In February 1944, the Allies had their eye on the Japanese-held staging base of Kavieng. This base was an integral part of the Japanese supply line, as supplies were carried from Kavieng to other Japanese bases at Wewak, Rabaul, Hansa Bay, and Alexishafen. It was decided that to capture Kavieng would hold back efforts to recapture the Philippines for too long, so a plan was set to nullify the military strength of the base. There was to be a coordinated attack between the U.S. air and naval powers, with the air raids striking Kavieng first. To complement the attack, carrier aircraft would strike the shipping fleet base at Truk. Afterwards, the Allies would be able to bypass Kavieng. The 345th Bomb Group was to participate in the raid on February 15th. The mission started off poorly when a B-25 from the 499th Squadron lost an engine and crashed in the jungle during takeoff, killing the entire crew. This would not be the only crash on one of the 345th’s most difficult missions during WWII.
From time to time, various ground officers tried to convince pilots to take them on combat missions so they could get a taste of the action. The 498th Squadron Adjutant, Capt. Robert G. Huff, had managed to persuade pilot 1/Lt. Edgar R. Cavin to let him fly in GREMLIN’S HOLIDAY with Cavin’s crew on the 15th. That day, Cavin was part of the first wave of 498th B-25s to fly over the edge of Chinatown, which was loaded with warehouses, supply dumps, and, much to the pilots’ chagrin, antiaircraft fire. He dropped his bombs on the already blazing target and ascended over the fires below, as he would not have been able to fly through them safely. While he was gaining altitude, the B-25’s belly was exposed to the antiaircraft fire below, and GREMLIN’S HOLIDAY was soon hit. The right engine was afire and burned fiercely as the crew flew 150 feet above the target area.
S/Sgt. David B. McCready heard the “Bombs away,” from Cavin and was about to turn on the rear camera on board when an explosion rocked the plane. McCready’s headset, throat mike, goggles and helmet were torn away by the white-hot blast and he scrambled to get away from the flames that engulfed the plane behind the bomb bay. S/Sgt. Lawrence E. Herbst attempted to use the fire extinguisher from the other side of the plane, but the tiny crawlspace above the bomb bay did not give Herbst enough room to safely use the extinguisher. The fire spread along the right side of the plane, then up to the vertical stabilizer. Cavin knew he had to set the B-25 down in the water before the flame-weakened structure broke apart.
He made a perfect landing, and the crewmembers scrambled to get out of the plane before it sunk. Huff and McCready had both been knocked unconscious by the landing, but woke up and were able to exit GREMLIN’S HOLIDAY before it was too late. Even though the six men had injuries ranging from burns and gashes to severely broken bones, they were all very much alive. Emergency supplies and rafts were soon dropped by passing planes and the more injured men gratefully climbed in the rafts. Cavin joked around with Huff, saying, “Damn it Bob, if I knew it would be this rough, I wouldn’t have asked you to come along today.” Huff certainly got more than he bargained for that day.
Cavin’s crew, along with several others that day (15 men in all), was rescued by Catalina pilot Lt. Nathan Gordon. Because of his courage in going above and beyond the call of duty, Gordon became the first Navy man in the Southwest Pacific theater to be awarded the Medal of Honor. His actions will be the subject of another post. Stay tuned.