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 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.