April 12, 1944


Another long, long day. Squadron day off and only three planes went out, two on a barge hunt and one on a photographic mission.

The photographic ran into trouble over Rabaul at 4,500. Flak took an engine out. The other ran away, so the boys went in the drink right smack in the middle of Simpson Harbor. One man shot in the leg, the other in the shoulder. The life raft was rotten but a two-man raft was all right. They put the two wounded boys in it. The pilot had to grab the radio operator who couldn’t swim and opened his Mae West. Then the rest of the boys hung on and paddled like hell to keep from being dragged into the shore where the Japs waited. A Dumbo came in and got them in time.1 One of the pilots and the navigator were sitting in the dispensary today with a quart bottle and two glasses. Understand they drank all of it, and I don’t blame them. The pilot (Carlisle) came over with us.

Yesterday, another ship lost an engine. A crew of boys who came with us. As the ship kept going down, they started throwing things overboard. Downs, Holland, and Moroney chopped out the windows and threw the guns overboard, a couple of cameras and a frequency meter. Equipment worth $5,000. They just cleared Duke of York Island and made it to Green Island, which is our property. These were the same boys who took on Shortland Island and came back with 100 holes in the plane. They dropped three 500 lb. bombs, and fired 20 rounds of 75 millimeter shells, plus a couple thousand rounds of .50 cal. machine gun bullets. They were lucky. Where they walked in the devil feared to tread, and came out alive. Lt. Clark was the pilot.2

Prevalent rumors are that the 42nd Group will fold up soon and reorganize in Australia. The Japanese are moving their men and equipment from Cape Hoskins.3 and Gasmata.4 to Rabaul, New Britain. Sounds like there’ll soon be a hell of a concentration of anti-aircraft there. Woe is me.

Today passed quickly. Read the “The Album” by Mary Roberts Rinehart.5 and wrote a letter to you, Bonnie. Saw the picture show “Pilot #5” tonight.6

So goodnight for tonight, I love you, my angel.

Notes & Commentary

1 69th Bombardment Squadron B-25, El Croco, was piloted by 1st Lt. Richard W. Reed. The Co-Pilot was 2nd Lt. William W. Carlisle, and the Navigator was 1st Lt. Patrick H. Watts. The Engineer was S/Sgt. William S. Price and the Radio Operator was Carl A. Cook. Also aboard the El Croco was Cpl. Warren G. Johnson, Turret Gunner, and S/Sgt. August C. Valentin, Photographer. S/Sgts. Price and Valentin were wounded. The following is according to the mission history available at PacificWrecks.com, http://www.pacificwrecks.com/aircraft/b-25/el-croco.html:

El Croco departed from Banika Airfield in the Russell Islands Group. It was on a photo reconnaissance mission of Rabaul. The aircraft dove from 9,000′ to 4,000’ where it came out of a cloud at 300 mph. Coming out of the cloud it was subjected to intense anti-aircraft fire.

Half of one engine was torn off and the other engine caught fire and was leaking oil. Also, the ailerons, turret, bomb bay, nose and wings were hit, and a portion of the tail was knocked off and crew man wounded. Hit by a second barrage, the B-25 dove to 2,500′ over Simpson Harbor, banking 80 degrees in a spin headed towards Lakunai Airfield.

Following the coastline, the B-25 ditched twenty miles from Rabaul, making a smooth landing into a 15′ sea swells, and the B-25 sank in less than a minute. Shore batteries began firing on them, until other friendly aircraft in the area dove down to strafe the guns.

A bomber formation returning from a mission circled the downed crew and radioed a PBY Catalina that arrived within an hour. The entire crew of seven were rescued by a VP-91 PBY Catalina piloted by Ensign Wayburn C. Cook.

According to a Kansas newspaper’s account, when El Croco came out of the clouds over Rabaul, Warren Johnson, dorsal turret gunner, felt the shock of the bursting flak. He jumped down from his turret to see if anyone was hurt. A second later a shell exploded just above the turret tearing big pieces out of it and the turret gun. Disregarding his narrow escape, he began to administer first aid to the wounded cameraman and was so busy he forgot to brace himself for the landing. “Active Duty in the South Pacific.” The Osawatomie (Kansas) Graphic News, 15 June 1944. Find A Grave, Inc. (http://www.findagrave.com : accessed 13 April 2014); Record, Warren G. Johnson (1923-1950), Memorial No. 50856597, Records of the Osawatomie Cemetery, Osawatomie, Kansas, record maintained by Melissa Springer Robards.

An even more dramatic report of this photoreconnaissance mission appeared in The Crusaders:

The crew of “El Croco”, a 13th AAF Mitchell bomber, will never recall exactly how they lived through that morning of April 12.

Alone on a photo mission to Rabaul, the Mitchell dove from 9000 to 4000 feet to start its run. When it came out of a cloud the bomber was traveling 360 miles per hour over the center of the big Jap base. It seemed that every anti-aircraft battery in the city from machine guns to 90 MM had been waiting for the plane to break out of that cloud.

Straight ahead loomed a black mass of bursting shells and tracers. Too late to avoid the barrage, the Mitchell traveled straight on into it.

Half of one engine was torn off: the other engine spouted oil and burst into flames. The nose, tall, wings, and bomb bay were peppered. Bomb bay doors, hatch covers, parts of the turret, and a large piece of the tall section were sheared off. The aileron controls were gone, but the damaged rudder and elevator controls remained. Two men were wounded when a shell blast took most of the floor out within a foot of where they were standing and left only the metal ribs. The airstream poured in through large gaping holes in the roof and side.

All that was left was a crippled wing, a burning engine, with a runaway propeller, a few controls, and a questionable fuselage to carry them from the center of Rabaul.

Another barrage and the plane dropped 2500 feet towards Simpson Harbor. The wing banked through 80 degrees and the pilot was certain the plane was spinning into Lakunai Airdrome.

It was nothing but muscle power on the shredded controls that forced the plane away from the city and out to sea.

The bomber hit the water 20 miles from Rabaul without a bounce. The landing was so smooth that the four men in back escaped injury even though they didn’t have time to brace themselves. The landing was made on swells 15 feet high. The punctured plane leaked like a sieve and in less than a minute it was under water.

They had been flying parallel to the shore and the copilot said they landed so close he could “clearly see the cocoanuts on the palm trees!”

Jap coastal batteries immediately opened up. A formation of passing Allied fighter planes observed the crew’s predicament and immediately came down to strafe the enemy guns. The guns stopped firing.

A formation of bombers returning from a mission sent a plane down to circle their location and radio for help.

A Navy PBY picked up the message and went to their aid. Within an hour after the water landing the crew of the “El Croco” was homeward bound.

1st Lieut. Richard W. Reed was the pilot responsible for the miraculous escape. Before the plane had time to stop Lieutenant Reed was pulling open the canopy escape hatch out of which climbed the co-pilot, the navigator, the radio operator, and himself. He had to climb back to release the raft and was in the water inflating it when the crew came out.

Co-pilot 2nd Lieut. William W. Carlisle had his foot jammed between the seat and the control column. It came free at the last minute. He then dived back in to tow the radio operator to the life raft.

Navigator 1st Lieut. Patrick H. Watts tried to warn the crew in the back of the water landing. The plane was losing altitude rapidly; the interphone system had been shot out. The only solution was to crawl back over the narrow passage-way on top of the bomb bay. He squeezed his 190 pounds through the passage, told the crew to prepare for a water landing, turned around and crawled back to the Navigator’s compartment. He also helped the co-pilot tow the radio operator to the raft.

The Mitchell, not designed as a camera ship and without a camera mount, had been assigned a large camera to be operated from the side window. It took two men to operate it. S/Sgt. August C. Valentin, a non-flying administrative clerk, was the only extra man available at the time to help the engineer operate the camera. Sergeant Valentin had already finished taking a roll of pictures of another target before they began their run on the second objective, Rabaul. A blast of shrapnel caught both Cameraman Valentin and the engineer from behind as they were busy taking pictures of the city. Sergeant Valentin was hit in the shoulder-most of the floor near him had been blasted away and he could look straight down into Simpson Harbor. Although painfully wounded he swam out of the bottom escape hatch (already blasted off by anti-aircraft fire) and floated until the raft was inflated and the crew safely assembled before he asked for help. Throughout the rescue and the probing for shrapnel after the rescue, the doctor and the crew said “he took it like a veteran.”

S/Sgt. William S. Price, engineer, was helping Sergeant Valentin with the camera when he was hit through both legs. The engineer calmly sat down, twisted a tourniquet around his own leg, and administered his own first aid. He slid out of the escape hatch unassisted and swam to the raft.

Cpl. Carl A. Cook, radio operator, continued to send out calls for the rescue plane giving details of location, time, and damage. He stayed until the rising water in the plane ruined his radio set and then crawled over the narrow bomb bay out the front escape hatch.

Cpl. Warren G. Johnson, turret gunner, felt the shock of the bursting anti-aircraft and jumped down to see if anyone had been hurt. A second later a shell exploded just above the turret tearing big pieces out of it and the turret gun. Disregarding his narrow escape he began to administer first aid to the wounded cameraman and was so busy he forgot to brace himself for the landing.

A current started to carry the raft towards the Jap-filled shoreline. The wounded men were placed in the raft while the uninjured crew swam it out to sea, and subsequent rescue.

United States Army Air Forces, The Crusaders: a history of the 42nd Bombardment Group (M). (Baton Rouge, La.: Army & Navy Pictorial Publishers, 1946). World War Regimental Histories. Book 113. pp 77-78 : digital image (http://digicom.bpl.lib.me.us/ww_reg_his/113 : PDF download 17 April 2014).

The Japanese had an efficient early warning radar system that could provide a 30 to 60-minute warning of impending Allied attacks. See page 313 : digital image (http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/AAF/IV/AAF-IV-10.html : accessed 09 April 2014).

2 A detailed account of this event is provided in the The Crusaders:

Lieutenant Clark was piloting his 13th AAF bomber on a routine shipping search of a large Jap-held area. Turning home with negative results Clark sighted a column of smoke arising from a small island. Curious, he dove down to circle the island-his plane was met by a volley of crossfire. One anti-aircraft shell ripped a three inch hole in his wing, 10 slugs poured into the engine, and nine machine gun bullets traced a pattern in the fuselage -one bullet even pierced the bombardier’s briefcase as it lay in his desk. No one was hurt and Lieutenant Clark turned the bomber around to make another check on the island before he began the attack.

Sure enough, there were clothes hanging on a line. A little further observation disclosed a group of long buildings, an airplane, and finally a pill-box-the concrete type the Japanese forces used to defend key points.

In three passes the Mitchell dropped three high explosive bombs in the building area, poured over 1000 rounds of machine gun fire into the airplane and pillbox, and, coming in just over the water, lobbed 20 75MM cannon shells into the strongpoint. At least one direct hit was made on a large building and on the pillbox. Clark said that “Japs poured out of the buildings and pillbox and flung themselves on the ground-it seemed that we could almost see arms and legs flying through the air.”

United States Army Air Forces, The Crusaders: a history of the 42nd Bombardment Group (M). (Baton Rouge, La.: Army & Navy Pictorial Publishers, 1946). World War Regimental Histories. Book 113. pp 80 – 81 : digital image (http://digicom.bpl.lib.me.us/ww_reg_his/113 : PDF download 17 February 2014).

3 Beginning in February 1944, the Japanese supply and refueling airfield at Cape Hoskins on the north coast of New Britain came under heavy attack. The airfield was used for the protection of Bismarck Sea convoys and the defense of Rabaul. Destruction of this airfield further strengthened the Allied stranglehold on Rabaul. “Allies Strike Cape Hoskins”, Prescott (Arizona) Evening Courier, 7 February 1944, p. 1, col. 1, :digital image, (http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=897&dat=19440207&id=MB5TAAAAIBAJ&sjid=5oEDAAAAIBAJ&pg=3678,1496592 : accessed 09 April 2014)

4 The Japanese occupied the village of Gasmata on the southern coast of New Britain until they evacuated it at the end of March 1944. An Australian Army unit occupied it after that. In March 1942, between eight and ten unidentified, blindfolded Australian prisoners of war were executed by a firing squad composed of members of the No. 2 Japanese Special Landing Party. According to testimony given at a war crimes trial held at Los Negros in June 1950, “…the prisoners had been told they were being trans-shipped to Rabaul and had no idea they were to be executed.See “Blindfold Prisoners Shot”, The Canberra Times, 26 June 1950, p. 4, col. 4; digital image, Trove, National Library of Australia (http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/2785705 : accessed 09 April 2014).

5 Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876- 11958) was writer of mysteries. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Roberts_Rinehart. The Album, published in 1933, remains in print.

6 Pilot #5 was released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1943. Starring Franchot Tone, Gene Kelly, Van Johnson and Marsha Hunt, Pilot #5 is the story of Allied soldiers and airmen on Java. Bombed by Japanese planes, one of them is selected to fly a suicide mission against an aircraft carrier. See http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0036265/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1.

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4 Responses to April 12, 1944

  1. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Amazing accounts of these events.


  2. Lloyd Marken says:

    Great post Allen. Quite a story.


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