Major Tom Gerrity’s One Plane War Against the Japanese

By late October 1942 Maj. Tom Gerrity, then C.O. of the 90th Squadron, was scheduled to be rotated home along with the other veteran pilots of the 27th Bomb Group who had been evacuated from the Philippines. Before leaving the Pacific Theater, Gerrity wanted to attempt an ambitious solo strike against the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul on the island of New Britain. An extra set of internal wing tanks had been installed in his B-25 Mitchell bomber to give them the necessary range for a mission scheduled on October 25th. Flying with Gerrity was co-pilot 2/Lt. Robert F. “Ruby” Keeler, veteran bombardier T/Sgt. Kirby Neal, turret gunner Sgt. Joe Champagne and radio operator Sgt. Billy Graham of the RAAF.  However, due to engine trouble they were unable to reach the distant target and returned to Port Moresby. The next day Gerrity assigned himself the morning reconnaissance flight and used the opportunity to make multiple strafing attacks against the Japanese base at Salamaua. By noon he had packed his bags and was on his way to Australia, arriving back home in California on November 5th.

Gerrity would soon rise to the rank of General in the U.S. Air Force. He passed away in 1969 and was interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Both Lt. Keeler and Sgt. Kirby would be killed before the year was over while the two gunners, Joe Champagne and Billy Graham, would complete their combat tours and also return home.

Maj. Gerrity (in the cockpit) and Sgt. Neal (standing in the B-25's nose).

On the left side of the photo in the B-25’s nose is Sgt. Neal. Major Gerrity is to the right in the cockpit. (Gordon McCoun Collection)

 

Pulling the Thread of History: We’re Heading to History Camp!

As we prepare for History Camp Colorado next month, we wanted to give you some insight into how we chose our topic, the disappearance of General Walker’s aircraft on January 5, 1943. For that, we want to introduce you to our Managing Editor, Madison Jonas, who will be giving the presentation. Take it away, Madison!

You know what I like about studying history? You get to follow the consequences. Living in the present, it’s hard to ascribe a chain of causality through the actions you take and the events around you. But when we study historical events in detail and with focus, the chain can be linked together. And sometimes, you get an event that has outsize influence—small in isolation, but hugely significant to the events that follow.

Such an event occurred on January 5, 1943. There was an air raid conducted by heavy bombers—B-17s from the 43rd Bomb Group and B-24s from the 90th—based in New Guinea against Simpson Harbor, a major Japanese port in the Southwest Pacific. Going purely by the numbers, it was a small affair: 14 planes attacking, three shot down, two crews rescued, one cargo vessel sunk and three more ships damaged. But the consequences would ultimately shift the nature of the war in New Guinea over the next six months.

Unlike prior air raids against Rabaul and Simpson Harbor, the attack on January 5th was a daylight mission. Rabaul was a heavily defended base complex, and beyond the reach of fighter cover, so conventional wisdom had long-range bombers flying small missions at night and doing negligible damage in a token effort to harass the base. General Kenneth Walker, head of V Bomber Command, thought that a massed formation of bombers would be able to defend itself from enemy interception and inflict severe damage on enemy operations. Walker had even flown on the lead plane to assess the battle damage as a proof-of-concept. Tragically, he was lost that day, along with the entire crew of the SAN ANTONIO ROSE. The loss nixed further daylight bombing of Rabaul for the time being. It remained the center of Japanese operations, able to send out reinforcements to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands largely undeterred. Air operations against it saw no major impact until fighter coverage could be brought into range.

An Expensive Mission by Jack Fellows

On January 5, 1943, Brig. Gen. Kenneth N. Walker planned a large daylight raid on Rabaul to disrupt an assembling convoy. Walker was flying as an observer in the lead plane, B-17F-10 SAN ANTONIO ROSE. Over Rabaul, the bomber was hit by flak and then pursued south along the coast of New Britain by a flight of Oscar fighters from 11 Sentai. The location where the B-17 went down is unknown; however, it may have gone down deep in the remote Kol Mountains of New Britain. Two crewmembers, Maj. Jack W. Bleasdale and Capt. Benton H. Daniel, bailed out and survived the shootdown, only to be taken prisoner and executed by the Japanese. General Walker was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Painting by Jack Fellows.

The target of the attack on January 5th had been a convoy carrying over 4000 soldiers for a new ground offensive in the mountains of New Guinea. The convoy was scheduled to depart on the 6th, but by a stroke of luck it had been moved to nearby Jacquinot Bay the night before, dodging the strike. The near-miss, however, was shocking to Japanese higher-ups, who ordered additional fighter coverage on the convoy for the duration of its mission, which led to a fierce air battle over the convoy as it unloaded at New Guinea. Those troops were then sent to capture an outlying Allied mountain airbase called Wau, which led to the next ground engagement of the war in the Southwest Pacific. The U.S. also learned from the attempted convoy interception, developing specialized anti-shipping tactics that would lead to the overwhelming victory of Allied air power in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea.

The January 5th raid had significant reverberations, and I think this was partly reflected in the decision for General Walker to receive the Medal of Honor for his bravery in organizing and flying on the lead ship of the mission. The full breadth of the story, however, can only be seen in hindsight, with detailed research to piece together all the elements of the story. This is just a general summary—I’ll be delving into far more detail in my seminar at History Camp Colorado on November 12th. The story in full reaches back several days into December and forward into the present day, where the search for General Walker’s B-17 continues.

 

The Same Places, 70+ Years Apart—Six More WWII Bases Then and Now

Rabaul, New Britain

Located on the coast of a natural harbor on the eastern coast of New Britain, an island in the Southwest Pacific, Rabaul was a German colony in the 1900s that was captured by the Australians in World War I. Two nearby volcanoes, Vulcan and Tavurvur, erupted violently in 1937, destroying most of the city. After World War II started, it was captured by the Japanese in January 1942, after which it was transformed into a major stronghold with approximately 97,000 troops that would easily fend off Allied attacks until October and November 1943. While the Allies continued to advance towards Japan, they cut off Japanese supply routes to Rabaul and continued to bomb the city and surrounding area. It was officially surrendered at the end of the war. After the war was over, the city became a trading hub until Tavurvur erupted in 1994, once again destroying a large part of the city. Developments closest to the volcano were never rebuilt.

Rabaul then and now

Click to enlarge. In the photo on the left, taken from Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Vol. I, is Rabaul and Simpson Harbor as they appeared in September 1943. At right is Rabaul today, taken from Google Maps.

 

Langley Air Force Base

Established in 1917 near Hampton, Virginia, Langley Field (named after American aviation pioneer Samuel Pierpoint Langley) remains one of the oldest air bases in continuous operation in the U.S. Its small airfield was expanded in the 1930s and continued to develop as World War II began. At the time the left image was taken, Langley was used as a training ground for new units, such as the 43rd Bomb Group, established in the U.S. military build-up before they entered the war.

Langley then and now

Click to enlarge. In the photo on the left, taken from Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Vol. I, is Langley Field in 1941. At right is Langley today, taken from Google Maps.

 

Boram Airdrome

On the northern coast of Papua New Guinea, Boram (referred to as East Wewak by the Japanese) was one of the four airdromes that made up the Wewak Complex built by the Japanese during World War II. The other three in the complex were Wewak, Dagua, and But. It was repeatedly attacked by the Allies between 1942 and 1945, and finally ended with the Australians securing Boram on May 22, 1945. These days Boram is the home of the Wewak Airport, also sometimes known as Boram Airport.

Boram then and now

Click to enlarge. In the photo on the left, taken from Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s, is Boram Airdrome after it was attacked by the 312th Bomb Group during the spring of 1944. At right is Boram today, taken from Google Maps.

 

Morotai Island

Approximately two years after the Japanese invaded Morotai Island, off Halmahera Island in east Indonesia, the 31st Infantry Division of the U.S. Army landed on Morotai on September 15, 1944. Two airstrips were built and Morotai grew into a major staging base for attacks on Japanese territory in the Philippine Islands. Almost a year later on September 9, 1945, the island became the site of the formal surrender of the 126,000 Japanese still in the Netherlands East Indies [now Indonesia]. The base became a large aircraft and vehicle graveyard after the war was over. Scrapping and smelting lasted until 1988.

Morotai then and now

Click to enlarge. In the photo on the left, are the two airstrips at Morotai on October 15, 1944. At right is Morotai today, taken from Google Maps.

 

Ie Shima

Ie Shima was part of the Ryukyu Island chain, a trail of islands southwest of Japan. It was just west of Okinawa, and was captured by the Allies as part of the Battle of Okinawa. Before American units took over the base, the Japanese destroyed the runways and buried mines throughout the island to deter Allied attacks. Once it was under U.S. control, various engineer aviation battalions were hard at work to make the island habitable for units that were due to move to the island in June. In August, Ie Shima was a stop for the Japanese surrender delegation on their way to Manila. These days, the U.S. Marine Corps operates a military training facility on part of the island, while civilians reside on the rest of it.

Ie Shima then and now

Click to enlarge. In the photo on the left, taken from Warpath Across the Pacific, is the 345th Bomb Group’s camp area at Ie Shima in the summer of 1945. At right is Ie Shima today, taken from Google Maps.

Buka Island
Buka Island is part of the Solomon Island chain in the southwest Pacific, on the opposite end of the chain from Guadalcanal. After being claimed by the Germans in 1885, Buka was turned over to Australia in 1920. The Japanese seized Buka on March 9, 1942 and built an air base that grabbed Allied attention in June 1943 when preparations for Operation Cartwheel were in the works. A small canal separated Buka from the island of Bougainville, which was to be the site of a major invasion, and up-to-date reconnaissance of the two islands was required beforehand. That reconnaissance mission turned into one of the most dramatic moments of the Pacific war when Capt. Jay Zeamer, Jr. and his crew were attacked during their photomapping mission on June 16, 1943. In the end, Zeamer and his bombardier, 2/Lt. Joseph R. Sarnoski, were awarded the Medal of Honor (Sarnoski’s was posthumously awarded) and the rest of the crew was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for getting those photos while under fire. Contrary to internet lore, this photo was not taken during that mission. Buka remained under Japanese control until September 1945. It later gained independence from Papua New Guinea in 2005.

Buka then and now

Click to enlarge. In the photo on the left, taken from the Naval Aviation Museum, the Buka airfield in August 1943. At right is Buka today, taken from Google Maps.

 

Sources and additional reading:

Bloody Tuesday

Weather, another constant foe of aircrews, once again put a damper on Fifth Air Force’s plans to attack Simpson Harbor on October 26, 1943 and then again on the 29th. Everyone was on edge. The Third Marine Division was slated to invade the beaches of Bougainville on November 1st, covered by a strike from the air. With the weather still not letting up, the Marines’ plan went on as scheduled without the strike. After days of waiting, the weather finally cleared up on November 2nd.

This raid would target the shipping in the harbor instead of Rabaul itself. 57 P-38s and 75 B-25s (covered by other P-38s) were sent out to take out the harbor’s shoreline defenses and drop “Kenney’s Cocktails” (phosphorus bombs) to hinder the enemy’s view of the attack, then hit all the shipping possible. There were hundreds of guns on the shore to protect the harbor. When members of the 3rd Bomb Group’s 13th Squadron attended the briefing for the mission, Richard Walker remembers it being a “very somber affair.” Realizing the type of defenses that they would be facing, it “was pretty much a prediction that all of us would not be coming home.” The crews sat “gray faced and quiet…”

Nevertheless, the men got in their planes and flew off to Simpson Harbor. Soon, the harbor was complete chaos. Smoke from the 345th’s phosphorus bombs unexpectedly rose at least 400 feet high, obscuring the the view for the 38th crews, who also discovered that some of the ships had moved and decreased the target area. On the approach to the harbor, the 13th and 8th Squadrons ended up going off course, which went against the original attack plan. Maj, Raymond H. Wilkins was leading the 8th Squadron and realized this mistake too late. He quickly tried to let the 13th Squadron’s leader know, then broke off and tried to get the 8th back to their original attack angle of 225 degrees.

Strafing a Ship

The Japanese were ready by the time the 8th Squadron entered the harbor, as the 3rd Bomb Group’s 90th Squadron had left shortly beforehand. In the center of the harbor and at the far left of the formation, Wilkins made a sharp vertical banking right turn to attack a destroyer. This move left his B-25 completely vulnerable to gunfire, which badly damaged his plane during his attack. Wilkins skipped a bomb into the destroyer, then attacked a transport with a second bomb. Afterwards, he saw that only a cruiser remained before the harbor could be cleared. He strafed the cruiser to draw attention away from the other B-25s following him, and, in the process, exposed his plane again to antiaircraft fire. The left wing of his plane was hit, then crumpled, sending the aircraft into the water.

For his heroic actions, Maj. Wilkins was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. He and his crew became part of the 45 men that were lost that day, which would come to be known as “Bloody Tuesday.”

Raiding Rabaul

Fifth Air Force sent 100+ B-25s and Beaufighters and 87 B-24s in a decisive blow against Japanese air power in Rabaul on October 12, 1943. This was to be the first in a series of strikes that would last until mid-November to render ineffective Japanese air power in the area for the remainder of the war. The entry below was taken from the diary of Kenneth Rosebush, a 3rd Bomb Group pilot with the 90th Squadron.

October 12, 1943

The Attack on Rabaul. It was a big one: Rabaul. Rabaul was the Japanese Bastille of the southwest Pacific. Its very name struck fear into your heart. We had numerous false reports that Japanese Tokyo-express, aircraft carriers, and warships (only), were either leaving or going into Rabaul. Each time, over several months, we would be alerted and hat to sweat it out. This time it was a “go” for several Rabaul airgrounds, supply camps and personnel areas at Rabaul (in New Britian). At the briefing the night before, the question came up who would provide the cover for the 90th. True to form, John Johnson (C.O. of the 9th Squadron of P-38 fighters) volunteered. The 9th was our favorite fighter squadron and we had an excellent relation with them. The fighters really dread being caught down low, because the enemy then has all of the advantage. But, Johnny volunteered the 9th for low coverage, and I had a P-38 on my wing when we made our run on Arapahoe airdrome.

Rabaul in Sept 1943

This reconnaissance photograph of the Rabaul area was processed by the 2nd Photographic Intelligence Detachment, Fifth Air Force, during September 1943

Col. Henebry was the flight leader of the whole strike force, and I was on his left with (with Lt. Chapin as my co-pilot). We were only part-way to Rabaul when my gunner came forward and told me our spare gas tank was leaking. This was a 500-gallon tin can designed to give us more mileage, but was a real hazard if hit by enemy fire. It spent most of the flight at the rear of the aircraft tightening claps, etc. I finally got the leak stopped. I’d be damned if I was going to turn back on this mission to Rabaul. Shortly before we reached our run on the airfield, a Japanese aircraft got in front of me. If I altered my course a bit I could’ve had him “dead to rights”. I started to do that, and then changed my mind. He belonged to that P-38 flying on my wing. I made my run on the airfield firing my 8 .50-caliber machine guns and dropping anti-personnel bombs. The run was made at our usual altitude of about 20 feet above the ground. We were expecting fierce antiaircraft fire and zero interception, but evidently we caught the Japanese completely by surprise. There were many reports of Japanese standing on their porch of housing looking around, as if it couldn’t happen here. And, mechanics and other service personnel were standing around by their planes, as if nothing was going on. We really caught them by surprise, and the damage to our aircraft was almost nil. I don’t know the exact damage we did to them, but on this mission it was significant.

A close call in Old Baldy

On February 25 1943, six crews from the 63rd Squadron of the 43rd Bomb Group took off on a night mission to hit shipping at Rabaul. Capt. James C. Dieffenderfer’s crew in the B-17 OLD BALDY flew down to Hood Point to cross the Owen Stanley Range at its lowest point of 9000 feet. As expected, the crew ran into New Guinea’s notorious bad weather about halfway to the target. “…we hit an air pocket and dropped straight down as though we were thrown to the ceiling,” wrote 1/Lt. Frederick O. Blair. Sitting on the bombardier seat, Blair was able to put his hand up to the Plexiglas so that he wasn’t tossed around as much as the rest of the crew. Soon, he got a call from the radio compartment, where there were five other crew members: “Lt. Blair, the bombs are loose and are on the bomb bay doors.”

Lt. Blair continued, “I was so shocked by this message that I now cannot remember whether I answered but I immediately hit the bomb bay door switch, hoping the loose bombs would drop into the Pacific Ocean. However, as I did not know the real situation I waited a few second for the result of my action. The radio operator, T/Sgt. Louis N. Caroll, called me again to say that the bomb bay doors were open but a 500lb bomb was hanging by one lug. I believe I was never so afraid in my life as it takes only about 8lbs of pressure on the fuse to set the bomb off. I hit the bomb bay door switch to close the door and immediately hurried up through the pilot compartment on my way to the bomb bay. I knew it took about 30 seconds for our B-17 Bomb Bay doors to open or close. As I entered the Bomb Bay the doors were only partly closed and I started to walk across the narrow catwalk with only two ropes to hold on to. I wanted to get to the loose bomb which had broken loose from the rear lug. It was the lower bomb on the right side. All during my journey from the bombardier compartment to the bomb bay, we were in this terrible storm and being tossed around. At last I reached the rear end of the Bomb Bay and knew what I must do. I must sit on the bomb and keep the wire from coming out of the rear fuse as this would arm the bomb.

B-17 Bomb bay

B-17 bomb bay. Used with permission from Robert Schuch.

As I sat on the bomb and held on to the rack, bracing myself on the bomb above, I was facing the rear of the plane and I could observe the crew members in the radio compartment. I could see very tense, nervous, whitefaced fellows, apparently scared to death. If they were afraid of what they saw, I am sure that I was doubly afraid as I was the ‘guy’ sitting on the loose bomb.”

Blair sat on that bomb for 15 to 20 minutes before OLD BALDY flew out of the weather. Afterwards, he had some help from the crew to replace the bomb on the rack.

OLD BALDY‘s troubles weren’t over yet. Continuing on toward the target, Dieffenderfer had to feather an engine when it started to run roughly. The plane was losing altitude because of the heavy bomb load, which was soon resolved by dropping two of the bombs into the ocean. As the crew approached Rabaul, the weather hampered the search for a shipping target. Instead, they flew to the bomber base, Vunakanau, where they dropped their six remaining 500-pound bombs on the aerodrome. The Japanese knew OLD BALDY was over the drome due to the crew experiencing heavy antiaircraft fire and searchlight activity. Ack-ack shells were bursting around them and they felt the concussions as the shells burst near the aircraft. Because of the overcast conditions, the men were unable to observe the results of their dropped bombs.

Blair concludes, “I was very proud of our entire crew, especially James Dieffenderfer, the pilot and Jack Campbell, the co-pilot. I never heard a complain of dissatisfaction from any crew member on this occasion. In fact our entire crew never questions any decision from headquarter’s orders of our Bomber Command, Group Command or our Squadron Command. We were a team and I can say without reservation that we carried out our orders to the best of our abilities through our many missions. When we neared our targets, as a bombardier I took over command and the pilot followed my instructions to the letter.”

 

This is one of the many stories that will be included in the book Ken’s Men Against the Empire.