Feeling confident that Smart and his gunner would soon be in good hands, the remaining crews flew off to Saidor. The next day, there was still no sign of Smart or Music. The four planes flew over the ditching site and saw the submerged plane, but neither crew member. Their fate is still a mystery.

To be continued in part two

11 thoughts on “Black Sunday: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Operation Reckless Part 2: Pounding Hollandia | IHRA

  2. Pingback: April 1944 (1) | Pacific Paratrooper

  3. Just spotted this article about a P-38 of the 475th Fighter Group located and up for sale for restoration – got a fortune lying around?
    “On January 18, 1944, while on a fighter sweep over New Guinea, 66534 was attacked by a Japanese Oscar fighter. After this encounter 66534 was never seen again. In the 1990s, 66534 was discovered lying on its belly, undisturbed on the Wewak Plain, having executed a perfect wheels-up landing 70 years before.”


  4. This is a description by B-24 pilot Robert Hulme:

    ” A tropical front – we were within two hundred miles of the equator – had closed in. We couldn’t get to the pass where we were to cross the mountains. The squadron leader advised us to proceed on our own.
    Our ship turned back toward the coast and decided to follow the northern coast of New Guinea southeast around the Huon Peninsula to Lae, then fly up the valley to Nadzab. This option had a serious problem, too – our destination was about two hundred miles farther away. We didn’t have enough gas; so we decided to follow the coast until we ran out of gas and ditch near the shore.
    When we were about out of gas, we noticed much commotion ahead. U.S. aircraft of all descriptions were buzzing around Saidor, a small Fighter airstrip east of Madang. The whole 5th Air Force was trying to land there. The control tower, mounted on coconut palm poles, was trying to direct traffic with a “biscuit gun” – a six inch light with green and red lenses. Green meant clear to land; red, go around.
    No one was paying any attention to the control tower. We made a straight-in approach and landed. We pulled up into the revetment area as far as we could. Aircraft of all kinds were lined up ahead of us. We cut our engines and climbed out.
    I have never seen such a mess. Airplanes were ditching along the beach. Some were parachuting above the field. One crew that ditched and parachuted landed about a mile from the field. It took them a month to hack their way out of the jungle.
    I looked back to the landing strip. A B-25 was landing. A P-38 was landing from the opposite direction. They tried to miss each other in the middle of the strip. They didn’t. Their wings clashed, and they spun around in flames. Ammunition was exploding in all directions. Other ships, in landing patterns, attempted to miss the wreckage as they landed. They didn’t and piled up too.”


  5. Pingback: Black Sunday - April 16, 1944 | Poltrack Family in WWII

  6. Pingback: Repost: Black Sunday–Part 1 | IHRA

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