We thought we’d do something a little different this week and show you some of the furry, four-legged friends that were adopted by various men as pets during their stay in the Pacific Theater.
We thought we’d do something a little different this week and show you some of the furry, four-legged friends that were adopted by various men as pets during their stay in the Pacific Theater.
By late October 1942 Maj. Tom Gerrity, then C.O. of the 90th Squadron, was scheduled to be rotated home along with the other veteran pilots of the 27th Bomb Group who had been evacuated from the Philippines. Before leaving the Pacific Theater, Gerrity wanted to attempt an ambitious solo strike against the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul on the island of New Britain. An extra set of internal wing tanks had been installed in his B-25 Mitchell bomber to give them the necessary range for a mission scheduled on October 25th. Flying with Gerrity was co-pilot 2/Lt. Robert F. “Ruby” Keeler, veteran bombardier T/Sgt. Kirby Neal, turret gunner Sgt. Joe Champagne and radio operator Sgt. Billy Graham of the RAAF. However, due to engine trouble they were unable to reach the distant target and returned to Port Moresby. The next day Gerrity assigned himself the morning reconnaissance flight and used the opportunity to make multiple strafing attacks against the Japanese base at Salamaua. By noon he had packed his bags and was on his way to Australia, arriving back home in California on November 5th.
Gerrity would soon rise to the rank of General in the U.S. Air Force. He passed away in 1969 and was interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Both Lt. Keeler and Sgt. Kirby would be killed before the year was over while the two gunners, Joe Champagne and Billy Graham, would complete their combat tours and also return home.
During their first year of combat over New Guinea the bomber crews of the 13th & 90th Squadrons of the 3rd Bomb Group included pilots and radio gunners (WAGs) from the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). They were needed to fill the five to six crew positions of the newly acquired B-25 Mitchell medium bombers while the 13th & 90th Squadrons transitioned from previously operating the A-20A Havoc light bomber which needed only three crewmen. Warrant Officer John Trevor Soundy was one of seven RAAF pilots attached to the 13th Squadron in May 1942. He had joined the RAAF in 1940 and was the eldest son of Lord Mayor and the Lady Mayoress Soundy of Hobart, Tasmania. Because of his seniority and possibly due to his social status he typically flew as co-pilot with 13th Squadron Commanding Officer Capt. Alexander G. Evanoff. From June through October 1942 he participated in a number of bombing missions against the Japanese air bases at Lae and Salamaua, New Guinea. During a transit flight from Charters Towers to Port Moresby on January 7, 1943, Soundy and pilot 1/Lt. Charles Dolan went missing in the 3rd BG B-25 NOT IN STOCK. The crew and passengers of nine simply disappeared over the ocean and remain missing to this day.
It’s been 75 years since the 43rd Bomb Group began the long journey to Australia and the Pacific Theater. Today, we’re revisiting the first part of that journey, which we originally published on Sept. 26, 2014.
For nine years, the Queen Mary was a luxury passenger liner that had been commissioned by the British Cunard Line. August 30, 1939 marked its final peacetime cruise across the Atlantic, and as per request by Winston Churchill, it would be retrofitted and used as a troop ship for the next few years. While Gen. George C. Marshall was hesitant to accept Churchill’s offer, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower knew the Pacific theater was in dire need of additional troops. Since this would be the fastest and most efficient way to send additional men, Eisenhower ordered to proceed with Churchill’s idea. The ship went from carrying approximately 2000 passengers in peacetime to around 16,000 troops, the size of an entire army division. Because of its speed and passenger capacity, Hitler supposedly put a $250,000 bounty on sinking this integral part of the Allied troop transport system.
Early on February 17, 1942, the 43rd Bomb Group boarded a troop train at their base in Bangor, Maine for a destination that was still unknown to them. After riding for nine hours, the men arrived at the Port of Embarkment at Boston Harbor, where they would board the Queen Mary. They spent a cold night on the ship, then watched the US coastline fade into the distance at noon on the 18th. There was no public send-off because the ship needed to leave in secret so it could avoid being targeted by German U-boats. Still, a small crowd had converged on the dock to wave goodbye–a comfort for the men and a concern for the ship’s captain about how long their journey would stay secret.
The Queen Mary was escorted by two destroyers at first, but sailed too quickly for the WWI-era destroyers to keep up, and soon left them behind to sail south alone. Meanwhile, then men on board hadn’t been told of their destination and began wondering where they would be going. The ship sailed by the eastern Florida cost, then reversed its course and dropped anchor near Key West, Florida. Two tankers quickly refueled the ship, which was guarded by six sub-chasers and a flying boat during the process. Originally, the vessel was going to stop for fuel in Trinidad, but a submarine was seen lurking in the waters. It was rumored that a U-boat sank the tanker that would have refueled the Queen Mary.
Life aboard the Queen Mary wasn’t too bad for the 43rd. Since the unit wasn’t full of draftees going through basic training, most of the men lived on the B deck, which was only two floors below the open-air main deck. Their rooms comfortably held nine men each, who enjoyed sleeping on deep, inner spring mattresses. The only downside was needing to keep the portholes closed at night, keeping the rooms hot and stuffy. Soon, the quality of food became an issue for the men. The ship’s British crew served the men meals consisting of kidneys or mutton stew–foods to which the Americans were not accustomed. The complaints were addressed on March 2nd during an officer’s meeting and the Americans were happy to find roast beef, macaroni, bread and jam, and coffee at lunch that day. The men were also introduced to the British custom of afternoon tea and went from being puzzled to gladly adopting the tradition.
A typical day on the ship was spent doing calisthenics for an hour in the morning on the sun deck, weapons classes and inspections, as well as fire and boat drills. The guns were fired every day, both as practice and to get the men used to the noise. Free time was spent watching movies or live shows, exercising in one of the Queen Mary‘s two pools, playing poker, and attending religious services. The ship traveled from Boston to the tropics in less than a week. With the heat of their tropical location, sleeping in the cabins became extremely uncomfortable and difficult. On March 1st, the Queen Mary steamed southeast and rumors of a stop at Rio De Janeiro began to fly.
Within the first year of the United States entering World War II, the country faced the task of moving airplanes and their crews to their destination of the far-off Pacific Theater. While most of the men spent about three weeks aboard a ship, some arrived in Australia by plane in August 1942. A few months earlier, the air force had decided it wasn’t practical to ship B-25s and B-26s to the Pacific Theater, and flight crews from the 71st and 405th Squadrons had to ferry their own newly built B-25s on an island-hopping route from California to Australia. This had never been done with any other unit that arrived in Australia prior to the 38th Bomb Group. It would be a nail biting experience, as the crews had little room for navigational error or mechanical trouble.
Before making the first and longest flight from Hamilton Field, California to Hickam Field, Hawaii, the B-25s had to be outfitted with two large fuel tanks installed in the top and bottom of the bomb bay, a third tank in the bombardier’s spot, and, in case those weren’t enough, a 25 gallon fuel tank was also installed on the wings of some of the B-25s. To increase fuel efficiency, each plane was also stripped of guns and armor. Bombardiers and gunners, whose spots were occupied by fuel tanks, were sent to Hawaii by a transport plane along with the guns and armor from the B-25s. After plenty of tinkering and testing, engineering crews were ready to send the B-25 crews on their way to Hawaii.
Flights began on August 2nd, with four 71st Squadron crews taking off before 0600. Fourteen hours later, they successfully touched down at Hickam Field with little fuel to spare. The rest of the 71st was cleared to join the four crews in Hawaii the next morning. Among them was Capt. Alden G. “Bud” Thompson, flying his B-25 nicknamed BUD AND HIS POGMASTERS. His plane had been modified differently from some of the other B-25s. The fuel tanks in the bomb bay were half the size, with the rest of the fuel to come from tanks on the wings. Unfortunately, the crew had not been told how to transfer fuel from the wing tanks, instead relying on a “tech order” that turned out to be indecipherable. Thompson and his crew turned back for California and landed safely. The small fuel tank was exchanged for a larger one and the crew took off the next morning. They saw a B-17 formation heading in the same direction and joined up with them. Hickam Field was not expecting a B-25 with the B-17s and set off a red alert until the situation was resolved and Thompson and his crew were allowed to land.
The next leg of the trip would be to Christmas Island, followed by Canton Island, then Fiji and New Caledonia, the last stop before Australia. For Thompson, unlike some of the other pilots, the flights between each of these islands had remained relatively uneventful. Still, after two weeks of island hopping, he was eager to get to Australia and refused to spend the night in New Caledonia. Thompson would take the lead position in a flight of five B-25s from New Caledonia to Amberley Field. Crews estimated a five hour flight time, which ended up being far too optimistic. Instead of arriving over Australia before sunset, pilots spent more time battling with strong headwinds over the Coral Sea. WE’REWOLF, flown by 1/Lt. William G. Woods, disappeared. Fortunately, the lost B-25 made it to the RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) strip at Evans Head with the help of a Fairey Battle escort.
Finally, they saw the Australian coastline illuminated by the moon and the navigator aboard Thompson’s plane tuned into Brisbane’s radio station, which would help them stay on course. Ideally, they would hit the eastern edge of Brisbane, then turn inland for Ipswich and land at Amberley. The problem was, they had arrived south of Brisbane and the coastline they were looking at was not at all what they had expected. Australia had also not expected to see the B-25s until the next day and was completely blacked out. And unbeknownst to the aircrews, the radio signal they were following was not coming from Brisbane, but Grafton, a small town well to the south of their destination.
Low on fuel, the flight of B-25s needed to land quickly. A corporal at the Australian Signal Station at Grafton’s airport identified the B-25s and tried to contact them in Morse code using the lights surrounding the base’s tennis courts. Private James T. Berry, the radio operator, was given a signal lamp to send a message that the planes needed to land immediately. With the help of the local radio station, the corporal gathered Grafton’s residents to light the airstrip with their cars. BUD AND HIS POGMASTERS made a hard landing and tore through a fence as the plane ran out of room on the short runway. After the B-25 stopped, the nose wheel collapsed in the mud. First Lieutenant Richard T. Sharp, who was very anxious to land, brought his plane down next. Dangerously low on fuel, his plane followed the same path into the mud, with the nose gear snapping off and the plane spinning to a stop.
Circling above them, the two remaining B-25s were sent 50 miles away to Evans Head. As they flew north, the pilots of both planes realized they were also very low on fuel and would not make it. Instead, they decided to bail out. One man was killed and the rest made it safely to the ground. By August 22nd, all of the 38th’s air crews were reunited and the men turned their attention to the war.
To the newly-arrived American airmen, Australia was a completely different world. Sailing across the Pacific on the USAT Ancon, the 3rd Bomb Group went up the Brisbane River in February 1942 and disembarked at Hamilton Wharf. When the men were allowed to explore their new surroundings, they were warmly greeted by the Australians. Still, changes in climate, currency, popular sports, and general culture were a lot to get used to in a short time. Some of the men tried to learn about cricket and rugby but neither sport really caught on with the Group. Twelve days after the 3rd reached Australia, it was ordered to head north to the small town of Charters Towers by March 7th.
On March 8th, the 3rd got on trains and began a slow journey northward. Two days later, the 89th Squadron got off at Townsville to fulfill an assignment of servicing 40th Reconnaissance Squadron B-17s. The rest of the Group rode the remaining 70 miles to Charters Towers. Upon arrival, the men were taken to their campsite, which was nothing more than tall grass and a few trees. They spent their first night in Charters Towers under the stars. The next day, they began to put their camp area together. Not long after the camp was set up, the men pitched in to work on the new airstrips.
Soon, they were given permission to go into the town itself and have a look around. For them, it was like stepping into an old Western film, complete with wooden sidewalks and bars with swinging doors. Charters Towers was certainly small, but it thrived due to its proximity to gold mines. With plans to set up a major air base, though, Charters Towers wouldn’t remain a small town for much longer.
By June 1942, the 3rd Bomb Group was well-established in Australia. The men were flying more bombing and gunnery training missions, and their current space at the RAAF bombing range in Townsville was quickly becoming insufficient for their needs. The men searched for a new space that they could use for a range. Harold Chapman, a Charters Towers rancher, gave permission to the Group to use part of his cattle station for their practice. Chapman requested a day’s notice from the men whenever they needed to use the range. In turn, Chapman would round up his cattle so that they wouldn’t get shot.
The Group would always send a few men to help Chapman round up his cattle. Private Charles Valade of the 13th Squadron soon developed a reputation as quite a cowhand. During one unfortunate training mission, “Pappy” Gunn reportedly shot and killed a cow by accident with .50-caliber ammo. He had to paid Chapman five pounds as a reimbursement. For the most part, using Chapman’s range for training proved to be extremely valuable for the combat crews.
Last year, we rounded up the most popular posts that we wrote in 2014. If you were hoping for a look back, you’re in luck! We’re going to do the same for this year’s posts as well. If you missed any stories, here’s your chance to go back and read the highlights. Enjoy!
1. Fatal Attack on THE RECKLESS MOUNTAIN BOYS Six Japanese Zeros shot down a 43rd Bomb Group B-17 crew near Kavieng.
2. Survival of THE RECKLESS MOUNTAIN BOYS Crew Eight members of Heichel’s crew survived the B-17’s landing, only to be captured by the Japanese.
3. Battle of Manila: Softening Corregidor The 22nd Bomb Group is sent to bomb Corregidor before Allied ground troops begin their advance on Manila.
4. The 345th’s Final Show After Japan surrendered and before the official surrender took place, the 345th Bomb Group participated in a little-known historic flight, escorting Japanese planes to and from Ie Shima with a special delegation aboard.
5. Memorial Day 2015 Remembering the crew of B-17 HONI KUU OKOLE, which was shot down by an Irving night fighter on May 21, 1943.
6. Writing Off SUICIDE’S FLYING DRUNKS A 38th Bomb Group B-25 crew attempts to escape an air raid on Horn Island. It doesn’t go as planned.
7. (tie) Shot Down over Yulin Bay: Part 1 The Japanese brought down a 345th Bomb Group B-25 crew on March 30, 1945.
Friendship After Bombing Davao A lone 43rd Bomb Group B-24 crew flies out to bomb Davao and is intercepted by a kamikaze fighter. 20 years later, friendship develops between the two pilots.
Early in the war, the U.S. Navy was in need of a fast, long-range torpedo bomber. There weren’t any in the Navy’s inventory that met their requirements and so they turned to the Army Air Force in hopes of converting B-26s into torpedo bombers. Out of the blue, an order from General Brett, the senior U.S. Commander in Australia, came to the 22nd Bomb Group’s C.O., Lt. Col. Haskins, wanting two of his crews and B-26s to report to Melbourne, Australia for torpedo school. Pilots Lt. Frank Allen and Lt. Cooper were chosen to go. Allen specifically came to Haskin’s mind when he thought of Allen’s torpedo lessons in San Diego.
For a week, Allen got the runaround as he tried to get further instructions about this torpedo school before he was told he was on his own. He knew that the Navy had an installation at Pearce Airdrome (north of Perth) and decided to set up the program there. Upon his apparently unanticipated arrival on May 1, 1942, he found out that no one else knew about this project. Fortunately, the Navy promised Allen support and assigned a Commander Robinson to work with him. Robinson, Allen soon discovered, knew everything about torpedoes.
They started out by building dummy torpedoes out of “jarrah” wood (metal resources were unavailable to them), which was a close density to that of iron. Testing started after Cooper and his crew arrived on May 17th. Their B-26 was damaged after it got stuck in the mud and they had to get a different aircraft. Murphy’s Law continued to wreak havoc with the first torpedo test: the B-26’s booster coils burned out and needed to be replaced, its batteries died, and once the plane finally took off, the dummy torpedo was left on the runway because the firing switch shorted out. After all the mechanical issues were fixed, the dummy torpedo was finally dropped on the target. Instead of breaking like a torpedo should, it bounced and somersaulted before finally entering the water and settling into the deep mud somewhere.
In all, there ended up being about ten tests with the wooden torpedoes at different heights and airspeeds before they were finally given real torpedoes with water-filled heads. They tested these for about two months, recording data and taking photos and videos. It was established that the most successful torpedo drops occurred when the airspeed and drop height were equal: at 200mph, drop the torpedo from 200 feet, etc.
Allen, who had been promoted to Captain on May 10th, finally decided they were ready to start teaching in July at a torpedo school at Nowra, 75 miles south of Sydney. Given his previous experiences at Melbourne and Pearce, it’s not surprising that this torpedo school didn’t exist yet and he was supposed to get it started. By August, many of the 22nd’s crews went through Allen’s torpedo school and gave themselves the name of the “1st Torpedo Squadron.” They weren’t too fond of the idea of using B-26s as torpedo bombers because of the impaired aerodynamics and short ground clearance on takeoff.
The training wasn’t too interesting, but the men still entertained themselves. One day, Nowra’s local paper reported on a buzz job: “Yesterday morning when the ‘Birds’ came home to roost, they skimmed the tops of the houses in the town, much to the alarm of residents. Among complaints received at this office, mostly from womenfolk, are that choice lemons were blown off her trees in the garden; another that the force of the air slipstream blew the paint off the roof, while a third lady, suffering an attack of lumbago was seen disappearing down an air raid shelter head first.”
Soon, the men were sent back to join the rest of the 22nd at Iron Range, as they were needed elsewhere. The Navy realized that the B-26 wasn’t the right plane for the job and the torpedo school was closed down in August, thus sending these tests to the 22nd Bomb Group’s records.
The 38th Bomb Group called Horn Island, located north of Queensland, Australia, home in September 1942. Perhaps home is too strong a word. While staying at Horn Island, the men put up with high heat and humidity, hordes of mosquitoes, bad food, lots of dust and a water supply that was tainted with magnesium sulfate. It was not a pleasant area.
In the event of an air raid, all planes were to take off in order to keep damage at a minimum. The dusty conditions significantly hindered pilot visibility, making takeoff very risky. The two runways on Horn Island formed the shape of an ‘X’ and each had a small cutout where pilots of two planes could wait for their turn to taxi to the end of a runway and begin their takeoff.
September 25, 1942 brought a Japanese raid to the island, sending crews running to their planes in order to get them airborne fast. At the time, the 49th Fighter Group was also staying at Horn Island, leading to even more chaos as both P-40 fighters and B-25 bombers began to crowd the two runways. In the midst of the hubbub was the 405th Squadron’s 1/Lt. William F. Pittman and his crew hurrying to get their B-25, SUICIDE’S FLYING DRUNKS off the ground.
Pittman taxied to the end of the runway, then turned around to take off. Because of all the dust that had been kicked up as he taxied, he couldn’t see whether or not the end of the runway was clear. At the same time, a P-40 was taxiing in the opposite direction on the same runway. When Pittman hit 90mph, he exited the dust and saw a collision between his plane and the P-40 was imminent.
Yelling for his crew to hang on, Pittman and his co-pilot, 2/Lt. Dean G. Hall, managed to get a few feet off the ground, with the left landing gear rolling over the top of the P-40. The left wing dropped as the B-25 flew through the camp area, leaving a path of destruction in its wake. Even though Pittman leveled out, SUICIDE’S FLYING DRUNKS was not going fast enough to avoid a crash and the pilot quickly began turning off the engines to prevent a fire on impact.
As he turned off the engines, the plane crashed, throwing the crew around. At the time of the crash, bombardier 2/Lt. Joseph R. Petronis was wearing a steel helmet that probably saved his life; he walked away uninjured with a large dent in it after hitting a bulkhead. Luckily, no one was seriously injured in the crash. SUICIDE’S FLYING DRUNKS was a total loss.
In the early stages of the Pacific Theater of World War II, Rabaul, an airbase complex and anchorage on the northeastern coast of New Britain, was a regular target for the bomb groups of Fifth Air Force. The base was a stronghold and primary staging point for the Japanese that wouldn’t fall for years. The 22nd Bomb Group was sent to bomb Rabaul a number of times, though this story focuses on the events of a mission on April 11, 1942, only a few months after the area had been captured by the Japanese. That day, nine B-26s from the 33rd and 19th Bomb Squadrons were sent to bomb Rabaul’s two airdromes at the time, Vunakanau and Lakunai.
Lieutenant Louis W. “Tad” Ford was flying as wingman for Lt. Richard W. Robinson, the leader of the mission, and both flew over Lakunai Airdrome, releasing their bombs on targets below. The Japanese on the ground fired their antiaircraft guns at the B-26s, with three bursts exploding around Ford’s plane. Shrapnel cut hydraulic lines, holed the auxiliary gas tank as well as the main left gas tank and the right engine. Ford’s crew leapt into action to help keep their plane aloft for as long as possible.
As Ford set a course for home, he eased up the power on the damaged and overheating engine, then tried to release the burning auxiliary gas tank. When the tank wouldn’t budge, two of his crewmembers went onto the bomb bay’s catwalk where they kicked and shoved the gas tank until it finally dislodged. Afterwards, they spent an hour trying to manually close the bomb bay doors before giving up. Closing the doors would lessen the chance of the B-26 breaking apart in case of a water landing, which would increase the crew’s chance of surviving the landing. Ford was shadowed by Robinson, who soon had to leave Ford and his crew behind after his own fuel levels started running low.
Awhile later, Ford began his ascent over the Owen Stanley Mountains so he could head directly back to Port Moresby. This was soon abandoned when he noticed that the right engine was nearly out of fuel, and instead, he began looking for a place to make an emergency landing. He found a spot on the west side of the Tufi Peninsula and told his crew to brace for impact. Fortunately, no one was injured in the landing. The men piled out of their plane and looked at their surroundings, which were intimidating: they were stuck in a plain of razor-sharp kunai grass taller than they were.
The radio operator was able to transmit their coordinates and received a response from Port Moresby. For the rest of the afternoon, the crew made themselves as comfortable as they could and dined on the plane’s emergency rations. They spent a long, uncomfortable night trying to fend off mosquitoes. When morning arrived, three of the men set off to find help. Eventually, they came across some natives who were willing to aid the Americans and spent the next six weeks working their way back to Port Moresby.