Regardless of which is the mightier, both the sword and the pen were in the air over the busy Japanese-occupied harbor at Rabaul on the day that history records as “Bloody Tuesday,” November 2, 1943. Former child actor and now Hearst International News Service (INS) correspondent, Lee Van Atta had become known in Fifth Air Force as a daring reporter who, like Ernie Pyle and others, liked to be in the thick of the action to get a better feel for what he would report via INS. Sitting in the navigator’s seat directly behind pilot Capt. Richard “Dick” Ellis, with Lt. John Dean, co-pilot to Ellis’ right, young Lee Van Atta rode out the storm of fire and destruction over Simpson Harbor in a B-25D strafer nicknamed “SEABISCUIT” to write his stirring account of the battle on the return trip from Rabaul.
This was not the first trip to Rabaul for Van Atta; on October 12th he rode behind command pilot Major John “Jock” Henebry and co-pilot Lt. Edward Murphy in Henebry’s B-25D strafer nicknamed NOTRE DAME DE VICTOIRE. The October 12th mission pitted Henebry’s aircraft against the persistent Japanese antiaircraft gun crews defending the airfields at the Rabaul area airfields at Rapopo and Vunakanau, whereupon he had written an equally-stirring account of the battle. NOTRE DAME DE VICTOIRE was lost on the November 2nd mission but all of Henebry’s crew was rescued by a PT boat off Kiriwina Island in the Trobriands.
In the picture, 90th Bomb Squadron, 3rd Bomb Group pilot Ellis, with Van Atta seated just behind him, has loosed a 1000-pound bomb on a Japanese merchant ship. In the background, 90th Bomb Squadron pilot Chuck Howe’s B-25, nicknamed HERE’S HOWE, can be seen running the gauntlet of antiaircraft fire as well. On the return trip, Howe escorted Henebry’s crippled aircraft to a safe ditching off Kiriwina Island. On November 2, 1943, Fifth Air Force lost eight B-25s (11% of the attacking Mitchells) and nine P-38s in exchange for claims of 15 enemy ships sunk and 22 others damaged. In addition, the P-38s claimed a combined 67 Japanese fighters shot down and another 23 probably destroyed. In the background, the town of Rabaul has been set ablaze by phosphorous bombs dropped to screen the attack on the harbor from the heavy antiaircraft defenses.
The Sword and the Pen is available for purchase on our website and sent directly from the artist.
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.
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.”