The Death of a Leader

We have all heard the phrase “actions have consequences.” In this instance, a prank played by Capt. Harold G. De Kay may have saved his life. The 500th and 501st Squadrons were scheduled to strike Hansa Bay on January 30, 1944. During an evening of joking around in the Officers’ Club the previous night, De Kay sent a man to prank Capt. Jack Manders by putting pins through the wires of Manders’ jeep’s horn. In return, Manders demoted De Kay from his usual position in the lead plane on missions and stuck him in the last plane of the formation. Manders took his spot in his B-25 nicknamed ARKANSAS TRAVELER.

Upon arriving over Hansa Bay, the area was completely overcast, but crews were able to pick out their targets: ships, an airstrip and antiaircraft guns. As the B-25s began to make their runs over the bay, the antiaircraft batteries opened fire. An engine on ARKANSAS TRAVELER caught fire after a flak shell burst right next to it. With one engine out of commission, Manders fell behind and Lt. Symens in QUITCH took the lead position, barreling down on one of the two ships Manders was attacking. Unchecked, the fire damaged the hydraulic system, which caused the landing gear to extend and slowed the B-25 further. Still, Manders was determined to finish his run. Fifty feet above the ship, he released two of his bombs, one of which may have hit the ship directly.

Approximately 100 yards beyond the ship, ARKANSAS TRAVELER lost all lift and bounced off the surface of the water once before exploding as it hit the water a second time. The bombs released by Symens exploded a second later, one of which may have been right against the ship. HORATIO II also had an engine damaged by gunfire, although the pilot was able to make an emergency landing at Finschhafen. QUITCH had been hit a few times, although they didn’t think there was anything more than maybe a flat tire (which turned out to be undamaged) and a six-inch hole in the right wing flap.

Explosion of the Arkansas Traveler

As Symens brought QUITCH in for landing, the damaged flap the had originally looked like it would be ok suddenly tore off, causing the plane to make a violent, vertical 90 degree rotation with a wing pointed straight down. For a few terrifying seconds, the plane flew onward as the pilot and co-pilot, 1/Lt. Paul H. Murphy, worked to bring the B-25 back in control and land safely. They were subsequently awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for their skill.

De Kay, who some assumed to be dead (they didn’t know he wasn’t on the lead plane like usual), was convinced by several officers to recommend Manders for the Medal of Honor. He wrote up an admittedly exaggerated account of the events that occurred, which wasn’t believed by headquarters. Instead, Manders was awarded a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross.

How did combat affect the capability of aircrews during World War II?

“Your assignment to the B-17 airplane means that you are no longer just a pilot. You are now an airplane commander, charged with all the duties and responsibilities of a command post.

You are now flying a 10-man weapon. It is your airplane, and your crew. You are responsible for the safety and efficiency of the crew at all times–not just when you are flying and fighting, but for the full 24 hours of every day while you are in command.

Your crew is made up of specialists. Each man — whether he is the navigator, bombardier, engineer, radio operator, or one of the gunners — is an expert in his line. But how well he does his job, and how efficiently he plays his part as a member of your combat team, will depend to a great extent on how well you play your own part as the airplane commander.

Get to know each member of your crew as an individual. Know his personal idiosyncrasies, his capabilities, his shortcomings. Take a personal interest in his problems, his ambitions, his need for specific training.”

B-17 training manual

Flying in a war is both physically and mentally exhausting. Even before a pilot climbs into his plane, he has a tremendous weight on his shoulders to make sure that he and his crew are in good shape to fly. During each mission, these men faced a slew of dangers that ranged from enemy fire to weather to mechanical problems. It’s not something that pilots or their crews could ever adapt to. After missions in the Pacific, men were given a 2 oz. ration of whiskey by the flight surgeon to help calm their nerves. Facing this danger day after day was a great strain on the pilots. Whether or not a pilot was capable of flying was not openly discussed, as pilots didn’t want to face the possibility of being grounded. They kept an eye on each other though and some would bring up the uncomfortable topic amongst a group of pilots if they felt like one pilot had been making too many mistakes and putting the lives of his crew in danger as well as the lives of the men flying around him.

Second Lieutenant Samuel W. Bennett's B-25 pulling away from its attack on the destroyer Amatsukaze. Photo from Warpath Across the Pacific.

This photo, meant only to illustrate one of the many dangerous situations faced by aircrews, shows Second Lieutenant Samuel W. Bennett’s B-25 pulling away from its attack on the destroyer Amatsukaze on April 6, 1945.

Bringing up questions about a pilot’s flight ability with the C.O. was a matter of delicate maneuvering. The men didn’t want to criticize a fellow pilot, but felt that it was a matter of safety. If this man continued flying missions, there was a good chance that his actions could get others hurt or killed. In at least one instance, hushed discussions with a group of pilots and a few select individuals took place to make sure everyone was on the same page before taking it up with the C.O., who would also quietly reassign the pilot to a ground crew.

These days, the effects of war on ground troops is fairly well known. The same effects on the aircrews is not talked about as often, although stories written and told by veterans have been able to give us more perspective on how they were impacted. Below is a portion of the reflections on the war from the air written by one pilot after he rotated home in 1943.

“It may be that I am merely not so well able to ‘take it’ as are many other men, both of allies and of enemies, who must have seen far longer periods of hazard than I and carried on; for while I would have continued flying combat had it been ordered, it would have been with the sense that a trap was closing about me and that escape was hopeless. The technique of my flying might have been hurt little, but my judgment with regard to weather, mechanical difficulties, enemy opposition, etc, was already deteriorating and would surely soon have become faulty, dangerously faulty, with danger for me and my crew and my colleagues—and for my self respect: for my mind must have been nearly ready to give up on the problem of reconciling life and duty, the simple but urgent desire to keep living, and the hundred loves and prides that the sense of duty is. And this feeling was not mine alone but was common to all the ‘old ones,’ the originals of the squadron, and the terror of some was so great that they refused to fly—but though their own shame tore at them there was no harshness from the rest, for we all had the same feeling but were trying to hold out a little longer, if we could make it.”

—1/Lt. John M. Donegan


Visit this site for more information on the history of PTSD in veterans.

Mission to Babo

Jack Fellows A-20 art titled Mission to Babo

Babo Airdrome was a key base for Japanese operations on the Vogelkop Peninsula of Dutch New Guinea. Lieutenant General George C. Kenney, commander of Fifth Air Force, hoped that this attack would catch Babo’s aircraft on the ground, but with about fifty antiaircraft positions, the Japanese base was still a formidable challenge for any attacker, especially at low level. On July 9, 1944, Col. Strauss led 24 A-20s from the 388th and 389th Squadrons against Babo. The surprise attack was highly successful, but it came at a steep price to the 389th: five men and three aircraft.

One flight leader, 1/Lt. Kenneth I. Hedges, shown here in THE QUEEN OF SPADES, lost both of his wingmen on this raid. On his left wing, at the upper right in the painting, was 1/Lt. Earl G. Hill, with his gunner Sgt. Ray Glacken. Their A-20 is shown on fire before beginning a fatal descent. A short time later, the wing spar burned through and the plane plummeted into Bentoni Bay. The explosion on the ground at the upper left shows the A-20G of 1/Lt. Walter H. Van and his gunner, S/Sgt. Gilbert V. Cooper, exploding on a taxiway on the airdrome, a victim of the antiaircraft gunners. This artwork is published in our book Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s.

This print can be purchased on our website.