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:

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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.

Repost: Cow Wrangling at Charters Towers

We dug into the archives this week and found this lighthearted story, which first appeared on April 1, 2016.

 

To the newly-arrived American airmen, Australia was a completely different world. Sailing across the Pacific on the USAT Ancon, the 3rd Bomb Group went up the Brisbane River in February 1942 and disembarked at Hamilton Wharf. When the men were allowed to explore their new surroundings, they were warmly greeted by the Australians. Still, changes in climate, currency, popular sports, and general culture were a lot to get used to in a short time. Some of the men tried to learn about cricket and rugby but neither sport really caught on with the Group. Twelve days after the 3rd reached Australia, it was ordered to head north to the small town of Charters Towers by March 7th.

On March 8th, the 3rd got on trains and began a slow journey northward. Two days later, the 89th Squadron got off at Townsville to fulfill an assignment of servicing 40th Reconnaissance Squadron B-17s. The rest of the Group rode the remaining 70 miles to Charters Towers. Upon arrival, the men were taken to their campsite, which was nothing more than tall grass and a few trees. They spent their first night in Charters Towers under the stars. The next day, they began to put their camp area together. Not long after the camp was set up, the men pitched in to work on the new airstrips.

Soon, they were given permission to go into the town itself and have a look around. For them, it was like stepping into an old Western film, complete with wooden sidewalks and bars with swinging doors. Charters Towers was certainly small, but it thrived due to its proximity to gold mines. With plans to set up a major air base, though, Charters Towers wouldn’t remain a small town for much longer.

Main Street, Charters Towers

A photograph of the Main Street in Charters Towers during the summer of 1942. Although only a small town, Charters Towers had prospered from a gold mining boom and was well-appointed for a frontier outpost. The town underwent a rapid expansion as it became a major airbase and thoroughfare for the Allied war effort. (Harry Mangan Collection)

By June 1942, the 3rd Bomb Group was well-established in Australia. The men were flying more bombing and gunnery training missions, and their current space at the RAAF bombing range in Townsville was quickly becoming insufficient for their needs. The men searched for a new space that they could use for a range. Harold Chapman, a Charters Towers rancher, gave permission to the Group to use part of his cattle station for their practice. Chapman requested a day’s notice from the men whenever they needed to use the range. In turn, Chapman would round up his cattle so that they wouldn’t get shot.

The Group would always send a few men to help Chapman round up his cattle. Private Charles Valade of the 13th Squadron soon developed a reputation as quite a cowhand. During one unfortunate training mission, “Pappy” Gunn reportedly shot and killed a cow by accident with .50-caliber ammo. He had to paid Chapman five pounds as a reimbursement. For the most part, using Chapman’s range for training proved to be extremely valuable for the combat crews.

Repost: Building the Steak and Eggs Special

First appearing in May 2016, this entry was one of last year’s most popular posts. We like it so much we’re sharing it again with you this week.

 

For the men stationed in New Guinea during 1942 and 1943, a variety of fresh food was not easy to come by. There were plenty of coconuts, although the men grew tired of eating them, and the occasional banana, but no other fresh fruits or vegetables. Whatever came through was canned. By the end of 1942, they decided that they had had enough of the canned fruits and vegetables and began working on their own plane that would ferry fresh food from Australia.

This plane, an A-20, was being built from scrapped pieces by T/Sgt. Kip Hawkins and a few other mechanics from the 89th Bomb Squadron. The fuselage was taken from LITTLE HELLION, which belly-landed on November 1, 1942, and the wing sections from THE COMET, which was scrapped after the nose wheel collapsed while the plane was being towed on December 15, 1942.

Wings for THE "STEAK & EGG" SPECIAL

An A-20 named THE COMET was scrapped after its nose gear collapsed. The wings from the aircraft were taken and propped up on barrels, ready for a new fuselage of the aircraft that would become THE “STEAK & EGG” SPECIAL.

 

THE "STEAK & EGG" SPECIAL's new fuselage

Here, the scrapped fuselage from the A-20 formerly known as LITTLE HELLION is being slid between the waiting wings propped up on barrels.

It was a slow reconstruction that lasted all of January 1943, as the mechanics had to go through a lot of scrap piles around Port Moresby for various parts. At one point, a wing that was propped up on barrels fell right on the head of a mechanic. Luckily, he escaped without serious injury. Soon enough, the fuselage was slid between the wings and the aircraft was put together. The A-20, now named THE “STEAK & EGG” SPECIAL, was christened with eggs on February 4th.

THE "STEAK & EGG" SPECIAL christening

T/Sgt. Clifton H. Hawkins and Cpl. Schraam sit in the A-20 after its dedication on February 4, 1943. Notice the splattered egg above the name.

Given the nature of how this A-20 came to exist, there were a few mechanical problems to work out. Once fixed though, the aircraft regularly made trips from Port Moresby to Australia. The Squadron enjoyed the fresh food and meat immensely. In August, the paint was stripped and the aircraft was renamed STEAK & EGGS, then later STEAK AND EGGS (without the ampersand). On June 11, 1944, STEAK AND EGGS was low on fuel when it flew into bad weather. Both factors led to a forced landing on an Australian beach and the subsequent end of the aircraft. No one was seriously injured in the landing. Parts of the aircraft were salvaged, with the rest still on the beach today.

Read more about the missions of this aircraft, including a stories from a veteran who flew the plane, at Australia @ War.

Repost: A Fiery Landing

This post first appeared on October 2, 2015.

Nine planes took off for Utarom, a Japanese air base on the west coast of Dutch New Guinea, on the morning of September 28, 1944. The mission was soon cancelled due to bad weather over their target and the A-20 crews headed back to base. Shortly into the return journey, 2/Lt. Kenneth S. DuFour lost oil pressure in one engine of his plane. He shut it down, jettisoned his bombs and told his gunner, S/Sgt. Thomas E. Smith, to bail out if the other engine quit. For the time being, things were stable, and DuFour continued flying back to Hollandia. Above him, 2/Lt. Walter F. Hill kept a watchful eye on DuFour’s A-20.

As DuFour approached Tanahmerah Bay, he followed the common landing procedure of switching from the bomb bay tanks to the wing tanks, only to have vapor lock shut down the remaining working engine. His A-20 went into a spiral dive and DuFour worked furiously to regain control of his plane by easing off the rudder trim and switching on the booster pumps. The engine restarted and the pilot got his plane back in control. For a short time, Hill thought DuFour’s A-20 would plunge into the water and was relieved after he pulled out of the dive. During the chaos, Smith bailed out with Hill watching him float towards the cliffs on the west side of the bay.

DuFour slowly took his aircraft up to 3000 feet in order to clear the mountains that stood between him and Hollandia. When he could not contact the tower, he decided to land on a dirt strip next to the runway. As he attempted to lower his landing gear, only the nose wheel came down. DuFour aborted the landing, determining that he would be better off ditching in nearby Sentani Lake. The descent to the lake was too difficult to control, leading the A-20 to crash into nearby trees instead. During the landing, the pilot was knocked unconscious.

When he woke up, he was surrounded by fuel and fire. DuFour attempted to escape the inferno through the canopy, but it wouldn’t open. Instead, he used a pistol to break the Plexiglas and climbed out of the plane. Soon after getting out, he heard the ammunition exploding. This worried the pilot, as he was unaware that his gunner had bailed out and thought Smith was still trapped.

Meanwhile, Hill landed at Hollandia and headed for a PT boat where he and others would search for Smith. A member of the 25th Liaison Squadron, T/Sgt. James D. Nichols, would help him with the search from the air. As they began looking, they saw a native canoe with Smith sitting in it. Other than minor cuts and bruises, he was uninjured after landing at Cape Korongwabb.

Back in the jungle, DuFour was certain that he landed near Hollandia and walked back in the direction of the base, which happened to be five miles away. After a six hour walk that included several stream crossings, the pilot heard an engine and began walking towards the sound for about 25 yards before he emerged from the jungle surrounding the base. DuFour walked into the closest tent, waking the occupant from a sound slumber.

The soldier drove the pilot to the hospital where he was treated for first, second and third degree burns over 30% of his body. All of his hair and part of his ears were burned off, as well as half the skin on his forehead. His hands and arms were also badly burned. At the hospital, skin grafts failed and he was transferred to the plastic surgery center at Northington Hospital in Alabama, where he stayed for six months. Once he recovered, he returned to flying status near the end of the war.

This story can be found in Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s.

Repost: The Ordeal of the Herry Crew

While looking through our blog archives, we rediscovered a post about Capt. Robert Herry, Maj. Williston M. Cox, and the rest of a 71st Squadron B-25 crew that went down on August 5, 1943. Today, we’re reposting the dramatic story.

 


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.

Repost- The 43rd Departs for War: Part 1

It’s been 75 years since the 43rd Bomb Group began the long journey to Australia and the Pacific Theater. Today, we’re revisiting the first part of that journey, which we originally published on Sept. 26, 2014.

 

For nine years, the Queen Mary was a luxury passenger liner that had been commissioned by the British Cunard Line. August 30, 1939 marked its final peacetime cruise across the Atlantic, and as per request by Winston Churchill, it would be retrofitted and used as a troop ship for the next few years. While Gen. George C. Marshall was hesitant to accept Churchill’s offer, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower knew the Pacific theater was in dire need of additional troops. Since this would be the fastest and most efficient way to send additional men, Eisenhower ordered to proceed with Churchill’s idea. The ship went from carrying approximately 2000 passengers in peacetime to around 16,000 troops, the size of an entire army division. Because of its speed and passenger capacity, Hitler supposedly put a $250,000 bounty on sinking this integral part of the Allied troop transport system.

Early on February 17, 1942, the 43rd Bomb Group boarded a troop train at their base in Bangor, Maine for a destination that was still unknown to them. After riding for nine hours, the men arrived at the Port of Embarkment at Boston Harbor, where they would board the Queen Mary. They spent a cold night on the ship, then watched the US coastline fade into the distance at noon on the 18th. There was no public send-off because the ship needed to leave in secret so it could avoid being targeted by German U-boats. Still, a small crowd had converged on the dock to wave goodbye–a comfort for the men and a concern for the ship’s captain about how long their journey would stay secret.

Queen Mary

One of the three largest passenger liners in the world, the Queen Mary was a luxury ship during peacetime, as seen here. After refitting, she was capable of carrying as many as 15,000 troops in a single voyage, making her crucial to the war effort. Her importance to the Allies was so great that Hitler reportedly offered a $250,000 bounty to any naval captain who could sink the gigantic ship. By the end of the war, the Queen Mary had carried a total of 765,429 military personnel over a distance of nearly 570,000 miles.

The Queen Mary was escorted by two destroyers at first, but sailed too quickly for the WWI-era destroyers to keep up, and soon left them behind to sail south alone. Meanwhile, then men on board hadn’t been told of their destination and began wondering where they would be going. The ship sailed by the eastern Florida cost, then reversed its course and dropped anchor near Key West, Florida. Two tankers quickly refueled the ship, which was guarded by six sub-chasers and a flying boat during the process. Originally, the vessel was going to stop for fuel in Trinidad, but a submarine was seen lurking in the waters. It was rumored that a U-boat sank the tanker that would have refueled the Queen Mary.

Life aboard the Queen Mary wasn’t too bad for the 43rd. Since the unit wasn’t full of draftees going through basic training, most of the men lived on the B deck, which was only two floors below the open-air main deck. Their rooms comfortably held nine men each, who enjoyed sleeping on deep, inner spring mattresses. The only downside was needing to keep the portholes closed at night, keeping the rooms hot and stuffy. Soon, the quality of food became an issue for the men. The ship’s British crew served the men meals consisting of kidneys or mutton stew–foods to which the Americans were not accustomed. The complaints were addressed on March 2nd during an officer’s meeting and the Americans were happy to find roast beef, macaroni, bread and jam, and coffee at lunch that day. The men were also introduced to the British custom of afternoon tea and went from being puzzled to gladly adopting the tradition.

A typical day on the ship was spent doing calisthenics for an hour in the morning on the sun deck, weapons classes and inspections, as well as fire and boat drills. The guns were fired every day, both as practice and to get the men used to the noise. Free time was spent watching movies or live shows, exercising in one of the Queen Mary‘s two pools, playing poker, and attending religious services. The ship traveled from Boston to the tropics in less than a week. With the heat of their tropical location, sleeping in the cabins became extremely uncomfortable and difficult. On March 1st, the Queen Mary steamed southeast and rumors of a stop at Rio De Janeiro began to fly.

Continue to part 2…

Repost: Friendship After Bombing Davao

This story is one of our favorites and we thought it was time to reblog it. Without further ado, here is the tale of an unlikely friendship between two veteran World War II pilots.

 

Two 63rd Squadron B-24 Snoopers took off from Owi Island on the night of September 4, 1944 to bomb Matina Airdome at Davao, Mindinao. One of the B-24s soon turned back due to radar failure. Captain Roland T. Fisher, pilot of the other B-24, “MISS LIBERTY,” continued on alone. Fisher had flown night missions with the Royal Air Force in 1941 and would soon be needing every ounce of skill he had acquired over the last few years.

Twenty-one years after this mission, Fisher recounted his experience: “I could see again the bright moon in the clear night sky and the green shadow of Cape San Agustin below. I had entered Davao Gulf by crossing from the Pacific over the peninsula into the head of the gulf and made nearly a straight-on approach over Samal Isle to Matina air strip. I remember thinking perhaps this would allow me to enter the gulf undetected. On previous occasions I had entered the gulf at the mouth and flew north, and it seemed like [Japanese] defenses always spotted me.

Miss Liberty's Nose Art

“But this evening my plan didn’t work…I recall vividly being in the searchlights and how, just after I had made the bomb run over the air base, I made a sharp turn to the left with the intent of flying south out of the bay.” Back on the Japanese-held base, a man who had been ordered to reconnoiter the area in his Irving night fighter spotted the interloper. That man was Yoshimasa Nakagawa. “Some minutes after my plane took off,” wrote Nakagawa, “I found that the bomb which had fallen off [the B-24] seemed to have been exploded somewhere in the air-base. My plane had caught sight of [the B-24] which was flying about 1500 meters high above mine…my plane had been kept waiting for [him] to start on [his] way home. My plane was drawing nearer and nearer to [his] B-24 which was circling over the little island in Davao Bay.”

While Fisher was still in the middle of his turn out of the bay, Nakagawa flew straight at “MISS LIBERTY” with guns blazing. A collision between the two planes was imminent and Fisher pulled up a wing, narrowly avoiding the Japanese fighter. Nakagawa turned again to make another attack on Fisher’s B-24, this time for the death. “My plane could not help colliding with [the B-24] owing to the disorder of the machine gun. I hope you can understand we Japanese pilots of those days felt as if their heart were broken when we were forced by the General Headquarters to do such a thing as collision,” he later wrote. As Nakagawa rammed his plane into the B-24, his fighter’s propellers severely damaged the belly of the B-24.

When the planes broke apart, Nakagawa watched Fisher’s plane plunge towards the sea and flew to base thinking about the skill of the American pilot, who probably wouldn’t make it home. Fortunately, Fisher was able to limp back to Owi after a long, tense 7 hour flight. Years later, Nakagawa contributed to a book called The Divine Wind, which is about experiences of kamikaze pilots. In that book was the story of his encounter with that B-24. Fisher received a copy of the book from a former tentmate, telling him to look on page 29, where he found the mission described above. He then composed the following letter:

Letter to Yoshimasa Nakagawa

Even though Nakagawa had tried to kill Fisher and his crew years ago, the two men put the past behind them and struck up a friendship 20 years after their first encounter. The men met in 1972, both of them thankful that the other was still alive, and appeared on the Dick Cavett television show together. “Imagining how bravely you could survive the World War 2 that had made the horrible marks in the history of the slaughter of human race,” Nakagawa wrote to Fisher. “I am inclined to heartily express my joy that you are still living all right. I am very grateful to you, who hope I am in good health and fortune, for the fact that you have no antipathy against me, who had once been an enemy of you. I am also very much delighted to be able to exchange correspondence with you. I hope you are in good health and happy for ever.”

In his response to Nakagawa, Fisher wrote, “Then you and I were young and conducted ourselves as young men should for our countries. Now we are older an wiser and our countries are wiser and I feel that we have attained a lasting friendship between our countries that is not only honorable but sensible and good for their futures. Still those dark moments we spent as young men in the night tropic skies of twenty years ago, I am sure, always will be glistening memories no matter how old we grow.”

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

We’re working on another batch of then and now photos for you next week. To hold you over, head back to our previous post on the same topic. We’ll get you started with a U.S. base featured in that post.

Hunter Army Airfield
Located in Savannah, Georgia, Hunter Field was originally a municipal airport built in 1929. It was named Hunter Municipal Airfield in May 1940 after a World War I flying ace from Savannah, Lt. Col. Frank O’Driscoll Hunter. Soon afterwards, an Army Air Corps base was built and several units, the 3rd and 27th Bomb Groups as well as the 35th Air Base Group, would call it home for a short time. The 312th Bomb Group was another unit that did their aircraft training at Hunter Air Base (so renamed on February 19, 1941). Today, there are about 5000 soldiers at Hunter Army Airfield, including the Coast Guard’s Air Station Savannah.

Hunter Army Airfield Then and Now

Click to enlarge. In the photo on the left,  taken from Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s, is the base where bomb groups such as the 312th were activated. At right is Hunter Army Airfield today, taken from Google Maps.