Deadly Happenstance

A day after the loss of a crew aboard the B-17 THE RECKLESS MOUNTAIN BOYS on May 7, 1943, several crews from the 63rd Bomb Squadron were sent out on reconnaissance missions. All but one crew returned to base.

Captain Robert N. Keatts was flying FIGHTIN SWEDE along the northeast coast of New Guinea when his crew spotted two Japanese “sea trucks” heading for Madang at 0900 hours. After the war, it was discovered that the ships were on the last leg of their journey from Japan and carried reinforcements, food and the 11th Airfield Construction Unit. Because of the valuable cargo aboard the convoy, it was covered from the air by 11 Sentai, a Japanese fighter unit. At the time of Keatts’ report about the ships, the Oscar fighters were hidden by dense clouds. It wasn’t long before FIGHTIN SWEDE was jumped by three Oscars as it flew out of the cloud cover. A fight was on.

After being hit in both engines by the fighters, Keatts made evasive maneuvers in order to escape from the Oscars. For a short time, it looked like FIGHTIN SWEDE would steer clear of disaster. In a split second, that changed when the B-17 was rammed by Sgt. Tadao Oda. Both aircraft exploded and plunged into the sea. It wasn’t until sometime after World War II ended that anyone knew the fate of FIGHTIN SWEDE’s crew.

During the war, Oda had talked with other pilots regularly about how difficult it was to bring down the B-17. Ramming the plane seemed to be an ideal solution, although, in this case, it didn’t work out as he would have preferred since Keatts had already radioed a message about the convoy sighting. Not long after the Oscar and B-17 went down, nine B-25s from the 3rd Bomb Group arrived with eight RAAF Beaufighters and a P-38 escort. The Allied planes went to work, sinking the “sea trucks” and, in the process of doing so, they took out the 11th Airfield Construction Unit.

Oda was posthumously awarded a double promotion to Second Lieutenant as well as given a commendation. The 63rd Bomb Squadron was left reeling after the sudden loss of two crews in two days.