On February 25 1943, six crews from the 63rd Squadron of the 43rd Bomb Group took off on a night mission to hit shipping at Rabaul. Capt. James C. Dieffenderfer’s crew in the B-17 OLD BALDY flew down to Hood Point to cross the Owen Stanley Range at its lowest point of 9000 feet. As expected, the crew ran into New Guinea’s notorious bad weather about halfway to the target. “…we hit an air pocket and dropped straight down as though we were thrown to the ceiling,” wrote 1/Lt. Frederick O. Blair. Sitting on the bombardier seat, Blair was able to put his hand up to the Plexiglas so that he wasn’t tossed around as much as the rest of the crew. Soon, he got a call from the radio compartment, where there were five other crew members: “Lt. Blair, the bombs are loose and are on the bomb bay doors.”
Lt. Blair continued, “I was so shocked by this message that I now cannot remember whether I answered but I immediately hit the bomb bay door switch, hoping the loose bombs would drop into the Pacific Ocean. However, as I did not know the real situation I waited a few second for the result of my action. The radio operator, T/Sgt. Louis N. Caroll, called me again to say that the bomb bay doors were open but a 500lb bomb was hanging by one lug. I believe I was never so afraid in my life as it takes only about 8lbs of pressure on the fuse to set the bomb off. I hit the bomb bay door switch to close the door and immediately hurried up through the pilot compartment on my way to the bomb bay. I knew it took about 30 seconds for our B-17 Bomb Bay doors to open or close. As I entered the Bomb Bay the doors were only partly closed and I started to walk across the narrow catwalk with only two ropes to hold on to. I wanted to get to the loose bomb which had broken loose from the rear lug. It was the lower bomb on the right side. All during my journey from the bombardier compartment to the bomb bay, we were in this terrible storm and being tossed around. At last I reached the rear end of the Bomb Bay and knew what I must do. I must sit on the bomb and keep the wire from coming out of the rear fuse as this would arm the bomb.
As I sat on the bomb and held on to the rack, bracing myself on the bomb above, I was facing the rear of the plane and I could observe the crew members in the radio compartment. I could see very tense, nervous, whitefaced fellows, apparently scared to death. If they were afraid of what they saw, I am sure that I was doubly afraid as I was the ‘guy’ sitting on the loose bomb.”
Blair sat on that bomb for 15 to 20 minutes before OLD BALDY flew out of the weather. Afterwards, he had some help from the crew to replace the bomb on the rack.
OLD BALDY‘s troubles weren’t over yet. Continuing on toward the target, Dieffenderfer had to feather an engine when it started to run roughly. The plane was losing altitude because of the heavy bomb load, which was soon resolved by dropping two of the bombs into the ocean. As the crew approached Rabaul, the weather hampered the search for a shipping target. Instead, they flew to the bomber base, Vunakanau, where they dropped their six remaining 500-pound bombs on the aerodrome. The Japanese knew OLD BALDY was over the drome due to the crew experiencing heavy antiaircraft fire and searchlight activity. Ack-ack shells were bursting around them and they felt the concussions as the shells burst near the aircraft. Because of the overcast conditions, the men were unable to observe the results of their dropped bombs.
Blair concludes, “I was very proud of our entire crew, especially James Dieffenderfer, the pilot and Jack Campbell, the co-pilot. I never heard a complain of dissatisfaction from any crew member on this occasion. In fact our entire crew never questions any decision from headquarter’s orders of our Bomber Command, Group Command or our Squadron Command. We were a team and I can say without reservation that we carried out our orders to the best of our abilities through our many missions. When we neared our targets, as a bombardier I took over command and the pilot followed my instructions to the letter.”
This is one of the many stories that will be included in the book Ken’s Men Against the Empire.