The 38th Joins in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea

After spotting a convoy of reinforcements sailing from Rabaul to Lae on March 1, 1943, Fifth Air Force sprang into action as General Kenney ordered the 43rd, 90th, 38th, and 3rd Bomb Groups to sink this convoy before it could reach its destination. The RAAF also joined the fray in their A-20s by raiding the airdrome at Lae to prevent any enemy fighters from taking off, and 30 Squadron Beaufighters also attacked the convoy. Attacks on the Japanese ships began on March 2nd, sinking one transport ship, with the bulk of the strikes taking place on the 3rd.

March 3rd began with the 71st and 405th Squadrons making low-level attacks on the convoy, which, as of that morning, consisted of eight destroyers sheltering seven transports. Although the B-25s were flying through heavy antiaircraft fire, none of them came away heavily damaged. By contrast, many of the ships were left stalled and smoking by the time the two squadrons headed home. This was to be a two-mission day, as the crews were to return to the Bismarck Sea that afternoon after their aircraft were reloaded with bombs and fuel. General Ennis C. Whitehead, the deputy Commander of Fifth Air Force, made a personal appearance at the 38th Bomb Group camp to get a full account of the morning’s events from the men. Back at Rabaul, the Japanese prepared to send additional fighters to aid in the defense of the convoy for the afternoon rematch.

Heading back to the Bismarck Sea, the 38th crews began their search for the convoy. They soon arrived, first encountering two ships dead in the water, then a few more burning away. As Capt. Ezra Best lined up for an attack on a destroyer from medium altitude, gunners on his B-25 GRASS CUTTER began firing at Oscar fighters from 11 Sentai that surprised the 71st Squadron. While there was an exchange of gun fire, it wasn’t as intense compared to the battles at high altitude earlier in the day.

Battle of the Bismarck Sea

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea resulted in the destruction of the Japanese fleet that carried troops to reinforce Lae. The 71st Squadron bombed the convoy from 5000 feet. Pictured here is one of the transports with palls of smoke rising from its decks after the 71stʼs attack. (Brian O’Neill Collection)

Meanwhile, pilots from the 405th Squadron decided to target a cluster of three ships, two of which were still moving. Several bursts of antiaircraft fire were thrown at the incoming B-25s with one exploding right in front of FILTHY LIL, piloted by 1/Lt. Adkins. The plane filled with smoke and the nose was jerked upward by the blast, knocking it out of formation. Briefly, the pilot and co-pilot thought that FILTHY LIL received severe damage and would have to be ditched, but it turned out that the nose only had a small hole. The pilot and co-pilot went off in search of a target, only to come across a destroyed transport with survivors floating in the water. They were strafed by the gunners* until their ammo ran out, then FILTHY LIL turned for home. Co-pilot 1/Lt. John Donegan wrote about his state of mind during the mission: “our destruction was not for mercy: it was simply that to us all Japanese soldiers had become things to be annihilated, not necessarily cruelly, but always thoroughly.”

For the Allies, the Battle of the Bismarck Sea was a resounding success. All eight Japanese transports and four destroyers were sunk. This raid also demonstrated that a relatively new tactic, low-level bombing, was an effective method for attacking enemy ships.

*Note: If you’ve read our previous Bismarck Sea post, you have read about the Japanese shooting at 43rd crewmembers who bailed out of their B-17. We cannot determine if the 38th knew about these events prior to their afternoon mission.

Co-Pilot Profile: W/O John T. Soundy

During their first year of combat over New Guinea the bomber crews of the 13th & 90th Squadrons of the 3rd Bomb Group included pilots and radio gunners (WAGs) from the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).  They were needed to fill the five to six crew positions of the newly acquired B-25 Mitchell medium bombers while the 13th & 90th Squadrons transitioned from previously operating the A-20A Havoc light bomber which needed only three crewmen. Warrant Officer John Trevor Soundy was one of seven RAAF pilots attached to the 13th Squadron in May 1942.  He had joined the RAAF in 1940 and was the eldest son of Lord Mayor and the Lady Mayoress Soundy of Hobart, Tasmania.  Because of his seniority and possibly due to his social status he typically flew as co-pilot with 13th Squadron Commanding Officer Capt. Alexander G. Evanoff.  From June through October 1942 he participated in a number of bombing missions against the Japanese air bases at Lae and Salamaua, New Guinea. During a transit flight from Charters Towers to Port Moresby on January 7, 1943, Soundy and pilot 1/Lt. Charles Dolan went missing in the 3rd BG B-25 NOT IN STOCK. The crew and passengers of nine simply disappeared over the ocean and remain missing to this day.

W/O John T. Soundy

W/O John T. Soundy. (Joseph R. McWhirt Collection via Jim McWhirt)

The Death of a Leader

We have all heard the phrase “actions have consequences.” In this instance, a prank played by Capt. Harold G. De Kay may have saved his life. The 500th and 501st Squadrons were scheduled to strike Hansa Bay on January 30, 1944. During an evening of joking around in the Officers’ Club the previous night, De Kay sent a man to prank Capt. Jack Manders by putting pins through the wires of Manders’ jeep’s horn. In return, Manders demoted De Kay from his usual position in the lead plane on missions and stuck him in the last plane of the formation. Manders took his spot in his B-25 nicknamed ARKANSAS TRAVELER.

Upon arriving over Hansa Bay, the area was completely overcast, but crews were able to pick out their targets: ships, an airstrip and antiaircraft guns. As the B-25s began to make their runs over the bay, the antiaircraft batteries opened fire. An engine on ARKANSAS TRAVELER caught fire after a flak shell burst right next to it. With one engine out of commission, Manders fell behind and Lt. Symens in QUITCH took the lead position, barreling down on one of the two ships Manders was attacking. Unchecked, the fire damaged the hydraulic system, which caused the landing gear to extend and slowed the B-25 further. Still, Manders was determined to finish his run. Fifty feet above the ship, he released two of his bombs, one of which may have hit the ship directly.

Approximately 100 yards beyond the ship, ARKANSAS TRAVELER lost all lift and bounced off the surface of the water once before exploding as it hit the water a second time. The bombs released by Symens exploded a second later, one of which may have been right against the ship. HORATIO II also had an engine damaged by gunfire, although the pilot was able to make an emergency landing at Finschhafen. QUITCH had been hit a few times, although they didn’t think there was anything more than maybe a flat tire (which turned out to be undamaged) and a six-inch hole in the right wing flap.

Explosion of the Arkansas Traveler

As Symens brought QUITCH in for landing, the damaged flap the had originally looked like it would be ok suddenly tore off, causing the plane to make a violent, vertical 90 degree rotation with a wing pointed straight down. For a few terrifying seconds, the plane flew onward as the pilot and co-pilot, 1/Lt. Paul H. Murphy, worked to bring the B-25 back in control and land safely. They were subsequently awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for their skill.

De Kay, who some assumed to be dead (they didn’t know he wasn’t on the lead plane like usual), was convinced by several officers to recommend Manders for the Medal of Honor. He wrote up an admittedly exaggerated account of the events that occurred, which wasn’t believed by headquarters. Instead, Manders was awarded a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross.

Lost at Sea

As November 1944 began, the 345th Bomb Group was flying to the staging base of Morotai, where they would then take part in missions that targeted islands in the Philippines. Morotai was three hours away from their base at Biak Island. While this hop could be considered routine, weather once again thwarted plans of landing at Morotai on November 6th. As the B-25 pilots attempted to fly through the stormy weather, Morotai went on red alert and the control tower went off the air. It became extremely difficult for the crews to find their way to Morotai without a radio signal, not to mention a way out of the storm. Several pilots turned around. One, Lt. Edward Reel, remained in the area, hoping to catch a station. Aboard his B-25 were six crewmen as well as two passengers.

Hours passed. Reel had descended to find the bottom of the clouds, but he was unsuccessful. A little while later, the radio operator found a station for them to follow, however, no one responded to the distress calls. The plane’s fuel supply was running low and everyone on board decided Reel should ditch in the turbulent water below. After turning on the landing lights, the B-25 descended to wave-top height and hit a wave well at more than 100 miles per hour. The tail cracked upon impact, and the rough waters snapped it off shortly thereafter. Five men made it out of the aircraft alive and spent an uncomfortable night in a raft on the stormy seas.

When the sun rose on November 7th, the sea was calm and the sky was clear. The survivors saw that they were surrounded by nothing but water. For three days, they floated in the ocean. They managed to signal a C-47, which circled the raft, then dropped a five gallon can of water and a life raft with a note that said, “Help on way. Land 120 miles south.” The can of fresh water, unfortunately, exploded on impact, but the raft was in good shape and three of the men climbed into it. Help had not arrived by nightfall. An argument broke out about whether or not to hoist small sails on one of the rafts and head for land or stay put. In the end, they split up. Staff Sergeant Alton F. Joyner, T/Sgt. Henry A. Jepeson and Cpl. Robert J. Schoonmaker set sail for land.

On November 12th, planes spotted the two men, S/Sgt. Douglas C. Osborne and 2/Lt. George W. Harding, in their raft. They were rescued by a Catalina a little later. It wasn’t until the following day when the trio in the other raft was spotted and finally rescued. After recovering from exposure and injuries at the 17th Station Hospital at Owi, the men spent a month in Australia to rest and recuperate.


For more stories about the 345th Bomb Group, check out our book Warpath Across the Pacific.

Making History: Flying B-25s from California to Australia

Within the first year of the United States entering World War II, the country faced the task of moving airplanes and their crews to their destination of the far-off Pacific Theater. While most of the men spent about three weeks aboard a ship, some arrived in Australia by plane in August 1942. A few months earlier, the air force had decided it wasn’t practical to ship B-25s and B-26s to the Pacific Theater, and flight crews from the 71st and 405th Squadrons had to ferry their own newly built B-25s on an island-hopping route from California to Australia. This had never been done with any other unit that arrived in Australia prior to the 38th Bomb Group. It would be a nail biting experience, as the crews had little room for navigational error or mechanical trouble.

Before making the first and longest flight from Hamilton Field, California to Hickam Field, Hawaii, the B-25s had to be outfitted with two large fuel tanks installed in the top and bottom of the bomb bay, a third tank in the bombardier’s spot, and, in case those weren’t enough, a 25 gallon fuel tank was also installed on the wings of some of the B-25s. To increase fuel efficiency, each plane was also stripped of guns and armor. Bombardiers and gunners, whose spots were occupied by fuel tanks, were sent to Hawaii by a transport plane along with the guns and armor from the B-25s. After plenty of tinkering and testing, engineering crews were ready to send the B-25 crews on their way to Hawaii.

Sharp and Thompson

Pilots 1/Lt. Richard T. Sharp and Capt. Alden G. Thompson were part of the flight which departed New Caledonia for Australia during the afternoon of August 14, 1942. Strong headwinds delayed the flight’s arrival in Australia until after dark, and Sharp and Thompson had to crash land their airplanes. (Alden G. Thompson Collection)

Flights began on August 2nd, with four 71st Squadron crews taking off before 0600. Fourteen hours later, they successfully touched down at Hickam Field with little fuel to spare. The rest of the 71st was cleared to join the four crews in Hawaii the next morning. Among them was Capt. Alden G. “Bud” Thompson, flying his B-25 nicknamed BUD AND HIS POGMASTERS. His plane had been modified differently from some of the other B-25s. The fuel tanks in the bomb bay were half the size, with the rest of the fuel to come from tanks on the wings. Unfortunately, the crew had not been told how to transfer fuel from the wing tanks, instead relying on a “tech order” that turned out to be indecipherable. Thompson and his crew turned back for California and landed safely. The small fuel tank was exchanged for a larger one and the crew took off the next morning. They saw a B-17 formation heading in the same direction and joined up with them. Hickam Field was not expecting a B-25 with the B-17s and set off a red alert until the situation was resolved and Thompson and his crew were allowed to land.

The next leg of the trip would be to Christmas Island, followed by Canton Island, then Fiji and New Caledonia, the last stop before Australia. For Thompson, unlike some of the other pilots, the flights between each of these islands had remained relatively uneventful. Still, after two weeks of island hopping, he was eager to get to Australia and refused to spend the night in New Caledonia. Thompson would take the lead position in a flight of five B-25s from New Caledonia to Amberley Field. Crews estimated a five hour flight time, which ended up being far too optimistic. Instead of arriving over Australia before sunset, pilots spent more time battling with strong headwinds over the Coral Sea. WE’REWOLF, flown by 1/Lt. William G. Woods, disappeared. Fortunately, the lost B-25 made it to the RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) strip at Evans Head with the help of a Fairey Battle escort.

Finally, they saw the Australian coastline illuminated by the moon and the navigator aboard Thompson’s plane tuned into Brisbane’s radio station, which would help them stay on course. Ideally, they would hit the eastern edge of Brisbane, then turn inland for Ipswich and land at Amberley. The problem was, they had arrived south of Brisbane and the coastline they were looking at was not at all what they had expected. Australia had also not expected to see the B-25s until the next day and was completely blacked out. And unbeknownst to the aircrews, the radio signal they were following was not coming from Brisbane, but Grafton, a small town well to the south of their destination.

Bud and His Pogmasters

Pictured here is Capt. Bud Thompson’s B-25, BUD AND HIS POGMASTERS, after a forced landing near Grafton, Australia. Leading a four-plane ferry flight from New Caledonia to Amberley Field, Brisbane, Thompson became lost and approached a blacked-out Australian coast from an uncertain location. After hours of searching for Amberley, Thompson and his wingmen were running dangerously low on fuel, and he decided to take his chances with a blind landing at Grafton. The plane came down on an auxiliary training field, then tipped forward after the nose wheel collapsed into the soft ground of an adjacent cow pasture. (Alden G. Thompson Collection)

Low on fuel, the flight of B-25s needed to land quickly. A corporal at the Australian Signal Station at Grafton’s airport identified the B-25s and tried to contact them in Morse code using the lights surrounding the base’s tennis courts. Private James T. Berry, the radio operator, was given a signal lamp to send a message that the planes needed to land immediately. With the help of the local radio station, the corporal gathered Grafton’s residents to light the airstrip with their cars. BUD AND HIS POGMASTERS made a hard landing and tore through a fence as the plane ran out of room on the short runway. After the B-25 stopped, the nose wheel collapsed in the mud. First Lieutenant Richard T. Sharp, who was very anxious to land, brought his plane down next. Dangerously low on fuel, his plane followed the same path into the mud, with the nose gear snapping off and the plane spinning to a stop.

Circling above them, the two remaining B-25s were sent 50 miles away to Evans Head. As they flew north, the pilots of both planes realized they were also very low on fuel and would not make it. Instead, they decided to bail out. One man was killed and the rest made it safely to the ground. By August 22nd, all of the 38th’s air crews were reunited and the men turned their attention to the war.

Alcohol Busters of Formosa

Art print of 38th Bomb Group B-25s bombing Formosa

On May 29, 1945, 1/Lt. Fred L. Paveglio and his wingman, 1/Lt. L.T. Wilhelm, piloted their B-25J Mitchells on a devastating raid against the Tairin Alcohol Plant on the island of Formosa. Following the precise directions from the navigator, 2/Lt. Albert C. West, Paveglio and Wilhelm dropped down to attack height and heavily strafed the Tairin complex, just before dropping a half dozen 500-pound parademos.

This painting depicts the moment approximately five seconds after the munitions detonated on the ground where the mammoth secondary explosion sent debris rocketing high above the plant. At the same time, the alcohol storage tanks were touched off, sending a blazing fireball 800 feet into the air. During the spring and summer of 1945, the 38th Bomb Group was so successful in destroying the fuel alcohol industry on Formosa that they earned the nickname “Alcohol Buster of Formosa.”

To learn more or purchase a copy of this print, visit our website.

Trouble in Formosa

Near the end of May 1945, the Japanese had been pushed back to the island of Formosa and the 345th Bomb Group was flying regular raids over Japanese territory. Their targets typically included alcohol and sugar refineries as well as rail yards. A mission on May 27, 1945 was no different and 24 B-25s took off from Clark Field to destroy these targets once more. The 499th and 500th Squadron focused on the plants at Kobi, leaving raging fires behind them. Two planes had one engine each shot out, causing the pilots to break off any further attacks as they flew to the emergency airfield at Lingayen. Lester W. Morton safely landed there, while 1/Lt. Charles J. Cunningham had to make a water landing 50 miles away from the north coast of Luzon. He and his crew were rescued half an hour later by a Catalina.

Flying in the 501st Squadron was 2/Lt. Ted U. Hart, a pilot who typically approached targets by skimming treetops and telephone wires. He and the rest of the 501st had been tasked with destroying rail yards at Ensui, which, due to a navigational error, didn’t happen that day. Instead, the Squadron focused on attacking Mizukami’s sugar refinery. It was on this run that the left engine of the B-25 Hart was flying, APACHE PRINCESS, was hit by fire from an antiaircraft gun.

After releasing his bombs, Hart feathered the burning engine, only to have his right engine run away and a fire start in the bomb bay. Clearly, APACHE PRINCESS would not be in the air much longer. Shortly afterwards, it landed roughly in a rice paddy, knocking the pilot unconscious. When he woke up a minute or two later, he hurried out of the plane and joined three crewmen standing nearby. The turret gunner, Sgt. Bever, was the only one still in the plane. Hart went back to look for Bever, finding him slumped over and resisting any help to move. Soon, the heat of the fire spreading from the bomb bay to the rest of the plane drove Hart outside.

 

Paul Haller and B-25 Apache Princess

T/Sgt. Paul E. Haller was the crew chief of the 501st Squadron’s B-25 APACHE PRINCESS, which was shot down near Mizukami, Formosa on May 27, 1945. Second Lieutenant Ted U. Hart and three crewmen were captured and spent the rest of the war as prisoners at Taihoku. Haller is shown in front of the plane’s colorful insignia at Tacloban in January 1945. (Frank Hansen Collection)

 

Ted Hart

Second Lieutenant Ted U. Hart was photographed at Clark Field just a few days before he and four of his crewmen were shot down and captured on May 27th. He was brutally tortured and spent the remainder of the war in a POW camp at Taihoku, Formosa. (Ted Hart Collection)

 

As hard as it was to leave their crewmember behind, they knew they had to withdraw from the area before they were captured by the Japanese. They jumped into a dry ditch and walked for about an hour, then stopped to look around. As they poked their heads out of the ditch, they realized they were surrounded by soldiers and civilians with weapons. Disarmed, the men were paraded through the nearby village before paper bags were put on their heads and they were loaded onto a train bound for Taihoku. On the two day trip to Taihoku, the men ate little or nothing and drank cups of tea.

Hart and his crew arrived at the Military Intelligence Headquarters in Taihoku, Formosa on May 29th. They were stripped of their personal effects and questioned, then taken to individual prison cells. The next day, Hart was taken to another room where he was interrogated by Capt. Yoshio Nakano. At first, Hart refused to give any information other than his name, rank, and serial number. As Nakano grew angry with Hart’s lack of cooperation, Hart figured they already knew about his final mission and subsequent shoot down, so he gave Nakano the details of it, then remained silent as the questioning continued.

Three men who were also in the room with Hart and Nakano were told to tie Hart’s hands, then put him on the floor and restrain him. Nakano then waterboarded Hart until he lost consciousness from a lack of air, before reviving him and waterboarding him again. Hart passed out six times while he was tortured, then Nakano’s superior officer arrived and ordered the torture to stop. His swollen hands were unbound, and sobbing, he told the officer everything he knew. During the crew’s imprisonment, that was the only time anyone was tortured. The rest of their stay was spent in their cells. Sometimes, a friendly guard would let Hart walk around the courtyard for 15 minutes or give him a little extra rice to eat.

Corporal Beck, the radio operator from Hart’s crew, discovered that another 345th member was also a prisoner there. This was Cpl. John Shott, who was the only survivor after his B-25 crashed on May 17, 1945. He and Beck would communicate using Morse code when the prison guards were out of earshot. Weeks passed and any hope of being rescued waned. On August 21, 1945, almost three months after Hart and his crew were shot down, the prisoners were gathered and transported to Prisoner of War Camp #6. Upon arrival, they were told the war was over and on September 7th, they began their journey home.

Ehlers, Hart, Gatewood released from POW camp

Three emaciated 501st Squadron officers relax aboard the escort carrier U.S.S. Santee shortly after being released from the Japanese military jail at Taihoku, Formosa. They are from left: 2/Lt. Karl L. Ehlers, navigator, 2/Lt. Ted U. Hart, pilot, and 2/Lt. Henry Gatewood, co-pilot. Each of the officers lost about a third of his weight while a prisoner of war. (Ted Hart Collection)

Attacking Clark Field

As 1945 opened in the Pacific Theater, the Allies were advancing through the Philippines. Their next major target would be a three-unit attack on the Japanese stronghold of Clark Field on January 7th. At the time, the Japanese had put more than 400 antiaircraft guns in the area, which would make the planned 120+ A-20 and B-25 raid more challenging. Three bomb groups, the 345th, 312th and 417th, would split into formations and fly an “X” pattern over Clark Field. Above them, two P-38 squadrons would keep an eye out for enemy planes.

Upon arriving at the mountain pass that stood between the crews and Clark Field, heavy clouds blocked their path. The formation split up in the thick clouds as pilots navigated through the pass, temporarily invisible to each other. Emerging on the other side of the clouds, the 312th’s flight leader, Lt. Joseph Rutter, and his wingman, Lt. Jones, arrived at Clark Field without the rest of their formation. Rutter feared that he might have arrived late and began his run on Clark Field—alone. Jones had chosen to circle back and rejoin the formation, which was about a mile behind him and Rutter.

As Rutter made his pass over the target area, he heard machine gun fire hit the tail of his A-20 and his gunner, M/Sgt. Wilfred Boyd, alerted him of the B-25s coming in from the left. One of the B-25 pilots, Capt. Floyd Fox, watched with growing alarm as Rutter, dropping parafrags, was about to cross his path. Just in time, the parafrags ran out and Fox was able to continue his run without incident. Rutter finished his run and joined several A-20s for the flight back to Tanauan. Reflecting on the events, Rutter said, “Strangely, no question was ever raised about the A-20 which got in front of the parade and the pilot responsible. Considerable wonder was expressed, however, about the interesting pictures recorded by Boyd’s camera when the series of 24 exposures were posted on the wall of the 389th Squadron’s intelligence office.”

Evasive Maneuvers

Lt. Rutter’s A-20 took this photograph of the B-25 flown by Floyd N. Fox of the 499th Bomb Squadron maneuvering to avoid the parafrags released from Rutter’s aircraft.

Finally, the first formation of the 312th began a run over Clark Field. “At the turn-in point the B-25s wound up between us,” 386th Squadron 2/Lt. Bill A. Montgomery wrote, “The result was that I came in behind several, and as I traversed the target area, I overran them en route. It was a mess.” The slower B-25s were being overshot by the A-20s and ended up on the receiving end of the parafrags being dropped from above. “…after getting ahead it was my turn to receive [the B-25’s] bouncing tracers, not to mention the parafrags and various assortment of other bombs being delivered.” In short, it was pure chaos.

Strafer Attack on Clark Field

Aircraft from the first wave are seen attacking Clark Field on January 7th. The tail of a wrecked G4M Betty bomber from 261 Kokutai is at center left. The gray wreck at lower center is a Ki-46 Dinah reconnaissance aircraft.

Not only were the bombers being shot at by the Japanese from below, Zeros were dropping phosphorus bombs on them from above. Fortunately for the bombers, the phosphorus bombs did not explode until after the planes had already flown out of harm’s way. Soon enough, it was time to leave Clark Field and turn for home. Congested air space and chaos aside, the attack was determined to be a success. A total of 19 Japanese fighters and 12 bombers were destroyed. Clark Field was no longer a major obstacle for the Allies. Between all three groups, 11 planes were lost. Two days later with little opposition, the American invasion force landed at Lingayen Gulf.

Middlebrook’s Crew Has a Close Call

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.

Bats Outta Hell!

B-25 painting by Jack Fellows

On April 6, 1945, 1/Lt. Francis A. Thompson, a pilot in the 499th Bomb Squadron, 345th Bomb Group, is seen diving his bat-nosed North American B-25J Mitchell, #44-29600, toward an IJN Kaiboken-class frigate, Coast Defense Vessel No. 134, in the Formosa Strait 30 miles southwest of Amoy, China. The warship was one of three destroyed that day by the 345th in a furious battle conducted at mast height. These ships were some of the last survivors from a major convoy of 17 ships that left Singapore on March 19th bound for Japan. Over several days, the 345th was responsible for sinking 10 ships in the convoy for the loss of four B-25s and 22 crewmen. Submarines sank the rest.

Thompson, piloting one of 24 B-25s on this mission, only managed to conduct a strafing run in this low altitude assault. He was crowded out by his wingman who scored a near miss and did probable damage to the frigate’s stern, and by the explosion of a delay-fuse 500-pound bomb that had been dropped by the flight leader. Here Thompson is seen pulling out of the explosion—a harrowing example of the dangerous missions that over the course of the war took the lives of hundreds of men from the four squadrons of the 345th. This artwork is published in our book Warpath Across the Pacific. It is also sold as a print on our website. Buy yours today.