How One Daring World War II Rescue Mission Made History

December 30, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: MilitaryTechnologyWeaponsWarCombat

How One Daring World War II Rescue Mission Made History

Leave no man behind.

Key point: Success came at a high price.

In the predawn darkness of Dobodura, New Guinea, 2nd Lt. William J. Smith of the U.S. Army Air Corps was roughly awakened by a noncom announcing that it was time to get dressed and get to the mess tent for breakfast.

Smith had not slept well, having spent most of the night fighting mosquitoes that had managed to get inside his cot’s netting. The nervous anticipation of flying another combat mission in the morning did not exactly make for peaceful slumber either. Five days earlier, eight North American B-25D Mitchell medium bombers of the 71st Bomb Squadron, 38th Bomb Group, Fifth Army Air Force had flown north over the Owen Stanley Mountains from their permanent base near Port Moresby to Dobodura, their temporary base of operations. The 38th Bomb Group, known as the “Sun Setters,” was composed of the 71st, 405th, 822nd, and 823rd Squadrons, and 16 other Mitchells from the 38th would join today’s mission. Their target on February, 15, 1944, was Kavieng Township on the northern tip of New Ireland, deep in Japanese-held territory. A long flight lay ahead of the Army aviators, even from this forward airstrip.

At the mess tent Lieutenant Smith sawed into his pancakes and hit a pocket of unmixed batter. As he watched the powder spill down into the syrup, he daydreamed of biscuits with red eye gravy, eggs, bacon, sweet cream, homemade preserves, and all the other delights of his mother’s breakfasts back in Kentucky. As he came back to harsh reality, Smith put sugar in his coffee and then with experienced precision skimmed off the floating ants. Soldiers in South Pacific territories learned that you could not keep ants out of the sugar, and it was just easier to strain them out of your coffee. It was not a great breakfast by stateside standards, but about the best the Army Air Corps personnel could expect in primitive New Guinea.

“Smitty,” as Smith was known to his buddies, made the short walk to the briefing tent with the other pilots and crew members, all of whom keenly appreciated the danger of today’s mission. The briefing officer reminded all that Kavieng would be “target rich” as an extremely important logistical staging base for Japanese installations in New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago. It served as a major supply depot and boasted an excellent harbor, an airfield, and an aircraft assembly facility. Japanese planners knew that if the empire was to maintain any offensive capability in the Southwest Pacific its outposts had to be supplied with replacement fighters and bombers. These aircraft were being assembled at Kavieng to be flown south to Rabaul.

Equally essential supplies, replacement parts, and flight personnel were transported from Kavieng by barges, freighters, and even cargo submarines. General Douglas McArthur and the commander of the Fifth Army Air Force, Lt. Gen. George C. Kenney, were determined to cut off armaments and supplies by executing several intense air raids on Kavieng. This day’s mission would not be the first raid on Kavieng by the Fifth. Consolidated B-24 Liberator high-altitude bomber attacks had been moderately successful in recent days, both in making the Kavieng airstrip a useless patch of bomb craters and in smashing local air power. But Kenney, a superb strategist and leader, knew the need for total neutralization of the target would demand the Fifth Air Force’s signature low-altitude bombing and strafing. The Japanese anticipated these additional low-level raids and meant to employ antiaircraft batteries directed by newly installed radar to defend all approaches to the base. Kavieng’s gunners felt confident that the murderous volume of flak they could deliver in the relatively confined areas of their base would exact a deadly toll in U.S. bombers and flyers.

The crews were informed that if missions like today’s were successful, many of the Japanese bases in New Guinea could then be bypassed without threat of attack from the rear. Rabaul’s huge garrison, over 80,000 men, would be further reduced to an ineffectual corps of castaways, and any shipping in its harbor, absent air cover, would be trapped in port. The once mighty Rabaul military complex would “wither on the vine” and be reduced to a de facto POW camp. The briefing ended with the officer reminding the pilots that fuel preservation was important as the distance to the northern tip of New Ireland would stretch the limits of the range of the bombers. Smith had to admit that the marathon mission today would probably be much more difficult than the 24 previous missions he had survived since arriving in New Guinea the previous year.

Lieutenant Smith walked around the Mitchell B-25D medium bomber to which he had been assigned, number J33F, plane 306 of the 71st Squadron, and closely checked it over before takeoff. He had never flown in this particular plane and wondered whether its nickname, Pissonit, which was emblazoned on the nose, referred to what the bomber was going to do to the enemy or the frustration it had previously given other crews.

Smith admired the firepower the bomber boasted as a result of the now standard modifications made in theater at Brisbane, Australia. The Plexiglas nose of the aircraft had been refitted with four additional forward-firing .50-caliber machine guns. With the two blister pack .50s on each side of the cockpit and the top twin turret facing forward, the B-25D could lay down withering fire on a strafing run. The aircraft could deliver two tons of ordnance and on this mission would carry four 500-pound high explosive bombs. Smith glanced around the airfield and saw it swarming with activity as the other crews made their final preparations. At 7:45 am, the pilots, 1st Lt. Eugene Benson and Smith, taxied to their place in the flight line for takeoff. The airmen heard the R2600-13 Wright radial engines roar and felt their power as the twin engine Mitchell gathered speed and lifted into the brightening Pacific sky.

At Langemak Bay, Finschafen, New Guinea, Navy Lieutenant Nathan Green Gordon of Patrol Squadron 34, Fleet Air Wing 17 was busy making flight preparations for today’s mission. Gordon, who hailed from Morrilton, Arkansas, had flown many missions with the “Black Cats,” a squadron of Consolidated PBY-5 Catalina flying boats painted flat black for stealth purposes in night action. The Dumbo, as the PBY was lovingly called, was a large aircraft: 21 feet high, 63 feet long, with a wingspan of 104 feet. The plane had an incredible range of over 2,500 miles and was employed in multiple roles—executing reconnaissance flights, flying patrol duties, and making nocturnal bombing raids.

Today, however, Gordon was assigned to carry out another facet of the wing’s mission statement. He would fly his PBY, Arkansas Traveler, and orbit off Kavieng, New Ireland, to provide search and rescue cover for a major Army Air Corps bombing mission. Gordon had been briefed that several squadrons of B-25 Mitchell and Douglas A-20 Havoc light bombers would make a strike on the heavily defended base and that planes could go down in surrounding waters.

Gordon ordered the crew to cast off the Cat’s moorings, and he taxied into the bay for takeoff. The PBY was not a particularly handsome aircraft and was slow, with a cruising speed of only 125 miles per hour. Gordon was not concerned about her speed, as he knew she was extremely tough and could reliably perform rescue work even in rough seas. From past patrol and bombing missions, he knew she could absorb a lot of punishment and still make it home. He had all the confidence in the world in the big Cat and in his experienced and close-knit crew of eight: two pilots, a navigator, a radioman, three gunners, and a flight mechanic.

Gordon’s trip to New Ireland was uneventful, but he was grateful for the four Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighters covering him. Japanese fighters, although seen less frequently in recent months, could appear at the most inopportune time. After a long flight to the predetermined position, the Traveler took station well out to sea off the tip of New Ireland and idled at 2,000 feet. Gordon cast a glance down at the ocean, and the reports of 12 to 16 foot seas, trough to crest, were verified. Although the weather was clear and visibility unlimited, he sincerely hoped he would not have to force a landing in those swells.

Eight planes of the 71st Bomb Squadron, nicknamed the Wolf Pack, along with eight other B-25’s of the 405th Green Dragons Squadron and eight Mitchells from the 823rd Terrible Tigers Squadron passed over Sand Island, the rendezvous point for this mission. There they joined elements of all four B-25 squadrons of the 345th Bomb Group, called the Air Apaches, and several squadrons of A-20 Havocs from the 3rd Bomb Group. The formation, designated mission number 46D-1, circled and picked up its fighter escort of Lockheed P-38 Lightings. As Pissonit continued to climb in formation, Benson manned the controls and Smith conversed with Hollie Rushing, the navigator. Farther back in the plane, behind the bomb bay, the radioman, Claude Healan, and the tail gunner, Albert Gross, made ready their stations as the planes cruised toward the target.