Repost: Black Sunday–Part 1

Tomorrow marks 78 years since Fifth Air Force crews were caught on the wrong side of a front as they tried to get home from attacking Hollandia. First published in 2010, the following story is a repost of the first in a four part series on the 312th Bomb Group’s experience on April 16, 1944.

The 312th was back to attacking Hollandia with bombers from the rest of Fifth Air Force: B-24s from the 22nd, 43rd and 90th Bomb Groups, B-25s from the 38th and 345th, and A-20s from the 312th, 3rd and 417th (a new bomber unit). These 216 planes with 76 P-38 escorts from the 8th and 475th Fighter Groups would be in the air once again on April 16, 1944. The only 312th Squadron not flying along was the 386th.

Bad weather at Hollandia delayed the Group from leaving Gusap until 1055. The crews bombed their targets of barges, stores and fuel dumps in between Sentani Lake and Jautefa Bay. After making their runs, the 312th formed up and headed for Gusap. With decent weather for the first half of the journey back, the men were able to grab a bite to eat while they flew home.

This photo from the Black Sunday raid shows the attacks going on behind the Japanese officer quarters.

As they flew on towards the Ramu Valley, conditions rapidly deteriorated. The planes were near Amaimon, 78 miles north of Gusap, when the weather completely closed in around them. Colonel Strauss was in the lead and had to decide what the best way back home would be. He rejected flying to Saidor because he did not know what the weather was like there or if Saidor would be able to handle the number of planes since this base was only a few weeks old.

Strauss and the rest of the formation circled for about an hour in hopes of spotting a break in the clouds. As they circled, visibility improved enough for the hilltops to be seen, and Strauss thought there might be fair skies on the other side. Sure enough, he was right. At 1715, the Group began landing at rainy Gusap. Not everyone stayed with Col. Strauss. There were still 16 312th aircraft somewhere out in the stormy weather. The 312th wasn’t the only group with missing crews. By the end of the day Fifth Air Force could not account for 70 planes.

By nightfall, 12 Roarin’ 20’s aircraft had landed at Faita, Saidor and Finschhafen, four at each base. There were still four crews missing: Capt. Frank P. Smart with gunner T/Sgt. Michael Music, Lt. Glen Benskin and S/Sgt. Winifred F. Westerman, 2/Lt. Joseph E. Gibbons and Cpl. Orville J. Rhodes, and 2/Lt. Charles H. Davidson and Sgt. John J. McKenna.

Smart had been granted permission from Col. Strauss to leave the formation and fly to Saidor. He left with four other planes piloted by 1/Lts. Donald J. McGibbon and Robert J. Findley, and 2/Lts. Robert C. Smith and James L. Knarr.

James Knarr Landing
Knarr landing his plane at Gusap in April 1944.

As they flew, the weather improved and Smart, Findley and Knarr decided to fly five miles offshore to avoid enemy ack-ack, while  McGibbon and Smith stayed near the coastline. At 1730, McGibbon heard Smart contacting a Catalina about ditching. As Smart descended, Smith noted that the propellers were working and thought Smart wanted to ditch while he could still control his plane. Smart and Music made it out of the plane safely, McGibbon and Findley radioed Smart’s position to Saidor and two PT boats that seemed to be on their way to the ditching site. Feeling confident that Smart and his gunner would soon be in good hands, the remaining crews flew off to Saidor. The next day, there was still no sign of Smart or Music. The four planes flew over the ditching site and saw the submerged plane, but neither crew member. Their fate is still a mystery.

To be continued in part two

You can also find this story in Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s.

15 thoughts on “Repost: Black Sunday–Part 1

  1. Here is a first hand account of Black Sunday by my father’s pilot: Lt. Col. Robert W. Hulme, USAF (Ret.) – landing a B-24 into Saidor:

    “I flew as co-pilot on the first mission to Hollandia, New Guinea, on April 16, 1944. We bombed runway and dispersal areas. Ack-ack was minimal, and there was no fighter opposition. Then we headed back to Nadzab.

    The mission plan was to cross the Peganungan Van Rees Mountain Range south of the target. We were then to follow the long, Kunai-grass-covered valleys of the Sepik and Ramu Rivers back to Nadzab.

    There was one hitch in the plan: A tropical front – we were within two hundred miles of the equator – had closed in. We couldn’t get to the pass where we were to cross the mountains. The squadron leader advised us to proceed on our own.

    Our ship turned back toward the coast and decided to follow the northern coast of New Guinea southeast around the Huon Peninsula to Lae, then fly up the valley to Nadzab. This option had a serious problem, too – our destination was about two hundred miles farther away. We didn’t have enough gas; so we decided to follow the coast until we ran out of gas and ditch near the shore.

    When we were about out of gas, we noticed much commotion ahead. U.S. aircraft of all descriptions were buzzing around Saidor, a small Fighter airstrip east of Madang. The whole 5th Air Force was trying to land there. The control tower, mounted on coconut palm poles, was trying to direct traffic with a “biscuit gun” – a six inch light with green and red lenses. Green meant clear to land; red, go around.

    No one was paying any attention to the control tower. We made a straight-in approach and landed. We pulled up into the revetment area as far as we could. Aircraft of all kinds were lined up ahead of us. We cut our engines and climbed out.

    I have never seen such a mess. Airplanes were ditching along the beach. Some were parachuting above the field. One crew that ditched and parachuted landed about a mile from the field. It took them a month to hack their way out of the jungle.

    I looked back to the landing strip. A B-25 was landing. A B-38 was landing from the opposite direction. They tried to miss each other in the middle of the strip. They didn’t. Their wings clashed, and they spun around in flames. Ammunition was exploding in all directions. Other ships, in landing patterns, attempted to miss the wreckage as they landed. They didn’t and piled up too.

    Most of the planes on that raid to Hollandia had tried to land at Saidor. B-24’s, B-25’s, A-20’s, P-47’s, and P-38’s – all tried to land on that small strip. All were running out of gas. I don’t know how many aircraft the U.S.A.F. lost that day, but I would like to find out. If the Japanese had known of this event, the war could have been made worse for us.”

    Here are some numbers for Black Sunday

    Aircraft types lost included:

    A-20G Havoc: 3rd Attack Group: 7
    A-20G Havoc: 312th Bombardment Group: 4
    A-20G Havoc: 417th Bombardment Group: 5
    B-24D Liberator: 43rd Bomb Group (H): 1
    B-24J Liberator : 22nd Bomb Group (H): 4
    F-7A (modified B-24): 6th Photo Reconnaisance Group: 1
    B-25D: 38th Bomb Group: 3
    B-25D: 345th Bomb Group: 3
    B-25G: 38th Bomb Group: 1
    F-7A (modified P-38): 6th Photo Reconnaisance Group: 1
    p-38H: 8th Fighter Group: 3
    p-38J: 475th Fighter Group: 11
    P-39Q: 71st Tactical Reconnaissance Group: 1
    P-47D: 348th Fighter Group: 1 (parked, but victim of a collision)

    51 lives were lost:

    A-20G: ditched: 2 survived the ditching but were lost at sea
    A-20G: ditched: 2 did not escape the plane before it sank
    B-24J: never seen again (last sighted over mountains or sea): 20
    B-24J: crashed: 7
    B-24J: bailed out: 2 were never found
    B-25D: never seen again (last sighted over mountains or sea): 1 complete crew
    B-25D: collision in the air: 1 complete crew
    F-5A: collision in the air: 1
    P-38J: collapsed after successfully avoiding a collision on the ground: 1
    P-38J: never seen again (last sighted over mountains or sea): 3
    P-38J: execution by the Japanese: 2
    P-38H: crashed into the sea: 2

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Just wanted to mention that Jack Fellows has his painting of the B-17 and Me-163 highlighted in the Ordnance section of the WWII History magazine, June 2022 issue. The man does outstanding work!!

    Liked by 1 person

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