Tale of Two Cities

In 1946, the U.S. War Department released a movie on the bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Along with footage of the destruction, there is also an eyewitness account from priest, who was in a building a few miles away from Hiroshima when the first atomic bomb detonated on August 6, 1945.

Three Days at Sea

In early April 1944, the plans for invading Hollandia were in full swing. V Bomber Command was doling out orders to soften up the area ahead of time and the 312th Bomb Group participated in one such mission on April 12th. The unit was sent to Tami Airdrome, located 13 miles east of Hollandia, where they bombed and strafed the runway and the aircraft dispersal area.

While heading back to Gusap, an A-20 crew from the 386th Squadron spotted three Japanese luggers and the pilot, 2/Lt. James M. Horton, decided to attack them. He destroyed one and damaged the other two, then pulled up from his run. Horton’s problems began when he didn’t fly high enough to avoid hitting a tree with his left engine. He flew out over the water to put some distance in between himself and the Japanese, but felt confident that he could make it back to Gusap on one engine.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before that confidence disappeared, because the right engine started to cut out as well. There was no way to make it over the Finisterre Mountains now. It was time to bail out. Horton told his gunner, S/Sgt. Alphonse S. Rylko, to bail out, but he refused. He figured that if one of them was injured in the ditching, the other man could help out. Rylko’s foresight would prove to be correct.

The A-20 landed in the water going about 110mph and stayed afloat for about 90 seconds. Rylko escaped with nothing more than a bruised shoulder. Horton was hit in the back of the head by the five-man life raft and got a cut on his hand from broken glass. The men worked together to inflate the life raft, then climbed in. Overhead the P-38s that had been escorting the A-20 circled the downed crew a few times before flying off. Alone in the ocean, the crew was left to deal with a couple of problems: a hole in the bottom of the life raft and rough seas. Their kit had a rubber patch but no glue, so they used chewing gum to fill the hole. The gum patches were not ideal and had to be replaced several times while the crew waited to be rescued.

Before daylight completely disappeared, the men saw a PBY Catalina in the distance, but it never got close to where they were floating. They spent a rainy, unpleasant night in the raft bailing water and repatching the hole. The next day, they saw six P-38s and a Catalina and unsuccessfully attempted to signal to them. That afternoon, it rained again, and continued all night. Horton and Rylko were kept busy bailing water. Their rations consisted of candy and six cans of water, along with whatever rainwater they could catch. The next day, the men tried to get the attention of someone aboard one of the B-25s, A-20s or P-38s that passed by on the way to Tadji. Then a Catalina escorted by a P-38 passed by. It was still raining, making it much harder to see the downed crew. 

Finally, someone aboard a 345th Bomb Group B-25 noticed the men and radioed for a Catalina. It wasn’t long before the Catalina landed, but its fuel tanks exploded, igniting and sinking the rescue plane. Rylko and Horton didn’t see any survivors among the debris. A second Catalina landed in the rough seas half an hour later and everyone on board had to toss heavy objects overboard before the aircraft could take off. Three days after the ditching, the men were finally out of danger and back on land. They drifted about 80 miles away from their ditching site.

This story can be found in our book Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s.

A Month of Losses

In December 1942, the 3rd Bomb Group, especially the 90th Squadron, was dealt blow after blow as crews and planes were lost. Over the course of the month, the 3rd Bomb Group lost more than 40 men. The first loss on December 5th happened on a night takeoff when a 90th Bomb Group B-25 hit a tree at the end of the runway at 17 Mile Airdrome. Five men were killed.

Ten days later, a 90th Squadron B-25 went missing on a five-plane flight between Port Moresby and Charters Towers. At the time, the 13th Squadron was flying up to Port Moresby to relieve the 90th Squadron, but strong thunderstorms were preventing this rotation. To minimize any losses, C.O., Maj. Donald P. Hall, would only let one 90th B-25 fly down for each 13th Squadron plane that flew up. After the first one arrived, though, five 90th Squadron pilots thought the rest of the squadron was on its way up and took off. They ran into the same bad weather and the B-25 flown by 2/Lt. Alfred Crosswhite, STINKY PINKY, wound up separated from the other four planes and disappeared with 11 men on board. The wreckage was discovered on hilly terrain in July 1943, about 40 miles west of a town named Cardwell.

Five days after storms caused the crash of STINKY PINKY, the 90th lost 11 more men on December 20th, in more bad weather. After a few days in Charters Towers, the 90th was due back at Port Moresby. Seven B-25s loaded with 90th Squadron men took off from Australia and encountered heavy rain on the way to New Guinea. It wasn’t long before the heavy rain turned into severe thunderstorms, tossing the B-25s around in the strong wind. By this time, the planes were in a long line as they flew single file through the turbulent weather. Lieutenant Richard H. Launder was flying behind Lt. Donald K. Emerson, watched Emerson’s plane vanish in the clouds and followed him into another storm. Without warning, Emerson’s B-25 appeared in front of Launder. Emerson pulled up and over Launder’s B-25 in the nick of time, then crashed into the ocean. Launder, who suspected that Emerson stalled and couldn’t recover, circled the crash site, but did not see any survivors.

The final two tragedies of the month, and the year, occurred at the end of December. As with the previous two losses, this 13-plane flight was part of a rotation from Port Moresby back to Charters Towers. This time, it was the 13th Squadron being relieved by crews from the 38th Bomb Group. That day, a B-25 flown by Capt. George “Spikes” Thomas, DEEMIE’S DEMON, disappeared over the Coral Sea. In the days and weeks that followed, no one found any trace of the aircraft or the 11 men on board. Among those lost was Sgt. Eugene J. Esposito of Rutland, Vermont. His family was notified of his status as Missing in Action on February 4, 1943. On August 13, 1943, his family received word that he had been declared dead. Esposito sent his last message to his family three days after Christmas to thank them for a box they sent and extend his Christmas greetings.

Newspaper clipping from the August 14, 1943 Rutland Daily Herald about the death of Sgt. Eugene J. Esposito of the 3rd Bomb Group
Newspaper clipping from the August 14, 1943 Rutland Daily Herald

Hours after the 13th Squadron left for Australia, Capt. William R. “Red” Johnson and the other 90th Squadron officers were starting their New Year’s Eve party at Charters Towers. Johnson, who just finished his combat tour and would be heading home to his wife soon, decided that a couple of his old friends from the 27th Bomb Group should join the fun and decided to fly to Townsville and pick them up. A crew chief went with him as his co-pilot and two privates tagged along for the ride. One decided to stay in Townsville and four new passengers (his friends and two others) climbed aboard. That was the last time anyone saw the men and the B-25. Without Johnson, the party at Charters Towers was a little quieter, as everyone thought his return had been delayed due to weather. A search plane was sent out on January 3rd and someone spotted a burned aircraft about 20 miles southwest of Townsville. Johnson had been flying through rain and low clouds, following the railroad back to Charters Towers, when he hit the base of a mountain. None of the seven men on board survived.

For the 3rd Bomb Group, it was both a tragic ending to 1942 and a tragic beginning to 1943. Forty-five deaths occurring in a single month was difficult to bear. Back in the States, 45 more grieving families may have hung gold star flags in front windows of their homes.

The Champ

This aircraft was in the first batch of B-24s assigned to the 403rd Squadron in May 1943, one of only four B-24s on hand with the 403rd at the end of the month. The 403rd was still in the transition process to the B-24 during this time, and flew missions with a mix of B-17s and B-24s. This B-24 must have made the trip overseas very early in 1943, as it was never refitted with a nose gun turret, nor was the factory-supplied Sperry ventral ball turret removed, modifications made at either the Hawaiian Air Depot or the 4th Air Depot to nearly all Fifth Air Force B-24s sent overseas from March 1943 onwards. Had THE CHAMP enjoyed a longer service life with Fifth Air Force, these modifications would certainly have been made.

43rd Bomb Group B-24 The Champ
THE CHAMP, B-24D-30 #42-40060, was one of the first B-24s the 403rd Squadron received. Note the greenhouse nose, an early design feature on B-24s in the Pacific Theater that was replaced with nose turrets on new arrivals from March 1943 onward. The boxing glove nose art on THE CHAMP is a reference to the 1931 movie of the same name. (Elwyn H. Hansen Collection)


The nose of this aircraft was painted with the nickname THE CHAMP, a reference to the 1931 movie of the same name, along with a brown boxing glove outlined in yellow with lightning bolt ‘action lines’ coming from its front. A scoreboard was also painted under the pilot’s window, which had nine mission symbols by late June, although only eight of the markers carried a star on top. The ninth may have been a mission in which the pilot was forced to turn back due to weather or mechanical problems.

This aircraft had a very short career with the 403rd Squadron. During take off for a raid against Rabaul on July 11, 1943, the landing gear on THE CHAMP was damaged, allowing the hydraulic fluid to drain away. One main wheel remained extended while the other was retracted, but it could not be made to extend even with the manual crank. Captain William R. Gowdy, the pilot, salvoed the bomb load and then circled Seven Mile Drome for hours to burn off fuel before the crew bailed out. Instead of heading out to sea as intended, the pilotless aircraft circled the airdrome until it ran out of fuel, crashing into an uninhabited hillside.

Known missions flown in the 403rd, all in 1943, include: Rabaul, 6/10 (Unknown); Rabaul, 6/25 (Brecht); and Rabaul, 7/11 (Gowdy).

This profile history can be found in our book Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Vol. I. A color profile of THE CHAMP can be seen on page 218.

Target: Clark Field

How big was Clark Field? This photo from our book Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s gives you a little bit of an idea. For more information about the 312th’s participation in the attack on January 7, 1945, read this post.

This target photo map shows Camp Stotsenburg and three of Clark Field’s six runways, part of the objective for the massive Fifth Air Force strafer attack on January 7, 1945. For a larger version of this image, head to our Flickr page. (Edwin A. Wodjak Collection)

Ormoc Bay – A Dangerous Place

38th Bomb Group B-25 over Ormoc Bay on November 10, 1944

On November 10, 1944, 1/Lt. H. C. McClanahan and his wingman, 2/Lt. A. R. White, formed the third flight in the 822nd Squadron’s attack on Ormoc Bay, on the island of Leyte, in the Philippines. Roaring at minimum altitude, McClanahan and White opened fire on the freighter-transport Kinka Maru. McClanahan’s co-pilot, 2/Lt. W. A. Wolfe, placed one 500-pounder just aft of the ship’s stern. White ended up in a better position over the transport, and his co-pilot, 2/Lt. Robert L. Miller, dropped their string of bombs, managing to get two direct hits on the vessel. One bomb was seen to explode in the area of the forward hatch and the second amidships.

This painting depicts McClanahan and White pulling up from their strafing run, caught in a maelstrom of flak bursts and tracers. In his bid to escape, McClanahan engaged the Yugumo-class destroyer Akishimo, strafing its deck and releasing three bombs just seconds after passing mere feet above the ship’s superstructure. However, McClanahan’s severely damaged aircraft crashed into the waters of the Kawit Straight, southeast of Ponson Island, breaking into four pieces on impact. Lt. White observed the crash and signaled in the bomber’s position before returning safely to Tacloban Airdrome. There were no survivors from the crash. The 38th Bomb Group was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation for this mission.

To purchase a copy of this illustration by Jack Fellows, visit our website.

Air Support Over Biak

Throughout the war, there were times when air units were assigned to aid ground troops as they landed in Japanese-occupied territory. Even though the 63rd and 868th Bomb Squadrons flew specialized B-24s designed for night shipping strikes, on May 27, 1944, they were called upon to hit Biak Island in advance of the Allied invasion. The preliminary strike was carried out at 10,000 feet in the pre-dawn hours. Aircrews had to be precise about their bombings. To keep the ground troops safe, aircrews had to obey several restrictions, such as: staying at high altitudes to minimize the chance of friendly fire accidents, no bombing reefs since it could send coral shrapnel into the ships and no bombing jetties that could be used by the Navy for beach landings.

Once the sun rose, more than 140 B-24s and B-25s were in the air and most of the 41st Infantry Division was assigned to move in on the ground. The 43rd’s B-24s bombed Mokmer Airdrome and the Roeber Area, located south of Borokoe Airdrome. Crews were pleased with the accuracy of their drops. Far below and out of harm’s way, the first wave of Task Force Hurricane was dealing with an unanticipated setback: a westerly current that pushed the transports 3000 yards away from the correct landing beach. Watching the scene unfold, the rest of the crews on the landing craft were able to compensate for the current and landed on the right beach.

Biak
American ground forces invaded Biak Island on May 27, 1944. The 43rd Bomb Group supported this offensive with repeated missions to the Biak area, including Mokmer Airdrome, the subject of this photograph. The scale of that pummeling can be seen by the hundreds of bomb craters on the airfield. (William J. Solomon Collection)

By nightfall, all 12,000 Allied troops were on Biak. While they were met with some resistance, there was so little action that the Allies thought that the bulk of the 4000 Japanese troops had already evacuated from the island. That assumption, as well as the troop estimates provided by intelligence, turned out to be wrong. Colonel Naoyuki Kuzume, in charge of the 11,000 troops on Biak, had spread out his troops in strategic locations along ridges and terraces outside of Mokmer Airdrome and the “Ibdi Pocket,” located between Ibdi and the Parai Defile. In these spots, the Japanese put up a fierce fight against the 41st, keeping them out of Mokmer Airdrome until June 8th. It would take even longer for American engineers to safely repair the bombed airfield, as Japanese troops kept shooting at them from higher elevations around Mokmer. The fighting continued into mid-August, delaying any further invasion plans. As word of Col. Kuzume’s successful tactics to ward off Allied troops spread, other Japanese garrisons would adopt similar strategies in the coming months.

Read more about this mission in Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Volume II.

Found in the Archives: December 1942 Map of Salamaua

For each of our books, we carefully go through our various collections and pick out the best images for publication. For one reason or another, some of them simply don’t fit our criteria, but we want to share them because they’re still very interesting to look at. Recently, we ran across one such image, a map of the Japanese-occupied Salamaua area dated December 1, 1942. We believe the map’s data came from prewar sources as well as scouting commando units, as it appears to have prewar housing and military posts marked. At the time, the majority of the attention was on the brutal fighting in the Buna-Gona area, located south of Salamaua.

Map of Salamaua from December 1942
Click on the image to explore the map’s details.

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.

Experiencing an Air Raid

This descriptive entry comes from the diary of T/Sgt. Adrian Bottge, a member of the 89th Squadron, 3rd Bomb Group ground crew.

Sunday, May 16, 1943

Smitty and Mata left on transport this morning. Loaded a plane and sat around waiting for the other transports. Didn’t show up. Then the two with the men on board came back. Had received orders to return at once because Jap planes were over Oro Bay. Made up loading list of photo supplies in afternoon. Went to show in evening. One of the fellows said there was a yellow alert. 50 Betty Bombers and 50 Zekes took off from Lae airfield 1/2 hr. before. They started the picture anyway. Had run a few minutes when the three shots sounded. We ran for our trenches but the Aussies were put out. Hollered to keep the show going. In a few minutes we heard the planes, shortly after we saw bomb flashes toward 14 mile. There were lots of planes and lots of ack-ack. Didn’t come over this far. Went back to the show “Ice Capades” and saw some more — then got the alert again. The Aussies were really disgusted this time. Hollered for everyone to sit down. We went to our trench, however and was glad to be in it. Lard and Mata hit a trench close to the movie area. We saw what seemed like hundreds of bomb flashes in the north. Was so noisy, one couldn’t hear himself think. Terribly warm and lots of mosquitoes in the trench. My knees felt like they would break in two — crouched down like we were. Those bombers left and it was quiet for about ten minutes. Then several more planes came over. Didn’t drop any bombs though they were right overhead. Dropped flares — possibly trying to photo the damage. One of our P70 nite fighters was there but hadn’t been able to gain enough altitude. Could see the Jap planes (in searchlights) shooting tracers at the P70. Went back tot he show and finally finished without interruption. Lars said the Aussies really scattered during the last raid. Tried to get into crowded trenches. Our boys told them, “Carry your a-s, this will teach you to move when the alert sounds.” They scurried around like rats looking for a hole. Shrapnel was falling like hail. Sounds like bumble bees in flight. 89ths A-20s made early morning raid on Lae yesterday. Strafed 6 bombers and 5 Zeros on ground. 90th lost another B-25 with six man crew. Poor 90th has taken it on chin. B-25 destroyed on ground at 14 Mile last night. B-24s and 17s took off before the raid. Ack-ack fire was terrific last night. Doubt its effectiveness though. Cootenac (Marval) got back from hospital this morning. Had measles.