The Lone Survivor

After the atomic bombs had been dropped on Japan and before the country announced their surrender, units were still flying bombing missions over Japan. Airmen from the 345th Bomb Group weren’t particularly thrilled about doing this because their B-25s were still coming back damaged—if at all. None of the men wanted to be the last to die in World War II after they had survived so many previous raids on and by the Japanese. Still, they couldn’t refuse an order and climbed back into their planes for another flight.

It was three in the morning on August 12, 1945 when 1/Lt. Charles J. Cunningham took off from Ie Shima with 22 other B-25s to sweep the Southern Sea of Japan and Tsu Shima Strait for any shipping targets. In the radio compartment, T/Sgt. Foster A. Stanfield began reviewing codes and procedures for the mission. He was filling in for a radio operator who was out sick for the day.

Only about three minutes into the flight, the new B-25 jolted violently, the nose lifted and the engines revved up to full power. The plane stalled and fell to the right, and crashed into the water below when a wing caught the water’s surface. As the fuselage broke apart, it cracked at the radio compartment, dumping Stanfield into the sea, potentially saving his life. Coming to the surface, Stanfield was disoriented and he called for some of the other crewmen while trying to find a side of the B-25. No one answered.

As the weight of his predicament dawned on him, Stanfield inflated his life jacket, then took off his shoes and shirt to help him stay afloat better. He would have removed his pants, but he thought one of his legs was injured and wanted to contain the blood so as to not attract any sharks that may have been swimming nearby. Stanfield saw a light about five miles away and began the long swim back to shore.

Around the time that the B-25s were taking off, one man was making a trip to the latrine. He heard the takeoff and subsequent crash, and ran to alert someone. Within an hour after the crash, a Navy patrol boat was dispatched to the scene and began a sweep for survivors. Stanfield was spotted and hauled aboard, suffering from severe shock. As he was examined, it turned out that he had injured his elbow instead of his leg. He spent a week in the hospital.

No cause of the crash was ever settled on, though the incident was a source of speculation for the men. Much to their dismay, it wasn’t the only plane that went down on the 12th. A 500th Squadron B-25 disappeared and a 498th Squadron B-25 either crashed or was shot down while attacking a small coastal freighter. The official order to stand-down came through on the 15th.

 

Read this and other stories in Warpath Across the Pacific.

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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.

Parafrags on Rabaul

painting of 345th Bomb Group B-25s attacking a Japanese flying boat on November 2, 1943

Limited Edition of 200 Giclee prints

Signed and numbered by the artist

Image Size: 22″ x 17″

Paper Size: 28″ x 24″

Reconnaissance reports having found Rabaul crowded with ships and more than 200 enemy aircraft parked on its airfields, Fifth Air Force launched a major aerial assault on the installation on November 2, 1943 with nine squadrons of B-25 strafers advancing under heavy fighter cover. Since success of the subsequent bombing attack on shipping depended on neutralizing the defensive firepower, two squadrons of B-25s from the 345th Bomb Group first skirted the harbor coastline over the heavy antiaircraft defenses, dropping 100-pound bombs filled with phosphorous – “Kenney’s Cocktails” – that produced a covering cloud of dense smoke to screen the main B-25 attack force from antiaircraft fire. Seven squadrons of strafers followed, dispensing their deadly ordnance on the town and harbor shipping.

Among the targets parafragged by this flight of B-25s from the 498th Squadron was an H8K1 Emily Flying Boat that was undergoing an engine change along the shoreline. The lead aircraft, PRINCESS PAT, was being flown by the Squadron Commander, Maj. Chester A. Coltharp. His left wingman was 1/Lt. Milford M. Magee, flying LITTLE NELL, while 2/Lt. Edward H. Browne piloted GREMLIN’S HOLIDAY, on the right of the formation. The 345th Bomb Group received a Distinguished Unit Citation for the mission. This artwork is published in our book Warpath Across the Pacific.

At Great Expense

Limited Edition of 199 Giclee prints, ten Artist’s Proofs, and ten canvas reproductions (same dimensions)

Signed and numbered by the artist

Image Size: 16.5″ x 20.5″

Paper Size: 24″ x 26″

Central to the success of Fifth Air Force during the war in the Southwest Pacific was commanding general George C. Kenney’s mastery of long-range bombing operations. Well before April 1945, the 345th Bomb Group pushed their medium bombers to the limits of their range on minimum-altitude bombing operations, and great pride was taken by all squadrons at the destruction of distant Japanese bases. In April 1945, a number of exposed cargo ships were discovered to be at Saigon, in French Indochina. Medium bomber units from Thirteenth Air Force attempted strikes on the base but turned back before they could reach it, and Kenney, unhappy with the result, assigned the mission to a crack medium bomber group, the 345th, for April 28th.

The Air Apaches’ group commander at the time was Col. Chester Coltharp, who had a reputation for achieving the impossible. Coltharp was to lead the 501st and 499th Bomb Squadrons to bomb and strafe Japanese shipping targets just east of Saigon, about 30 miles up the Dong Nai River. Auxiliary fuel tanks were loaded aboard 15 B-25s at San Marcelino before they were taken south to a staging base at Puerto Princesa, 800 miles east of the Dong Nai. After an early morning departure, two 499th (Bats Outta Hell) B-25s left the formation with mechanical problems, leaving 13 aircraft to finish the strike. Colonel Coltharp, in the 501st B-25 “MY DUCHESS,” led them to landfall at Phan Thiet, about 100 miles WNW of Saigon. The plan was to join up with a P-38 fighter escort, then approach the target from the north and egress downriver, skirting the heavy defenses that protected Saigon. But when Coltharp and the other B-25 pilots made landfall, the P-38s were nowhere to be found. The bombers would have to go in alone.

The primary objective of this anti-shipping strike was a 5800-ton freighter known to be anchored alongside a riverbank studded with flak guns. This ship was attacked by one of the youngest pilots in the 345th Group, 20 year-old 1/Lt. Ralph E. “Peppy” Blount, Jr. who was leading the 501st’s third flight. Blount’s aircraft, B-25J-11 #43-36199, is seen in the foreground having released its 500-pound bombs, one hitting the vessel amidships, another hitting the well deck and detonating, and the third landing long, exploding against the riverbank. Following Blount was his wingman, 2/Lt. Vernon M. Townley, Jr. His aircraft was hit by flak and set afire while approaching the target, but he still managed to line up on the ship and release his ordinance, only to be hit by another flak burst, causing his B-25 to snap-roll over and dive into the ground, killing all aboard. Blount’s #199, also hit by flak, continued to attack target vessels downriver, next shooting up a large sailing vessel, which left a seven-foot long piece of its mast embedded in the horizontal stabilizer. With substantial structural damage to his aircraft, Blount had to struggle for the next five hours to reach Palawan, 750 miles distant, which he did with only a few gallons of fuel left in the tanks. The 501st Bomb Squadron successfully attacked and destroyed the targets assigned to it but at a high price: three B-25s and their crews were lost on this mission. A Distinguished Unit Citation was awarded to the 501st for their bravery.

Additional details about this mission can be found in this post. This painting is published in our book Warpath Across the Pacific. Purchase a copy of this print on our website.

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.

Medium Bombardment Attack and Aviation

We’re always glad to see how much video footage from World War II is so easily accessible to us more than 70 years after it was first taken. This film is no exception. It was meant to introduce life in the Pacific Theater to the men who were transferring over from the European Theater. The film focuses on a familiar bomb group: the 345th. After covering some of the basics in the Pacific, there’s some great footage taken from bombing missions that you won’t want to miss.

The Disappearance of Capt Kizzire’s Crew

On the night of November 26th, 1943, the 345th Bomb Group was assigned a raid against Boram Airdrome. Expecting heavy antiaircraft fire, Captain William L. Kizzire and his fellow 498th Bomb Squadron pilot Lt. Melvin Best debated how best to handle a shot-out engine. A B-25 could fly on a single engine if the propeller was feathered, but if it couldn’t be feathered, the drag created by a windmilling prop would keep the B-25 from flying for very long. They decided the best strategy was to fly out to sea and wait for an Allied submarine to pick them up.

The next day, the 498th took the worst of the ack-ack. They were the last over the target, so the antiaircraft gunners had the most time to prepare. As Kizzire led his flight to the Boram coastline, he spotted a wooden ship in the harbor to strafe. A well-aimed shell from a nearby freighter took out the right engine on Kizzire’s B-25 IMPATIENT VIRGIN. Over the radio, Best, his left wingman, heard “God-a-mighty, I can’t feather it.” The oil reservoir used for feathering the propeller was damaged.

In the heat of the moment, Kizzire deviated from the prepared strategy, and instead flew about 35 miles down the coast to a suitable spot to ditch the B-25. He landed in Murik Lake, a lagoon about five feet deep at the mouth of the Sepik River. Everyone climbed out of the aircraft and fellow aircrews circling above dropped supplies to the downed airmen. Back at Bomber Command, Col. Jarred V. Crabb tried to get a Navy Catalina out to rescue the crew. He was unsuccessful.

B-25 Impatient Virgin takes off

B-25D-5 #41-30046, IMPATIENT VIRGIN, seen here taking off, was hit by antiaircraft fire near Wewak on November 27, 1943 and crash-landed into the shallow water of Murik Lagood about 35 miles east of the target. Captain William L. Kizzire of the 498th Bomb Squadron, 345th Bomb Group and his crew reached shore safely but eventually fell into the hands of the Japanese. (Clifford C. Cottam Collection)

Lieutenant Ralph Robinette took off on a search for the crew the next morning with clothes and boots for each man as well as survival items to hold them over until they could be rescued. Kizzire’s navigator, 1/Lt. Joseph W. Carroll, and another crewmember were spotted near the lagoon and the supplies were dropped nearby. Robinette wrote a note telling them to wait by the lagoon for a Catalina and handed it to his co-pilot to drop from the flare shoot, but, in all the excitement, he forgot to do so. After Robinette flew back to Port Moresby, he secured a Catalina and headed back to the lagoon with the crew. Approaching the area, they spotted three flares west of the lagoon. Above the Catalina flew an unwelcome visitor, a Japanese Betty bomber.

Reluctantly, the pilot called off the search in case the pilot of the Betty called in some fighters to attack the Catalina. Around sunrise the next morning, the Catalina returned, the crew aboard fruitlessly searching the area for an hour and a half. About an hour later, another Catalina showed up with a fighter escort, also searching for the downed crew. They were never found. It wasn’t until March 1944 when three names from Kizzire’s crew were mentioned over an unofficial shortwave broadcast in English. These three men were alive and safe after being captured in Wewak. It was the last thing anyone ever heard about the crew.

 

This isn’t the only story from the November 27th raid at Boram. Read another one here.

The First Major Attack on Rabaul

As the Allied forces looked beyond their current situation in October 1943, they were determined to neutralize the threat presented by the Japanese at Rabaul in order to keep moving northwest toward the Philippines. It was time to initiate a series of heavy attacks on the area, the first of which was scheduled for October 12th. Over 100 B-25s from the 345th and 38th Bomb Groups, three P-38 squadrons, 40 planes from the 3rd Bomb Group, and more than 80 B-24s from the 90th and 43rd Bomb Groups joined forces with RAAF P-40s, Beaufighters and Beauforts. They were up against a powerful foe made up of almost 300 aircraft spread out on the airfields surrounding Rabaul as well as nearly 400 antiaircraft guns. A number of ships were also sitting in the harbor at this time.

This formidable Allied force was to split up in order to tackle the defenses on each field: the 345th and 38th would attack Vunakanau, the 3rd would take on Rapopo, Beaufighters were to hit Tobera, then the B-24s would take care of the shipping in Simpson Harbor. As the formations flew toward their specific target areas, they knew the best thing for them at the start of this strike would be the element of surprise. It worked.

Flying over the hillside, the 498th Squadron began firing on the rows of Japanese aircraft sitting on Tobera’s airfield. Maintenance workers that had been working on planes quickly ran for cover and men in the B-25s noticed that the antiaircraft guns were still covered up and pointing the wrong way. The B-25s also disrupted the takeoffs and landings of several Japanese planes. As the 498th worked over its target area with machine guns and parafrags, Japanese antiaircraft gunners started firing back and dislocated part of the right aileron on 1/Lt. Kenneth C. Dean’s B-25. Dean and his crew were able to return to base without further incident.

Under Attack at Vunakanau

This Japanese “Zero” fighter was caught on the main runway during the October 12th attack on Vunakanau. It was strafed repeatedly by the waves of aircraft as they passed overhead but shows little evidence of damage in this photo taken from aircraft #220 of the 38th Bomb Group’s 71st Squadron. Strafing damage rarely showed up in belly camera photography. Two squadrons from the 38th attacked Vunakanau immediately behind the 345th. (John C. Hanna Collection)

Among the Japanese on the ground was 18-year-old Petty Officer Masajiro Kawato, who had been assigned to 253 Kokutai. That day, he was at Tobera to deal with some paperwork for his unit. Instead, he wound up defending the airfield from the Allied attack. His experiences during the strike can be found in Warpath Across the Pacific.

With each squadron’s attack on the airfields, the Japanese defenses increased as Rabaul turned into a fully armed and operational battle station. Japanese fighters attacked the enemy aircraft, with the fiercest attacks directed at the new wave of Allied aircraft: the B-24s. Two were shot down. Once the Allies left the area and began to analyze claims and photography, it was clear that this raid was a success. Approximately 100 Japanese planed on the ground were destroyed and 26 more were shot down. Several ships and harbor facilities also sustained damage.

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.