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.

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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.

Raided!

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

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.

B-26s at Midway

Within five months of the U.S. entering World War II, Japan, hoping to reduce America’s naval capabilities, had its eye on island of Midway. This little atoll, sitting 1000 miles northwest of Honolulu and 2195 miles east of Japan, was the last defense between Japan and the Hawaiian Island chain and an important U.S. staging ground for Pacific operations. Given this, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz ordered that the air and ground defenses of Midway should be strengthened immediately. During the early part of May 1942, the U.S. broke the Japanese code and discovered Admiral Yamamoto’s plans for a surprise invasion. The Japanese would be coming with four aircraft carriers, 11 battleships and 150 other ships. Clearly, Nimitz would need all the Allied air and sea power he could muster.

Midway Island

Midway Island. Source: Wikimedia Commons

By May 30th, the U.S. Navy started sending out PBY Catalinas to search for the large Japanese fleet. The armada was located on June 3rd, and on the 4th, four B-26 crews from the 38th and 22nd Bomb Groups joined the Navy’s attack on the Japanese fleet. The B-26s had been outfitted with a single Mark XIII torpedo for each plane, which the crews had been briefly been trained to use. As the four crews caught up to the Navy TBF Avengers and approached the Japanese carriers, they were intercepted by 30 Zeros. Five of the six Avengers were soon shot down, with the sixth later limping back to Midway with a dead turret gunner.

While the B-26s dove to avoid passes from the Zeros, they received heavy antiaircraft fire from the ships below. “Ever ship in the fleet looked like it was on fire,” 22nd Bomb Group pilot 1/Lt. James P. Muri wrote. “All guns were pointing at us and firing.” Some guns were purposely depressed to send exploding shells into the water where they would send up huge plumes of water directly in the bombers’ paths. 2/Lt. William S. Watson, a pilot from the 38th Bomb Group, approached the carrier Akagi, and took a direct hit to one of his plane’s fuel tanks. Smoke and flames poured out of the aircraft, which was hit again by a swarm of Zeros, then exploded. All aboard were killed instantly.

The three remaining B-26 crews made their torpedo runs, with Capt. James F. Collins of the 38th Bomb Group going first and launching his torpedo against the Akagi. His B-26’s guns were malfunctioning, but nonetheless, his gunners claimed to have shot down two or three Zeros. After releasing the torpedo, Collins hurried into the clouds to try and lose the Zeros on his tail. His crew became lost as they looked for the way home, but saw smoke billowing up from oil tanks hit by the Japanese on Midway’s East Island. With this signal, they flew home and sat through a rough landing as the nose gear collapsed after the plane landed.

1/Lt. Herbert C. Mayes of the 22nd Bomb Group was having a very hard time controlling his plane, SATAN’S PLAYMATE, due to the number of times it had already been hit. As he dropped his torpedo, his plane sustained further damage from antiaircraft fire. The plane was on a direct collision course with the deck of the Akagi, but Mayes was able to pull up at the last second and skim over the top of the bridge. The damage proved to be fatal, and Mayes crashed into the water between the Akagi and the Hiryu. None survived.

Muri, in his B-26 SUSIE Q, was the last to make his run. As SUSIE Q flew towards the Akagi, the B-26 was attacked by a formation of Zeros, taking out the left top turret gun and injuring the top turret and tail gunners. 2/Lt. William W. Moore released the torpedo, allowing Muri to protect the underside of the plane by buzzing the carrier’s deck. While the plane flew over the Akagi, the nose gunner sprayed the area with bullets, killing two sailors, cutting mooring cables and putting an antiaircraft position out of action. With the torpedo launched, it was time for Muri to escape the fray. He dove towards the ocean’s surface, then pushed his airspeed to outrun the Zeros that were pursuing him. They broke off the attack, the B-26 gained some altitude and Muri slowed the plane slightly.

Muri crew

Part of Lt. James P. Muri’s crew that participated in the Battle of Midway. From left (standing): Cpl. Frank L. Melo and Lt. Russel H. Johnson. Kneeling: Lt. Pren L. Moore, Lt. Muri, Lt. William W. Moore and Sgt. John J. Gogoj. PFC. Earl D. Ashley was still in the hospital when this photo was taken.

The crew took stock of their situation: they were over 100 miles away from Midway with a bullet-riddled fuselage, a dead communications system, only an approximate idea of where they were and fuel leaking out of punctured tanks. The fuel was transferred into two unpunctured fuel tanks. A sun observation was taken by the navigator to help set them on a general course, then Muri started a square search to find Midway. Like Collins, he noticed the smoke coming from Midway and flew off in that direction. On SUSIE Q‘s first approach, nervous Marine gunners accidentally fired at the B-26, so Muri pulled up and tried again. This time, the guns stayed quiet and Muri landed on his right landing gear, as the left was inoperable. He and his co-pilot discovered the plane’s brakes had also failed. The plane soon lost speed, the left wing dropped and snapped off the left landing gear and the plane skidded to a stop off the runway.

Both Collins and Muri brought back planes covered in bullet holes. Muri’s crew counted over 500 punctures in SUSIE Q, with damage to most of the plane’s systems. Both planes were written off. All four crews were award the Distinguished Service Cross for their valiant efforts. While losses were heavy on the American side, the Japanese fared far worse with the sinking of four of their aircraft carriers. The Battle of Midway was a definitive point in the Pacific war. From this point forward, the Japanese would no longer have the upper hand.

 


 

You might also be interested in watching a short documentary called The Battle of Midway.

For additional details about the B-26 crews’ experiences at Midway, check out our book, Revenge of the Red Raiders.

We also have a painting for sale depicting SUSIE Q over the Akagi.