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.

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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.

Repost: That Saga-Writing Kavieng Cat Crew

Seventy-five years ago today, a PBY Catalina pilot performed a series of daring rescues. His bravery was the subject of a post back in June 2014 and is being reposted today.

Meet Lt. (J.G.) Nathan Gordon. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for rescuing three aircrews near Kavieng on February 15, 1944. His crew received  high praise for the daring rescues made that day. Admiral Halsey sent a telegram saying, “Please pass my admiration on to that saga writing Kavieng Cat crew.”

Here’s a short video of Gordon talking about how he saved the men. One of the crews that was rescued by the men on his Catalina was the subject of the previous post. Don’t forget to read their story after you watch the video.

When Plans Go Awry: A Mission to Palau

It had been more than a month since the 22nd Bomb Group last encountered fighter opposition on a mission. With an eye on the Palau Islands, the Red Raiders were sent to disrupt the Japanese airfields and destroy installations on June 9, 1944, prior to the invasion of the Marianas island chain in the central Pacific later in the month.

The plan was for 26 B-24s to fly from Hollandia to Wakde Island, where their fuel tanks would be topped off, and then they would continue to their target of Peleliu Island. Much to the annoyance of the crews, Murphy’s Law struck several times over the course of the mission and only 11 aircraft completed the mission. Bad weather forced several crews to turn around, others made navigational errors that led them to miss the target completely (they made it back to Wakde safely) and others were unable to make it to the target due to mechanical problems.

As 1/Lt. Dwaine E. Harry of the 408th Squadron approached Peleliu with the other B-24s in his squadron, weather became enough of an issue that Harry had to separate from the formation. He was jumped by several Zeros three miles out from the island. The lone B-24, ISLAND QUEEN, went into a dive, pulling up 20 feet above the water. Aboard the lead Zero, the pilot dropped his wing tanks in hopes of hitting the B-24 below. He missed. A second Zero made a pass at ISLAND QUEEN and the the gunners promptly returned fire, severely damaging the tail section of the Zero. The fight lasted for 25 minutes, then ISLAND QUEEN turned for Hollandia, landing without further incident.

408th Personnel at Nadzab

Two survivors from the B-24 ditched by the Barley crew off the coast of New Guinea on June 9th were photographed shortly after their return to Nadzab. In front of the Squadron intelligence hut were at left, Capt. John N. Barley, pilot; center is Maj. Glenn E. Cole, 408th Squadron C.O., and at right is T/Sgt. Frederick E. Pelegrin, engineer and top turret gunner. (John N. Barley Collection)

Approaching the target area, the remaining B-24s were met by several Zeros. Along with the usual attacks on the B-24s, the Zero pilots dropped phosphorus bombs and something that looked like heavy chains in front of the 22nd’s formation. Every plane was damaged in the fight. Captain John N. Barley’s aircraft was hit in the right inboard wing tanks, the fuselage and the #3 engine. A fire that started in an ammunition box burned some crewmen but it was quickly extinguished. Both waist gunners were wounded by gunfire, and one of them was dead 30 minutes after he had been hit in the forehead and stomach. A cloud bank provided enough cover to duck into and end the fight.

The crews managed to drop their bombs and began the long trip back home through more bad weather. Barley’s plane made a startling dive toward the sea when it was caught in a downdraft, but he and his co-pilot managed to level out before they hit the water. They flew on at a lower altitude, though they were now unsure of their exact position. Keeping an eye out for familiar landmarks, the crew flew along the New Guinea coastline until the B-24’s fuel supply dwindled and daylight waned. Captain Barley made a water landing about a mile and a half from Sissano Lagoon, located about 25 miles up the coast from Tadji. The tail broke off in the ditching, and nine crewmen exited the plane with new injuries from the ditching.

It took four hours for two of Barley’s crewmen to swim to the beach. One man was pushing the other because he was too injured to swim on his own. They met up with pilot and co-pilot, but the other five men were nowhere to be found. A constable from a nearby village found the airmen stranded on the shore. Barley knew he needed to get help for his crew, and asked if there were any American units nearby. The officer was willing to lead him to the nearest Allied presence, which turned out to be about a day’s walk away. They arrived at an Australian outpost, where the American base was contacted and help was promptly dispatched. The waiting crewmembers were rescued. What happened to the other five remains a mystery, although it’s possible that they were captured by the Japanese.

 

This story can be found in our book Revenge of the Red Raiders.

Celebrating Thanksgiving in the Southwest Pacific

As the men in the Southwest Pacific fought the Japanese during World War II, they spent major holidays and birthdays far away from their families and friends. These holidays weren’t always a break from routine missions, but they were a brief respite from the bland food typically served in the mess hall. We’ve gathered some diary entries from Thanksgiving Day in 1943 and 1944. Happy Thanksgiving!

Harry E. Terrell, 405/38
11/23/44, Morotai, clear.
“Today is Thanksgiving! I got up at 9:00 and Stanley, Shrout, Zombie and I started laying the rest of the floor. We put up the uprights and knocked off for chow. We finished the tent in the afternoon and cleaned up in time for Thanksgiving dinner! We had turkey, spuds, peas, buns, fruit salad, pumpkin pie and coffee – it was “The nuts” with a white table-cloth, candles and ferns! We’re observing blackouts at sunset now. The 71st lost a ship and we had two shot up with one man injured today.”

11/24/44 John “Hank” Henry, 405/38
“…November 24…I’m writing this on our way home from a strike [mission].

Yesterday was Thanksgiving, we flew all day and it was a rough one. When we landed, I tossed down my two jiggers of bourbon, then went to the mess hall for turkey, dehydrated potatoes, green peas, and pumpkin pie. I loaded up my plate, but couldn’t eat a thing. I hope some of the bastards met their honorable ancestors today.

Well — Land Ho — I’d best get to work…

Upon our return to Morotai, we learned the Bombardier in the first element had left his extended vision knob rolled out after he used it to search for the target through his sight, and consequently his bombs had released prematurely. The Bombardier cried like a baby as he caught hell from our C.O. When the photos came back from group, I was highly congratulated on my run over the target.

It was also on this date the first strikes were made against Japan from the S.W.P.A. This was the start of the devastating B-29 attacks on Tokio from the Marianas.”

 

408th Thanksgiving

It was a little late, but the units back at Reid River were treated to a sumptuous Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings on December 3, 1942. This photo layout shows various aspects of the 408th Squadron, 22nd Bomb Group’s celebration. (Samuel Schifren Collection)

 

11/25/43
Joseph C. Cox, 64/43
“Thanksgiving chow.”

11/25/43
Francis G. Sickinger, 64/43
“We were put on alert today and would have taken off except that the news got to town, and so the mission was called off. We’ll probably go out tomorrow afternoon. The 30th ground echelon is still around. Thanksgiving today and I guess I’m plenty thankful to be alive yet.”

11/25/43
Robert W. White, 65/43
“Had detail today. We had a good dinner – turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, string beans, yaws (native food), gravy potatoes and pumpkin pie. Eddie Rickenbach sent some Camels down to us. We went up the club and then down to Bryan’s tent. I got a card from Mom that read: ‘To Robert W. White – My Xmas gift to you is part of my self. I have given a pint of my blood at the Red Cross Blood Donation Center. May it prove a real gift to bring someone back home…’ That’s about the best thing I ever received.”

Piecing Together An Air Battle: Balikpapan October 10, 1944

We found a couple of interesting diagrams in our archives that we wanted to share with our readers. These were done after the 65th Squadron, 43rd Bomb Group returned from a raid on Balikpapan in October 1944. This was a significant moment in the 43rd’s history, as it was one of several Fifth Air Force units participating in the raid that day. For a quick refresher on Balikpapan, read this post.

Sorting out the chaos of an air battle with only one side of the evidence was no mean feat. Here, we see one of the tools Intelligence Officers used to make sense of it all. These diagrams of the air interception during the October 10, 1944 raid on Balikpapan, Borneo were drawn after debriefing each returning aircrew of their own experience. The composite sketch still leaves some details uncertain—and elements such as the two fighters with bailing pilots might have been one bailing pilot, seen from different aircrews’ perspectives. Note that both sketches depict the same moment in time. We believe the black splotches represent white phosphorus bombs, dropped from J1N1 “Irving” fighters (labelled in the diagram as a “Nick”). We know from Japanese records obtained after the war that the Japanese planes were Navy aircraft: thus the Oscars and Tonys (Army aircraft) listed in the diagram must have actually been A6M5 Model 52s—an advanced variation of the classic “Zero” fighter.

65/43 Balikpapan Interception side view

65/43 Balikpapan Interception top view

Camp Life: Gusap to Nadzab to Hollandia

After a rough start at Gusap in late 1943/early 1944, the men of the 312th Bomb Group had adapted to life in their muddy, temporary home by May. For the most part, their meals consisted of canned meat and dehydrated vegetables or potatoes. The occasional shipment of fresh food from Australia was heartily welcomed by everyone. At times, men would trade items such as razors and cigarettes for bananas, papayas, or coconuts from the villagers. If they weren’t looking for something to eat, they would trade for bows and arrows to keep as souvenirs. Somehow, the 312th acquired a Coke machine with the help of Lt. Harold Friedman of the Special Services section.

New equipment and crews were filtering into the unit when they were needed, which also made life in the Pacific easier. So, too, did plumbing and wooden floors as well as a laundry service. At this point, the 312th got to watch American movies on a regular basis and visit Australia for some rest and relaxation more often. There was also less disease in camp, and all these things contributed to a higher morale among the men in the unit.

It wasn’t long after the Hollandia raids of April 1944 that rumors of moving to Hollandia began to fly. Because that base required more development before it could accommodate the 312th, the air echelon of the Group was temporarily moved to Nadzab on June 11th. The move came with a few perks, namely newer movies and treats such as cookies, candy and juice. Meanwhile, the remainder of the unit had received orders on May 30th to head to Hollandia. Their move was staggered over June and July, as there was a shortage of C-47s to transport larger groups of men.

Upon arrival at Hollandia, it looked like the Japanese had left the base in a hurry. Aside from aircraft, vehicles and equipment strewn about, they had left behind clothing and blankets. Those and the huts they lived in were burned and the equipment was stripped of anything that might prove to be valuable
for trade with infantrymen. There were instances of hungry Japanese soldiers going through camp to scavenge for food, but none of them were captured or shot by the 312th. Around the end of June, the air echelon began trickling in and got to experience the most annoying thing about Hollandia: the dust. It was everywhere and got into everything.

A-20s at Hollandia

The 388th Squadronʼs parked A-20s can be seen at Hollandia with dust rising from a road in the background. Depending on the amount of rainfall, dust was a recurrent problem for operations from the base. (Martin P. DeNicola Collection)

Aircraft were covered as much as possible to keep the dust from getting into engines, turrets and cockpits. Taxiing around Hollandia was a tense experience because dust clouds created by A-20s greatly reduced visibility and planes seemed to come out of nowhere all of a sudden. To combat these issues, engines were kept at idling speed and line chiefs in jeeps were often used to guide pilots to the busy airstrips.

The men began to long for Gusap. It was much quieter, there was less dust, the recreation facilities were better and they got to enjoy cool breezes through their campsite. Food quality hadn’t improved and they were still waiting for more regular mail deliveries. Still, morale remained high and they knew it was a step forward in the war.

 

Read more about the 312th Bomb Group in our book Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s.

War Weary

War Weary B-25 painting by Jack Fellows

Limited Edition of 199 Giclee prints

Signed and numbered by the artist

Image Size: 28.5″ x 24″

Paper Size: 34.5″ x 24″

Combat aircraft are a little like racehorses…they can only go around the track a certain amount of times before they are worn out. An airplane that has attained an advanced state of decrepitude, such that it is no longer considered safe for combat missions is considered to be “war weary.” In the Southwest Pacific Theater of operations, consignment of worn out aircraft to the boneyard was an unaffordable luxury in 1944. For utility was still to be squeezed out of an airplane which could still wheeze down the runway and struggle into the air, and enough optimists could be found to fly her.

In the painting, a war weary B-25D with over 100 combat missions to its credit, WOLF PACK, retired to utility flights by the 498th Bomb Squadron, 345th Bomb Group, drops into the Ramu River valley in the jungles of western New Guinea, September 11, 1944, after losing an engine. The B-25 was unable to maintain level flight on the remaining engine, so a controlled crash-landing in the valley, an area known to be inhabited by cannibals, became a necessity. Pilot Lt. John Fabale, and co-pilot Lt. Harrison Beardsley managed to land in a swamp without any injuries to themselves or the crew.

After a five-day odyssey through the jungle, the crew arrived at an Allied jungle outpost, whereupon they were airlifted the rest of the way out by L-5 Stinson liaison aircraft. Many aircraft and their crew simply vanished into the jungle of New Guinea, never to be seen again, as the weather and the uncertainties of flight in aircraft which have mechanical failure as a recurring theme, took their toll on optimist and pessimist alike.

 

Read more of this story here. This print is available for purchase on our website.

A Training Mission Goes Awry

Shortly after a tense flight on August 15, 1944, the co-pilot of QUITCH, 2/Lt. Edward L. Bina, was promoted to first pilot and offered some rest and relaxation in Sydney. He declined and returned to flying duty with the 501st Squadron, 345th Bomb Group on August 28th for a training mission. This was a routine strafing mission against Japanese positions on Biak, an island in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). The attack went off without any major issues. After Bina completed his runs, he formed up with the other B-25s about 20 miles off the island, but as he did, a cylinder in the left engine of THE EAGER BEAVER blew, which ripped an 18-inch hole in the engine cowling.

Bina asked the engineer for advice, who recommended he climb to 3000 feet and then fly back to Mokmer Airdrome. After leveling off, Bina throttled back the engines and the rest of the upper cylinders in the left engine blew, taking off the rest of the cowling and severing the fuel lines. What remained of the engine caught fire, and fuel began leaking into the navigator’s compartment. They were only 12 miles southeast of the airdrome, but that wasn’t close enough to reach Mokmer. The crew prepared to ditch.

The Eager Beaver B-25

This photo shows the 71 mission markers on B-25D #41-30078, THE EAGER BEAVER, sometime before the aircraft was ditched on August 28, 1944 near Mokmer Airdrome by pilot 2/Lt. Edward L. Bina. Cylinders on the B-25’s left engine blew, causing major damage to the wing. The crew survived and later returned to Mokmer. (Howard J. Dean Collection)

Right before making contact with the water, the co-pilot jettisoned the overhead escape hatch, which created a wind tunnel that sucked the flames into the cockpit and scorched the three men in that section of the aircraft. After the landing, Bina sat in the cockpit questioning whether or not he was still alive, then concluded he was and quickly exited the plane. He helped the radio operator out and both cleared THE EAGER BEAVER as it started to sink.

Within 30 minutes of the water landing, the Navy cruiser USS Long Beach had rescued the whole crew. Bina was treated to a dinner that was far better than anything he had eaten in awhile. After he returned to his unit, Bina told his fellow officers about the pastries, fresh salad and roast turkey that he consumed while sitting at a table with linens, etched crystal glasses and silverware with the ship’s crest. In a way, the ditching was almost worth the meal.

 

Find this week’s story on page 181 of Warpath Across the Pacific.