In 1946, the U.S. War Department released a movie on the bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Along with footage of the destruction, there is also an eyewitness account from priest, who was in a building a few miles away from Hiroshima when the first atomic bomb detonated on August 6, 1945.
After a two day break from combat missions, the 345th was back in the air on April 3, 1945. The 499th and 500th Squadrons’ original target, shipping in the strait between Hainan Island and China’s Luichow Peninsula, came up empty and the two squadrons flew on to their secondary target, Hoi How, located on Hainan Island. As the 500th Squadron flew towards the clouds of flak hanging above the Japanese Navy base, navigator Capt. Merritt E. Lawlis began wondering whether or not the flight leader, the pilot on his plane, had previously led any flights. The B-25s weren’t taking any evasive action. Right before he reached out to get 1/Lt. William Simpson’s attention, he suddenly realized that his back was hot.
Turning around, he saw a fire burning in the bomb bay. It started after shrapnel hit a gas tank in the bomb bay, then spread into Lawlis’ navigator compartment and the top turret. The right engine on this B-25, nicknamed PENSIVE, was damaged, as well as the main hydraulic reservoir. Because of the damage to the hydraulics system, the wheels were now hanging down about a third of the way, dragging the aircraft towards the water below. Simpson prepared his crew for a ditching, then crashed into the water in a bay about a mile away from Hoi How. Above, another B-25 crew dropped a raft for the downed airmen and watched three of them climb aboard. A fourth, 2/Lt. Arthur D. Blum, made a jump from the sinking B-25 to the raft and was instead carried away by a strong current. Simpson never made it out of the plane.
The remaining B-25s circled as long as they could and let the air-sea rescue know the location of the downed crew. Unfortunately, it was too dangerous to pull off a rescue operation, as this crew was too close to shore. It only took about 90 minutes for a Japanese motor launch to show up and fish the men out of the raft. All three: Lawlis, S/Sgt. Charles L. Suey and S/Sgt. Benjamin T. Muller, were burned in the fire. Lawlis had hit his back on the edge of the escape hatch during the ditching, leaving him temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. By the time they were picked up, he was just starting to regain feeling in his legs.
Once on land, they were taken to the commander of the base, where they were interrogated and thrown into jail. Three days after they were taken prisoner, they were forced to walk blindfolded and handcuffed to a medical dispensary about half a mile away, but their wounds were given only the barest treatment. They returned every three or four days and Suey’s infected burns showed no signs of healing. On May 13th, he died of infection and malnutrition. About a week later, Muller and Lawlis were transferred to Samah, which was an improvement over their previous living situation. Their handcuffs were removed and neither man was beaten at this camp. Much to their surprise, they saw a couple of familiar faces: Lts. James McGuire and Eugene L. Harviell. Lawlis watched McGuire’s B-25 go down and didn’t think anyone had survived.
Aside from Harviell, who died on August 10th, the rest of the men survived their internment. Muller came close to death, but the men were freed from the POW camp just in time and taken to a Navy hospital where they received the food and medical care they needed to recover.
This story can be found in Warpath Across the Pacific.
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.
1. Adrift at Sea: A Chance Encounter A downed aircrew from the 345th Bomb Group waits for rescue.
3. 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.
5. Takeoff Snafu A 22nd Bomb Group mission started off on the wrong wing…
6. 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.
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.
On April 2, 1945, Maj. Joseph B. Bilitzke, C.O. of the 388th Squadron, depicted here at upper left in his plane, BABY BLITZ II, led the 388th and 389th Squadrons, 312th Bomb Group from Mangaldan, Philippines, in an attack on the railroad yards and the fuel alcohol plant at Shinei, Formosa. This was a prime target for two reasons: the alcohol plant produced butanol, used in making aviation fuel and acetone for explosives, and Shinei was a major railroad hub for that part of Formosa. Bilitzke’s wingmen were 2/Lt. Dale C. Fritzel, flying the A-20H SWEET LEILANI at lower right, and 2/Lt. Robert J. Dicker, at top middle in tail letter “D.” When the strafers were finished, the alcohol plant was covered in thick black smoke. Coming off the target, the planes continued to strafe traffic on a bridge over the adjacent river. The mission lasted six hours, close to the maximum range for the A-20. Attacks such as this by the Fifth Air Force strafer units significantly degraded Japanese war-making capabilities on the island.
This dramatic illustration by Jack Fellows is available for purchase on our website.
On March 11, 1945, B-25 crews from the 501st Squadron, 345th Bomb Group took off from San Marcelino in search of shipping around Tourane Bay, located on the coast of French Indochina (now Vietnam). The previous day, the 500th Squadron was in that area and attacked a couple of Japanese ships that they spotted, sinking the 5239-ton tanker Seishin Maru. This time, there was an oil tanker strategically anchored near the shoreline, and guarded by antiaircraft batteries.
The crews lined up to attack the ship, flying overhead one by one. Gunners at the batteries, as well as on the nearby airbase, fired at the B-25s. Second Lieutenant Arthur J. McGrane was last over the ship in B-25 #190. Below him, the antiaircraft gunners were still firing away, one of whom managed to hit McGrane’s B-25 in the left wing root. The flak severed the fuel line and holed the wing tank, causing fuel to pour into the fuselage. Up in the cockpit, the pilot watched as the fuel gauge dropped rapidly. He let the flight leader know about the damage and began the 700-mile journey home.
Meanwhile, the rest of the crews made another run over the tanker and also strafed three luggers in the area. Then, they set out for home, with the flight leader hot on the trail of McGrane’s damaged B-25. He did not think McGrane would make it all the way back to San Marcelino, so he radioed the nearby Catalina that was waiting to rescue any downed airmen.
Ahead of the rest of his squadron, McGrane’s crew was busy lightening the aircraft by discarding everything they possibly could while McGrane was closely monitoring the state of his B-25. Judging by the fuel gauges and the overpowering smell of fuel wafting throughout the plane, it wouldn’t be long before it would head for the ocean, so the pilot ordered his crew to prepare for a ditching. To make the situation more precarious, there was approximately an inch of fuel in the fuselage and any spark would blow the aircraft to bits. As they settled into their ditching positions, all T/Sgt. William F. Burhans, the turret gunner, could think about was what he heard back at San Marcelino: no one survived a ditching in the South China Sea.
For several minutes, they waited. Then the engines began to cut out and quit altogether shortly thereafter. Gliding down from 125 feet, the B-25 bounced off the sea once, then splashed to a stop into the water. Upon impact, McGrane’s left hand was crushed between the control column and the instrument panel. His co-pilot, F/O Alfred R. Palace and navigator, 2/Lt. Joe A. Groves quickly got out through the overhead escape hatch, followed by McGrane.
While the life raft had been properly ejected and inflated, it was floating near patches of burning fuel and no one wanted to retrieve it. Near the back of the plane, Burhans was panicking after he had been knocked unconscious in the crash and revived underwater. He thought that their plane had blown up, throwing him and Sgt. Arthur T. Neer into the water. After he inflated his life vest and rose to the surface, he found himself in the middle of a patch of burning fuel and promptly dove down to try and swim away from it. This process was repeated two more times before he got out of the fire. Fortunately, a one-man life raft package was floating next to him, so he opened it and inflated the raft. McGrane, Groves and Neer swam over to him. Palace had disappeared and S/Sgt. Marshall L. Dougherty, Jr., their radio operator, never made it out.
About five minutes after landing, the B-25 sank. Above them, their flight leader watched the downed airmen bobbing in the rough seas. The Catalina arrived on the scene within 10 minutes and tried to land in the water close to the men. A loud boom emanated from the Catalina and the pilot quickly took off. Later, it was discovered that the source of the sound was the hull cracking. Instead of a rescue, a six-man raft and a “Gibson Girl” radio were dropped, then both planes flew off. In the raft, burns, cuts and a broken hand were treated as best as they could be and the four men settled in to wait for a rescue.
Over the course of two days, they drifted more than 100 miles from the crash location, the result of a strong southerly current along the coast of the Indochina Peninsula. Their new location was far away from the B-25 search area, and, while they had been using the radio to signal anyone in the area, they never used it long enough for anyone to get a firm reading on their position. Five days after the crash, someone smelled diesel in the air. He woke the rest of the crew and they all listened for a humming that stood out from the ocean’s typical sounds.
Willing to risk getting captured by the Japanese instead of dying in the open water, they quickly grabbed the radio, switched on the light and cranked out an S.O.S. in hopes of getting the attention of whatever happened to be nearby. As the silhouette of a submarine materialized about a quarter of a mile in front of them, someone onboard saw their signal and the sub began heading right for them. About 50 yards away, a member of the crew yelled over a megaphone, “Put that god damn light out!” The aircrew was saved.
It turned out that the U.S.S. Bergall was on the surface to recharge the batteries and was going to go back underwater only a few minutes later. While the skipper knew about the downed “zoomies” in the area, he wasn’t counting on finding them. They were now 250 miles south of the crash site. Everyone was given food, water and fruit juice, wounds were treated. None of the men flew combat missions for the rest of the war.
Read more about the 345th Bomb Group in Warpath Across the Pacific.
In this newsreel from British Movietone, Winston Churchill announces an end to the war in Europe. The celebrations that followed his announcement lasted for almost two days.
The B-24s in the painting were part of one of the Far East Air Force’s last bombing missions against the Empire of Japan. Seen here leaving the target, the city of Oita on the Japanese home island of Kyushu, elements of the 64th Bomb Squadron, 43 Bomb Group, were part of a 20+ B-24 raid by the 43rd Bomb Group on a mission dubbed a “milk run” due to the light-to-nil defensive opposition generated by the Japanese. In the foreground, #973 bears the flamboyant artwork covering the complete port side of the aircraft which would immortalize it and its creator S/Sgt. Sarkis E. Bartigian, who was assigned to the Squadron’s ground echelon. Bartigian’s exuberant creations decorated the sides of a number of 43rd Bomb Group B-24s late in the war, but this one, THE DRAGON AND HIS TAIL was the most well-known and photographed. After meeting an ignominious end in the smelters at Kingman, Arizona following the war’s end, #973 was reincarnated in all its glory on the port side of the Collings Foundation’s B-24, flaunting Sgt. Bartigian’s provocative artwork at air shows around the U.S. This artwork is published on the cover of our book Ken’s Men Against the Empire Volume II and is available for purchase on our website.
As World War II continued in 1945, a new program was put in place: two men a month from each ground echelon of an air unit were permitted a 30-day leave to the States. It was a nice thought, but completely detached from the reality of an active combat unit like the 345th Bomb Group. More than 600 men in the 345th were eligible for leave. Many of them hadn’t had a proper break from the action in more than 20 months, and an alternative solution was needed. Majors Maury Eppstein and Everett E. Robertson, as well as two sergeants, set out for Manila by order of Col. Coltharp to rent the two largest houses in they city for leave centers.
It was a hot, dusty 90 mile trip on February 4, 1945 that kept the men on their guard as they watched for Japanese stragglers hiding near the roads. When they reached the city, they were stopped at a checkpoint and questioned by the Military Police. Manila itself was currently engulfed in a bloody and greatly destructive battle that would continue through March; troops had liberated 4000 American and Allied civilians from Santo Tomas University only one day before. The MPs were reluctant to let the members of the 345th into the war zone, but they eventually relented, giving them handwritten passes and directions to the university located two miles away.
Even on the relatively safe pathway they took, the men were shot at once on the way to the university. Shortly after they arrived, the very presence of the men drew a crowd of excited people. None of them had ever seen a jeep before. Nearly two weeks earlier, the Japanese cut off the food supply and the conditions at the school had been deteriorating. People had been surviving on whatever they had. Children often received a significant share of their parents’ rations, and there was a stark difference between the health of the children and adults. Seeing this, the members of the 345th gave the extra rations they brought to those in charge of doling out food to the civilians. Everyone was very grateful for their contributions.
For the next two days, the men searched for suitable houses within Allied-controlled territory. They encountered relieved civilians who had been hiding from the Japanese. The father of one family even dug up a bottle of brandy that he buried in the backyard to toast the Americans. Other neighborhoods were crossed off the map, still occupied by Japanese soldiers. Burning tanks, dead bodies and artillery pieces were scattered all along the route to the neighborhood they were going to look at. Once they found three or four acceptable houses, it was time to head back to San Marcelino.
After returning to their base and reporting on the conditions witnessed in Manila, the 345th decided to pack a 6×6 truck with food, water, medicine and other aid for those at Santo Tomas. They dropped off the supplies, and then returned to the two locations that were chosen for leave houses to negotiate a rental agreement with the owners. The first house, which was easily secured, was owned by an architect and won a design award six years earlier after it was built. Approximately 40 enlisted men would be able to stay there at a time. At the second house, the leasing process took an interesting turn, as the mansion belonged to the governor of one of the provinces. The lady looking after the house, Dorothia, couldn’t agree to anything without the governor’s permission, so the group spent the night at the house, then went back to San Marcelino the next day.
Again, members of the 345th returned to Manila. This time, it was a much smaller group consisting of Maj. Eppstein and Capt. Stephen N. Gilardi, the 500th Squadron’s Ordnance Officer, who was an attorney before the war. Eppstein wanted to be sure that renting the governor’s mansion was formalized legally and wouldn’t result in any issues for the governor or the 345th Bomb Group. They picked up Dorothia, who agreed to show them the way to the governor’s town. The Americans were greeted warmly and a rental agreement was soon finalized. The governor also threw a banquet for the men. Later on, they went back to Manila, where they dropped off Dorothia to get the house ready, then drove on to San Marcelino.
The houses were quickly prepared for the officers and enlisted men, and it wasn’t long before they were occupied by men on leave. They leased these houses until July, after the 345th moved to the Ryukyu Islands and it wasn’t feasible to fly all the way back to Manila. Colonel Coltharp’s idea provided an incredible boost to the morale of his unit.
Read the full story in Warpath Across the Pacific.
For the last 50 years, Japan had been occupying the island of Formosa (now known as Taiwan). Their occupation provided an excellent element of control over the sea lanes between Formosa and the Japanese islands. They built sugar and alcohol plants on the island, which gave them a very useful byproduct: butanol. This flammable liquid was used to make aviation fuel and acetone for explosives. The island also had oil, iron, copper and aluminum, all of which were used by the Japanese. To destroy these industrial plants, U.S. crews first had to make it through the “flak belt,” the heavily-armed southern part of Formosa.
Approximately five million people lived on the island at the start of World War II, and these people were not as anti-Japanese as those on the Philippine Islands. Aircrews going down on Formosa were less likely to find individuals to help them get back to the Allied forces. Still, all eyes were on Formosa being the next stepping stone to the islands further north.
In March 1945, the 312th Bomb Group began flying its first missions to Formosa. First up was a mission to Kagi Airdrome, located in the southern half of the island. It was going to be a very long day: the flight would be more than 1000 miles round trip, which was near the limit of the A-20. About 200 miles of the flight would be over open ocean.
On March 2nd, 36 A-20s from the 386th, 387th and 388th Squadrons met up with they P-38 escorts over Mangaldan for the trip to Kagi. After making the journey to the island of Formosa, the formation began searching for Kagi in the cloudy weather. They found a target, bombed and strafed it, then formed up to head home. Something wasn’t quite right, though. As written in the 386th Squadron mission report, they bombed what they “believed to be Kagi dummy airdrome, which is at Shirakawa 5 miles S. of Kagi town…when the attack was made the pilots were not certain which drone was hit but thought it to be the dummy from available information on the drone…The revetments around the strip were reported as being in perfect condition—almost too perfect.”
It turns out that they didn’t hit Shirakawa, either. Instead, they hit Mato Airdrome, located 25 miles to the south. Years later, Maj. Richard Wilson, leader of that mission, remembered that it was overcast over the South China Sea and he could not see the waves below, which would have helped him determined the direction the wind was blowing. After flying out of the cloud bank, Wilson realized that they were too far west. He turned east, crossed the coast of Formosa and decided to attack the first airfield he saw. Joseph Rutter, who was also on the flight, had a feeling that the flight leader was lost. They were making too many turns, “roaring around over the countryside for what seemed to be half an hour, or at least much too long…”
The mission also claimed the lives of two members of the 387th Squadron. Second Lieutenant Bruce E. Nostrand’s A-20 was hit by ground fire on the return flight. It was damaged enough that Nostrand needed to ditch his plane two miles off the coast of Cape Bojeador, on the northwest point of Luzon. Neither he nor his gunner, S/Sgt. Lyle A. Thompson, made it out alive. A second A-20, flown by 1/Lt. James L. Temple, was also hit by ground fire. He and his gunner made it back to Magaldan without a hydraulic system and crash-landed without injury. A third A-20, flown by 2/Lt. Frederick C. Van Hartesveldt, hit a tree during the attack. While the tree damaged the elevator, bomb bay doors, inner left wing and stabilizer, he and his crew also made it back to base without injury.
Read this story in our book Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s.