It was 0930 on April 25, 1942 when Captain Ronald D. Hubbard and his crew were attempting to start their B-25. Three starter fuses in the left engine had blown and a Japanese air raid on Port Moresby was imminent. Hubbard’s crew was supposed to be heading to Horn Island, but they had to get off the ground first. The gunners and flight engineer, S/Sgt. Fred Bumgardner, then began to hand-crank the inertia starter, hoping that would get the engine going. Still, the stubborn engine refused to start up. Bumgardner had another idea. He filled a quart can with fuel and, after disengaging the crank, flung the fuel down the air intake and ran. “I hit the switches and thought the plane had blown up,” Hubbard recalled. “Flames shot eight or ten feet out of the air intake and out of the exhaust stacks. The engine coughed a couple of times and then caught with a roar as I pushed the throttle forward. The right engine started easily.”
The crew hurried aboard and Hubbard took off from Port Moresby. Once they were safely away from the area, Hubbard said that they would be making a detour to Lae in order to not waste their bomb load. This idea was met with approval and the lone B-25 flew on towards the Japanese-held Lae. Given the approximate 30 aircraft at Lae, the crew was prepared to be intercepted by the Japanese as they flew over the base. The surprise visit by the B-25 went fairly well for Hubbard and his men. Antiaircraft fire was inaccurate and one bomb was noted to hit the runway. Others landed in the dispersal area and headquarters buildings.
Three Japanese fighters that had already taken off intercepted Hubbard’s B-25, with one on the let and two on the right. He rolled to the left, then to the right in hopes of throwing off some of the gunfire from the Zeros. It worked and, in turn, hits on one of the Zero were claimed. The remaining two fighters came in for a second pass, with the gunners hitting one of them and sending it back to Lae. Hubbard headed for the clouds as the last Zero made a third pass. As the B-25 reached the clouds, its right vertical stabilizer took a hit and the fighter was also hit, then fell away.
Once it was determined that they wouldn’t be attacked by any further Japanese aircraft, the navigator plotted a course for Horn Island. The rest of the trip was uneventful and the men landed safely, spent the night, then flew on to Charters Towers the next morning. For the mission, Hubbard was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (his second one that month, the first for the Royce Raid) and the rest of the crewmen were given the Silver Star. All were decorated by Lt. Gen. George Brett.
On this Memorial Day, we want to take some time to remember those who were killed in combat. Among them were several members of a B-26 crew from the 33rd Squadron. Their story is below.
On January 7, 1943, 1/Lt. Leonard T. Nicholson and his crew were flying to Lae with a couple of other B-26s to target ships in the harbor. As the three planes began their bombing run, the Japanese began sending up antiaircraft fire to discourage the American crews. The men flew on and released their bombs. As they turned, YEAH! was hit by two blasts of flak, one of which knocked out the left engine and damaged the hydraulic lines. YEAH!’s bomb bay doors fell open, causing an unsustainable amount of of strain on the only working engine.
Two unidentified members of the ground crew stand beneath the Squadron insignia on the nose of YEAH!
By this point, nine Zeros had caught up to the B-26s and the pilots knew it was time to get out of there. Nicholson knew there was no way he would make it back to Port Moresby on one overheating engine and let the crew know that they should prepare to ditch the plane. The pilot landed in Hercules Bay, located north of Buna, and the crew hurried to get out of YEAH! Engineer Sgt. Jack G. Mosely and radioman S/Sgt. Joseph P. Papp unfortunately did not escape and went down with the plane. The rest of the men swam to shore, helping the severely injured navigator Lt. Norm E. DeFreese along the way. Once on the beach, gunner Cpl. Thomas A. Moffitt went off to find help for his crew. DeFreese did not live through the night.
The next day, three crewmen were walking towards Buna when they were spotted by Australian Beaufighters flying overhead. Food and a map were dropped to the men below. The relief that they must have felt was destroyed soon after by the sound of a gunshot. Bombardier S/Sgt. William M. Brown was killed by a Papuan Infantry Patrol that had mistaken the Americans for Japanese. The two remaining crewmen, the pilot and co-pilot, were separated during the chaos.
Co-pilot Lt. Jack I. Childers spent a couple of unbearable nights fending off mosquitoes in the open air and three days looking for someone who would help him get back to base. On the second day, Beaufighters espied him once again and dropped supplies. Childers’ situation changed on the third day when he spotted natives on the far side of the river and was able to flag them down. They took him to their village, where he spent a more comfortable night, then was taken to an Australian camp the following day. He soon learned that both Moffitt and Nicholson were alive and had been flown back to camp within the last couple of days. Childers would soon follow them and rejoin the rest of his unit.
This story can be found on p. 166 of our book Revenge of the Red Raiders.