Repost: A Fiery Landing

This post first appeared on October 2, 2015.

Nine planes took off for Utarom, a Japanese air base on the west coast of Dutch New Guinea, on the morning of September 28, 1944. The mission was soon cancelled due to bad weather over their target and the A-20 crews headed back to base. Shortly into the return journey, 2/Lt. Kenneth S. DuFour lost oil pressure in one engine of his plane. He shut it down, jettisoned his bombs and told his gunner, S/Sgt. Thomas E. Smith, to bail out if the other engine quit. For the time being, things were stable, and DuFour continued flying back to Hollandia. Above him, 2/Lt. Walter F. Hill kept a watchful eye on DuFour’s A-20.

As DuFour approached Tanahmerah Bay, he followed the common landing procedure of switching from the bomb bay tanks to the wing tanks, only to have vapor lock shut down the remaining working engine. His A-20 went into a spiral dive and DuFour worked furiously to regain control of his plane by easing off the rudder trim and switching on the booster pumps. The engine restarted and the pilot got his plane back in control. For a short time, Hill thought DuFour’s A-20 would plunge into the water and was relieved after he pulled out of the dive. During the chaos, Smith bailed out with Hill watching him float towards the cliffs on the west side of the bay.

DuFour slowly took his aircraft up to 3000 feet in order to clear the mountains that stood between him and Hollandia. When he could not contact the tower, he decided to land on a dirt strip next to the runway. As he attempted to lower his landing gear, only the nose wheel came down. DuFour aborted the landing, determining that he would be better off ditching in nearby Sentani Lake. The descent to the lake was too difficult to control, leading the A-20 to crash into nearby trees instead. During the landing, the pilot was knocked unconscious.

When he woke up, he was surrounded by fuel and fire. DuFour attempted to escape the inferno through the canopy, but it wouldn’t open. Instead, he used a pistol to break the Plexiglas and climbed out of the plane. Soon after getting out, he heard the ammunition exploding. This worried the pilot, as he was unaware that his gunner had bailed out and thought Smith was still trapped.

Meanwhile, Hill landed at Hollandia and headed for a PT boat where he and others would search for Smith. A member of the 25th Liaison Squadron, T/Sgt. James D. Nichols, would help him with the search from the air. As they began looking, they saw a native canoe with Smith sitting in it. Other than minor cuts and bruises, he was uninjured after landing at Cape Korongwabb.

Back in the jungle, DuFour was certain that he landed near Hollandia and walked back in the direction of the base, which happened to be five miles away. After a six hour walk that included several stream crossings, the pilot heard an engine and began walking towards the sound for about 25 yards before he emerged from the jungle surrounding the base. DuFour walked into the closest tent, waking the occupant from a sound slumber.

The soldier drove the pilot to the hospital where he was treated for first, second and third degree burns over 30% of his body. All of his hair and part of his ears were burned off, as well as half the skin on his forehead. His hands and arms were also badly burned. At the hospital, skin grafts failed and he was transferred to the plastic surgery center at Northington Hospital in Alabama, where he stayed for six months. Once he recovered, he returned to flying status near the end of the war.

This story can be found in Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s.

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The Fight for Mindoro

Expanding a little more on last week’s post…

As 1944 was wrapping up in the Pacific Theater, units continued their march northward with the invasion and seizure of the island of Mindoro and continuing attacks on Clark Field, Luzon. Mindoro was considered a strategic asset for continued attacks and the eventual push towards reclaiming Luzon from the Japanese. The Japanese knew this, and even though they were driven off Mindoro on December 15th, they weren’t going to give up easily.

Two airfields were constructed on Mindoro within 13 days of the Allied takeover in preparation for the invasion of Luzon. Admiral Masatomi Kumura did not want to see these airfields become usable by the Americans and he assembled eight ships to sail from Vietnam on December 24th to Mindoro in hopes of disrupting the building efforts. It wasn’t until the 26th that their presence was detected some hours south of San Jose and U.S. ship crews hurried to vacate the harbor before the arrival of the Japanese. Men at Mindoro’s airfield sent a message to Tacloban asking for any help they could get to defend their new airbase.

Unknowingly, the Japanese had picked the perfect moment to strike. The two airfields were almost out of resources, with only a couple dozen bombs and anemic fuel stocks. The air units present on Mindoro (the 8th and 58th Fighter Groups, and the 110th and 17th Reconnaissance Squadrons), were flying fighter aircraft, except for the 17th, which had B-25s. None of these aircraft were capable of tangling with a cruiser safely, and even if they were, none of the crews were trained for night-flying operations. And the U.S. Navy, which had previously been in charge of protecting this advance base, were a day’s voyage away.

The worst-case scenario was invasion. If the Japanese force successfully landed infantry, San Jose would certainly have been overrun. Therefore, every available plane was mobilized, despite the lack of ordnance, the mismatched combat capabilities and the darkness. (There were no landing troops aboard these ships, but the Allies didn’t know that.) Since the fields on Mindoro had to stay under blackout conditions, the aircrews were told to land at Tacloban, almost 300 miles to the east. At 2100 hours, the Japanese ships were in range, and over 100 American aircraft scrambled.

Among them were two aircraft that had responded to the distress call: B-24 snoopers of the 63rd Squadron, 43rd Bomb Group. The 63rd was a night operations group, and two of their aircrews, headed by 1/Lts. Dickinson and Samuel L. Flinner, happened to be in Tacloban when the distress call was received. They had been ordered to make multiple passes from 6000 feet and drop one bomb at a time in order to make it sound like multiple B-24s were overhead.

Instead, Flinner dove down to 1000 feet while strafing the light cruiser Oyodo to drop his bomb more accurately. It looked like his bomb knocked out a couple of the heavy guns aboard, and Flinner went to pull away for another run. Except he couldn’t. PUG’s rudder cables were completely severed by antiaircraft shells and Flinner’s tail gunner was wounded. The B-24 began to descend, nearly hitting the water before Flinner regained control of the plane. He salvoed his remaining bombs and turned for Tacloban. Dickinson, meanwhile, made his runs and damaged the destroyer Kiyoshimo with two direct hits.

Once the crew was away from the fighting, they set about administering first aid to the tail gunner and the engineer, T/Sgt. Bill Schlereth, tackled the rudder cables. He found the two ends of the severed cables in the large mass of wires overhead, then enlisted Sgt. Don Tuley to help him isolate them. Schlereth spent the remainder of the flight clamping and reweaving spare wire to the rudder cables to the point that Flinner was finally able to control the rudders for landing. They waited out an additional five hours by circling Tacloban in order to burn off fuel and make a daylight landing for safety’s sake.

In the end, PUG landed safely with more than 200 new holes than she took off with. The groups at Mindoro had suffered severely: three B-25s, 10 P-47s, six P-40s, and seven P-38s had been lost during the battle. The Japanese withdrew from the area around midnight after doing little damage to the airstrip and harbor with one less ship, the Kiyoshimo, which had been severely damaged by Dickinson’s crew.

 

If you want to read about the battle from the ground perspective, check out Rocky Boyer’s War.

Night Action off Mindoro

A 63rd Squadron B-24 attacks a Japanese ship near Mindoro during WWII

Limited Edition of 199 Giclee prints

Signed and numbered by the artist

Image Size: 16″x21″

Paper Size: 24″x26.5″

On the night of December 26, 1944, this radar-equipped B-24M night intruder, piloted by Lt. Samuel L. Flinner of the 63rd Bomb Squadron, 43rd Bomb Group attacked and immobilized the Imperial Japanese Navy Yugumo-class destroyer, Kiyoshimo, off the Philippine island of Mindoro, where it was left behind and sunk by a PT boat. Leaving Tacloban, they had been informed that a Japanese task force might try to retake the area so orders were given to try to locate it. After departure, they skirted a squall line only to find that Mindoro’s night sky was being lit up by shelling and flares. Scouts for ships with radar produced several targets. While being showered with heavy tracers and antiaircraft fire, a low altitude bomb run at 1000 feet was made on a vessel that was three miles off shore. All three of their bombs produced large explosions. After the run on the ship, the B-24 became the center of attention for the Japanese as it dove to the deck in a hard turn. Two shells hit the plane, one in the tail turret, injuring the tail gunner, and another exploded in the midsection behind the waist gunner, cutting the rudder cables. Splicing the cables together, they flew back through the squall line to Tacloban and circled until daylight to land. A ground inspection revealed over 200 holes. Lieutenant Flinner accumulated 24 missions and 412 combat hours. He and his crew were given credit for the kill. This artwork will be published in our next book Ken’s Men Against the Empire Volume II.

Buy your copy of this dramatic artwork by aviation artist Jack Fellows on our website.

Diary Excerpt: Paul Jones

We wanted to share some fascinating insights as well as some thought-provoking questions in a diary entry written by Paul Jones, a ground crewman who served in the 63rd Squadron, 43rd Bomb Group. Jones was with the 43rd when they left the United States in early 1942 and he returned to the States on November 1, 1944.

January 23, 1944

The other night I went out to the line to check the airplanes, as I always do every night after they are loaded. When I find anything wrong it means extra duty for the crew chief who is responsible. It is a rare thing to find anything amiss but occasionally the boys get lax on details. A few nights previous I had found a fuze unsaftied in Strang’s ship. You should have heard the howl he put up when I reprimanded him.

Anyway I was checking Sam’s ship — one of the tail fuzes had a 8-11 sec. detonator where it should have been 4-5. For an instant it flashed through my mind, “You can change that ‘set’ and say nothing about it.” “Nobody will know the difference.” Naturally I didn’t follow that impulse. At times like this it has to be soldier first and brother second. When I came in and told him about it all he said was, “Yes. I guess I checked them for color instead of reading each one.” It meant a lot to me that he offered no excuse. I told him of my first thoughts and he said I’d have been a hell of a soldier if I had done that.

Tonight I was at church. It is in the open as a lot of soldiers are having their services under the sky. The chaplain is praying, asking that out of all this bloodshed and destruction comes a better world. In the middle of the prayer one of our ships takes off that we had just finished loading an hour or so before. The sound of its engines rises in volume, full blowers on, it passes over and the sound dies out. The chaplain hasn’t faltered in his prayer. We had loaded those ships to kill and there we were sitting at church. What a mixed up world this is, I and millions all over the world pray that out of this will come good. God must have a plan for the whole affair but it is not for us to understand.

We all over here wonder how it will be after the war. I know people at home wonder the same. What difference will this war make on people living a hundred years or even fifty years from now. Will it bring security for the generations of children to come or will, in another twenty years or so, the world be at it again? Only pages of some future history hold the answer.

Mom’s letters come regularly and are a big lift to us both. She says when we get home she is going to cook a whole pound of scrapple and she and Sam will sit down and stow in away. Raleigh is still in school and doing well according to his letters. If they go behind in their marks for one month out they go. I hope Pal is fortunate enough not to have to go overseas.

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

Tough Day at Utarom

By August 1944, months of Allied advancement in the Southwest Pacific had forced the Japanese back to the port town of Utarom and its airdrome, Kaimana, their only major airfield left on New Guinea. On the 11th of that month, 24 A-20 crews from the 386th and 387th Squadrons were briefed by Maj. William Pagh, who told the men that there were multiple antiaircraft guns guarding Kaimana and pointed out their locations. He recommended that they stay out of the range of the guns. Targets for the mission were mainly barges just off the Utarom coastline.

Arriving over Utarom with Pagh in the lead position, the pilots spread out as they looked for targets. Pagh spotted a couple of barges off Kaimana’s shoreline, and, ignoring his own advice from earlier, made a run on them. As he pulled up and exposed the belly of his aircraft, an antiaircraft position on the north end of the runway opened up. The right engine of Pagh’s A-20 was fatally damaged, leading the plane to drop and cartwheel into the water. Pilots who watched the scene said that the “hill north of the strip looked like a solid sheet of flame from 8 to 10 M/G machine gun] positions there.”

Kaimana Drome at Utarom

By August 1944, Utarom was the last major Japanese operational airdrome in Dutch New Guinea. On August 11, 1944, Maj. William S. Pagh, the Group Operations Officer, led the 386th and 387th Squadrons in an attack against it and was shot down and killed. (Claud C. Haisley Collection)

Utarom was nothing but chaos. Pilots were flying in every direction, making it more difficult to make any sort of attack run without worrying about being hit by an antiaircraft gunner from below or accidentally damaging a fellow crew’s A-20. At some point, the A-20 flown by 1/Lt. Frank W. Wells was hit and he issued a mayday call. While 1/Lt. Frank Hogan had spotted Wells’ plane about half a mile ahead of his own, he did not note any hits. Hogan lost sight of the A-20 soon after and it is speculated that Wells crashed into the sea.

Once it was time to head back to Hollandia, Hogan looked for the other A-20s in his squadron, picking up Capt. Joseph B. Bilitzke flying in BABY BLITZ. Both pilots circled the area, looking for any sign of Wells or any other 386th aircraft that still might be in the area. BABY BLITZ was suddenly hit by flak, damaging both the rudder and vertical stabilizer, and knocking out most of Bilitzke’s instrument panel. Hogan and Bilitzke then headed for the nearest base, Owi, and Bilitzke made a hair-raising landing with four armed bombs still in his bomb bay. The bombs, three of which were secure and the fourth hanging precariously, were defused the next day.

Reflecting on the day’s losses, pilots realized that the location of the barges may have been a trap meant to lure pilots towards shore gun installations. While the briefing prior to the mission discussed the locations of the biggest antiaircraft guns, it’s possible that the locations of other nearby antiaircraft guns had not been mentioned. Pilots were also inadvertently putting their lives and the lives of their gunners at risk by exposing aircraft bellies to antiaircraft fire. Overall, the mission to Utarom was painful for the 312th.

The Death of a Leader

We have all heard the phrase “actions have consequences.” In this instance, a prank played by Capt. Harold G. De Kay may have saved his life. The 500th and 501st Squadrons were scheduled to strike Hansa Bay on January 30, 1944. During an evening of joking around in the Officers’ Club the previous night, De Kay sent a man to prank Capt. Jack Manders by putting pins through the wires of Manders’ jeep’s horn. In return, Manders demoted De Kay from his usual position in the lead plane on missions and stuck him in the last plane of the formation. Manders took his spot in his B-25 nicknamed ARKANSAS TRAVELER.

Upon arriving over Hansa Bay, the area was completely overcast, but crews were able to pick out their targets: ships, an airstrip and antiaircraft guns. As the B-25s began to make their runs over the bay, the antiaircraft batteries opened fire. An engine on ARKANSAS TRAVELER caught fire after a flak shell burst right next to it. With one engine out of commission, Manders fell behind and Lt. Symens in QUITCH took the lead position, barreling down on one of the two ships Manders was attacking. Unchecked, the fire damaged the hydraulic system, which caused the landing gear to extend and slowed the B-25 further. Still, Manders was determined to finish his run. Fifty feet above the ship, he released two of his bombs, one of which may have hit the ship directly.

Approximately 100 yards beyond the ship, ARKANSAS TRAVELER lost all lift and bounced off the surface of the water once before exploding as it hit the water a second time. The bombs released by Symens exploded a second later, one of which may have been right against the ship. HORATIO II also had an engine damaged by gunfire, although the pilot was able to make an emergency landing at Finschhafen. QUITCH had been hit a few times, although they didn’t think there was anything more than maybe a flat tire (which turned out to be undamaged) and a six-inch hole in the right wing flap.

Explosion of the Arkansas Traveler

As Symens brought QUITCH in for landing, the damaged flap the had originally looked like it would be ok suddenly tore off, causing the plane to make a violent, vertical 90 degree rotation with a wing pointed straight down. For a few terrifying seconds, the plane flew onward as the pilot and co-pilot, 1/Lt. Paul H. Murphy, worked to bring the B-25 back in control and land safely. They were subsequently awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for their skill.

De Kay, who some assumed to be dead (they didn’t know he wasn’t on the lead plane like usual), was convinced by several officers to recommend Manders for the Medal of Honor. He wrote up an admittedly exaggerated account of the events that occurred, which wasn’t believed by headquarters. Instead, Manders was awarded a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross.

Mission to Babo

Jack Fellows A-20 art titled Mission to Babo

Babo Airdrome was a key base for Japanese operations on the Vogelkop Peninsula of Dutch New Guinea. Lieutenant General George C. Kenney, commander of Fifth Air Force, hoped that this attack would catch Babo’s aircraft on the ground, but with about fifty antiaircraft positions, the Japanese base was still a formidable challenge for any attacker, especially at low level. On July 9, 1944, Col. Strauss led 24 A-20s from the 388th and 389th Squadrons against Babo. The surprise attack was highly successful, but it came at a steep price to the 389th: five men and three aircraft.

One flight leader, 1/Lt. Kenneth I. Hedges, shown here in THE QUEEN OF SPADES, lost both of his wingmen on this raid. On his left wing, at the upper right in the painting, was 1/Lt. Earl G. Hill, with his gunner Sgt. Ray Glacken. Their A-20 is shown on fire before beginning a fatal descent. A short time later, the wing spar burned through and the plane plummeted into Bentoni Bay. The explosion on the ground at the upper left shows the A-20G of 1/Lt. Walter H. Van and his gunner, S/Sgt. Gilbert V. Cooper, exploding on a taxiway on the airdrome, a victim of the antiaircraft gunners. This artwork is published in our book Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s.

This print can be purchased on our website.