At the end of March 1943, the Japanese had a base at Finschhafen, located on the eastern tip of the Huon Peninsula. The Allies had been monitoring Japanese military movement and thought the Japanese were planning a small landing. To prevent this, a variety of aircraft, including two 43rd Bomb Group B-17s, were sent out to harass the Japanese on the night of March 30th. Captain Frederick F. Wesche was flying the B-17 TAXPAYER’S PRIDE. He and the other pilot took for from Seven Mile in search of ships near the Finschhafen area.
Over the target area, both pilots dropped flares before setting up for their bombing runs. It looked like three destroyers were sitting near the coastline and Wesche picked one of them as his first target. Two bombs were dropped from low altitude, both missing the target. After three more runs, Wesche had one bomb left. A report of light antiaircraft fire didn’t deter the crew from making one final run, and TAXPAYER’S PRIDE was lined up once again. Right before the bomb was released, the B-17’s fuselage was hit by a 40mm shell.
Captain Frederick F. Wesche (kneeling, left) was making his fifth bombing run on a destroyer off Finschhafen on March 30, 1943 when his B-17, #41-24448, was struck by a 40mm antiaircraft shell, which seriously damaged the plane and forced Wesche to later crash-land at Dobodura. The attack also injured the co-pilot and the tail gunner, who were sent to the hospital. This crew photo was taken in April 1943, after the two injured crewmen had recovered from the incident. The men pictured are, kneeling from left to right: Wesche, 1/Lt. Leslie W. Neumann, co-pilot; 2/Lt. Clement O. Kinkaid, navigator; 2/Lt. Joseph D. Howard, bombardier, and standing: Sgt. Joseph H. Mazaferro, engineer; Sgt. Paul N. Capen, gunner; Cpl. Donald J. Raher, radio operator; S/Sgt. Earl M. Rosengarton, gunner; and S/Sgt. Guy W. Clary, gunner. (Down Under)
Two engines were damaged and four vital systems, radio, electrical, oxygen and hydraulic, were knocked out. The #1 engine began to run away and the prop was feathered. Sparks from the damaged electrical system ignited the leaking hydraulic fluid, and the flames were also fed by the escaping oxygen. On top of all that, the 500-pound bomb that hadn’t been dropped was stuck in the bomb bay racks. First Lieutenant Francis G. Sickinger, the navigator, rushed to the bomb bay to help however he could. There, he found S/Sgt. Guy W. Clary, one of the waist gunners, using a fire extinguisher on the flames. He had been injured by shrapnel, but was still able to fight the fire, giving the bombardier the opportunity to shove the bomb out of the rack.
Sickinger helped Clary to the front of the plane, then the two of them had to put out a second fire that sparked. Once that was accomplished, the crew took stock of the situation. While TAXPAYER’S PRIDE was flying smoothly on three engines, the controls were not functioning. Co-pilot 1/Lt. Leslie W. Neumann had also been injured by shrapnel, and his injuries were also not life-threatening. Wesche headed for Dobodura.
Nearing Buna, the B-17 was greeted by Allied antiaircraft fire from the base at Oro Bay. After being attacked twice in four days, the men on the base were cautious about letting any uncommunicative aircraft fly overhead, let alone make an emergency landing. Since it was still dark, Wesche had to circle for two hours until sunrise, when he could see the runway and not risk getting shot at again during his landing. The crew manually lowered the landing gear, then discovered that the flaps were inoperable and the engines wouldn’t shut off. Once the B-17 was back on the ground, it rolled beyond the airstrip boundary and finally stopped in the grass. Both injured men were sent to the hospital and TAXPAYER’S PRIDE was sent to the 481st Service Squadron for repairs.
Read more about the 43rd Bomb Group’s B-17 era in Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Volume I.