Captured Near Hainan Island

After a two day break from combat missions, the 345th was back in the air on April 3, 1945. The 499th and 500th Squadrons’ original target, shipping in the strait between Hainan Island and China’s Luichow Peninsula, came up empty and the two squadrons flew on to their secondary target, Hoi How, located on Hainan Island. As the 500th Squadron flew towards the clouds of flak hanging above the Japanese Navy base, navigator Capt. Merritt E. Lawlis began wondering whether or not the flight leader, the pilot on his plane, had previously led any flights. The B-25s weren’t taking any evasive action. Right before he reached out to get 1/Lt. William Simpson’s attention, he suddenly realized that his back was hot.

Captain Merritt E. Lawlis
Captain Merritt E. Lawlis, shown here, was the navigator aboard the B-25 PENSIVE, which 1/Lt. William P. Simpson ditched with flak damage in the bay a mile off Hoi How, Hainan Island, on April 3, 1945. Three of the crewmen aboard the plane were captured by the Japanese and two, including Lawlis, survived imprisonment on Hainan Island until the end of the war. (Merritt E. Lawlis Collection)

Turning around, he saw a fire burning in the bomb bay. It started after shrapnel hit a gas tank in the bomb bay, then spread into Lawlis’ navigator compartment and the top turret. The right engine on this B-25, nicknamed PENSIVE, was damaged, as well as the main hydraulic reservoir. Because of the damage to the hydraulics system, the wheels were now hanging down about a third of the way, dragging the aircraft towards the water below. Simpson prepared his crew for a ditching, then crashed into the water in a bay about a mile away from Hoi How. Above, another B-25 crew dropped a raft for the downed airmen and watched three of them climb aboard. A fourth, 2/Lt. Arthur D. Blum, made a jump from the sinking B-25 to the raft and was instead carried away by a strong current. Simpson never made it out of the plane.

The remaining B-25s circled as long as they could and let the air-sea rescue know the location of the downed crew. Unfortunately, it was too dangerous to pull off a rescue operation, as this crew was too close to shore. It only took about 90 minutes for a Japanese motor launch to show up and fish the men out of the raft. All three: Lawlis, S/Sgt. Charles L. Suey and S/Sgt. Benjamin T. Muller, were burned in the fire. Lawlis had hit his back on the edge of the escape hatch during the ditching, leaving him temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. By the time they were picked up, he was just starting to regain feeling in his legs.

Once on land, they were taken to the commander of the base, where they were interrogated and thrown into jail. Three days after they were taken prisoner, they were forced to walk blindfolded and handcuffed to a medical dispensary about half a mile away, but their wounds were given only the barest treatment. They returned every three or four days and Suey’s infected burns showed no signs of healing. On May 13th, he died of infection and malnutrition. About a week later, Muller and Lawlis were transferred to Samah, which was an improvement over their previous living situation. Their handcuffs were removed and neither man was beaten at this camp. Much to their surprise, they saw a couple of familiar faces: Lts. James McGuire and Eugene L. Harviell. Lawlis watched McGuire’s B-25 go down and didn’t think anyone had survived.

Aside from Harviell, who died on August 10th, the rest of the men survived their internment. Muller came close to death, but the men were freed from the POW camp just in time and taken to a Navy hospital where they received the food and medical care they needed to recover.

This story can be found in Warpath Across the Pacific.

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