On October 28, 1942, 89th Squadron CO Maj. Donald P. Hall made the following entry to his diary: “Capt. Ed Larner, a classmate of mine has just come over from the states. Ed and I used to fish a lot while we were at Barksdale Field [in Louisiana]. He and 12 other are joining my Squadron. We flew to Port Moresby today. Good to be back with the squadron.”
Captain Edward L. Larner, who was originally with the 46th Bomb Group, had been reassigned and sent to Maj. Hall’s 89th Squadron in the 3rd Bomb Group. He arrived as an experienced pilot with more than 800 flying hours under his belt. It wasn’t long before Larner made a name for himself as a fearless low level A-20 pilot and he came to the attention of Gen. George C. Kenney. “I found I had another fireball in the 3rd Attack Group, named Lieutenant Ed Larner,” Kenney wrote on November 10th. “That lad was good. He had fire, leadership and guts.”
After the A-20 strafer project was deemed a success, Pappy Gunn and Jack Fox began working on similar strafer test modifications for the B-25 Mitchell. Some senior pilots were skeptical that a medium bomber could be utilized for low level strafing. However the North American bomber did have the range necessary to reach Japanese air bases. Kenney was in favor of Larner’s promotion to C.O. of the 90th Squadron. By the end of December 1942, Larner was at Port Moresby, training 90th Squadron pilots on these modified B-25s.
Around the time of all this armament development, word about the 43rd Bomb Group using B-17s to skip-bomb ships was getting around. Major William G. Benn had led the first successful skip-bombing attack on October 23, 1942 and was continuing to work on the technique up until his death on January 18, 1943. Pilots in the 89th Squadron began practicing skip-bombing in A-20s around the end of December 1942, followed by 90th Squadron pilots in their newly-modified B-25s a few weeks later. Even though pilots still had their doubts about using B-25s in that manner, they continued their practice throughout the month of February.
On March 3rd, Larner, who had since been promoted to Major, was leading the 90th Squadron into what would be known as the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. He put their practice to use and proved that the B-25 strafer would be an effective skip-bombing aircraft. Breaking away from his formation that day, he was followed by three of his lieutenants. “Damn it! Get the hell off my wing and get your own boat!” he yelled at them.
Nearby, Capt. John P. “Jock” Henebry watched Larner make his solo run. “I was leading the second element. Everybody was rather apprehensive. When everybody saw him make that pass and hit it with at least one and maybe two and the explosion and so, that just ignited the whole thing and the guys got the idea if he could do it, they could do it.”
When Maj. Larner had taken over command of the 90th, the Squadron was reeling over the loss of senior pilot and former commander, Captain William “Red” Johnson, who had crashed on a transit flight near Townsville, Australia on New Year’s Eve. Larner’s transfer to the 90th and his confidence in the B-25 as a strafer bomber would re-energize the men in the Squadron. The combat crews were excited to watch their leader make that flawless first run on March 3rd.
Unfortunately, Maj. Larner would not remain the 90th Squadron’s leader for long. While he was a bold pilot, some of his flight maneuvers led him to be deemed reckless by some of his peers. His trademark approach would be the cause of his death on April 30, 1943. Coming in to land at Dobodura, he dove towards the airstrip and flew low over the field, then pulled up sharply into a chandelle. Usually, he performed this maneuver in a B-25 that was not full of fuel, eight passengers, baggage, tools and 2000 pounds of bombs. When Larner pulled up, the plane stalled, went into a flat spin, then crashed and exploded on the ground. There were no survivors. He left behind a wife and two daughters. Captain Jock Henebry would go on to lead the 90th Squadron.