The Same Places, 70+ Years Apart—Five More WWII Bases Then and Now

Port Moresby

The town that would later become the capital city of Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby, was a major staging base for the Allies during World War II. Port Moresby’s air fields, named for their distance from the city, included: 3 Mile (Kila Kila), 5 Mile (Ward), 7 Mile (Jackson), 12 Mile (Berry), 14 Mile (Schwimmer), and 17 Mile (Durand). It was crucial for the Allies to hold onto this territory, as it was the last piece of land between the Japanese to the north and Australia to the south. The city’s occupants were subject to many Japanese bombing raids until September 1943. Postwar, Port Moresby transformed from an Australian territory to the Papua New Guinea capital in 1975. Today, all that remains of World War II are artifacts and steel matting from the runways.

Port Moresby then and now

Click to enlarge. In the photo on the left, taken from Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s, is the Port Moresby complex as it appeared in December 1942. At right is Port Moresby today, taken from Google Maps.

Floridablanca

Translated from Spanish as “white flower,” Floridablanca was settled as a Spanish mission in 1823. Not much is known about the area’s history, but it was taken over by the Japanese during World War II, then liberated once the Allies moved that far north. The 312th Bomb Group and 348th Fighter Group both used the air base on Floridablanca for a short time. The Philippine Air Force now uses the base and it has been renamed Basa Air Base.

Floridablanca

Click to enlarge. In the photo on the left, taken from Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s, is Floridablanca as it appeared in 1946. At right is Floridablanca today, taken from Google Maps.

 

Owi Island

Owi’s only inhabitants before World War II consisted of two families, one at each end of the small island. Shortly after the arrival of Allied forces in 1944, the natives left. It took about three weeks to build the airstrip, which consisted of coral, a difficult surface to land on when it was wet. Owi was used between June and November 1944, then abandoned as U.S. forces pushed north. Traces of the runway can still be seen today.

Owi then and now

Click to enlarge. In the photo at the top, taken from an upcoming book, is Owi Island as it appeared in August 1944. Above is Owi Island today, taken from Google Maps.

Finschhafen

In 1885, Finschhafen was settled by the German New Guinea Company. About 15 years later, it was abandoned after disease spread rapidly among the settlers and resulted in the failure of two different colonization attempts. At some point before World War II started, Lutherans built a mission station on Finschhafen. The Japanese took over the area on March 10, 1942 and held it until Australian forces moved in and captured Finschhafen on October 2, 1943. Allied forces expanded the base and used it until the end of the war. After the war ended, a huge hole was dug and much of the leftover equipment was buried. These days, Finschhafen is a quiet location.

Finschhafen then and now

Click to enlarge. In the undated photo at the top is Finschhafen sometime around World War II. Above is Finschhafen today, taken from Google Maps.

Gusap

Previously uninhabited, Gusap was built up into an eight-runway airfield by U.S. Army engineers. It was used from October 1943 to July 1944 by several units that included the 49th Fighter Group and 312th Bomb Group. This location was ideal for staging missions by fighters and light bombers. After the war was over, remaining aircraft were scrapped. Today, only one of the eight strips is still being used by aircraft and is noted by the balloon in the right image. The rest of the area has been turned into a cattle ranch. With the radical transformation of Gusap, the exact location of the airfields seen in the left image has become unknowable.

Gusap then and now

Click to enlarge. In the top photo, taken from Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s, is part of Gusap’s airfields as they appeared in December 1943. Above is Gusap today, taken from Google Maps.

 

Sources and additional reading:

https://www.pacificwrecks.com/provinces/png_port_moresby.html

https://www.britannica.com/place/Port-Moresby

https://www.pacificwrecks.com/airfields/philippines/floridablanca/index.html

http://en.wikipilipinas.org/index.php/Floridablanca,_Pampanga

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Owi_Airfield

https://www.pacificwrecks.com/airfields/indonesia/owi/index.html

https://www.pacificwrecks.com/provinces/png_finschafen.html

http://engineersvietnam.com/engineers/WWII/owi.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finschhafen

http://www.lonelyplanet.com/papua-new-guinea/morobe-and-madang-provinces/finschhafen-area/introduction

https://www.britannica.com/place/Finschhafen

https://www.pacificwrecks.com/airfields/png/gusap/index.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gusap_Airport

Surprise over Gusap

Today’s post comes from the diary of Capt. Albert L. Behrens, a pilot in the 822nd Bomb Squadron.

November 15, 1943

Strike! Wewak. About 85 B-25’s were to participate in this raid. We left at 8 AM to pick up fighter escort over Gusap and then to Wewak. I was flying #3 position in the last element. We arrived at Gusap and started circling at 9000 feet. I heard a terrific explosion in the navigation compartment and smelled odors of cordite and gasoline. I turned around and thru the smoke Pete came up holding his hands in front of him – he had been hit bad. Both wrists were cut to the bone and blood was gushing out. Norb called Brownie to come forward and then he got out of the co-pilot’s seat to give first aid to Pete. I now had fallen out of formation and with the gas fumes in the plane, it was an extreme fire hazard and with 21 HE shells and four 500 pounders aboard, we would be dead ducks.

I told the crew to prepare to bail out and stand by. Pete was being well taken care of by now.  I found that my throttles were gone and the manifold pressure was at 35 inches. The props ran away.  I knew I had to land so I started to let down to Gusap and to my horror I saw it being bombed by the Nips. Fires were burning fiercely and one C47 was hit. I decided to try to get first aid anyway and prepared to land. I dropped my wheels but they only came out of the nacelles and hung there limply. We tried the auxiliary hand pump, but that was shot away too. We used the emergency system and that too was gone.

I noticed a huge hole in my right wing thru the main gas tank. We were losing gas by the 10’s of gallons. I knew we couldn’t land at Gusap. Nadzab was only 50 miles away so we started out hoping the engines and gas would hold out and that we wouldn’t get jumped. I hopped from cloud to cloud for as much protection as possible. We came to Nadzab (we salvoed our bombs in the river) and flew over the field winking our red light to notify those that we had wounded on board.

I swung around and out to make a straight approach about 10 miles long. Brownie was in back and he, at my word, cranked down all the flaps and came forward for the crash. We had put Pete in the co-pilot’s seat and strapped him in and put cushions in front of him. I couldn’t decrease my throttles so when I was sure I could make the field I feathered both engines, cut the switches and slowly let down – we had opened our escape hatch over our heads on our approach so that we wouldn’t be jammed in. The crash and noise that followed was beyond description.

The plane slid sideways down the field and came to a stop in a cloud of dust and a terrific odor of gasoline. Norb went out first – Brownie next, Shorty after him and then I helped lift Pete out and then got out myself and started to run as fast as I could away from that fire trap. It took 5 of us between 3 and 5 seconds to get out and away. Pete was taken to the hospital right away. I stood by the operations shack. A Red Alert had just sounded. I was shaking all over now. The plane didn’t catch fire but just sat there pouring out gas and oil.

It was a sorry looking airplane. Both engines were torn off and lay about 300 yards down the runway. One main gear came off and was between the engines and plane. The nose had broken open and both nacelles ripped wide open. Hardly anything to salvage. We went to see Pete and he had quite a bit of shrapnel in both arms and his left leg.  They had given him some morphine and he was getting groggy.

They moved him to another hospital so I went out to the plane and got out our personal stuff. I dispatched a message to my Base telling them our situation. We ate and then were fortunate enough to catch a ride back to Moresby in a C47 (which had a single engine failure on the way). No one was hurt in the landing – except for a few bruises and bumps.

What a relief to get back to our own outfit. I washed and went to church and then to bed. I forgot to mention that we were hit from forward and below by machine gun slugs and two 20 mm explosive shells. No one but my gunner saw the plane and he identified it as a P-40 or P-39. I don’t know what it was. I never saw it.

Note from IHRA: The official combat narrative refers to the plane as ‘a SSF [single seat fighter], thought to be a Tony [Allied nickname for the Ki-61 Hein].’ There is no way of knowing for certain which fighter hit Capt. Behren’s B-25. However, eight P-40s from the 8th Fighter Group are known to have engaged Japanese aircraft near Gusap, and one of the P-40 pilots briefly fired on Allied B-25s (mistaking them for Ki-49s, or ‘Helens’) during the engagement.

The Jinx of the 389th

Throughout February, the 312th air echelon was completing training at Port Moresby. The ground echelon kept busy at Gusap by trying to win the drainage battles and building roads and showers at the base. Once the rainy season ended, the Group succeeded in its drainage projects, constructed buildings and sidewalks, and remodeled the quarters. The men also planted vegetable and flower gardens. The 386th and 387th enlisted men decided to build clubs for their respective squadrons. The Group formed a baseball league and a friendly rivalry between the teams of officers and enlisted men, which gave the men another form of entertainment in their down time. Finally, life at Gusap was improving.
The 312th Baseball League

Officers and enlisted men of the 312th play a friendly game of baseball.

The men never forgot they were in a war. The return of the air echelon to Gusap was staggered with the 387th arriving on March 7th, the 389th on the 11th and the 388th returning on the 27th. Not long after each squadron arrived came the first taste of combat. The 387th Squadron flew its first combat mission on March 8th, the 389th on the 13th and the 388th on the 29th. March was a difficult month for the 389th Squadron with the loss of four crews. On the 13th, nine planes from the 389th flew a mission to Alexishafen. Maj. Wells led the mission and was hit by antiaircraft fire during the attack, but was able to ditch in the ocean. Col. Strauss left Lt. Hedges to lead the rest of the formation home while he circled over Wells and his gunner, S/Sgt. Jack W. Bachelder. After the two were picked up by a PBY Catalina, Strauss flew back to Gusap.

The seven remaining A-20s flew into bad weather on their way back to Gusap. Hedges was running low on fuel and figured the safest thing to do would be to cross the Finnesterre Mountains and glide into Gusap if necessary. When there was a break in the clouds, Hedges saw three other planes instead of six.

2/Lt. Calvin Slade was a pilot in one of the remaining planes, but he was having trouble keeping his position in the bad weather and decided to leave the formation and turn back. Relying on his instruments, Slade flew to the ocean where the cloud bank ended. From there, he followed the coastline and eventually found his way to the Ramu River and Gusap. The three missing A-20s never made it back.

The next day, the Squadron began looking for the missing crews or plane wreckage but could not find either. The searched continued for a week before the Squadron gave up. The men thought the crews had either run out of fuel or crashed into the mountains. Nearly 40 years later, the aircraft belonging to 2/Lt. Henry J. Miar and gunner S/Sgt. Harley A. Spear was discovered in the Finnesterre Mountains near Saidor. Over the next few years, searchers found the other two planes flown by 2/Lt. Valerie L. Pollard and gunner Sgt. Dominick J. Licari and 2/Lt. Carl H. Hansen and gunner Sgt. Ernest Bustamante. They had flown in formation into the mountains.

A-20 Wreckage

The tail section of A-20 #42-54117.

The fourth loss occurred March 22nd when the 389th was flying to Valif Island for another mission. As pilots were maneuvering to avoid being hit by antiaircraft fire, the formation approached the tree-lined coast. 1/Lt. Cyril J. Karsnia’s aircraft clipped a palm tree, flipped over, crashed and exploded on the ground. He and his gunner, Cpl. James B. Caldwell, did not survive. With this accident came the question, was the 389th was jinxed? A quarter of the Squadron’s strength was lost in less than two weeks.

Lts. Edgar Hambleton and Kenneth Hedges put a stop to those thoughts with their narrow escapes. During a mission to Wom Point on March 25th, the 389th was bombing and strafing when an explosion occurred in front of Hamblelton’s plane. Debris from the explosion shattered the windscreen and a piece of glass hit Hambleton’s face. The shard was found to be part of a 500-pound bomb. Hambleton credited wearing his helmet and goggles on every mission for saving his vision and possibly his life.

Two days after Hambleton’s close call, the 389th was once again on a mission to Wom Point. Hedges dove down on his target, but miscalculated his pullout and slammed the rear of his A-20 into the ground while trying to escape a disastrous wreck. While pulling up, Hedges clipped a coconut tree with one wing. The collision ripped off one bomb bay door and left the other attached by the rear hinge, banging against the fuselage. Because the plane was in such poor shape, Hedges told his gunner, S/Sgt. Thomas A. Donovan, to prepare for a water landing. This was aborted when the other bomb bay door fell off and the plane gained some altitude. The new problem was coconut leaves getting stuck in the starboard engine, causing it to overheat. Hedges was able to keep the engine temperature in the “green” zone by continuously changing the power setting, and the plane limped back to Gusap.

Hedges had sent various radio transmissions about his status, and by the time he got to the runway, people had lined up to watch his landing. After he landed, he applied the brakes very hard and caused the landing gear to lock. The plane was damaged beyond repair and became a source for spare parts. Many of the men were amazed that the plane had made it back to Gusap. These two experiences banished the thought of a jinx on the 389th.
Damaged Wing

Lt. Kenneth Hedges poses with his plane back at Gusap after hitting a tree on a mission to Wom Point.

Gusap and the Arrival of the Havoc

On December 28, 1943, the 312th ground echelon made its way to Gusap to rejoin the rest of the Group. They arrived at the beginning of the rainy season when razor-sharp kunai grass grew up to ten feet tall, insects, rats and snakes roamed freely, and the soil turned into thick mud with all the rain. The men spent countless hours digging ditches to drain the water from the camp. The 386th Squadron started calling themselves “The 386th Engineers” to try and lighten the mood while doing the hard labor. The Group had trouble getting sanitary water, which meant drinking chlorinated water from Lister bags and washing clothes in the muddy Ramu River. On top of that, skin fungus and malaria were two of the many illnesses the 312th had to contend with.They did manage to have fun by playing sports like basketball and volleyball; they also gambled.

With the new year came sporadic attacks by the Japanese on Nadzab and Gusap. Most of the raids prior to January 15th were not taken very seriously. In the past, the Japanese would strafe the base and not cause very much damage. However, on the 15th, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on Nadzab and Gusap in hopes of discouraging the Allies from finishing the base at Nadzab and gaining reinforcements. Early that morning, various aircraft from 68, 78 and 248 Sentai took off from Wewak in poor weather. The pilots from 68 and 78 Sentai focused on shooting up parked C-47s and P-47s on two of the runways at Nadzab. The Allies got to their antiaircraft guns shortly afterwards and chased off the attackers, who flew on to Boram where they damaged four P-47s and three C-47s. Back at Gusap, the 312th was getting ready for breakfast when eight Oscars from 248 Sentai started strafing the base. There was no alert, so the men jumped into their waterlogged foxholes and hoped they would not be hit by the shells. None of the Group’s P-40s were damaged, but it was the last time the men took an air raid lightly. Shrapnel and fragments from bombs and exploding ack-ack shells raining down on the tents convinced them of that.

Throughout January 1944, the 312th started transition training at Port Moresby on the A-20 Havoc. Pilots received two-engine training on B-25D Mitchells before they got in the cockpit of the A-20s. They learned about two features of the plane that could possibly kill the pilot: the vertical stabilizer being in line with the pilot’s bail out path and the engines’ placement behind the cockpit. The gunners did not have to worry about this because they could escape through the bottom hatch. The A-20G could carry 4000 pounds of bombs, had nine .50-caliber machine guns and was built with a solid nose.

A-20

Two of the 312th’s A-20s at Durand Airdrome.

The 386th Squadron was the first to train and fly the A-20. The planes arrived from the U.S. by ship and were assembled in Townsville, Australia. Pilots flew to Townsville in a C-47 and would fly back to Port Moresby in their new planes. Of course there was always the occasional adventure while flying back from Townsville.

On January 19th, 1/Lt. John M. Huber, 2/Lt. Eliot R. Young and their gunners, Thomas Smith and James Wannich, respectively, were flying to Horn Island when they became separated from the rest of the formation. Due to an error in navigation, the pilots became lost. They force-landed on Mornington Island, which happened to be 450 miles to the south of Horn Island.
A-20 on the beach

Lt. John Huber’s A-20 stuck in the sand after landing on Mornington Island.

They spent ten days there waiting for help and surviving the elements. A PBY Catalina on patrol spotted the four men on January 28th, picked them up and flew them to Karumba, where they spent the next three weeks recovering from their ordeal. They knew they were lucky to be alive. Throughout the 312th’s stay at Port Moresby, there were several fatalities. 2/Lt. Chester B. Rimer was practicing a bombing run on February 4th when his plane spiraled into the sea with Pvt. Stanley J. Monroe, PFC Morlan B. Priebe and Cpl. Mitchell P. Iler aboard as passengers. On the 22nd, the 388th’s B-25 AVAILABLE JONES disappeared with 1/Lt. Anthony Hartley, 1/Lt. George K. Nichols, Sgt. Claude O. Langlinais, Capt. Samuel D. Perry, 1/Lt. Henry E. Felix, 2/Lt. Leo W. Tiberghien and 2/Lt. Hugh H. Eaton on board. The 388th lost three more members on March 26th when an A-20 carrying 1/Lt. John W. Hoover, Sgt. Warren E. Pelissier and S/Sgt. Louis E. Lawson crashed not long after taking off in a thunderstorm.

The 386th also got to be the first squadron of the Group to take the A-20s into combat. The Squadron flew a mission to Alexishafen on February 25th to take out the Japanese antiaircraft positions.
Alexishafen

Alexishafen before it was destroyed by Allied bombings.

The mission was a success. Three days later, they wrote off their first A-20, O’RILEY’S DAUGHTER, after the pilot forgot to lower the landing gear, which damaged the plane beyond repair. It wasn’t long before the rest of the squadrons would join the 386th in their new A-20s.

The 312th in Australia and Beyond

For nearly three weeks, the 312th called the S.S. Nieuw Amsterdam home. This ship was originally a Holland-America luxury liner that carried 800 passengers from Southampton to New York in six days. When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, the Nieuw Amsterdam was sent to Nova Scotia and turned into a troop ship.

The S.S. Nieuw Amsterdam

The S.S. Nieuw Amsterdam would take the 312th to Australia.

The 312th was crammed aboard this ship with a Dutch crew of 600 and over 7000 other men. Officers slept in staterooms, and the enlisted men slept wherever they could– on deck, below in hammocks, or on mattresses. Life on the ship consisted of two meals a day, a news broadcast, playing poker, reading, and whatever other activities the men could think of. There were occasional life boat drills and heated discussions as well. On November 19th, 1943, after a two month journey, the Nieuw Amsterdam docked in Sydney, Australia.
Once the 312th reached Sydney, they were taken to the tent camp Warwick Farms Racetrack, where they stayed for two days. On the 21st, half of the Group traveled to Brisbane, 600 miles to the north. There they waited for a couple of days before the other half of the Group joined them at Camp Moorooka. The men had to get used to spring weather (since they left autumn behind in the norther hemisphere), driving on the opposite side of the road in the right side of a vehicle, beer being served at room temperature, and the conversion between the American dollar and Australian pound.
About the same time the 312th made it to Australia, the unassembled P-40Ns made it to Archerfield, the main airport in Brisbane.

ANN III

Richard A. Wilson of the 386th Squadron in his P-40N at Gusap.

The 312th relocated to Archerfield because they would be flying these planes to New Guinea. The N model was a lighter, faster version of the P-40 that was good to fly for fun as well as for combat. It also had smaller, lighter undercarriage wheels, head armor, four wing-mounted guns and aluminum radiators and oil coolers. The 386th Squadron was the first of the Group to receive this plane, and they wasted no time becoming proficient in flying the P-40s. On December 10th, the Squadron set off for Gusap. They reached their destination on the 13th without incident.
Meanwhile, the 389th had arranged to share P-40s with the 49th Fighter Group. They left Brisbane by rail to Townsville, where they climbed aboard a C-47 bound for Port Moresby and arrived there on the 13th. While flying with the 49th, the men learned patrol and escort mission procedures, practiced their dive-bombing skills and experienced antiaircraft fire on fighter sweeps to Finschhafen.
By the end of 1943, the Group was reassigned from dive-bombing to light bombardment. This became official on December 21st, but the Squadrons got these orders over several weeks. The 386th transferred on the 21st, the 387th on the 27th, followed by the 388th and 389th on January 8, 1944. During this change, the Group would keep flying the P-40s until they got new planes.
The ground echelon was still at Camp Moorooka in November, and they prepared for the journey to Port Moresby. After arriving on December 21st, the men realized they were in a war zone with the half-submerged S.S. Macdhui (bombed by the Japanese in June 1942) as a constant reminder. The men got settled at Seventeen Mile, also called Durand, Airdrome, a drier section of New Guinea, located away from the rain belt of the Owen Stanley Mountains. Durand Airdrome

Durand Airdrome.

Even though they were in a drier area, the men still had to take precautions against malaria by taking Atabrine tablets on a regular basis. Living conditions were fairly rustic and the men would bathe by pouring water into their helmets and then washing and rinsing with the same water. The ground echelon wouldn’t join the air echelon at Gusap until the very end of December 1943.