Ditching in the Molucca Sea

Pilot 2/Lt. Edward L. Reel was on a mission to strike the Celebes with five other 499th Bomb Squadron planes on September 19, 1944 when his B-25, DOODLE JR., began having trouble. Staff Sergeant Sherwood J. Singer, the engineer, noticed that oil had been leaking from one of the engines and alerted the pilot, who decided it was best to abort the mission and head back to Biak. While climbing to 8000 feet to fly over the Halmaheras Mountains, the engine’s remaining oil supply was exhausted and the engine began to overheat. Reel shut it down, though he couldn’t feather the propeller because there wasn’t any oil left to do so.

DOODLE JR. began losing altitude and the radio operator, S/Sgt. Corydon M. Johnson, sent out a distress call while the rest of the crew prepared for an emergency landing in the Molucca Sea, about 35 miles west of the Halmaheras. The B-25 skipped off the water once before setting down in the ocean with the tail sticking out of the water at a 45-degree angle. Fortunately, injuries were minor: Reel injured his nose after he was thrown into the instrument panel during the landing. The rest of the men hurried to escape the plane and everyone made it out safely.

Two of the crewmembers attempted to free the life raft in the plane, but the handles to its hatch broke off. Without the raft, the men grabbed what they could to help them stay afloat and hoped to be rescued by Allied personnel soon. Knowing that they were floating in water surrounded by Japanese-held territory wasn’t too comforting. Half an hour after they ditched, they heard the familiar engine noise of a B-24 and opened the packages of yellow dye on their Mae Wests to signal to the crews above. They watched three B-24s fly overhead, too high to see the downed men.

Soon after, two more B-24s flew over at 9000 feet. They had received the S.O.S. and were keeping an eye out for the crew. This time, they were seen by someone aboard one of the B-24s and the two bombers descended low enough for the B-24 crews to confirm the location of Reel and his crew. One of the B-24s attempted to drop a life raft, which got caught on the tail. That plane left the area soon afterwards. The other B-24’s raft was dropped partially deflated after it was accidentally inflated in the fuselage. Food and water were also dropped and recovered by the crew.

After circling the men for more than two hours, the B-24 finally had to head home before it ran out of fuel. Before leaving the area, the radio operator got in touch with the P-38 fighters on the VHF channel that were escorting a PBY Catalina to the crash site. It wasn’t long before the Catalina turned up to rescue the downed crew.

This story and many others can be found in Warpath Across the Pacific.


9 thoughts on “Ditching in the Molucca Sea

  1. The suspense is palpable. The fear of being captured by the Japanese because everybody knew what they did to prisoners. And the sharp contrast with the B-24s and their crewmembers, determined to rescue their unfortunate comrades. A great story!


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