The 500th Squadron Attacks Vunapope

The following excerpt comes from Warpath Across the Pacific. At this point in the story, the 345th Bomb Group is attacking Vunapope, located near Rabaul, on October 18, 1943.

“While the other squadrons were attacking the airfield, the six planes of the 500th swept wide and raced across the tree tops of a vast coconut plantation towards the supply dumps and docks along the bay just west of the airfield. Ahead, the pilots saw three freighters anchored close along the shore, and the flights lined up on the two largest, strafing their way across the shoreside supply dumps as they advanced. The flight led by 1/Lt. Max H. Mortensen aimed for a 5000-ton freighter on the right, while Capt. Anacker led his two wingmen towards the 6187-ton cargo-passenger ship Johore Maru on the left.

Mortensen released a single 1000-pound bomb which hit the water twenty yards short of the freighter, while Lt. Raymond Geer’s two bombs went long. The huge geysers thrown up seconds later by the exploding bombs completely obscured the ship. The airmen reported that they thought the bombs had rolled it over, but Japanese records do not support the claim that the ship was destroyed.

Mortensen’s flught pressed on over the bay and lined up on Subchaser #23 out in the channel. 1/Lt. Thane C. Hecox dropped his two 1000 pounders a few yards directly in front of the ship. The four-second delay fuses provided just enough time for the warship to run directly over the bombs before they exploded, ripping off the bow.

Meanwhile, Anacker’s flight was already in trouble. 1/Lt. Ralph G. Wallace’s TONDELAYO had lost its right engine to ground fire as it lined up on the target. From the top turret, S/Sgt. John Murphy could see a piston moving up and down through a jagged hole in a cylinder and the cowling. Wallace quickly feathered the prop and continued his bomb run. As the three planes approached the ship, the air was filled with machine-gun bullets and cannon shells as both the attackers and the defenders lashed out viciously. All three planes launched bombs as they neared the ship, one of which bounced off the deck and hit the water. Seconds later the target was surrounded by huge waterspouts as the bombs exploded, drenching the ship in spray. Crew interrogations indicated the bombs lifted the ship out of the water and debris was seen flying through the air; the ship was claimed as badly damaged and probably sunk. Again the claim was optimistic; Japanese records show that the Johore Maru was sunk by a submarine five days later.

Attacking Japanese Freighters
This photo shows the 500th Squadron’s attack on shipping at Vunapope, near Rabaul, which led to the epic air battle in which 17 Japanese fighters were claimed shot down for the loss of two B-25s. Taken from plane #572, piloted by 1/Lt. Thane C. Hecox, this photo shows attacks on a 5000-ton and 6000-ton freighter. Both vessels were claimed sunk, although the photographs and Japanese shipping records do not confirm this. (John C. Hanna Collection)

Thirty minutes before the strafers hit Rapopo, a Jap spotter station on the east coast of New Britain had radioed a warning to the defenses. Pilots rushed to aircraft on alert status at the ends of the runways and took off in droves from the various airfields around Rabaul.

By the time the attack began, over a hundred Japanese Zeros from the 201st, 204th and 253rd Kokutais were echeloned above 5000 feet over St. George’s Channel and Blanche Bay. Before the Japanese pilots took on the strafers, they expected to have to deal with a larger fighter escort and formations of high-flying B-24s.

While the six squadrons of B-25s savaged the two airfields, the fighters continued to circle, unwilling to lose the advantage of their altitude. But when no fighter escort materialized and the 498th and 500th Squadrons reached the Channel, the Japanese Navy pilots reluctantly dropped the black noses of their Mitsubishi fighters and dove steeply to intercept the retreating formations. Thus, both lead squadrons of B-25s were met by a cascade of Japanese “Zekes” falling on them from above.

The air battle was joined almost as soon as the 498th Squadron crossed beyond the end of the runway at Ropopo and flew out over the water off Lesson Point. As each squadron of B-25s came off the target, it immediately dropped down as low as possible over the water and its flights reformed into a tight vee formation, thus bringing the maximum defensive fire power to bear. For the next twenty-five minutes the “Zekes” repeatedly attempted to break through he hail of .50-caliber tracers which greeted them at each advance towards the formations. Again and again, the massed fires of the turret and waist gunners shot them down or drove them off before their cannons and machine guns could do serious damage to the B-25s.

The 498th gunners were credited with ten kills and one probable, the 501st with ten more and three probables, and the 499th with two kills and one more probable. The 499th encountered less opposition because most of the Jap fighters followed the lead squadrons as they left the target.”

P.R. from the Pacific Theater

As the fight against the Japanese continued in the Pacific Theater, military commanders kept asking U.S. government officials for one vital thing to keep them going: more resources. Due to the “Europe First” policy, the United States was sending the majority of its resources to the European Theater, making it very difficult for Fifth Air Force to get more men to relieve weary air and ground crews, airplanes and parts. Still, they did the best they could with what they had. General George C. Kenney, first appointed to the Pacific Theater at the end of July 1942, was acutely aware of the shortages and never stopped pushing Washington to get his men what they needed. 

After the huge victory over the Japanese in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea and subsequent successes, self-congratulatory compilations were put together. General Kenney, and more importantly Gen. Douglas MacArthur, knew that the best way to get additional resources to the Pacific Theater was through good press getting back to the Joint Chiefs and President Roosevelt. After the dramatic strike on Rabaul on November 2, 1943, Kenney wanted to dismiss any notion of that mission’s outcome as disastrous. He had a large book created to show off the successes of that mission as well as some of its spectacular photography. The book was then given to influential government officials to build up Kenney’s case for sending more resources to the Pacific Theater and increase Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s favorability among his superiors.

NARA photo 51507AC Capt Alan Haemer - Rabaul Book
Former commercial artist Capt. Alan Haemer, at work in the Graphic Presentation section of the Fifth Air Force Statistical Control Unit, shows off the giant book created after the November 2, 1943 mission to Rabaul. (U.S. National Archives)

How much it helped either cause is difficult to say. Even so, these compilations of mission highlights continued to be made throughout 1944 and into 1945. Prepared by the 345th Bomb Group’s Intelligence Section, this is the cover of one such collection from the 345th’s mission on April 6, 1945.

Cover from 345th mission highlights


DOODLE was assigned to 1/Lt. (later Capt.) Orlen N. Loverin who piloted it overseas and through its first six months of combat. While headed for a leave in Sydney on December 19, 1943, Loverin was killed when the C-47 he was riding in ran into a thunderstorm and crashed in Rockhampton, Australia. DOODLE‘s original crew was: Loverin, pilot; 2/Lt. Kenneth D. McClure, co-pilot; 1/Lt. James M. Mahaffey, navigator; S/Sgt. Harry Zarfas, engineer; T/Sgt. Frank M. Dugan, radio gunner; and S/Sgt. Clair F. Ervin, turret gunner. The crew chief was T/Sgt. Charles L. Schell, who had lost his previous aircraft when it disappeared between Hamilton Field, California, and Hawaii during the deployment overseas.

Lieutenant McClure was one of the Squadron’s first co-pilots to get his own plane, taking command of DOODLE JR. (see color photo on page 193 of Warpath Across the Pacific) in October 1943. The original crew nickname was “The Brutes,” and as a medium bomber the plane had Bluto, the Popeye cartoon character, painted on the forward fuselage. Bluto’s head and upper torso appeared on the port side and his rear end, clad in red polka-dotted shorts, was painted on the other side as if it protruded through the fuselage of the aircraft. The eight ball on the bat’s mouth appeared on the medium bomber and was retained when the aircraft got its bat insignia in September or October 1943.

Crew of the 345th Bomb Group B-25 nicknamed "DOODLE"
The crewmen of DOODLE posed in front of their aircraft at Port Moresby in early August 1943. They were from left: 1/Lt. Orlen N. Loverin, 2/Lt. Kenneth D. McClure, 1/Lt. James M. Mahaffey, S/Sgt. Harry Zarfas, T/Sgt. Frank M. Dugan and T/Sgt. Charles L. Schell. (James M. Mahaffey Collection)

The profile illustrates DOODLE about the middle of February 1944, with 56 mission markers. CAPT. O.A. LOVERIN is painted in white beneath the pilot’s window. The bat insignia is a lighter blue than on HELL’S BELLES, demonstrating the variety of color shadings used on this field-applied insignia and the effects of fading. DOODLE flew at least 80 missions before being transferred to Service Command on July 12, 1944, as “War Weary.” Among the most important missions it flew in 1943 were: Rabaul, 10/12; Wewak, 10/16 (Loverin); Rabaul, 10/24 (Loverin); Boram, 11/27 (Baker); and in 1944: Dagua, 2/3 (Taylor); and Hollandia, 4/3 (Baird).

This profile history, as well as a color profile of DOODLE, can be found in Warpath Across the Pacific.

Captured Near Hainan Island

After a two day break from combat missions, the 345th was back in the air on April 3, 1945. The 499th and 500th Squadrons’ original target, shipping in the strait between Hainan Island and China’s Luichow Peninsula, came up empty and the two squadrons flew on to their secondary target, Hoi How, located on Hainan Island. As the 500th Squadron flew towards the clouds of flak hanging above the Japanese Navy base, navigator Capt. Merritt E. Lawlis began wondering whether or not the flight leader, the pilot on his plane, had previously led any flights. The B-25s weren’t taking any evasive action. Right before he reached out to get 1/Lt. William Simpson’s attention, he suddenly realized that his back was hot.

Captain Merritt E. Lawlis
Captain Merritt E. Lawlis, shown here, was the navigator aboard the B-25 PENSIVE, which 1/Lt. William P. Simpson ditched with flak damage in the bay a mile off Hoi How, Hainan Island, on April 3, 1945. Three of the crewmen aboard the plane were captured by the Japanese and two, including Lawlis, survived imprisonment on Hainan Island until the end of the war. (Merritt E. Lawlis Collection)

Turning around, he saw a fire burning in the bomb bay. It started after shrapnel hit a gas tank in the bomb bay, then spread into Lawlis’ navigator compartment and the top turret. The right engine on this B-25, nicknamed PENSIVE, was damaged, as well as the main hydraulic reservoir. Because of the damage to the hydraulics system, the wheels were now hanging down about a third of the way, dragging the aircraft towards the water below. Simpson prepared his crew for a ditching, then crashed into the water in a bay about a mile away from Hoi How. Above, another B-25 crew dropped a raft for the downed airmen and watched three of them climb aboard. A fourth, 2/Lt. Arthur D. Blum, made a jump from the sinking B-25 to the raft and was instead carried away by a strong current. Simpson never made it out of the plane.

The remaining B-25s circled as long as they could and let the air-sea rescue know the location of the downed crew. Unfortunately, it was too dangerous to pull off a rescue operation, as this crew was too close to shore. It only took about 90 minutes for a Japanese motor launch to show up and fish the men out of the raft. All three: Lawlis, S/Sgt. Charles L. Suey and S/Sgt. Benjamin T. Muller, were burned in the fire. Lawlis had hit his back on the edge of the escape hatch during the ditching, leaving him temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. By the time they were picked up, he was just starting to regain feeling in his legs.

Once on land, they were taken to the commander of the base, where they were interrogated and thrown into jail. Three days after they were taken prisoner, they were forced to walk blindfolded and handcuffed to a medical dispensary about half a mile away, but their wounds were given only the barest treatment. They returned every three or four days and Suey’s infected burns showed no signs of healing. On May 13th, he died of infection and malnutrition. About a week later, Muller and Lawlis were transferred to Samah, which was an improvement over their previous living situation. Their handcuffs were removed and neither man was beaten at this camp. Much to their surprise, they saw a couple of familiar faces: Lts. James McGuire and Eugene L. Harviell. Lawlis watched McGuire’s B-25 go down and didn’t think anyone had survived.

Aside from Harviell, who died on August 10th, the rest of the men survived their internment. Muller came close to death, but the men were freed from the POW camp just in time and taken to a Navy hospital where they received the food and medical care they needed to recover.

This story can be found in Warpath Across the Pacific.

IHRA’s Top 7 Posts of 2020

This week, we’re listing our most popular posts published this year as determined by the number of views. Did your favorite post make the list?

Thank you for your continued support by subscribing, reading and sharing our work, and buying our books. If there’s anything you’d like to see more of, let us know in the comments. We’ll be back next year with more great content. And now, without further ado, our most popular posts published in 2020.


Tanker at Tourane 1. Adrift at Sea: A Chance Encounter A downed aircrew from the 345th Bomb Group waits for rescue.


Color illustration in the book Rampage of the Roarin' 20's2. Alcohol Busters Highlighting one of the paintings by aviation artist Jack Fellows that appears in our book Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s.


Feeding a kangaroo3. A Collection of Photos Here, we shared some of the photos that don’t make it in our books.


4. Ditch at Sea and Live in a Boeing B-17 Learn all about the procedures taken to prepare for and ditch a B-17.

B-26 Over Lae5. Takeoff Snafu A 22nd Bomb Group mission started off on the wrong wing…


Fisher with Topsy6. Roland Fisher’s Brush with Death This member of the 43rd Bomb Group had two close calls with Japanese aircraft. Here is one of the stories.


B-17 Pluto II 7. Loss of PLUTO II No one saw this 43rd Bomb Group B-17 get shot down, a mystery that wasn’t solved until 1946.

Adrift at Sea: A Chance Encounter

On March 11, 1945, B-25 crews from the 501st Squadron, 345th Bomb Group took off from San Marcelino in search of shipping around Tourane Bay, located on the coast of French Indochina (now Vietnam). The previous day, the 500th Squadron was in that area and attacked a couple of Japanese ships that they spotted, sinking the 5239-ton tanker Seishin Maru. This time, there was an oil tanker strategically anchored near the shoreline, and guarded by antiaircraft batteries.

The crews lined up to attack the ship, flying overhead one by one. Gunners at the batteries, as well as on the nearby airbase, fired at the B-25s. Second Lieutenant Arthur J. McGrane was last over the ship in B-25 #190. Below him, the antiaircraft gunners were still firing away, one of whom managed to hit McGrane’s B-25 in the left wing root. The flak severed the fuel line and holed the wing tank, causing fuel to pour into the fuselage. Up in the cockpit, the pilot watched as the fuel gauge dropped rapidly. He let the flight leader know about the damage and began the 700-mile journey home.

Meanwhile, the rest of the crews made another run over the tanker and also strafed three luggers in the area. Then, they set out for home, with the flight leader hot on the trail of McGrane’s damaged B-25. He did not think McGrane would make it all the way back to San Marcelino, so he radioed the nearby Catalina that was waiting to rescue any downed airmen.

Tanker at Tourane

The 501st Squadron of the 345th Bomb Group sank this unidentified tanker in the harbor at Tourane, French Indochina, on March 11, 1945. The photo was taken from B-25 #199. Second Lieutenant Arthur J. McGrane and his crew were shot down on this mission. After four days at sea in a life raft, they were rescued by a U.S. submarine. (Maurice J. Eppstein Collection)

Ahead of the rest of his squadron, McGrane’s crew was busy lightening the aircraft by discarding everything they possibly could while McGrane was closely monitoring the state of his B-25. Judging by the fuel gauges and the overpowering smell of fuel wafting throughout the plane, it wouldn’t be long before it would head for the ocean, so the pilot ordered his crew to prepare for a ditching. To make the situation more precarious, there was approximately an inch of fuel in the fuselage and any spark would blow the aircraft to bits. As they settled into their ditching positions, all T/Sgt. William F. Burhans, the turret gunner, could think about was what he heard back at San Marcelino: no one survived a ditching in the South China Sea.

For several minutes, they waited. Then the engines began to cut out and quit altogether shortly thereafter. Gliding down from 125 feet, the B-25 bounced off the sea once, then splashed to a stop into the water. Upon impact, McGrane’s left hand was crushed between the control column and the instrument panel. His co-pilot, F/O Alfred R. Palace and navigator, 2/Lt. Joe A. Groves quickly got out through the overhead escape hatch, followed by McGrane.

While the life raft had been properly ejected and inflated, it was floating near patches of burning fuel and no one wanted to retrieve it. Near the back of the plane, Burhans was panicking after he had been knocked unconscious in the crash and revived underwater. He thought that their plane had blown up, throwing him and Sgt. Arthur T. Neer into the water. After he inflated his life vest and rose to the surface, he found himself in the middle of a patch of burning fuel and promptly dove down to try and swim away from it. This process was repeated two more times before he got out of the fire. Fortunately, a one-man life raft package was floating next to him, so he opened it and inflated the raft. McGrane, Groves and Neer swam over to him. Palace had disappeared and S/Sgt. Marshall L. Dougherty, Jr., their radio operator, never made it out.

About five minutes after landing, the B-25 sank. Above them, their flight leader watched the downed airmen bobbing in the rough seas. The Catalina arrived on the scene within 10 minutes and tried to land in the water close to the men. A loud boom emanated from the Catalina and the pilot quickly took off. Later, it was discovered that the source of the sound was the hull cracking. Instead of a rescue, a six-man raft and a “Gibson Girl” radio were dropped, then both planes flew off. In the raft, burns, cuts and a broken hand were treated as best as they could be and the four men settled in to wait for a rescue.

Over the course of two days, they drifted more than 100 miles from the crash location, the result of a strong southerly current along the coast of the Indochina Peninsula. Their new location was far away from the B-25 search area, and, while they had been using the radio to signal anyone in the area, they never used it long enough for anyone to get a firm reading on their position. Five days after the crash, someone smelled diesel in the air. He woke the rest of the crew and they all listened for a humming that stood out from the ocean’s typical sounds.

Willing to risk getting captured by the Japanese instead of dying in the open water, they quickly grabbed the radio, switched on the light and cranked out an S.O.S. in hopes of getting the attention of whatever happened to be nearby. As the silhouette of a submarine materialized about a quarter of a mile in front of them, someone onboard saw their signal and the sub began heading right for them. About 50 yards away, a member of the crew yelled over a megaphone, “Put that god damn light out!” The aircrew was saved.

It turned out that the U.S.S. Bergall was on the surface to recharge the batteries and was going to go back underwater only a few minutes later. While the skipper knew about the downed “zoomies” in the area, he wasn’t counting on finding them. They were now 250 miles south of the crash site. Everyone was given food, water and fruit juice, wounds were treated. None of the men flew combat missions for the rest of the war.


Read more about the 345th Bomb Group in Warpath Across the Pacific.

IHRA’s Top 7 Posts of 2019

This week, we’re listing our most popular posts published this year as determined by the number of views. Did your favorite post make the list?

Thank you for your continued support by subscribing, reading and sharing our work, and buying our books. If there’s anything you’d like to see more of, let us know in the comments. We’ll be back next year with more great content. And now, without further ado, our most popular posts published in 2019.


B-25 Impatient Virgin takes off 1. The Disappearance of Capt. Kizzire’s Crew Captain William L. Kizzire’s B-25 is shot down over Boram. The crew survived and disappeared before a rescue could be made.


2. Medium Bombardment Attack and Aviation A film to introduce the Pacific Theater to men being transferred from Europe.

Flight map: Aerodromes and Landing Grounds February 1943 3. Flight map: Aerodromes and Landing Grounds February 1943 Take a look at the flight distances between Port Moresby and important locations in February 1943.


408th Personnel at Nadzab 4. When Plans Go Awry: A Mission to Palau Captain John N. Barley’s B-24 is shot down after an encounter with several Japanese Zeros.


Death of an A-20 5. Shot Down at Kokas The story behind a fatal mission that took the lives of two men and produced one of the most dramatic photo series taken from a combat camera.


Taxpayer's Pride wreckage 6. Surviving in a Japanese POW Camp Shot down by Japanese fighter pilot SFPO Shigetoshi Kudo, this B-17 crewmember was turned over to the Japanese after he escaped certain death by jumping out of his plane over New Britain.


7. Ken’s Men, Vol. II Announcement We were so excited to share the news of this new release with you!

R&R for the Ground Crews

As World War II continued in 1945, a new program was put in place: two men a month from each ground echelon of an air unit were permitted a 30-day leave to the States. It was a nice thought, but completely detached from the reality of an active combat unit like the 345th Bomb Group. More than 600 men in the 345th were eligible for leave. Many of them hadn’t had a proper break from the action in more than 20 months, and an alternative solution was needed. Majors Maury Eppstein and Everett E. Robertson, as well as two sergeants, set out for Manila by order of Col. Coltharp to rent the two largest houses in they city for leave centers.

It was a hot, dusty 90 mile trip on February 4, 1945 that kept the men on their guard as they watched for Japanese stragglers hiding near the roads. When they reached the city, they were stopped at a checkpoint and questioned by the Military Police. Manila itself was currently engulfed in a bloody and greatly destructive battle that would continue through March; troops had liberated 4000 American and Allied civilians from Santo Tomas University only one day before. The MPs were reluctant to let the members of the 345th into the war zone, but they eventually relented, giving them handwritten passes and directions to the university located two miles away.

Even on the relatively safe pathway they took, the men were shot at once on the way to the university. Shortly after they arrived, the very presence of the men drew a crowd of excited people. None of them had ever seen a jeep before. Nearly two weeks earlier, the Japanese cut off the food supply and the conditions at the school had been deteriorating. People had been surviving on whatever they had. Children often received a significant share of their parents’ rations, and there was a stark difference between the health of the children and adults. Seeing this, the members of the 345th gave the extra rations they brought to those in charge of doling out food to the civilians. Everyone was very grateful for their contributions.

For the next two days, the men searched for suitable houses within Allied-controlled territory. They encountered relieved civilians who had been hiding from the Japanese. The father of one family even dug up a bottle of brandy that he buried in the backyard to toast the Americans. Other neighborhoods were crossed off the map, still occupied by Japanese soldiers. Burning tanks, dead bodies and artillery pieces were scattered all along the route to the neighborhood they were going to look at. Once they found three or four acceptable houses, it was time to head back to San Marcelino.


As soon as Manila fell to American forces, a small reconnaissance team from the 345th Bomb Group visited the capitol and made arrangements to rent two luxurious villas to use as rest and recreation centers. This photo shows the two-story home used as the “leave mansion” for the 345th enlisted men in Manila. (Maurice J. Eppstein Collection)

After returning to their base and reporting on the conditions witnessed in Manila, the 345th decided to pack a 6×6 truck with food, water, medicine and other aid for those at Santo Tomas. They dropped off the supplies, and then returned to the two locations that were chosen for leave houses to negotiate a rental agreement with the owners. The first house, which was easily secured, was owned by an architect and won a design award six years earlier after it was built. Approximately 40 enlisted men would be able to stay there at a time. At the second house, the leasing process took an interesting turn, as the mansion belonged to the governor of one of the provinces. The lady looking after the house, Dorothia, couldn’t agree to anything without the governor’s permission, so the group spent the night at the house, then went back to San Marcelino the next day.

Again, members of the 345th returned to Manila. This time, it was a much smaller group consisting of Maj. Eppstein and Capt. Stephen N. Gilardi, the 500th Squadron’s Ordnance Officer, who was an attorney before the war. Eppstein wanted to be sure that renting the governor’s mansion was formalized legally and wouldn’t result in any issues for the governor or the 345th Bomb Group. They picked up Dorothia, who agreed to show them the way to the governor’s town. The Americans were greeted warmly and a rental agreement was soon finalized. The governor also threw a banquet for the men. Later on, they went back to Manila, where they dropped off Dorothia to get the house ready, then drove on to San Marcelino.

The houses were quickly prepared for the officers and enlisted men, and it wasn’t long before they were occupied by men on leave. They leased these houses until July, after the 345th moved to the Ryukyu Islands and it wasn’t feasible to fly all the way back to Manila. Colonel Coltharp’s idea provided an incredible boost to the morale of his unit.


Read the full story in Warpath Across the Pacific.

The Lone Survivor

After the atomic bombs had been dropped on Japan and before the country announced their surrender, units were still flying bombing missions over Japan. Airmen from the 345th Bomb Group weren’t particularly thrilled about doing this because their B-25s were still coming back damaged—if at all. None of the men wanted to be the last to die in World War II after they had survived so many previous raids on and by the Japanese. Still, they couldn’t refuse an order and climbed back into their planes for another flight.

It was three in the morning on August 12, 1945 when 1/Lt. Charles J. Cunningham took off from Ie Shima with 22 other B-25s to sweep the Southern Sea of Japan and Tsu Shima Strait for any shipping targets. In the radio compartment, T/Sgt. Foster A. Stanfield began reviewing codes and procedures for the mission. He was filling in for a radio operator who was out sick for the day.

Only about three minutes into the flight, the new B-25 jolted violently, the nose lifted and the engines revved up to full power. The plane stalled and fell to the right, and crashed into the water below when a wing caught the water’s surface. As the fuselage broke apart, it cracked at the radio compartment, dumping Stanfield into the sea, potentially saving his life. Coming to the surface, Stanfield was disoriented and he called for some of the other crewmen while trying to find a side of the B-25. No one answered.

As the weight of his predicament dawned on him, Stanfield inflated his life jacket, then took off his shoes and shirt to help him stay afloat better. He would have removed his pants, but he thought one of his legs was injured and wanted to contain the blood so as to not attract any sharks that may have been swimming nearby. Stanfield saw a light about five miles away and began the long swim back to shore.

Around the time that the B-25s were taking off, one man was making a trip to the latrine. He heard the takeoff and subsequent crash, and ran to alert someone. Within an hour after the crash, a Navy patrol boat was dispatched to the scene and began a sweep for survivors. Stanfield was spotted and hauled aboard, suffering from severe shock. As he was examined, it turned out that he had injured his elbow instead of his leg. He spent a week in the hospital.

No cause of the crash was ever settled on, though the incident was a source of speculation for the men. Much to their dismay, it wasn’t the only plane that went down on the 12th. A 500th Squadron B-25 disappeared and a 498th Squadron B-25 either crashed or was shot down while attacking a small coastal freighter. The official order to stand-down came through on the 15th.


Read this and other stories in Warpath Across the Pacific.

Rescued by a Hunch

In the early months of 1944, the Allies were figuring out the best plan of action to continue pushing the Japanese up the New Guinea coast and off the islands of New Britain and New Ireland. Their eyes were on Kavieng, a staging base and important part of the Japanese supply line, located on the western tip of New Ireland. The preliminary plan was to capture Kavieng, but Gen. MacArthur wanted to push for the Philippines as quickly as possible. To do that, it was decided that Kavieng should be neutralized with airpower, isolated by seizing the Admiralties to the west, then bypassed with a move into Dutch New Guinea. With the coordination of Admiral William F. Halsey in the South Pacific and forces from the Central Pacific, the Japanese would come under heavy fire at Rabaul, lose the Green Islands and ideally suffer a serious blow to their shipping fleet base at Truk.

B-24s were the first aircraft sent to bomb Kavieng on February 11, 1944, and continued these missions until the 14th. The next day, the 38th and 345th Bomb Groups’ B-25 crews were ordered to strike shipping and warehouse facilities on Kavieng. A-20s from the 3rd Bomb Group also participated in the attack, mainly focusing on shipping and a float-plane base. Captain Michael Hochella of the 500th Squadron, 345th Bomb Group was leading a three-plane formation to the right of the lead plane flown by Capt. Max Mortensen. The Japanese opened fire on the B-25s, with Hochella’s B-25 STUBBORN HELLION taking multiple hits along the left side.

Hochella was too busy to notice the significant damage until he looked down at this tachometer and left engine gauges, then started receiving damage reports over the intercom. Coming off the run, the plane quickly fell behind the rest of the formation. The left engine was spinning out of control and every attempt to feather the engine failed. Hochella descended to just above the water because he knew it wouldn’t be long before STUBBORN HELLION would crash. The pilot notified the crew to prepare for a water landing, which happened approximately three minutes after the announcement.

Attack on Kavieng, New Ireland

Fifth Air Force launched a major attack on the key Japanese supply base at Kavieng on the northwestern tip of New Ireland on February 15, 1944. The 345th’s 48 strafers followed the 38th Bomb Group over the target in a devastating but costly low-level raid. Four planes from the 345th were knocked down by flak or flying debris from an exploding fuel dump. The smoke plume in the right background is from a freighter set afire by the 38th Bomb Group. The photo was taken from AVOCA AVENGER of the 500th, which was next over the target. Three of the Squadron’s planes were fatally hit as they flew through the dense smoke cloud at left. Captain Cavoli was forced to go on instruments as he passed through it. (Maurice J. Eppstein Collection)

As the plane hit the water, the still-buckled in pilot was thrown through the windshield from the force of the crash. He lost consciousness, then revived underwater long enough to unstrap from the seat and inflate his Mae West. Hochella drifted out of consciousness again during the journey to the surface, but revived once again when he broke through. This time, he stayed awake and swam to the plane to do a quick crew count. One man, navigator 1/Lt. John J. Howard, was missing. The pilot released the life raft on the plane, then he dove down to search for Howard. Other crewmembers, even the injured ones, also swam around in hopes of finding the missing navigator, but no one was able to locate him. Crewmen piled into the raft or hung on to the side and they set out for a nearby island.

They landed outside of an impenetrable forest of mangroves and vegetation without a beach to camp on. From their vantage point, they watched Lt. (j.g.) Nathan G. Gordon’s PBY Catalina rescue crew after crew shot down in the area, hoping and waiting for their own rescue. No one saw STUBBORN HELLION’s crash landing, and the noise of the American planes soon faded away, only to be replaced by the occasional explosion from the Japanese base ten miles away. The pilot and co-pilot swam back to their plane to clear the crash site of any floating debris so as to keep the Japanese unaware of their presence in the area.

As the day went on, the men stayed hidden and mostly quiet, except for the occasional pained cry or moan from the injured crewmembers who were in pain from the constant movement of the water, which soon became unbearable. To alleviate the suffering of the injured men, it was decided to move to a beach about three miles away. They paddled all night, reaching the beach before dawn the next day, then hauled the raft ashore to hide it from any unfriendly eyes.

Meanwhile, back at Dobodura, the 345th was scheduled for an early morning mission to New Hanover on February 16, 1944. They were to help the 38th Bomb Group destroy a 14-ship convoy. News of the disappearance of STUBBORN HELLION had spread and Capt. Keith Dougherty of the 500th Squadron had been mulling over the mystery since he heard about it. After dropping his bombs on the New Hanover mission, he acted on a hunch to fly over the reefs and sea swamps near Kavieng in hopes of finding the fellow members of his squadron.

Hearing the familiar engines, one of the men raced out from their hiding spot and waved furiously at Dougherty’s B-25. The pilot flew over again, and one of his crewmen dropped a box of rations that was promptly recovered. Dougherty then set a course for home, happy to know that they hadn’t been captured by the Japanese. The next morning, he flew to Finschhafen where he climbed aboard the Catalina assigned to rescue the airmen. Around 1130 hours, Hochella and his crew were loaded onto the Catalina and soon on their way to the hospital at Finschhafen.


Read this story in our book Warpath Across the Pacific.