As Capt. Byron L. Heichel and his crew were gearing up for their reconnaissance mission over Kavieng, a Japanese military complex on the island of New Ireland, on May 7, 1943, they were given a photographer and ordered to fly a photo-reconnaissance mission over suspected construction sites there. Unlike a typical reconnaissance mission, a photo-reconnaissance flight required multiple deliberate passes to get enough photo material. Heichel’s approach path was unchanged, however, and as a result Japanese coastwatchers 100 miles away from Kavieng warned personnel at the base of the incoming B-17.
Soon after THE RECKLESS MOUNTAIN BOYS finished the photo runs, tail gunner Pvt. Frank L. Kurisko alerted the crew to 6 Zeros in pursuit of the B-17. Heichel quickly ascended and headed out to sea in hopes of losing the fighters, but the crew was engaged in combat. The Fortress sustained several hits, including fires in the #3 engine and radio compartment, and the #2 engine was fully shot out. Two crewmen were also injured in the melee. As one of the Zeros passed by the B-17, its pilot reportedly smiled and waved at the 63rd Squadron crew, only to have his fighter raked by gun fire in response. The offending Zero fell away moments later.
Now down to two working engines, Capt. Heichel still had to shake off several Zeros. Dropping into some cloud cover at 1500 feet, THE RECKLESS MOUNTAIN BOYS had a short reprieve before it was pointed out that they might crash into a mountain at this altitude. Leaving the clouds, the B-17 narrowly missed colliding with a Zero. Three of the remaining Zeros then formed up, pressing one final attack on the damaged Flying Fortress. They shot out another engine and wounded the pilot. As the smell of gasoline filled the fuselage, the decision was made to ditch THE RECKLESS MOUNTAIN BOYS before it exploded.
Heichel brought the plane down on the water, and because of the belly turret guns pointing down, the guns caught a coral reef, forcing the nose down and breaking the fuselage. Several men were injured in the rough landing, including the pilot and co-pilot. The B-17 was in no danger of sinking thanks to the reef it was resting on, but the crew was still in danger of being hit by the Zeros that were now strafing the crash site. Four men who managed to extricate themselves from the wreckage ran for cover, yelling for the others to get out fast. The Zeros soon left and the men waded back to the plane to help the rest of the crew to the beach. Three crew members, bombardier 2/Lt. Oscar M. Linsley, photographer Sgt. Gilbert A. Flieger and student navigator 2/Lt. Eugene D. Bleiler, had most likely been ejected from the plane during the crash and were not found.
Coming up next week: the story of the remaining eight members of THE RECKLESS MOUNTAIN BOYS.