The 500th Squadron Attacks Vunapope

The following excerpt comes from Warpath Across the Pacific. At this point in the story, the 345th Bomb Group is attacking Vunapope, located near Rabaul, on October 18, 1943.

“While the other squadrons were attacking the airfield, the six planes of the 500th swept wide and raced across the tree tops of a vast coconut plantation towards the supply dumps and docks along the bay just west of the airfield. Ahead, the pilots saw three freighters anchored close along the shore, and the flights lined up on the two largest, strafing their way across the shoreside supply dumps as they advanced. The flight led by 1/Lt. Max H. Mortensen aimed for a 5000-ton freighter on the right, while Capt. Anacker led his two wingmen towards the 6187-ton cargo-passenger ship Johore Maru on the left.

Mortensen released a single 1000-pound bomb which hit the water twenty yards short of the freighter, while Lt. Raymond Geer’s two bombs went long. The huge geysers thrown up seconds later by the exploding bombs completely obscured the ship. The airmen reported that they thought the bombs had rolled it over, but Japanese records do not support the claim that the ship was destroyed.

Mortensen’s flught pressed on over the bay and lined up on Subchaser #23 out in the channel. 1/Lt. Thane C. Hecox dropped his two 1000 pounders a few yards directly in front of the ship. The four-second delay fuses provided just enough time for the warship to run directly over the bombs before they exploded, ripping off the bow.

Meanwhile, Anacker’s flight was already in trouble. 1/Lt. Ralph G. Wallace’s TONDELAYO had lost its right engine to ground fire as it lined up on the target. From the top turret, S/Sgt. John Murphy could see a piston moving up and down through a jagged hole in a cylinder and the cowling. Wallace quickly feathered the prop and continued his bomb run. As the three planes approached the ship, the air was filled with machine-gun bullets and cannon shells as both the attackers and the defenders lashed out viciously. All three planes launched bombs as they neared the ship, one of which bounced off the deck and hit the water. Seconds later the target was surrounded by huge waterspouts as the bombs exploded, drenching the ship in spray. Crew interrogations indicated the bombs lifted the ship out of the water and debris was seen flying through the air; the ship was claimed as badly damaged and probably sunk. Again the claim was optimistic; Japanese records show that the Johore Maru was sunk by a submarine five days later.

Attacking Japanese Freighters
This photo shows the 500th Squadron’s attack on shipping at Vunapope, near Rabaul, which led to the epic air battle in which 17 Japanese fighters were claimed shot down for the loss of two B-25s. Taken from plane #572, piloted by 1/Lt. Thane C. Hecox, this photo shows attacks on a 5000-ton and 6000-ton freighter. Both vessels were claimed sunk, although the photographs and Japanese shipping records do not confirm this. (John C. Hanna Collection)

Thirty minutes before the strafers hit Rapopo, a Jap spotter station on the east coast of New Britain had radioed a warning to the defenses. Pilots rushed to aircraft on alert status at the ends of the runways and took off in droves from the various airfields around Rabaul.

By the time the attack began, over a hundred Japanese Zeros from the 201st, 204th and 253rd Kokutais were echeloned above 5000 feet over St. George’s Channel and Blanche Bay. Before the Japanese pilots took on the strafers, they expected to have to deal with a larger fighter escort and formations of high-flying B-24s.

While the six squadrons of B-25s savaged the two airfields, the fighters continued to circle, unwilling to lose the advantage of their altitude. But when no fighter escort materialized and the 498th and 500th Squadrons reached the Channel, the Japanese Navy pilots reluctantly dropped the black noses of their Mitsubishi fighters and dove steeply to intercept the retreating formations. Thus, both lead squadrons of B-25s were met by a cascade of Japanese “Zekes” falling on them from above.

The air battle was joined almost as soon as the 498th Squadron crossed beyond the end of the runway at Ropopo and flew out over the water off Lesson Point. As each squadron of B-25s came off the target, it immediately dropped down as low as possible over the water and its flights reformed into a tight vee formation, thus bringing the maximum defensive fire power to bear. For the next twenty-five minutes the “Zekes” repeatedly attempted to break through he hail of .50-caliber tracers which greeted them at each advance towards the formations. Again and again, the massed fires of the turret and waist gunners shot them down or drove them off before their cannons and machine guns could do serious damage to the B-25s.

The 498th gunners were credited with ten kills and one probable, the 501st with ten more and three probables, and the 499th with two kills and one more probable. The 499th encountered less opposition because most of the Jap fighters followed the lead squadrons as they left the target.”

Pilot Spotlight: Edward L. Larner Makes History

On October 28, 1942, 89th Squadron CO Maj. Donald P. Hall made the following entry to his diary: “Capt. Ed Larner, a classmate of mine has just come over from the states. Ed and I used to fish a lot while we were at Barksdale Field [in Louisiana]. He and 12 other are joining my Squadron. We flew to Port Moresby today. Good to be back with the squadron.”

Captain Edward L. Larner, who was originally with the 46th Bomb Group, had been reassigned and sent to Maj. Hall’s 89th Squadron in the 3rd Bomb Group. He arrived as an experienced pilot with more than 800 flying hours under his belt. It wasn’t long before Larner made a name for himself as a fearless low level A-20 pilot and he came to the attention of Gen. George C. Kenney. “I found I had another fireball in the 3rd Attack Group, named Lieutenant Ed Larner,” Kenney wrote on November 10th. “That lad was good. He had fire, leadership and guts.”

90th Squadron C.O. Edward L Larner
Captain Edward L. Larner joined the 3rd Bomb Group in late October 1942. A classmate and friend of Maj. Hall, he was assigned to the 89th Squadron where he made a name for him- self as an aggressive combat pilot. Barrel-chested and willing to put up his fists, he always wore a beat-up service cap pushed back on his head. He would soon become one of 3rd Bomb Groups preeminent pilots and commanders. (Gordon K. McCoun Collection)

After the A-20 strafer project was deemed a success, Pappy Gunn and Jack Fox began working on similar strafer test modifications for the B-25 Mitchell. Some senior pilots were skeptical that a medium bomber could be utilized for low level strafing. However the North American bomber did have the range necessary to reach Japanese air bases. Kenney was in favor of Larner’s promotion to C.O. of the 90th Squadron. By the end of December 1942, Larner was at Port Moresby, training 90th Squadron pilots on these modified B-25s.

Around the time of all this armament development, word about the 43rd Bomb Group using B-17s to skip-bomb ships was getting around. Major William G. Benn had led the first successful skip-bombing attack on October 23, 1942 and was continuing to work on the technique up until his death on January 18, 1943. Pilots in the 89th Squadron began practicing skip-bombing in A-20s around the end of December 1942, followed by 90th Squadron pilots in their newly-modified B-25s a few weeks later. Even though pilots still had their doubts about using B-25s in that manner, they continued their practice throughout the month of February.

On March 3rd, Larner, who had since been promoted to Major, was leading the 90th Squadron into what would be known as the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. He put their practice to use and proved that the B-25 strafer would be an effective skip-bombing aircraft. Breaking away from his formation that day, he was followed by three of his lieutenants. “Damn it! Get the hell off my wing and get your own boat!” he yelled at them.

Nearby, Capt. John P. “Jock” Henebry watched Larner make his solo run. “I was leading the second element. Everybody was rather apprehensive. When everybody saw him make that pass and hit it with at least one and maybe two and the explosion and so, that just ignited the whole thing and the guys got the idea if he could do it, they could do it.” 

When Maj. Larner had taken over command of the 90th, the Squadron was reeling over the loss of senior pilot and former commander, Captain William “Red” Johnson, who had crashed on a transit flight near Townsville, Australia on New Year’s Eve. Larner’s transfer to the 90th and his confidence in the B-25 as a strafer bomber would re-energize the men in the Squadron. The combat crews were excited to watch their leader make that flawless first run on March 3rd.

Unfortunately, Maj. Larner would not remain the 90th Squadron’s leader for long. While he was a bold pilot, some of his flight maneuvers led him to be deemed reckless by some of his peers. His trademark approach would be the cause of his death on April 30, 1943. Coming in to land at Dobodura, he dove towards the airstrip and flew low over the field, then pulled up sharply into a chandelle. Usually, he performed this maneuver in a B-25 that was not full of fuel, eight passengers, baggage, tools and 2000 pounds of bombs. When Larner pulled up, the plane stalled, went into a flat spin, then crashed and exploded on the ground. There were no survivors. He left behind a wife and two daughters. Captain Jock Henebry would go on to lead the 90th Squadron.

The new book has arrived!

We are excited to announce the release of Harvest of the Grim Reapers, Volume I. The books arrived earlier this week and we are now working on shipping out all of the preorders. If you haven’t ordered your copy yet, now is a great time to do it! We hope you enjoy the latest installment in the Eagles Over the Pacific series.

Now shipping: Harvest of the Grim Reapers, Volume I.

We’re taking pre-orders!

We are pleased to announce that we are officially taking pre-orders for our next book. Harvest of the Grim Reapers, Volume I will finish printing in early January and we will be able to ship out books once they arrive in Colorado. This is the last book project Lawrence J. Hickey personally oversaw before his passing, and we believe it will serve as a fitting tribute to his legacy. Head over to our website to place your pre-order and check out the sample pages.

Excerpt from the Diary of Jack Fox

While the source of this post is another diary, the person who wrote it played a different role in the Pacific Theater. Jack Fox was a tech representative for North American Aviation, the builder of the famed B-25. Sending a rep so far from the factories in United States was invaluable for both the company and the unit flying their aircraft. Jack Fox stayed on the base with the men so he could be available to assist them 24/7. 

“They Also Served”    

My first assignment as Tech. Repr., covering the aircraft known as the good ole’ baker 25 Mitchell Bomber, was with the 17th Bomb Group. The B-25 aircraft was engineered and produced by North American Aviation, Inc., in Los Angeles, California. I welcomed the opportunity to serve as a Technical Representative. Before departing for my new assignment I would require some briefing so I spent a little time with the Field Service Manager, Frank Lyons, in his office. I received my instructions and we worked out some of the details of the assignment. As I was about to leave the office Frank stopped me by saying, “What the hell can we call you besides John?”  

“Well BUB, that’s my name and you had better be damned careful what other name you use.” I replied. “That’s no good,” Frank countered and continued saying, “Let’s call you Jack as this will be better for everyone and easier also.”

That ended the conversation right there and I made my departure not as John Fox, but as Jack Fox and it remained so from that time on. All my correspondence came addressed to Jack Fox, so I continued using it also in my correspondence. I reported in at the Group Engineering office of the 17th Bomb Group at Felts Field in Spokane, Washington. Evidently there was a telephone conversation between this point and Frank Lyons as they were expecting a Jack Fox to report in as Tech. Repr. I guess it would have to stand that way so there was no use to change or check it now. I arrived in Spokane in the spring of 1941. During my assignment with the 17th Bomb Group, I became mighty fond of this doggone good ole’ B-25 airplane.

At the end of 1941, Jack Fox learned that he was recommended for an assignment with the Netherlands East Indies Air Force. After taking care of all the required formalities, Fox left for Australia at the end of February 1942 in a B-25. After a short stint with the NEI crews at Archer Field, he joined up with the 3rd Bomb Group at Charters Towers.  

NAA Rep Jack Fox
North American Aviation Service Representative Jack Fox, pictured at Charters Towers in 1942, had been sent to Brisbane to train a Dutch Army Aviation Corps unit stationed there on the operation and maintenance of the B-25 Mitchell. When the 3rd Bomb Group took over 18 of the Dutch B-25s, Davies convinced Fox to come back with the Group to Charters Towers and serve in a similar capacity. Fox went on to make an invaluable contribution to 3rd Bomb Group through his expertise in the B‑25 and his engineering capability. Together with Pappy Gunn, he was responsible for the A-20 and B-25 modifications which made the airplanes far more destructive than they had previously been.
(G. John Robinson Collection)

These 3rd Attack Group men were most certainly a wonderful bunch of guys. I had much respect for each and everyone of them. They were a close knit Group, a hard working bunch also mighty brave and courageous fighters.

I was getting an urge to go out on Missions but permission was refused me and it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to go over to Port Moresby, New Guinea that I was able to sneak in a mission or so at different times. I felt that I should go a on mission or so because what better way was there to learn first hand what it was all about and also what was required of the airplane under these conditions. Through this medium I was able to obtain first hand information by way of experience regarding the equipment I was representing and besides I could form good reliable first hard reports which was another part of a Tech Reprs. job; to send reports back to the company and to do this it took a considerable amount of time especially when sketches or drawings had to be made up to accompany failure reports. Being on a mission was a hair raising experience. My first experience with ack-ack was over the Jap target of Lae, New Guinea and it startled me so I dam near had a shit hemorrhage. Yes, darn right I was scared and I would think, how stupid I was in not knowing when I was well off as I should have had stayed put on the ground back at our base. Then I would think about these combat crews who went out daily to try to paste the enemy and they faced this condition frequently and took their chances. I felt I wasn’t any better than these guys so I tried not to show too much concern but no doubt I didn’t cover up completely. Most of these men figured I must be plum nuts to want to go out on missions as I had no business to be in the airplane on a combat mission. Major Lowry, the C. O. of the 13th Squadron presented an idea of his to make me a fine control member aboard a combat airplane out on missions, mainly I believe to guard against and direct fire on enemy aircraft. He approached me with the idea one day and frankly speaking I was all for it and started making plans for this new role I might find myself in but something happened somewhere as the Major’s idea did not materially.  Then one day, Major Lowry was out on a mission and he and his crew went down in their airplane in the New Guinea Jungle. He sure was a mighty fine man and pilot, a good Squadron C. O. and flight leader so his death was great loss to the squadron as well as the Group.


DOODLE was assigned to 1/Lt. (later Capt.) Orlen N. Loverin who piloted it overseas and through its first six months of combat. While headed for a leave in Sydney on December 19, 1943, Loverin was killed when the C-47 he was riding in ran into a thunderstorm and crashed in Rockhampton, Australia. DOODLE‘s original crew was: Loverin, pilot; 2/Lt. Kenneth D. McClure, co-pilot; 1/Lt. James M. Mahaffey, navigator; S/Sgt. Harry Zarfas, engineer; T/Sgt. Frank M. Dugan, radio gunner; and S/Sgt. Clair F. Ervin, turret gunner. The crew chief was T/Sgt. Charles L. Schell, who had lost his previous aircraft when it disappeared between Hamilton Field, California, and Hawaii during the deployment overseas.

Lieutenant McClure was one of the Squadron’s first co-pilots to get his own plane, taking command of DOODLE JR. (see color photo on page 193 of Warpath Across the Pacific) in October 1943. The original crew nickname was “The Brutes,” and as a medium bomber the plane had Bluto, the Popeye cartoon character, painted on the forward fuselage. Bluto’s head and upper torso appeared on the port side and his rear end, clad in red polka-dotted shorts, was painted on the other side as if it protruded through the fuselage of the aircraft. The eight ball on the bat’s mouth appeared on the medium bomber and was retained when the aircraft got its bat insignia in September or October 1943.

Crew of the 345th Bomb Group B-25 nicknamed "DOODLE"
The crewmen of DOODLE posed in front of their aircraft at Port Moresby in early August 1943. They were from left: 1/Lt. Orlen N. Loverin, 2/Lt. Kenneth D. McClure, 1/Lt. James M. Mahaffey, S/Sgt. Harry Zarfas, T/Sgt. Frank M. Dugan and T/Sgt. Charles L. Schell. (James M. Mahaffey Collection)

The profile illustrates DOODLE about the middle of February 1944, with 56 mission markers. CAPT. O.A. LOVERIN is painted in white beneath the pilot’s window. The bat insignia is a lighter blue than on HELL’S BELLES, demonstrating the variety of color shadings used on this field-applied insignia and the effects of fading. DOODLE flew at least 80 missions before being transferred to Service Command on July 12, 1944, as “War Weary.” Among the most important missions it flew in 1943 were: Rabaul, 10/12; Wewak, 10/16 (Loverin); Rabaul, 10/24 (Loverin); Boram, 11/27 (Baker); and in 1944: Dagua, 2/3 (Taylor); and Hollandia, 4/3 (Baird).

This profile history, as well as a color profile of DOODLE, can be found in Warpath Across the Pacific.

A Month of Losses

In December 1942, the 3rd Bomb Group, especially the 90th Squadron, was dealt blow after blow as crews and planes were lost. Over the course of the month, the 3rd Bomb Group lost more than 40 men. The first loss on December 5th happened on a night takeoff when a 90th Bomb Group B-25 hit a tree at the end of the runway at 17 Mile Airdrome. Five men were killed.

Ten days later, a 90th Squadron B-25 went missing on a five-plane flight between Port Moresby and Charters Towers. At the time, the 13th Squadron was flying up to Port Moresby to relieve the 90th Squadron, but strong thunderstorms were preventing this rotation. To minimize any losses, C.O., Maj. Donald P. Hall, would only let one 90th B-25 fly down for each 13th Squadron plane that flew up. After the first one arrived, though, five 90th Squadron pilots thought the rest of the squadron was on its way up and took off. They ran into the same bad weather and the B-25 flown by 2/Lt. Alfred Crosswhite, STINKY PINKY, wound up separated from the other four planes and disappeared with 11 men on board. The wreckage was discovered on hilly terrain in July 1943, about 40 miles west of a town named Cardwell.

Five days after storms caused the crash of STINKY PINKY, the 90th lost 11 more men on December 20th, in more bad weather. After a few days in Charters Towers, the 90th was due back at Port Moresby. Seven B-25s loaded with 90th Squadron men took off from Australia and encountered heavy rain on the way to New Guinea. It wasn’t long before the heavy rain turned into severe thunderstorms, tossing the B-25s around in the strong wind. By this time, the planes were in a long line as they flew single file through the turbulent weather. Lieutenant Richard H. Launder was flying behind Lt. Donald K. Emerson, watched Emerson’s plane vanish in the clouds and followed him into another storm. Without warning, Emerson’s B-25 appeared in front of Launder. Emerson pulled up and over Launder’s B-25 in the nick of time, then crashed into the ocean. Launder, who suspected that Emerson stalled and couldn’t recover, circled the crash site, but did not see any survivors.

The final two tragedies of the month, and the year, occurred at the end of December. As with the previous two losses, this 13-plane flight was part of a rotation from Port Moresby back to Charters Towers. This time, it was the 13th Squadron being relieved by crews from the 38th Bomb Group. That day, a B-25 flown by Capt. George “Spikes” Thomas, DEEMIE’S DEMON, disappeared over the Coral Sea. In the days and weeks that followed, no one found any trace of the aircraft or the 11 men on board. Among those lost was Sgt. Eugene J. Esposito of Rutland, Vermont. His family was notified of his status as Missing in Action on February 4, 1943. On August 13, 1943, his family received word that he had been declared dead. Esposito sent his last message to his family three days after Christmas to thank them for a box they sent and extend his Christmas greetings.

Newspaper clipping from the August 14, 1943 Rutland Daily Herald about the death of Sgt. Eugene J. Esposito of the 3rd Bomb Group
Newspaper clipping from the August 14, 1943 Rutland Daily Herald

Hours after the 13th Squadron left for Australia, Capt. William R. “Red” Johnson and the other 90th Squadron officers were starting their New Year’s Eve party at Charters Towers. Johnson, who just finished his combat tour and would be heading home to his wife soon, decided that a couple of his old friends from the 27th Bomb Group should join the fun and decided to fly to Townsville and pick them up. A crew chief went with him as his co-pilot and two privates tagged along for the ride. One decided to stay in Townsville and four new passengers (his friends and two others) climbed aboard. That was the last time anyone saw the men and the B-25. Without Johnson, the party at Charters Towers was a little quieter, as everyone thought his return had been delayed due to weather. A search plane was sent out on January 3rd and someone spotted a burned aircraft about 20 miles southwest of Townsville. Johnson had been flying through rain and low clouds, following the railroad back to Charters Towers, when he hit the base of a mountain. None of the seven men on board survived.

For the 3rd Bomb Group, it was both a tragic ending to 1942 and a tragic beginning to 1943. Forty-five deaths occurring in a single month was difficult to bear. Back in the States, 45 more grieving families may have hung gold star flags in front windows of their homes.

Ormoc Bay – A Dangerous Place

38th Bomb Group B-25 over Ormoc Bay on November 10, 1944

On November 10, 1944, 1/Lt. H. C. McClanahan and his wingman, 2/Lt. A. R. White, formed the third flight in the 822nd Squadron’s attack on Ormoc Bay, on the island of Leyte, in the Philippines. Roaring at minimum altitude, McClanahan and White opened fire on the freighter-transport Kinka Maru. McClanahan’s co-pilot, 2/Lt. W. A. Wolfe, placed one 500-pounder just aft of the ship’s stern. White ended up in a better position over the transport, and his co-pilot, 2/Lt. Robert L. Miller, dropped their string of bombs, managing to get two direct hits on the vessel. One bomb was seen to explode in the area of the forward hatch and the second amidships.

This painting depicts McClanahan and White pulling up from their strafing run, caught in a maelstrom of flak bursts and tracers. In his bid to escape, McClanahan engaged the Yugumo-class destroyer Akishimo, strafing its deck and releasing three bombs just seconds after passing mere feet above the ship’s superstructure. However, McClanahan’s severely damaged aircraft crashed into the waters of the Kawit Straight, southeast of Ponson Island, breaking into four pieces on impact. Lt. White observed the crash and signaled in the bomber’s position before returning safely to Tacloban Airdrome. There were no survivors from the crash. The 38th Bomb Group was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation for this mission.

To purchase a copy of this illustration by Jack Fellows, visit our website.

Captured Near Hainan Island

After a two day break from combat missions, the 345th was back in the air on April 3, 1945. The 499th and 500th Squadrons’ original target, shipping in the strait between Hainan Island and China’s Luichow Peninsula, came up empty and the two squadrons flew on to their secondary target, Hoi How, located on Hainan Island. As the 500th Squadron flew towards the clouds of flak hanging above the Japanese Navy base, navigator Capt. Merritt E. Lawlis began wondering whether or not the flight leader, the pilot on his plane, had previously led any flights. The B-25s weren’t taking any evasive action. Right before he reached out to get 1/Lt. William Simpson’s attention, he suddenly realized that his back was hot.

Captain Merritt E. Lawlis
Captain Merritt E. Lawlis, shown here, was the navigator aboard the B-25 PENSIVE, which 1/Lt. William P. Simpson ditched with flak damage in the bay a mile off Hoi How, Hainan Island, on April 3, 1945. Three of the crewmen aboard the plane were captured by the Japanese and two, including Lawlis, survived imprisonment on Hainan Island until the end of the war. (Merritt E. Lawlis Collection)

Turning around, he saw a fire burning in the bomb bay. It started after shrapnel hit a gas tank in the bomb bay, then spread into Lawlis’ navigator compartment and the top turret. The right engine on this B-25, nicknamed PENSIVE, was damaged, as well as the main hydraulic reservoir. Because of the damage to the hydraulics system, the wheels were now hanging down about a third of the way, dragging the aircraft towards the water below. Simpson prepared his crew for a ditching, then crashed into the water in a bay about a mile away from Hoi How. Above, another B-25 crew dropped a raft for the downed airmen and watched three of them climb aboard. A fourth, 2/Lt. Arthur D. Blum, made a jump from the sinking B-25 to the raft and was instead carried away by a strong current. Simpson never made it out of the plane.

The remaining B-25s circled as long as they could and let the air-sea rescue know the location of the downed crew. Unfortunately, it was too dangerous to pull off a rescue operation, as this crew was too close to shore. It only took about 90 minutes for a Japanese motor launch to show up and fish the men out of the raft. All three: Lawlis, S/Sgt. Charles L. Suey and S/Sgt. Benjamin T. Muller, were burned in the fire. Lawlis had hit his back on the edge of the escape hatch during the ditching, leaving him temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. By the time they were picked up, he was just starting to regain feeling in his legs.

Once on land, they were taken to the commander of the base, where they were interrogated and thrown into jail. Three days after they were taken prisoner, they were forced to walk blindfolded and handcuffed to a medical dispensary about half a mile away, but their wounds were given only the barest treatment. They returned every three or four days and Suey’s infected burns showed no signs of healing. On May 13th, he died of infection and malnutrition. About a week later, Muller and Lawlis were transferred to Samah, which was an improvement over their previous living situation. Their handcuffs were removed and neither man was beaten at this camp. Much to their surprise, they saw a couple of familiar faces: Lts. James McGuire and Eugene L. Harviell. Lawlis watched McGuire’s B-25 go down and didn’t think anyone had survived.

Aside from Harviell, who died on August 10th, the rest of the men survived their internment. Muller came close to death, but the men were freed from the POW camp just in time and taken to a Navy hospital where they received the food and medical care they needed to recover.

This story can be found in Warpath Across the Pacific.