Over the years, we have dedicated quite a few blog posts to some of the strikes on Rabaul, and we have another one today. The Australian War Memorial posted an old film covering the big October 12, 1943 raid on Rabaul. Before getting into that particular mission, the film explains the logistics that the Allies had to work out weeks earlier. After tracing the Allied advance northward, it’s time for the first of several major attacks on the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul.
This descriptive entry comes from the diary of T/Sgt. Adrian Bottge, a member of the 89th Squadron, 3rd Bomb Group ground crew.
Sunday, May 16, 1943
Smitty and Mata left on transport this morning. Loaded a plane and sat around waiting for the other transports. Didn’t show up. Then the two with the men on board came back. Had received orders to return at once because Jap planes were over Oro Bay. Made up loading list of photo supplies in afternoon. Went to show in evening. One of the fellows said there was a yellow alert. 50 Betty Bombers and 50 Zekes took off from Lae airfield 1/2 hr. before. They started the picture anyway. Had run a few minutes when the three shots sounded. We ran for our trenches but the Aussies were put out. Hollered to keep the show going. In a few minutes we heard the planes, shortly after we saw bomb flashes toward 14 mile. There were lots of planes and lots of ack-ack. Didn’t come over this far. Went back to the show “Ice Capades” and saw some more — then got the alert again. The Aussies were really disgusted this time. Hollered for everyone to sit down. We went to our trench, however and was glad to be in it. Lard and Mata hit a trench close to the movie area. We saw what seemed like hundreds of bomb flashes in the north. Was so noisy, one couldn’t hear himself think. Terribly warm and lots of mosquitoes in the trench. My knees felt like they would break in two — crouched down like we were. Those bombers left and it was quiet for about ten minutes. Then several more planes came over. Didn’t drop any bombs though they were right overhead. Dropped flares — possibly trying to photo the damage. One of our P70 nite fighters was there but hadn’t been able to gain enough altitude. Could see the Jap planes (in searchlights) shooting tracers at the P70. Went back tot he show and finally finished without interruption. Lars said the Aussies really scattered during the last raid. Tried to get into crowded trenches. Our boys told them, “Carry your a-s, this will teach you to move when the alert sounds.” They scurried around like rats looking for a hole. Shrapnel was falling like hail. Sounds like bumble bees in flight. 89ths A-20s made early morning raid on Lae yesterday. Strafed 6 bombers and 5 Zeros on ground. 90th lost another B-25 with six man crew. Poor 90th has taken it on chin. B-25 destroyed on ground at 14 Mile last night. B-24s and 17s took off before the raid. Ack-ack fire was terrific last night. Doubt its effectiveness though. Cootenac (Marval) got back from hospital this morning. Had measles.
Three B-26s from the 408th Squadron, 22nd Bomb Group took off from Seven Mile for Vunakanau, Rabaul on May 24, 1942. For one pilot, 2/Lt. Harold L. Massie, this would be his first mission as a first pilot. It was co-pilot 2/Lt. Eugene Wallace’s second combat mission. The three planes flew through overcast skies as they neared New Britain, but their flight leader, Lt. Ralph L. Michaelis, spotted a hole in the clouds near Rabaul. When they reached the target area, they discovered it was still covered by clouds. Still, there was a gap a few miles away and Michaelis decided his flight could use that to their advantage. The plan was to make one north-south run at low-level and get out of the area as fast as possible. At the time, Rabaul was a Japanese stronghold and three B-26s were no match for the heavily defended airdrome.
As they made their run, Japanese antiaircraft gunners let loose with a barrage of ack-ack, and hit two of the three B-26s. As Michaelis put it, “While over the target each member of the crew had had a close call.” Only one man in his plane, the bombardier, was injured when a tracer bullet went through his seat and cushion, stopped right next to his skin and burned him. He and 1/Lt. McCutcheon, the pilot of the third B-26, made it back to base safely. Massie’s plane was not so lucky. It was hit in the starboard engine and last seen smoking badly. The final radio transmission mentioned that they reached Wide Bay. While the plane had been doing ok on one engine, it wasn’t enough power to keep it in the air and Massie ditched about a mile offshore. Two of his crewmen, Pvt. Joseph C. Dukes and Cpl. Wolenski, were not seen after the landing. The others were helped to shore by Papuans. On July 27th, they split up. Massie and bombardier 2/Lt. Arthur C. King went one way and the other four went another way.
The photographer, S/Sgt. Jack B. Swan, broke his shoulder in the crash and died in his sleep on August 23rd. He was buried in the abandoned village of Ubili. His surviving crewmembers were eventually located and helped by an Australian plantation owner. They were finally rescued on March 25, 1943, and that incredible story is told in full in Revenge of the Red Raiders. Massie and King were captured by Papuans who subsequently turned them over to the Japanese. They were executed at Rabaul on October 12, 1942.
Harold Guard, a United Press war correspondent, joined the crew of Lt. Chris Herron of the 19th Squadron, 22nd Bomb Group for a mission over the Rabaul area on April 23, 1942. Below is his account of the mission.
“I went over Rabaul in a bomber piloted by Lt. Chris Herron and co-piloted by Lt. Duncan Seffern, who fitted me with a ‘Mae West’ and parachute before we left. I had to sit between the radioman and turret gunner, [Cpl.] George McMannamy, and the navigator, Lt. Charles Smith, on the flight. Bombardier Lt. George Barnhill occupied the glass-domed nose and somewhere in the tail were rear gunners [PFC.] Fred J. Mikles and [PFC.] Harry E. Philo.
“We arrived over Rabaul Harbor suddenly from a bank of clouds. I counted seven large ships and there were several smaller vessels. Someone behind U.S. will attend to them. We crossed the harbor, swooping low. I noticed the altitude meter registered 1,000 ft. Simultaneously I saw ground gun flashes and black smoke balls bursting above and around us. I hear the sound like cracking walnuts. The altitude was 700 ft.
“Herron croaks through the throat microphone. I can see the target—long parallel, drab colored buildings. The bomb bay doors open. Barnhill lets go—and fascinated, I see the incendiary sticks spread and actually reach the target. They got what they were supposed to get.
“We start to climb and the turret gunner reports a Zero on the starboard side. I saw him racing ahead of us. The gunner reports two more. I spot a fourth on the port side. The Zeros climb higher. They’re a pretty picture, with the light putty-colored wings against the golden sunshine.
“Then one swoops down towards us. I think he’s sure that he got us, but we dive steeply towards the sea and our after-guns clatter. Barnhill doesn’t waste time during the dive. He pours tracers into the barges now only 75 ft. below us. They are carrying uniformed figures and Barney’s tracers find their target. We straighten out and I see, as I look backwards, billowing clouds of black smoke and sheets of vivid red flame.
“Meanwhile, three more Zeros are pressing us. We remain low over the sea and they can’t dive below us. The tail gunner reports two Zeros hovering on our tail. Suddenly another one hurtles down out of the clouds. Guns chatter again and once more I hear a sound like cracking walnuts and there are bursting puffballs all around us. The gunner’s language over the intercommunication radiophone becomes unprintable as his gun momentarily jams, but he soon gets it into action again and fires a burst which sends the Zeros on our tail zooming away.
“Only one Zero is coming our way now. Herron anticipates perfectly. With a skillful turn of the wrist we are suddenly up and under the Zero. Our turret guns blaze, and McMannnamy’s interphone croaks ‘We got that so-and-so!’
“Barney’s singing over the interphone like a fool—’I don’t want to set the world on fire!’…Suddenly I realize it’s all over. I start grinning and everybody laughed at me. I realize I must have been scared all the time. We turn for home and race in for a perfect landing. Down at Allied HQs, a brief communique says: ‘Our air force attacked shipping, barracks and warehouses, and machine-gunned enemy personnel.’”
Read more about this mission in Revenge of the Red Raiders.
On April 2, 1945, Maj. Joseph B. Bilitzke, C.O. of the 388th Squadron, depicted here at upper left in his plane, BABY BLITZ II, led the 388th and 389th Squadrons, 312th Bomb Group from Mangaldan, Philippines, in an attack on the railroad yards and the fuel alcohol plant at Shinei, Formosa. This was a prime target for two reasons: the alcohol plant produced butanol, used in making aviation fuel and acetone for explosives, and Shinei was a major railroad hub for that part of Formosa. Bilitzke’s wingmen were 2/Lt. Dale C. Fritzel, flying the A-20H SWEET LEILANI at lower right, and 2/Lt. Robert J. Dicker, at top middle in tail letter “D.” When the strafers were finished, the alcohol plant was covered in thick black smoke. Coming off the target, the planes continued to strafe traffic on a bridge over the adjacent river. The mission lasted six hours, close to the maximum range for the A-20. Attacks such as this by the Fifth Air Force strafer units significantly degraded Japanese war-making capabilities on the island.
This dramatic illustration by Jack Fellows is available for purchase on our website.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We found a very detailed training video posted by Zeno’s Warbirds that covered the ditching procedures for B-17 crews. You’ll get to see just how much safety gear was loaded onto these planes and watch a crew run through the procedure of ditching a Flying Fortress.
In March 1943, crews from the 90th Squadron were sent on a mission with an unusual target. This excerpt from the 90th Squadron diary describes it in detail.
Mar 19— At noon mess rumors of a mission circulated….Captain Henebry would not say anything and we were all in the dark…a meeting at the line at 1:30….Lt Commander Menucci, USN, briefed us on submarines…….at 2:30 a list was posted of 6 ships to take off for Dobodura to await an early evening mission from there……..
The boys arrived at Dobodura and spent the afternoon swimming and having a good look at what had been a Japanese stronghold two months ago…At 5:30 the crews were briefed by Capt Henebry at Lt Commander Menucci…..The target was a large submarine that was supposed to unload supplies at Lae around sundown…this news had been deciphered by our men at Port Moresby….We took off at 6:45 just as the sun was setting behind the Owen Stanley Range…..Henebry led the first flight of Howe and MacLellan…Chat led the second element of Ingram….”Snuffy” Hughes did not get off due to engine trouble….Capt Henebry had to slow his formation down as it looked as though he might get to Lae too early…..Near Salamaua the two flights swept inland and came down on the trees….they flew this way until they were about 5 miles South of Lae when they swung out onto the water and flew up the coastline…..approaching Lae, a rocket was shot into the sky (this was the Jap’s air raid warning)…..2000 yards from Lae, on a heading of 90 degrees, the 5 ships came in abreast….airspeed 250 mph….suddenly the rising moon outlined a gigantic submarine tied up against the Lae dock…at the end of the runway…..Henebry, Howe and MacLelland who were heading over the sub let go with their guns…from the runway and from the flanking hills intense and accurate ack ack was fired by the Nips…at about 100 yards the co-pilots began to toggle the bombs loose….11 bombs hit directly while one went over…the explosion was terrific and for a moment Henebry and Howe thought their plane was out of control…..The on suing fire lit up the wreck at Malahang….[As they made their attack, the B-25s were fired upon by Japanese antiaircraft gunners and after the Americans left the target area it was discovered that Sgt. Timberlake had been killed.]
On this run Captain Chatt was unable to fly over the submarine so after Henebry’s flight had passed by, Chatt swung over and made another run….Ingram followed closely on his wing…seeing that the submarine had exploded and sunk, Chatt made a run over some dispersal area and dropped his bombs….Ingram did likewise….There were many near misses with ack ack, but miraculously none took effect…..Henebry, Chatt and MacLellon made it back over the mountains to 17 Mile Field…..Ingram and Howe landed at Dobodura…..Howe tried to get home but went into a dense cloud formation which put him into a violent spin and he was able to bring his ship out after losing 8 thousand feet and hitting an airspeed of 450 mph…his escape hatch flew off and it had Captain John White, Observer, a bit worried for a moment or two…Sgt Hume in the upper turret said he could feel water dripping on him from the rear of the plane…..
Going back through the archives, we rediscovered a post from January 2015 about an unexpected discovery one crew made when the men returned to base after a mission. Read on for the rest of the story.
The last mission for YE OLD NANCE, a 38th Bomb Group B-25, was supposed to be a milk run. The bomber, flown by Capt. Bud Thompson and his crew, attacked Malahang Drome, Lae on January 21, 1943. As bombardier 1/Lt. Walter G. Beck dropped his bombs, he and the rest of the crew heard the B-25 rattle violently. They thought they had been hit by antiaircraft fire, but none of the instruments showed that anything was amiss. With that, the crew headed home.
Sgt. Robert Pickard picks up the rest of the story in his diary:
“Day before yesterday we had quite a bit of excitement most of which happened while I was asleep…736 [YE OLD NANCE] carrying one 300 lb. demo bomb in the bomb bay, arming wires loose and all ready to go off. It taxied into the revetment about 75 feet from our tent. Then a gas truck pulled up and started filling it up with gas. About that time Lt. Beck, Bombardier, saw the live bomb and told everyone to clear out, that it would go off in 45 seconds. So everybody left, but fast. The guy who was putting gas in the plane just dropped the hose and left. The gas ran all over the plane and down on the ground and over to a fire where they were boiling clothes. Poof – and the whole plane was in flames.
About that time – Kudelka woke up and took off in such a hurry that he hit the tent pole and darn near broke his skull, but didn’t bother to take time enough to holler at me. Pretty soon the ammunition in the plane started going off, and singing around…and that is what woke me. I lay for a full minute trying to figure out what it was, and then rolled over and saw the plane a mass of flames. Still did not quite realize what the score was. Looked around and didn’t see another soul around a usually busy place so figured I had better move out. I dressed and ambled over toward a slit trench. Heard a particularly close bullet whiz by so jumped in the trench. No sooner did I get in it than the bomb exploded along with a 2000 gal tank truck full of 100 octane gas, which was sitting in front of the plane. Parts of the plane were found 200 yards away. Our tent had several holes punched in it and other tents in the area were completely burned up. The concussion from the explosion was terrific. I was closer to it than any one else. The pay off is this – Kudelka came back yelling his head off to Jim Eshleman for not waking him up – that he might have been killed and etc. [He] kept carrying on something fierce. I asked him why he didn’t wake me up and he didn’t say any more.”
Incredibly, no one was injured by the explosion. The B-25, on the other hand, was a total loss.