Repost: A Fiery Landing

This post first appeared on October 2, 2015.

Nine planes took off for Utarom, a Japanese air base on the west coast of Dutch New Guinea, on the morning of September 28, 1944. The mission was soon cancelled due to bad weather over their target and the A-20 crews headed back to base. Shortly into the return journey, 2/Lt. Kenneth S. DuFour lost oil pressure in one engine of his plane. He shut it down, jettisoned his bombs and told his gunner, S/Sgt. Thomas E. Smith, to bail out if the other engine quit. For the time being, things were stable, and DuFour continued flying back to Hollandia. Above him, 2/Lt. Walter F. Hill kept a watchful eye on DuFour’s A-20.

As DuFour approached Tanahmerah Bay, he followed the common landing procedure of switching from the bomb bay tanks to the wing tanks, only to have vapor lock shut down the remaining working engine. His A-20 went into a spiral dive and DuFour worked furiously to regain control of his plane by easing off the rudder trim and switching on the booster pumps. The engine restarted and the pilot got his plane back in control. For a short time, Hill thought DuFour’s A-20 would plunge into the water and was relieved after he pulled out of the dive. During the chaos, Smith bailed out with Hill watching him float towards the cliffs on the west side of the bay.

DuFour slowly took his aircraft up to 3000 feet in order to clear the mountains that stood between him and Hollandia. When he could not contact the tower, he decided to land on a dirt strip next to the runway. As he attempted to lower his landing gear, only the nose wheel came down. DuFour aborted the landing, determining that he would be better off ditching in nearby Sentani Lake. The descent to the lake was too difficult to control, leading the A-20 to crash into nearby trees instead. During the landing, the pilot was knocked unconscious.

When he woke up, he was surrounded by fuel and fire. DuFour attempted to escape the inferno through the canopy, but it wouldn’t open. Instead, he used a pistol to break the Plexiglas and climbed out of the plane. Soon after getting out, he heard the ammunition exploding. This worried the pilot, as he was unaware that his gunner had bailed out and thought Smith was still trapped.

Meanwhile, Hill landed at Hollandia and headed for a PT boat where he and others would search for Smith. A member of the 25th Liaison Squadron, T/Sgt. James D. Nichols, would help him with the search from the air. As they began looking, they saw a native canoe with Smith sitting in it. Other than minor cuts and bruises, he was uninjured after landing at Cape Korongwabb.

Back in the jungle, DuFour was certain that he landed near Hollandia and walked back in the direction of the base, which happened to be five miles away. After a six hour walk that included several stream crossings, the pilot heard an engine and began walking towards the sound for about 25 yards before he emerged from the jungle surrounding the base. DuFour walked into the closest tent, waking the occupant from a sound slumber.

The soldier drove the pilot to the hospital where he was treated for first, second and third degree burns over 30% of his body. All of his hair and part of his ears were burned off, as well as half the skin on his forehead. His hands and arms were also badly burned. At the hospital, skin grafts failed and he was transferred to the plastic surgery center at Northington Hospital in Alabama, where he stayed for six months. Once he recovered, he returned to flying status near the end of the war.

This story can be found in Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s.