Three Days at Sea

In early April 1944, the plans for invading Hollandia were in full swing. V Bomber Command was doling out orders to soften up the area ahead of time and the 312th Bomb Group participated in one such mission on April 12th. The unit was sent to Tami Airdrome, located 13 miles east of Hollandia, where they bombed and strafed the runway and the aircraft dispersal area.

While heading back to Gusap, an A-20 crew from the 386th Squadron spotted three Japanese luggers and the pilot, 2/Lt. James M. Horton, decided to attack them. He destroyed one and damaged the other two, then pulled up from his run. Horton’s problems began when he didn’t fly high enough to avoid hitting a tree with his left engine. He flew out over the water to put some distance in between himself and the Japanese, but felt confident that he could make it back to Gusap on one engine.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before that confidence disappeared, because the right engine started to cut out as well. There was no way to make it over the Finisterre Mountains now. It was time to bail out. Horton told his gunner, S/Sgt. Alphonse S. Rylko, to bail out, but he refused. He figured that if one of them was injured in the ditching, the other man could help out. Rylko’s foresight would prove to be correct.

The A-20 landed in the water going about 110mph and stayed afloat for about 90 seconds. Rylko escaped with nothing more than a bruised shoulder. Horton was hit in the back of the head by the five-man life raft and got a cut on his hand from broken glass. The men worked together to inflate the life raft, then climbed in. Overhead the P-38s that had been escorting the A-20 circled the downed crew a few times before flying off. Alone in the ocean, the crew was left to deal with a couple of problems: a hole in the bottom of the life raft and rough seas. Their kit had a rubber patch but no glue, so they used chewing gum to fill the hole. The gum patches were not ideal and had to be replaced several times while the crew waited to be rescued.

Before daylight completely disappeared, the men saw a PBY Catalina in the distance, but it never got close to where they were floating. They spent a rainy, unpleasant night in the raft bailing water and repatching the hole. The next day, they saw six P-38s and a Catalina and unsuccessfully attempted to signal to them. That afternoon, it rained again, and continued all night. Horton and Rylko were kept busy bailing water. Their rations consisted of candy and six cans of water, along with whatever rainwater they could catch. The next day, the men tried to get the attention of someone aboard one of the B-25s, A-20s or P-38s that passed by on the way to Tadji. Then a Catalina escorted by a P-38 passed by. It was still raining, making it much harder to see the downed crew. 

Finally, someone aboard a 345th Bomb Group B-25 noticed the men and radioed for a Catalina. It wasn’t long before the Catalina landed, but its fuel tanks exploded, igniting and sinking the rescue plane. Rylko and Horton didn’t see any survivors among the debris. A second Catalina landed in the rough seas half an hour later and everyone on board had to toss heavy objects overboard before the aircraft could take off. Three days after the ditching, the men were finally out of danger and back on land. They drifted about 80 miles away from their ditching site.

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

Target: Clark Field

How big was Clark Field? This photo from our book Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s gives you a little bit of an idea. For more information about the 312th’s participation in the attack on January 7, 1945, read this post.

This target photo map shows Camp Stotsenburg and three of Clark Field’s six runways, part of the objective for the massive Fifth Air Force strafer attack on January 7, 1945. For a larger version of this image, head to our Flickr page. (Edwin A. Wodjak Collection)

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.

Alcohol Busters

Color illustration in the book Rampage of the Roarin' 20's

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.

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.

Life in the Ground Crew

One of the biggest elements that kept a bomb group running smoothly during World War II was the ground crews. Men who did their best to keep airplanes in good condition, even in a climate where it was difficult to do so. Men who took care of mission logistics, making sure that the airplanes were loaded with the appropriate explosives for a mission, that parachutes were in working order, communications were set up properly and so much more.

Glen C. Brown of the 386th Squadron, 312th Bomb Group was on the line one day with the rest of his ground crew when they heard explosions. Brown, who was a member of the 386th’s Armament Section, typically loaded bombs onto the A-20s and maintained the machine guns. While he had the others were working, a batch of Japanese planes attacked the airfield. “…we decided, unanimously, that there were more interesting places to be than around an aircraft, so we left abruptly!”

The 312th aircrews truly appreciated all the time and effort put in by their ground crews, recognizing the long hours they worked to keep up with the mission activity. Crew chiefs cared about their airplanes, even taking it personally if one of his A-20s didn’t return after a mission. As pilots rotated out of a squadron, crew chiefs often wondered about the type of person who would be flying his plane next, and whether or not the new pilot would treat it well. Because ground crewmen never fought in combat directly, they were never credited with combat time, and so served much longer tours of duty than their aircrews even though they were just as vital to the combat mission’s success.

Chow Line on the Flight Line

Keeping the 312th Bomb Group A-20s mission-ready was hard work and frequently required long hours on the flight line for maintenance crews. To ensure that aircraft were always ready, it was often necessary to feed these work crews at the airfield. Here, maintenance men from the 387th Squadron have chow at the flight line. (Jack W. Klein Collection)

These men put in long hours in the tropical sunshine, dust, rain or mud, and the climate provided its own set of issues to deal with. Moisture often worked its way into the electrical systems by way of large electrical plugs that connected the wing and fuselage circuits, which could short-circuit the cockpit instruments. Wet plugs drove them crazy until someone had the idea to use hot air blowers to dry them out.

Cylinder heads would overheat, causing the studs that attached the exhaust ports to the cylinder heads to crystallize and break. If that happened, men spent hours removing and replacing the entire cylinder head because they couldn’t remove the remaining studs. Bushings were also replaced regularly because vibrations and heat wore them out very quickly.

It wasn’t always easy to replace parts on an airplane because there weren’t enough new materials coming in from the States. In March 1944, it was so bad that leaders in the 386th Squadron estimated that potentially 80% of the Squadron’s supply needs had not been met. Ground crews salvaged a lot of materials from wrecked or retired planes to keep their A-20s in the air, and that paid off. Average aircraft operability rates hovered around 85% since the beginning of combat operations, an excellent record for the ground crews.

 

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

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!

Finding Kagi

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.

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)

Targeting Formosa

Throughout the campaign to drive the Japanese back to Japan during World War II, bomb groups would be ordered to fly ground support missions. This typically meant targeting ammo dumps, Japanese troops and supplies, antiaircraft gun locations and flying night harassment missions.The A-20 was an effective tool for these missions due to its ability to pack a punch and its light, maneuverable design.

At the beginning of April 1945, the 312th Bomb Group carried out missions to support Filipino guerrillas as well as the 33rd and 37th Infantry Divisions. In Formosa, the list of prime targets included rail yards and alcohol plants, which produced some dramatic photography. Compared to the earlier missions flown by the 312th, there was relatively little interception from Japanese pilots. As a result, the American pilots attacked various targets with gusto, destroying warehouses, repair facilities and other buildings, and damaging rail yards and alcohol plants. They used 250-pound parafrags and 100-pound napalm bombs, which started large fires that were still smoking when the 312th was 20 miles out from the target area.

Their results caught the eye of General Kenney, who awarded the 312th with a Distinguished Unit Citation for an “outstanding performance” over the cities of Kyoshito, Eiko, Saiatau, Shinei, Banshiden, Tamazato and Suan Tau. Long distance missions like these pushed the A-20 fuel range to its limits and Kenney praised all those involved in the preparation and execution of the missions. He also commended the pilots and gunners for their target accuracy “at roof-top level with a suddenness and fierceness that prevented the Japanese from offering more than feeble opposition to the devastation bombing and strafing runs…”

Rail yards at Shinei, Formosa

The 388th and 389th Squadrons flew the 312th Bomb Group’s fifth mission to Formosa on April 2, 1945. Their targets were the rail yards and the alcohol plant at Shinei, 45 miles northeast of Kyoshito, and 20 miles southeast of Eiko. Major Joseph B. Bilitzke, C.O. of the 388th, led the mission. Nine planes from each unit carried 250-pound parademos and 100-pound napalm bombs. Shinei was a key target for two reasons: the alcohol plant, and the fact that Japanese military supplies entered and exited Shinei by rail.

 

Attack on the Shinei alcohol plant

The 312th Bomb Group’s unsparing attack left the Shinei alcohol plant enshrouded in a thick smoke. (Selmon W. Wells Collection)

 

Attack on the Suan Tau sugar factory

The 312th returned to Formosa on April 4, 1945. This time the target was the Suan Tau sugar factory, west of Kagi. When the 387th, 388th and 389th Squadrons left Suan Tau, the entire factory area was ablaze.