Calamity Charlie

CALAMITY CHARLIE was one of the original 18th Recon Squadron Marauders that was piloted overseas by 1/Lt. (later Maj.) Ralph L. Michaelis during the initial deployment of the Group. After traversing the ferry route between Hawaii and Australia, it arrived at Brisbane on April 22, 1942, in company with three other aircraft from the Squadron. Immediately upon arrival in Australia, Michaelis continued on to Reid River, where the renamed 408th Squadron had set up camp. There the engineer, Sgt. Centabar, continued his stateside job of supervising maintenance on the plane, assisted by Sgt. Jack S. Hirschbein. Centabar flew only a mission or two before all crew chiefs were grounded from combat flying.

The nickname was chosen during the fall of 1941, after the aircraft was assigned to the Michaelis crew while they were stationed at Langley Field, Virginia. Charlie was the nickname of Michaelis’ wife, and Calamity was a take off on “Calamity Jane,” a famous female muleskinner and personality from the American old west. Initially, only the name was stenciled on the nose of the Marauder, but after consultation with the crew, the design for the artwork, a modification of a Walt Disney cartoon bee, was chosen. This was painted on both sides of the nose before the plane left for California on the first leg of its deployment to the Pacific.

Michaelis and his crew flew their first mission on April 30th, in the Squadron Commander’s aircraft, but thereafter flew many of their missions in CALAMITY CHARLIE. The members of the crew during this period were 2/Lt. (later Capt.) Wade H. Robert, Jr., co-pilot; 1/Lt. Edwin R. Fogarty, navigator; 2/Lt. Arthur C. King, bombardier; Cpl. (later Sgt.) Stanley A. Wolenski, engineer; PFC. Havis J. Barnes, radio operator; Pvt. Daniel C. Perugini, gunner; and S/Sgt. Jack B. Swan, photographer. The plane was also flown by several other Squadron pilots during its career with the 408th.

This Marauder was scheduled to fly its first mission on May 16th, but this was scrubbed due to poor weather conditions. Its combat debut was made over Rabaul on May 24th with Michaelis at the controls although he was leading a different crew on the mission. Over Vunakanau Airdrome it sustained AA damage to the right wing and hydraulic system, but it eventually landed safely at Port Moresby on one engine. On this mission, three members of Michaelis’ original crew, King, Wolenski and Swan, went down while flying with another crew. Wolenski apparently died in the crash; King was captured and apparently died in Japanese hands, while Swan died of his injuries after an extended period on the run from Japanese forces on New Britain.

Calamity Charlie

The artwork on CALAMITY CHARLIE, a 408th Squadron, 22nd Bomb Group B-26 Marauder, was painted on both sides of the nose. This aircraft transferred to the 19th Squadron, 22nd Bomb Group during the spring of 1943, and continued its career with the Silver Fleet until the beginning of 1944. During that period it displayed an unusual tally system on its mission scoreboard, which can be seen in a photo appearing in Appendix IV of Revenge of the Red Raiders. (Laverne L. Limpach Collection)

 

After repairs, CALAMITY CHARLIE was back in action by mid-June and thereafter flew regularly until its last combat mission with the 408th, which took place on November 27th. It played no role in the last six weeks of B-26 operations by the Group, probably because of the need for a major overhaul. On November 2, 1942 Michaelis was transferred to Port Moresby to become an Operations Officer in V Bomber Command. At the same time several Squadron officers transferred out to staff the recently arrived 38th BG.

The profile illustrates this aircraft as it appeared during September 1942, with ten mission markers on its scoreboard. When it completed its tour with the 408th, this was updated to reflect a total of 27 flown, including ones aborted for weather or mechanical reasons. By the time of its last missions with the 408th, the top of the vertical stabilizer had been tipped in the Squadron color, Kelly Green.

As with other 22nd BG planes, CALAMITY CHARLIE was overhauled during the spring of 1943, and the camouflage paint was removed. It was one of only two B-26s still assigned to the 408th at the beginning of June, 1943. The nickname and artwork were repainted on both sides of the nose in a revised format. The plane was transferred to the 19th Bomb Squadron’s “B” Flight by July, 1943, where it started the second phase of its combat career with the Silver Fleet.

Its first mission with the unit was flown on August 13, 1943. During its service with the 19th, CALAMITY CHARLIE did not have a regular pilot although 1/Lt. Jesse G. Homen flew it on ten missions during its last three months with the Squadron. Mission reports indicate that ten different crews flew the plane at least 24 times before it ended its combat flying on January 4, 1944. The members of the ground crew assigned to CALAM1TY CHARLIE during this period included T/Sgt. Frank L. Cain, crew chief; S/Sgt David M. Crawford, his assistant; and mechanic Sgt. Ed Schwietzer.

A unique aspect of the plane’s markings while with the Silver Fleet included a mission scoreboard done in a system of tally marks, which were recorded in groups of five on both sides of the fuselage. Photos taken at the time it was retired from service show the aircraft with 75 tally marks, which far exceeds the 45 combat missions known to have been flown by the aircraft. It is these markings that are depicted in the insert profile. As with the other Marauders remaining in service in the theater, CALAMITY CHARLIE was declared “War Weary” in January, 1944, and flown to Brisbane where it was scrapped during the spring.

Among the missions flown during 1942 were: Rabaul, 5/24 (Michaelis); Kila Point, 6/16 (Ellis); Buna, 7/22 (Augustine); Lae, 8/6, 9/13, 9/19 (Michaelis); Buna, 11/24, 11/27 (O’Donnell); and 11/27 (Ellis). During its service with the 19th Squadron in 1943, missions flown included: Lae, 8/13 (Hathaway), Lokanu Ridge, 8/25 (Burnside); Bogadjim, 8/27 (Rugroden); Cape Gloucester, 9/2 (Higgins); Cape Gloucester, 9/3 (Burnside); Lae (abort), 9/8 (Steddom); Lae, 9/9 (Steddom); Finschafen, 9/18 (Hathaway); Wonan Island, 9/21 (Burnside); Cape Hoskins, 10/2 (Homen); Alexishafen, 10/14 (Homen); Faria Valley, 11/5 (Homen); Satelberg, 11/19 (Irwin); Satelberg, 11/24 (Forrester); Kamlagidu Point, 12/2 Burcky); Cape Gloucester 12/3 (Flanagan); Wandokai, 12/8 (Irwin); Kelanea Harbor, 12/16 (Homen); Sag Sag, 12/24 (Homen); Madang, 12/26 (Homen); Cape Gloucester, 12/29 (Homen); Bogadjim,1/31 (Homen); and in 1944: Erima Point, 1/2 (Homen); and Nambaaron River, 1/4 (Homen).

Read more about CALAMITY CHARLIE and the rest of the 22nd Bomb Group in our book Revenge of the Red Raiders.

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3 Short Stories from the 22nd

A Nerve-Racking Flight on SO SORRY
Captain Gerald J. Crosson was leading B-26s from the 2nd Squadron to Lae on January 3, 1943, where they were to bomb sailing vessels in the area, or the airdrome if the boats couldn’t be found. The aircrews thoroughly searched the area between Lae and Cape Cretin and failed to find the boats. They turned for the airdrome and were met by flak sent up by the alert Japanese antiaircraft gunners. Before Crosson’s bombs were released, his B-26 SO SORRY jolted around and there was a sound of rattling metal in the cockpit. SO SORRY nosed upward in an unanticipated climb and Crosson worked frantically to right the plane. Bombardier T/Sgt. T.J. Smith saw that the bomb bay doors were still open, then noticed that the bombs were still in their racks. He carefully eased himself onto the catwalk where he manually jettisoned the bombs.

Meanwhile, Crosson and his co-pilot struggled to maintain a level course as they dealt with a cut elevator cable, bomb bay doors that wouldn’t close and dragging flaps. SO SORRY dropped out of formation and flew on at about 700 feet in bad weather. The crew was happy to spot Dobodura 50 minutes later, but everyone knew they were in for a rough landing because the aircraft was so unstable, the landing gear wouldn’t lower and the aileron controls were damaged. In spite of everything, Crosson brought the B-26 down safely, and, remarkably, without injury to the crew.

The Rise of the Silver Fleet
Since the early days of the 22nd Bomb Group’s formation and involvement in World War II, the unit was designated a medium bomber unit and the men flew B-26 Marauders on missions. This would last until April 1943, when three of the four squadrons were told that their B-26s would be phased out and replaced with B-25s. At a meeting, the 19th Squadron pilots said they preferred flying the B-26 and the Marauders were given to that squadron. They were stripped of their camouflage paint, which increased their speed by a few miles per hour, as well as given a complete overhaul for optimal performance. First Lieutenant James C. Houston came up with the “Silver Fleet” nickname and an accompanying logo. The 19th would remain the silver fleet until January 1944 when the B-26 was completely phased out of the Pacific Theater and the 22nd Bomb Group was redesignated a heavy bombardment group and transitioned to the B-24.

Silver Fleet

For a short time, the 19th Squadron, 22nd Bomb Group was know as the “Silver Fleet.” This nickname referred to the fact that the unit was flying the only combat aircraft in the theater in a natural metal finish. This insignia and nickname were the work of bombardier 1/Lt. James C. Houston, who adapted it from the model railroad with which he played during his youth. Here, the 19th Squadron Line Chief, M/Sgt. Raymond D. Fuller, and Maj. Walter H. Greer, the Squadron C.O., can be seen posing with the new insignia on the tail of B-26 #40-1488, which carried the nickname HOOSIER MISS during its service with the Silver Fleet. (J. William Brosius Collection)

The Practice Bomb Squadron
After several reports of poor bombing records from the Silver Fleet, the squadron was removed from combat in late July 1943 for three weeks so crews could receive additional training. Not only did accuracy leave something to be desired, there were bombs handing up in the racks. When the 19th Squadron returned to combat, one crew discovered the additional training paid off: all ten bombs were dropped in the target area and hit crucial targets.

 

Read these stories in our book Revenge of the Red Raiders.

Repost: Raided!

First published on this blog in September 2014, we thought it was time to bring the story of a Japanese raid on the 22nd Bomb Group back to the front page.

 

Official message from Gen. MacArthur’s headquarters: “On the morning of August 17th, twenty-four Japanese bombers attacked the aerodrome at Port Moresby, which resulted in slight damage to installations and a few casualties.”

For three days, the 22nd Bomb Group had been in standby mode at Seven Mile Drome as they waited for their next big mission. Each B-26 was loaded with six 500-pound bombs, fueled and parked in the open, as revetments had not yet been built. The ten crews were camped out next to their planes, ready to move at a moment’s notice.

During the last couple of months, the Japanese had been keeping an eye on the situation in New Guinea and decided it was about time to improve their prospects there. They decided to move troops and artillery from Rabaul to Buna, and would need a distraction for a successful move. This distraction would come in the form of an air raid on Seven Mile on August 17, 1942.

That morning, Capt. Gammon heard that a Japanese raid was imminent. He ran to his plane, calling to Bauman to start the engines and get ready for an immediate take off. Three bursts from an antiaircraft gun were heard, signaling a red alert. Their early warning system failed and caught everyone completely off guard. As the men scattered, 24 “Betty” bombers in perfect formation approached the airfield at 20,000 feet. Puffs from antiaircraft fire dotted the sky, but were too low to hit the incoming Japanese.

Gammon climbed aboard his plane and headed for the runway with a small crew. As he took off, bombs fell all around his plane, exploding violently, and sending shrapnel into the aircraft. Some of the pieces landed on the bombs in the bomb bay. Quickly, Bauman released the bombs in order to keep the aircraft in one piece. Gammon kept close to the hills to avoid drawing any attention from the Japanese, then circled the runway until the debris was cleared and it was safe to land. He eventually landed with 200 holes in his plane and a shot-up right tire.

When the red alert sounded, Capt. Gerald Crosson was taxiing to the runway with a full crew. He was about halfway down the runway when the bombs began falling and one exploded about 20 feet in front of his B-26’s left wing. As flames from the explosion engulfed the plane and crept towards the bomb bay, the crew abandoned the aircraft as quickly as they could before the bombs exploded. The co-pilot, RAAF Sgt.-PIlot Logan, had been incapacitated by the explosion, so Crosson stayed back to pull him from the bomber. Just as Crosson and Logan took shelter in a crater from one of the bombs, the bombs in the plane blew up. The two men were helplessly caught in flames and a shockwave from the blast. Once the raid ended, Logan and Crosson were loaded into an ambulance. Logan did not survive the journey to the hospital.

Black Smoke

Black smoke and flames rise from Seven Mile Drome following an enemy raid by Betty bombers. This photo was taken on either July 5th or on August 17th, when a similar attack took place and caught Marauders on the ground. (William P. Sparks Collection)

After the raid was over, the 22nd tallied their losses. The message from MacArthur’s office about the raid minimized the results of the surprise attack. One report listed four of their planes as destroyed, as well as three from other groups, and 25 damaged. Pieces of planes, clothes, guns and much more littered the airfield. One thousand barrels of gas and oil burned at one end of the runway, sending plumes of smoke 1500 feet in the air. The Group lost its tower and Operations shack in the raid. The spot where Gammon’s plane had been parked was turned into a giant crater five feet deep and 15 feet wide. For the next 24 hours during the cleanup, delayed action bombs would explode every four or five minutes.

 

This story can be found in our book Revenge of the Red Raiders.

Preparing for War in the Pacific Theater

Although the 22nd Bomb Group had been formed up in December 1939, they saw next to no activity until only a few short weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor sent everyone into a flurry of activity. “The first change of station after the attack on Pearl Harbor was stunningly sudden,” wrote Lt. Maiersperger. “At 1700 hours, Sunday, 7 December 1941, the members of the 22nd BG were engaged in individual pursuits. By 0730 Monday morning, the air echelon was taking off. For half of us, the immediate route was Memphis, Albuquerque and to Muroc Dry Lake…The other half went a more southern route by way of El Paso. The ground echelon was furiously packing all ground equipment to follow us by rail. We had overnight to load our airplanes with such spares as we could carry — hydraulic fluid, brake seals, starter solenoids and spark plugs — which we knew we would need. About 0300, those of us who lived off the base were allowed to repair our respective quarters, divide our possessions as to those that we’d take with us and the remainder to be loaded into our autos for future disposition, according to the arrangements we could make with our landlords, friends or relatives at that hour in the morning. We wrote out checks to meet our obligations to our creditors and tried to answer the excited questions of our landlords. All we could tell them was that we were leaving that day and had to be back on base by 0600. My landlord drove me back to the base and later delivered my car to my parents in New York City.”

B-26s Flying West

On December 8th, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the air echelon of the 22nd was airborne en route to the West Coast, where it was needed to protect against a possible Japanese attack on California. Most of the planes arrived at Muroc Dry Lake within a couple of days following overnight stops at bases along the way for servicing, crew rest and routine maintenance. This photo shows a flight of three 19th Squadron B-26s flying cross country in typical formation at about this time. (George H. Wilson Collection)

All the B-26 crews in the 22nd Bomb Group were ordered to fly from their former airbase at Langley, Virginia to Muroc Dry Lake, California on December 8th at 0715. The ground echelon was loaded up on a train and sent across the country, arriving on the 12th. Muroc was never intended to be a major airbase, but in the wake of Pearl Harbor the primary concern was moving the units to the west quickly, with the details to be sorted out later.

The ground echelon called Muroc “The Pits”. Living conditions were awful, it was very isolated and subject to extreme temperature changes (as it was located in the Mojave Desert). Several lucky crews from the 33rd Squadron, soon followed by the rest of the air echelon, were sent to on March Field, a much more comfortable base, at the end of December. The ground echelon remained at Muroc until the end of January, at which point the decision to mobilize the 22nd Bomb Group was finalized. Only a week later, the 22nd was leaving the States and heading off to fight the Japanese in the Pacific Theater.

 

Read more about the 22nd Bomb Group’s journey in our book Revenge of the Red Raiders.

YEAH! Goes Down

On this Memorial Day, we want to take some time to remember those who were killed in combat. Among them were several members of a B-26 crew from the 33rd Squadron. Their story is below.

On January 7, 1943, 1/Lt. Leonard T. Nicholson and his crew were flying to Lae with a couple of other B-26s to target ships in the harbor. As the three planes began their bombing run, the Japanese began sending up antiaircraft fire to discourage the American crews. The men flew on and released their bombs. As they turned, YEAH! was hit by two blasts of flak, one of which knocked out the left engine and damaged the hydraulic lines. YEAH!’s bomb bay doors fell open, causing an unsustainable amount of of strain on the only working engine.

Ground Crew Members with B-26 YEAH!

Two unidentified members of the ground crew stand beneath the Squadron insignia on the nose of YEAH!

By this point, nine Zeros had caught up to the B-26s and the pilots knew it was time to get out of there. Nicholson knew there was no way he would make it back to Port Moresby on one overheating engine and let the crew know that they should prepare to ditch the plane. The pilot landed in Hercules Bay, located north of Buna, and the crew hurried to get out of YEAH! Engineer Sgt. Jack G. Mosely and radioman S/Sgt. Joseph P. Papp unfortunately did not escape and went down with the plane. The rest of the men swam to shore, helping the severely injured navigator Lt. Norm E. DeFreese along the way. Once on the beach, gunner Cpl. Thomas A. Moffitt went off to find help for his crew. DeFreese did not live through the night.

The next day, three crewmen were walking towards Buna when they were spotted by Australian Beaufighters flying overhead. Food and a map were dropped to the men below. The relief that they must have felt was destroyed soon after by the sound of a gunshot. Bombardier S/Sgt. William M. Brown was killed by a Papuan Infantry Patrol that had mistaken the Americans for Japanese. The two remaining crewmen, the pilot and co-pilot, were separated during the chaos.

Co-pilot Lt. Jack I. Childers spent a couple of unbearable nights fending off mosquitoes in the open air and three days looking for someone who would help him get back to base. On the second day, Beaufighters espied him once again and dropped supplies. Childers’ situation changed on the third day when he spotted natives on the far side of the river and was able to flag them down. They took him to their village, where he spent a more comfortable night, then was taken to an Australian camp the following day. He soon learned that both Moffitt and Nicholson were alive and had been flown back to camp within the last couple of days. Childers would soon follow them and rejoin the rest of his unit.

This story can be found on p. 166 of our book Revenge of the Red Raiders.

Marauder at Midway

Marauder at Midway by Jack Fellows

Early on the morning of June 4, 1942, the Japanese Combined Fleet, with four aircraft carriers, was approaching Midway Island in the Central Pacific with the intention of seizing the island. They expected to surprise the Allied base, but due to a broken Japanese code the Allies had advance warning, and sent every available bomber in Hawaii to Midway’s defense. Among this eclectic mix were four B-26 Martin Marauder fast medium bombers, now equipped to carry aerial torpedoes: two from the 22nd Bomb Group and two from the 38th Bomb Group. Navy ships, including two carriers, were also now approaching the scene. But even without the element of surprise, the Japanese had more ships, more carriers, and more aircraft armed to take down opposing ships.

While Midway Island was subjected to a terrific pounding by an initial Japanese air attack, the B-26s participated with Midway-based Navy attack aircraft in a desperate but spirited counterattack on the carriers. The strike ended badly for this American strike force and two of the B-26s were shot down during their target runs. The other two were so badly shot up that they barely made it back to Midway, where they crash-landed and never flew again. While attempting to evade the Akagi’s Zero fighters after releasing his torpedo at the ship, Lt. James Muri of the 408th Bomb Squadron, 22nd Bomb Group, in B-26 #40-1391 SUZIE Q, ended up flying just feet above the Akagi’s flight deck. Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, leader of the Midway assault, witnessed the American counterattack, saw the Marauder fly a few feet above the ship’s deck, and incorrectly surmised that the planes stationed on the island’s airbase were the biggest threat to his precious carriers. Accordingly, he re-armed his force of attack aircraft with ordnance intended to destroy land targets. What Nagumo didn’t realize was that at the moment that Lt. Muri was hurtling down the flight deck of Akagi, mere feet away, two yet undetected U.S. carriers had arrived to engage the Japanese fleet.

The shocking discovery a short time later of U.S. carriers preparing to strike the Japanese fleet forced Nagumo to once again download the ordnance on his waiting planes and reload them for attacking ships. Aside from the breaking of the Japanese code that allowed the U.S. Navy to respond to the Japanese invasion fleet, this fateful decision was responsible, more than anything else, for the U.S. Navy’s stunning victory over the Japanese Naval forces in the Battle of Midway. While the Japanese planes were sitting on the flight decks, busy reloading, the Americans had already launched their attack aircraft. Had the Midway-based attack not been so aggressive, or if Lt. Muri had not so audaciously buzzed the Admiral’s flagship, the Japanese attack aircraft may well have kept their anti-ship ordnance and been in the air when the American carrier attack planes were launched. By the end of the day, all four of the Japanese carriers had been sunk; the USS Yorktown was the only carrier loss suffered by the United States Navy in this battle, which was the turning point in the Pacific war.

 

If you want to learn more about the Battle of Midway, read this post. Head to our website to buy the painting.

How a Combat Unit Passes the Time While Standing Down

After approximately nine months of combat missions, the 22nd Bomb Group’s B-26s had reached the age of being designated war-weary. Due to the “Europe First” mentality, those fighting in the Pacific Theater had been receiving far fewer replacement aircraft than they desperately needed. In the case of the 22nd, this was a breaking point for the Group. Headquarters did not feel that men could safely fly in their B-26s any longer and ordered the Group to stand down on January 11, 1943.

Not long after the orders were received, the 19th and 33rd Bomb Squadrons were told that they were moving from Iron Range back to their old camp at Woodstock. The 500+ mile trip was filled with torrential downpours, delays and crowded conditions aboard the S.S. Paine Wingate. Once the men made it back to Woodstock, though, they happily found that their camp had been improved since their last stay. This time, they enjoyed electricity in their tents, upgraded shower and latrines and eating in wooden mess halls. Picking weevils out of bread was also a distant memory, as the food had greatly improved.

As the men adapted to a slower life, they enjoyed the routine flight training and transport runs, playing sports, and visiting cities such as Sydney and Brisbane. They read books, put on skits, played music and a few of the men decided to run for mayor in the Australian town nearby. Their campaigns were unsuccessful.

 

Woodstock Stage

One way to pass the time while under orders to stand down is to perform. A stage was built at Woodstock during the spring of 1943, and numerous shows, both locally produced and traveling USO groups, entertained the troops. Several talented enlisted men are shown here during one of these performances. On stage was Milt Weiner, singer and emcee. From left the others were Walter Shook on the clarinet, Jones on the accordion, Scott Day on the guitar, “Buckwheat” Westmoreland on the piano and Davis on the drums. (Walter Gaylor Collection)

 

22nd Bomb Group men play baseball

What does a combat unit do while under orders to stand down? Various leisure time activities helped pass the time during the spring of 1943, with baseball being one of the most popular. Under the direction of the newly assigned Special Services Officer, 2/Lt. “Buck” Weaver, many teams were formed and tournaments were organized. This photo was taken at Reid River, the camp for the 2nd and 408th Bomb Squadrons. (William K. Miller Collection)

 

Days of little activity stretched into weeks and the men grew restless. They wanted to be back in the action, helping the Allies fight in New Guinea. The fate of the 22nd was still unknown, leading to various rumors going around the camp. Maybe they would go back to the U.S. for reassignment, they would be re-equipped with B-25s, or they would receive new B-26s. It wasn’t until mid-March when they finally got some answers.

General George C. Kenney and a few others had flown to Washington DC, where they met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff about operation plans for the remainder of the year. Out of the meeting came an authorization for additional aircraft, an order to push the Japanese out of New Guinea as far as Madang and a policy to rotate original crews back to the States. The 22nd Bomb Group was also going to transition from a medium bombardment group to a heavy bombardment group equipped with B-24s.

Before the transition to the B-24, three of the four squadrons would fly B-25s for a short time (the fourth, the 19th, would stick with the B-26 a little longer). Like the B-17, the B-26 would be phased out of operation in the Pacific Theater and sent to Europe. This news was not entirely welcomed by the crews who had grown fond of their fast, durable B-26s and they weren’t certain how the B-25 would hold up in comparison. Nonetheless, the days of inactivity soon reached an end as the 22nd received new crews, said goodbye to the old crews being sent Stateside and refurbished as many B-26s as they could for the 19th Bomb Squadron’s new “Silver Fleet.”

In July, the Silver Fleet of unpainted B-26s left the rest of the 22nd in Australia and flew to Dobodura, where the crews would began flying combat missions on July 21st. The three remaining squadrons began receiving their new B-25s in Australia and wasted no time learning the ins and outs of the new planes. Transition training took approximately three months. Finally, the 2nd, 408th and 33rd Squadrons were sent back to combat in early October. All four squadrons were reunited in combat on October 14th.

The 22nd’s Short-Lived Torpedo School

Early in the war, the U.S. Navy was in need of a fast, long-range torpedo bomber. There weren’t any in the Navy’s inventory that met their requirements and so they turned to the Army Air Force in hopes of converting B-26s into torpedo bombers. Out of the blue, an order from General Brett, the senior U.S. Commander in Australia, came to the 22nd Bomb Group’s C.O., Lt. Col. Haskins, wanting two of his crews and B-26s to report to Melbourne, Australia for torpedo school. Pilots Lt. Frank Allen and Lt. Cooper were chosen to go. Allen specifically came to Haskin’s mind when he thought of Allen’s torpedo lessons in San Diego.

For a week, Allen got the runaround as he tried to get further instructions about this torpedo school before he was told he was on his own. He knew that the Navy had an installation at Pearce Airdrome (north of Perth) and decided to set up the program there. Upon his apparently unanticipated arrival on May 1, 1942, he found out that no one else knew about this project. Fortunately, the Navy promised Allen support and assigned a Commander Robinson to work with him. Robinson, Allen soon discovered, knew everything about torpedoes.

They started out by building dummy torpedoes out of “jarrah” wood (metal resources were unavailable to them), which was a close density to that of iron. Testing started after Cooper and his crew arrived on May 17th. Their B-26 was damaged after it got stuck in the mud and they had to get a different aircraft. Murphy’s Law continued to wreak havoc with the first torpedo test: the B-26’s booster coils burned out and needed to be replaced, its batteries died, and once the plane finally took off, the dummy torpedo was left on the runway because the firing switch shorted out. After all the mechanical issues were fixed, the dummy torpedo was finally dropped on the target. Instead of breaking like a torpedo should, it bounced and somersaulted before finally entering the water and settling into the deep mud somewhere.

In all, there ended up being about ten tests with the wooden torpedoes at different heights and airspeeds before they were finally given real torpedoes with water-filled heads. They tested these for about two months, recording data and taking photos and videos. It was established that the most successful torpedo drops occurred when the airspeed and drop height were equal: at 200mph, drop the torpedo from 200 feet, etc.

Allen, who had been promoted to Captain on May 10th, finally decided they were ready to start teaching in July at a torpedo school at Nowra, 75 miles south of Sydney. Given his previous experiences at Melbourne and Pearce, it’s not surprising that this torpedo school didn’t exist yet and he was supposed to get it started. By August, many of the 22nd’s crews went through Allen’s torpedo school and gave themselves the name of the “1st Torpedo Squadron.” They weren’t too fond of the idea of using B-26s as torpedo bombers because of the impaired aerodynamics and short ground clearance on takeoff.

The training wasn’t too interesting, but the men still entertained themselves. One day, Nowra’s local paper reported on a buzz job: “Yesterday morning when the ‘Birds’ came home to roost, they skimmed the tops of the houses in the town, much to the alarm of residents. Among complaints received at this office, mostly from womenfolk, are that choice lemons were blown off her trees in the garden; another that the force of the air slipstream blew the paint off the roof, while a third lady, suffering an attack of lumbago was seen disappearing down an air raid shelter head first.”

Soon, the men were sent back to join the rest of the 22nd at Iron Range, as they were needed elsewhere. The Navy realized that the B-26 wasn’t the right plane for the job and the torpedo school was closed down in August, thus sending these tests to the 22nd Bomb Group’s records.

The Long Way Home

In the early stages of the Pacific Theater of World War II, Rabaul, an airbase complex and anchorage on the northeastern coast of New Britain, was a regular target for the bomb groups of Fifth Air Force. The base was a stronghold and primary staging point for the Japanese that wouldn’t fall for years. The 22nd Bomb Group was sent to bomb Rabaul a number of times, though this story focuses on the events of a mission on April 11, 1942,  only a few months after the area had been captured by the Japanese. That day, nine B-26s from the 33rd and 19th Bomb Squadrons were sent to bomb Rabaul’s two airdromes at the time, Vunakanau and Lakunai.

Lieutenant Louis W. “Tad” Ford was flying as wingman for Lt. Richard W. Robinson, the leader of the mission, and both flew over Lakunai Airdrome, releasing their bombs on targets below. The Japanese on the ground fired their antiaircraft guns at the B-26s, with three bursts exploding around Ford’s plane. Shrapnel cut hydraulic lines, holed the auxiliary gas tank as well as the main left gas tank and the right engine. Ford’s crew leapt into action to help keep their plane aloft for as long as possible.

As Ford set a course for home, he eased up the power on the damaged and overheating engine, then tried to release the burning auxiliary gas tank. When the tank wouldn’t budge, two of his crewmembers went onto the bomb bay’s catwalk where they kicked and shoved the gas tank until it finally dislodged. Afterwards, they spent an hour trying to manually close the bomb bay doors before giving up. Closing the doors would lessen the chance of the B-26 breaking apart in case of a water landing, which would increase the crew’s chance of surviving the landing. Ford was shadowed by Robinson, who soon had to leave Ford and his crew behind after his own fuel levels started running low.

Awhile later, Ford began his ascent over the Owen Stanley Mountains so he could head directly back to Port Moresby. This was soon abandoned when he noticed that the right engine was nearly out of fuel, and instead, he began looking for a place to make an emergency landing. He found a spot on the west side of the Tufi Peninsula and told his crew to brace for impact. Fortunately, no one was injured in the landing. The men piled out of their plane and looked at their surroundings, which were intimidating: they were stuck in a plain of razor-sharp kunai grass taller than they were.

The radio operator was able to transmit their coordinates and received a response from Port Moresby. For the rest of the afternoon, the crew made themselves as comfortable as they could and dined on the plane’s emergency rations. They  spent a long, uncomfortable night trying to fend off mosquitoes. When morning arrived, three of the men set off to find help. Eventually, they came across some natives who were willing to aid the Americans and spent the next six weeks working their way back to Port Moresby.

IHRA’s Top 7 Posts of 2014

We’ve brought you a lot of stories this year and thought it was time to highlight the most popular posts of 2014. This was done by filtering out the most viewed posts that we wrote this year, not counting reblogs. If you missed any, here’s your chance to go back and read the highlights. Enjoy!

Burning on the Bismarck Sea Tragedy Above the Bismarck Sea The 43rd Bomb Group participates in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea and, while the battle is a success, the Group doesn’t come out unscathed.

Royce and DaviesThe Royce Raid: The 3rd Bomb Group Wins Its Spurs Before the Doolittle Raid, another daring attack was playing out over the Philippines. This is the third in a short series about the Royce Raid.

Sinking 38th Bomb Group B-25The Ordeal of the Herry Crew B-25 MISS AMERICA is shot down near Japanese territory. This is the story of what happened to the crew afterwards.

Ambush in the Bashi Channel Our newest print depicting a dramatic moment for 38th Bomb Group pilot Donald H. Martin as he passes over the Japanese destroyer Shiokaze.

Gasmata Airdrome 1942The Third Bomb Group’s Combat Debut: Prelude to the Royce Raid Six B-25 crews embark on their first strike and test the B-25’s operational limit.

Muri crewB-26s at Midway This story follows four B-26 crews from the 38th and 22nd Bomb Groups as they join the Battle of Midway.

 Paratroop Landing on Nadzab The 345th and Operation Postern On September 4, 1943, crews from the 345th Bomb Group participate in a huge raid on Nadzab.