Crash Landing at Gusap

Nadzab was drenched by heavy rain the night before Fifth Air Force’s big raid on Hollandia on April 16, 1944. When the men of the 22nd Bomb Group rose on the morning of the 16th, they were greeted with overcast skies and plenty of humidity. Six B-24s from each of the four squadron were to be sent to Hollandia, but takeoff was delayed by an hour after the sun broke through the low clouds.

Lieutenant Raysor took off with the 408th Squadron around 0900 hours and everything was running smoothly. About 80 miles in, the Squadron passed Gusap and Raysor pulled away from the rest of the 408th. His airplane’s engines were having trouble and he had to get back to Gusap. The engineer, Sgt. Milford H. Cummings, was told about the engine trouble and jettisoned the bombs and closed the bomb bay doors as the B-24 descended. Cummings warned the crewmen to ready themselves for a crash landing (they were too low to safely bail out), then went back to the cockpit where Raysor told Cummings that he had shut down three of the four engines because the superchargers weren’t working properly.

Cummings knew the pilot had made the wrong decision: the superchargers were not as important to the engines at low altitudes. Unfortunately, it was too late to fix the mistake and the single working engine couldn’t keep the plane in the air. The aircraft kept losing altitude and crashed about a mile from the north end of the runway. Cummings was ejected from the plane and not seriously injured. Only two other crewmen survived the crash. The rest, including Raysor, were killed.

408th Squadron B-24 crash

The 22nd Bomb Group dispatched 24 Liberators on another major Fifth Air Force strike against the Hollandia area on April 16, 1944. Although predicted weather conditions were marginal when the planes departed, the raid was deemed essential since Hollandia was targeted for a surprise invasion by ground forces on April 22nd. Raysor pulled out of the 408th formation with mechanical problems shortly after takeoff and tried to land at Gusap. The plane flew into the ground a mile short of the strip, killing all but three aboard. (Milford H. Cummings Collection)

These men would be the first casualties in what was to be a dark day in the history of Fifth Air Force, although this was the only crash in the 22nd Bomb Group not affected by the terrible weather later that day. Click on the Black Sunday tag if you want to read more stories from the 22nd or other units that were involved on the April 16th Hollandia raid.

 

This story can be found on p. 237 of Revenge of the Red Raiders.

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Black Sunday: The 345th’s Perspective

April 16, 1944 would go down as a dark day for Fifth Air Force. It started out uncertain, with a big mission to Hollandia delayed because of weather. Finally, the 345th’s B-25 bombers took off at mid-morning to combine forces with other groups and all reached Hollandia without issue. The area was thoroughly pounded by more than 200 bombers as they took out antiaircraft positions, camp areas and supply dumps. With the mission complete, the crews turned for home, only to encounter a large frontal boundary over the Markham Valley that cut off their route.

New Guinea weather was not to be trifled with. Not only were there issues with wind and rain, the crews now had to proceed cautiously in order to avoid flying into cloud-covered mountains. Twenty-seven planes from the 499th, 500th and 501st Squadron had bombed supply dumps along Jautega Bay and in Pim Village met the same front over the Ramu Valley. Led by Capt. Dale Speicher, the 345th plunged into the clouds and flew on instruments until they managed to find a clear spot from Madang to Bogadjim that was about ten miles wide. The clearing was crowded with B-24s, A-20s, P-38s and B-25s looking for a break in the clouds to make the flight home.

One of the 345th’s squadrons, the 501st, got separated while they were in the clouds and popped out near Bogadjim. Those crews also saw planes circling as they waited for an opening. Lieutenant Kortemeyer, who had the only navigator in the eight-plane formation on board, lead the Squadron through the chaos and down to sea level. They turned east towards Finschhafen, flying just above the water in low visibility and through the occasional downpour. Low on fuel, one of the B-25s broke from the formation and landed at Saidor, which was overwhelmed with other planes also nearly out of fuel. The crew landed safely.

Continuing through the storms, the rest of the 501st finally crossed the frontal boundary at Umboi Island, located north of Finschhafen. The airfield at Finschhafen was also quickly overwhelmed with aircraft needing to land quickly before running out of fuel. Lieutenant T.K. Lewis and his wingman noticed their fuel tanks were low, but instead of joining the chaos at Finschhafen, they made for the base at Cape Gloucester. Two other 501st B-25s took a chance and were able to land at Finschhafen, refuel, then headed back to their base at Nadzab. None of the 501st’s planes disappeared that day, a distinction among the many squadrons that participated in that Hollandia strike.

Meanwhile, the 499th and 500th Squadrons had split up, each looking for the best way back to Nadzab. The 500th Squadron flew 50-100 feet above the water in a trail formation, eventually breaking through the storm. A new transfer from the 498th Squadron, a B-25 nicknamed TINKIE, and its crew had disappeared. First Lieutenant James A. Waggle and his crew were never found. The rest of the Squadron made it back to base safely.

Captain Dick Baker led the nine B-25s from the 499th Squadron down to a break in the clouds near Madang. One plane disappeared during the 7000+ foot dive from their previous altitude to the opening below. Two stuck with Baker as he followed the coastline back to Finschhafen. The rest arrived at Finschhafen shortly afterwards. First Lieutenant Bill Graham landed with all of six gallons of gas left in his tank. STINGEROO, flown by 1/Lt. James H. MacWilliam Jr., was the B-25 that disappeared. The right engine of his plane had been leaking oil ever since the crew left the target area. Rather than risk getting lost in the storm, MacWilliam decided to stick with the rest of the Squadron as long as possible, which was up until the dive to sea level when the prop ran away and the engine caught fire.

MacWilliam crew

The 499th’s 1/Lt. James H. MacWilliam (left) was forced to ditch his B-25 nicknamed STINGEROO off Karkar Island when he got lost in the storm on April 16, 1944. The crew was picked up by a Catalina the next morning after the men spent 19 hours in a life raft near the Japanese-held island. MacWilliam is shown in front of a different bomber, #379. The others are: 1/Lt. Leo E. Fleniken Jr., co-pilot, and 1/t. Gail R. Holmes, navigator. The names of the rest are not known. Fleniken was with the downed crew on April 16th.

MacWilliam ditched in the choppy water, then STINGEROO sunk right after the crew escaped with their lives, a raft, radio and rations. Once in the raft, the men took in their surroundings and saw the faint outlines of two mountain peaks that they could have crashed into. Not knowing if they were in Japanese or Allied territory, the crew elected to stay away from the nearby islands and spent a rainy night in the water. The next morning, they found that they had drifted about two miles away from Karkar, which was in the hands of the Japanese. They quickly started paddling away from the island.

Allied planes flew overhead, though it wasn’t until the middle of the day when the downed crew was spotted by three Allied fighters, who radioed for a Catalina. The rescue plane landed near the men an hour later and they were soon back in the air and heading for home.

 

Find this week’s story on page 156 of Warpath Across the Pacific. For more Black Sunday stories, read these posts.

Truman Henderson’s Jungle Adventure

As is well known, April 16, 1944 was a dark day for Fifth Air Force crews. Many of the men were on missions that day when a front set in, wreaking havoc on their journey home. Thirty-seven planes were lost due to the terrible weather, through crashes, running out of fuel or losing their way. Among the planes lost was one belonging to the 22nd Bomb Group’s 408th Squadron. It was flown by 1/Lt. Robert Stone, who was returning from a mission to Hollandia when the weather moved in.

Because visibility was poor and planes were being tossed around so much, there was a higher potential for a mid-air collision. Stone made the decision to separate from the rest of his squadron and head back home alone. The B-24 was caught in numerous up and down drafts, rendering the plane almost uncontrollable. The pilot continued through the storm for nearly two hours before realizing he was lost and, with no fuel left to spare, he made the decision to bail out. He took the plane up to 18,000 feet where the crew jumped out over the Finisterre Mountains 25 miles south of Saidor. The men experienced snow and sleet during their decent, and soon became separated in the heavy cloud cover.

Bombardier 1/Lt. Truman T. Henderson landed in the jungle alone. He spent the afternoon searching and calling for the rest of his crew, but never heard a reply. With that, he found a somewhat sheltered spot in the jungle, where he spent a miserably soggy night. The next morning, Henderson decided that his best chance of survival would be to head for the coast, keeping in mind that there were still small groups of Japanese moving through the area after the Allies seized it. The allegiance of the natives was also questionable, so he was cautious about any interactions with them, lest they turn him over to the Japanese.

He spent the day trekking through the rugged terrain along a river, only stopping once to eat a chocolate bar. When night fell, he sought the shelter of giant tree roots, where he was unable to sleep. His confidence in his survival buoyed his spirits and he got an early start the following morning. This time, he found a trail, which he followed to a clearing. In this clearing was a garden, full of sweet potatoes, green beans, sugar cane and corn. Henderson called out to see if anyone was around before helping himself to some of the produce. He spent the rest of the day and the night at the garden to gather his strength for the next leg of his journey.

Before setting off again on the 19th, Henderson packed his parachute bag with some of the garden’s produce. He saw a couple of natives, who ran away when they spotted the American. Eventually, it was time to find a spot to rest for the night. His best bet would be to cross the river he had been following and find a good spot there. The river was wide, and it was apparent there was no easy way to cross it. If he fell into the water, the current could easily sweep him downstream and over a 60-foot waterfall. About eight feet into the middle of the river was a rock Henderson could land on, provided he could make the jump. He felt he could do it and leaped off the shore, only to land short of the rock. He hung onto it for dear life, spending about five minutes fighting the current as he struggled to climb on the rock. There, he would spend another night, hoping he’d have the strength to make the jump to the other side the next day.

Morning brought a renewed determination to get to the shore and Henderson successfully crossed the river. After following another trail, he happened on a lean-to, whose occupants again fled when they saw the American. (Henderson later learned that Japanese soldiers were raiding the villages.) He stopped to roast some of his corn over a fire when he saw two local men cautiously heading towards him. After some attempts to show he was friendly, Henderson was taken to a village where he met the chief, who promised to give him a guide to the coast the next day. He was fed very well by the natives, before turning in for the night.

The following three days were spent hiking up and down the slopes and crossing swamps. Henderson learned how to get drinking water by cutting green bamboo canes and how to cook food like that of the locals. When the group reached the coast, Henderson took the opportunity to bathe in the ocean. It was his first bath in a week. On the following morning, they got an early start and encountered an American Army patrol that had been sent out to search for the crew. He went back to the base with the patrol, where he planned on beginning his journey home the next day. After a morning of swimming and an afternoon of target practice, Henderson headed for a boat to Saidor and ran into three of his crew members, who had spent six days making their way to the coast. Nine days after leaving Nadzab, the four men finally returned to the 22nd Bomb Group. The final three members of their crew arrived at Nadzab two days later, all with stories of their journey.

Reflections on Black Sunday

This is the last installment in the series involving the 312th on Black Sunday. Read the previous installment here.

The US wasn’t the only country that lost aircraft and crews around Black Sunday. Two weeks prior, a violent storm took a toll on the Japanese Navy when the Commander in Chief, Admiral Mineichi Koga, was killed in a plane crash. Koga believed the Americans would invade the Netherlands New Guinea (the western half of the island of New Guinea) and he wanted to be closer to the action to better direct the Navy’s response. On March 31st, he and his staff boarded two flights from the Caroline Islands to Mindanao in the Philippines. While in the air, the planes encountered a storm and Koga’s plane crashed into the ocean, killing all aboard. The second plane transporting Koga’s Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Shigeru Fukudome, crash-landed in Bohol Strait. The survivors, including the injured Fukudome, made it to shore, but did not make it back to the Japanese forces in the Philippines until April 10th. Fukudome had important documents with him, including Koga’s “Z Plan,” which was recovered by Filipino guerrillas and turned over to the Americans. The Americans then made copies and returned the originals to the crashed plane. The Japanese never knew the Americans intercepted their “Z Plan.”

Though Black Sunday was a bitter loss for Allied airforces, the operation it was a part of was an overwhelming success. On April 3rd, the Fifth Air Force attack nearly demolished the 6th Air Division, which led to Lt. Gen. Giichi Itabana being relieved of his command. Twelve days after the attack, Gen. Teramoto withdrew the rest of the 4th Air Army to Manado, hundreds of miles away from the action around Hollandia. On April 22nd, Allied forces landed at Homboldt Bay, Tanahmerah Bay, Tadji and Aitape with little opposition. Operation Reckless was working according to plan.

Hollandia aftermath

Wrecked Japanese aircraft at Hollandia

As the 312th reflected on the events of Black Sunday, the biggest obstacle of the day was the weather on the flight home to Gusap. Weather in the Ramu Valley tended to get stormy between 1530 and 1630 each day, which meant flights needed to leave by 1000 to avoid the storms on the trip home. That day, the Group left a little before 1100, though the pilots did not have a choice in the matter. Arriving at the target, there was no opposition from the Japanese in the air or on the ground at Hollandia. Aside from leaving late, the formation missed Hollandia by 100 miles due to a navigation error. The fuel used up during that time may have made a difference for crews as they tried to get home.

Lt. Nathaniel Rothstein noted three rules pilots need to follow: stay with the formation and follow the flight leader, flight leaders must follow squadron leaders and the squadrons must follow the lead plane. The flights that stayed with Col. Strauss on April 16th made it back safely. After the raid, Strauss told his pilots, “If you follow me, I’ll take full responsibility for bringing you back safely. If you go off on your own, upon you rests the responsibility of you and your ship.”

The men of the 312th tried not to dwell on the events of April 16th. These type of events were the occupational hazards that came with the job of a combat pilot. After the Hollandia raids, their sights were set on other Japanese bases in New Guinea: But, Boram, Wewak and Dagua were up next.

 

 

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Black Sunday: Part 3

LADY CONSTANCE, the plane belonging to Lt. Gibbons, was having engine trouble on the way back from Hollandia. As Gibbons trailed behind the 312th formation, he discovered that the 30 gallons of fuel left in the tanks would not get him to Saidor or Gusap. He turned back to land in a clearing he saw about 20 miles north of Faita. With the waning daylight, it was much harder for Gibbons to survey the area. Suddenly, the left engine quit and the aircraft crashed into a ridge. Gibbons ended up with a gash on his head, but his gunner Rhodes escaped with minor cuts and bruises. The men spent a long night under a parachute that did not keep out the mosquitoes. Sgt. James left Gusap in search of Gibbons and Rhodes. He spotted them after seeing a flare sent up by Gibbons and dropped rations and medical supplies. Later that day, Maj. William Pagh flew over and dropped a map and a note instructing the men to stay by the plane and saying that there were no enemies in the area.

Lt. James thought he could fly the men out if they built a strip for him to land his L-5. He dropped a map showing a clearing two miles away where he would meet Gibbons and Rhodes. The next day, James was back with more supplies and a note requesting the men to clear an area at least 150 paces long and informing them that T/Sgt. Allen J. Lockwood would be picking them up soon. That afternoon, Lockwood landed his L-4 on the soft strip and realized he would not be able to reach takeoff speed with another person on board. He stayed with the men overnight and helped them clear out more grass. The next day, the ground was still soft, but with the help of the wind, Lockwood was airborne with Gibbons. There was not enough daylight to go back and get Rhodes, who ended up spending the night worrying about Japanese troops. Lockwood returned to the site and retrieved Rhodes the next morning.

————

Lt. Davidson was flying his plane, THE HELL’N PELICAN II, with two other aircraft lagging behind the main formation making its way back from Hollandia. This three-aircraft flight, led by 1/Lt. Edward T. Cassidy, burned more fuel as they tried to catch up. Davidson knew that he could not stay with the group much longer because he was very low on fuel. He relayed the information to Cassidy and then left the two planes to find a clearing he had passed by not too long ago. He gave his gunner, Sgt. John McKenna the option to bail, but McKenna decided to stay with Davidson. As Davidson lowered the flaps for landing, the left engine cut out, and the aircraft landed nearly 50 yards from the jungle’s edge. The uninjured men climbed out of the lightly damaged aircraft and prepared to spend the night in the jungle.
HELL'N PELICAN II

Davidson’s plane remained where it landed until 1984 when it was salvaged by the Royal Australian Air Force.

The next morning, the men discovered the turret guns still worked since they ran off the plane’s battery. They took turns manning the guns while waiting for help. Supplies were dropped from a P-40 (those disappeared into the jungle), followed by an A-20, and two B-24s. Intelligence officers at Gusap thought the best way to rescue the two men would be for them to meet up with Gibbons and Rhodes, 16 miles to the southwest. The men set off toward the other crew, only to be caught in a heavy downpour that night. This forced the men to find higher ground. The next morning, they returned to the A-20 because their compass had been ruined by the water and they needed it to navigate through the swamp. The next rescue plan was to clear a strip for the “Guinea Short Lines” to land. After spending five days trying to clear the grass, the L-4A pilot decided landing there would not work.

On April 24th, the town of Madang was secured by the Allies. It was decided that Davidson and McKenna should float 60 miles down the Gogol River to Madang. Two one-man rafts were dropped, and the 312th monitored their progress from the air as the crew made its way downstream.  They signaled for a five-man raft so it would be easier to stay away from crocodiles in the river. They found the new raft in a tree a day later and received a note saying they were two miles away from Astrolabe Bay, south of Madang. Sixteen days after setting off from Gusap on April 16th, the men made it to the bay, where Australians took them to Madang. From there, two L-5s flew the men back to Gusap. This was McKenna’s third crash landing, and it left him feeling like he would die if he flew again. He was granted a request for ground duty back at the States and boarded a B-25 for Nadzab, the first step in returning to the States. The plane that carried him out of Nadzab disappeared into a storm, never to be seen or heard from again.

The series conclusion is up next.

Black Sunday: Part 2

The little-known 25th Liaison Squadron was instrumental in the rescue of many downed crews, especially on Black Sunday. Mainly enlisted men flew Stinson L-5 Sentinels and Piper L-4A Grasshoppers, which could takeoff and land on much shorter runways than the bombers. Piper L-4A Grasshopper

The L-5 JUG HAID.

Because of this capability, A Flight, the group based at Gusap, received the nickname of the “Guinea Short Lines.” Their symbol of a kangaroo was very fitting for this squadron that hopped all over New Guinea. The “Guinea Short Lines” would play a key role in the rescue of three Roarin’ 20’s crews.

———–

Out of the four crews that had not been accounted for by the end of April 16th, one would never make it back. After ditching in the sea near Yalau Plantation, Smart and Music waited to be picked up by a Catalina. They were never seen or heard from again. The other three crews, 1/Lt. Glen Benskin and S/Sgt. Winifred F. Westerman of the 387th Squadron, 2/Lt. Joseph E. Gibbons and Cpl. Orville J. Rhodes of the 388th Squadron, and 2/Lt. Charles H. Davidson and Sgt. John J. McKenna also of the 388th, had their own stories of survival in returning to the 312th.
Lt. Benskin was flying back from the Hollandia raid with the rest of the 312th when he discovered his radio did not work and he lost contact with his wingmen. Benskin spotted Smart’s plane, THE TEXAN, and followed him for awhile. Smart soon appeared to head for Wewak as he turned towards the Ramu River, so Benskin thought Smart might be lost and flew off on his own. Benskin’s gunner, Westermann, told Benskin that their aircraft BENNY’S BABY did not have much fuel left and that they needed to land. Benskin made a gear-up landing and set down in a kunai grass swamp 200 yards from the Ramu River and 20 miles north of the Japanese-occupied village of Annenberg. The grass spun their plane around and the nose ended up bent sideways, which did not let the canopy of the cockpit open. Benskin was helped out through a window by Westermann. The landing site of BENNY'S BABY

Benskin’s plane in the kunai grass.

The two men spent the night battling mosquitoes and leeches in the swamp. The next morning, a search plane spotted the men and dropped supplies. With that came a note saying they should walk west ten miles to a native village, but that was nearly impossible due to the thick kunai grass that was up to ten feet tall in some areas.
While the men were building a shelter a few hundred yards away from the crash site, Benskin accidentally cut his knee with his folding machete. It wasn’t long before the wound became infected. At this point, the chance of being rescued was not good. With the Japanese so close by, a rescue plane could not risk landing on the river. After some searching, a suitable site that could be turned into an improvised landing strip was spotted about a mile and a half downstream. The area was cleared by P-40s from the 49th Fighter Group dropping belly tanks and setting them on fire with tracer rounds and then the men received supplies for making the 225-foot strip. Fifteen days after Benskin had landed in the swamp, the men were back at Gusap. They were rescued by S/Sgt. Walter A. James of the 25th Liaison Squadron. James first took Benskin to Gusap and then returned to the crash site for Westermann about an hour later. Benskin had scrub typhus, malaria and blood poisoning due to his leg wound and spent six weeks in the Gusap Field Hospital. His gunner fared much better and was in good condition when the two were rescued.

Lt. Benskin

Lt. Benskin recovering at Gusap.

It’s not over yet. Read part three of the Black Sunday raid.

Black Sunday: Part 1

The 312th was back to attacking Hollandia with bombers from the rest of Fifth Air Force: B-24s from the 22nd, 43rd and 90th Bomb Groups, B-25s from the 38th and 345th, and A-20s from the 312th, 3rd and 417th (a new bomber unit). These 216 planes with 76 P-38 escorts from the 8th and 475th Fighter Groups would be in the air once again on April 16, 1944. The only 312th Squadron not flying along was the 386th.

Bad weather at Hollandia delayed the Group from leaving Gusap until 1055. The crews bombed their targets of barges, stores and fuel dumps in between Sentani Lake and Jautefa Bay. After making their runs, the 312th formed up and headed for Gusap. With decent weather for the first half of the journey back, the men were able to grab a bite to eat while they flew home.
Hollandia
This photo from the Black Sunday raid shows the attacks going on behind the Japanese officer quarters.

As they flew on towards the Ramu Valley, conditions rapidly deteriorated. The planes were near Amaimon, 78 miles north of Gusap, when the weather completely closed in around them. Col. Strauss was in the lead and had to decide what the best way back home would be. He rejected flying to Saidor because he did not know what the weather was like there or if Saidor would be able to handle the number of planes since this base was only a few weeks old.
Strauss and the rest of the formation circled for about an hour in hopes of spotting a break in the clouds. As they circled, visibility improved enough for the hilltops to be seen, and Strauss thought there might be fair skies on the other side. Sure enough, he was right. At 1715, the Group began landing at rainy Gusap. Not everyone stayed with Col. Strauss. There were still 16 312th aircraft somewhere out in the stormy weather. The 312th wasn’t the only group with missing crews. By the end of the day Fifth Air Force could not account for 70 planes.

By nightfall, 12 Roarin’ 20’s aircraft had landed at Faita, Saidor and Finschhafen, four at each base. There were still four crews missing: Capt. Frank P. Smart with gunner T/Sgt. Michael Music, Lt. Glen Benskin and S/Sgt. Winifred F. Westerman, 2/Lt. Joseph E. Gibbons and Cpl. Orville J. Rhodes, and 2/Lt. Charles H. Davidson and Sgt. John J. McKenna.

Smart had been granted permission from Col. Strauss to leave the formation and fly to Saidor. He left with four other planes piloted by 1/Lts. Donald J. McGibbon and Robert J. Findley, and 2/Lts. Robert C. Smith and James L. Knarr.
James Knarr Landing
Knarr landing his plane at Gusap in April 1944.

As they flew, the weather improved and Smart, Findley and Knarr decided to fly five miles offshore to avoid enemy ack-ack, while  McGibbon and Smith stayed near the coastline. At 1730, McGibbon heard Smart contacting a Catalina about ditching. As Smart descended, Smith noted that the propellers were working and thought Smart wanted to ditch while he could still control his plane. Smart and Music made it out of the plane safely, McGibbon and Findley radioed Smart’s position to Saidor and two PT boats that seemed to be on their way to the ditching site. Feeling confident that Smart and his gunner would soon be in good hands, the remaining crews flew off to Saidor. The next day, there was still no sign of Smart or Music. The four planes flew over the ditching site and saw the submerged plane, but neither crew member. Their fate is still a mystery.

To be continued in part two