Combat aircraft are a little like racehorses…they can only go around the track a certain amount of times before they are worn out. An airplane that has attained an advanced state of decrepitude, such that it is no longer considered safe for combat missions is considered to be “war weary.” In the Southwest Pacific Theater of operations, consignment of worn out aircraft to the boneyard was an unaffordable luxury in 1944. For utility was still to be squeezed out of an airplane which could still wheeze down the runway and struggle into the air, and enough optimists could be found to fly her.
In the painting, a war weary B-25D with over 100 combat missions to its credit, WOLF PACK, retired to utility flights by the 498th Bomb Squadron, 345th Bomb Group, drops into the Ramu River valley in the jungles of western New Guinea, September 11, 1944, after losing an engine. The B-25 was unable to maintain level flight on the remaining engine, so a controlled crash-landing in the valley, an area known to be inhabited by cannibals, became a necessity. Pilot Lt. John Fabale, and co-pilot Lt. Harrison Beardsley managed to land in a swamp without any injuries to themselves or the crew.
After a five-day odyssey through the jungle, the crew arrived at an Allied jungle outpost, whereupon they were airlifted the rest of the way out by L-5 Stinson liaison aircraft. Many aircraft and their crew simply vanished into the jungle of New Guinea, never to be seen again, as the weather and the uncertainties of flight in aircraft which have mechanical failure as a recurring theme, took their toll on optimist and pessimist alike.
On March 8, 1943, a 65th Bomb Squadron, 43rd Bomb Group B-17 named THE OLD MAN was on a long-range photo-recco mission over Gasmata airstrip on New Britain when it was jumped by three Zeros. The battle was on. One Zero pilot shot several bursts into the nose of the aircraft, wounding pilot Melville “Dutch” Ehlers. Bombardier Thomas Lloyd “Breezy” Boren released four 500-pound bombs and the long-range bomb bay auxiliary fuel tank to lighten the craft as they frantically clawed to gain airspeed. They limped back to the Dobudura airfield complex, on the north side of Papua New Guinea, and the crew (also including co-pilot Joseph “Indian” Cochran, navigator Warren “Doc” Bryant, engineer Willard R. Madison, gunner David J. Eckholt, radioman William A. Boly, ball gunner Michael R. Andrade, tail gunner Joseph Ferriola, and photographer Leonard Williams) was credited with five aircraft destroyed. This artwork is published in our book Ken’s Men Against the Empire Volume I and is available for purchase on our website.
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1. The Fight for Mindoro As a result of some great comments from a prior post (see #4 on this list), we delved into further detail about a harrowing mission on December 24, 1944.
On the Philippine island of Luzon, elements of the 312th Bombardment Group, nicknamed the Roarin’ 20’s, sweep across Japanese-occupied Clark Field near Manila on January 14, 1945. The attack was executed in a line abreast formation at 100 feet or less above the airfield complex. First lieutenant Wilbur L. Cleveland of the 387th Bomb Squadron, flying an A-20G sporting a winning poker hand with the face of Batman’s nemesis, “the Joker,” narrowly avoids colliding with the squadron commanding officer, Capt. John C. Alsup, in his fatally damaged A-20. A burst of flak had just exploded in the bomb bay of Alsup’s A-20, causing it to nose up and burst into flames. It then crashed into the target, killing him and his gunner, Cpl. Oscar C. Rush. The third plane was flown by 1/Lt. Ormonde J. Frison of the 386th Squadron. Clark Field was the most important and heavily defended Japanese airfield on Luzon, and the low-level attacks were key to neutralizing Japanese airpower on the island during the critical week of the American amphibious landing at nearby Lingayen Gulf. This artwork is published in our book Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s.
On the night of December 26, 1944, this radar-equipped B-24M night intruder, piloted by Lt. Samuel L. Flinner of the 63rd Bomb Squadron, 43rd Bomb Group attacked and immobilized the Imperial Japanese Navy Yugumo-class destroyer, Kiyoshimo, off the Philippine island of Mindoro, where it was left behind and sunk by a PT boat. Leaving Tacloban, they had been informed that a Japanese task force might try to retake the area so orders were given to try to locate it. After departure, they skirted a squall line only to find that Mindoro’s night sky was being lit up by shelling and flares. Scouts for ships with radar produced several targets. While being showered with heavy tracers and antiaircraft fire, a low altitude bomb run at 1000 feet was made on a vessel that was three miles off shore. All three of their bombs produced large explosions. After the run on the ship, the B-24 became the center of attention for the Japanese as it dove to the deck in a hard turn. Two shells hit the plane, one in the tail turret, injuring the tail gunner, and another exploded in the midsection behind the waist gunner, cutting the rudder cables. Splicing the cables together, they flew back through the squall line to Tacloban and circled until daylight to land. A ground inspection revealed over 200 holes. Lieutenant Flinner accumulated 24 missions and 412 combat hours. He and his crew were given credit for the kill. This artwork will be published in our next book Ken’s Men Against the Empire Volume II.
Buy your copy of this dramatic artwork by aviation artist Jack Fellows on our website.
The crewmen of the 500th Bomb Squadron B-25D-1 TONDELAYO fight for their lives over St. Georges Channel, near Rabaul, New Britain on October 18, 1943 while under a determined attack by Japanese fighters. The pilot, 1/Lt. Ralph G. Wallace would emerge victorious from an epic struggle to fend off Japanese Zeroes from 201 and 204 Kokutai while keeping his aircraft aloft with only one of its two engines functioning. Beyond TONDELAYO, a Zero crashes into the water having misjudged a low-level pass against the fleeing Mitchell bomber. Flight leader Capt. Lyle “Rip” Anacker in SNAFU can be seen on Wallace’s left wing and to his left, in the far right of the painting is 1/Lt. Harlan H. Peterson, flying SORRY SATCHUL. Both of these bombers were shot down in this encounter and survivors of Peterson’s crew were machine-gunned in the water by the Japanese.
After what seemed to be an eternity, Wallace’s crew in TONDELAYO managed to fight their way clear of their tormentors and eventually landed at Kiriwina Island, in the Trobriands Group. TONDELAYO, with dozens of bullet holes, would return to combat only after seven months of repair. In the end all 17 crewmen of the three 500th Bomb Squadron B-25s were awarded the Silver Star for valor. The 500th Squadron received a Distinguished Unit Citation for the mission. Col. Clinton True, C.O. of the 345th Bomb Group and leader of this mission, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for valor. This artwork is published in our book Warpath Across the Pacific.
Babo Airdrome was a key base for Japanese operations on the Vogelkop Peninsula of Dutch New Guinea. Lieutenant General George C. Kenney, commander of Fifth Air Force, hoped that this attack would catch Babo’s aircraft on the ground, but with about fifty antiaircraft positions, the Japanese base was still a formidable challenge for any attacker, especially at low level. On July 9, 1944, Col. Strauss led 24 A-20s from the 388th and 389th Squadrons against Babo. The surprise attack was highly successful, but it came at a steep price to the 389th: five men and three aircraft.
One flight leader, 1/Lt. Kenneth I. Hedges, shown here in THE QUEEN OF SPADES, lost both of his wingmen on this raid. On his left wing, at the upper right in the painting, was 1/Lt. Earl G. Hill, with his gunner Sgt. Ray Glacken. Their A-20 is shown on fire before beginning a fatal descent. A short time later, the wing spar burned through and the plane plummeted into Bentoni Bay. The explosion on the ground at the upper left shows the A-20G of 1/Lt. Walter H. Van and his gunner, S/Sgt. Gilbert V. Cooper, exploding on a taxiway on the airdrome, a victim of the antiaircraft gunners. This artwork is published in our book Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s.
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.
On April 6, 1945, 1/Lt. Francis A. Thompson, a pilot in the 499th Bomb Squadron, 345th Bomb Group, is seen diving his bat-nosed North American B-25J Mitchell, #44-29600, toward an IJN Kaiboken-class frigate, Coast Defense Vessel No. 134, in the Formosa Strait 30 miles southwest of Amoy, China. The warship was one of three destroyed that day by the 345th in a furious battle conducted at mast height. These ships were some of the last survivors from a major convoy of 17 ships that left Singapore on March 19th bound for Japan. Over several days, the 345th was responsible for sinking 10 ships in the convoy for the loss of four B-25s and 22 crewmen. Submarines sank the rest.
Thompson, piloting one of 24 B-25s on this mission, only managed to conduct a strafing run in this low altitude assault. He was crowded out by his wingman who scored a near miss and did probable damage to the frigate’s stern, and by the explosion of a delay-fuse 500-pound bomb that had been dropped by the flight leader. Here Thompson is seen pulling out of the explosion—a harrowing example of the dangerous missions that over the course of the war took the lives of hundreds of men from the four squadrons of the 345th. This artwork is published in our book Warpath Across the Pacific. It is also sold as a print on our website. Buy yours today.
Regardless of which is the mightier, both the sword and the pen were in the air over the busy Japanese-occupied harbor at Rabaul on the day that history records as “Bloody Tuesday,” November 2, 1943. Former child actor and now Hearst International News Service (INS) correspondent, Lee Van Atta had become known in Fifth Air Force as a daring reporter who, like Ernie Pyle and others, liked to be in the thick of the action to get a better feel for what he would report via INS. Sitting in the navigator’s seat directly behind pilot Capt. Richard “Dick” Ellis, with Lt. John Dean, co-pilot to Ellis’ right, young Lee Van Atta rode out the storm of fire and destruction over Simpson Harbor in a B-25D strafer nicknamed “SEABISCUIT” to write his stirring account of the battle on the return trip from Rabaul.
This was not the first trip to Rabaul for Van Atta; on October 12th he rode behind command pilot Major John “Jock” Henebry and co-pilot Lt. Edward Murphy in Henebry’s B-25D strafer nicknamed NOTRE DAME DE VICTOIRE. The October 12th mission pitted Henebry’s aircraft against the persistent Japanese antiaircraft gun crews defending the airfields at the Rabaul area airfields at Rapopo and Vunakanau, whereupon he had written an equally-stirring account of the battle. NOTRE DAME DE VICTOIRE was lost on the November 2nd mission but all of Henebry’s crew was rescued by a PT boat off Kiriwina Island in the Trobriands.
In the picture, 90th Bomb Squadron, 3rd Bomb Group pilot Ellis, with Van Atta seated just behind him, has loosed a 1000-pound bomb on a Japanese merchant ship. In the background, 90th Bomb Squadron pilot Chuck Howe’s B-25, nicknamed HERE’S HOWE, can be seen running the gauntlet of antiaircraft fire as well. On the return trip, Howe escorted Henebry’s crippled aircraft to a safe ditching off Kiriwina Island. On November 2, 1943, Fifth Air Force lost eight B-25s (11% of the attacking Mitchells) and nine P-38s in exchange for claims of 15 enemy ships sunk and 22 others damaged. In addition, the P-38s claimed a combined 67 Japanese fighters shot down and another 23 probably destroyed. In the background, the town of Rabaul has been set ablaze by phosphorous bombs dropped to screen the attack on the harbor from the heavy antiaircraft defenses.
The Sword and the Pen is available for purchase on our website and sent directly from the artist.