Air Support Over Biak

Throughout the war, there were times when air units were assigned to aid ground troops as they landed in Japanese-occupied territory. Even though the 63rd and 868th Bomb Squadrons flew specialized B-24s designed for night shipping strikes, on May 27, 1944, they were called upon to hit Biak Island in advance of the Allied invasion. The preliminary strike was carried out at 10,000 feet in the pre-dawn hours. Aircrews had to be precise about their bombings. To keep the ground troops safe, aircrews had to obey several restrictions, such as: staying at high altitudes to minimize the chance of friendly fire accidents, no bombing reefs since it could send coral shrapnel into the ships and no bombing jetties that could be used by the Navy for beach landings.

Once the sun rose, more than 140 B-24s and B-25s were in the air and most of the 41st Infantry Division was assigned to move in on the ground. The 43rd’s B-24s bombed Mokmer Airdrome and the Roeber Area, located south of Borokoe Airdrome. Crews were pleased with the accuracy of their drops. Far below and out of harm’s way, the first wave of Task Force Hurricane was dealing with an unanticipated setback: a westerly current that pushed the transports 3000 yards away from the correct landing beach. Watching the scene unfold, the rest of the crews on the landing craft were able to compensate for the current and landed on the right beach.

Biak
American ground forces invaded Biak Island on May 27, 1944. The 43rd Bomb Group supported this offensive with repeated missions to the Biak area, including Mokmer Airdrome, the subject of this photograph. The scale of that pummeling can be seen by the hundreds of bomb craters on the airfield. (William J. Solomon Collection)

By nightfall, all 12,000 Allied troops were on Biak. While they were met with some resistance, there was so little action that the Allies thought that the bulk of the 4000 Japanese troops had already evacuated from the island. That assumption, as well as the troop estimates provided by intelligence, turned out to be wrong. Colonel Naoyuki Kuzume, in charge of the 11,000 troops on Biak, had spread out his troops in strategic locations along ridges and terraces outside of Mokmer Airdrome and the “Ibdi Pocket,” located between Ibdi and the Parai Defile. In these spots, the Japanese put up a fierce fight against the 41st, keeping them out of Mokmer Airdrome until June 8th. It would take even longer for American engineers to safely repair the bombed airfield, as Japanese troops kept shooting at them from higher elevations around Mokmer. The fighting continued into mid-August, delaying any further invasion plans. As word of Col. Kuzume’s successful tactics to ward off Allied troops spread, other Japanese garrisons would adopt similar strategies in the coming months.

Read more about this mission in Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Volume II.

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.

Tense Moments Over Finschhafen

At the end of March 1943, the Japanese had a base at Finschhafen, located on the eastern tip of the Huon Peninsula. The Allies had been monitoring Japanese military movement and thought the Japanese were planning a small landing. To prevent this, a variety of aircraft, including two 43rd Bomb Group B-17s, were sent out to harass the Japanese on the night of March 30th. Captain Frederick F. Wesche was flying the B-17 TAXPAYER’S PRIDE. He and the other pilot took for from Seven Mile in search of ships near the Finschhafen area.

Over the target area, both pilots dropped flares before setting up for their bombing runs. It looked like three destroyers were sitting near the coastline and Wesche picked one of them as his first target. Two bombs were dropped from low altitude, both missing the target. After three more runs, Wesche had one bomb left. A report of light antiaircraft fire didn’t deter the crew from making one final run, and TAXPAYER’S PRIDE was lined up once again. Right before the bomb was released, the B-17’s fuselage was hit by a 40mm shell.

Wesche crew

Captain Frederick F. Wesche (kneeling, left) was making his fifth bombing run on a destroyer off Finschhafen on March 30, 1943 when his B-17, #41-24448, was struck by a 40mm antiaircraft shell, which seriously damaged the plane and forced Wesche to later crash-land at Dobodura. The attack also injured the co-pilot and the tail gunner, who were sent to the hospital. This crew photo was taken in April 1943, after the two injured crewmen had recovered from the incident. The men pictured are, kneeling from left to right: Wesche, 1/Lt. Leslie W. Neumann, co-pilot; 2/Lt. Clement O. Kinkaid, navigator; 2/Lt. Joseph D. Howard, bombardier, and standing: Sgt. Joseph H. Mazaferro, engineer; Sgt. Paul N. Capen, gunner; Cpl. Donald J. Raher, radio operator; S/Sgt. Earl M. Rosengarton, gunner; and S/Sgt. Guy W. Clary, gunner. (Down Under)

Two engines were damaged and four vital systems, radio, electrical, oxygen and hydraulic, were knocked out. The #1 engine began to run away and the prop was feathered. Sparks from the damaged electrical system ignited the leaking hydraulic fluid, and the flames were also fed by the escaping oxygen. On top of all that, the 500-pound bomb that hadn’t been dropped was stuck in the bomb bay racks. First Lieutenant Francis G. Sickinger, the navigator, rushed to the bomb bay to help however he could. There, he found S/Sgt. Guy W. Clary, one of the waist gunners, using a fire extinguisher on the flames. He had been injured by shrapnel, but was still able to fight the fire, giving the bombardier the opportunity to shove the bomb out of the rack.

Sickinger helped Clary to the front of the plane, then the two of them had to put out a second fire that sparked. Once that was accomplished, the crew took stock of the situation. While TAXPAYER’S PRIDE was flying smoothly on three engines, the controls were not functioning. Co-pilot 1/Lt. Leslie W. Neumann had also been injured by shrapnel, and his injuries were also not life-threatening. Wesche headed for Dobodura.

Nearing Buna, the B-17 was greeted by Allied antiaircraft fire from the base at Oro Bay. After being attacked twice in four days, the men on the base were cautious about letting any uncommunicative aircraft fly overhead, let alone make an emergency landing. Since it was still dark, Wesche had to circle for two hours until sunrise, when he could see the runway and not risk getting shot at again during his landing. The crew manually lowered the landing gear, then discovered that the flaps were inoperable and the engines wouldn’t shut off. Once the B-17 was back on the ground, it rolled beyond the airstrip boundary and finally stopped in the grass. Both injured men were sent to the hospital and TAXPAYER’S PRIDE was sent to the 481st Service Squadron for repairs.

 

Read more about the 43rd Bomb Group’s B-17 era in Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Volume I.

Loss of PLUTO II

In the very early hours of June 30, 1943, a mix of heavy bombers from the 43rd, 90th and 380th Bomb Groups took off for a raid on Vunakanau Airdrome. The plan was to approach the target from 18,000 feet to avoid any Japanese night fighters, then make their runs between 9000 and 17,000 feet. For the most part, the stratification also provided extra protection from the antiaircraft gunners. Only the 403rd Squadron reported damage from antiaircraft fire, which hit the B-17 nicknamed STUD DUCK.

After the 63rd Squadron planes finished their bombing runs, a highly skilled J1N1 Irving night fighter pilot, SFPO Shigetoshi Kudo targeted B-17 #41-24543 PLUTO II. The B-17 was raked with gunfire, then Kudo watched it descend and crash into the mountains southeast of Cape Lambert, located west of Rabaul. Killed in the crash were Lt. Harold S. Barnett, pilot; 2/Lt. Sidney S. Bossuk, co-pilot; 2/Lt. Warren V. Seybert, navigator; 2/Lt. James G. Burke, bombardier; Sgt. James B. Candy, engineer; T/Sgt. Anthony H. Woillard, radio operator; Sgts. Robert A. Burtis and Donald W. Carlson, waist gunners; Sgt. Philip J. Lohnes, tail gunner; and Sgt. William A. MacKay, a radar operator from the RAAF.

B-17 Pluto II

B-17F #41-24543, PLUTO II, was the last B-17 to go down from the guns of an Irving night fighter over Rabaul. The bomber saw service initially with the 403rd Squadron before being transferred to the 53rd sometime in early February 1943, where it acquired its nose art. The solid stripe of paint at left was applied to cover up the bomber’s previous name, I DOOD IT. (Charles R. Woods Collection)

Back at Seven Mile, the men were worrying over the disappearance of the crew of PLUTO II. None of the American crews saw the B-17 get shot down. Captain Charles L. Anderson flew over the Owen Stanleys on a five hour search for the missing crew, and returned without any new information. It wasn’t until 1946 when the B-17’s wreckage was discovered at Madres Plantation on New Britain. Remains were subsequently recovered and investigators determined that the entire crew died in the crash.

 

Read more about the early part of the 43rd Bomb Group’s history in Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Vol. I.

Milk Run to Kyushu

43rd Bomb Group B-24 over Kyushu

The B-24s in the painting were part of one of the Far East Air Force’s last bombing missions against the Empire of Japan. Seen here leaving the target, the city of Oita on the Japanese home island of Kyushu, elements of the 64th Bomb Squadron, 43 Bomb Group, were part of a 20+ B-24 raid by the 43rd Bomb Group on a mission dubbed a “milk run” due to the light-to-nil defensive opposition generated by the Japanese. In the foreground, #973 bears the flamboyant artwork covering the complete port side of the aircraft which would immortalize it and its creator S/Sgt. Sarkis E. Bartigian, who was assigned to the Squadron’s ground echelon. Bartigian’s exuberant creations decorated the sides of a number of 43rd Bomb Group B-24s late in the war, but this one, THE DRAGON AND HIS TAIL was the most well-known and photographed. After meeting an ignominious end in the smelters at Kingman, Arizona following the war’s end, #973 was reincarnated in all its glory on the port side of the Collings Foundation’s B-24, flaunting Sgt. Bartigian’s provocative artwork at air shows around the U.S. This artwork is published on the cover of our book Ken’s Men Against the Empire Volume II and is available for purchase on our website.

Roland Fisher’s Brush with Death

Less than a month after the 43rd Bomb Group began setting up camp at their new home of Tacloban, the Japanese were trying to figure out a proper welcome to the area. Lieutenant Colonel James T. Pettus received a phone call on December 6, 1944 alerting him of a parachute attack on Tacloban and Dulag planned for that night. Japanese paratroopers had already landed at Buri and San Pablo airbases in hopes of capturing V Bomber Command and Fifth Air Force headquarters. Units from every military branch on Tacloban quickly organized to defend the airbase. Antiaircraft guns and searchlights were manned, and aircraft with functioning turrets were towed over to be used as additional firepower. Once the preparations were made, all that was left to do was wait for night to fall.

F6F night fighters patrolled over the airbase for awhile, but they did not encounter any enemy aircraft. A Navy B-24 privateer landed, then the nose gear collapsed and the plane had to be towed off the runway by Captain Roland T. Fisher, who hooked it up to a cletrac (Cleveland tractor) and towed it to the beach. Fisher was in charge of keeping the runway clear. Shortly thereafter, he turned on the runway lights for the F6Fs that were landing soon. The lights turned off right after the first one landed, which was not an unusual occurrence. Wires from the lights were bunched up next to the strip and were easily crushed when landing aircraft ran over the cords. Fisher jumped out of his jeep, which was doubling as his command post, and twisted the wires back together.

Coming in next was another aircraft with its landing lights on, although this one, an antiaircraft gunner noticed, had exhaust flames coming out of the top of its engine nacelles instead of the bottom. It was a Ki-57-II “Topsy” transport. The pilot was certainly sneaky to slide right into the F6F landing pattern, but his cover was very quickly spoiled. That antiaircraft gunner had his sights set on the Topsy and began shooting at it as the pilot made a final approach. By this point, Fisher had taken cover behind the cletrac. The Topsy burst into flames, flew over the gun battery and plowed down the beach where Fisher had taken cover. He jumped in the ocean.

Fisher with Topsy

The 63rd Squadron’s Capt. Roland T. Fisher stands for a photograph with the wreckage of the Ki-57-II “Topsy” transport that nearly killed him. (James T. Pettus, Jr. Collection)

The Topsy crashed among a dozen Marine Corsairs, bounced, hit more planes, a grader and finally the cletrac Fisher used earlier. A trail of fire followed the burning aircraft, with Japanese and American ammunition cooking off as the fire intensified. Fisher began running up the beach to the crash site then, “Right in front of me a man, his clothes on fire, ran toward me howling and pulling a gun from his holster. I knocked him down or pushed him and grabbed the gun from him…He thrashed around. I think I hit or pushed him again. Then I backed away again to the water because my own clothes were hot from the fire. He never got up again…I lucked out. My burns were minor…I think what saved me from serious burns was my jumping in the surf just before he hit and being all wet when I struggled with him. I think he was the pilot and didn’t have the murderous equipment the troopers had. Whatever, whoever, I was lucky and he wasn’t.”

Almost three months to the day prior to this incident, Capt. Fisher had brought his B-24 back to base after it was rammed by a Japanese fighter. Both times, he managed to escape serious injury or death.

Around the same time the men on Tacloban were dealing with the Topsy, a second Japanese transport plane had crashed, this one in San Pedro Bay after it was shot down by the Navy. Just as before, there was only one survivor. This one was in much better shape and he was apprehended by the Allies. The officer gave his enemies plenty of information about the mission, none of which was passed along until a more appropriate time.

 

This story can be found in our book Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Volume II.

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!

Update on Ken’s Men Vol. II

They’re here! After a two day weather delay, our books arrived late on Thursday and we started shipping out orders on Friday. If you ordered a book (or two), keep an eye on your inbox for that notification email saying that your order has shipped. We have quite a backlog, but we’re working through it as quickly as possible. For the rest of you who haven’t ordered yet, head over to our website and buy your copy now! If you haven’t purchased Volume I, we’re running a deal through the end of the year of $10 off when you buy Ken’s Men Vol. I and Ken’s Men Vol. II. As always, thank you for supporting IHRA as we share the stories of the men who fought in the Pacific Theater.

A photo of Ken's Men Against the Empire, Vol II

 

Lieutenant Zastrow’s Series of Unfortunate Events

Throughout the war, different technology was developed and improved so that the Allies and the Axis could find out what the other side was up to. The U.S. began to experiment with radar countermeasures—one involved a radar set installed in a B-24 heavy bomber capable of pinpointing enemy radar stations on the ground. A 403rd Squadron crew, 1/Lt. Erwin C. Zastrow’s, received one of these B-24s. Because the equipment on board was so secret, it was ferried from the States with a 24-hour armed guard. Upon arrival, Zastrow’s crew was told it was the only one that would be flying that particular aircraft, which was named THE DUCHESS OF PADUCAH.

The crew spent about three weeks in training then was sent out on the first mission on January 30, 1944. Along with the crew, observers and technicians also boarded the aircraft so they could see how this B-24 performed in a mission environment. It turned out that there were still plenty of issues to deal with. The first test was a few passes over the newly-acquired Finschhafen. Nearing the airfield, the lights went out below them and Zastrow’s crew joked that there must have been an air raid. Then the searchlights went on, antiaircraft guns went off and everyone realized that they were the raid. Only later did someone realize that their new Identification, Friend or Foe (IFF) device wasn’t backwards compatible with the older IFF devices in the Allied equipment.

Leaving Finschhafen unscathed, a fire soon broke out in the nose turret of the B-24. It was brought under control, but also shorted out the power system. The navigator, who was using a special radar device on board to calculate their position, also lost their location when the power went out. Somehow, the observers and techs had fallen asleep during the mission. The crew had to act quickly to contact an Australian station for bearings, which required the installation of a radio tuner. Once this was done, Zastrow got the crew home without any further excitement. After that mission, Zastrow’s crew requested a transfer. “We told them goodbye and good luck. We would rather haul bombs,” wrote S/Sgt. Robert Roth.

While her first mission was a disappointment, THE DUCHESS OF PADUCAH would serve a long and successful career attached to the 43rd Bomb Group (and, at times, the 380th).

Zastrow crew

This photograph, from October 1943, shows the Zastrow crew with the 65th Squadron’s B-24J GERALDINE. They are, from left to right: (kneeling) 1/Lt. Erwin C. Zastrow, pilot; 1/Lt. Harold G. Thompson, co-pilot; 1/Lt. Leland R. Loughrey, navigator; 1/Lt. Fred D. Vessels, bombardier; (standing) S/Sgt. Philip C. Travers, Jr., assistant radio operator; T/Sgt. John D. Uland, engineer; T/Sgt. William J. Solomon, radio operator; S/Sgt. Robert P. Roth, gunner; S/Sgt. Paul L. Kaylor, gunner; and S/Sgt. Miron R. Dukes, assistant flight engineer. (Erwin C. Zastrow Collection)

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.