A Month of Losses

In December 1942, the 3rd Bomb Group, especially the 90th Squadron, was dealt blow after blow as crews and planes were lost. Over the course of the month, the 3rd Bomb Group lost more than 40 men. The first loss on December 5th happened on a night takeoff when a 90th Bomb Group B-25 hit a tree at the end of the runway at 17 Mile Airdrome. Five men were killed.

Ten days later, a 90th Squadron B-25 went missing on a five-plane flight between Port Moresby and Charters Towers. At the time, the 13th Squadron was flying up to Port Moresby to relieve the 90th Squadron, but strong thunderstorms were preventing this rotation. To minimize any losses, C.O., Maj. Donald P. Hall, would only let one 90th B-25 fly down for each 13th Squadron plane that flew up. After the first one arrived, though, five 90th Squadron pilots thought the rest of the squadron was on its way up and took off. They ran into the same bad weather and the B-25 flown by 2/Lt. Alfred Crosswhite, STINKY PINKY, wound up separated from the other four planes and disappeared with 11 men on board. The wreckage was discovered on hilly terrain in July 1943, about 40 miles west of a town named Cardwell.

Five days after storms caused the crash of STINKY PINKY, the 90th lost 11 more men on December 20th, in more bad weather. After a few days in Charters Towers, the 90th was due back at Port Moresby. Seven B-25s loaded with 90th Squadron men took off from Australia and encountered heavy rain on the way to New Guinea. It wasn’t long before the heavy rain turned into severe thunderstorms, tossing the B-25s around in the strong wind. By this time, the planes were in a long line as they flew single file through the turbulent weather. Lieutenant Richard H. Launder was flying behind Lt. Donald K. Emerson, watched Emerson’s plane vanish in the clouds and followed him into another storm. Without warning, Emerson’s B-25 appeared in front of Launder. Emerson pulled up and over Launder’s B-25 in the nick of time, then crashed into the ocean. Launder, who suspected that Emerson stalled and couldn’t recover, circled the crash site, but did not see any survivors.

The final two tragedies of the month, and the year, occurred at the end of December. As with the previous two losses, this 13-plane flight was part of a rotation from Port Moresby back to Charters Towers. This time, it was the 13th Squadron being relieved by crews from the 38th Bomb Group. That day, a B-25 flown by Capt. George “Spikes” Thomas, DEEMIE’S DEMON, disappeared over the Coral Sea. In the days and weeks that followed, no one found any trace of the aircraft or the 11 men on board. Among those lost was Sgt. Eugene J. Esposito of Rutland, Vermont. His family was notified of his status as Missing in Action on February 4, 1943. On August 13, 1943, his family received word that he had been declared dead. Esposito sent his last message to his family three days after Christmas to thank them for a box they sent and extend his Christmas greetings.

Newspaper clipping from the August 14, 1943 Rutland Daily Herald about the death of Sgt. Eugene J. Esposito of the 3rd Bomb Group
Newspaper clipping from the August 14, 1943 Rutland Daily Herald

Hours after the 13th Squadron left for Australia, Capt. William R. “Red” Johnson and the other 90th Squadron officers were starting their New Year’s Eve party at Charters Towers. Johnson, who just finished his combat tour and would be heading home to his wife soon, decided that a couple of his old friends from the 27th Bomb Group should join the fun and decided to fly to Townsville and pick them up. A crew chief went with him as his co-pilot and two privates tagged along for the ride. One decided to stay in Townsville and four new passengers (his friends and two others) climbed aboard. That was the last time anyone saw the men and the B-25. Without Johnson, the party at Charters Towers was a little quieter, as everyone thought his return had been delayed due to weather. A search plane was sent out on January 3rd and someone spotted a burned aircraft about 20 miles southwest of Townsville. Johnson had been flying through rain and low clouds, following the railroad back to Charters Towers, when he hit the base of a mountain. None of the seven men on board survived.

For the 3rd Bomb Group, it was both a tragic ending to 1942 and a tragic beginning to 1943. Forty-five deaths occurring in a single month was difficult to bear. Back in the States, 45 more grieving families may have hung gold star flags in front windows of their homes.

Shot Down at Kokas

July 1944 was a rough month for the 312th Bomb Group. In the first two weeks, the unit lost eight men and four A-20s. Two more lives and one more A-20 would be lost before the month ended. On the 22nd, Col. Robert H. Strauss led the 387th Squadron to Kokas, Dutch New Guinea to take out antiaircraft guns and other targets in the area. The geography of Kokas and the Bay of Sekar presented a unique challenge for Allied aircraft: the region was surrounded by hills, which forced the A-20s to approach the area from a higher altitude and drop rapidly before they could attack.

The 387th dropped 250-pound bombs on buildings, personnel areas and antiaircraft positions and strafed the target. Acting as a wingman for flight leader Capt. Jack W. Klein was 2/Lt. Melvin H. Kapson. His A-20 was hit multiple times by antiaircraft and machine gun fire. Kapson returned to Hollandia with 128 new holes in his plane, one of three damaged on the mission. Klein’s other wingman was 1/Lt. James L. Knarr. Flying over the water, Knarr’s A-20 was hit by flak and crashed. Kapson and Klein realized that Knarr’s plane was missing after they reformed to head back to Hollandia, but no one knew what exactly happened. It wasn’t until the photos from Klein’s belly camera were developed that everyone got to see the crash as it was captured on camera. The four photo sequence, soon named “Death of an A-20,” was published all over the world.

Death of an A-20

(Richard H. Ellis, Ernest Fuller Collections)

Knarr was flying his 70th combat mission and finished his 12-month tour of duty, and he was scheduled to go home soon. His gunner, S/Sgt. Charles G. Reichley was on his 46th mission.

Pilot and crew chief

1/Lt. James L. Knarr, on the left, and S/Sgt. Wilson J. Metcalf, his crew chief, stand in front of Knarrʼs A-20. (Edgar R. Bistika Collection)

Remember the 15

May 18, 1945 was an all too eventful day for the 65th Bomb Squadron, 43rd Bomb Group. Seven of its B-24s were sent to make up a third of a 21-plane raid with the 403rd and 64th Squadrons on Tainan Airdrome, located on Formosa (now Taiwan). Antiaircraft fire was heavy and accurate, and coming from both Tainan and the nearby Okayama Airdrome. Aircrews noticed two strange types of antiaircraft bursts. One looked like a gasoline fire bursting in midair, the other appeared to be a stream of fire trailed by smoke.

As the crews made their runs, 1/Lt. James J. Franklin’s B-24 took a direct hit and exploded. All ten members of the crew as well as an observer were killed. To the right of Franklin was 1/Lt. Rudolph J. Cherkauer in B-24 #373, which felt the brunt of the explosion and ended up leaving Tainan with two hundred new holes and three wounded men aboard. The bombardier was knocked unconscious by the blast. Both port engines were smoking heavily, but the #2 was still capable of running at reduced power. It was enough to get them to the emergency field at Lingayen, Luzon. The three wounded crewmen were brought to the hospital and eventually recovered.

B-24 Petty Gal

This 65th Squadron B-24, nicknamed PETTY GAL, was almost shot down in a bombing mission over Tainan Drome on Formosa. The antiaircraft fire alone was responsible for bringing down two B-24s, and it put around 200 holes in PETTY GAL. Fortunately, pilot 1/Lt. Rudolph J. Cherkauer was able to bring it back to Lingayen on three engines. (James L. Klein Collection)

First Lieutenant Charles H. Wilt, another 65th Squadron pilot, finished his run and was hit in the #4 engine. To make matters worse, the #3 engine was running away and the smell of gas permeated the fuselage. Everyone on board knew they needed to bail out before their B-24 exploded, but they were warned against it by PBY crews standing by for rescues. By that point, Wilt’s B-24 was 6000 feet above rough seas with 25-foot waves, which would make it harder for rescue crews to find the downed airmen. Still, the crew felt like everyone would have a better chance of survival if the men bailed out.

Unfortunately, they were also short on life jackets. Four of the 11 crewmen had to go without, including 2/Lt. Norbert C. Straeck, who volunteered because he was a strong swimmer. The other B-24 crews watched 11 parachutes open and only the men with the Mae Wests were rescued. Two men went under before they were fished out and two more disappeared. It was a tough day for the 65th Squadron, losing 15 men and two B-24s. A funeral for the 15 men, 1/Lt. James J. Franklin, 2/Lt. Frances J. Smith, 2/Lt. Darrell F. Hoffman, 2/Lt. John R. Duff, Cpl. Walter J. McKay, Jr., T/Sgt. Henry A. Cichy, T/Sgt. Francis J. Dougherty, S/Sgt. Lloyd B. Arie, S/Sgt. Frank D. Byrd, S/Sgt. Donald C. Gayle, S/Sgt. Sigmund J. Magiera, 2/Lt. Norbert C. Straeck, 2/Lt. Gabriel R. Levinson, Cpl. Walter J. Christensen and Cpl. Lehland Stauffer, was held on May 23rd at the 43rd’s chapel. Below is reproduced the order of service for the event:

Choral Prelude Choir
Call to Worship
Leader: Renewed this day be all noble memories
People: All high and holy traditions of the past
Leader: Let us remember all those who went over the sea
to share the perils of oppressed peoples
People: Who suffer torment from fire and smoke
Leader: Who took food to the starving in strange lands
People: Who went down to the sea in ships and into the
air like eagles.

Hymn #99 “BLEST BE THE TIE THAT BINDS”

Call to prayer
Leader: The great and brave who have gone before us and
blazed the trail, gave freely of their talents, their strength,
their lives. We who would remember them to-day unite
our prayers in memory of their noble giving. Let us pray
together.

Unison Prayer
O God, here in the memory of death we pause in thy sight
for life is precious to thee. Even as the life of those we know
and care for is dear to us so dost thou care for each of thy
children. And because we know this we have no fear for
those we know who leave us to return to thee. Their release
from the limitations of the flesh is a greater freedom than
ever they have known before. Lift us above the shadow of
mortality into the light of hope.

YEAH! Goes Down

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.

Ground Crew Members with B-26 YEAH!

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.

Remembering those who did not make it home

Over the last few years, we’ve shared a number of World War II stories with you. With Memorial Day coming up this Monday, we wanted to take a moment to remember everyone who lost their lives during the war and invite you to read some of their stories once more.
 
The Aguirres HONI KUU OKOLE was shot down on May 21, 1943. The crew did not survive.

 
 
McGuire Shot Down The members of 1/Lt. James McGuire’s crew who did not survive their crash landing.

 
 
The Moore crew The crew aboard the B-17 nicknamed KA-PUHIO-WELA, shot down during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea.

 
 
Strafing a Ship Maj. Raymond A. Wilkins and his crew crashed in Simpson Harbor on Nov. 2, 1943. This brutal day became known as “Bloody Tuesday.”

 
 
Ralph Cheli's B-25 going down over New GuineaMaj. Ralph Cheli and his crew, who were executed by the Japanese after being captured on August 18, 1943.

Memorial Day 2015

As we observe Memorial Day on Monday, please take a moment to remember the men and women who paid the ultimate price during their military service. Here is one story where a crew from the 43rd Bomb Group joined those that we remember each year.

Six B-17s were sent to bomb Vunakanau during the early morning hours of May 21, 1943. There was hardly any antiaircraft fire to evade and mission results were good: fires were seen scattered around the Vunakanau area as they left. Sadly, only four of the six B-17s made it back to base. One of the planes that didn’t return was HONI KUU OKOLE. As the pilot, Capt. Williams, was approaching the target area, a Japanese J1N1 Gekko “Irving” night fighter positioned itself underneath the bombers right wing. The fighter let loose with its 20mm cannon directly into the B-17s right wing.  Both engines on the wing burst into flame and the pilot dove in hopes to escape the fighter. Bombardier M/Sgt. Gordon R. Manuel quickly salvoed their bombs as they left the area. When Williams leveled off at 6000 feet, the crew discovered that they hadn’t managed to shake the night fighter, which shot at the B-17 again. This time, both engines on the left wing were hit, putting the plane into a fatal dive.

Soon, the fire spread to the waist section of the aircraft, getting close to the small incendiary bombs stacked on the floor. Crewmembers began preparing to bail out of the doomed aircraft. In total, three of the men were able to bail out of the plane before it crashed and exploded. Manuel opened the bomb bay doors and jumped through the open hatch. As he fell, from his vantage point of approximately 100-200 feet above the water, Manuel saw a second parachute, which he believed belonged to co-pilot 2/Lt. John S. Rippy. He landed about three-quarters of a mile away from Manuel. Sergeant Robert A. Curry, one of the waist gunners, bailed out and made it to shore, only to be captured by the Japanese and executed at Rabaul.

The Aguirres

Richard U. Aguirre sits in a park with his wife, Margaret, in this photo taken before he was sent out to the Southwest Pacific. Aguirre was the navigator on HONI KUU OKOLE when it was shot down over the New Britain coastline on May 21, 1943. He did not survive the shoot down. (CZNBJL Collection via FindaGrave)

 

When Manuel landed, he was about 300 yards from shore. It took him several hours to swim with one broken leg and the other leg filled with shrapnel. When he reached the shore, he buried himself in dead foliage to keep from being discovered by the Japanese patrols, then fell asleep for a couple of hours. Lt. Rippy was not so lucky. After Rippy swam to shore, he was discovered as he slept by Japanese soldiers, who took him onboard a destroyer and executed him.

When he woke up, he began to walk along the beach, eventually meeting some natives that were working on a dirt road. Once he decided that there weren’t any Japanese among the natives, he stepped out from a hiding place and tried to communicate that he was injured. The leader of the village, Pagnkuf, was among the group and luckily for Manuel, he spoke some English.

For eight months, Manuel stayed at different villages as he eluded the Japanese and recuperated from his injuries. During this time, he was also able to send natives on reconnaissance missions regarding Japanese positions and gun emplacements. This information would aid the Allies, and hopefully his rescue as well. It wasn’t until February 5, 1944 that Manuel finally left New Britain on the USS Gato.

 

Additional details about this story can be found in Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Vol. I.

Memorial Day

Today we pause to honor those who have fallen in battle.

At the end of World War II, 1/Lt. Rudolph B. Warner, a 38th Bomb Group unit historian, reflected on the 38th’s journey and how the war affected the men in the group: “The outfit looked like anything but a conquering army entering the homeland of the enemy. It is doubtful if any of them paused to remember that this was the end of the road for the expedition that had set sail from San Francisco harbor in that far-away and long ago time when the Pacific war was new. This was the conclusion of a Saga of island-hopping from Australia to Kyushu, of hardships and privation, of losses in men and aircraft and replacements which were heart-breakingly slow in coming, the end of the battle against mosquitoes, malaria and jungle rot as well as the Japanese. The route was well dotted with small white crosses, for it is axiomatic that those who have given the most to achieve a victory do not share in its fruits.”