The Same Places, 70+ Years Apart—Five More WWII Bases Then and Now

Port Moresby

The town that would later become the capital city of Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby, was a major staging base for the Allies during World War II. Port Moresby’s air fields, named for their distance from the city, included: 3 Mile (Kila Kila), 5 Mile (Ward), 7 Mile (Jackson), 12 Mile (Berry), 14 Mile (Schwimmer), and 17 Mile (Durand). It was crucial for the Allies to hold onto this territory, as it was the last piece of land between the Japanese to the north and Australia to the south. The city’s occupants were subject to many Japanese bombing raids until September 1943. Postwar, Port Moresby transformed from an Australian territory to the Papua New Guinea capital in 1975. Today, all that remains of World War II are artifacts and steel matting from the runways.

Port Moresby then and now

Click to enlarge. In the photo on the left, taken from Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s, is the Port Moresby complex as it appeared in December 1942. At right is Port Moresby today, taken from Google Maps.

Floridablanca

Translated from Spanish as “white flower,” Floridablanca was settled as a Spanish mission in 1823. Not much is known about the area’s history, but it was taken over by the Japanese during World War II, then liberated once the Allies moved that far north. The 312th Bomb Group and 348th Fighter Group both used the air base on Floridablanca for a short time. The Philippine Air Force now uses the base and it has been renamed Basa Air Base.

Floridablanca

Click to enlarge. In the photo on the left, taken from Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s, is Floridablanca as it appeared in 1946. At right is Floridablanca today, taken from Google Maps.

 

Owi Island

Owi’s only inhabitants before World War II consisted of two families, one at each end of the small island. Shortly after the arrival of Allied forces in 1944, the natives left. It took about three weeks to build the airstrip, which consisted of coral, a difficult surface to land on when it was wet. Owi was used between June and November 1944, then abandoned as U.S. forces pushed north. Traces of the runway can still be seen today.

Owi then and now

Click to enlarge. In the photo at the top, taken from an upcoming book, is Owi Island as it appeared in August 1944. Above is Owi Island today, taken from Google Maps.

Finschhafen

In 1885, Finschhafen was settled by the German New Guinea Company. About 15 years later, it was abandoned after disease spread rapidly among the settlers and resulted in the failure of two different colonization attempts. At some point before World War II started, Lutherans built a mission station on Finschhafen. The Japanese took over the area on March 10, 1942 and held it until Australian forces moved in and captured Finschhafen on October 2, 1943. Allied forces expanded the base and used it until the end of the war. After the war ended, a huge hole was dug and much of the leftover equipment was buried. These days, Finschhafen is a quiet location.

Finschhafen then and now

Click to enlarge. In the undated photo at the top is Finschhafen sometime around World War II. Above is Finschhafen today, taken from Google Maps.

Gusap

Previously uninhabited, Gusap was built up into an eight-runway airfield by U.S. Army engineers. It was used from October 1943 to July 1944 by several units that included the 49th Fighter Group and 312th Bomb Group. This location was ideal for staging missions by fighters and light bombers. After the war was over, remaining aircraft were scrapped. Today, only one of the eight strips is still being used by aircraft and is noted by the balloon in the right image. The rest of the area has been turned into a cattle ranch. With the radical transformation of Gusap, the exact location of the airfields seen in the left image has become unknowable.

Gusap then and now

Click to enlarge. In the top photo, taken from Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s, is part of Gusap’s airfields as they appeared in December 1943. Above is Gusap today, taken from Google Maps.

 

Sources and additional reading:

https://www.pacificwrecks.com/provinces/png_port_moresby.html

https://www.britannica.com/place/Port-Moresby

https://www.pacificwrecks.com/airfields/philippines/floridablanca/index.html

http://en.wikipilipinas.org/index.php/Floridablanca,_Pampanga

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Owi_Airfield

https://www.pacificwrecks.com/airfields/indonesia/owi/index.html

https://www.pacificwrecks.com/provinces/png_finschafen.html

http://engineersvietnam.com/engineers/WWII/owi.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finschhafen

http://www.lonelyplanet.com/papua-new-guinea/morobe-and-madang-provinces/finschhafen-area/introduction

https://www.britannica.com/place/Finschhafen

https://www.pacificwrecks.com/airfields/png/gusap/index.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gusap_Airport

YEAH! Goes Down

On this Memorial Day, we want to take some time to remember those who were killed in combat. Among them were several members of a B-26 crew from the 33rd Squadron. Their story is below.

On January 7, 1943, 1/Lt. Leonard T. Nicholson and his crew were flying to Lae with a couple of other B-26s to target ships in the harbor. As the three planes began their bombing run, the Japanese began sending up antiaircraft fire to discourage the American crews. The men flew on and released their bombs. As they turned, YEAH! was hit by two blasts of flak, one of which knocked out the left engine and damaged the hydraulic lines. YEAH!’s bomb bay doors fell open, causing an unsustainable amount of of strain on the only working engine.

Ground Crew Members with B-26 YEAH!

Two unidentified members of the ground crew stand beneath the Squadron insignia on the nose of YEAH!

By this point, nine Zeros had caught up to the B-26s and the pilots knew it was time to get out of there. Nicholson knew there was no way he would make it back to Port Moresby on one overheating engine and let the crew know that they should prepare to ditch the plane. The pilot landed in Hercules Bay, located north of Buna, and the crew hurried to get out of YEAH! Engineer Sgt. Jack G. Mosely and radioman S/Sgt. Joseph P. Papp unfortunately did not escape and went down with the plane. The rest of the men swam to shore, helping the severely injured navigator Lt. Norm E. DeFreese along the way. Once on the beach, gunner Cpl. Thomas A. Moffitt went off to find help for his crew. DeFreese did not live through the night.

The next day, three crewmen were walking towards Buna when they were spotted by Australian Beaufighters flying overhead. Food and a map were dropped to the men below. The relief that they must have felt was destroyed soon after by the sound of a gunshot. Bombardier S/Sgt. William M. Brown was killed by a Papuan Infantry Patrol that had mistaken the Americans for Japanese. The two remaining crewmen, the pilot and co-pilot, were separated during the chaos.

Co-pilot Lt. Jack I. Childers spent a couple of unbearable nights fending off mosquitoes in the open air and three days looking for someone who would help him get back to base. On the second day, Beaufighters espied him once again and dropped supplies. Childers’ situation changed on the third day when he spotted natives on the far side of the river and was able to flag them down. They took him to their village, where he spent a more comfortable night, then was taken to an Australian camp the following day. He soon learned that both Moffitt and Nicholson were alive and had been flown back to camp within the last couple of days. Childers would soon follow them and rejoin the rest of his unit.

This story can be found on p. 166 of our book Revenge of the Red Raiders.

Repost: The Ordeal of the Herry Crew

While looking through our blog archives, we rediscovered a post about Capt. Robert Herry, Maj. Williston M. Cox, and the rest of a 71st Squadron B-25 crew that went down on August 5, 1943. Today, we’re reposting the dramatic story.

 


When Maj. Williston Cox, C.O. of the 38th Bomb Group’s 71st Squadron, took off aboard MISS AMERICA on August 5, 1943, he had no idea it would be the last mission he would fly.

That day, his squadron was assigned to attack shipping targets near Alexishafen, New Guinea. Cox was riding along as the mission commander. After meeting up with their P-38 fighter cover at Mt. Yule, the crews flew on towards the target area, where they were greeted with heavy antiaircraft fire from Madang Township. Capt. Robert Herry, the pilot of MISS AMERICA, was nearing Madang when his B-25’s right engine was hit and severely damaged. While Herry managed to keep the plane under control, there was no way it would make it back to Allied territory. He set the plane down near Wongat Island, about three-quarters of a mile away from Madang.

Sinking 38th Bomb Group B-25

MISS AMERICA sinks after pilot Capt. Herry was forced to ditch the B-25 near Madang.

Herry’s tail gunner, S/Sgt. Raymond J. Zimmerman, died in the crash. The rest of the crew fared better with only superficial wounds and headed towards the island. Unfortunately, the crew was discovered on Wongat Island by natives who turned all but one crewmember over to the Japanese. The navigator, Lt. Louis J. Ritacco, was hiding in a tree at the time and wasn’t discovered for four more days, but would join the rest of his crew in prison. Herry, Cox, co-pilot 1/Lt. Robert J. “Moose” Koscelnak, and radio operator T/Sgt. Hugh W. Anderson were taken to Madang, where they were held for about 12 days.

Before Cox was locked in prison, he was separated from the rest of his crew and interrogated. He was beaten for not answering any questions, and only then allowed to join the rest of his crew in prison. On their third day as captives, a Japanese interpreter was brought in to interrogate the men. Cox asked if the Japanese would take him to speak to the commander at Madang, but was told the commander wasn’t there at the time. Once the commander returned, Cox’s request was granted.

The Japanese commander tried to question Cox regarding base locations, the number of U.S. planes in New Guinea and which unit Cox was from. He did not provide the commander with answers and cited international law that protected soldiers from disclosing such information. Prior to the war, Maj. Cox had completed three years of pre-law and was well-versed in these matters. He asked the commander to give his crew food and water, as they had only been given sustenance once in the last four days. They were fed, and later questioned as well.

Over the next five days, the crew was questioned by a Japanese intelligence unit and endured beatings when they refused to answer. Afterwards, they were left alone for two days. The next day, Cox and Herry were separated and told they would be taken to Rabaul for more questioning. On the way, they were stopped by a group of Japanese soldiers who took Herry back to prison. Completely separated from the rest of his crew, Cox was taken to an Alexishafen airstrip, tied to a coconut tree for three days and beaten. In that time, he was never given food and water only twice. Following this ordeal, Cox was taken to Rabaul, where he would stay until November 11, 1943.

Maj. Williston Cox

Major Cox before he was taken captive in August 1943.

From there, he was sent to Omori Prison on Tokyo Bay, where he managed to survive for the rest of the war. Maj. Cox weighed only 115 pounds when the POW camp was liberated on August 29, 1945. The rest of the crew was executed on August 17, 1943.

9 Photos of Dogs in the Pacific Theater during World War II

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.

Lt. Robert L. Mosely at Hollandia with dog

In 1944, 1/Lt. Robert L. Mosely of the 89th Squadron, 3rd Bomb Group stands in front of his A-20G, RAPID ROBERT, in Hollandia. The name of the dog is unknown. (Robert L. Mosely Collection)

 

Ralph Cheli with a Puppy

Sometime during the 38th Bomb Group’s stay in New Guinea in 1943, this picture of Ralph Cheli sitting in a Jeep with a puppy was taken. We do not know to whom the puppy belonged. (Garrett Middlebrook Collection)

 

Taking a Breather

1/Lt. John D. Cooper, Jr., pilot, 1/Lt. Raymond Bringle, navigator, and Capt. Franklin S. Allen, Jr., pilot–all from the 19th Squadron–and Blondie, the Squadron bulldog who flew many missions. The men are resting on a gas tank after a mission to Buna on August 27, 1942.

 

The 13th Squadron Mascot

At some point during the war, the 3rd Bomb Group’s 13th Squadron adopted this dog as their mascot. (Joseph Brown Jr. Collection)

 

Lt. Phillip B. Baldwin and Duffy

Lieutenant Phillip Baldwin poses with his dog Duffy for a picture in October 1945 at Fukuoka, the 38th Bomb Group’s final base in Japan. (Phillip Baldwin Collection)

 

B-17 Ground Crewmen with Dog

These men in front of the 43rd Bomb Group B-17 nicknamed BLACK JACK/JOKER’S WILD have a cute addition to their ground crew sitting on someone’s shoulders. The names of all four are unknown. (Charles R. Woods Collection)

 

Col. Davies and Pappy Gunn with a dog

Colonel Jim Davies and “Pappy” Gunn give this happy dog some attention at Charters Towers in early 1942. (Alexander Evanoff Collection)

 

Maj Marzolf and Ack Ack

Here, Major George Marzolf sits in a 38th Bomb Group B-25 at Lae with his dog Ack Ack in 1943. (George Marzolf Collection)

 

Butch the dog

Pilots on leave in Australia might return to New Guinea with dogs as pets. Butch, a German shepherd belonging to 1/Lt. John D. Field of the 89th Squadron, was a favorite of the pilots, especially Robert L. Mosley. Once, Mosley even took Butch on a medium-altitude mission to Manokwari when he was the pilot of the B-25 leading the A-20s over the target. Butch was fine until he was startled by the noise from the bomb bay doors opening and he began barking. Butch’s antics helped to relieve the tension, claims Mosley. “Here I was getting shot at, trying to blow up a bunch of airplanes and people below … and I’m in hysterics, looking back at Butch and his antics. The only dying that went on that day was me dying laughing at Butch. The bombs probably went into the ocean. We used to call that ‘bombing the sea plane runway’”. [sic] (Robert L. Mosley Collection)

The Ordeal of Tondelayo

The Ordeal Of Tondelayo: A painting of a 345th Bomb Group B-25 by Jack Fellows

Limited Edition of 199 Giclee prints

Signed and numbered by the artist

Image Size: 25″ x 19″

Paper Size: 29″ x 24″

The crewmen of the 500th Bomb Squadron B-25D-1 TONDELAYO fight for their lives over St. Georges Channel, near Rabaul, New Britain on October 18, 1943 while under a determined attack by Japanese fighters. The pilot, 1/Lt. Ralph G. Wallace would emerge victorious from an epic struggle to fend off Japanese Zeroes from 201 and 204 Kokutai while keeping his aircraft aloft with only one of its two engines functioning. Beyond TONDELAYO, a Zero crashes into the water having misjudged a low-level pass against the fleeing Mitchell bomber. Flight leader Capt. Lyle “Rip” Anacker in SNAFU can be seen on Wallace’s left wing and to his left, in the far right of the painting is 1/Lt. Harlan H. Peterson, flying SORRY SATCHUL. Both of these bombers were shot down in this encounter and survivors of Peterson’s crew were machine-gunned in the water by the Japanese.

After what seemed to be an eternity, Wallace’s crew in TONDELAYO managed to fight their way clear of their tormentors and eventually landed at Kiriwina Island, in the Trobriands Group. TONDELAYO, with dozens of bullet holes, would return to combat only after seven months of repair. In the end all 17 crewmen of the three 500th Bomb Squadron B-25s were awarded the Silver Star for valor. The 500th Squadron received a Distinguished Unit Citation for the mission. Col. Clinton True, C.O. of the 345th Bomb Group and leader of this mission, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for valor. This artwork is published in our book Warpath Across the Pacific.

Tin Liz

TIN LIZ was another of the unit’s medium bombers which had been converted to a strafer. Its original crew was F/O (later Capt.) Sylvester K. Vogt, pilot; 2/Lt. John R. Tunze, co-pilot; 1/Lt. Donald W. Ryan, navigator; T/Sgt. Robert E. Casty, radio-gunner; and S/Sgt. Joseph Forman, turret gunner. Casty remained with the 501st until early 1945, completing 104 combat missions, more than any other man in the Squadron. T/Sgt. Gerald E. Sims, the crew chief, was responsible for maintenance on the aircraft.

The profile illustrates TIN LIZ as it appeared in late September 1943, after fifteen missions. The original white nose I.D. band and an insignia depicting a grasshopper driving a falling bomb were partially obscured by the new blast panel, which was painted black on many 501st Squadron aircraft. The grasshopper was driving a bomb which had a red lightening bolt zig-zagging down it. The vertical white tail stripe dates from just after the strafer modification and was carried by all Squadron aircraft. Dead-eye Sy appeared just below the pilot’s window. The dark green patches on the vertical stabilizer and wings (not shown) were field applied to many 345th aircraft about the time of the strafer modification.

B-25 TIN LIZ and crew

TIN LIZ was photographed at Port Moresby in early August 1943. The crew was from left: F/O Sylvester K. Vogt, 2/Lt. John R. Tunze, 1/Lt. Donald W. Ryan, T/Sgt. Robert C. Casty, and S/Sgt. Joseph Forman. (Maurice J. Eppstein Collection)

The insert profile shows this same aircraft as it appeared about May 1944. An entirely new version of the grasshopper insignia has been applied as well as bomb stencils indicating that 85 missions had been completed. The three Japanese fighter silhouettes refer to confirmed kills by turret gunners in 1943. These were a “Zeke” on 10/18 (Flynn), another on 11/15 (Forman), and a third on 12/22 (Forman). Beneath the top turret are displayed two Japanese rising sun flags referring to Forman’s two kills. The sinking ship silhouette in white was for a Japanese ship destroyed by the crew.

Another interesting note was the V -shaped area of darker camouflage paint just below the top turret. This was caused by a protective tarp which was secured over the turret dome when the plane was on the ground. The camouflage paint gradually faded from the sun, but the area under the tarp faded much less, creating the effect shown.

TIN LIZ met its end on May 21, 1944, when it was shot down by AA near Dagua Airstrip, New Guinea, killing the entire crew. Details can be found in Appendix I.

Important missions flown in 1943 included: Wewak, 9/27 (Vogt); Rabaul, 10/12 (Vogt); Rabaul, 10/18 (Marston); Rabaul, 10/24 (Geer-5ooth Sq.); Wewak, 12/22 (Vogt); and in 1944: Admiralties, 1/25 (Vogt); Kavieng, 2/15 (Tunze); and Hollandia, 4/3 (Neuenschwander).

View the color profile on page 214 of our book Warpath Across the Pacific.

The 38th Joins in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea

After spotting a convoy of reinforcements sailing from Rabaul to Lae on March 1, 1943, Fifth Air Force sprang into action as General Kenney ordered the 43rd, 90th, 38th, and 3rd Bomb Groups to sink this convoy before it could reach its destination. The RAAF also joined the fray in their A-20s by raiding the airdrome at Lae to prevent any enemy fighters from taking off, and 30 Squadron Beaufighters also attacked the convoy. Attacks on the Japanese ships began on March 2nd, sinking one transport ship, with the bulk of the strikes taking place on the 3rd.

March 3rd began with the 71st and 405th Squadrons making low-level attacks on the convoy, which, as of that morning, consisted of eight destroyers sheltering seven transports. Although the B-25s were flying through heavy antiaircraft fire, none of them came away heavily damaged. By contrast, many of the ships were left stalled and smoking by the time the two squadrons headed home. This was to be a two-mission day, as the crews were to return to the Bismarck Sea that afternoon after their aircraft were reloaded with bombs and fuel. General Ennis C. Whitehead, the deputy Commander of Fifth Air Force, made a personal appearance at the 38th Bomb Group camp to get a full account of the morning’s events from the men. Back at Rabaul, the Japanese prepared to send additional fighters to aid in the defense of the convoy for the afternoon rematch.

Heading back to the Bismarck Sea, the 38th crews began their search for the convoy. They soon arrived, first encountering two ships dead in the water, then a few more burning away. As Capt. Ezra Best lined up for an attack on a destroyer from medium altitude, gunners on his B-25 GRASS CUTTER began firing at Oscar fighters from 11 Sentai that surprised the 71st Squadron. While there was an exchange of gun fire, it wasn’t as intense compared to the battles at high altitude earlier in the day.

Battle of the Bismarck Sea

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea resulted in the destruction of the Japanese fleet that carried troops to reinforce Lae. The 71st Squadron bombed the convoy from 5000 feet. Pictured here is one of the transports with palls of smoke rising from its decks after the 71stʼs attack. (Brian O’Neill Collection)

Meanwhile, pilots from the 405th Squadron decided to target a cluster of three ships, two of which were still moving. Several bursts of antiaircraft fire were thrown at the incoming B-25s with one exploding right in front of FILTHY LIL, piloted by 1/Lt. Adkins. The plane filled with smoke and the nose was jerked upward by the blast, knocking it out of formation. Briefly, the pilot and co-pilot thought that FILTHY LIL received severe damage and would have to be ditched, but it turned out that the nose only had a small hole. The pilot and co-pilot went off in search of a target, only to come across a destroyed transport with survivors floating in the water. They were strafed by the gunners* until their ammo ran out, then FILTHY LIL turned for home. Co-pilot 1/Lt. John Donegan wrote about his state of mind during the mission: “our destruction was not for mercy: it was simply that to us all Japanese soldiers had become things to be annihilated, not necessarily cruelly, but always thoroughly.”

For the Allies, the Battle of the Bismarck Sea was a resounding success. All eight Japanese transports and four destroyers were sunk. This raid also demonstrated that a relatively new tactic, low-level bombing, was an effective method for attacking enemy ships.

*Note: If you’ve read our previous Bismarck Sea post, you have read about the Japanese shooting at 43rd crewmembers who bailed out of their B-17. We cannot determine if the 38th knew about these events prior to their afternoon mission.

Debunking the Myths of Old 666

The Medal of Honor. It is the highest honor that can be given to a member of the U.S. military, often coming at a high price to the recipient. To date, more than 3000 men and one woman have received the Medal of Honor for going above and beyond the call of duty. There is one story in particular that continues to fascinate everyone for a couple of reasons: two men from the same mission received the Medal of Honor and the story itself has evolved into a legend. With that being the case, there are several myths of this harrowing story that we would like to set straight. First, a short recap of a B-17 mission that took place on June 16, 1943.

The Most Decorated American Air Crew, cover art for Ken's Men Against the Empire, Vol. I. Painting by Jack Fellows

This painting depicts B-17E #41-2666, nicknamed LUCY, piloted by Capt. Jay Zeamer, Jr. of the 65th Bomb Squadron, 43rd Bomb Group on June 16, 1943 flying a crucial photomapping mission for the invasion of Bougainville Island in the Solomons later that year. LUCY, alone, without fighter cover, was surrounded and attacked over the objective by eight Japanese Zero fighters from 251 Kokutai. The pilot refused to abort and held the plane on the required straight and level course until his assignment was finished.

During the air battle that followed, half of his crew was seriously wounded. The bombardier, 2/Lt. Joseph R. Sarnoski, fought back heroically throughout the engagement until he died of his injuries, earning him the Medal of Honor. Zeamer, although grievously injured himself, was also awarded the Medal of Honor for piloting the B-17 until the mission was complete, then assisting other crewmen on the long flight back to base in the severely damaged bomber, ensuring the safe return of the precious photos. The rest of the crew received the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award for valor, making them the most highly decorated American aircrew in history. Zeamer eventually recovered from his near-fatal injures.

Unfortunately, as the years have passed, this amazing story has been embellished and those embellishments have been accepted as fact in print and on the screen. We’ve compiled a list of the three worst offenders.

  1.  Capt. Zeamer and his crew were attacked by 15-21 Japanese fighters.
    False. Their plane was attacked by eight fighters. Due to the ensuing chaos, it was easy for fighters to be double counted by members of the crew in different areas on the B-17. Some would fall away, smoking as they dove, and those were also potentially double counted.
  2. The crew and pilots were a bunch of “screw-ups and misfits.”
    False. While Capt. Zeamer had a hard time getting the hang of the B-26 (it was a tricky plane to fly), he was well-liked by everyone. He was in his element after he transferred from the 22nd to 43rd Bomb Group and started flying the B-17. Zeamer handpicked his crew, looking for men who were disciplined, could keep a cool head during combat, got along well with everyone, and were willing to go the extra mile when needed.
  3. LUCY was rescued from the scrap heap.
    False. Even though this B-17 was known as a “Hard Luck Hattie” because it was so problematic during missions, it was never sent to the boneyard. Still, it wasn’t the best shape when Zeamer acquired it and he and his crew spent a considerable amount of time updating it to their specifications for mapping missions.

This is but a brief overview of an epic mission from World War II. If you want a more detailed account of the mission and LUCY (profiled in Appendix V), buy a copy of our book Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Volume I. You can also head to Clint Hayes’ site for a deep dive into the mission as well as a biography of Capt. Zeamer.

Pulling the Thread of History: We’re Heading to History Camp!

As we prepare for History Camp Colorado next month, we wanted to give you some insight into how we chose our topic, the disappearance of General Walker’s aircraft on January 5, 1943. For that, we want to introduce you to our Managing Editor, Madison Jonas, who will be giving the presentation. Take it away, Madison!

You know what I like about studying history? You get to follow the consequences. Living in the present, it’s hard to ascribe a chain of causality through the actions you take and the events around you. But when we study historical events in detail and with focus, the chain can be linked together. And sometimes, you get an event that has outsize influence—small in isolation, but hugely significant to the events that follow.

Such an event occurred on January 5, 1943. There was an air raid conducted by heavy bombers—B-17s from the 43rd Bomb Group and B-24s from the 90th—based in New Guinea against Simpson Harbor, a major Japanese port in the Southwest Pacific. Going purely by the numbers, it was a small affair: 14 planes attacking, three shot down, two crews rescued, one cargo vessel sunk and three more ships damaged. But the consequences would ultimately shift the nature of the war in New Guinea over the next six months.

Unlike prior air raids against Rabaul and Simpson Harbor, the attack on January 5th was a daylight mission. Rabaul was a heavily defended base complex, and beyond the reach of fighter cover, so conventional wisdom had long-range bombers flying small missions at night and doing negligible damage in a token effort to harass the base. General Kenneth Walker, head of V Bomber Command, thought that a massed formation of bombers would be able to defend itself from enemy interception and inflict severe damage on enemy operations. Walker had even flown on the lead plane to assess the battle damage as a proof-of-concept. Tragically, he was lost that day, along with the entire crew of the SAN ANTONIO ROSE. The loss nixed further daylight bombing of Rabaul for the time being. It remained the center of Japanese operations, able to send out reinforcements to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands largely undeterred. Air operations against it saw no major impact until fighter coverage could be brought into range.

An Expensive Mission by Jack Fellows

On January 5, 1943, Brig. Gen. Kenneth N. Walker planned a large daylight raid on Rabaul to disrupt an assembling convoy. Walker was flying as an observer in the lead plane, B-17F-10 SAN ANTONIO ROSE. Over Rabaul, the bomber was hit by flak and then pursued south along the coast of New Britain by a flight of Oscar fighters from 11 Sentai. The location where the B-17 went down is unknown; however, it may have gone down deep in the remote Kol Mountains of New Britain. Two crewmembers, Maj. Jack W. Bleasdale and Capt. Benton H. Daniel, bailed out and survived the shootdown, only to be taken prisoner and executed by the Japanese. General Walker was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Painting by Jack Fellows.

The target of the attack on January 5th had been a convoy carrying over 4000 soldiers for a new ground offensive in the mountains of New Guinea. The convoy was scheduled to depart on the 6th, but by a stroke of luck it had been moved to nearby Jacquinot Bay the night before, dodging the strike. The near-miss, however, was shocking to Japanese higher-ups, who ordered additional fighter coverage on the convoy for the duration of its mission, which led to a fierce air battle over the convoy as it unloaded at New Guinea. Those troops were then sent to capture an outlying Allied mountain airbase called Wau, which led to the next ground engagement of the war in the Southwest Pacific. The U.S. also learned from the attempted convoy interception, developing specialized anti-shipping tactics that would lead to the overwhelming victory of Allied air power in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea.

The January 5th raid had significant reverberations, and I think this was partly reflected in the decision for General Walker to receive the Medal of Honor for his bravery in organizing and flying on the lead ship of the mission. The full breadth of the story, however, can only be seen in hindsight, with detailed research to piece together all the elements of the story. This is just a general summary—I’ll be delving into far more detail in my seminar at History Camp Colorado on November 12th. The story in full reaches back several days into December and forward into the present day, where the search for General Walker’s B-17 continues.

 

A Zombie that Almost Lived up to its Name

For a short time in November 1943, the 43rd Bomb Group was flying missions to Ring Ring, a coconut plantation near Gasmata. Although these weren’t the most exciting missions, the area was being prepared for a December ground invasion, which made the mission necessary. It was observed in the 43rd’s Group History that, “Our combat crews don’t seem to think much of this type of target, preferring to hit something that will blow up with a loud noise and a satisfactory amount of flame and smoke, but the Army seems quite pleased with the results of our bombing and apparently considers the destruction of these targets essential.”

Flying from Port Moresby to Ring Ring on November 24th was 1/Lt. Henry J. Domagalski and his crew in their B-24 nicknamed ZOMBIE. Their mission was an armed reconnaissance to the area, with the crew running into no trouble as ZOMBIE’s bombs were unloaded over Garove Island. As the B-24 flew over the Dampier Strait, the crew encountered a formation of nine Japanese “Lily” bombers accompanied by 12 “Oscar” fighters returning to Wewak from a mission to Finschhafen.

43rd Bomb Group B-24 Zombie

The 64th Squadron struck the Ring Ring coconut plantation near Gasmata, New Britain on November 24, 1943. On the way home, Henry J. Domagalski and crew, in the B-24D #42-40913, ZOMBIE, were attacked over the Dampier Strait by 12 Japanese Zeros.

While most of the Japanese planes continued on their way, seven Oscars attacked the lone B-24. An intense fight began as Domagalski performed evasive maneuvers while his crewmen did their best to fend off the attacking fighters. ZOMBIE’s hydraulic system was shot out, as well as trim tab wires and six cables that controlled the horizontal and vertical stabilizers. The fighter pilots also started two fires: one in the emergency radio compartment and the other in the cockpit. Both were extinguished by Lt. Cletus A. Bunsen and 2/Lt. Herbert J. Maxwell, respectively.

By this time, the Oscars broke off their attack and turned for Wewak. ZOMBIE was in bad shape and the pilot was unsure whether or not they would even make it back to base. After an examination of the parachutes, three were determined to be unusable and it was decided that instead of ditching the plane, they would try to make an emergency landing at Lae.

Somehow, the B-24 appeared over Lae and circled five times as the crew manually lowered the landing gear. It touched down, going 160mph, and without hydraulic breaks that worked, the crew hurried to stop the plane before it crashed into the trees at the end of the runway. While Domagalski used the auxiliary hand pump to work fluid into the brakes, the rest of the crew was piled in the back of the plane to keep the tail down. ZOMBIE stopped and the crew tumbled out to assess the damage. Fifty holes were counted and two crewmembers were injured. The next day, ZOMBIE was flown home to Port Moresby. This story quickly spread across the United States and each crew member was awarded the Air Medal for their actions during the mission.