Repost: Preparing for the Battle of the Coral Sea

As the anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea draws near, we decided it was time to revisit our 2017 post on the subject and how it impacted the 3rd Bomb Group.

As of May 1942, the Japanese expansion of territory in the Pacific had nearly reached its peak. The biggest danger was in the south: the last significant Allied base on New Guinea, Port Moresby, was under continual air assault and vulnerable to a sea-borne invasion force. If the Japanese were to capture Port Moresby, they would be able to launch air raids on Australia itself, which would threaten invasion of a nation that was already reeling from a series of losses over the prior six months.

To that end, a large strike force composed of three aircraft carriers, more than a dozen escort warships, and transports carrying over 5000 soldiers were sent to the Coral Sea, where they were to sail west to Port Moresby. Fortunately, the Allies had intercepted signals conveying the attack, and positioned a task force of similar strength in the Coral Sea.

By May 3rd, both forces were in position, but neither had yet spotted the other. Scout planes were sent up, from the Japanese carriers, American carriers and also from Port Moresby. The crew of Lt. Roland “Dick” Birnn, from the 3rd Bomb Group, were flying a B-25 medium bomber on May 4th when they spotted the Japanese carrier Shoho near the island of Guadalcanal. Three Zero fighters took off from the deck of the carrier, but Birnn had immediately turned around and escaped before they could engage.

By this point, word had spread at Port Moresby about the imminent threat, and the air was tense. The administrative officers of the base were preparing to destroy everything valuable in the event of a successful landing. Eighth Bomb Squadron, of 3rd Bomb Group, was preparing to fight to the last man. Their C.O., Floyd Rogers, gave a mission briefing that was more like a pep talk, encouraging them to hit the Japanese with everything they had as soon as it was in range. The airmen started wearing their parachutes when on alert for a mission.

A map showing the movements of naval forces during the Battle of the Bismark Sea. (United States Army Center of Military History via Wikipedia)

On the 6th, with the Japanese maneuvering closer to New Guinea, scout ships were flying missions on a constant rotation. An RAAF Hudson spotted Japanese ships at 8:25 AM, the 19th Bomb Group’s B-17s flew an unsuccessful bombing run at 10:30, and at 12:10, Lt. Gus Heiss, of the 3rd, spotted the convoy again. He was sent directly to the head of the intelligence department to report his findings, and between them all, it was clear the two forces would be within striking distance that evening.

Interestingly enough, that’s actually where the story ends, at least for Port Moresby. The actual fighting was conducted almost exclusively by carrier aircraft over the 7th and 8th. The land-based groups held back their planes for when the Japanese were about to land, an event which never occurred. The Japanese forces were driven off in a costly engagement for both navies, but they were never able to engage New Guinea proper. In fact, most of the men at Port Moresby weren’t even given any information about the battle deciding their fates. They were stuck listening to broadcast radio or even reading the paper.

Pilot Spotlight: Edward L. Larner Makes History

On October 28, 1942, 89th Squadron CO Maj. Donald P. Hall made the following entry to his diary: “Capt. Ed Larner, a classmate of mine has just come over from the states. Ed and I used to fish a lot while we were at Barksdale Field [in Louisiana]. He and 12 other are joining my Squadron. We flew to Port Moresby today. Good to be back with the squadron.”

Captain Edward L. Larner, who was originally with the 46th Bomb Group, had been reassigned and sent to Maj. Hall’s 89th Squadron in the 3rd Bomb Group. He arrived as an experienced pilot with more than 800 flying hours under his belt. It wasn’t long before Larner made a name for himself as a fearless low level A-20 pilot and he came to the attention of Gen. George C. Kenney. “I found I had another fireball in the 3rd Attack Group, named Lieutenant Ed Larner,” Kenney wrote on November 10th. “That lad was good. He had fire, leadership and guts.”

90th Squadron C.O. Edward L Larner
Captain Edward L. Larner joined the 3rd Bomb Group in late October 1942. A classmate and friend of Maj. Hall, he was assigned to the 89th Squadron where he made a name for him- self as an aggressive combat pilot. Barrel-chested and willing to put up his fists, he always wore a beat-up service cap pushed back on his head. He would soon become one of 3rd Bomb Groups preeminent pilots and commanders. (Gordon K. McCoun Collection)

After the A-20 strafer project was deemed a success, Pappy Gunn and Jack Fox began working on similar strafer test modifications for the B-25 Mitchell. Some senior pilots were skeptical that a medium bomber could be utilized for low level strafing. However the North American bomber did have the range necessary to reach Japanese air bases. Kenney was in favor of Larner’s promotion to C.O. of the 90th Squadron. By the end of December 1942, Larner was at Port Moresby, training 90th Squadron pilots on these modified B-25s.

Around the time of all this armament development, word about the 43rd Bomb Group using B-17s to skip-bomb ships was getting around. Major William G. Benn had led the first successful skip-bombing attack on October 23, 1942 and was continuing to work on the technique up until his death on January 18, 1943. Pilots in the 89th Squadron began practicing skip-bombing in A-20s around the end of December 1942, followed by 90th Squadron pilots in their newly-modified B-25s a few weeks later. Even though pilots still had their doubts about using B-25s in that manner, they continued their practice throughout the month of February.

On March 3rd, Larner, who had since been promoted to Major, was leading the 90th Squadron into what would be known as the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. He put their practice to use and proved that the B-25 strafer would be an effective skip-bombing aircraft. Breaking away from his formation that day, he was followed by three of his lieutenants. “Damn it! Get the hell off my wing and get your own boat!” he yelled at them.

Nearby, Capt. John P. “Jock” Henebry watched Larner make his solo run. “I was leading the second element. Everybody was rather apprehensive. When everybody saw him make that pass and hit it with at least one and maybe two and the explosion and so, that just ignited the whole thing and the guys got the idea if he could do it, they could do it.” 

When Maj. Larner had taken over command of the 90th, the Squadron was reeling over the loss of senior pilot and former commander, Captain William “Red” Johnson, who had crashed on a transit flight near Townsville, Australia on New Year’s Eve. Larner’s transfer to the 90th and his confidence in the B-25 as a strafer bomber would re-energize the men in the Squadron. The combat crews were excited to watch their leader make that flawless first run on March 3rd.

Unfortunately, Maj. Larner would not remain the 90th Squadron’s leader for long. While he was a bold pilot, some of his flight maneuvers led him to be deemed reckless by some of his peers. His trademark approach would be the cause of his death on April 30, 1943. Coming in to land at Dobodura, he dove towards the airstrip and flew low over the field, then pulled up sharply into a chandelle. Usually, he performed this maneuver in a B-25 that was not full of fuel, eight passengers, baggage, tools and 2000 pounds of bombs. When Larner pulled up, the plane stalled, went into a flat spin, then crashed and exploded on the ground. There were no survivors. He left behind a wife and two daughters. Captain Jock Henebry would go on to lead the 90th Squadron.

Pappy Gunn and the A-20 Strafer

“Build a fire under anybody that can do us any good in getting the planes put together and sent up here…If you can catch any A-20’s coming up from the South marking time in Brisbane kick them [the pilots] in the pants for me and tell them we need those A-20’s. Do anything you think best to get planes assembled and tanks and guns installed…Every plane we have is today out on a mission. More planes — more missions…Sure glad that you are down there to get that job done.” —Col. John Davies to Capt. Pappy Gunn

It was with some resignation in May 1942 that the 89th Squadron C.O., 1/Lt. Donald P. Hall, surveyed the reassembled Douglas A-20A bombers and came to grips with the reality that these were the same ones they trained on in the U.S. and had been flown in four maneuvers. Their attack bombers were old. At least one of them had come from the Douglas factory in late 1939. They were all worn with plenty of mileage and some were beyond their peacetime service life of 273 days.

Unfortunately, factory-new aircraft would not be forthcoming over the next year of war, as all new production of the speedy light bomber were destined for the fight against Germany in the fronts of North Africa, Europe and as lend-lease for the Soviet Union. 3rd Bomb Group crews would have to “make do” with their old A-20As, a practice that many of the men were familiar with, having grown up during the Great Depression.

Their bombers lacked the range necessary to reach the combat front and their frontal armament of four .30-caliber machine guns lacked the firepower needed to cause enough damage and destruction. The planes would receive a series of modifications to turn them into fearsome attack bombers. These improvements and the tactics developed in 1942 and 1943 would go on to impact the air war strategy of the entire theater.

First up was the limited range of the aircraft. Depending on the bomb load, the A-20 had a combat radius of 260-337 miles, not far enough for a flight from Port Moresby to the Japanese bases of Lae and Salamaua on the other side of the Owen Stanley Mountains. That modification was straightforward: each A-20 was eventually outfitted with two 450-gallon fuel tanks in one of the two bomb bays.

B-25 Pappys Folly
Paul I. “Pappy” Gunn in the cockpit of one of his early B-25 strafers “Pappy’s Folly” in early 1943. (G. John Robinson Collection)

The other modification was to the A-20’s light defenses up front, which consisted of four .30-caliber machine guns along the bottom of the nose. Captain Paul I. “Pappy” Gunn was convinced that a heavier armament could be installed inside the nose section of the bombardier’s compartment. The person who allowed him to realize this vision was an Army Air Force pilot and engineer who Gunn had known from his pre-war days in the Philippines, Capt. Frederick G. Hoffman. Their paths crossed again in Australia on April 28, 1942 when Hoffman was overseeing the assembly of aircraft in Brisbane and Gunn was down there to begin work on a strafer prototype. They discussed the project and Gunn was introduced to engineer 1/Lt. Tom R. Tompkins, who would facilitate the installation. First, Capt. Bob Strickland and Pappy Gunn had to go see Army Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. George H. Brett to receive the go-ahead for the project.

After an OK from Gen. Brett, a prototype was put together. It made a successful first test, leading to Pappy Gunn declaring that he wanted to see all of the 3rd’s A-20s modified with the four nose guns. Once the planes were assembled, serviced and flight-tested at Eagle Farm, they were flown to Amberley for fuel tank and strafer modifications. There was an ample supply of .50-caliber machine guns that had been salvaged from dozens of P-39 Airacobra and P-40 Warhawk fighters that had crashed by new pilots learning to fly the powerful Allison-engine pursuit planes during training and ferry flights from January through April 1942.

A-20 strafer installation
This is a frontal view of the Douglas A-20A-1 with four .50-caliber machine guns installed inside the bombardier’s compartment. The metal tubing is part of the hydraulic system for charging the guns. Officers of the 3rd Bomb Group, engineers at Amberley Field as well as enlisted men of different service units around Brisbane contributed ideas and helped design and fabricate this successful weapon system. The five men who were most responsible were Capt. Pappy Gunn, Capt. Donald P. Hall, Capt. Fred G. Hoffman, 1/Lt. Tom R. Tompkins and T/Sgt. Victor J. Mitchell. Prior to the installation of the forward-firing heavy machine guns, the A-20A’s forward armament consisted of four .30-caliber guns, two on each side of the fuselage. (William J. Beck Collection)

Pappy Gunn took Col. Davies’ urging to get the planes done and ready for combat as quickly as possible. This required the acquisition of myriad aircraft parts and supplies. He was rumored to have drawn a gun on one supply officer which got him banned from the Brisbane area for several months. Just a few months later the successful strafer modification was adapted to the B-25 Mitchell by Pappy Gunn and Jack Fox, the senior “tech rep” of North American Aviation.

In early 1943, the pilots of the 89th and 90th Squadron began to develop their own low-level bombing technique, similar to skip-bombing that had been successfully established by Maj. William G. Benn with the B-17 crews of the 43rd Bomb Group in 1942. (For that story, read Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Volume I.) This technique combined with the strafer modification turned the A-20s and B-25s of the Pacific Theater into low-level powerhouses that helped drive the Japanese out of New Guinea and the Philippines.

Any records and photographs documenting this modification process were never created, did not survive the past 80 years or possibly remain undiscovered. The story is told here for the first time using the personal diaries, memoirs, correspondence and interviews with the 3rd Bomb Group pilots and officers who were there.

For the full story of the A-20 strafer modification, read Chapter 9 of Harvest of the Grim Reapers, Volume I.

The new book has arrived!

We are excited to announce the release of Harvest of the Grim Reapers, Volume I. The books arrived earlier this week and we are now working on shipping out all of the preorders. If you haven’t ordered your copy yet, now is a great time to do it! We hope you enjoy the latest installment in the Eagles Over the Pacific series.

Now shipping: Harvest of the Grim Reapers, Volume I.

We’re taking pre-orders!

We are pleased to announce that we are officially taking pre-orders for our next book. Harvest of the Grim Reapers, Volume I will finish printing in early January and we will be able to ship out books once they arrive in Colorado. This is the last book project Lawrence J. Hickey personally oversaw before his passing, and we believe it will serve as a fitting tribute to his legacy. Head over to our website to place your pre-order and check out the sample pages.

Excerpt from the Diary of Jack Fox

While the source of this post is another diary, the person who wrote it played a different role in the Pacific Theater. Jack Fox was a tech representative for North American Aviation, the builder of the famed B-25. Sending a rep so far from the factories in United States was invaluable for both the company and the unit flying their aircraft. Jack Fox stayed on the base with the men so he could be available to assist them 24/7. 

“They Also Served”    

My first assignment as Tech. Repr., covering the aircraft known as the good ole’ baker 25 Mitchell Bomber, was with the 17th Bomb Group. The B-25 aircraft was engineered and produced by North American Aviation, Inc., in Los Angeles, California. I welcomed the opportunity to serve as a Technical Representative. Before departing for my new assignment I would require some briefing so I spent a little time with the Field Service Manager, Frank Lyons, in his office. I received my instructions and we worked out some of the details of the assignment. As I was about to leave the office Frank stopped me by saying, “What the hell can we call you besides John?”  

“Well BUB, that’s my name and you had better be damned careful what other name you use.” I replied. “That’s no good,” Frank countered and continued saying, “Let’s call you Jack as this will be better for everyone and easier also.”

That ended the conversation right there and I made my departure not as John Fox, but as Jack Fox and it remained so from that time on. All my correspondence came addressed to Jack Fox, so I continued using it also in my correspondence. I reported in at the Group Engineering office of the 17th Bomb Group at Felts Field in Spokane, Washington. Evidently there was a telephone conversation between this point and Frank Lyons as they were expecting a Jack Fox to report in as Tech. Repr. I guess it would have to stand that way so there was no use to change or check it now. I arrived in Spokane in the spring of 1941. During my assignment with the 17th Bomb Group, I became mighty fond of this doggone good ole’ B-25 airplane.

At the end of 1941, Jack Fox learned that he was recommended for an assignment with the Netherlands East Indies Air Force. After taking care of all the required formalities, Fox left for Australia at the end of February 1942 in a B-25. After a short stint with the NEI crews at Archer Field, he joined up with the 3rd Bomb Group at Charters Towers.  

NAA Rep Jack Fox
North American Aviation Service Representative Jack Fox, pictured at Charters Towers in 1942, had been sent to Brisbane to train a Dutch Army Aviation Corps unit stationed there on the operation and maintenance of the B-25 Mitchell. When the 3rd Bomb Group took over 18 of the Dutch B-25s, Davies convinced Fox to come back with the Group to Charters Towers and serve in a similar capacity. Fox went on to make an invaluable contribution to 3rd Bomb Group through his expertise in the B‑25 and his engineering capability. Together with Pappy Gunn, he was responsible for the A-20 and B-25 modifications which made the airplanes far more destructive than they had previously been.
(G. John Robinson Collection)

These 3rd Attack Group men were most certainly a wonderful bunch of guys. I had much respect for each and everyone of them. They were a close knit Group, a hard working bunch also mighty brave and courageous fighters.

I was getting an urge to go out on Missions but permission was refused me and it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to go over to Port Moresby, New Guinea that I was able to sneak in a mission or so at different times. I felt that I should go a on mission or so because what better way was there to learn first hand what it was all about and also what was required of the airplane under these conditions. Through this medium I was able to obtain first hand information by way of experience regarding the equipment I was representing and besides I could form good reliable first hard reports which was another part of a Tech Reprs. job; to send reports back to the company and to do this it took a considerable amount of time especially when sketches or drawings had to be made up to accompany failure reports. Being on a mission was a hair raising experience. My first experience with ack-ack was over the Jap target of Lae, New Guinea and it startled me so I dam near had a shit hemorrhage. Yes, darn right I was scared and I would think, how stupid I was in not knowing when I was well off as I should have had stayed put on the ground back at our base. Then I would think about these combat crews who went out daily to try to paste the enemy and they faced this condition frequently and took their chances. I felt I wasn’t any better than these guys so I tried not to show too much concern but no doubt I didn’t cover up completely. Most of these men figured I must be plum nuts to want to go out on missions as I had no business to be in the airplane on a combat mission. Major Lowry, the C. O. of the 13th Squadron presented an idea of his to make me a fine control member aboard a combat airplane out on missions, mainly I believe to guard against and direct fire on enemy aircraft. He approached me with the idea one day and frankly speaking I was all for it and started making plans for this new role I might find myself in but something happened somewhere as the Major’s idea did not materially.  Then one day, Major Lowry was out on a mission and he and his crew went down in their airplane in the New Guinea Jungle. He sure was a mighty fine man and pilot, a good Squadron C. O. and flight leader so his death was great loss to the squadron as well as the Group.

Harvest of the Grim Reapers, Vol. I is at the printer

At long last, we are excited to announce the upcoming publication of Harvest of the Grim Reapers, Volume I. This 528-page unit history will cover the 3rd and 27th Bomb Groups through the end of 1942, and the heroic and tragic events that occurred along the way. As always, this includes a comprehensive list of the aircraft the unit flew during this time period (A-24s, B-25s and A-20s), and a selection of world-class profile art by aviation artist Jack Fellows. The manuscript has been completed in full, and we will start taking pre-orders as soon as we have confirmation of when the physical copies will be in our hands from the printer. This is the last book project Lawrence J. Hickey personally oversaw before his passing, and we believe it will serve as a fitting tribute to his legacy.

To hold you over until the book is in your hands, we gathered up all of our 3rd Bomb Group posts about events from 1942 so you can read a little more about the 3rd right now. We’ll make another announcement when we start taking pre-orders.

And So We Go To War

Below is the first entry Carl A. Hustad’s wrote about his journey aboard the Queen Mary. Although he didn’t know it at the time, he and the rest of the 43rd Bomb Group were heading to Australia and the Pacific Theater.

February 28, 1942

I have spent pleasanter birthdays before in my 26 years. Today is quite the hottest. If it weren’t for the open porthole, I should probably be much more uncomfortable.

We are at sea somewhere along the South American coast, my guess is North of Cabo de Orange. Maybe I should go back and bring myself to this point, as our journey is already 11 days on.

With a heavy snowfall and a very early hour of morning, we departed our old base at Bangor, Maine, entrained for Foreign War Service. Arriving at Boston, Mass., late that 17th of February, 1942, we were immediately embarked on our transport. It proved to be quite an unusual transport ship, being the Queen Mary of England. The crew are all English and many English customs are preserved. Tea and crumpets every afternoon at four especially. (Not a bad custom after all, when you get used to it.) But anyway, we crowded into our staterooms and tried to assemble and orient ourselves. The thought of leaving and the job ahead made conversation futile.

The next day at noon we left. Where we traveled the next five days, I have no idea, except we really traveled! We must have circled well out to sea to avoid the coastal submarine area. Sunday, February 22, we anchored and to my surprize, just off of Key West, Florida. Key West until Tuesday just before dark. Since then we have been steadily moving eastward along the South American coast.

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. (Charles R. Woods Collection)

The ship we are on is fast. In fact, too fast for an escort. We are alone, but our speed seems to be the best protection. But, we are not unarmed. I believe we could make a fair showing for ourselves with any submarine. Of those, we have seen none so far. Reports have come in of other slower ships being torpedoed all along our course. There was even a rumor on board of a radio report saying we were torpedoed and sunk a few days back. And so we go to war.

Life on this Queen Mary transport is quite luxurious in a way. Many of the facilities are cut off for lack of sleeping space and dining rooms. The Officer’s lounge is very nice with its deep chairs and sofas. It is also air conditioned and almost too cool. It is in use constantly for the numerous card games and movies and so forth. A swimming pool has just been made available for us also. Water and fresh food seem to be the problems of any long ocean voyage. We are all trying to conserve the fresh water on board. We have three types of water on ship. The first is fresh drinking water which is not obtainable inside the stateroom. Next is plain water, but not suitable for drinking…..used for shaving, etc. The third is salt water which we use to bathe in. The salt water requires a special type of soap, as the ordinary soap won’t lather.

Read more about the 43rd Bomb Group’s journey aboard the Queen Mary in our book Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Volume I.

A Month of Losses

In December 1942, the 3rd Bomb Group, especially the 90th Squadron, was dealt blow after blow as crews and planes were lost. Over the course of the month, the 3rd Bomb Group lost more than 40 men. The first loss on December 5th happened on a night takeoff when a 90th Bomb Group B-25 hit a tree at the end of the runway at 17 Mile Airdrome. Five men were killed.

Ten days later, a 90th Squadron B-25 went missing on a five-plane flight between Port Moresby and Charters Towers. At the time, the 13th Squadron was flying up to Port Moresby to relieve the 90th Squadron, but strong thunderstorms were preventing this rotation. To minimize any losses, C.O., Maj. Donald P. Hall, would only let one 90th B-25 fly down for each 13th Squadron plane that flew up. After the first one arrived, though, five 90th Squadron pilots thought the rest of the squadron was on its way up and took off. They ran into the same bad weather and the B-25 flown by 2/Lt. Alfred Crosswhite, STINKY PINKY, wound up separated from the other four planes and disappeared with 11 men on board. The wreckage was discovered on hilly terrain in July 1943, about 40 miles west of a town named Cardwell.

Five days after storms caused the crash of STINKY PINKY, the 90th lost 11 more men on December 20th, in more bad weather. After a few days in Charters Towers, the 90th was due back at Port Moresby. Seven B-25s loaded with 90th Squadron men took off from Australia and encountered heavy rain on the way to New Guinea. It wasn’t long before the heavy rain turned into severe thunderstorms, tossing the B-25s around in the strong wind. By this time, the planes were in a long line as they flew single file through the turbulent weather. Lieutenant Richard H. Launder was flying behind Lt. Donald K. Emerson, watched Emerson’s plane vanish in the clouds and followed him into another storm. Without warning, Emerson’s B-25 appeared in front of Launder. Emerson pulled up and over Launder’s B-25 in the nick of time, then crashed into the ocean. Launder, who suspected that Emerson stalled and couldn’t recover, circled the crash site, but did not see any survivors.

The final two tragedies of the month, and the year, occurred at the end of December. As with the previous two losses, this 13-plane flight was part of a rotation from Port Moresby back to Charters Towers. This time, it was the 13th Squadron being relieved by crews from the 38th Bomb Group. That day, a B-25 flown by Capt. George “Spikes” Thomas, DEEMIE’S DEMON, disappeared over the Coral Sea. In the days and weeks that followed, no one found any trace of the aircraft or the 11 men on board. Among those lost was Sgt. Eugene J. Esposito of Rutland, Vermont. His family was notified of his status as Missing in Action on February 4, 1943. On August 13, 1943, his family received word that he had been declared dead. Esposito sent his last message to his family three days after Christmas to thank them for a box they sent and extend his Christmas greetings.

Newspaper clipping from the August 14, 1943 Rutland Daily Herald about the death of Sgt. Eugene J. Esposito of the 3rd Bomb Group
Newspaper clipping from the August 14, 1943 Rutland Daily Herald

Hours after the 13th Squadron left for Australia, Capt. William R. “Red” Johnson and the other 90th Squadron officers were starting their New Year’s Eve party at Charters Towers. Johnson, who just finished his combat tour and would be heading home to his wife soon, decided that a couple of his old friends from the 27th Bomb Group should join the fun and decided to fly to Townsville and pick them up. A crew chief went with him as his co-pilot and two privates tagged along for the ride. One decided to stay in Townsville and four new passengers (his friends and two others) climbed aboard. That was the last time anyone saw the men and the B-25. Without Johnson, the party at Charters Towers was a little quieter, as everyone thought his return had been delayed due to weather. A search plane was sent out on January 3rd and someone spotted a burned aircraft about 20 miles southwest of Townsville. Johnson had been flying through rain and low clouds, following the railroad back to Charters Towers, when he hit the base of a mountain. None of the seven men on board survived.

For the 3rd Bomb Group, it was both a tragic ending to 1942 and a tragic beginning to 1943. Forty-five deaths occurring in a single month was difficult to bear. Back in the States, 45 more grieving families may have hung gold star flags in front windows of their homes.

B-26 Accident at Iron Range

After a successful strike on Lae on September 13, 1942, the 19th Squadron stopped over at Port Moresby to refuel before heading back to their base at Iron Range, Australia. It was a new camp, just hacked out of the Queensland rainforest, and very primitive, lacking many of the more comfortable aspects that the men had gotten used to at other Australian bases.

The trip from Port Moresby to Iron Range was uneventful and Capt. Walter A. Krell lined up his B-26, KANSAS COMET #2, for landing on the new runway at Iron Range. He planned on landing short, then taxiing off at the midpoint so the rest of the formation could land behind him. Without a landing threshold in place, though, he instead touched down on the overrun at the end of the strip. Unseen from the air was a large termite mound that was not cleared away by the engineers. The termite mound broke off the B-26’s right landing gear and strut, causing the plane to slide down the runway completely out of control. Abruptly veering right, it crashed into a compressor truck parked next to the runway.

Man next to termite mound
Here, a member of the 63rd Squadron inspects one of the giant termite mounds found near their camp at Mareeba. The mounds contained a veritable termite city encased in a concrete-hard structure, approximately ten feet high. This is the sort of mound Krell’s B-26 hit while trying to land at Iron Range. (Charles R. Woods Collection)

On impact, the fuselage cracked in half, then both the truck and the plane burst into flames. Krell was briefly knocked unconscious, but revived in a smoke-filled cockpit. His friend and co-pilot, F/O Graham B. Robertson, was pinned in his seat. Krell extracted himself from the plane and ran around to the other side to try and free the unresponsive Robertson. The rest of the crew was able to exit through a gaping hole in the fuselage and Krell climbed in, shifting debris in an effort to free his friend. Soon, the heat and smoke from the flames were unbearable. Ammunition from the bombardier’s compartment was also cooking off, making it took dangerous for the burned Krell to stay any longer.

He climbed out of the cockpit and everyone moved away from the burning B-26 in case of an explosion. The crew’s injuries were tended to by several flight surgeons from different units in the area. Thankfully, the plane never exploded. The wreckage was finally cool enough to go through around midnight and the dead bodies of both Robertson and the truck driver were removed. Back at a field hospital, Krell, who was recovering from his burns, was heard calling, “Hold on! I’ll get you out!” After three days in the field hospital, he was sent to Townsville for further treatment. It was months before he resumed his duties. The rest of his crew suffered permanent injuries from the accident.

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