The Joker

The Joker Clark Field 14 JAN 312BG

The Joker by Jack Fellows

On the Philippine island of Luzon, elements of the 312th Bombardment Group, nicknamed the Roarin’ 20’s, sweep across Japanese-occupied Clark Field near Manila on January 14, 1945. The attack was executed in a line abreast formation at 100 feet or less above the airfield complex. First lieutenant Wilbur L. Cleveland of the 387th Bomb Squadron, flying an A-20G sporting a winning poker hand with the face of Batman’s nemesis, “the Joker,” narrowly avoids colliding with the squadron commanding officer, Capt. John C. Alsup, in his fatally damaged A-20. A burst of flak had just exploded in the bomb bay of Alsup’s A-20, causing it to nose up and burst into flames. It then crashed into the target, killing him and his gunner, Cpl. Oscar C. Rush. The third plane was flown by 1/Lt. Ormonde J. Frison of the 386th Squadron. Clark Field was the most important and heavily defended Japanese airfield on Luzon, and the low-level attacks were key to neutralizing Japanese airpower on the island during the critical week of the American amphibious landing at nearby Lingayen Gulf. This artwork is published in our book Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s.

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Five Minutes to Midnight

One of the B-25D medium bombers assigned to the 22nd Bomb Group in the summer of 1943, this aircraft joined the 408th Squadron in August 1943. It is believed to have been flown overseas by a crew led by 2/Lt. (later Capt.) Harry J. Copsey, a cowboy from Broken Bow, Nebraska, who was one of 15 crews who trained with their aircraft at Savannah, Georgia, and began their trip overseas in July 1943. The other members of Copsey’s crew on the initial combat missions were 2/Lt. (later 1/Lt.) Otto W. Leib, co-pilot; 2/Lt. Joseph F. Kent, Jr., navigator; 2/Lt. Leonard Teitelbaum, bombardier; S/Sgt. Frederick E. Pelegrin, engineer and turret gunner; S/Sgt. Warren J. Carstens, radio operator and waist gunner; and S/Sgt. Russell W. Lowery, armorer-gunner. Leib, who soon became a first pilot, got his own crew and was replaced by 2/Lt. Jack E. Simonini. Other crew replacements during the plane’s combat tour included 2/Lt. Kenneth W. Gores at Teitelbaum’s position and S/Sgt. James M. Teague for Lowery. The name of the crew chief for the aircraft is not known.

The nickname FIVE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT and its accompanying artwork were painted on the aircraft by 2/Lt. Steve N. Karall, the co-pilot on 2/Lt. (later Capt.) Vernon L. Ruther’s crew, and also the artist for his own plane, SHOT LOAD. Ruther had been the original co-pilot on Copsey’s crew back in the States, but had his own plane and crew by the time combat operations began. The artwork on Copsey’s Mitchell depicted a black bronco being ridden by a cowboy superimposed on a white disc. See the color section for a crew patch done by Lt. Karall that also carried this design. FIVE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT was the name of a famous horse on the rodeo circuit back in the States.

Five Minutes to Midnight

1/Lt Harry J. Copsey, a Nebraska cowboy, is seen in the cockpit of his FIVE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT, named after a famous horse on the American rodeo circuit. The red-lettered nickname with white shadowing was in a style found on most 408th Squadron B-25s. The plane is shown with 21 missions on its scoreboard, which dates the photo to early December 1943. (Charles B. Ullmann Collection)

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This artwork was probably put on the aircraft before it entered combat, although the earliest photo available depicts it on the Mitchell in mid-November 1943, displaying 12 mission markers in yellow below the cockpit window. On the pilot’s window ledge the name “Copsey” was written in yellow script, while what appears to be the name Arthur was written below the bombardier’s greenhouse nose panel on the left side. Other markings which were probably done by the squadron painter, S/Sgt. Chester J. McNavage, included a thin yellow vertical band around the radio compass housing, Kelly Green prop hubs and patches on both sides of the horizontal stabilizers, and a nose wheel cover that carried what appeared to be a cattle brand design, probably from Copsey’s cowboy days. By the end of its tour, the name MOAN had been painted on the outboard side of the left cowling ring and presumably the right ring was similarly painted with the word GROAN. This was probably done by the ground crew and appears in a photo illustrating the text for January 30, 1944. Our profile shows the aircraft as it appeared in early December 1943, with 21 mission markers on the scoreboard, of a total of at least 43 which were eventually carried in double rows with 25 on the top row.

Of the 44 known mission flown by this aircraft between October 14, 1943, and January 30, 1944, twenty were flown by the Copsey crew, including both the first and the last. Eight other pilots were at the controls for the other missions. During its B-25 era, the 408th Squadron seldom encountered heavy opposition; no member of the crew is known to have been injured. Nor was any significant damage inflicted on the aircraft by enemy fire. On June 9, 1944, Carstens, Lowery and Pelegrin were crewmen aboard a B-24 that was damaged during a mission to Peleliu, and subsequently ditched off the northern coast of New Guinea with fatal results for Carstens and serious injuries to Lowery. For details, see Appendix II for that date. FIVE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT was transferred to the V Bomber Command Replacement Pool at the beginning of February 1944, when the Squadron began conversion training for the B-24.

 


 

This week, we thought we’d try something really different: a profile history from one of our books. In this case, we chose Profile #20 from Revenge of the Red Raiders. Do you want to see more of these from time to time? Let us know in the comments.

What’s in a Name?

From Ken’s Men to the Air Apaches, units of Fifth Air Force had thought of a wide variety of nicknames for themselves. This week, we thought we’d cover the origins of the sobriquets for the 312th, 22nd, 43rd, 38th and 345th Bomb Groups.

The Roarin’ 20’s: The 312th Bomb Group gave themselves this nickname in late March or early April 1944. For the most part, their insignia of a lion jumping through the zero in 20’s wasn’t added as nose art. The men usually used their group logo for signage and patches.

Ken’s Men: Over their years of service during WWII, the 43rd Bomb Group looked up to three men in particular: Gen. George C. Kenney, Brig. Gen. Kenneth Walker and Maj. Kenneth McCullar. Walker and McCullar were killed in action, but the stories of their leadership stuck with the Group for the rest of their war. To honor them as well as Kenney, they adopted the nickname of Ken’s Men sometime in 1943. The noses of the Group’s B-24s were adorned with Ken’s Men in big block letters.

The Red Raiders: In March 1944, the 22nd Bomb Group began transitioning to the B-24 Liberator. Along with this transition, they moved to Nadzab and soon thereafter decided to name their unit after their redheaded Group Commander, Lt. Col. Richard W. “Robbie” Robinson. The Group also adopted an insignia consisting of a bust of Viking warrior Erik the Red. As with the 43rd, the men of the 22nd also painted their logo on their B-24s.

The Sun Setters: Japan, also known as the Land of the Rising Sun, invaded many countries in the Pacific during WWII. In response, the 38th Bomb Group nicknamed themselves the Sun Setters as they flew missions to keep the Japanese at bay. Between 1941 and 1946, their logo consisted of an eagle sitting on the Japanese Rising Sun symbol, with four bombs converging over the sun. As far as we can tell, there doesn’t seem to be a clear date regarding the adoption of this sobriquet. Similar to the 312th, the men of the 38th Bomb Group didn’t usually add the group logo to their B-25s. The photo below shows one plane that did.

The Air Apaches: The 345th Bomb Group moved to Biak in early July 1944. A few weeks before their move, they had been debating on a new nickname for the Group after the “T.T.T.’s” (Tree Top Terrors) didn’t hold much interest. Major John “Cliff” Hanna suggested the “Air Apaches” and the men quickly warmed up to it. They organized a contest to design an insignia, which was won by a Native American member of the unit, Sgt. Charles Pushetonequa of the 498th Squadron. His winning entry showed the head of a Native American dressed in a full war bonnet. Men added the logo to their B-25s tails.

B-25 Air Apache_03

Battle of Manila: Softening Corregidor

In the weeks before the Battle of Manila began on February 3, 1945, ground troop commanders requested the help of heavy bombers to knock out some of the Japanese defenses built on Corregidor and Grande Islands. The two islands would be of strategic import in the coming battle, particularly Corregidor, which sits at the mouth of Manila Bay. General MacArthur approved of this on January 22nd, causing the 22nd Bomb Group to spare the Japanese airfields and give some attention to Luzon.

Liberators from the Group took off on the 24th, each loaded with five 1000-pound bombs. Many targets were marked out, including two large coastal defense guns and ammo installations scattered about Grande Island. Results were excellent, with several bombs hitting a powder magazine and and ammunition storage area. They flew back to base without incident.

On the 26th, the 22nd was scheduled to hit Corregidor Island. Approximately 6000 Japanese men were estimated to be occupying the island at the time. This was a more difficult target from 10,000 feet, as the men, along with two coastal defense guns, were hidden in buried concrete bunkers and underground tunnels. The crews did what they could to hit the guns, but to no avail. Taking out the guns would have to wait until another time.

Corregidor Island

The 22nd Bomb Group repeatedly bombed Corregidor Island in Manila Bay to soften it up for a combined airborne and sea invasion on February 16, 1945.

 

The next day, the Group went back to Grande Island to focus down two coastal defense guns on the southeast corner of the island. Planes from the 2nd Squadron successfully destroyed the guns by dropping their bombs between the gun emplacements.

January 28th brought another mission to Grande Island. The 22nd were hoping to repeat their success on the two coastal defense guns on the southwest corner of the island. Due to all the secondary explosions and fires, the Group couldn’t quite tell if they had knocked the guns out of commission. This was the final mission for the 22nd during January 1945.

On the ground, Gen. Krueger’s 37th Division reached the east side of Clark Field. They seized it from the Japanese and moved into Fort Stotsenburg. To Krueger’s north, the Eighth Army (there to reinforce the Sixth Army) landed at Lingayen on the 27th. With the extra men available to him, Krueger began the march towards Manila.

New Ebook — Stories from Fifth Air Force

With the growing popularity of our blog, we decided to round up a batch of stories and make them available as a short Kindle ebook called Stories from Fifth Air Force. This ebook comes loaded with 9 exciting stories, including a triple-length story about the Royce Raid, a color profile from our book Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s, and some extra photos that haven’t previously been published with these blog posts.

Tales include:

  • The 3-part Royce Raid
  • The Ordeal of the Herry Crew
  • Riding out the Storm
  • Dangerous Haystacks
  • Aussies Join the 43rd
  • The End of GREMLIN’S HOLIDAY
  • The Jinx of the 389th
  • Tragedy Above the Bismarck Sea
  • Buzzing the Rivals

Bloody Tuesday

Weather, another constant foe of aircrews, once again put a damper on Fifth Air Force’s plans to attack Simpson Harbor on October 26, 1943 and then again on the 29th. Everyone was on edge. The Third Marine Division was slated to invade the beaches of Bougainville on November 1st, covered by a strike from the air. With the weather still not letting up, the Marines’ plan went on as scheduled without the strike. After days of waiting, the weather finally cleared up on November 2nd.

This raid would target the shipping in the harbor instead of Rabaul itself. 57 P-38s and 75 B-25s (covered by other P-38s) were sent out to take out the harbor’s shoreline defenses and drop “Kenney’s Cocktails” (phosphorus bombs) to hinder the enemy’s view of the attack, then hit all the shipping possible. There were hundreds of guns on the shore to protect the harbor. When members of the 3rd Bomb Group’s 13th Squadron attended the briefing for the mission, Richard Walker remembers it being a “very somber affair.” Realizing the type of defenses that they would be facing, it “was pretty much a prediction that all of us would not be coming home.” The crews sat “gray faced and quiet…”

Nevertheless, the men got in their planes and flew off to Simpson Harbor. Soon, the harbor was complete chaos. Smoke from the 345th’s phosphorus bombs unexpectedly rose at least 400 feet high, obscuring the the view for the 38th crews, who also discovered that some of the ships had moved and decreased the target area. On the approach to the harbor, the 13th and 8th Squadrons ended up going off course, which went against the original attack plan. Maj, Raymond H. Wilkins was leading the 8th Squadron and realized this mistake too late. He quickly tried to let the 13th Squadron’s leader know, then broke off and tried to get the 8th back to their original attack angle of 225 degrees.

Strafing a Ship

The Japanese were ready by the time the 8th Squadron entered the harbor, as the 3rd Bomb Group’s 90th Squadron had left shortly beforehand. In the center of the harbor and at the far left of the formation, Wilkins made a sharp vertical banking right turn to attack a destroyer. This move left his B-25 completely vulnerable to gunfire, which badly damaged his plane during his attack. Wilkins skipped a bomb into the destroyer, then attacked a transport with a second bomb. Afterwards, he saw that only a cruiser remained before the harbor could be cleared. He strafed the cruiser to draw attention away from the other B-25s following him, and, in the process, exposed his plane again to antiaircraft fire. The left wing of his plane was hit, then crumpled, sending the aircraft into the water.

For his heroic actions, Maj. Wilkins was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. He and his crew became part of the 45 men that were lost that day, which would come to be known as “Bloody Tuesday.”

The Ordeal of the Herry Crew

When Maj. Williston Cox, C.O. of the 38th Bomb Group’s 71st Squadron, took off aboard MISS AMERICA on August 5, 1943, he had no idea it would be the last mission he would fly.

That day, his squadron was assigned to attack shipping targets near Alexishafen, New Guinea. Cox was riding along as the mission commander. After meeting up with their P-38 fighter cover at Mt. Yule, the crews flew on towards the target area, where they were greeted with heavy antiaircraft fire from Madang Township. Capt. Robert Herry, the pilot of MISS AMERICA, was nearing Madang when his B-25’s right engine was hit and severely damaged. While Herry managed to keep the plane under control, there was no way it would make it back to Allied territory. He set the plane down near Wongat Island, about three-quarters of a mile away from Madang.

Sinking 38th Bomb Group B-25

MISS AMERICA sinks after pilot Capt. Herry was forced to ditch the B-25 near Madang.

Herry’s tail gunner, S/Sgt. Raymond J. Zimmerman, died in the crash. The rest of the crew fared better with only superficial wounds and headed towards the island. Unfortunately, the crew was discovered on Wongat Island by natives who turned all but one crewmember over to the Japanese. The navigator, Lt. Louis J. Ritacco, was hiding in a tree at the time and wasn’t discovered for four more days, but would join the rest of his crew in prison. Herry, Cox, co-pilot 1/Lt. Robert J. “Moose” Koscelnak, and radio operator T/Sgt. Hugh W. Anderson were taken to Madang, where they were held for about 12 days.

Before Cox was locked in prison, he was separated from the rest of his crew and interrogated. He was beaten for not answering any questions, and only then allowed to join the rest of his crew in prison. On their third day as captives, a Japanese interpreter was brought in to interrogate the men. Cox asked if the Japanese would take him to speak to the commander at Madang, but was told the commander wasn’t there at the time. Once the commander returned, Cox’s request was granted.

The Japanese commander tried to question Cox regarding base locations, the number of U.S. planes in New Guinea and which unit Cox was from. He did not provide the commander with answers and cited international law that protected soldiers from disclosing such information. Prior to the war, Maj. Cox had completed three years of pre-law and was well-versed in these matters. He asked the commander to give his crew food and water, as they had only been given sustenance once in the last four days. They were fed, and later questioned as well.

Over the next five days, the crew was questioned by a Japanese intelligence unit and endured beatings when they refused to answer. Afterwards, they were left alone for two days. The next day, Cox and Herry  were separated and told they would be taken to Rabaul for more questioning. On the way, they were stopped by a group of Japanese soldiers who took Herry back to prison. Completely separated from the rest of his crew, Cox was taken to an Alexishafen airstrip, tied to a coconut tree for three days and beaten. In that time, he was never given food and water only twice. Following this ordeal, Cox was taken to Rabaul, where he would stay until November 11, 1943.

Maj. Williston Cox

Major Cox before he was taken captive in August 1943.

From there, he was sent to Omori Prison on Tokyo Bay, where he managed to survive for the rest of the war. Maj. Cox weighed only 115 pounds when the POW camp was liberated on August 29, 1945. The rest of the crew was executed on August 17, 1943.

Raided!

Official message from Gen. MacArthur’s headquarters: “On the morning of August 17th, twenty-four Japanese bombers attacked the aerodrome at Port Moresby, which resulted in slight damage to installations and a few casualties.”

For three days, the 22nd Bomb Group had been in standby mode at Seven Mile Drome as they waited for their next big mission. Each B-26 was loaded with six 500-pound bombs, fueled and parked in the open, as revetments had not yet been built. The ten crews were camped out next to their planes, ready to move at a moment’s notice.

During the last couple of months, the Japanese had been keeping an eye on the situation in New Guinea and decided it was about time to improve their prospects there. They decided to move troops and artillery from Rabaul to Buna, and would need a distraction for a successful move. This distraction would come in the form of an air raid on Seven Mile on August 17, 1942.

That morning, Capt. Gammon heard that a Japanese raid was imminent. He ran to his plane, calling to Bauman to start the engines and get ready for an immediate take off. Three bursts from an antiaircraft gun were heard, signaling a red alert. Their early warning system failed and caught everyone completely off guard. As the men scattered, 24 “Betty” bombers in perfect formation approached the airfield at 20,000 feet. Puffs from antiaircraft fire dotted the sky, but were too low to hit the incoming Japanese.

Gammon climbed aboard his plane and headed for the runway with a small crew. As he took off, bombs fell all around his plane, exploding violently, and sending shrapnel into the aircraft. Some of the pieces landed on the bombs in the bomb bay. Quickly, Bauman released the bombs in order to keep the aircraft in one piece. Gammon kept close to the hills to avoid drawing any attention from the Japanese, then circled the runway until the debris was cleared and it was safe to land. He eventually landed with 200 holes in his plane and a shot-up right tire.

When the red alert sounded, Capt. Gerald Crosson was taxiing to the runway with a full crew. He was about halfway down the runway when the bombs began falling and one exploded about 20 feet in front of his B-26’s left wing. As flames from the explosion engulfed the plane and crept towards the bomb bay, the crew abandoned the aircraft as quickly as they could before the bombs exploded. The co-pilot, RAAF Sgt.-PIlot Logan, had been incapacitated by the explosion, so Crosson stayed back to pull him from the bomber. Just as Crosson and Logan took shelter in a crater from one of the bombs, the bombs in the plane blew up. The two men were helplessly caught in flames and a shockwave from the blast. Once the raid ended, Logan and Crosson were loaded into an ambulance. Logan did not survive the journey to the hospital.

Black Smoke

After the raid was over, the 22nd tallied their losses. The message from MacArthur’s office about the raid minimized the results of the surprise attack. One report listed four of their planes as destroyed, as well as three from other groups, and 25 damaged. Pieces of planes, clothes, guns and much more littered the airfield. One thousand barrels of gas and oil burned at one end of the runway, sending plumes of smoke 1500 feet in the air. The Group lost its tower and Operations shack in the raid. The spot where Gammon’s plane had been parked was turned into a giant crater five feet deep and 15 feet wide. For the next 24 hours during the cleanup, delayed action bombs would explode every four or five minutes.