Repost: Betting Against the Weather

First published in 2015, we’re revisiting a diary entry written after a 1943 mission.


This week, we have an entry from Col. Donald P. Hall’s diary. The C.O. of the 3rd Bomb Group wrote about a particularly exciting mission on July 28, 1943.

Henebry led the 90th [Bomb Squadron] this AM and hit barges beyond Cape Gloucester in New Britain. Got 11 barges. The P-38 escort tangled with enemy fighters and shot down six. All our planes returned. Took 15 B-25s, T.O. 1300 composed of planes from 8th, 13th and 90th to go to north coast of New Britain and hunt more barges. Weather bad on route out and I received call from ground station saying something about a destroyer and transport somewhere en route. P-38s called and said they were going back because of weather. I decided to take a chance and go on without cover and use the bad weather alone. You don’t get a chance at a destroyer and a transport every day.

Buck Good decided to go as co-pilot for me as he hadn’t flown in a B-25 in a long time. He’d just came back from leave that A.M. We hit Cape Bushing on the south coast of New Britain in light rain. No barges. As we rounded the point at Cape Gloucester saw everything at once. 2 destroyers lying off shore (I thought one was transport it was so large). As we headed for them, 20 Zeros passed directly over-head but didn’t attack right then. “Oh Boy!” I thought this is going to be rough.

A Jap air transport or bomber was circling over the boats and four of the boys headed for it. They fired a long burst into it, but it didn’t go down. So all planes except mine headed for 1st destroyer which was by now throwing up lots of ack-ack. Took my flight toward enemy air transport as it landed at Cape Gloucester. 16 Japs passed out of it but we cut all of them down. “Pappy” Gunn flying No. 2 position on my wing laid a 75mm shell under it. The wing caught fire from our bullets by the time it had stopped rolling. Buck Good let go a couple or three bombs as we went over it and that finished it.

Buck Good an I then headed for large destroyer which had not been touched. Looked over my shoulder and saw enemy planes coming from about 10,000 feet, but there was too juicy a target to stop now. I could see that the boys in Henebry’s, Wilkins’, and Hawkins’ flight had the other destroyer burning and were still bombing and strafing it. We dropped down on our run for the large destroyer and it lit up like a Christmas tree as its ack-ack tried to knock us down before we bombed them. While Buck opened the bomb doors for me, I started to tap rudders and rake the deck with my 50’s [nose guns].

You could see Japs all over the decks trying to get cover someplace. We released our bombs as we pulled up to clear the mast, then dropped to the water to get out of their heavy gun fire. As we turned sharply to the left I could see we scored two direct hits as the destroyer rolled back and forth, then began to burn. Oh Boy! Buck and I shook hands on that job!

As we could see the Zeros coming in among us, I wiggled my wings to collect the formation but it was hard to do as they were still in a circle around the first destroyer. I could see that it was finished too. We finally got together and left the target with a few Zeros on our tail. The rest of my flight had been unable to release their bombs, so it was lucky that Buck and I had thrown ours into the sides of the large destroyer.

I knew some of the boys had been hit as the planes couldn’t close their bomb doors. Lt. Nuchols’ plane (13th SQ) I found out later was badly shot up by enemy fighters and rudder about gone. Radioed our report home and came straight home. After the bombing, Nuchols was still flying around and someone saw parachutes descending. Later it was found out that everyone got out except Lt. Nuchols who had lost too much altitude to make it. He crashed and burned about 15 miles from drone. Took his co-pilot two days to get back here.

Received wire from Gen. Ramey and phone calls from others [saying] congratulations in our job. The boys were really happy. We stayed up late to see the photos. Buck said he’s never seen me so happy and excited over the target, but he didn’t exactly take out his knitting either! Only two planes had 300 lb. bombs and rest had only 100 lb. Lucky for us 300 lb. were along and I was glad I had one of the planes with this load.

Repost: One Last Bomb

Going back through the archives, we rediscovered a post from January 2015 about an unexpected discovery one crew made when the men returned to base after a mission. Read on for the rest of the story.

 

The last mission for YE OLD NANCE, a 38th Bomb Group B-25, was supposed to be a milk run. The bomber, flown by Capt. Bud Thompson and his crew, attacked Malahang Drome, Lae on January 21, 1943. As bombardier 1/Lt. Walter G. Beck dropped his bombs, he and the rest of the crew heard the B-25 rattle violently. They thought they had been hit by antiaircraft fire, but none of the instruments showed that anything was amiss. With that, the crew headed home.

Sgt. Robert Pickard picks up the rest of the story in his diary:

“Day before yesterday we had quite a bit of excitement most of which happened while I was asleep…736 [YE OLD NANCE] carrying one 300 lb. demo bomb in the bomb bay, arming wires loose and all ready to go off. It taxied into the revetment about 75 feet from our tent. Then a gas truck pulled up and started filling it up with gas. About that time Lt. Beck, Bombardier, saw the live bomb and told everyone to clear out, that it would go off in 45 seconds. So everybody left, but fast. The guy who was putting gas in the plane just dropped the hose and left. The gas ran all over the plane and down on the ground and over to a fire where they were boiling clothes. Poof – and the whole plane was in flames.

Remains of B-25 Ye Old Nance

Men look at the burning wreckage of YE OLD NANCE.

 

About that time – Kudelka woke up and took off in such a hurry that he hit the tent pole and darn near broke his skull, but didn’t bother to take time enough to holler at me. Pretty soon the ammunition in the plane started going off, and singing around…and that is what woke me. I lay for a full minute trying to figure out what it was, and then rolled over and saw the plane a mass of flames. Still did not quite realize what the score was. Looked around and didn’t see another soul around a usually busy place so figured I had better move out. I dressed and ambled over toward a slit trench. Heard a particularly close bullet whiz by so jumped in the trench. No sooner did I get in it than the bomb exploded along with a 2000 gal tank truck full of 100 octane gas, which was sitting in front of the plane. Parts of the plane were found 200 yards away. Our tent had several holes punched in it and other tents in the area were completely burned up. The concussion from the explosion was terrific. I was closer to it than any one else. The pay off is this – Kudelka came back yelling his head off to Jim Eshleman for not waking him up – that he might have been killed and etc. [He] kept carrying on something fierce. I asked him why he didn’t wake me up and he didn’t say any more.”

Incredibly, no one was injured by the explosion. The B-25, on the other hand, was a total loss.

Repost: No More Spam

First published on our blog in 2015, this story will appear in Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Vol. II.

 

Throughout World War II, the subject of food was regularly brought up, usually because it was so terrible and the occasional good meal was worth writing home about. While the 43rd Bomb Group was staying in Port Moresby, they put up with field rations that included canned mutton, powdered eggs and “corn willy,” which was Aussie slang for canned corn beef.

Obviously, visits to the mess hall left much to be desired. There was one chef in the 403rd Bomb Squadron who decided to have a little fun with the menus each day and began writing up items such as “Spam ala King,” “Spam Peking,” “Sweet and Sour Spam,” etc. One day, he ran out of ideas and wrote “Just Plain Ole Hairy Spam.” We do not know if scenes similar to Monty Python’s Spam skit played out in the mess hall.

The men grew tired of the bad-tasting, nutritionally-deficient food they had to eat every day and it also lowered their morale. Before long, unit mess officers started up programs to ferry fresh food from northern Australia. Men would contribute money to a fund that would go towards purchasing fruit and vegetables as well as fresh meat, dairy and eggs. Planes typically used for these trips had been designated as war-weary and removed from combat service. They were often known as “fat cats,” possibly adopted from an early 3rd Bomb Group B-25 called Fat Cat that was repurposed as a ferrying aircraft in late June 1943.

Unlike most trips, the plane returning from Australia this time was a brand new radar-equipped B-24 carrying supplies and fresh food such as a side of beef, watermelons and cases of eggs. As the plane touched down at Seven Mile Airdrome, the left tire blew out, causing the B-24 to swerve to the left. Pilot F/O Clarence Molder did his best to straighten out the landing by applying the right break and increasing the power to the left outboard engine, but to no avail. It finally came to a stop in a ditch, with the nose twisting and the outboard props being torn away. Luckily, the aircraft did not catch fire.

B-24 crack up

The B-24 after it stopped in the ditch.

Before the landing went awry, radio operator T/Sgt. Charles G. Meinke had been sitting on the floor with one foot on a case of eggs. After the crash, he feared he was injured and bleeding when his foot was forced through the case and he felt liquid in his shoe. It turned out that he was not seriously injured, but the eggs had broken and the yolks had seeped into his shoe.

Second Lieutenant John P. Harmon scrambled out of the plane and noticed fuel leaking from a ruptured wing tank and another stream that was running onto a hot turbocharger. The turbocharger was so hot that it vaporized the gas as it poured down. Harmon ran for the fire extinguisher to cool down the turbocharger, then took the emergency axe to rescue his crew members still trapped inside.

Several of the other men finally got out through the plane’s windshield and helped Harmon until crash trucks and ambulance crews arrived. To the joy of the onlookers that had gathered, they soon freed the rest of the crew. As happy as the men were to see the crew make it out alive, a 501st Squadron Adjutant was upset to see his large purchase of fresh food littering the runway.

Repost: Knocking Out the 403rd

During the war, there were times when a squadron wound up out of commission for one reason or another. This story, first published in February 2014, covers an event that led to a squadron’s temporary removal from combat.

 

On January 17, 1943, four B-17s from the 43rd Bomb Group’s 403rd Squadron had taken off from Milne Bay for a mission to Rabaul. When the crews returned home later that day, they found smoke, a partially destroyed camp, and that the other three B-17s belonging to their squadron had been destroyed as well.

While the four crews were gone, the air raid sirens went off around midday. This was fairly common at Milne Bay and some of the personnel didn’t take it too seriously. For ten minutes men waited in nearby slit trenches. Nothing happened. The crew of FIRE BALL MAIL was getting ready to take the plane up before the alarm, scattered when it went off, then started going back to the plane. They soon heard what sounded like twin-engine bombers and looked up to see 23 Japanese bombers with 48 fighters flying over the base. The crew quickly ran for cover.

B-17 #540 Burns

The 403rd Squadron’s B-17F #41‑24540 smolders after it was hit during the raid at Milne Bay.

C. E. O’Connor, the co-pilot for that crew, later recalled the raid: “After the first bombs hit the rest followed in unison, working up to us like an avalanche and then pounding on past. This seemed like an eternity between the time the first bombs hit and the last—actually it must have been about 35 seconds … When those first bombs hit I started what might be my last act of contrition. I have never felt so close to death. At the same time realizing that I would never know what hit me.” Thankfully, no one at Milne Bay was killed or seriously injured that day.

Camp at Milne Bay after raid

What was left of the 403rd Squadron’s camp after the raid.

The damage from this raid put the 403rd Squadron out of commission. For several weeks, V Bomber Command had been monitoring the 403rd’s situation as it was continually weakening due to combat losses and disease. Approximately a third of the 403rd’s personnel were being treated for malaria at the time. With three more of their B-17s in ruins, the remainder of the Squadron was sent to Mareeba, Australia to regroup and reequip with B-24s.

 

Read this story in Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Volume I.

Repost: The Convoy of Rocks

During the war, friendly rivalries formed between different units. First published in June 2014, this lighthearted story describes one of the pranks that arose from the rivalry between the 90th and 43rd Bomb Groups.

 

In May 1943, the 90th and 43rd Bomb Groups were the only active heavy bomb groups in the Fifth Air Force (though the 380th was getting situated in the theater and would be fully operational by the end of the month), which led to the development of a friendly rivalry. One 90th crew was flying a reconnaissance (recco) mission on the 15th and reported seeing a convoy along the south coast of New Britain. The 43rd’s 65th Squadron sent out several reccos afterwards to prepare for a larger assault, only to discover that this supposed convoy was actually a chain of small islands. Not surprisingly, the 43rd berated the 90th for this mistake, and the 63rd Squadron’s combat diary noted that “the convoy of rocks, reported by the 90th Bombardment Group (H), on 15 May 1943, has now officially been confirmed.”

Gen. George Kenney wrote about the 90th’s response to the 43rd in his memoir General Kenney Reports. “The 90th Bombardment Group board of strategy went into a huddle to see what could be done to restore their own prestige and, if possible, to humiliate the overproud 43rd.” The 90th extended a party invitation to the 43rd, which was readily accepted, especially after hearing the 90th supposedly had some Australian beer in its possession.

43rd "Headquarters"

Men from the 90th Bomb Group pose outside the newly renamed latrine.

“That evening,” Kenney continued, “as the procession the the 43rd Group jeeps made the last turn in the winding road leading up the hill on which the 90th Group mess was perched, they were horrified to see just off the road an unmistakable Chic Sale [latrine] with a huge sign on top of it, reading ‘Headquarters 43rd Bombardment Group.’ The Kensmen didn’t say a word about it all evening. They helped their hosts eat an excellent meal and consume all the Australian beer and wound up the festivities by thanking them profusely for a fine party. The next morning just as the 90th was tumbling out of bed, a lone 43rd Group B-17, slipping in over the tops of the trees, suddenly opened fire on the Chic Sale with a pair of fifty-caliber guns shooting nothing but incendiary ammunition. The little building blazed up as the B-17 kept on going until it disappeared behind the hills.” The latrine couldn’t be saved.

While Kenney wasn’t pleased with the Group’s reaction, he only said he expected that sort of behavior to not continue in the future. Yet, he conceded, “little silly things like that, which now sound like a species of insanity, were wonderful incentives to morale and set up a spirit of competition and a desire to outdo the rival organization that meant more hits on the targets, a quicker end to the war, and thereby a saving of American lives.”

Repost: One Minute in Hell

Seventy-five years ago, Fifth Air Force units set out to strike the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul. Artist Steve Ferguson illustrated one moment of that mission below. This print was first shared last year.

A painting of a 38th Bomb Group B-25 over a Japanese ship during WWII

On November 2, 1943, Fifth Air Force launched a massive low-level attack by B-25 strafer-bombers against harbor installations and shipping at the major Japanese fleet anchorage and base at Rabaul, New Britain. In the vanguard of the 71st Squadron’s strike, 1/Lt. James A. Hungerpiller flying SLEEPY TIME GAL and 1/Lt. J. E. Orr can be seen engaging their targets at mast-top heights. In the face of the hundreds of antiaircraft guns, Lt. Hungerpiller opened fire on two destroyers, scoring a direct hit with one of his bombs. Meanwhile, Lt. Orr opened fire on a harbor merchant ship while Lt. Hungerpiller’s aircraft quickly began to lose altitude because of severe AA damage. Recognizing the plight of this aircraft, he made a sharp right turn toward to heavy cruisers anchored just off the western shore of the harbor.

This painting depicts Lt. Hungerpiller’s SLEEPY TIME GAL, trailing a plume of fire and smoke, crossing beyond the bow of the heavy cruiser Haguro. In the foreground, Lt. Orr is opening fire on the Japanese merchant ship. With his left engine on fire and the aircraft severely damaged from a fuel tank explosion, Lt. Hungerpiller soon lost control his aircraft and plunged into the sea.

 

This painting, part of a limited edition series by Steve Ferguson, can be purchased on our website.

Repost: The Last Voyage of the Amatsukaze

We’re heading back to the blog archives once again to bring you a story we first posted in January 2016 about the disabling of a Japanese ship, the Amatsukaze.

 

 

On April 5, 1945, Allied intelligence detected a small convoy of Japanese ships sailing up the China coast, from Hong Kong to Amoy (now Xiamen). The short hop, only about 350 miles by ship, was being attempted by two cargo ships, protected by several frigates and a destroyer, the Amatsukaze. These ships were the remnants of the last convoy to attempt the 3000 mile journey from Singapore, off the southern tip of the Malay, to the Japan home islands, through waters patrolled by Allied submarines and aircraft. Already, they had lost a third of their number to bombing attacks. Now that they had set sail, the 345th Bomb Group could get their shot at sinking the convoy ships.

Twenty-four B-25 strafers were sent up to intercept the convoy, and discovered two frigates, Escorts #1 and #134, at 11:30, right where intelligence briefings had predicted. Captain George Musket led the 501st Squadron on a skip-bombing attack against one of the frigates. Musket dropped a bomb which bounced off the water and onto the ship’s deck, where it exploded. Another bomb opened a hole on the frigate’s side, causing it to sink within minutes. The 499th Squadron continued on to the second frigate. Lt. Lester Morton dropped a bomb that exploded just below the waterline, in the ships center. It blew a large hole in the starboard side of the frigate, and it rolled over soon after.

The 498th Squadron, seeing that both ships had already been sunk, decided to circle the second frigate and strafe the Japanese survivors in the water. One of them took this picture as he circled the capsized ship. Crewmen can be seen clinging to the side or bobbing in the water.

Frigate destroyed by 345th Bomb Group

The 500th Squadron missed the action entirely. They continued along the coastline, looking for more ships, and after a 10-minute hunt, spotted another promising shape in the water. 1/Lt. George R. Schmidt led his six B-25s on a low-altitude run. The ship was the Amatsukaze, which the B-25 pilots had mistaken for a merchant vessel, perhaps because of its small stature. The Amatsukaze had lost its bow and front stack to a torpedo attack by a U.S. submarine in January 1944. After it was towed to base, the ship’s aft end was patched up and fitted with a makeshift bow. Though the destroyer was only half as long as it had once been, it was still bristling with weaponry.

Amatsukaze April 1945

The Japanese destroyer Amatsukaze. Sailing with a temporary bow after its bow was blown off by a submarine, is seen under attack by the lead flight of the 500th Bomb Squadron off the China coast on April 6th. This photo was taken by 1/Lt. George R. Schmidt, the Squadron Leader, as he raced by the ship. The large splash at top left in thisphoto may have been the crash of Schmidt’s wingman, 1/Lt. Joseph Herick, who was hit in the cockput by a 40mm shell and crashed inverted into the sea near the destroyer. 2/Lt. Samuel W. Bennett’s B-25 from the second flight can be seen lining up for its attack.

The B-25 pilots saw their target begin to flash, and suddenly the sky was filled with ack-ack. The formation bore on, undeterred. Schmidt and his wingmen, F/O Van Scoyk and Lt. Joe Herick, began firing on the ship, hoping to suppress the gunners on its deck. Herick’s plane took a direct hit from a 40mm round. It pitched forward and smashed into the water, upside down. Schmidt dropped his bombs, catching two direct hits on the Amatsukaze. The other three B-25s made their run, catching this photograph of the ship afire.

Amatsukaze Explosion

1/Lt. George R. Schmidt’s camera caught 2/Lt. Samuel W. Bennett’s B-25 pulling away from its attack on the destroyer Amatsukaze.

As the 500th Squadron B-25s headed back to base, the 498th Squadron plans came upon the burning destroyer. It was still moving at full speed, even as dark smoke billowed up from its hull. The B-25s broke into two flights of three, with one, led by Lt. James Manners, planning to use the smoke cloud as cover, and the other, led by Capt. Albin V. Johnson, arcing around the cloud. The Amatsukaze directed all of its fire on the latter flight. Johnson landed a direct hit on the stern, but was heavily damaged by flak, causing him to ditch as he pulled away. A search for survivors the next day turned up empty-handed.

Manners’ flight, coming from behind the destroyer, swept over the ship, strafing it from stern to bow. They bracketed the ship with their bombs, leaving it burning, dead in the water. The American pilots immediately headed out of the area. After dodging a brief fighter interception, they returned to Laoag, Luzon, out of fuel. The Amatsukaze was towed to Amoy, run aground, and designated as target practice.

Find this story and much more in Warpath Across the Pacific.

Repost: The Same Places, 70+ Years Apart—Six More WWII Bases Then and Now

This week, we wanted to bring back one of our posts that looked at the changes of a given location over 70 years. You might remember this one, which was first published in September 2016.

 

Rabaul, New Britain

Located on the coast of a natural harbor on the eastern coast of New Britain, an island in the Southwest Pacific, Rabaul was a German colony in the 1900s that was captured by the Australians in World War I. Two nearby volcanoes, Vulcan and Tavurvur, erupted violently in 1937, destroying most of the city. After World War II started, it was captured by the Japanese in January 1942, after which it was transformed into a major stronghold with approximately 97,000 troops that would easily fend off Allied attacks until October and November 1943. While the Allies continued to advance towards Japan, they cut off Japanese supply routes to Rabaul and continued to bomb the city and surrounding area. It was officially surrendered at the end of the war. After the war was over, the city became a trading hub until Tavurvur erupted in 1994, once again destroying a large part of the city. Developments closest to the volcano were never rebuilt.

Rabaul then and now

Click to enlarge. In the photo on the left, taken from Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Vol. I, is Rabaul and Simpson Harbor as they appeared in September 1943. At right is Rabaul today, taken from Google Maps.

 

Langley Air Force Base

Established in 1917 near Hampton, Virginia, Langley Field (named after American aviation pioneer Samuel Pierpoint Langley) remains one of the oldest air bases in continuous operation in the U.S. Its small airfield was expanded in the 1930s and continued to develop as World War II began. At the time the left image was taken, Langley was used as a training ground for new units, such as the 43rd Bomb Group, established in the U.S. military build-up before they entered the war.

Langley then and now

Click to enlarge. In the photo on the left, taken from Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Vol. I, is Langley Field in 1941. At right is Langley today, taken from Google Maps.

 

Boram Airdrome

On the northern coast of Papua New Guinea, Boram (referred to as East Wewak by the Japanese) was one of the four airdromes that made up the Wewak Complex built by the Japanese during World War II. The other three in the complex were Wewak, Dagua, and But. It was repeatedly attacked by the Allies between 1942 and 1945, and finally ended with the Australians securing Boram on May 22, 1945. These days Boram is the home of the Wewak Airport, also sometimes known as Boram Airport.

Boram then and now

Click to enlarge. In the photo on the left, taken from Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s, is Boram Airdrome after it was attacked by the 312th Bomb Group during the spring of 1944. At right is Boram today, taken from Google Maps.

 

Morotai Island

Approximately two years after the Japanese invaded Morotai Island, off Halmahera Island in east Indonesia, the 31st Infantry Division of the U.S. Army landed on Morotai on September 15, 1944. Two airstrips were built and Morotai grew into a major staging base for attacks on Japanese territory in the Philippine Islands. Almost a year later on September 9, 1945, the island became the site of the formal surrender of the 126,000 Japanese still in the Netherlands East Indies [now Indonesia]. The base became a large aircraft and vehicle graveyard after the war was over. Scrapping and smelting lasted until 1988.

Morotai then and now

Click to enlarge. In the photo on the left, are the two airstrips at Morotai on October 15, 1944. At right is Morotai today, taken from Google Maps.

 

Ie Shima

Ie Shima was part of the Ryukyu Island chain, a trail of islands southwest of Japan. It was just west of Okinawa, and was captured by the Allies as part of the Battle of Okinawa. Before American units took over the base, the Japanese destroyed the runways and buried mines throughout the island to deter Allied attacks. Once it was under U.S. control, various engineer aviation battalions were hard at work to make the island habitable for units that were due to move to the island in June. In August, Ie Shima was a stop for the Japanese surrender delegation on their way to Manila. These days, the U.S. Marine Corps operates a military training facility on part of the island, while civilians reside on the rest of it.

Ie Shima then and now

Click to enlarge. In the photo on the left, taken from Warpath Across the Pacific, is the 345th Bomb Group’s camp area at Ie Shima in the summer of 1945. At right is Ie Shima today, taken from Google Maps.

Buka Island
Buka Island is part of the Solomon Island chain in the southwest Pacific, on the opposite end of the chain from Guadalcanal. After being claimed by the Germans in 1885, Buka was turned over to Australia in 1920. The Japanese seized Buka on March 9, 1942 and built an air base that grabbed Allied attention in June 1943 when preparations for Operation Cartwheel were in the works. A small canal separated Buka from the island of Bougainville, which was to be the site of a major invasion, and up-to-date reconnaissance of the two islands was required beforehand. That reconnaissance mission turned into one of the most dramatic moments of the Pacific war when Capt. Jay Zeamer, Jr. and his crew were attacked during their photomapping mission on June 16, 1943. In the end, Zeamer and his bombardier, 2/Lt. Joseph R. Sarnoski, were awarded the Medal of Honor (Sarnoski’s was posthumously awarded) and the rest of the crew was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for getting those photos while under fire. Contrary to internet lore, this photo was not taken during that mission. Buka remained under Japanese control until September 1945. It later gained independence from Papua New Guinea in 2005.

Buka then and now

Click to enlarge. In the photo on the left, taken from the Naval Aviation Museum, the Buka airfield in August 1943. At right is Buka today, taken from Google Maps.

 

Sources and additional reading:

Repost: Middlebrook’s Crew Has a Close Call

This post was first written back in May 2016. Today, we’re bringing it back for another read.

 

Sleep was eluding the men of the 38th Bomb Group on the night of May 14/15, 1943. They were rudely awakened by a Japanese raid on Port Moresby, which destroyed a tent of Norden bombsights and slightly damaged two B-25s. At 2AM, the all-clear was sounded and the men headed back to bed, only to be woken up a short time later for a mission at 3AM to Gasmata. To top things off, weather between Port Moresby and Gasmata was very stormy. It was not a good morning.

After being assigned to fly EL DIABLO II, 2/Lt. Garrett Middlebrook was especially not looking forward to this mission. This plane was an unmodified B-25C hand-me-down that had been designated as non-combat only. Unlike the other B-25s flying this morning, this one was not equipped with wing tanks that could hold 300 gallons of extra fuel for the long flight. Middlebrook’s protests about flying this plane were dismissed, so he and his crew got in their plane and began the bumpy 300-mile trip to Gasmata.

Aerodromes and Landing Grounds February 1943

This map shows some of the airdromes and landing grounds around New Guinea as of February 1943. The route between Gasmata and Port Moresby is highlighted in yellow.

Climbing to 13,000 feet, the crew began crossing over the Owen Stanley Mountains. The B-25, as well as all of its crew other than the pilot and co-pilot, were tossed about in the turbulent weather. At one point, the aircraft was caught in a downdraft that sent it into a 2000-foot dive. Navigator Lt. Vincent A. Raney wrapped his arms around the steel plating behind Middlebrook’s seat and stood on the ceiling to brace himself until the pilot and co-pilot were able to pull the aircraft out of its dive. The skies were filled with lightning, which created halos around the propeller edges. One bolt lit up the scene in front of them: a mountain. Middlebrook pulled up sharply and the crew was spared an untimely death.

That was to be the last bit of severe turbulence for the trip, though the plane was still tossed around a bit afterwards. The B-25 ascended to 14,000 feet and continued to Gasmata. There was one problem: all the turbulence left the crew disoriented and no one was able to determine exactly where they were. After crossing the mountains, they descended to 800 feet, then to 300 feet in search of the water somewhere below them. Still, even if they could find the target, there would not be enough fuel to get them back home. They decided that the best thing to do was to head home, even if it meant going back through the storm.

The flight was once again very bumpy, but they did not have any further close calls with mountains. Eventually, the stormy weather was left behind as the crew flew along the south coast of New Guinea, 250 miles west of Port Moresby. By this time, fuel was low and Middlebrook didn’t want to risk flying over the Gulf of Papua, which was the shortest route back to base. Instead, he flew 175 miles to a shoreline covered with sand dunes and made a wheels-down landing, keeping the nose up as long as possible to minimize the chance of getting caught on one of the dunes.

Once the B-25 landed and the crew got out, they saw several natives walking towards them. One, a boy, could understand a little English and told the men that some Australians were stationed about half a day’s walk from the crash site and that he was willing to guide them to the Australians. Three of the crew set out with the boy while the rest stayed to secure the plane and destroy the I.F.F. (Identification Friend or Foe) transponder in case the plane fell into enemy hands.

Soon enough, the three men returned with good news: they were to be picked up by the Australians that night at the mouth of the Kapuri River. They spent the night resting at the Australian camp and were picked up by a C-47 at noon the next day. EL DIABLO II was also picked up and repaired, then transferred out of the 38th.

Repost: Raided!

First published on this blog in September 2014, we thought it was time to bring the story of a Japanese raid on the 22nd Bomb Group back to the front page.

 

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

Black smoke and flames rise from Seven Mile Drome following an enemy raid by Betty bombers. This photo was taken on either July 5th or on August 17th, when a similar attack took place and caught Marauders on the ground. (William P. Sparks Collection)

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.

 

This story can be found in our book Revenge of the Red Raiders.