Ormoc Bay – A Dangerous Place

38th Bomb Group B-25 over Ormoc Bay on November 10, 1944

On November 10, 1944, 1/Lt. H. C. McClanahan and his wingman, 2/Lt. A. R. White, formed the third flight in the 822nd Squadron’s attack on Ormoc Bay, on the island of Leyte, in the Philippines. Roaring at minimum altitude, McClanahan and White opened fire on the freighter-transport Kinka Maru. McClanahan’s co-pilot, 2/Lt. W. A. Wolfe, placed one 500-pounder just aft of the ship’s stern. White ended up in a better position over the transport, and his co-pilot, 2/Lt. Robert L. Miller, dropped their string of bombs, managing to get two direct hits on the vessel. One bomb was seen to explode in the area of the forward hatch and the second amidships.

This painting depicts McClanahan and White pulling up from their strafing run, caught in a maelstrom of flak bursts and tracers. In his bid to escape, McClanahan engaged the Yugumo-class destroyer Akishimo, strafing its deck and releasing three bombs just seconds after passing mere feet above the ship’s superstructure. However, McClanahan’s severely damaged aircraft crashed into the waters of the Kawit Straight, southeast of Ponson Island, breaking into four pieces on impact. Lt. White observed the crash and signaled in the bomber’s position before returning safely to Tacloban Airdrome. There were no survivors from the crash. The 38th Bomb Group was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation for this mission.

To purchase a copy of this illustration by Jack Fellows, visit our website.

Air Support Over Biak

Throughout the war, there were times when air units were assigned to aid ground troops as they landed in Japanese-occupied territory. Even though the 63rd and 868th Bomb Squadrons flew specialized B-24s designed for night shipping strikes, on May 27, 1944, they were called upon to hit Biak Island in advance of the Allied invasion. The preliminary strike was carried out at 10,000 feet in the pre-dawn hours. Aircrews had to be precise about their bombings. To keep the ground troops safe, aircrews had to obey several restrictions, such as: staying at high altitudes to minimize the chance of friendly fire accidents, no bombing reefs since it could send coral shrapnel into the ships and no bombing jetties that could be used by the Navy for beach landings.

Once the sun rose, more than 140 B-24s and B-25s were in the air and most of the 41st Infantry Division was assigned to move in on the ground. The 43rd’s B-24s bombed Mokmer Airdrome and the Roeber Area, located south of Borokoe Airdrome. Crews were pleased with the accuracy of their drops. Far below and out of harm’s way, the first wave of Task Force Hurricane was dealing with an unanticipated setback: a westerly current that pushed the transports 3000 yards away from the correct landing beach. Watching the scene unfold, the rest of the crews on the landing craft were able to compensate for the current and landed on the right beach.

Biak
American ground forces invaded Biak Island on May 27, 1944. The 43rd Bomb Group supported this offensive with repeated missions to the Biak area, including Mokmer Airdrome, the subject of this photograph. The scale of that pummeling can be seen by the hundreds of bomb craters on the airfield. (William J. Solomon Collection)

By nightfall, all 12,000 Allied troops were on Biak. While they were met with some resistance, there was so little action that the Allies thought that the bulk of the 4000 Japanese troops had already evacuated from the island. That assumption, as well as the troop estimates provided by intelligence, turned out to be wrong. Colonel Naoyuki Kuzume, in charge of the 11,000 troops on Biak, had spread out his troops in strategic locations along ridges and terraces outside of Mokmer Airdrome and the “Ibdi Pocket,” located between Ibdi and the Parai Defile. In these spots, the Japanese put up a fierce fight against the 41st, keeping them out of Mokmer Airdrome until June 8th. It would take even longer for American engineers to safely repair the bombed airfield, as Japanese troops kept shooting at them from higher elevations around Mokmer. The fighting continued into mid-August, delaying any further invasion plans. As word of Col. Kuzume’s successful tactics to ward off Allied troops spread, other Japanese garrisons would adopt similar strategies in the coming months.

Read more about this mission in Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Volume II.

IHRA’s Top 7 Posts of 2020

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 published in 2020.

 

Tanker at Tourane 1. Adrift at Sea: A Chance Encounter A downed aircrew from the 345th Bomb Group waits for rescue.

 

Color illustration in the book Rampage of the Roarin' 20's2. Alcohol Busters Highlighting one of the paintings by aviation artist Jack Fellows that appears in our book Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s.

 

Feeding a kangaroo3. A Collection of Photos Here, we shared some of the photos that don’t make it in our books.

 

4. Ditch at Sea and Live in a Boeing B-17 Learn all about the procedures taken to prepare for and ditch a B-17.

B-26 Over Lae5. Takeoff Snafu A 22nd Bomb Group mission started off on the wrong wing…

 

Fisher with Topsy6. Roland Fisher’s Brush with Death This member of the 43rd Bomb Group had two close calls with Japanese aircraft. Here is one of the stories.

 

B-17 Pluto II 7. Loss of PLUTO II No one saw this 43rd Bomb Group B-17 get shot down, a mystery that wasn’t solved until 1946.

The Texan

Douglas Aircraft delivered this A-20 to the AAF on October 4, 1943. The 387th Squadron acquired this plane from the 673rd Squadron, 417th Bomb Group, on March 20, 1944, and it was assigned to Capt. Frank P. Smart, the Squadron Commander. His regular gunner was T/Sgt. Michael Music, and his crew chief was S/Sgt. Charles S. Bidek. The latter was assisted by Sgt. Donald M. Cooper.

Smart nicknamed the plane THE TEXAN, and had the flag of his home state emblazoned on the fuselage beneath the cockpit. The nickname was preceded by several colored stars shooting out of the sky. Stenciled in white in three lines above the nickname was: PILOT — CAPT. F.P. Smart, C.C. T/SGT C.S. Bidek and ASST.C.C. SGT D.M. Cooper. The plane letter “S,” after Smart’s last name, was carried on both sides of the rudder, and the Squadron’s diamond playing card emblem appeared on the lower rear fuselage. The plane did not have the horizontal white tail stripe that later identified the Group’s A-20s. The profile depicts the aircraft as it appeared at the end of March 1944.

The Texan

Captain Frank P. Smart, 387th Squadron C.O., can be seen here in the cockpit of his aircraft, THE TEXAN. Returning from the “Black Sunday” mission to Hollandia on April 16, 1944, Smart ran out of fuel and ditched 30 miles west of Saidor. That was the last time anyone saw Smart and his gunner, T/Sgt. Michael Music. (Edgar R. Bistika Collection)

The A-20 had been with the 387th less than a month when Capt. Smart ditched it in the ocean 30 miles west of Saidor, New Guinea, on the April 16, 1944 “Black Sunday” mission. The plane ran out of fuel on the return flight from an attack on Hollandia, New Guinea, after it encountered severe weather. Although crews from circling planes spotted Smart and Music inside a life raft, the men were never heard from again.

Today, THE TEXAN lies beneath 60 feet of water about one quarter-mile offshore from Nom Plantation, known as Yalau Plantation during the war.

 

Read more about this and the other profile aircraft in Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s.

Roland Fisher’s Brush with Death

Less than a month after the 43rd Bomb Group began setting up camp at their new home of Tacloban, the Japanese were trying to figure out a proper welcome to the area. Lieutenant Colonel James T. Pettus received a phone call on December 6, 1944 alerting him of a parachute attack on Tacloban and Dulag planned for that night. Japanese paratroopers had already landed at Buri and San Pablo airbases in hopes of capturing V Bomber Command and Fifth Air Force headquarters. Units from every military branch on Tacloban quickly organized to defend the airbase. Antiaircraft guns and searchlights were manned, and aircraft with functioning turrets were towed over to be used as additional firepower. Once the preparations were made, all that was left to do was wait for night to fall.

F6F night fighters patrolled over the airbase for awhile, but they did not encounter any enemy aircraft. A Navy B-24 privateer landed, then the nose gear collapsed and the plane had to be towed off the runway by Captain Roland T. Fisher, who hooked it up to a cletrac (Cleveland tractor) and towed it to the beach. Fisher was in charge of keeping the runway clear. Shortly thereafter, he turned on the runway lights for the F6Fs that were landing soon. The lights turned off right after the first one landed, which was not an unusual occurrence. Wires from the lights were bunched up next to the strip and were easily crushed when landing aircraft ran over the cords. Fisher jumped out of his jeep, which was doubling as his command post, and twisted the wires back together.

Coming in next was another aircraft with its landing lights on, although this one, an antiaircraft gunner noticed, had exhaust flames coming out of the top of its engine nacelles instead of the bottom. It was a Ki-57-II “Topsy” transport. The pilot was certainly sneaky to slide right into the F6F landing pattern, but his cover was very quickly spoiled. That antiaircraft gunner had his sights set on the Topsy and began shooting at it as the pilot made a final approach. By this point, Fisher had taken cover behind the cletrac. The Topsy burst into flames, flew over the gun battery and plowed down the beach where Fisher had taken cover. He jumped in the ocean.

Fisher with Topsy

The 63rd Squadron’s Capt. Roland T. Fisher stands for a photograph with the wreckage of the Ki-57-II “Topsy” transport that nearly killed him. (James T. Pettus, Jr. Collection)

The Topsy crashed among a dozen Marine Corsairs, bounced, hit more planes, a grader and finally the cletrac Fisher used earlier. A trail of fire followed the burning aircraft, with Japanese and American ammunition cooking off as the fire intensified. Fisher began running up the beach to the crash site then, “Right in front of me a man, his clothes on fire, ran toward me howling and pulling a gun from his holster. I knocked him down or pushed him and grabbed the gun from him…He thrashed around. I think I hit or pushed him again. Then I backed away again to the water because my own clothes were hot from the fire. He never got up again…I lucked out. My burns were minor…I think what saved me from serious burns was my jumping in the surf just before he hit and being all wet when I struggled with him. I think he was the pilot and didn’t have the murderous equipment the troopers had. Whatever, whoever, I was lucky and he wasn’t.”

Almost three months to the day prior to this incident, Capt. Fisher had brought his B-24 back to base after it was rammed by a Japanese fighter. Both times, he managed to escape serious injury or death.

Around the same time the men on Tacloban were dealing with the Topsy, a second Japanese transport plane had crashed, this one in San Pedro Bay after it was shot down by the Navy. Just as before, there was only one survivor. This one was in much better shape and he was apprehended by the Allies. The officer gave his enemies plenty of information about the mission, none of which was passed along until a more appropriate time.

 

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

IHRA’s Top 7 Posts of 2019

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 published in 2019.

 

B-25 Impatient Virgin takes off 1. The Disappearance of Capt. Kizzire’s Crew Captain William L. Kizzire’s B-25 is shot down over Boram. The crew survived and disappeared before a rescue could be made.

 

2. Medium Bombardment Attack and Aviation A film to introduce the Pacific Theater to men being transferred from Europe.

Flight map: Aerodromes and Landing Grounds February 1943 3. Flight map: Aerodromes and Landing Grounds February 1943 Take a look at the flight distances between Port Moresby and important locations in February 1943.

 

408th Personnel at Nadzab 4. When Plans Go Awry: A Mission to Palau Captain John N. Barley’s B-24 is shot down after an encounter with several Japanese Zeros.

 

Death of an A-20 5. Shot Down at Kokas The story behind a fatal mission that took the lives of two men and produced one of the most dramatic photo series taken from a combat camera.

 

Taxpayer's Pride wreckage 6. Surviving in a Japanese POW Camp Shot down by Japanese fighter pilot SFPO Shigetoshi Kudo, this B-17 crewmember was turned over to the Japanese after he escaped certain death by jumping out of his plane over New Britain.

 

7. Ken’s Men, Vol. II Announcement We were so excited to share the news of this new release with you!

Lieutenant Zastrow’s Series of Unfortunate Events

Throughout the war, different technology was developed and improved so that the Allies and the Axis could find out what the other side was up to. The U.S. began to experiment with radar countermeasures—one involved a radar set installed in a B-24 heavy bomber capable of pinpointing enemy radar stations on the ground. A 403rd Squadron crew, 1/Lt. Erwin C. Zastrow’s, received one of these B-24s. Because the equipment on board was so secret, it was ferried from the States with a 24-hour armed guard. Upon arrival, Zastrow’s crew was told it was the only one that would be flying that particular aircraft, which was named THE DUCHESS OF PADUCAH.

The crew spent about three weeks in training then was sent out on the first mission on January 30, 1944. Along with the crew, observers and technicians also boarded the aircraft so they could see how this B-24 performed in a mission environment. It turned out that there were still plenty of issues to deal with. The first test was a few passes over the newly-acquired Finschhafen. Nearing the airfield, the lights went out below them and Zastrow’s crew joked that there must have been an air raid. Then the searchlights went on, antiaircraft guns went off and everyone realized that they were the raid. Only later did someone realize that their new Identification, Friend or Foe (IFF) device wasn’t backwards compatible with the older IFF devices in the Allied equipment.

Leaving Finschhafen unscathed, a fire soon broke out in the nose turret of the B-24. It was brought under control, but also shorted out the power system. The navigator, who was using a special radar device on board to calculate their position, also lost their location when the power went out. Somehow, the observers and techs had fallen asleep during the mission. The crew had to act quickly to contact an Australian station for bearings, which required the installation of a radio tuner. Once this was done, Zastrow got the crew home without any further excitement. After that mission, Zastrow’s crew requested a transfer. “We told them goodbye and good luck. We would rather haul bombs,” wrote S/Sgt. Robert Roth.

While her first mission was a disappointment, THE DUCHESS OF PADUCAH would serve a long and successful career attached to the 43rd Bomb Group (and, at times, the 380th).

Zastrow crew

This photograph, from October 1943, shows the Zastrow crew with the 65th Squadron’s B-24J GERALDINE. They are, from left to right: (kneeling) 1/Lt. Erwin C. Zastrow, pilot; 1/Lt. Harold G. Thompson, co-pilot; 1/Lt. Leland R. Loughrey, navigator; 1/Lt. Fred D. Vessels, bombardier; (standing) S/Sgt. Philip C. Travers, Jr., assistant radio operator; T/Sgt. John D. Uland, engineer; T/Sgt. William J. Solomon, radio operator; S/Sgt. Robert P. Roth, gunner; S/Sgt. Paul L. Kaylor, gunner; and S/Sgt. Miron R. Dukes, assistant flight engineer. (Erwin C. Zastrow Collection)

Rescued by a Hunch

In the early months of 1944, the Allies were figuring out the best plan of action to continue pushing the Japanese up the New Guinea coast and off the islands of New Britain and New Ireland. Their eyes were on Kavieng, a staging base and important part of the Japanese supply line, located on the western tip of New Ireland. The preliminary plan was to capture Kavieng, but Gen. MacArthur wanted to push for the Philippines as quickly as possible. To do that, it was decided that Kavieng should be neutralized with airpower, isolated by seizing the Admiralties to the west, then bypassed with a move into Dutch New Guinea. With the coordination of Admiral William F. Halsey in the South Pacific and forces from the Central Pacific, the Japanese would come under heavy fire at Rabaul, lose the Green Islands and ideally suffer a serious blow to their shipping fleet base at Truk.

B-24s were the first aircraft sent to bomb Kavieng on February 11, 1944, and continued these missions until the 14th. The next day, the 38th and 345th Bomb Groups’ B-25 crews were ordered to strike shipping and warehouse facilities on Kavieng. A-20s from the 3rd Bomb Group also participated in the attack, mainly focusing on shipping and a float-plane base. Captain Michael Hochella of the 500th Squadron, 345th Bomb Group was leading a three-plane formation to the right of the lead plane flown by Capt. Max Mortensen. The Japanese opened fire on the B-25s, with Hochella’s B-25 STUBBORN HELLION taking multiple hits along the left side.

Hochella was too busy to notice the significant damage until he looked down at this tachometer and left engine gauges, then started receiving damage reports over the intercom. Coming off the run, the plane quickly fell behind the rest of the formation. The left engine was spinning out of control and every attempt to feather the engine failed. Hochella descended to just above the water because he knew it wouldn’t be long before STUBBORN HELLION would crash. The pilot notified the crew to prepare for a water landing, which happened approximately three minutes after the announcement.

Attack on Kavieng, New Ireland

Fifth Air Force launched a major attack on the key Japanese supply base at Kavieng on the northwestern tip of New Ireland on February 15, 1944. The 345th’s 48 strafers followed the 38th Bomb Group over the target in a devastating but costly low-level raid. Four planes from the 345th were knocked down by flak or flying debris from an exploding fuel dump. The smoke plume in the right background is from a freighter set afire by the 38th Bomb Group. The photo was taken from AVOCA AVENGER of the 500th, which was next over the target. Three of the Squadron’s planes were fatally hit as they flew through the dense smoke cloud at left. Captain Cavoli was forced to go on instruments as he passed through it. (Maurice J. Eppstein Collection)

As the plane hit the water, the still-buckled in pilot was thrown through the windshield from the force of the crash. He lost consciousness, then revived underwater long enough to unstrap from the seat and inflate his Mae West. Hochella drifted out of consciousness again during the journey to the surface, but revived once again when he broke through. This time, he stayed awake and swam to the plane to do a quick crew count. One man, navigator 1/Lt. John J. Howard, was missing. The pilot released the life raft on the plane, then he dove down to search for Howard. Other crewmembers, even the injured ones, also swam around in hopes of finding the missing navigator, but no one was able to locate him. Crewmen piled into the raft or hung on to the side and they set out for a nearby island.

They landed outside of an impenetrable forest of mangroves and vegetation without a beach to camp on. From their vantage point, they watched Lt. (j.g.) Nathan G. Gordon’s PBY Catalina rescue crew after crew shot down in the area, hoping and waiting for their own rescue. No one saw STUBBORN HELLION’s crash landing, and the noise of the American planes soon faded away, only to be replaced by the occasional explosion from the Japanese base ten miles away. The pilot and co-pilot swam back to their plane to clear the crash site of any floating debris so as to keep the Japanese unaware of their presence in the area.

As the day went on, the men stayed hidden and mostly quiet, except for the occasional pained cry or moan from the injured crewmembers who were in pain from the constant movement of the water, which soon became unbearable. To alleviate the suffering of the injured men, it was decided to move to a beach about three miles away. They paddled all night, reaching the beach before dawn the next day, then hauled the raft ashore to hide it from any unfriendly eyes.

Meanwhile, back at Dobodura, the 345th was scheduled for an early morning mission to New Hanover on February 16, 1944. They were to help the 38th Bomb Group destroy a 14-ship convoy. News of the disappearance of STUBBORN HELLION had spread and Capt. Keith Dougherty of the 500th Squadron had been mulling over the mystery since he heard about it. After dropping his bombs on the New Hanover mission, he acted on a hunch to fly over the reefs and sea swamps near Kavieng in hopes of finding the fellow members of his squadron.

Hearing the familiar engines, one of the men raced out from their hiding spot and waved furiously at Dougherty’s B-25. The pilot flew over again, and one of his crewmen dropped a box of rations that was promptly recovered. Dougherty then set a course for home, happy to know that they hadn’t been captured by the Japanese. The next morning, he flew to Finschhafen where he climbed aboard the Catalina assigned to rescue the airmen. Around 1130 hours, Hochella and his crew were loaded onto the Catalina and soon on their way to the hospital at Finschhafen.

 

Read this story in our book Warpath Across the Pacific.

Shot Down at Kokas

July 1944 was a rough month for the 312th Bomb Group. In the first two weeks, the unit lost eight men and four A-20s. Two more lives and one more A-20 would be lost before the month ended. On the 22nd, Col. Robert H. Strauss led the 387th Squadron to Kokas, Dutch New Guinea to take out antiaircraft guns and other targets in the area. The geography of Kokas and the Bay of Sekar presented a unique challenge for Allied aircraft: the region was surrounded by hills, which forced the A-20s to approach the area from a higher altitude and drop rapidly before they could attack.

The 387th dropped 250-pound bombs on buildings, personnel areas and antiaircraft positions and strafed the target. Acting as a wingman for flight leader Capt. Jack W. Klein was 2/Lt. Melvin H. Kapson. His A-20 was hit multiple times by antiaircraft and machine gun fire. Kapson returned to Hollandia with 128 new holes in his plane, one of three damaged on the mission. Klein’s other wingman was 1/Lt. James L. Knarr. Flying over the water, Knarr’s A-20 was hit by flak and crashed. Kapson and Klein realized that Knarr’s plane was missing after they reformed to head back to Hollandia, but no one knew what exactly happened. It wasn’t until the photos from Klein’s belly camera were developed that everyone got to see the crash as it was captured on camera. The four photo sequence, soon named “Death of an A-20,” was published all over the world.

Death of an A-20

(Richard H. Ellis, Ernest Fuller Collections)

Knarr was flying his 70th combat mission and finished his 12-month tour of duty, and he was scheduled to go home soon. His gunner, S/Sgt. Charles G. Reichley was on his 46th mission.

Pilot and crew chief

1/Lt. James L. Knarr, on the left, and S/Sgt. Wilson J. Metcalf, his crew chief, stand in front of Knarrʼs A-20. (Edgar R. Bistika Collection)

Shortages in the Pacific Theater

Paul T. Jones enlisted in the Army in October 1940 and made the journey overseas with the 43rd Bomb Group. For much of the war, the U.S. adopted a policy of putting the fight in Europe ahead of all other theaters, leading to a lot of anger and frustration from the men in the Pacific who felt they were not getting the resources and relief needed to fight the Japanese. The shortage of men and equipment was often noted in diary entries like these.

April 6, 1943 — Sometimes I wonder, I have mentioned before how badly we need planes. Some of our combat crews have over 300 hours combat. Seems like if they are going to keep us over here they could send us some new planes and men. Gen. Kenney went to Washington to see what could be done and I understand they are sending some damn senator over to look things over. A hell of a lot he knows about it. I believe the people at home think this front is a joke. If they could be here working to keep these ships in the air and then seeing them take off and come back with some of their buddies missing it would cease to be so. At times you can’t help but get disgusted with the whole thing. Then again I know a lot of fellows and myself included wonder how things will be when we get back, taxes, and a thousand other things. Well I guess things will straighten out in due time.

Oct. 5, 1943 — A couple of days ago Gen. Kenney had us up to group for a little talk. The whole thing bills down to the fact that we can’t expect to go home in the near future. He can’t get any replacements over here. One percent a month is all for sick etc which isn’t enough. Combat men have good chances of going as they have, after 300 hours. Miserable ground men can expect to stay here until they are bush happy or physically unable. The Gen. said that he was working on a deal whereby we stay up here five months and go back to the mainland for one. It is rather plain that the German situation will have to be cleaned up before we can expect any relief…

June 17, 1944 — …The going home deal looks bad. Here it is the middle of June and the May men haven’t even left. [Jones was on the list for July.] Have been writing a few little shorts for the band in my spare moments. Shelton finished up his time and his going home orders are in. Good on him.

Jones would be transferred back home in October 1944, after almost 4 full years overseas.