On January 17, 1943, four B-17s from the 43rd Bomb Group’s 403rd Squadron had taken off from Milne Bay for a mission to Rabaul. When the crews returned home later that day, they found smoke, a partially destroyed camp, and that the other three B-17s belonging to their squadron had been destroyed as well.
While the four crews were gone, the air raid sirens went off around midday. This was fairly common at Milne Bay and some of the personnel didn’t take it too seriously. For ten minutes men waited in nearby slit trenches. Nothing happened. The crew of FIRE BALL MAIL was getting ready to take the plane up before the alarm, scattered when it went off, then started going back to the plane. They soon heard what sounded like twin-engine bombers and looked up to see 23 Japanese bombers with 48 fighters flying over the base. The crew quickly ran for cover.
C. E. O’Connor, the co-pilot for that crew, later recalled the raid: “After the first bombs hit the rest followed in unison, working up to us like an avalanche and then pounding on past. This seemed like an eternity between the time the first bombs hit and the last—actually it must have been about 35 seconds … When those first bombs hit I started what might be my last act of contrition. I have never felt so close to death. At the same time realizing that I would never know what hit me.” Thankfully, no one at Milne Bay was killed or seriously injured that day.
The damage from this raid put the 403rd Squadron out of commission. For several weeks, V Bomber Command had been monitoring the 403rd’s situation as it was continually weakening due to combat losses and disease. Approximately a third of the 403rd’s personnel were being treated for malaria at the time. With three more of their B-17s in ruins, the remainder of the Squadron was sent to Mareeba, Australia to regroup and reequip with B-24s.