Near-Disaster over Huon Gulf

It was about 4AM when the 405th Squadron’s Operations Officer, Benny Jackson, gave 1/Lt. Garrett Middlebrook and his neighbors a rude wakeup call in the form of a revving jeep backed into the opening of Middlebrook’s tent. First Lieutenant Lawrence F. Tanberg was a little nicer to his crew, but everyone sprang to action, as they would soon take off to bomb a Japanese convoy heading to Lae on January 7, 1943. Major Ralph Cheli would lead the 405th Squadron aircrews on this mission and Tanberg would lead the 71st Squadron.

Japanese gunners were ready and waiting for the B-25s, having already filled the sky with more flak than Tanberg had ever encountered. Middlebrook noticed eight Zeros flying toward them and Cheli led the 405th into cloud cover to avoid enemy fire, then they dropped down to begin their bombing runs. Right as Middlebrook went over the target, a flak burst in front of his plane blew out a panel in the nose. His crew, as well as the rest of the 405th crews there, strafed the decks of the Japanese ships below them and dropped their bombs, then made a run for it.

38th Bomb Group B-25 Pacific Prowler

PACIFIC PROWLER, pictured here over the New Guinea coast, was nearly knocked out of the sky by THE EGG CRATE, which was hit by flak on January 7, 1943. THE EGG CRATE went into an uncontrollable dive towards PACIFIC PROWLER and missed it by several feet. (Ernest McDowell Collection)

Meanwhile, 1/Lt. Tanberg led the 71st Squadron on its bombing run, and the crews unloaded their bombs on the ships at the same time. A split second later, THE EGG CRATE’s right wing absorbed a direct flak burst, sending the plane into an uncontrollable dive towards PACIFIC PROWLER, piloted by Tanberg. THE EGG CRATE’s pilot, 1/Lt. Elmer P. Brinkman managed to turn the B-25 away from PACIFIC PROWLER, missing it by mere feet. Bombs from Brinkman’s plane that were released on Tanberg’s signal fell just behind PACIFIC PROWLER, a stroke of luck for the entire formation.

After THE EGG CRATE dove past the B-25 formation, Brinkman and his co-pilot worked to extinguish the fire that started on board and bring their plane back under control. It was too late: they were forced to make a water landing. This was the end of THE EGG CRATE, which broke in half and sank, with no survivors.

Leaving the target area, the 71st Squadron was attacked by several Zeros, two of which broke off their pursuit due to return fire from 71st Squadron gunners. Middlebrook’s aircraft was also pursued by Zeros, but his gunners weren’t shooting back. Word quickly got to the pilot that the turret gunner was badly wounded and bleeding profusely from his elbow, and the bombardier had been cut by glass when the nose panel blew out earlier. The injured men were tended to by their crewmembers and Middlebrook flew the B-25 back to Port Moresby as fast as he could. For turret gunner S/Sgt. Robert S. Emminger, the crew had to alternate between compressing his wound to slow the blood loss and allowing the blood to flow to his arm to prevent it from dying. Miraculously, his arm did not suffer permanent damage, and both wounded men recovered fully after receiving blood transfusions.

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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.

Repost: Middlebrook’s Crew Has a Close Call

This post was first written back in May 2016. Today, we’re bringing it back for another read.

 

Sleep was eluding the men of the 38th Bomb Group on the night of May 14/15, 1943. They were rudely awakened by a Japanese raid on Port Moresby, which destroyed a tent of Norden bombsights and slightly damaged two B-25s. At 2AM, the all-clear was sounded and the men headed back to bed, only to be woken up a short time later for a mission at 3AM to Gasmata. To top things off, weather between Port Moresby and Gasmata was very stormy. It was not a good morning.

After being assigned to fly EL DIABLO II, 2/Lt. Garrett Middlebrook was especially not looking forward to this mission. This plane was an unmodified B-25C hand-me-down that had been designated as non-combat only. Unlike the other B-25s flying this morning, this one was not equipped with wing tanks that could hold 300 gallons of extra fuel for the long flight. Middlebrook’s protests about flying this plane were dismissed, so he and his crew got in their plane and began the bumpy 300-mile trip to Gasmata.

Aerodromes and Landing Grounds February 1943

This map shows some of the airdromes and landing grounds around New Guinea as of February 1943. The route between Gasmata and Port Moresby is highlighted in yellow.

Climbing to 13,000 feet, the crew began crossing over the Owen Stanley Mountains. The B-25, as well as all of its crew other than the pilot and co-pilot, were tossed about in the turbulent weather. At one point, the aircraft was caught in a downdraft that sent it into a 2000-foot dive. Navigator Lt. Vincent A. Raney wrapped his arms around the steel plating behind Middlebrook’s seat and stood on the ceiling to brace himself until the pilot and co-pilot were able to pull the aircraft out of its dive. The skies were filled with lightning, which created halos around the propeller edges. One bolt lit up the scene in front of them: a mountain. Middlebrook pulled up sharply and the crew was spared an untimely death.

That was to be the last bit of severe turbulence for the trip, though the plane was still tossed around a bit afterwards. The B-25 ascended to 14,000 feet and continued to Gasmata. There was one problem: all the turbulence left the crew disoriented and no one was able to determine exactly where they were. After crossing the mountains, they descended to 800 feet, then to 300 feet in search of the water somewhere below them. Still, even if they could find the target, there would not be enough fuel to get them back home. They decided that the best thing to do was to head home, even if it meant going back through the storm.

The flight was once again very bumpy, but they did not have any further close calls with mountains. Eventually, the stormy weather was left behind as the crew flew along the south coast of New Guinea, 250 miles west of Port Moresby. By this time, fuel was low and Middlebrook didn’t want to risk flying over the Gulf of Papua, which was the shortest route back to base. Instead, he flew 175 miles to a shoreline covered with sand dunes and made a wheels-down landing, keeping the nose up as long as possible to minimize the chance of getting caught on one of the dunes.

Once the B-25 landed and the crew got out, they saw several natives walking towards them. One, a boy, could understand a little English and told the men that some Australians were stationed about half a day’s walk from the crash site and that he was willing to guide them to the Australians. Three of the crew set out with the boy while the rest stayed to secure the plane and destroy the I.F.F. (Identification Friend or Foe) transponder in case the plane fell into enemy hands.

Soon enough, the three men returned with good news: they were to be picked up by the Australians that night at the mouth of the Kapuri River. They spent the night resting at the Australian camp and were picked up by a C-47 at noon the next day. EL DIABLO II was also picked up and repaired, then transferred out of the 38th.

Oral History: Doolittle Raiders

Not long after the daring Royce Raid occurred, the Allies would surprise the Japanese with another raid that wound up on the front page of newspapers across the U.S. With the anniversary of the Doolittle Raid next week, we wanted to share a couple of stories from The National WWII Museum’s interviews of two men who were there.

23 Days at Sea

After a three-day break from combat missions, the 345th sent six planes each from the 498th and 500th Squadrons on March 10, 1945 to patrol the east coast of French Indochina. It promised to be an eventful patrol when the 500th Squadron encountered two Japanese ships, one of which was the 5239-ton tanker Seishin Maru. This, along with a 10,000-ton freighter, were attacked and strafed. The Seishin Maru was sunk and the freighter was severely damaged.

A little further south, the 498th spotted a 2500-ton tanker anchored near the Qui Nhon shoreline, which was promptly attacked by the B-25 pilots. Second Lieutenant Benjamin F. Chambers skipped a 500-pound bomb into the ship, which, instead of exploding a few seconds after hitting the ship, exploded right as Chambers’ B-25 passed overhead. Bauduy Grier, the radio operator, likened the bomb blast to being hit on the bottom of one’s feet with a baseball bat. After checking over everything, it seemed like the aircraft was just fine, and Chambers began the 700-mile journey back to base. Trouble began about halfway through the trip when the plane started vibrating severely.

When Grier looked out a window, he saw smoke coming out of the back of the left engine. Apparently, a fragment from that bomb holed the oil line and the engine was beginning to overheat. Chambers shut down the engine to buy the crew some time, but the propeller started windmilling and dramatically reduced the aircraft’s speed. Equipment was tossed overboard to lighten the B-25 as much as possible, then the crew braced for impact before the plane hit the water.

Grier, who was knocked unconscious by the crash, woke up to water rushing into his compartment. He and the tail gunner, Sgt. James L. Lane, escaped the sinking plane and yelled the names of their fellow crewmen in hopes of locating them. Unfortunately, no one answered their calls. After grabbing a one-man life raft, Grier swam out and away from the plane with Lane. It took all of 90 seconds from when it first crashed for the B-25 to sink beneath the waves.

B-25 #43-36044

Plane #044 of the 498th Squadron, 345th Bomb Group was damaged by one of its own bombs during an attack on a merchant ship along the French Indochina coast on March 10, 1945. The pilot managed to keep it airborne for about two hours but was finally forced to ditch in the middle of the South China Sea. The radio operator, Sgt. Bauduy R. Grier, survived 23 days in a life raft before he was rescued during a chance encounter with an American submarine. This photo was taken shortly before the aircraft was lost. (Francis R. Breen Collection)

High above them, two B-25s circled for a few minutes before they were forced to head home. Before leaving, they radioed the coordinates of the downed airmen to a ground station. Back in the sea, the main life raft had inflated before the plane sank and began drifting away from Grier and Lane, the latter of whom was holding tightly to an oxygen bottle that popped up to avoid drowning. Grier knew they needed both rafts and told Lane to stick with him while he swam after the raft. Lane refused and Grier swam off, catching the raft after about five minutes.

He then climbed aboard and, calling for Lane, tried to fight the 12-foot waves to get back to his friend. After ten minutes of rowing, Grier realized it was hopeless. He broke down in tears, feeling frustrated and scared, not knowing how long it would be until he was rescued—if he ever was. Unbeknownst to him, the search for his crew had already started and continued into the next day. No sign of life was seen from the air and the 345th assumed all had been lost at sea.

Twenty-three days later, on April 2, 1945, Grier was still alive. He was badly sunburned, dehydrated, lost a third of his weight and had developed several salt water ulcers on his body, but he was alive. At this point, he was napping in the raft when a loud him woke him. Jumping up, he scanned the sky for aircraft, but the sky was empty. On the horizon, Grier saw a submarine heading his way. He found a whistle on the raft and started blowing an S.O.S. call. It was the U.S.S. Sealion, which was on its way to a rendezvous with the U.S.S. Guavina. The watch spotted Grier’s raft, and even though no one saw any signs of life, they decided to check it out anyway.

A rope with a weighted ball was thrown to the raft. The downed airman caught it and the raft was brought in. For the first time in more than three weeks, Grier got out of that raft. He was given a small amount of food and water, pills to help him sleep and some morphine for the pain. Soon after, he was back on dry land and in a hospital for treatment. It wasn’t long before he was out of the hospital and heading home to the United States.

Note: Due to space constraints, this story has been abbreviated from its original form in Warpath Across the Pacific.

Diary Excerpt: Mathew C. Gac

Although he wasn’t a member of an aircrew, Mathew Gac of the 38th Bomb Group saw many raids through the lenses of cameras on his group’s aircraft. He frequently wrote in his diary about day-to-day life working in the photo department and we wanted to share three of them with you this week.

July 8, 1943

Still a tired fellow this morning with a lot on my mind and a lot of work to do alone. Another mission today. 405th to support the big push around Salamaua. Finished overhauling a K-17 and then had to take V.R. shots of a 499 wrecked B-25 [#41-30028 “BLUNDER-BUS,” see pp. 32-33 of Warpath Across the Pacific] at the end of the runway in the stream. Could not take off, no bombs exploded. Luckily 4 men walked out and the other was carried out hurt. In the P.M. started to make a special mount for the K-21 camera. Went down to the Service Sqdn but got no satisfaction, nothing so I am going to make a wooden model and try it out. The mission came back 1 P.M. then a lot of work again developing at printing got finished 7:30 P.M. Photos not so good on account of the bad weather. Rumours we must have 24 months overseas before going home.

Striking Lae on June 26 1943

This photo, taken on a mission to Lae on June 26, 1943, is an example of the photos that could only be taken with cameras installed in an aircraft’s belly.

July 9

Another tired feeling after yesterday’s busy day. It was very damp and cool as this A.M.s short rain was the first for a while. Another mission today 405th in the Mubo area again. Working on a new setup for the K-21. A box where the camera can be slung along underneath the camera hatch and shoot backwards. Went down to the line for parts but the tin smith was busy, so Amos and I worked on the other idea of attaching the mirror arrangement to the K-17 cone. Did not finish as it started to rain very hard. Thank goodness we have a good tent and all the equipment is dry for a change.

July 10

It was quite damp and wet this morning as it rained hard last night. Went down to the line to try the new setup of the mirror idea. Worked on it with Amos and got it fixed O.K. Though the setup looks peculiar and the mirror is half inside the plane the angle is greater and it looks O.K. in focal plane. The plane was tested and so was my setup and it turned out O.K. Almost 100% coverage. Lt Salome liked it and now I’ll have to change all the other plane setups, 14 in all. Worked for a while on the K-17 for the mirror attachments. Got new camera cones for K-17s. Will have a lot more work now.

IHRA’s Top 7 Posts of 2017

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 of 2017.

1. The Fight for Mindoro As a result of some great comments from a prior post (see #4 on this list), we delved into further detail about a harrowing mission on December 24, 1944.

Wreckage of B-24 Tempermental Lady2. A B-24’s Forced Retirement After the B-24 TEMPERMENTAL LADY was hit on a mission, landing the plane wasn’t going to be easy…

 

3. Book Review: They Did It for Honor: Stories of American World War II Veterans We review the second book of veteran stories as told to Kayleen Reusser.

B-17 MISS EM and crew(tie) Beyond the Bomb Group What happened to the B-17s that transferred out of the 43rd Bomb Group? We follow the story of one of their old Flying Fortresses, CAP’N & THE KIDS.

 

A 63rd Squadron B-24 attacks a Japanese ship near Mindoro during WWII4. Night Action Off Mindoro This dramatic painting by artist Jack Fellows illustrates a B-24 coming off an attack on a Japanese destroyer near Mindoro.

 

 

Maj. Gerrity (in the cockpit) and Sgt. Neal (standing in the B-25's nose).5. Major Tom Gerrity’s One Plane War Against the Japanese A pilot scheduled to go home wanted one more crack at the Japanese before he left the Pacific Theater.

 

Butch the German shepherd6. 9 Photos of Dogs in the Pacific Theater During World War II It’s all in the title. Go meet some of the dogs of Fifth Air Force.

 

A painting of a 38th Bomb Group B-25 over a Japanese ship during WWII7. One Minute in Hell Steve Ferguson illustrates some of the final moments of 1/Lt. James A. Hungerpiller and his crew over Simpson Harbor on November 2, 1943.

Attacking Wewak

Weather was interfering with Fifth Air Force’s plans in October 1943, specifically on October 16th. Instead of targeting Rabaul, the 345th Bomb Group was sent to hit the Wewak airfield complex instead after finding out that the Japanese were rebuilding their air power there. All four squadrons as well as a squadron of fighter cover were to first attack Boram Airstrip, then fly the two miles to Wewak where their main strike would occur. Four of the Group’s B-25s were unable to complete the mission for various reasons, including one unusual occurrence: a turret canopy broke and fell off.

The Japanese were ready for the 345th, filling the sky with antiaircraft fire and fighter aircraft prepared to attack their enemy. Separating into squadron formations, one flew off to release parafrags over the antiaircraft batteries dotting the shoreline. Once over the runways of Wewak, ten B-25s dropped 100-pound wire-wrapped bombs in hopes of destroying the runway, aircraft on the ground, supply dumps and more. Meanwhile, the Japanese were fiercely fighting back and some of their bullets were hitting crucial points of the B-25s. BOOM-BOOM’s nose guns were knocked out of action when the electrical connections were severed, and it received several other hits that took it out of the 500th Squadron for several weeks upon return to Port Moresby.

One B-25, #561, had fallen behind the rest of the 500th Squadron’s formation with a damaged engine. Aboard the aircraft, Lt. Donald Stookey was doing his best to keep his plane in the air. With one engine out of commission and the other losing power, it wasn’t long before he had to make a water landing ten miles down the coastline and three miles off Cape Moem. The crew escaped their B-25 and swam for the raft that they ejected before the crash. Overhead, three B-25s from the 501st Squadron and several P-38s circled the downed crew, dropping two more rafts before their fuel began to run low and they had to head home. Stookey and his crew rowed toward land, where they were eventually captured and killed by the Japanese.

Downed 345th Bomb Group B-25 near Wewak and Boram

B-25D-1 #561 of the 500th Squadron was hit in the right engine by intense AA fire a mile from Wewak on October 16, 1943. Lieutenant Donald Stookey made an excellent water landing three miles northeast of Cape Moem. The plane remained afloat for only 90 seconds. This photo was taken from a 499th Squadron aircraft just after the tail lifted and a few moments before the plane sank. This nose-down attitude was typical of ditched B-25s. The crew was later captured and all died in captivity at Wewak and Rabaul.

Back over Wewak and Boram, two B-25 pilots discovered their own unpleasant surprises when their bombs wouldn’t release because the bomb racks malfunctioned. Leaving the bombing to the other B-25s, they strafed the target area instead. STINGEROO sustained damage from bullets through the hydraulic system and gas tanks, which made for a tense flight home. The pilot made an overnight stop at Nadzab to get the damage repaired before heading back to Port Moresby. After doing extensive damage to the two airfields, the remaining 345th aircraft formed up and headed home.

Overall, the mission was deemed a success. Photography taken from the B-25s cameras helped determine 25 confirmed aircraft destroyed on the ground or in the air, with another seven probable. While a break would have been welcome news, the 345th would be back in the air on the 18th, heading for the dreaded stronghold of Rabaul.

 

Find this story in our book Warpath Across the Pacific.

One Minute in Hell

A painting of a 38th Bomb Group B-25 over a Japanese ship during WWII

On November 2, 1943, the Fifth Air Force launched a massive low-level attack by B-25 strafer-bombers against harbor installations and shipping at the major Japanese fleet anchorage and base at Rabaul, New Britian. In the vanguard of the 71st Squadron’s strike, 1/Lt. James A. Hungerpiller flying SLEEPY TIME GAL and 1/Lt. J. E. Orr can be seen engaging their targets at mast-top heights. In the face of the hundreds of antiaircraft guns, Lt. Hungerpiller opened fire on two destroyers, scoring a direct hit with one of his bombs. Meanwhile, Lt. Orr opened fire on a harbor merchant ship while Lt. Hungerpiller’s aircraft quickly began to lose altitude because of severe AA damage. Recognizing the plight of this aircraft, he made a sharp right turn toward to heavy cruisers anchored just off the western shore of the harbor.

This painting depicts Lt. Hungerpiller’s SLEEPY TIME GAL, trailing a plume of fire and smoke, crossing beyond the bow of the heavy cruiser Haguro. In the background, Lt. Orr is opening fire on the Japanese merchant ship. With his left engine on fire and the aircraft severely damaged from a fuel tank explosion, Lt. Hungerpiller soon lost control his aircraft and plunged into the sea.

 

This painting, part of a limited edition series by Steve Ferguson, can be purchased on our website.