Mission to Rabaul

Over the years, we have dedicated quite a few blog posts to some of the strikes on Rabaul, and we have another one today. The Australian War Memorial posted an old film covering the big October 12, 1943 raid on Rabaul. Before getting into that particular mission, the film explains the logistics that the Allies had to work out weeks earlier. After tracing the Allied advance northward, it’s time for the first of several major attacks on the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul.

Intense Mission over Rabaul

Three B-26s from the 408th Squadron, 22nd Bomb Group took off from Seven Mile for Vunakanau, Rabaul on May 24, 1942. For one pilot, 2/Lt. Harold L. Massie, this would be his first mission as a first pilot. It was co-pilot 2/Lt. Eugene Wallace’s second combat mission. The three planes flew through overcast skies as they neared New Britain, but their flight leader, Lt. Ralph L. Michaelis, spotted a hole in the clouds near Rabaul. When they reached the target area, they discovered it was still covered by clouds. Still, there was a gap a few miles away and Michaelis decided his flight could use that to their advantage. The plan was to make one north-south run at low-level and get out of the area as fast as possible. At the time, Rabaul was a Japanese stronghold and three B-26s were no match for the heavily defended airdrome.

As they made their run, Japanese antiaircraft gunners let loose with a barrage of ack-ack, and hit two of the three B-26s. As Michaelis put it, “While over the target each member of the crew had had a close call.” Only one man in his plane, the bombardier, was injured when a tracer bullet went through his seat and cushion, stopped right next to his skin and burned him. He and 1/Lt. McCutcheon, the pilot of the third B-26, made it back to base safely. Massie’s plane was not so lucky. It was hit in the starboard engine and last seen smoking badly. The final radio transmission mentioned that they reached Wide Bay. While the plane had been doing ok on one engine, it wasn’t enough power to keep it in the air and Massie ditched about a mile offshore. Two of his crewmen, Pvt. Joseph C. Dukes and Cpl. Wolenski, were not seen after the landing. The others were helped to shore by Papuans. On July 27th, they split up. Massie and bombardier 2/Lt. Arthur C. King went one way and the other four went another way.

The photographer, S/Sgt. Jack B. Swan, broke his shoulder in the crash and died in his sleep on August 23rd. He was buried in the abandoned village of Ubili. His surviving crewmembers were eventually located and helped by an Australian plantation owner. They were finally rescued on March 25, 1943, and that incredible story is told in full in Revenge of the Red Raiders. Massie and King were captured by Papuans who subsequently turned them over to the Japanese. They were executed at Rabaul on October 12, 1942.

A War Correspondent’s Perspective

Harold Guard, a United Press war correspondent, joined the crew of Lt. Chris Herron of the 19th Squadron, 22nd Bomb Group for a mission over the Rabaul area on April 23, 1942. Below is his account of the mission.

“I went over Rabaul in a bomber piloted by Lt. Chris Herron and co-piloted by Lt. Duncan Seffern, who fitted me with a ‘Mae West’ and parachute before we left. I had to sit between the radioman and turret gunner, [Cpl.] George McMannamy, and the navigator, Lt. Charles Smith, on the flight. Bombardier Lt. George Barnhill occupied the glass-domed nose and somewhere in the tail were rear gunners [PFC.] Fred J. Mikles and [PFC.] Harry E. Philo.

“We arrived over Rabaul Harbor suddenly from a bank of clouds. I counted seven large ships and there were several smaller vessels. Someone behind U.S. will attend to them. We crossed the harbor, swooping low. I noticed the altitude meter registered 1,000 ft. Simultaneously I saw ground gun flashes and black smoke balls bursting above and around us. I hear the sound like cracking walnuts. The altitude was 700 ft.

“Herron croaks through the throat microphone. I can see the target—long parallel, drab colored buildings. The bomb bay doors open. Barnhill lets go—and fascinated, I see the incendiary sticks spread and actually reach the target. They got what they were supposed to get.

“We start to climb and the turret gunner reports a Zero on the starboard side. I saw him racing ahead of us. The gunner reports two more. I spot a fourth on the port side. The Zeros climb higher. They’re a pretty picture, with the light putty-colored wings against the golden sunshine.

Recon photo of the Rabaul area

Reconnaissance photo of the Rabaul area taken in 1941.

“Then one swoops down towards us. I think he’s sure that he got us, but we dive steeply towards the sea and our after-guns clatter. Barnhill doesn’t waste time during the dive. He pours tracers into the barges now only 75 ft. below us. They are carrying uniformed figures and Barney’s tracers find their target. We straighten out and I see, as I look backwards, billowing clouds of black smoke and sheets of vivid red flame.

“Meanwhile, three more Zeros are pressing us. We remain low over the sea and they can’t dive below us. The tail gunner reports two Zeros hovering on our tail. Suddenly another one hurtles down out of the clouds. Guns chatter again and once more I hear a sound like cracking walnuts and there are bursting puffballs all around us. The gunner’s language over the intercommunication radiophone becomes unprintable as his gun momentarily jams, but he soon gets it into action again and fires a burst which sends the Zeros on our tail zooming away.

“Only one Zero is coming our way now. Herron anticipates perfectly. With a skillful turn of the wrist we are suddenly up and under the Zero. Our turret guns blaze, and McMannnamy’s interphone croaks ‘We got that so-and-so!’

“Barney’s singing over the interphone like a fool—’I don’t want to set the world on fire!’…Suddenly I realize it’s all over. I start grinning and everybody laughed at me. I realize I must have been scared all the time. We turn for home and race in for a perfect landing. Down at Allied HQs, a brief communique says: ‘Our air force attacked shipping, barracks and warehouses, and machine-gunned enemy personnel.’”

Read more about this mission in Revenge of the Red Raiders.

Surviving in a Japanese POW Camp

Early on June 26, 1943, 13 planes from the 65th and 403rd Squadrons were sent on a night mission to bomb Vunakanau. Aircrews saw several explosions and fires as a result of their strike and considered their mission successful. It wasn’t until they returned to base that they discovered they were short two B-17 crews, one from each squadron. Both of the B-17s, TAXPAYER’S PRIDE and NAUGHTY BUT NICE, had been shot down by a night fighter piloted by SFPO Shigetoshi Kudo.

That night, on the way to Vunakanau, 1/Lt. Donald D. McEachran was the pilot aboard TAXPAYER’S PRIDE. He reminded his crew that there could be night fighters patrolling the skies over Rabaul and to keep an eye out for them as best as possible. After dropping their bombs without incident, they turned toward home. It wasn’t long before waist gunner Cpl. Joel W. Griffin spotted a plane near the tail and reported the sighting to McEachran. Shortly afterwards, TAXPAYER’S PRIDE was under attack by Kudo. Griffin heard what sounded like gravel being thrown against the fuselage, but was actually shell fragments from 20mm cannon rounds. A wing was set on fire, which was brought under control a few minutes later.

The B-17 then went into an uncontrollable dive. Griffin couldn’t make contact with the cockpit, so he decided it was time to bail out. After he jumped out of the aircraft, he looked for other parachutes and saw none. TAXPAYER’S PRIDE crash into the jungle, presumably killing the rest of the crew. As Griffin continued his descent, his chute got snagged in the branches of the tall trees. He managed to unbuckle himself and work his way to the ground, walked several hundred yards away from the parachute, then settled down and fell asleep.

B-17 Taxpayer's Pride wreckage

Piloting an Irving night fighter, Petty Officer Shigetoshi Kudo shot down B-17F #41-24448, TAXPAYER’S PRIDE, over New Britain on the same night he shot down NAUGHTY BUT NICE. Japanese army personnel were soon guided to the crash site by local natives and investigated the wreckage of the plane. Photographs of the smashed bomber, seen here, were soon published in the Japanese magazine Ashaigraph. The only survivor of the B-17, Cpl. Joel W. Griffin, was taken prisoner and sent to Japan, where he survived until the end of the war. (Justin Taylan Collection)

When he woke up, he checked himself over and discovered a couple of head wounds as well as an injured ankle that could still take a little weight on it. Limping into a clearing, he was found by some local residents, one of whom spoke English and asked if he was an American. At that point, he knew he would be turned over to the Japanese. After he was captured, he was taken by car to an Army hospital, where Japanese soldiers tortured Griffin by aggravating his injuries. Then a nurse stitched up his head without cleaning out his wounds.

He was interrogated in Japanese and beaten when he didn’t understand their questions and responded with his name, rank and serial number. So he started making up a story. Each day he was interrogated, he made up a story, leading to shorter interrogations that were no less painful than the first. After several days, he was transferred to Rabaul, where he shared a cell with seven other POWs. That number soon increased by one when Lt. Jose Holguin, the only survivor from NAUGHTY BUT NICE, was brought in. The men were prohibited from speaking to each other, survived on meager rations and were not given medical treatment. They were put to work building bomb shelters out of coconut trees, but could not use these shelters during air raids.

On November 13th, Griffin and eight other POWs were put on a hospital ship headed for Japan. Also in this group was Maj. Williston M. Cox, whose B-25 was shot down in August. They were sent to Omori Prison Camp, and Griffin was officially declared a prisoner of war. While the prisoners were fed better than when they were in Rabaul, the camp was infested with lice, among other things. He was put to work at a rail yard, where he loaded and unloaded train cars. There, he befriended Otis Black, who had survived the Bataan Death March.

At the rail yards, it was possible to divert some of the food from its intended destination to their bellies. Between Black, a Navy electrician and a few others, they managed to steal an electric iron, rice, copper plates and insulators, and a bucket. This contraption became a rice cooker that could make about a gallon and a half of rice in 30 minutes. It was so powerful that the camp’s lights would dim anytime they turned it on. Soon, they started trading rice with other prisoners for items from the Red Cross packages. This kept up through the end of the war.

As combat operations ceased in August 1945, the prisoners noticed more U.S. planes flying in the direction of Tokyo. They were not informed of the cessation by the Japanese. This may have also given some prisoners the courage to sneak up to the roof of a nearby building and write “POW” in large letters for the aircrews to note and drop supplies. On the 26th, the prisoners woke up and found that the guards had left the camp. After getting picked up by a U.S. barge nine days later, they were truly free once again.

 

Read this story in Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Volume I.

Repost: One Minute in Hell

Seventy-five years ago, Fifth Air Force units set out to strike the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul. Artist Steve Ferguson illustrated one moment of that mission below. This print was first shared last year.

A painting of a 38th Bomb Group B-25 over a Japanese ship during WWII

On November 2, 1943, Fifth Air Force launched a massive low-level attack by B-25 strafer-bombers against harbor installations and shipping at the major Japanese fleet anchorage and base at Rabaul, New Britain. In the vanguard of the 71st Squadron’s strike, 1/Lt. James A. Hungerpiller flying SLEEPY TIME GAL and 1/Lt. J. E. Orr can be seen engaging their targets at mast-top heights. In the face of the hundreds of antiaircraft guns, Lt. Hungerpiller opened fire on two destroyers, scoring a direct hit with one of his bombs. Meanwhile, Lt. Orr opened fire on a harbor merchant ship while Lt. Hungerpiller’s aircraft quickly began to lose altitude because of severe AA damage. Recognizing the plight of this aircraft, he made a sharp right turn toward to heavy cruisers anchored just off the western shore of the harbor.

This painting depicts Lt. Hungerpiller’s SLEEPY TIME GAL, trailing a plume of fire and smoke, crossing beyond the bow of the heavy cruiser Haguro. In the foreground, Lt. Orr is opening fire on the Japanese merchant ship. With his left engine on fire and the aircraft severely damaged from a fuel tank explosion, Lt. Hungerpiller soon lost control his aircraft and plunged into the sea.

 

This painting, part of a limited edition series by Steve Ferguson, can be purchased on our website.

The First Major Attack on Rabaul

As the Allied forces looked beyond their current situation in October 1943, they were determined to neutralize the threat presented by the Japanese at Rabaul in order to keep moving northwest toward the Philippines. It was time to initiate a series of heavy attacks on the area, the first of which was scheduled for October 12th. Over 100 B-25s from the 345th and 38th Bomb Groups, three P-38 squadrons, 40 planes from the 3rd Bomb Group, and more than 80 B-24s from the 90th and 43rd Bomb Groups joined forces with RAAF P-40s, Beaufighters and Beauforts. They were up against a powerful foe made up of almost 300 aircraft spread out on the airfields surrounding Rabaul as well as nearly 400 antiaircraft guns. A number of ships were also sitting in the harbor at this time.

This formidable Allied force was to split up in order to tackle the defenses on each field: the 345th and 38th would attack Vunakanau, the 3rd would take on Rapopo, Beaufighters were to hit Tobera, then the B-24s would take care of the shipping in Simpson Harbor. As the formations flew toward their specific target areas, they knew the best thing for them at the start of this strike would be the element of surprise. It worked.

Flying over the hillside, the 498th Squadron began firing on the rows of Japanese aircraft sitting on Tobera’s airfield. Maintenance workers that had been working on planes quickly ran for cover and men in the B-25s noticed that the antiaircraft guns were still covered up and pointing the wrong way. The B-25s also disrupted the takeoffs and landings of several Japanese planes. As the 498th worked over its target area with machine guns and parafrags, Japanese antiaircraft gunners started firing back and dislocated part of the right aileron on 1/Lt. Kenneth C. Dean’s B-25. Dean and his crew were able to return to base without further incident.

Under Attack at Vunakanau

This Japanese “Zero” fighter was caught on the main runway during the October 12th attack on Vunakanau. It was strafed repeatedly by the waves of aircraft as they passed overhead but shows little evidence of damage in this photo taken from aircraft #220 of the 38th Bomb Group’s 71st Squadron. Strafing damage rarely showed up in belly camera photography. Two squadrons from the 38th attacked Vunakanau immediately behind the 345th. (John C. Hanna Collection)

Among the Japanese on the ground was 18-year-old Petty Officer Masajiro Kawato, who had been assigned to 253 Kokutai. That day, he was at Tobera to deal with some paperwork for his unit. Instead, he wound up defending the airfield from the Allied attack. His experiences during the strike can be found in Warpath Across the Pacific.

With each squadron’s attack on the airfields, the Japanese defenses increased as Rabaul turned into a fully armed and operational battle station. Japanese fighters attacked the enemy aircraft, with the fiercest attacks directed at the new wave of Allied aircraft: the B-24s. Two were shot down. Once the Allies left the area and began to analyze claims and photography, it was clear that this raid was a success. Approximately 100 Japanese planed on the ground were destroyed and 26 more were shot down. Several ships and harbor facilities also sustained damage.

General Walker’s Last Mission to Rabaul

Seventy-five years ago today, Gen. Kenneth N. Walker boarded Maj. Jack W. Bleasdale’s B-17 SAN ANTONIO ROSE, thereby ignoring a direct order from Gen. George C. Kenney not to fly on combat missions. Kenney feared losing an excellent commander and what could happen if the aircraft Walker was on was shot down and its passengers, especially Walker, were captured by the Japanese. If you’ve read our previous post on the subject, you might recall that this mission was particularly dangerous because it was a raid on the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul in broad daylight. Still, it caught the Japanese by surprise and several ships sitting in Simpson Harbor were either damaged or sunk. The 43rd Bomb Group lost two B-17s that day. One was SAN ANTONIO ROSE, the other was B-17F #41-24538, piloted by 1/Lt. Jean Jack. Jack and his crew ditched their B-17 off the coast of Urasi Island and all were rescued the following day. SAN ANTONIO ROSE has never been found.

Last year, Pacific Wrecks uploaded a video taken from the January 5th mission. While it’s available to watch below, we recommend you watch it on YouTube so you can read through the excellent notes about different points of the video provided by Pacific Wrecks. For even more information on the day’s events, buy a copy of Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Volume I.

IHRA’s Top 7 Posts of 2017

This week, we’re listing our most popular posts published this year as determined by the number of views. Did your favorite post make the list?

Thank you for your continued support by subscribing, reading and sharing our work, and buying our books. If there’s anything you’d like to see more of, let us know in the comments. We’ll be back next year with more great content. And now, without further ado, our most popular posts of 2017.

1. The Fight for Mindoro As a result of some great comments from a prior post (see #4 on this list), we delved into further detail about a harrowing mission on December 24, 1944.

Wreckage of B-24 Tempermental Lady2. A B-24’s Forced Retirement After the B-24 TEMPERMENTAL LADY was hit on a mission, landing the plane wasn’t going to be easy…

 

3. Book Review: They Did It for Honor: Stories of American World War II Veterans We review the second book of veteran stories as told to Kayleen Reusser.

B-17 MISS EM and crew(tie) Beyond the Bomb Group What happened to the B-17s that transferred out of the 43rd Bomb Group? We follow the story of one of their old Flying Fortresses, CAP’N & THE KIDS.

 

A 63rd Squadron B-24 attacks a Japanese ship near Mindoro during WWII4. Night Action Off Mindoro This dramatic painting by artist Jack Fellows illustrates a B-24 coming off an attack on a Japanese destroyer near Mindoro.

 

 

Maj. Gerrity (in the cockpit) and Sgt. Neal (standing in the B-25's nose).5. Major Tom Gerrity’s One Plane War Against the Japanese A pilot scheduled to go home wanted one more crack at the Japanese before he left the Pacific Theater.

 

Butch the German shepherd6. 9 Photos of Dogs in the Pacific Theater During World War II It’s all in the title. Go meet some of the dogs of Fifth Air Force.

 

A painting of a 38th Bomb Group B-25 over a Japanese ship during WWII7. One Minute in Hell Steve Ferguson illustrates some of the final moments of 1/Lt. James A. Hungerpiller and his crew over Simpson Harbor on November 2, 1943.

How to Make a Volcano Explode (or not)

In late March 1943, Rabaul was (unsurprisingly) still the top target of Allied raids. For two days, March 20th and 21st, the 65th Squadron was on alert to fly a mission to Vunakanau Airdrome, and the mission was cancelled each day because of less than optimal weather. All four of the 43rd’s squadrons were put on alert on the 22nd for another Rabaul raid, and they were able to take off from Seven Mile on the night of the 22nd, which would have them arriving over Rabaul on the 23rd.

The B-17s made their appearance known by dropping bombs on Rabaul before sunrise. Since there was no daylight, the crews could not observe their results, but searchlights were following the B-17s everywhere. While several planes were holed by antiaircraft fire, none were seriously damaged and all returned to base without issue.

Rabaul was the proverbial thorn in Fifth Air Force’s side and it’s possible that more than a few men were wishing for a quick way to shut down this Japanese stronghold. Several of them came up with a theory to test out: using Matupi Volcano to their advantage, specifically by using bombs to make it explode, thereby wiping out Rabaul. Major Carl A. Hustad took off with his bombardier on the 23rd to carry out this mission. The two 2000-pound bombs were dropped into the crater with no results. Afterwards, personnel realized how silly the idea was in the first place.

 

Rabaul Volcanos

Taken in 1941, this photo shows the topography of the Rabaul area. Matupi Volcano can be seen in the background.

This story can be found in our book Ken’s Men Against the Empire.

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)