Repost: Middlebrook’s Crew Has a Close Call

This post was first written back in May 2016. Today, we’re bringing it back for another read.

 

Sleep was eluding the men of the 38th Bomb Group on the night of May 14/15, 1943. They were rudely awakened by a Japanese raid on Port Moresby, which destroyed a tent of Norden bombsights and slightly damaged two B-25s. At 2AM, the all-clear was sounded and the men headed back to bed, only to be woken up a short time later for a mission at 3AM to Gasmata. To top things off, weather between Port Moresby and Gasmata was very stormy. It was not a good morning.

After being assigned to fly EL DIABLO II, 2/Lt. Garrett Middlebrook was especially not looking forward to this mission. This plane was an unmodified B-25C hand-me-down that had been designated as non-combat only. Unlike the other B-25s flying this morning, this one was not equipped with wing tanks that could hold 300 gallons of extra fuel for the long flight. Middlebrook’s protests about flying this plane were dismissed, so he and his crew got in their plane and began the bumpy 300-mile trip to Gasmata.

Aerodromes and Landing Grounds February 1943

This map shows some of the airdromes and landing grounds around New Guinea as of February 1943. The route between Gasmata and Port Moresby is highlighted in yellow.

Climbing to 13,000 feet, the crew began crossing over the Owen Stanley Mountains. The B-25, as well as all of its crew other than the pilot and co-pilot, were tossed about in the turbulent weather. At one point, the aircraft was caught in a downdraft that sent it into a 2000-foot dive. Navigator Lt. Vincent A. Raney wrapped his arms around the steel plating behind Middlebrook’s seat and stood on the ceiling to brace himself until the pilot and co-pilot were able to pull the aircraft out of its dive. The skies were filled with lightning, which created halos around the propeller edges. One bolt lit up the scene in front of them: a mountain. Middlebrook pulled up sharply and the crew was spared an untimely death.

That was to be the last bit of severe turbulence for the trip, though the plane was still tossed around a bit afterwards. The B-25 ascended to 14,000 feet and continued to Gasmata. There was one problem: all the turbulence left the crew disoriented and no one was able to determine exactly where they were. After crossing the mountains, they descended to 800 feet, then to 300 feet in search of the water somewhere below them. Still, even if they could find the target, there would not be enough fuel to get them back home. They decided that the best thing to do was to head home, even if it meant going back through the storm.

The flight was once again very bumpy, but they did not have any further close calls with mountains. Eventually, the stormy weather was left behind as the crew flew along the south coast of New Guinea, 250 miles west of Port Moresby. By this time, fuel was low and Middlebrook didn’t want to risk flying over the Gulf of Papua, which was the shortest route back to base. Instead, he flew 175 miles to a shoreline covered with sand dunes and made a wheels-down landing, keeping the nose up as long as possible to minimize the chance of getting caught on one of the dunes.

Once the B-25 landed and the crew got out, they saw several natives walking towards them. One, a boy, could understand a little English and told the men that some Australians were stationed about half a day’s walk from the crash site and that he was willing to guide them to the Australians. Three of the crew set out with the boy while the rest stayed to secure the plane and destroy the I.F.F. (Identification Friend or Foe) transponder in case the plane fell into enemy hands.

Soon enough, the three men returned with good news: they were to be picked up by the Australians that night at the mouth of the Kapuri River. They spent the night resting at the Australian camp and were picked up by a C-47 at noon the next day. EL DIABLO II was also picked up and repaired, then transferred out of the 38th.

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The Old Man’s Ordeal

The Old Man’s Ordeal a B-17 painting by Jack Fellows

Limited Edition of 200 Giclee prints

Signed and numbered by the artist

Image Size: 25″ x 19.5″

Paper Size: 30″ x 24″

On March 8, 1943, a 65th Bomb Squadron, 43rd Bomb Group B-17 named THE OLD MAN was on a long-range photo-recco mission over Gasmata airstrip on New Britain when it was jumped by three Zeros. The battle was on. One Zero pilot shot several bursts into the nose of the aircraft, wounding pilot Melville “Dutch” Ehlers. Bombardier Thomas Lloyd “Breezy” Boren released four 500-pound bombs and the long-range bomb bay auxiliary fuel tank to lighten the craft as they frantically clawed to gain airspeed. They limped back to the Dobudura airfield complex, on the north side of Papua New Guinea, and the crew (also including co-pilot Joseph “Indian” Cochran, navigator Warren “Doc” Bryant, engineer Willard R. Madison, gunner David J. Eckholt, radioman William A. Boly, ball gunner Michael R. Andrade, tail gunner Joseph Ferriola, and photographer Leonard Williams) was credited with five aircraft destroyed. This artwork is published in our book Ken’s Men Against the Empire Volume I and is available for purchase on our website.

 

Give ‘em hell Peanuts…we’ll see you are left alone

March 3, 1943 was the culmination of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. With a story each from the 38th and 43rd Bomb Groups already told, we wanted to highlight the participation of the 3rd Bomb Group. The following is taken from the 90th Squadron’s history and a diary entry from Lt. Lee S. Walter, who was a pilot with the 13th Squadron.

March 3d………..As long as there is a 3d Bombardment Group, this day, March the third will go down in everyone’s history as the most decisive day of its history……For on this day, the 90th probably set a record that no squadron has achieved in any single day of this war to date……

The morning broke clear and cool……12 ships were alerted…an early 6 AM breakfast of griddle cakes and coffee was had and then crews assembled at the Intelligence tent on the line……

At 7:45 the order of attack and general intelligence was given…..the dope….a twelve ship convoy was just off Finschaven on a heading of 200 degrees…obviously heading for Lae or Salamaua…the order of attack was then given to all combat personnel…..to wit: 27 B-17’s would lead the attack from 5-7 thousand feet; followed by a Squadron of B-25’s from the 38th Group; followed by the 13th Squadron of B-25’s; followed by another Squadron of B-25’s of the 38th Group; followed by the 90th Skip Bombing B-25’s; followed by Beaufighters; followed by A-20’s…..and protected overhead by a minimum of 35 P-38’s, and ample coverage of P-40’s and P-39’s…..all in all, 120 planes of various description and sizes were in on this coordinated attack….. The deadline was 8:15 AM…..the engines started turning over…….Cape Ward Hunt was the rendezvous for all planes….at 9:15 all the bombers assembled there at 7000 feet…….the designation for radio purposes, of the Bombers were “Peanuts”, the pursuit was “Pop-Corn”…..Heard over the radio at Cape Ward Hunt…..”Peanuts to Pop corn”, we are here, lets get going to the target….Go Ahead”…..The reply… “Pop-corn to Peanuts…Okay boys, hang on to your pants… we still are minus a few Pop-corn……Okay…Okay…I see them coming…I see them coming…its Okay…its Okay… give ‘em hell Peanuts…we’ll see you are left alone!”

Japanese ships burn on the Bismarck Sea

A ship from the convoy burns after it was hit by Allied forces during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea.

Picking up the story, Walter Lee writes,

“It promised to be a very big show and the mass of airplanes was an exceptional sight by itself. The sky seemed almost black with them. Everywhere I looked I could see at least one flight of some type of airplane…We kept circling in one huge circle until it was certain everyone that was coming was there. Then the B-17’s headed out to meet the convoy and the circle we were in straightened out. Much the same as you would see if you took the loose end of a coil of rope and started pulling. This is undoubtedly the largest Allied air offensive ever put into the air at one time here in the South West Pacific. It must have affected everyone the same as it did me.

“Such mass of air power gives one the feeling of invincibility…As we were coming in the Japs battlewagons started swinging broadside so they could use all their guns on us…The first flight attacked the destroyers and cruisers, each selecting one in the order in which they flew. A destroyer is the most vicious thing to attack because they have so many pom poms and multiple machine guns. It wasn’t a pleasant sensation to see the whole side of one of those things suddenly burst with flame from one end to the other and watch those red tomatoes come out at you. They never did hit any of us though. Their range was slightly short…

“We approached [the target] at about twenty feet strafing and dropping two bombs. As we crossed the boat our left wing tip narrowly missed the mast. After we crossed, we got down on the water again and flew out always looking for our next target. On a turn to our left we observed the results of our bombing. Our first bomb hit the waterline and the second was a near miss, which is almost as disastrous. The ship had burst in flames; the bulk of it a great orange tower seventy-five to one hundred feet high. It was an exhilarating sensation to know that we could sink one with such devastating results…

“Capt Henebry started a fire on the bow in a group of barges and I dropped the last 500-pound bomb with only a near miss. I was somewhat disappointed by I still hope that the near miss cracked open a few plates. At twenty-five feet it should have done something. With our bombs all gone and most of our ammunition gone, we headed back towards land just as fast as we could.”

After all was said and done, General George C. Kenney sent the following message to all the bomb groups: “Congratulations on the stupendous success, air power has written some important history in the past three days. Tell the whole gang that I am so proud of them I am about to blow a fuze.”

The results of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea were devastating for the Japanese and a tremendous show of Allied air power. It was the first time skip-bombing had been put to the test on a large scale and the experimental tactic would be used by B-25s and A-20s for the remainder of the war.

Diary Excerpt: Mathew C. Gac

Although he wasn’t a member of an aircrew, Mathew Gac of the 38th Bomb Group saw many raids through the lenses of cameras on his group’s aircraft. He frequently wrote in his diary about day-to-day life working in the photo department and we wanted to share three of them with you this week.

July 8, 1943

Still a tired fellow this morning with a lot on my mind and a lot of work to do alone. Another mission today. 405th to support the big push around Salamaua. Finished overhauling a K-17 and then had to take V.R. shots of a 499 wrecked B-25 [#41-30028 “BLUNDER-BUS,” see pp. 32-33 of Warpath Across the Pacific] at the end of the runway in the stream. Could not take off, no bombs exploded. Luckily 4 men walked out and the other was carried out hurt. In the P.M. started to make a special mount for the K-21 camera. Went down to the Service Sqdn but got no satisfaction, nothing so I am going to make a wooden model and try it out. The mission came back 1 P.M. then a lot of work again developing at printing got finished 7:30 P.M. Photos not so good on account of the bad weather. Rumours we must have 24 months overseas before going home.

Striking Lae on June 26 1943

This photo, taken on a mission to Lae on June 26, 1943, is an example of the photos that could only be taken with cameras installed in an aircraft’s belly.

July 9

Another tired feeling after yesterday’s busy day. It was very damp and cool as this A.M.s short rain was the first for a while. Another mission today 405th in the Mubo area again. Working on a new setup for the K-21. A box where the camera can be slung along underneath the camera hatch and shoot backwards. Went down to the line for parts but the tin smith was busy, so Amos and I worked on the other idea of attaching the mirror arrangement to the K-17 cone. Did not finish as it started to rain very hard. Thank goodness we have a good tent and all the equipment is dry for a change.

July 10

It was quite damp and wet this morning as it rained hard last night. Went down to the line to try the new setup of the mirror idea. Worked on it with Amos and got it fixed O.K. Though the setup looks peculiar and the mirror is half inside the plane the angle is greater and it looks O.K. in focal plane. The plane was tested and so was my setup and it turned out O.K. Almost 100% coverage. Lt Salome liked it and now I’ll have to change all the other plane setups, 14 in all. Worked for a while on the K-17 for the mirror attachments. Got new camera cones for K-17s. Will have a lot more work now.

The Costly Mistake

By the end of 1943, the 43rd Bomb Group made a series of attacks on Cape Gloucester to soften it up for an upcoming invasion. Over 100 aircraft participated in these raids on December 22nd and 23rd, where a wide range of items from bombs to leaflets and even beer bottles (these were to scare Japanese on the ground, as they whistled like bombs) were dropped from the B-24s, B-25s and A-20s. There was nothing from the Japanese in return. No antiaircraft fire or intercepting fighters rushed to discourage the Allied forces from their mission.

While the missions themselves were relatively uneventful, taking off or landing was sometimes an entirely different story. In this case, a routine takeoff for Capt. Bryan A. Flatt on December 22nd nearly turned into a nightmare. Flatt was accelerating to takeoff speed and thought he had lifted off the runway. Instead, he was still on the ground when he applied the landing gear brakes, which caused the nose gear to fold. Quickly realizing his mistake, he retracted the the main gear to get his B-24 off the ground, but both collapsed and the plane hit the ground. It skidded for several hundred feet, made a sharp right, then went over several tree stumps, a six-foot embankment and finally came to a stop in a marsh.

B-24 #42-41221 after it crashed

On December 22, 1943, 1/Lt. Bryan A. Flatt of the 403rd Squadron was taking off from Dobodura when he mistakenly thought that his B-24D #42-41221 was airborne. In fact, the plane was still on the runway, and when Flatt applied the brakes in preparation for raising the landing gear, the right and left gear collapsed and the plane skidded off the runway. These photographs show the B-24D after it crashed. Amazingly, none of the 11 crewmembers sustained more than minor injuries. (George A. Putnam Collection)

After all was said and done, the entire crew climbed out of the wrecked aircraft with nothing more than minor injuries. It wasn’t long before rumors were spreading around the camp about nose gear collapsing on B-24s because the early reports did not cite Flatt’s error as the cause. To quell the fears of the crews, Flatt called a squadron meeting to explain that the accident was his fault and not a mechanical issue. His honesty in this situation, which could have damaged his career, was greatly admired by his squadron.

General Walker’s Last Mission to Rabaul

Seventy-five years ago today, Gen. Kenneth N. Walker boarded Maj. Jack W. Bleasdale’s B-17 SAN ANTONIO ROSE, thereby ignoring a direct order from Gen. George C. Kenney not to fly on combat missions. Kenney feared losing an excellent commander and what could happen if the aircraft Walker was on was shot down and its passengers, especially Walker, were captured by the Japanese. If you’ve read our previous post on the subject, you might recall that this mission was particularly dangerous because it was a raid on the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul in broad daylight. Still, it caught the Japanese by surprise and several ships sitting in Simpson Harbor were either damaged or sunk. The 43rd Bomb Group lost two B-17s that day. One was SAN ANTONIO ROSE, the other was B-17F #41-24538, piloted by 1/Lt. Jean Jack. Jack and his crew ditched their B-17 off the coast of Urasi Island and all were rescued the following day. SAN ANTONIO ROSE has never been found.

Last year, Pacific Wrecks uploaded a video taken from the January 5th mission. While it’s available to watch below, we recommend you watch it on YouTube so you can read through the excellent notes about different points of the video provided by Pacific Wrecks. For even more information on the day’s events, buy a copy of Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Volume I.

IHRA’s Top 7 Posts of 2017

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 of 2017.

1. The Fight for Mindoro As a result of some great comments from a prior post (see #4 on this list), we delved into further detail about a harrowing mission on December 24, 1944.

Wreckage of B-24 Tempermental Lady2. A B-24’s Forced Retirement After the B-24 TEMPERMENTAL LADY was hit on a mission, landing the plane wasn’t going to be easy…

 

3. Book Review: They Did It for Honor: Stories of American World War II Veterans We review the second book of veteran stories as told to Kayleen Reusser.

B-17 MISS EM and crew(tie) Beyond the Bomb Group What happened to the B-17s that transferred out of the 43rd Bomb Group? We follow the story of one of their old Flying Fortresses, CAP’N & THE KIDS.

 

A 63rd Squadron B-24 attacks a Japanese ship near Mindoro during WWII4. Night Action Off Mindoro This dramatic painting by artist Jack Fellows illustrates a B-24 coming off an attack on a Japanese destroyer near Mindoro.

 

 

Maj. Gerrity (in the cockpit) and Sgt. Neal (standing in the B-25's nose).5. Major Tom Gerrity’s One Plane War Against the Japanese A pilot scheduled to go home wanted one more crack at the Japanese before he left the Pacific Theater.

 

Butch the German shepherd6. 9 Photos of Dogs in the Pacific Theater During World War II It’s all in the title. Go meet some of the dogs of Fifth Air Force.

 

A painting of a 38th Bomb Group B-25 over a Japanese ship during WWII7. One Minute in Hell Steve Ferguson illustrates some of the final moments of 1/Lt. James A. Hungerpiller and his crew over Simpson Harbor on November 2, 1943.

Repost: Building the Steak and Eggs Special

First appearing in May 2016, this entry was one of last year’s most popular posts. We like it so much we’re sharing it again with you this week.

 

For the men stationed in New Guinea during 1942 and 1943, a variety of fresh food was not easy to come by. There were plenty of coconuts, although the men grew tired of eating them, and the occasional banana, but no other fresh fruits or vegetables. Whatever came through was canned. By the end of 1942, they decided that they had had enough of the canned fruits and vegetables and began working on their own plane that would ferry fresh food from Australia.

This plane, an A-20, was being built from scrapped pieces by T/Sgt. Kip Hawkins and a few other mechanics from the 89th Bomb Squadron. The fuselage was taken from LITTLE HELLION, which belly-landed on November 1, 1942, and the wing sections from THE COMET, which was scrapped after the nose wheel collapsed while the plane was being towed on December 15, 1942.

Wings for THE "STEAK & EGG" SPECIAL

An A-20 named THE COMET was scrapped after its nose gear collapsed. The wings from the aircraft were taken and propped up on barrels, ready for a new fuselage of the aircraft that would become THE “STEAK & EGG” SPECIAL.

 

THE "STEAK & EGG" SPECIAL's new fuselage

Here, the scrapped fuselage from the A-20 formerly known as LITTLE HELLION is being slid between the waiting wings propped up on barrels.

It was a slow reconstruction that lasted all of January 1943, as the mechanics had to go through a lot of scrap piles around Port Moresby for various parts. At one point, a wing that was propped up on barrels fell right on the head of a mechanic. Luckily, he escaped without serious injury. Soon enough, the fuselage was slid between the wings and the aircraft was put together. The A-20, now named THE “STEAK & EGG” SPECIAL, was christened with eggs on February 4th.

THE "STEAK & EGG" SPECIAL christening

T/Sgt. Clifton H. Hawkins and Cpl. Schraam sit in the A-20 after its dedication on February 4, 1943. Notice the splattered egg above the name.

Given the nature of how this A-20 came to exist, there were a few mechanical problems to work out. Once fixed though, the aircraft regularly made trips from Port Moresby to Australia. The Squadron enjoyed the fresh food and meat immensely. In August, the paint was stripped and the aircraft was renamed STEAK & EGGS, then later STEAK AND EGGS (without the ampersand). On June 11, 1944, STEAK AND EGGS was low on fuel when it flew into bad weather. Both factors led to a forced landing on an Australian beach and the subsequent end of the aircraft. No one was seriously injured in the landing. Parts of the aircraft were salvaged, with the rest still on the beach today.

Read more about the missions of this aircraft, including a stories from a veteran who flew the plane, at Australia @ War.

Attacking Wewak

Weather was interfering with Fifth Air Force’s plans in October 1943, specifically on October 16th. Instead of targeting Rabaul, the 345th Bomb Group was sent to hit the Wewak airfield complex instead after finding out that the Japanese were rebuilding their air power there. All four squadrons as well as a squadron of fighter cover were to first attack Boram Airstrip, then fly the two miles to Wewak where their main strike would occur. Four of the Group’s B-25s were unable to complete the mission for various reasons, including one unusual occurrence: a turret canopy broke and fell off.

The Japanese were ready for the 345th, filling the sky with antiaircraft fire and fighter aircraft prepared to attack their enemy. Separating into squadron formations, one flew off to release parafrags over the antiaircraft batteries dotting the shoreline. Once over the runways of Wewak, ten B-25s dropped 100-pound wire-wrapped bombs in hopes of destroying the runway, aircraft on the ground, supply dumps and more. Meanwhile, the Japanese were fiercely fighting back and some of their bullets were hitting crucial points of the B-25s. BOOM-BOOM’s nose guns were knocked out of action when the electrical connections were severed, and it received several other hits that took it out of the 500th Squadron for several weeks upon return to Port Moresby.

One B-25, #561, had fallen behind the rest of the 500th Squadron’s formation with a damaged engine. Aboard the aircraft, Lt. Donald Stookey was doing his best to keep his plane in the air. With one engine out of commission and the other losing power, it wasn’t long before he had to make a water landing ten miles down the coastline and three miles off Cape Moem. The crew escaped their B-25 and swam for the raft that they ejected before the crash. Overhead, three B-25s from the 501st Squadron and several P-38s circled the downed crew, dropping two more rafts before their fuel began to run low and they had to head home. Stookey and his crew rowed toward land, where they were eventually captured and killed by the Japanese.

Downed 345th Bomb Group B-25 near Wewak and Boram

B-25D-1 #561 of the 500th Squadron was hit in the right engine by intense AA fire a mile from Wewak on October 16, 1943. Lieutenant Donald Stookey made an excellent water landing three miles northeast of Cape Moem. The plane remained afloat for only 90 seconds. This photo was taken from a 499th Squadron aircraft just after the tail lifted and a few moments before the plane sank. This nose-down attitude was typical of ditched B-25s. The crew was later captured and all died in captivity at Wewak and Rabaul.

Back over Wewak and Boram, two B-25 pilots discovered their own unpleasant surprises when their bombs wouldn’t release because the bomb racks malfunctioned. Leaving the bombing to the other B-25s, they strafed the target area instead. STINGEROO sustained damage from bullets through the hydraulic system and gas tanks, which made for a tense flight home. The pilot made an overnight stop at Nadzab to get the damage repaired before heading back to Port Moresby. After doing extensive damage to the two airfields, the remaining 345th aircraft formed up and headed home.

Overall, the mission was deemed a success. Photography taken from the B-25s cameras helped determine 25 confirmed aircraft destroyed on the ground or in the air, with another seven probable. While a break would have been welcome news, the 345th would be back in the air on the 18th, heading for the dreaded stronghold of Rabaul.

 

Find this story in our book Warpath Across the Pacific.

How to Make a Volcano Explode (or not)

In late March 1943, Rabaul was (unsurprisingly) still the top target of Allied raids. For two days, March 20th and 21st, the 65th Squadron was on alert to fly a mission to Vunakanau Airdrome, and the mission was cancelled each day because of less than optimal weather. All four of the 43rd’s squadrons were put on alert on the 22nd for another Rabaul raid, and they were able to take off from Seven Mile on the night of the 22nd, which would have them arriving over Rabaul on the 23rd.

The B-17s made their appearance known by dropping bombs on Rabaul before sunrise. Since there was no daylight, the crews could not observe their results, but searchlights were following the B-17s everywhere. While several planes were holed by antiaircraft fire, none were seriously damaged and all returned to base without issue.

Rabaul was the proverbial thorn in Fifth Air Force’s side and it’s possible that more than a few men were wishing for a quick way to shut down this Japanese stronghold. Several of them came up with a theory to test out: using Matupi Volcano to their advantage, specifically by using bombs to make it explode, thereby wiping out Rabaul. Major Carl A. Hustad took off with his bombardier on the 23rd to carry out this mission. The two 2000-pound bombs were dropped into the crater with no results. Afterwards, personnel realized how silly the idea was in the first place.

 

Rabaul Volcanos

Taken in 1941, this photo shows the topography of the Rabaul area. Matupi Volcano can be seen in the background.

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