The Long Way Home

In the early stages of the Pacific Theater of World War II, Rabaul, an airbase complex and anchorage on the northeastern coast of New Britain, was a regular target for the bomb groups of Fifth Air Force. The base was a stronghold and primary staging point for the Japanese that wouldn’t fall for years. The 22nd Bomb Group was sent to bomb Rabaul a number of times, though this story focuses on the events of a mission on April 11, 1942,  only a few months after the area had been captured by the Japanese. That day, nine B-26s from the 33rd and 19th Bomb Squadrons were sent to bomb Rabaul’s two airdromes at the time, Vunakanau and Lakunai.

Lieutenant Louis W. “Tad” Ford was flying as wingman for Lt. Richard W. Robinson, the leader of the mission, and both flew over Lakunai Airdrome, releasing their bombs on targets below. The Japanese on the ground fired their antiaircraft guns at the B-26s, with three bursts exploding around Ford’s plane. Shrapnel cut hydraulic lines, holed the auxiliary gas tank as well as the main left gas tank and the right engine. Ford’s crew leapt into action to help keep their plane aloft for as long as possible.

As Ford set a course for home, he eased up the power on the damaged and overheating engine, then tried to release the burning auxiliary gas tank. When the tank wouldn’t budge, two of his crewmembers went onto the bomb bay’s catwalk where they kicked and shoved the gas tank until it finally dislodged. Afterwards, they spent an hour trying to manually close the bomb bay doors before giving up. Closing the doors would lessen the chance of the B-26 breaking apart in case of a water landing, which would increase the crew’s chance of surviving the landing. Ford was shadowed by Robinson, who soon had to leave Ford and his crew behind after his own fuel levels started running low.

Awhile later, Ford began his ascent over the Owen Stanley Mountains so he could head directly back to Port Moresby. This was soon abandoned when he noticed that the right engine was nearly out of fuel, and instead, he began looking for a place to make an emergency landing. He found a spot on the west side of the Tufi Peninsula and told his crew to brace for impact. Fortunately, no one was injured in the landing. The men piled out of their plane and looked at their surroundings, which were intimidating: they were stuck in a plain of razor-sharp kunai grass taller than they were.

The radio operator was able to transmit their coordinates and received a response from Port Moresby. For the rest of the afternoon, the crew made themselves as comfortable as they could and dined on the plane’s emergency rations. They  spent a long, uncomfortable night trying to fend off mosquitoes. When morning arrived, three of the men set off to find help. Eventually, they came across some natives who were willing to aid the Americans and spent the next six weeks working their way back to Port Moresby.

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4 thoughts on “The Long Way Home

  1. I hate mosquitoes. The crew’s stamina must have been high as the mosquitoes would’ve driven me insane. I went inside a Japanese pillbox that was still intact and there were more mosquitoes in that damp, hot enclosure than paparazzi around Emma Watson. I’m glad this team made it out of that godforsaken jungle.

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