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.
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.
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.