Finding the Lost Ships

Since 2017, R/V Petrel’s team has been locating wreckage of Japanese and American ships that were sunk during World War II. To date, 23 ships have been discovered, the most recent of which is the USS Hornet, the aircraft carrier from which the Doolittle Raid began. A reporter from CBS This Morning tagged along on the hunt for the USS Hornet, giving us an idea about the process behind finding one of these ships.

Part 1:

Part 2:

 

Want to read more about the work of the R/V Petrel team? Read this captivating article on the discovery of the USS Wasp.

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Close Call over Astrolabe Bay

In a diary entry, William M. Ahl of the 63rd Squadron, 43rd Bomb Group recounted a particularly tense mission to Astrolabe Bay on December 18, 1942.

 

Friday, December 18, 1942
No missions flown as yet still there is something in the wind. A large Japanese convoy is to be approaching New Guinea northwest of Madang. We are sitting and waiting patiently knowing full well we will be called upon to go after it. All available bombers in Australia have been sent for by the Fifth Bomber Command.

Everything was quiet last night. It seems as though the nips dislike the moonlit nights.

About eleven a.m. the call came by for everyone to come to operations, that is pilot, navigator, and bombardier report to operations, the rest of the crew reports to the airplane and prepares it for take off.

The convoy had been sighted by a reconn ship about two hundred miles west and north of Madang. It was heading for Madang. All the airplane commanders were given necessary information and the navigators were given the position 02-05S 145-12E to work out an interception. We had six airplanes on flying status. [Capt. Folmer J.] Sogaard took off about twelve-thirty the others close behind. We gave Lae a wide skirt and took a direct course to the assumed position of the convoy. A sort of extended search was made after clearing the mountains at sixteen thousand feet. We were first to sight the convoy at three p.m. There were seven ships (two transports, four destroyers, and one light cruiser). Our buddy, [Lt. James T.] Murphy wasn’t in sight and our common radio was not working. The radio part proved to be our down fall later.

B-17 crew of Folmer J Sogaard

The crew of Capt. Folmer J. Sogaard had an almost-fatal encounter with five Zero fighters protecting a convoy over Astrolabe Bay on December 18, 1942. They were saved by Lt. James T. Murphy and crew, who flew close to Sogaard’s bomber, FIGHTIN SWEDE, and guarded it from the intercepting Zeros. Sogaard had done a similar favor for Murphy’s crew earlier that month. The crewmembers pictured are, kneeling, left to right: Capt. Folmer J. Sogaard, pilot; 1/Lt. William E. Ward, co-pilot; Capt. William M. Ahl, navigator; Capt. Marlin W. Ditchey, bombardier; and standing: T/Sgt. Charles E. Green, engineer; Sgt. Charles C. Haftman, assistant radio operator; Sgt. John F. Frazee, assistant engineer; Sgt. Dale W. Allton, gunner; and an unidentified man. Ditchey was not a regular bombardier with the Sogaard crew, but was assigned with them when this photo was taken in mid-April 1943. (Lloyd Anderson Collection)

While I was checking the position of the convoy, it happened, five Zeros came screaming out of the sun. Murphy, who saw us, tried to tell Sogaard on command but wasn’t heard. I was still gazing at the charts when Lindsay started firing the fifty caliber over my table. I took over for him. His thirty cal. was out and the right fifty caliber jammed. The Zeros shot out our no. 1 engine and oil started spraying out. They made one more pass at us but Murphy came diving down to protect us. I shudder to think what would have happened had he not come in guns chattering and drove them off. With one engine out and our bomb load were losing altitude. Bill Lindsay salvoed the 8 – 500 lb bombs. That helped a bit but Sogaard ordered us to throw ammunition overboard to lighten our load. We lost forty gallons of oil from No. 1. One of the Jap slugs hit our prop hub preventing the feathering of the engine. Thusly the flat blades were making resistance to the air and our speed was cut way down. Murphy protected us all the way back to Seven Mile but we weren’t attacked again. We limped along climbing to sixteen thousand feet at one twenty mph. We landed at six PM and were interrogated by the I.O. We inspected our airplane on the ground. It had thirty holes in it.

Squadrons of B-17s and B-24s attack the enemy throughout the night, the result being one transport and the light cruiser sunk.

 

Read this story in Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Vol. I.

Repost: The 38th Joins in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea

It’s been 76 years since the Battle of the Bismarck Sea took place. A team effort to keep Japanese ships from reaching their destination led to a fierce multi-day battle that ended in an Allied victory. Below, we follow one bomb group’s participation during part of that battle. This post was first published in March 2017.

 

After spotting a convoy of reinforcements sailing from Rabaul to Lae on March 1, 1943, Fifth Air Force sprang into action as General Kenney ordered the 43rd, 90th, 38th, and 3rd Bomb Groups to sink this convoy before it could reach its destination. The RAAF also joined the fray in their A-20s by raiding the airdrome at Lae to prevent any enemy fighters from taking off, and 30 Squadron Beaufighters also attacked the convoy. Attacks on the Japanese ships began on March 2nd, sinking one transport ship, with the bulk of the strikes taking place on the 3rd.

March 3rd began with the 71st and 405th Squadrons making low-level attacks on the convoy, which, as of that morning, consisted of eight destroyers sheltering seven transports. Although the B-25s were flying through heavy antiaircraft fire, none of them came away heavily damaged. By contrast, many of the ships were left stalled and smoking by the time the two squadrons headed home. This was to be a two-mission day, as the crews were to return to the Bismarck Sea that afternoon after their aircraft were reloaded with bombs and fuel. General Ennis C. Whitehead, the deputy Commander of Fifth Air Force, made a personal appearance at the 38th Bomb Group camp to get a full account of the morning’s events from the men. Back at Rabaul, the Japanese prepared to send additional fighters to aid in the defense of the convoy for the afternoon rematch.

Heading back to the Bismarck Sea, the 38th crews began their search for the convoy. They soon arrived, first encountering two ships dead in the water, then a few more burning away. As Capt. Ezra Best lined up for an attack on a destroyer from medium altitude, gunners on his B-25 GRASS CUTTER began firing at Oscar fighters from 11 Sentai that surprised the 71st Squadron. While there was an exchange of gun fire, it wasn’t as intense compared to the battles at high altitude earlier in the day.

Battle of the Bismarck Sea

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea resulted in the destruction of the Japanese fleet that carried troops to reinforce Lae. The 71st Squadron bombed the convoy from 5000 feet. Pictured here is one of the transports with palls of smoke rising from its decks after the 71stʼs attack. (Brian O’Neill Collection)

Meanwhile, pilots from the 405th Squadron decided to target a cluster of three ships, two of which were still moving. Several bursts of antiaircraft fire were thrown at the incoming B-25s with one exploding right in front of FILTHY LIL, piloted by 1/Lt. Adkins. The plane filled with smoke and the nose was jerked upward by the blast, knocking it out of formation. Briefly, the pilot and co-pilot thought that FILTHY LIL received severe damage and would have to be ditched, but it turned out that the nose only had a small hole. The pilot and co-pilot went off in search of a target, only to come across a destroyed transport with survivors floating in the water. They were strafed by the gunners* until their ammo ran out, then FILTHY LIL turned for home. Co-pilot 1/Lt. John Donegan wrote about his state of mind during the mission: “our destruction was not for mercy: it was simply that to us all Japanese soldiers had become things to be annihilated, not necessarily cruelly, but always thoroughly.”

For the Allies, the Battle of the Bismarck Sea was a resounding success. All eight Japanese transports and four destroyers were sunk. This raid also demonstrated that a relatively new tactic, low-level bombing, was an effective method for attacking enemy ships.

*Note: If you’ve read our previous Bismarck Sea post, you have read about the Japanese shooting at 43rd crewmembers who bailed out of their B-17. We cannot determine if the 38th knew about these events prior to their afternoon mission.

At Great Expense

Limited Edition of 199 Giclee prints, ten Artist’s Proofs, and ten canvas reproductions (same dimensions)

Signed and numbered by the artist

Image Size: 16.5″ x 20.5″

Paper Size: 24″ x 26″

Central to the success of Fifth Air Force during the war in the Southwest Pacific was commanding general George C. Kenney’s mastery of long-range bombing operations. Well before April 1945, the 345th Bomb Group pushed their medium bombers to the limits of their range on minimum-altitude bombing operations, and great pride was taken by all squadrons at the destruction of distant Japanese bases. In April 1945, a number of exposed cargo ships were discovered to be at Saigon, in French Indochina. Medium bomber units from Thirteenth Air Force attempted strikes on the base but turned back before they could reach it, and Kenney, unhappy with the result, assigned the mission to a crack medium bomber group, the 345th, for April 28th.

The Air Apaches’ group commander at the time was Col. Chester Coltharp, who had a reputation for achieving the impossible. Coltharp was to lead the 501st and 499th Bomb Squadrons to bomb and strafe Japanese shipping targets just east of Saigon, about 30 miles up the Dong Nai River. Auxiliary fuel tanks were loaded aboard 15 B-25s at San Marcelino before they were taken south to a staging base at Puerto Princesa, 800 miles east of the Dong Nai. After an early morning departure, two 499th (Bats Outta Hell) B-25s left the formation with mechanical problems, leaving 13 aircraft to finish the strike. Colonel Coltharp, in the 501st B-25 “MY DUCHESS,” led them to landfall at Phan Thiet, about 100 miles WNW of Saigon. The plan was to join up with a P-38 fighter escort, then approach the target from the north and egress downriver, skirting the heavy defenses that protected Saigon. But when Coltharp and the other B-25 pilots made landfall, the P-38s were nowhere to be found. The bombers would have to go in alone.

The primary objective of this anti-shipping strike was a 5800-ton freighter known to be anchored alongside a riverbank studded with flak guns. This ship was attacked by one of the youngest pilots in the 345th Group, 20 year-old 1/Lt. Ralph E. “Peppy” Blount, Jr. who was leading the 501st’s third flight. Blount’s aircraft, B-25J-11 #43-36199, is seen in the foreground having released its 500-pound bombs, one hitting the vessel amidships, another hitting the well deck and detonating, and the third landing long, exploding against the riverbank. Following Blount was his wingman, 2/Lt. Vernon M. Townley, Jr. His aircraft was hit by flak and set afire while approaching the target, but he still managed to line up on the ship and release his ordinance, only to be hit by another flak burst, causing his B-25 to snap-roll over and dive into the ground, killing all aboard. Blount’s #199, also hit by flak, continued to attack target vessels downriver, next shooting up a large sailing vessel, which left a seven-foot long piece of its mast embedded in the horizontal stabilizer. With substantial structural damage to his aircraft, Blount had to struggle for the next five hours to reach Palawan, 750 miles distant, which he did with only a few gallons of fuel left in the tanks. The 501st Bomb Squadron successfully attacked and destroyed the targets assigned to it but at a high price: three B-25s and their crews were lost on this mission. A Distinguished Unit Citation was awarded to the 501st for their bravery.

Additional details about this mission can be found in this post. This painting is published in our book Warpath Across the Pacific. Purchase a copy of this print on our website.

Repost: That Saga-Writing Kavieng Cat Crew

Seventy-five years ago today, a PBY Catalina pilot performed a series of daring rescues. His bravery was the subject of a post back in June 2014 and is being reposted today.

Meet Lt. (J.G.) Nathan Gordon. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for rescuing three aircrews near Kavieng on February 15, 1944. His crew received  high praise for the daring rescues made that day. Admiral Halsey sent a telegram saying, “Please pass my admiration on to that saga writing Kavieng Cat crew.”

Here’s a short video of Gordon talking about how he saved the men. One of the crews that was rescued by the men on his Catalina was the subject of the previous post. Don’t forget to read their story after you watch the video.

Medium Bombardment Attack and Aviation

We’re always glad to see how much video footage from World War II is so easily accessible to us more than 70 years after it was first taken. This film is no exception. It was meant to introduce life in the Pacific Theater to the men who were transferring over from the European Theater. The film focuses on a familiar bomb group: the 345th. After covering some of the basics in the Pacific, there’s some great footage taken from bombing missions that you won’t want to miss.

When Plans Go Awry: A Mission to Palau

It had been more than a month since the 22nd Bomb Group last encountered fighter opposition on a mission. With an eye on the Palau Islands, the Red Raiders were sent to disrupt the Japanese airfields and destroy installations on June 9, 1944, prior to the invasion of the Marianas island chain in the central Pacific later in the month.

The plan was for 26 B-24s to fly from Hollandia to Wakde Island, where their fuel tanks would be topped off, and then they would continue to their target of Peleliu Island. Much to the annoyance of the crews, Murphy’s Law struck several times over the course of the mission and only 11 aircraft completed the mission. Bad weather forced several crews to turn around, others made navigational errors that led them to miss the target completely (they made it back to Wakde safely) and others were unable to make it to the target due to mechanical problems.

As 1/Lt. Dwaine E. Harry of the 408th Squadron approached Peleliu with the other B-24s in his squadron, weather became enough of an issue that Harry had to separate from the formation. He was jumped by several Zeros three miles out from the island. The lone B-24, ISLAND QUEEN, went into a dive, pulling up 20 feet above the water. Aboard the lead Zero, the pilot dropped his wing tanks in hopes of hitting the B-24 below. He missed. A second Zero made a pass at ISLAND QUEEN and the the gunners promptly returned fire, severely damaging the tail section of the Zero. The fight lasted for 25 minutes, then ISLAND QUEEN turned for Hollandia, landing without further incident.

408th Personnel at Nadzab

Two survivors from the B-24 ditched by the Barley crew off the coast of New Guinea on June 9th were photographed shortly after their return to Nadzab. In front of the Squadron intelligence hut were at left, Capt. John N. Barley, pilot; center is Maj. Glenn E. Cole, 408th Squadron C.O., and at right is T/Sgt. Frederick E. Pelegrin, engineer and top turret gunner. (John N. Barley Collection)

Approaching the target area, the remaining B-24s were met by several Zeros. Along with the usual attacks on the B-24s, the Zero pilots dropped phosphorus bombs and something that looked like heavy chains in front of the 22nd’s formation. Every plane was damaged in the fight. Captain John N. Barley’s aircraft was hit in the right inboard wing tanks, the fuselage and the #3 engine. A fire that started in an ammunition box burned some crewmen but it was quickly extinguished. Both waist gunners were wounded by gunfire, and one of them was dead 30 minutes after he had been hit in the forehead and stomach. A cloud bank provided enough cover to duck into and end the fight.

The crews managed to drop their bombs and began the long trip back home through more bad weather. Barley’s plane made a startling dive toward the sea when it was caught in a downdraft, but he and his co-pilot managed to level out before they hit the water. They flew on at a lower altitude, though they were now unsure of their exact position. Keeping an eye out for familiar landmarks, the crew flew along the New Guinea coastline until the B-24’s fuel supply dwindled and daylight waned. Captain Barley made a water landing about a mile and a half from Sissano Lagoon, located about 25 miles up the coast from Tadji. The tail broke off in the ditching, and nine crewmen exited the plane with new injuries from the ditching.

It took four hours for two of Barley’s crewmen to swim to the beach. One man was pushing the other because he was too injured to swim on his own. They met up with pilot and co-pilot, but the other five men were nowhere to be found. A constable from a nearby village found the airmen stranded on the shore. Barley knew he needed to get help for his crew, and asked if there were any American units nearby. The officer was willing to lead him to the nearest Allied presence, which turned out to be about a day’s walk away. They arrived at an Australian outpost, where the American base was contacted and help was promptly dispatched. The waiting crewmembers were rescued. What happened to the other five remains a mystery, although it’s possible that they were captured by the Japanese.

 

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

The Disappearance of Capt Kizzire’s Crew

On the night of November 26th, 1943, the 345th Bomb Group was assigned a raid against Boram Airdrome. Expecting heavy antiaircraft fire, Captain William L. Kizzire and his fellow 498th Bomb Squadron pilot Lt. Melvin Best debated how best to handle a shot-out engine. A B-25 could fly on a single engine if the propeller was feathered, but if it couldn’t be feathered, the drag created by a windmilling prop would keep the B-25 from flying for very long. They decided the best strategy was to fly out to sea and wait for an Allied submarine to pick them up.

The next day, the 498th took the worst of the ack-ack. They were the last over the target, so the antiaircraft gunners had the most time to prepare. As Kizzire led his flight to the Boram coastline, he spotted a wooden ship in the harbor to strafe. A well-aimed shell from a nearby freighter took out the right engine on Kizzire’s B-25 IMPATIENT VIRGIN. Over the radio, Best, his left wingman, heard “God-a-mighty, I can’t feather it.” The oil reservoir used for feathering the propeller was damaged.

In the heat of the moment, Kizzire deviated from the prepared strategy, and instead flew about 35 miles down the coast to a suitable spot to ditch the B-25. He landed in Murik Lake, a lagoon about five feet deep at the mouth of the Sepik River. Everyone climbed out of the aircraft and fellow aircrews circling above dropped supplies to the downed airmen. Back at Bomber Command, Col. Jarred V. Crabb tried to get a Navy Catalina out to rescue the crew. He was unsuccessful.

B-25 Impatient Virgin takes off

B-25D-5 #41-30046, IMPATIENT VIRGIN, seen here taking off, was hit by antiaircraft fire near Wewak on November 27, 1943 and crash-landed into the shallow water of Murik Lagood about 35 miles east of the target. Captain William L. Kizzire of the 498th Bomb Squadron, 345th Bomb Group and his crew reached shore safely but eventually fell into the hands of the Japanese. (Clifford C. Cottam Collection)

Lieutenant Ralph Robinette took off on a search for the crew the next morning with clothes and boots for each man as well as survival items to hold them over until they could be rescued. Kizzire’s navigator, 1/Lt. Joseph W. Carroll, and another crewmember were spotted near the lagoon and the supplies were dropped nearby. Robinette wrote a note telling them to wait by the lagoon for a Catalina and handed it to his co-pilot to drop from the flare shoot, but, in all the excitement, he forgot to do so. After Robinette flew back to Port Moresby, he secured a Catalina and headed back to the lagoon with the crew. Approaching the area, they spotted three flares west of the lagoon. Above the Catalina flew an unwelcome visitor, a Japanese Betty bomber.

Reluctantly, the pilot called off the search in case the pilot of the Betty called in some fighters to attack the Catalina. Around sunrise the next morning, the Catalina returned, the crew aboard fruitlessly searching the area for an hour and a half. About an hour later, another Catalina showed up with a fighter escort, also searching for the downed crew. They were never found. It wasn’t until March 1944 when three names from Kizzire’s crew were mentioned over an unofficial shortwave broadcast in English. These three men were alive and safe after being captured in Wewak. It was the last thing anyone ever heard about the crew.

 

This isn’t the only story from the November 27th raid at Boram. Read another one here.

Targeting Formosa

Throughout the campaign to drive the Japanese back to Japan during World War II, bomb groups would be ordered to fly ground support missions. This typically meant targeting ammo dumps, Japanese troops and supplies, antiaircraft gun locations and flying night harassment missions.The A-20 was an effective tool for these missions due to its ability to pack a punch and its light, maneuverable design.

At the beginning of April 1945, the 312th Bomb Group carried out missions to support Filipino guerrillas as well as the 33rd and 37th Infantry Divisions. In Formosa, the list of prime targets included rail yards and alcohol plants, which produced some dramatic photography. Compared to the earlier missions flown by the 312th, there was relatively little interception from Japanese pilots. As a result, the American pilots attacked various targets with gusto, destroying warehouses, repair facilities and other buildings, and damaging rail yards and alcohol plants. They used 250-pound parafrags and 100-pound napalm bombs, which started large fires that were still smoking when the 312th was 20 miles out from the target area.

Their results caught the eye of General Kenney, who awarded the 312th with a Distinguished Unit Citation for an “outstanding performance” over the cities of Kyoshito, Eiko, Saiatau, Shinei, Banshiden, Tamazato and Suan Tau. Long distance missions like these pushed the A-20 fuel range to its limits and Kenney praised all those involved in the preparation and execution of the missions. He also commended the pilots and gunners for their target accuracy “at roof-top level with a suddenness and fierceness that prevented the Japanese from offering more than feeble opposition to the devastation bombing and strafing runs…”

Rail yards at Shinei, Formosa

The 388th and 389th Squadrons flew the 312th Bomb Group’s fifth mission to Formosa on April 2, 1945. Their targets were the rail yards and the alcohol plant at Shinei, 45 miles northeast of Kyoshito, and 20 miles southeast of Eiko. Major Joseph B. Bilitzke, C.O. of the 388th, led the mission. Nine planes from each unit carried 250-pound parademos and 100-pound napalm bombs. Shinei was a key target for two reasons: the alcohol plant, and the fact that Japanese military supplies entered and exited Shinei by rail.

 

Attack on the Shinei alcohol plant

The 312th Bomb Group’s unsparing attack left the Shinei alcohol plant enshrouded in a thick smoke. (Selmon W. Wells Collection)

 

Attack on the Suan Tau sugar factory

The 312th returned to Formosa on April 4, 1945. This time the target was the Suan Tau sugar factory, west of Kagi. When the 387th, 388th and 389th Squadrons left Suan Tau, the entire factory area was ablaze.