And So We Go To War

Below is the first entry Carl A. Hustad’s wrote about his journey aboard the Queen Mary. Although he didn’t know it at the time, he and the rest of the 43rd Bomb Group were heading to Australia and the Pacific Theater.

February 28, 1942

I have spent pleasanter birthdays before in my 26 years. Today is quite the hottest. If it weren’t for the open porthole, I should probably be much more uncomfortable.

We are at sea somewhere along the South American coast, my guess is North of Cabo de Orange. Maybe I should go back and bring myself to this point, as our journey is already 11 days on.

With a heavy snowfall and a very early hour of morning, we departed our old base at Bangor, Maine, entrained for Foreign War Service. Arriving at Boston, Mass., late that 17th of February, 1942, we were immediately embarked on our transport. It proved to be quite an unusual transport ship, being the Queen Mary of England. The crew are all English and many English customs are preserved. Tea and crumpets every afternoon at four especially. (Not a bad custom after all, when you get used to it.) But anyway, we crowded into our staterooms and tried to assemble and orient ourselves. The thought of leaving and the job ahead made conversation futile.

The next day at noon we left. Where we traveled the next five days, I have no idea, except we really traveled! We must have circled well out to sea to avoid the coastal submarine area. Sunday, February 22, we anchored and to my surprize, just off of Key West, Florida. Key West until Tuesday just before dark. Since then we have been steadily moving eastward along the South American coast.

Queen Mary
One of the three largest passenger liners in the world, the Queen Mary was a luxury ship during peacetime, as seen here. After refitting, she was capable of carrying as many as 15,000 troops in a single voyage, making her crucial to the war effort. Her importance to the Allies was so great that Hitler reportedly offered a $250,000 bounty to any naval captain who could sink the gigantic ship. By the end of the war, the Queen Mary had carried a total of 765,429 military personnel over a distance of nearly 570,000 miles. (Charles R. Woods Collection)

The ship we are on is fast. In fact, too fast for an escort. We are alone, but our speed seems to be the best protection. But, we are not unarmed. I believe we could make a fair showing for ourselves with any submarine. Of those, we have seen none so far. Reports have come in of other slower ships being torpedoed all along our course. There was even a rumor on board of a radio report saying we were torpedoed and sunk a few days back. And so we go to war.

Life on this Queen Mary transport is quite luxurious in a way. Many of the facilities are cut off for lack of sleeping space and dining rooms. The Officer’s lounge is very nice with its deep chairs and sofas. It is also air conditioned and almost too cool. It is in use constantly for the numerous card games and movies and so forth. A swimming pool has just been made available for us also. Water and fresh food seem to be the problems of any long ocean voyage. We are all trying to conserve the fresh water on board. We have three types of water on ship. The first is fresh drinking water which is not obtainable inside the stateroom. Next is plain water, but not suitable for drinking…..used for shaving, etc. The third is salt water which we use to bathe in. The salt water requires a special type of soap, as the ordinary soap won’t lather.

Read more about the 43rd Bomb Group’s journey aboard the Queen Mary in our book Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Volume I.

The Tent at the End of the Runway

As related by Capt. Walter A. Krell, C.O. of the 823rd Squadron, 38th Bomb Group.

“Crew training was set up at Charters Towers (70 miles west of Townsville), the base commander of which was an ancient chicken colonel whose constant interference with the war effort was so much help to the Japs. Early struggles to eliminate useless procedures were blocked and impeded by the commander, and I was a constant target of his complaints. He would track me down on the line or wherever and work me over about the behavior of our men on the base, in town, in the mess hall – – I soon had enough to prompt me to ask Shanty [38th Bomb Group C.O. Brian O’Neill] to get him off my back.

“Shanty had me pick him up in Townsville. We flew back to Charters Towers, and drove out to the headquarters just off the end of and slightly to one side of the runway. For 30 minutes Shanty listened in deadpan silence while the old coot unloaded about ‘new undisciplined Air Corps flying tramps’. Shanty, just promoted to full colonel, had borrowed the eagle insignias for his shirt collar. The eagle heads face right or left, according to how they are pinned on – – Shanty’s little eagle faced the wrong way. As we were leaving, the CO spied the error, fetched an eagle facing the right way from his trinket box, proceeded to pin it on Shanty’s collar. Shanty tensed up and I backed off a couple paces, but nothing happened and we left.

“Wherever we went, Shanty always did the flying. As we taxied out, Shanty asked, ‘Which runway leads over the old b’s camp?’ I cautioned ‘The wind’s the other way.’ ‘I didn’t ask you about the wind,’ he countered. The B-25 was light – – Shanty had it off halfway down the runway, flaps and wheels up by runway’s end and still under six feet altitude. He swung over the colonel’s pyramidal tent, straddled the peak with his props and hauled up. We peeled around and looked down – – the tent was smashed flat!

“When I got back to Charters Towers, the old boy was waiting – – did I know within minutes after he had given orders to Col. O’Neill to put a stop to aircraft flying over his area, some crazy pilot demolished the colonel’s tent with him still inside? He had suffered and could have been hurt. I was to track down the pilot. There would be a court martial he raged, red-faced and shaking his swagger stick in my face.

“Then I told the old duck the pilot was CO O’Neill himself who declared anyone stupid enough to set up headquarters in such a site was asking to get hurt, that he hoped he had made his point, and that he was at that moment en route to Brisbane to ask General Kenney (Commanding General, 5th AF) to assign a new training base for these critically needed combat units where they would no longer be an inconvenience to the Colonel. Within two days the Colonel had been relieved of his command and promptly departed the base, whereupon I made it eminently clear to the base paddlefeet that O’Neill could quickly arrange for any of them to be shouldering muskets over the Owen Stanley range – – that their job was to provide the services the flyboys needed – – or else! – – and things did improve!

“It was a great privilege to work with Col. O’Neill.  His qualities of greatness earned the respect and admiration of all those who knew him.”

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)

Interview with Gert Schmitz

A lot of the interviews we have shared with our readers tend to focus on the American perspective in the Pacific or European Theaters. Gert Schmitz actually fought with the Germans during World War II. He talks about his war experiences, what it was like to live in Germany in the 1930s, postwar Germany and why he left the country. This interview comes from the Memoirs of WWII YouTube channel.

B-26 Accident at Iron Range

After a successful strike on Lae on September 13, 1942, the 19th Squadron stopped over at Port Moresby to refuel before heading back to their base at Iron Range, Australia. It was a new camp, just hacked out of the Queensland rainforest, and very primitive, lacking many of the more comfortable aspects that the men had gotten used to at other Australian bases.


The trip from Port Moresby to Iron Range was uneventful and Capt. Walter A. Krell lined up his B-26, KANSAS COMET #2, for landing on the new runway at Iron Range. He planned on landing short, then taxiing off at the midpoint so the rest of the formation could land behind him. Without a landing threshold in place, though, he instead touched down on the overrun at the end of the strip. Unseen from the air was a large termite mound that was not cleared away by the engineers. The termite mound broke off the B-26’s right landing gear and strut, causing the plane to slide down the runway completely out of control. Abruptly veering right, it crashed into a compressor truck parked next to the runway.

Man next to termite mound
Here, a member of the 63rd Squadron inspects one of the giant termite mounds found near their camp at Mareeba. The mounds contained a veritable termite city encased in a concrete-hard structure, approximately ten feet high. This is the sort of mound Krell’s B-26 hit while trying to land at Iron Range. (Charles R. Woods Collection)


On impact, the fuselage cracked in half, then both the truck and the plane burst into flames. Krell was briefly knocked unconscious, but revived in a smoke-filled cockpit. His friend and co-pilot, F/O Graham B. Robertson, was pinned in his seat. Krell extracted himself from the plane and ran around to the other side to try and free the unresponsive Robertson. The rest of the crew was able to exit through a gaping hole in the fuselage and Krell climbed in, shifting debris in an effort to free his friend. Soon, the heat and smoke from the flames were unbearable. Ammunition from the bombardier’s compartment was also cooking off, making it took dangerous for the burned Krell to stay any longer.


He climbed out of the cockpit and everyone moved away from the burning B-26 in case of an explosion. The crew’s injuries were tended to by several flight surgeons from different units in the area. Thankfully, the plane never exploded. The wreckage was finally cool enough to go through around midnight and the dead bodies of both Robertson and the truck driver were removed. Back at a field hospital, Krell, who was recovering from his burns, was heard calling, “Hold on! I’ll get you out!” After three days in the field hospital, he was sent to Townsville for further treatment. It was months before he resumed his duties. The rest of his crew suffered permanent injuries from the accident.

This story can be found in Revenge of the Red Raiders.

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.

Repost: Betting Against the Weather

First published in 2015, we’re revisiting a diary entry written after a 1943 mission.


This week, we have an entry from Col. Donald P. Hall’s diary. The C.O. of the 3rd Bomb Group wrote about a particularly exciting mission on July 28, 1943.

Henebry led the 90th [Bomb Squadron] this AM and hit barges beyond Cape Gloucester in New Britain. Got 11 barges. The P-38 escort tangled with enemy fighters and shot down six. All our planes returned. Took 15 B-25s, T.O. 1300 composed of planes from 8th, 13th and 90th to go to north coast of New Britain and hunt more barges. Weather bad on route out and I received call from ground station saying something about a destroyer and transport somewhere en route. P-38s called and said they were going back because of weather. I decided to take a chance and go on without cover and use the bad weather alone. You don’t get a chance at a destroyer and a transport every day.

Buck Good decided to go as co-pilot for me as he hadn’t flown in a B-25 in a long time. He’d just came back from leave that A.M. We hit Cape Bushing on the south coast of New Britain in light rain. No barges. As we rounded the point at Cape Gloucester saw everything at once. 2 destroyers lying off shore (I thought one was transport it was so large). As we headed for them, 20 Zeros passed directly over-head but didn’t attack right then. “Oh Boy!” I thought this is going to be rough.

A Jap air transport or bomber was circling over the boats and four of the boys headed for it. They fired a long burst into it, but it didn’t go down. So all planes except mine headed for 1st destroyer which was by now throwing up lots of ack-ack. Took my flight toward enemy air transport as it landed at Cape Gloucester. 16 Japs passed out of it but we cut all of them down. “Pappy” Gunn flying No. 2 position on my wing laid a 75mm shell under it. The wing caught fire from our bullets by the time it had stopped rolling. Buck Good let go a couple or three bombs as we went over it and that finished it.

Buck Good an I then headed for large destroyer which had not been touched. Looked over my shoulder and saw enemy planes coming from about 10,000 feet, but there was too juicy a target to stop now. I could see that the boys in Henebry’s, Wilkins’, and Hawkins’ flight had the other destroyer burning and were still bombing and strafing it. We dropped down on our run for the large destroyer and it lit up like a Christmas tree as its ack-ack tried to knock us down before we bombed them. While Buck opened the bomb doors for me, I started to tap rudders and rake the deck with my 50’s [nose guns].

You could see Japs all over the decks trying to get cover someplace. We released our bombs as we pulled up to clear the mast, then dropped to the water to get out of their heavy gun fire. As we turned sharply to the left I could see we scored two direct hits as the destroyer rolled back and forth, then began to burn. Oh Boy! Buck and I shook hands on that job!

As we could see the Zeros coming in among us, I wiggled my wings to collect the formation but it was hard to do as they were still in a circle around the first destroyer. I could see that it was finished too. We finally got together and left the target with a few Zeros on our tail. The rest of my flight had been unable to release their bombs, so it was lucky that Buck and I had thrown ours into the sides of the large destroyer.

I knew some of the boys had been hit as the planes couldn’t close their bomb doors. Lt. Nuchols’ plane (13th SQ) I found out later was badly shot up by enemy fighters and rudder about gone. Radioed our report home and came straight home. After the bombing, Nuchols was still flying around and someone saw parachutes descending. Later it was found out that everyone got out except Lt. Nuchols who had lost too much altitude to make it. He crashed and burned about 15 miles from drone. Took his co-pilot two days to get back here.

Received wire from Gen. Ramey and phone calls from others [saying] congratulations in our job. The boys were really happy. We stayed up late to see the photos. Buck said he’s never seen me so happy and excited over the target, but he didn’t exactly take out his knitting either! Only two planes had 300 lb. bombs and rest had only 100 lb. Lucky for us 300 lb. were along and I was glad I had one of the planes with this load.