Skip-Bombing the Aoba

In early April 1943, the 43rd Bomb Group was repeatedly sent on missions to keep an eye on the Japanese base 150 miles northwest of Rabaul at Kavieng, New Ireland. On April 2nd, no shipping activity was observed, but Australian Coastwatchers reported seeing somewhere between 10 and 12 ships around the harbor area. Just in case the Japanese were planning a convoy mission, eight B-17s from the 64th Squadron were loaded up and sent out to disrupt those plans in the wee hours of April 3rd.

To keep Japanese from locating the B-17s easily, pilots flew with blacked out instrument panels. Their only source of light was provided by the stars. “In this way our night vision became very acute,” wrote pilot Arthur T. Curren. “In fact on long night missions we flew the B-17 by fixing reference stars in the corners of the windshields and flew by the seat of pants, not artificial horizons, etc. I can’t really explain to you or understand myself at this late date [50 years later] the visual cues and sightings I used to fly this mission.”

April 5th diagram
Note the date on this diagram. For this post, it is used as an example of the bombing runs made by B-17 pilots. After the 64th claimed hits on multiple warships near Kavieng on April 3rd, the 63rd was no doubt eager for their own chance on the target the next day. This diagram plots the bombing runs flown by the 63rd Squadron and the reported size and position of their targets. (Hoover Cott Collection)

Arriving over Kavieng and its harbor, each formation’s flight leader stayed near the base to drop an occasional bomb, another B-17 stayed high above the action to drop flares illuminating the anchorage and the rest of the B-17 crews hunted for ships to skip-bomb in the harbor. When the Japanese heard the planes, they sent up tracer rounds in attempt to locate them. Gunfire of all sorts flew around the harbor as the Japanese refused to turn on their searchlights and give away the positions of their ships. At one point, Curren noticed a flare burning beyond his right wing, likely on the deck of the heavy cruiser Aoba.

Lieuteanant Curren began his skip-bombing approach and was greeted by heavy antiaircraft fire. “Suddenly, I realized that we were headed directly into the side of a Japanese cruiser, just aft of the pagoda [the tall tripod structure amidships] and below the height of the bridge and forward structure.” He held his course and altitude until the bombardier confirmed that the last bomb had dropped, then “I jerked back on the controls and we cleared the ship. None of the crew, including co-pilot Roger Kettlleson, have any idea of how close we came to tripping over the steel superstructure. The navigator later reported he thought we would hit the water when his altimeter read 50 feet below sea level on the bomb run.”

B-17 night skip-bombing diagram
An illustration of the basic concept of skip-bombing. Note that unlike small and medium bombers, the four-engine B-17 could not pull away from the ship immediately after dropping its bombs. This is why the 43rd Bomb Group only skip-bombed at night: passing over an enemy ship at that altitude during the day would have been extremely dangerous. (Unknown Collection)

Curren’s tail gunner reported that three bombs exploded and the crew felt two shockwaves and witnessed bright explosions from the cruiser. After that run, it was time to head for home. While the flight back was uneventful, Curren’s landing nearly turned precarious when he realized that the landing gear had not lowered. He pulled up, flew around, then landed with the gear down. Later, it was reported that one of the bombs from Curren’s plane scored a direct hit on the Aoba and the other two explosions were actually from two of the ship’s torpedoes subsequently exploding. The Aoba was towed to Truk, where it underwent initial repairs for three months, then was moved to Kure, Japan for six months’ worth of more extensive repair work.

Using a B-17 for night skip-bombing missions was no easy task. This post summarizes the vivid description written by Lt. Curren and printed in Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Volume I. We highly recommend our readers pick up a copy of the book for his full story.

That Saga-Writing Kavieng Cat Crew

After last week’s long post, we thought we’d give you a break this time. 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.

The End of Gremlin’s Holiday

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.