Survival of The Reckless Mountain Boys Crew

When we last left off, Capt. Byron L. Heichel and his seven surviving crewmembers had reached the shore near their B-17’s crash site. They noticed a crowd of natives had come to see what all the commotion was about, and the crew attempted to communicate with them in Pidgin English to get help moving three of the crewmen who had been severely injured: James E. Etheridge, Kenneth P. Vetter, and 2/Lt. Marcus L. Mangett, Jr. Heichel and his co-pilot, 1/Lt. Berry T. Rucks, Jr. were also injured in the landing (both had been thrown face-first into the instrument panel), although they were able to move on their own two feet.

They had landed near a plantation called Komalu, which was owned by a German named Rudolf Diercke. That day, he and the Japanese overseer, Tadashi Imamura, were inspecting some construction on the plantation when Diercke was told that an American plane had crashed near his house. Imamura and Diercke went to investigate the wreckage of THE RECKLESS MOUNTAIN BOYS and came across the bodies of the three missing crewmen, two on the beach, one floating 100 feet yards from the B-17. The German arranged for them to be buried with full identification in the local cemetery, then went back about a month later to add crosses with each man’s name on them.

The two learned that the rest of the crew was heading for the mountains and, prompted by Imamura, Diercke wrote a note to be delivered to them by a native policeman that ordered them to surrender to the policeman. Realizing that they had no other choice, the men surrendered. A Japanese war correspondent named Hajime Yoshida filmed Heichel’s injured crewmen laying on stretchers and being carried by the natives. Later, Heichel was separated from his crew and ended up talking with Yoshida, who tried to calm Heichel’s fears about his crew being executed.

Crew in Stretchers

Radio operator M/Sgt. Clarence G. Surrett looks up from his stretcher at Japanese war correspondent Hajime Yoshida.

Some time afterward, Heichel was taken back to Diercke’s house where the Japanese officer attempted to interrogate the pilot. The questioning session didn’t last long, as Heichel was exhausted, his face was swollen from his crash injuries and he couldn’t speak very well, nor write with skinned fingers. Before passing out, he was given a glass of whiskey. The next morning, the pilot was put on a ship bound for Rabaul, then driven to Kavieng. “Late that afternoon, we arrived in Kavieng. Civilians, I presume, maybe Japanese soldiers, kept pulling my hair until my scalp felt like a boil. They pulled me from the truck, dragged me into a dark room, and removed the blindfold and the bindings from my hands and feet. By prying my eyelids open, I could see the room was small, with a dirt floor. The one window had closed shutters, but the cracks between the wallboards provided a deep, dusky twilight. Here the futility of my predicament overwhelmed me … Later, as I tried sitting on the floor with my back to the wall, I was overrun with rats trying to reach the fresh blood still dripping from my nose. I had to take them in my hands and throw them away. They would go away, but return at intervals. I stood in the corner kicking at them. Finally, when I just had to lie down, I wrapped my flight jacket around my head.”

Heichel was at this camp for two to five days before being sent by plane to Rabaul, where he unexpectedly ran into Sergeant Fritz, who was also part of his crew. Fritz ran up to his pilot with tears coursing down his cheeks, saying, “My God Captain, what have they done to you?” and carried Heichel into a shack and laid him on a plank shelf. He then proceeded to inform the pilot of the rest of the crew, Rucks, Mangett, Clarence G. Surrett, Etheridge and Frank L. Kurisko were also at Rabaul. Vetter, who was one of Sgt. Fritz’s best friends, was last seen tied to a wooden post under a house at Kavieng.

The two men shared the space with two other men, one of which had basic medical training. He treated Heichel’s wounds to the best of his abilities. In all, Heichel, Rucks, Surret and Ethridge were at the camp for a week or two before being taken to the Ofuna Prison Camp at Japan. Heichel was again separated from the remaining crewmembers, and put in solitary confinement for a month, where he endured regular beatings. Afterwards, he could mingle with other prisoners and withstood regular interrogations, mainly about the new B-29. At the camp, Heichel met an 11th Bomb Group Olympian: Lt. Lou Zamperini.

Sergeant Fritz, Pvt. Kurisko and Lt. Mangett did not survive the war. Mangett was last seen on May 11, 1943 being escorted to an infirmary in Rabaul. Fritz and Kurisko were executed with other POWs on November 25, 1943 near Rabaul. The four remaining men spent the rest of World War II in various Japanese prison camps. Surret, Heichel, Etheridge and Rucks survived and were able to return to the United States once the war was over.

The day after THE RECKLESS MOUNTAIN BOYS disappeared, the 63rd Bomb Squadron lost another crew. That story can be found here.


20 thoughts on “Survival of The Reckless Mountain Boys Crew

  1. Their experiences surpass belief and we will never understand what drives some people to behave with heroism or magnanimity. Conversely, it is impossible for us to understand what causes others to sink to the depths of bestiality and sadism.

    Right now, many of us are trying to come to terms with those who profess that paradise awaits the jihadists who blow themselves to pieces and take as many infidels as possible with them.

    Madness may well lie in man’s inhumanity to man, but while most of us believe in the milk of human kindness, we will survive.


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  3. Pingback: International Historical Research Associates | Ken’s Men Against the Empire Vol. I is available for pre-order!

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