The 500th Squadron Attacks Vunapope

The following excerpt comes from Warpath Across the Pacific. At this point in the story, the 345th Bomb Group is attacking Vunapope, located near Rabaul, on October 18, 1943.


“While the other squadrons were attacking the airfield, the six planes of the 500th swept wide and raced across the tree tops of a vast coconut plantation towards the supply dumps and docks along the bay just west of the airfield. Ahead, the pilots saw three freighters anchored close along the shore, and the flights lined up on the two largest, strafing their way across the shoreside supply dumps as they advanced. The flight led by 1/Lt. Max H. Mortensen aimed for a 5000-ton freighter on the right, while Capt. Anacker led his two wingmen towards the 6187-ton cargo-passenger ship Johore Maru on the left.

Mortensen released a single 1000-pound bomb which hit the water twenty yards short of the freighter, while Lt. Raymond Geer’s two bombs went long. The huge geysers thrown up seconds later by the exploding bombs completely obscured the ship. The airmen reported that they thought the bombs had rolled it over, but Japanese records do not support the claim that the ship was destroyed.

Mortensen’s flught pressed on over the bay and lined up on Subchaser #23 out in the channel. 1/Lt. Thane C. Hecox dropped his two 1000 pounders a few yards directly in front of the ship. The four-second delay fuses provided just enough time for the warship to run directly over the bombs before they exploded, ripping off the bow.

Meanwhile, Anacker’s flight was already in trouble. 1/Lt. Ralph G. Wallace’s TONDELAYO had lost its right engine to ground fire as it lined up on the target. From the top turret, S/Sgt. John Murphy could see a piston moving up and down through a jagged hole in a cylinder and the cowling. Wallace quickly feathered the prop and continued his bomb run. As the three planes approached the ship, the air was filled with machine-gun bullets and cannon shells as both the attackers and the defenders lashed out viciously. All three planes launched bombs as they neared the ship, one of which bounced off the deck and hit the water. Seconds later the target was surrounded by huge waterspouts as the bombs exploded, drenching the ship in spray. Crew interrogations indicated the bombs lifted the ship out of the water and debris was seen flying through the air; the ship was claimed as badly damaged and probably sunk. Again the claim was optimistic; Japanese records show that the Johore Maru was sunk by a submarine five days later.

Attacking Japanese Freighters
This photo shows the 500th Squadron’s attack on shipping at Vunapope, near Rabaul, which led to the epic air battle in which 17 Japanese fighters were claimed shot down for the loss of two B-25s. Taken from plane #572, piloted by 1/Lt. Thane C. Hecox, this photo shows attacks on a 5000-ton and 6000-ton freighter. Both vessels were claimed sunk, although the photographs and Japanese shipping records do not confirm this. (John C. Hanna Collection)

Thirty minutes before the strafers hit Rapopo, a Jap spotter station on the east coast of New Britain had radioed a warning to the defenses. Pilots rushed to aircraft on alert status at the ends of the runways and took off in droves from the various airfields around Rabaul.

By the time the attack began, over a hundred Japanese Zeros from the 201st, 204th and 253rd Kokutais were echeloned above 5000 feet over St. George’s Channel and Blanche Bay. Before the Japanese pilots took on the strafers, they expected to have to deal with a larger fighter escort and formations of high-flying B-24s.

While the six squadrons of B-25s savaged the two airfields, the fighters continued to circle, unwilling to lose the advantage of their altitude. But when no fighter escort materialized and the 498th and 500th Squadrons reached the Channel, the Japanese Navy pilots reluctantly dropped the black noses of their Mitsubishi fighters and dove steeply to intercept the retreating formations. Thus, both lead squadrons of B-25s were met by a cascade of Japanese “Zekes” falling on them from above.

The air battle was joined almost as soon as the 498th Squadron crossed beyond the end of the runway at Ropopo and flew out over the water off Lesson Point. As each squadron of B-25s came off the target, it immediately dropped down as low as possible over the water and its flights reformed into a tight vee formation, thus bringing the maximum defensive fire power to bear. For the next twenty-five minutes the “Zekes” repeatedly attempted to break through he hail of .50-caliber tracers which greeted them at each advance towards the formations. Again and again, the massed fires of the turret and waist gunners shot them down or drove them off before their cannons and machine guns could do serious damage to the B-25s.

The 498th gunners were credited with ten kills and one probable, the 501st with ten more and three probables, and the 499th with two kills and one more probable. The 499th encountered less opposition because most of the Jap fighters followed the lead squadrons as they left the target.”

Skip-Bombing the Aoba

In early April 1943, the 43rd Bomb Group was repeatedly sent on missions to keep an eye on the Japanese base 150 miles northwest of Rabaul at Kavieng, New Ireland. On April 2nd, no shipping activity was observed, but Australian Coastwatchers reported seeing somewhere between 10 and 12 ships around the harbor area. Just in case the Japanese were planning a convoy mission, eight B-17s from the 64th Squadron were loaded up and sent out to disrupt those plans in the wee hours of April 3rd.

To keep Japanese from locating the B-17s easily, pilots flew with blacked out instrument panels. Their only source of light was provided by the stars. “In this way our night vision became very acute,” wrote pilot Arthur T. Curren. “In fact on long night missions we flew the B-17 by fixing reference stars in the corners of the windshields and flew by the seat of pants, not artificial horizons, etc. I can’t really explain to you or understand myself at this late date [50 years later] the visual cues and sightings I used to fly this mission.”

April 5th diagram
Note the date on this diagram. For this post, it is used as an example of the bombing runs made by B-17 pilots. After the 64th claimed hits on multiple warships near Kavieng on April 3rd, the 63rd was no doubt eager for their own chance on the target the next day. This diagram plots the bombing runs flown by the 63rd Squadron and the reported size and position of their targets. (Hoover Cott Collection)

Arriving over Kavieng and its harbor, each formation’s flight leader stayed near the base to drop an occasional bomb, another B-17 stayed high above the action to drop flares illuminating the anchorage and the rest of the B-17 crews hunted for ships to skip-bomb in the harbor. When the Japanese heard the planes, they sent up tracer rounds in attempt to locate them. Gunfire of all sorts flew around the harbor as the Japanese refused to turn on their searchlights and give away the positions of their ships. At one point, Curren noticed a flare burning beyond his right wing, likely on the deck of the heavy cruiser Aoba.

Lieuteanant Curren began his skip-bombing approach and was greeted by heavy antiaircraft fire. “Suddenly, I realized that we were headed directly into the side of a Japanese cruiser, just aft of the pagoda [the tall tripod structure amidships] and below the height of the bridge and forward structure.” He held his course and altitude until the bombardier confirmed that the last bomb had dropped, then “I jerked back on the controls and we cleared the ship. None of the crew, including co-pilot Roger Kettlleson, have any idea of how close we came to tripping over the steel superstructure. The navigator later reported he thought we would hit the water when his altimeter read 50 feet below sea level on the bomb run.”

B-17 night skip-bombing diagram
An illustration of the basic concept of skip-bombing. Note that unlike small and medium bombers, the four-engine B-17 could not pull away from the ship immediately after dropping its bombs. This is why the 43rd Bomb Group only skip-bombed at night: passing over an enemy ship at that altitude during the day would have been extremely dangerous. (Unknown Collection)

Curren’s tail gunner reported that three bombs exploded and the crew felt two shockwaves and witnessed bright explosions from the cruiser. After that run, it was time to head for home. While the flight back was uneventful, Curren’s landing nearly turned precarious when he realized that the landing gear had not lowered. He pulled up, flew around, then landed with the gear down. Later, it was reported that one of the bombs from Curren’s plane scored a direct hit on the Aoba and the other two explosions were actually from two of the ship’s torpedoes subsequently exploding. The Aoba was towed to Truk, where it underwent initial repairs for three months, then was moved to Kure, Japan for six months’ worth of more extensive repair work.

Using a B-17 for night skip-bombing missions was no easy task. This post summarizes the vivid description written by Lt. Curren and printed in Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Volume I. We highly recommend our readers pick up a copy of the book for his full story.

Art from the Archives

This illustration was originally commissioned from aviation artist Jack Fellows for a smaller book that would have focused specifically on the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. Unfortunately, we did not have the manpower to pursue this project, and the color section of Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Volume 1, where it would have fit thematically, did not have any spare room for a fourth painting.

Art from the Archives

The scene depicts the final day of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea on March 4th. By that time, only two crippled ships remained in the area after the remaining four destroyers had been withdrawn. Hundreds of Japanese soldiers and sailors from the sunken and disabled ships were in the water awaiting rescue and struggling for survival.

Fifth Air Force commanders believed that the Japanese soldiers in lifeboats, barges and rafts still represented a threat should they be brought to Lae and verbal orders were given to strafe any vessels containing Japanese servicemen. Many of the American and Australian airmen were reluctant to carry out these orders, though they had all heard stories of war crimes committed by the Japanese during the past 16 months of war. Still, these ordered attacks were carried out, albeit with a lack of enthusiasm.

The collective attitude of the 43rd Bomb Group B-17 crews was very different. One day earlier, the 63rd Squadron B-17 KA-PUHIO-WELA, piloted by 1/Lt. Woodrow W. Moore, was shot down by Japanese fighters. As members of Moore’s crew bailed out, they were fired upon in their parachutes by the Japanese Naval pilots.

The story of this atrocity spread like wildfire through the 43rd, then the rest of the Fifth Air Force combat crews. To the 43rd’s airmen, this order was an opportunity to take retribution for their friends in Moore’s crew. Thus the cycle of violence and death in war was perpetuated.

Here, 1/Lt. James C. Dieffenderfer, piloting the 63rd Bomb Squadron B-17 FIGHTIN’ SWEDE, sweeps low over the water, with wing dipped to allow the left waist and turret gunner a clear shot. In the foreground, a Daihatsu barge that had been rescuing survivors zips out of the line of fire. They would have been targeted next. In the background a Japanese ship is burning.

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.

Profile History: Gypsy Rose

This aircraft was assigned to the 19th Bomb Group and was flying with the 435th Reconnaissance Squadron by the second week of July 1942. Transferred to the 403rd Bomb Squadron, 43rd Bomb Group on November 9, 1943, its first two flights with the 403rd were courier missions piloted by 1/Lt. Robert B. Irwin. It is unknown to what extent this aircraft was flown in combat by the 403rd. The bomber was transferred to the 65th Squadron in mid-January, after the 403rd relinquished their B-17s at the time of their move to Mareeba, Australia.


The bomber was flown regularly on combat missions by the 65th, including the follow-up raid the day after the big attack against Rabaul on February 14th, the largest raid the 43rd had conducted against the Japanese bastion up to that time. The B-17 received two holes in its vertical stabilizer. This aircraft also participated in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea when it was flown by Arthur A. Fletcher, Jr., who was a regular pilot of the aircraft. On March 2nd, Fletcher missed his target entirely, but on the afternoon of the 3rd, he watched his bombs score a near miss on the destroyer Asashio, which he claimed was responsible for immobilizing the ship.

The last combat mission for the bomber was a night raid against Rabaul on May 24, 1943. The plane was running low on fuel during the return flight, forcing the pilot, 1/Lt. Raymond S. Dau, to ditch it in the sea off Buna. No one was hurt in the water landing and everyone made it into the life rafts, from where they were picked up by a boat from the 41st Infantry Division the next day.

B-17 Gypsy Rose
B-17E #41-9193, GYPSY ROSE, was initially transferred to the 403rd Squadron as a transport plane after serving in the 19th Bomb Group but before it went to the 65th. While in the 65th Squadron, it acquired its nickname and nose art, a reference to Gypsy Rose Lee, a contemporary striptease performer. GYPSY ROSE was lost on May 24, 1943, when it ran out of fuel returning from Rabaul and was ditched near Buna. All of the crewmembers survived unhurt. (Charles Stenglein Collection)


The name of this aircraft, GYPSY ROSE, is a reference to Gypsy Rose Lee, a famous burlesque dancer, actor and author of the era. The nose art depicts her performing her famous striptease act. The name, written in red and outlined in orange, is reminiscent of brightly lit neon signs outside of theaters and clubs. The cursive script used in the lettering of the name is of the style seen on many early 65th Squadron aircraft, indicating #193 acquired its nickname while in the 65th. Also partially visible in our profile painting are the block letters U.S. ARMY painted on the underside of the wings. This identifier had been removed from the USAAF markings specifications before the 43rd began flying combat, but the bomber came out of the factory paint shop so marked, and this was never painted over.

The known combat missions this aircraft flew, all in 1943, were: Rabaul, 2/15 (Fletcher); Rabaul, 2/23 (Crawford); Battle of the Bismarck Sea, 3/3 (Fletcher); Rabaul, 3/23; and Rabaul, 5/24 (Dau).

Read more about the 43rd Bomb Group and see the color profile for this B-17 in Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Volume I.

P.R. from the Pacific Theater

As the fight against the Japanese continued in the Pacific Theater, military commanders kept asking U.S. government officials for one vital thing to keep them going: more resources. Due to the “Europe First” policy, the United States was sending the majority of its resources to the European Theater, making it very difficult for Fifth Air Force to get more men to relieve weary air and ground crews, airplanes and parts. Still, they did the best they could with what they had. General George C. Kenney, first appointed to the Pacific Theater at the end of July 1942, was acutely aware of the shortages and never stopped pushing Washington to get his men what they needed. 

After the huge victory over the Japanese in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea and subsequent successes, self-congratulatory compilations were put together. General Kenney, and more importantly Gen. Douglas MacArthur, knew that the best way to get additional resources to the Pacific Theater was through good press getting back to the Joint Chiefs and President Roosevelt. After the dramatic strike on Rabaul on November 2, 1943, Kenney wanted to dismiss any notion of that mission’s outcome as disastrous. He had a large book created to show off the successes of that mission as well as some of its spectacular photography. The book was then given to influential government officials to build up Kenney’s case for sending more resources to the Pacific Theater and increase Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s favorability among his superiors.

NARA photo 51507AC Capt Alan Haemer - Rabaul Book
Former commercial artist Capt. Alan Haemer, at work in the Graphic Presentation section of the Fifth Air Force Statistical Control Unit, shows off the giant book created after the November 2, 1943 mission to Rabaul. (U.S. National Archives)

How much it helped either cause is difficult to say. Even so, these compilations of mission highlights continued to be made throughout 1944 and into 1945. Prepared by the 345th Bomb Group’s Intelligence Section, this is the cover of one such collection from the 345th’s mission on April 6, 1945.

Cover from 345th mission highlights

Doodle

DOODLE was assigned to 1/Lt. (later Capt.) Orlen N. Loverin who piloted it overseas and through its first six months of combat. While headed for a leave in Sydney on December 19, 1943, Loverin was killed when the C-47 he was riding in ran into a thunderstorm and crashed in Rockhampton, Australia. DOODLE‘s original crew was: Loverin, pilot; 2/Lt. Kenneth D. McClure, co-pilot; 1/Lt. James M. Mahaffey, navigator; S/Sgt. Harry Zarfas, engineer; T/Sgt. Frank M. Dugan, radio gunner; and S/Sgt. Clair F. Ervin, turret gunner. The crew chief was T/Sgt. Charles L. Schell, who had lost his previous aircraft when it disappeared between Hamilton Field, California, and Hawaii during the deployment overseas.

Lieutenant McClure was one of the Squadron’s first co-pilots to get his own plane, taking command of DOODLE JR. (see color photo on page 193 of Warpath Across the Pacific) in October 1943. The original crew nickname was “The Brutes,” and as a medium bomber the plane had Bluto, the Popeye cartoon character, painted on the forward fuselage. Bluto’s head and upper torso appeared on the port side and his rear end, clad in red polka-dotted shorts, was painted on the other side as if it protruded through the fuselage of the aircraft. The eight ball on the bat’s mouth appeared on the medium bomber and was retained when the aircraft got its bat insignia in September or October 1943.

Crew of the 345th Bomb Group B-25 nicknamed "DOODLE"
The crewmen of DOODLE posed in front of their aircraft at Port Moresby in early August 1943. They were from left: 1/Lt. Orlen N. Loverin, 2/Lt. Kenneth D. McClure, 1/Lt. James M. Mahaffey, S/Sgt. Harry Zarfas, T/Sgt. Frank M. Dugan and T/Sgt. Charles L. Schell. (James M. Mahaffey Collection)

The profile illustrates DOODLE about the middle of February 1944, with 56 mission markers. CAPT. O.A. LOVERIN is painted in white beneath the pilot’s window. The bat insignia is a lighter blue than on HELL’S BELLES, demonstrating the variety of color shadings used on this field-applied insignia and the effects of fading. DOODLE flew at least 80 missions before being transferred to Service Command on July 12, 1944, as “War Weary.” Among the most important missions it flew in 1943 were: Rabaul, 10/12; Wewak, 10/16 (Loverin); Rabaul, 10/24 (Loverin); Boram, 11/27 (Baker); and in 1944: Dagua, 2/3 (Taylor); and Hollandia, 4/3 (Baird).

This profile history, as well as a color profile of DOODLE, can be found in Warpath Across the Pacific.

The Tent at the End of the Runway

As related by Capt. Walter A. Krell, C.O. of the 823rd Squadron, 38th Bomb Group.

“Crew training was set up at Charters Towers (70 miles west of Townsville), the base commander of which was an ancient chicken colonel whose constant interference with the war effort was so much help to the Japs. Early struggles to eliminate useless procedures were blocked and impeded by the commander, and I was a constant target of his complaints. He would track me down on the line or wherever and work me over about the behavior of our men on the base, in town, in the mess hall – – I soon had enough to prompt me to ask Shanty [38th Bomb Group C.O. Brian O’Neill] to get him off my back.

“Shanty had me pick him up in Townsville. We flew back to Charters Towers, and drove out to the headquarters just off the end of and slightly to one side of the runway. For 30 minutes Shanty listened in deadpan silence while the old coot unloaded about ‘new undisciplined Air Corps flying tramps’. Shanty, just promoted to full colonel, had borrowed the eagle insignias for his shirt collar. The eagle heads face right or left, according to how they are pinned on – – Shanty’s little eagle faced the wrong way. As we were leaving, the CO spied the error, fetched an eagle facing the right way from his trinket box, proceeded to pin it on Shanty’s collar. Shanty tensed up and I backed off a couple paces, but nothing happened and we left.

“Wherever we went, Shanty always did the flying. As we taxied out, Shanty asked, ‘Which runway leads over the old b’s camp?’ I cautioned ‘The wind’s the other way.’ ‘I didn’t ask you about the wind,’ he countered. The B-25 was light – – Shanty had it off halfway down the runway, flaps and wheels up by runway’s end and still under six feet altitude. He swung over the colonel’s pyramidal tent, straddled the peak with his props and hauled up. We peeled around and looked down – – the tent was smashed flat!

“When I got back to Charters Towers, the old boy was waiting – – did I know within minutes after he had given orders to Col. O’Neill to put a stop to aircraft flying over his area, some crazy pilot demolished the colonel’s tent with him still inside? He had suffered and could have been hurt. I was to track down the pilot. There would be a court martial he raged, red-faced and shaking his swagger stick in my face.

“Then I told the old duck the pilot was CO O’Neill himself who declared anyone stupid enough to set up headquarters in such a site was asking to get hurt, that he hoped he had made his point, and that he was at that moment en route to Brisbane to ask General Kenney (Commanding General, 5th AF) to assign a new training base for these critically needed combat units where they would no longer be an inconvenience to the Colonel. Within two days the Colonel had been relieved of his command and promptly departed the base, whereupon I made it eminently clear to the base paddlefeet that O’Neill could quickly arrange for any of them to be shouldering muskets over the Owen Stanley range – – that their job was to provide the services the flyboys needed – – or else! – – and things did improve!

“It was a great privilege to work with Col. O’Neill.  His qualities of greatness earned the respect and admiration of all those who knew him.”

The Champ

This aircraft was in the first batch of B-24s assigned to the 403rd Squadron in May 1943, one of only four B-24s on hand with the 403rd at the end of the month. The 403rd was still in the transition process to the B-24 during this time, and flew missions with a mix of B-17s and B-24s. This B-24 must have made the trip overseas very early in 1943, as it was never refitted with a nose gun turret, nor was the factory-supplied Sperry ventral ball turret removed, modifications made at either the Hawaiian Air Depot or the 4th Air Depot to nearly all Fifth Air Force B-24s sent overseas from March 1943 onwards. Had THE CHAMP enjoyed a longer service life with Fifth Air Force, these modifications would certainly have been made.

43rd Bomb Group B-24 The Champ
THE CHAMP, B-24D-30 #42-40060, was one of the first B-24s the 403rd Squadron received. Note the greenhouse nose, an early design feature on B-24s in the Pacific Theater that was replaced with nose turrets on new arrivals from March 1943 onward. The boxing glove nose art on THE CHAMP is a reference to the 1931 movie of the same name. (Elwyn H. Hansen Collection)


The nose of this aircraft was painted with the nickname THE CHAMP, a reference to the 1931 movie of the same name, along with a brown boxing glove outlined in yellow with lightning bolt ‘action lines’ coming from its front. A scoreboard was also painted under the pilot’s window, which had nine mission symbols by late June, although only eight of the markers carried a star on top. The ninth may have been a mission in which the pilot was forced to turn back due to weather or mechanical problems.

This aircraft had a very short career with the 403rd Squadron. During take off for a raid against Rabaul on July 11, 1943, the landing gear on THE CHAMP was damaged, allowing the hydraulic fluid to drain away. One main wheel remained extended while the other was retracted, but it could not be made to extend even with the manual crank. Captain William R. Gowdy, the pilot, salvoed the bomb load and then circled Seven Mile Drome for hours to burn off fuel before the crew bailed out. Instead of heading out to sea as intended, the pilotless aircraft circled the airdrome until it ran out of fuel, crashing into an uninhabited hillside.

Known missions flown in the 403rd, all in 1943, include: Rabaul, 6/10 (Unknown); Rabaul, 6/25 (Brecht); and Rabaul, 7/11 (Gowdy).

This profile history can be found in our book Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Vol. I. A color profile of THE CHAMP can be seen on page 218.

Repost: Betting Against the Weather

First published in 2015, we’re revisiting a diary entry written after a 1943 mission.


This week, we have an entry from Col. Donald P. Hall’s diary. The C.O. of the 3rd Bomb Group wrote about a particularly exciting mission on July 28, 1943.

Henebry led the 90th [Bomb Squadron] this AM and hit barges beyond Cape Gloucester in New Britain. Got 11 barges. The P-38 escort tangled with enemy fighters and shot down six. All our planes returned. Took 15 B-25s, T.O. 1300 composed of planes from 8th, 13th and 90th to go to north coast of New Britain and hunt more barges. Weather bad on route out and I received call from ground station saying something about a destroyer and transport somewhere en route. P-38s called and said they were going back because of weather. I decided to take a chance and go on without cover and use the bad weather alone. You don’t get a chance at a destroyer and a transport every day.

Buck Good decided to go as co-pilot for me as he hadn’t flown in a B-25 in a long time. He’d just came back from leave that A.M. We hit Cape Bushing on the south coast of New Britain in light rain. No barges. As we rounded the point at Cape Gloucester saw everything at once. 2 destroyers lying off shore (I thought one was transport it was so large). As we headed for them, 20 Zeros passed directly over-head but didn’t attack right then. “Oh Boy!” I thought this is going to be rough.

A Jap air transport or bomber was circling over the boats and four of the boys headed for it. They fired a long burst into it, but it didn’t go down. So all planes except mine headed for 1st destroyer which was by now throwing up lots of ack-ack. Took my flight toward enemy air transport as it landed at Cape Gloucester. 16 Japs passed out of it but we cut all of them down. “Pappy” Gunn flying No. 2 position on my wing laid a 75mm shell under it. The wing caught fire from our bullets by the time it had stopped rolling. Buck Good let go a couple or three bombs as we went over it and that finished it.

Buck Good an I then headed for large destroyer which had not been touched. Looked over my shoulder and saw enemy planes coming from about 10,000 feet, but there was too juicy a target to stop now. I could see that the boys in Henebry’s, Wilkins’, and Hawkins’ flight had the other destroyer burning and were still bombing and strafing it. We dropped down on our run for the large destroyer and it lit up like a Christmas tree as its ack-ack tried to knock us down before we bombed them. While Buck opened the bomb doors for me, I started to tap rudders and rake the deck with my 50’s [nose guns].

You could see Japs all over the decks trying to get cover someplace. We released our bombs as we pulled up to clear the mast, then dropped to the water to get out of their heavy gun fire. As we turned sharply to the left I could see we scored two direct hits as the destroyer rolled back and forth, then began to burn. Oh Boy! Buck and I shook hands on that job!

As we could see the Zeros coming in among us, I wiggled my wings to collect the formation but it was hard to do as they were still in a circle around the first destroyer. I could see that it was finished too. We finally got together and left the target with a few Zeros on our tail. The rest of my flight had been unable to release their bombs, so it was lucky that Buck and I had thrown ours into the sides of the large destroyer.

I knew some of the boys had been hit as the planes couldn’t close their bomb doors. Lt. Nuchols’ plane (13th SQ) I found out later was badly shot up by enemy fighters and rudder about gone. Radioed our report home and came straight home. After the bombing, Nuchols was still flying around and someone saw parachutes descending. Later it was found out that everyone got out except Lt. Nuchols who had lost too much altitude to make it. He crashed and burned about 15 miles from drone. Took his co-pilot two days to get back here.

Received wire from Gen. Ramey and phone calls from others [saying] congratulations in our job. The boys were really happy. We stayed up late to see the photos. Buck said he’s never seen me so happy and excited over the target, but he didn’t exactly take out his knitting either! Only two planes had 300 lb. bombs and rest had only 100 lb. Lucky for us 300 lb. were along and I was glad I had one of the planes with this load.