Lost at Sea

As November 1944 began, the 345th Bomb Group was flying to the staging base of Morotai, where they would then take part in missions that targeted islands in the Philippines. Morotai was three hours away from their base at Biak Island. While this hop could be considered routine, weather once again thwarted plans of landing at Morotai on November 6th. As the B-25 pilots attempted to fly through the stormy weather, Morotai went on red alert and the control tower went off the air. It became extremely difficult for the crews to find their way to Morotai without a radio signal, not to mention a way out of the storm. Several pilots turned around. One, Lt. Edward Reel, remained in the area, hoping to catch a station. Aboard his B-25 were six crewmen and passengers.

Hours passed. Reel had descended to find the bottom of the clouds, but he was unsuccessful. A little while later, the radio operator found a station for them to follow, however, no one responded to the distress calls. The plane’s fuel supply was running low and everyone on board decided Reel should ditch in the turbulent water below. After turning on the landing lights, the B-25 descended to wave-top height and hit a wave well at more than 100 miles per hour. The tail cracked upon impact, and the rough waters snapped it off shortly thereafter. Five men made it out of the aircraft alive and spent an uncomfortable night in a raft on the stormy seas. Reel and and radio operator T/Sgt. William A. Butts went down with the plane.

When the sun rose on November 7th, the sea was calm and the sky was clear. The survivors saw that they were surrounded by nothing but water. For three days, they floated in the ocean. They managed to signal a C-47, which circled the raft, then dropped a five gallon can of water and a life raft with a note that said, “Help on way. Land 120 miles south.” The can of fresh water, unfortunately, exploded on impact, but the raft was in good shape and three of the men climbed into it. Help had not arrived by nightfall. An argument broke out about whether or not to hoist small sails on one of the rafts and head for land or stay put. In the end, they split up. Staff Sergeant Alton F. Joyner, T/Sgt. Henry A. Jepeson and Cpl. Robert J. Schoonmaker set sail for land.

On November 12th, planes spotted the two men, S/Sgt. Douglas C. Osborne and 2/Lt. George W. Harding, in their raft. They were rescued by a Catalina a little later. It wasn’t until the following day when the trio in the other raft was spotted and finally rescued. After recovering from exposure and injuries at the 17th Station Hospital at Owi, the men spent a month in Australia to rest and recuperate.


For more stories about the 345th Bomb Group, check out our book Warpath Across the Pacific.