A close call in Old Baldy

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.

B-17 Bomb bay

B-17 bomb bay. Used with permission from Robert Schuch.

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.

14 thoughts on “A close call in Old Baldy

  1. Pingback: A close call in Old Baldy | IHRA

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  4. Mr.Blair was my 7th grade science teacher at Hicksville Jr. High School on Long Island, N.Y. in the mid 1960s.
    I loved him. A great father figure.
    Douglas Wheaton

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Lt. Blair is my dad. I am his youngest son, and during his middle age years as a science teacher and track & field coach he only rarely spoke of wartime “adventures” . It wasn’t until retirement that he attended some reunions and became nostalgic about the 43rd and Kens Men. He had a distinguished flying cross, purple heart (for shrapnel wounds taken from anti-aircraft fire during a mission)

    Amazingly I never personally heard this story before, though my older siblings may have. He made Major before his discharge after the war, but the best family story was his meeting, courting and marrying a beautiful Australian and her joining him in America after the war. Here in New York, they raised 6 children. After retirement, Fred went back to Sydney with My mom for 16 years. My dad passed in 1996, six weeks before my son was born. I became a father, and lost my father almost simultaneously, and it was hard to get perspective, it felt. Now all these years later I went hunting for info on the 43rd, and was floored by this story. I just passed the story to my son, now about the age Fred was in this tale, that he might get a sense of why they call this the greatest generation.

    We can laugh, shake out heads, and tell stories of how crazy our youth was, but let’s get some real perspective. This is what kind of youth the airmen of the 43rd had. They did it for me and you, because the alternative was unthinkable.Thanks Dad.

    -John Blair

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi John,
      I am so happy to write to you.
      Your dad was my science teacher around 1965.
      I just turned 66 as of the 17th of this December. What a birthday present to contact you.
      I loved him. He was a wonderful role model for me, as my childhood was horrible. I considered him a Blessing during a difficult time for me. I remember having many wonderful talks with him about many things. I love the B17 because of him, and when I watch TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, both the movie and television series, he is thought of fondly.
      I hope,and somehow know, that he knows how much of a positive influence he was with me as a child.
      I am a father of 3 sons, and they know about your father.
      May God Bless you and your family.
      Thank you once again Mr. Blair.
      Douglas Wheaton

      Liked by 2 people

    • We are so glad you found this post! Thank you for adding more about your dad and his life. Sounds like he was an incredible person. If there’s anything we can help you with on your quest to learn more about his unit, leave a comment or send an email. Also, our first of two books on the 43rd was published last year and your dad was a major contributor to the book. Head to our website if you want to order it. http://irandpcorp.com/products/43bg1/


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