Attacking Babo

Back in April 1942, the Japanese landed at Babo, in what was then the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), on the southern section of the McCluer Gulf. At the time, Babo’s airfield had a single runway, which had previously been used by the Dutch airline KLM. The Japanese built a second runway and Babo became a stronghold for its army and navy missions on the Vogelkop Peninsula—the west end of the island of New Guinea. After Japanese planes from Babo attacked an American amphibious landing at Biak in May 1944, Gen. Kenney hoped to get rid of the nuisance once and for all. With the 388th and 389th Squadrons recently having moved westward to Hollandia, Babo was in range of their low-level bombers. Even so, there were approximately 50 antiaircraft positions on the base, which would present quite a challenge to the squadrons.

Two dozen A-20s were led to Babo by the 312th’s C.O., Col. Strauss, on July 9, 1944. They flew along the Kasira River, six abreast, and were met with what was later described by Sgt. Charles H. Fessler as a “wall of fire” consisting of antiaircraft, machine gun, and possibly mortar fire. While the antiaircraft fire was intense, it was not well aimed, and probably hadn’t been set for enemy aircraft coming in at a low altitude. Col. Strauss’ plane, OLD S, still ended up with damage from ground fire.

The 388th Squadron flew over Babo first. Lt. Wayne C. Hoblit in 2/Lt. Lowell H. Morrow’s A-20, MISCHIEVOUS MARY II, had promised Morrow he would bring the plane back in one piece. Hoblit and his gunner, Fessler, heard several dull, thunking noises against the plane, which then jerked down to the left. Morrow’s A-20 was returned to him with a hole in the starboard wing, several holes in the fuselage, and piece of flak six inches long that landed very close to Fessler’s right foot. The 388th got away with damage to four A-20s and successfully took out three machine gun positions, a radio tower (hit by the right wing of an A-20), blew up a fuel tank, and damaged two Japanese fighters on the ground.

After the 388th’s runs, the Japanese readjusted the aim of their antiaircraft guns and were unfortunately prepared for the second wave of A-20s belonging to the 389th Squadron. 1/Lt. Earl G. Hill’s aircraft received a direct hit over the target, erupted into a ball of flame, lost its right wing and plunged into Bentoni Bay, killing him and his gunner, Sgt. Ray Glacken. A second A-20 flown by 1/Lt. Walter H. Van was hit by ground fire. His A-20 crashed and exploded. He and his gunner, S/Sgt. Gilbert V. Cooper did not survive.

312th Bomb Group A-20s flying over Babo Airdrome during WWII

1/Lt. Kenneth I. Hedges is flying THE QUEEN OF SPADES. He lost both of his wingmen (Hill and Van) on this raid.

The Squadron lost a third plane that day when 1/Lt. Walter S. Sparks’ A-20 was hit in both engines, forcing him to land in Bentoni Bay. Just before the aircraft touched the water, Sparks released the canopy. The plane hit the water, throwing Sparks 50 feet away from his plane. It is unknown whether his safety belt and shoulder harness had come undone or if they even fit correctly in the first place. Both of Sparks arms were broken, leaving him unable to inflate his life jacket. He yelled to his gunner, Sgt. Howard F. Williams, for help. Williams was also injured and fought his way over to Sparks, but it was too late. Sparks slipped beneath the surface. Williams took off his life jacket and dove several times to retrieve Sparks, but could not find him. He was soon rescued by a Catalina and relieved to be away from the sharks circling nearby. Sparks’ body was never found.

From a military standpoint, the attack on Babo was successful. The two squadrons severely damaged the airdrome and dispersal areas, started several fires, hit two fighters on the ground, and destroyed a radio tower, machine gun positions and a fuel tank. The raid also cost the Group five men and three aircraft, which were the heaviest losses to enemy fire at that time. “…however lucrative a target it might be, [Babo] was not yet a suitable target for two squadrons of A-20’s,” observed 312th historian Lt. Nathaniel Rothstein.

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