New Guinea Weather Downs “Hell from Heaven Men”

Not long after the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, Allied forces began focusing on Wewak, a Japanese-held base where the 4th Air Army was located. Six B-17s from the 64th Squadron took off on the evening of March 14, 1943 to attack a convoy that had been located the previous night some miles north of Wewak. The crews, which had battled some of the worst weather they had seen yet, soon split up: three returned to Seven Mile, three continued on towards the convoy. Of the three in search of the convoy, only two reached its location and bombed it without results. Before reaching the target, pilot 2/Lt. Arthur L. McMullan in the last B-17 called “HELL FROM HEAVEN MEN” decided that it was time to turn back before running out of fuel.

Surrounded by billowing cumulonimbus clouds, McMullan struggled with turbulence and icing wings for four hours. The bombs were salvoed and instead of heading for Seven Mile, McMullan began flying towards Dobodura. A little while later, they men knew they were near Buna, but visibility was nearly zero. They dropped flares to find out if they were over land or water and saw the flares hit the water below them. Not having the time to ditch the plane on land, the men prepared for a water landing.

A message received at 0230 at Port Moresby said, “Out of gas going down for water landing.”  Seven minutes later, another one stating, “Am okay near Buna.” was received. By this point, the plane was 15 miles northwest of Buna. Out of fuel, one engine quit. That was soon followed by one last message: “Going down.”

The B-17 nose-dived into the ocean at more than 100mph. It is unknown whether that dive was due to poor visibility and not being able to see the water’s surface or the wind flipping the plane at the last moment. Fortunately, four or five of the men were able to escape the plane before it sank a few seconds after hitting the water.

Staff Sergeant Robert L. Freeman, 2/Lt. Howard G. Eberly, and 2/Lt. John M. Dawson were able to find each other and began the six or seven mile swim to shore. The tide was with them, but it was an exhausting trip. Four hours into their swim, Freeman became too tired to continue. He decided to float to shore and told Eberly and Dawson to continue without him. Reluctantly, they did so, but not before telling Freeman that they would send someone back to help him when they got to shore. It would be the last time they ever saw him.

Within the hour of sunrise, the tide turned and the men, who were now gaining the attention of passing sharks, began swimming parallel to the shoreline. More than 12 hours after landing in the water, they finally reached land at the mouth of the Kumusi River, about 24 miles northwest of Buna Mission. For half an hour, Eberly and Dawson lay in the sand, regaining their strength. Once they were able to stand, they began walking and came upon a native who was fishing on the beach. A few minutes later, a U.S. infantry patrol arrived. This patrol had been sent out to look for the downed crew. Natives were sent to look for Freeman, but he was not found.

Dawson and Eberly were sent to a local hospital, then transferred to a hospital at Port Moresby a few days later. Both men made a full recovery. In all, Freeman, McMullan, 2/Lt. MacJilton Sargent, Sgt. Wayne G. Sprecher, Cpl. Milburn J. Glanville, PFC. Hermann Bender and Pvt. James M. Grahl were lost on that fateful mission to Wewak.

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7 thoughts on “New Guinea Weather Downs “Hell from Heaven Men”

  1. What a sad tale. Perhaps with hindsight, a controlled ditching into the water and using the dingy may have saved more of the crew. I guess the determination to carry on and find land was stronger but in this case perhaps proved to be the less favourable decision.

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