Death From Above: The Pacific Theater Was Not Just Naval Battles

Death From Above: The Pacific Theater Was Not Just Naval Battles

Bombers, especially, were crucially important aircraft. 

Key Point: The Japanese air raid consisted of a few medium bombers making several passes at night.

Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber crews of the U.S. 11th Bombardment Group spent the first three months of 1943 organizing on Hawaiian airfields and flying practice and patrol missions around the islands. By mid-April, with no strike missions and no contact with the enemy, the bomber crews were restless. But the morning of April 17 had a different feel—electric.

The group’s officers were still in a closed-door briefing while rumors buzzed about a bombing mission, their first. All that remained for pilots to tell their crews was when and where. When pilot Lieutenant Joe Deasy met with his crew and gave them the particulars, it was the first time they had heard of Funafuti. Twenty-three Liberators would fly to Canton Island, a pork-chop shaped atoll 1,900 miles southwest of Oahu, refuel, and continue 740 miles farther to Funafuti in the Ellice Islands group, more than 2,600 miles from Hawaii.

“We didn’t know where Funafuti was,” B-24 gunner Sergeant Ed Hess recalled. “When we saw the map, we griped about it being halfway to Australia.”

Airfield at Funafuti

Six months before, on October 2, 1942, 11 ships of the United States Navy entered Funafuti’s lagoon and landed a Navy construction battalion. The Seabees immediately began construction of an airfield and support facilities while Marines prepared defenses and set up antiaircraft guns. To build the runway, the Seabees bulldozed thousands of coconut trees and covered arable land with hard-packed coral. The airfield was completed before the end of the year.

On the long flight to Canton, the men ate sandwiches delivered to the flight line from Kahuku’s mess hall. They used their flak jackets for pillows and stole naps in the back of the airplane. A relief tube, or “piss pipe” as crewmen called it, was built into the side of the plane just aft of the left waist window; another one was installed behind the flight deck. There was a portable toilet that most men avoided, better to wait than use the “honey bucket” and have to wash it out after landing because “if you used it, it was yours to clean,” radio operator Sergeant Herman Scearce remembered. Even the piss pipe could be a nasty problem at higher altitudes where its flow could freeze and cause a messy backup.

The Navy garrison on Canton treated its overnight guests well. The Air Corps men ate a hot meal in the Navy mess hall and slept in clean barracks with fresh bed linens. Early the next morning, 23 refueled B-24 Liberators took flight for the final leg of the trip to Funafuti, and on the afternoon of April 18 the wisps of land of the Ellice Islands came into view.

The planes approached Funafuti’s coral airstrip from the southwest. The island, shaped like a long, narrow boomerang, curved from the southwest to its thickest part in the middle, then bent back toward the northwest. Long and graceful, Funafuti was about 50 yards wide at each end, about 700 yards wide in the middle, and seven and a half miles long. Waves broke along the eastern side, the dark blue water of the Pacific just beyond and to the right as the aircraft approached.

To the left of the island, in the middle of the boomerang, was a lagoon, its calm water a beautiful shade of light blue fading to green close to shore. Coconut trees covered the island from its lower tip, nearest the approaching planes, and ended at the airfield. The white coral runway cut straight across the leading edge of the boomerang, beginning just a few feet from the ocean, and it seemed to end in the ocean on the other side.

After landing, the aircraft were parked along the runway side by side. There were no taxiways and very few revetments or bomb proofs on Funafuti to shelter parked aircraft, though there were plans to add them later. If a plane was hit during a Japanese air raid, the planes on either side were also at risk. But the airmen on Funafuti were not worried about a Japanese attack because Funafuti was just a staging base; they were not going to keep the planes there long. Besides, the briefing officer back at Kahuku made it clear that the Japanese would not know they were there.

Dogpatch Express

Early on Monday, April 19, 1943, an officer stepped front and center on Funafuti’s outdoor stage before the assembled air crews. The men sat on felled palm logs arranged in rows like seats in a theater. Behind the officer was a map, and on the bottom right of the map was Funafuti. There was another island near the upper left corner, and beside the map was a separate, large, scale drawing of the second island, Nauru.

The officer tapped his pointer on targets and visual references on the map of Nauru. He described antiaircraft gun positions and what kind of fighter interception the men would face. When he was finished, a weather officer took the stage, describing the conditions expected through each part of the flight. Next, the operations officer gave the crews critical mission details, including engine start time and order of take off. Each man mentally calculated when he needed to be at the plane in order to preflight his equipment and be ready for engine start.

After the briefing, aircrews prepared their planes for the next day’s mission. Ground crews fueled each B-24 with 2,700 gallons of gas from tank trailers towed behind Cletracs, tracked vehicles similar to bulldozers. Flight Engineer Jack Yankus and Assistant Engineer Bob Lipe confirmed the fuel level and checked engine oil levels of their B-24, Dogpatch Express. Yankus, Lipe, radioman Herman Scearce, and gunners Hess, Elmer Johnson, and Al Marston cleaned and oiled the barrels of their machine guns and loaded them with ammunition, belts of .50-caliber rounds in a repeating sequence of two armor piercing, two incendiary, and one tracer. Scearce confirmed the radios were working properly and ready to go.

Bombardier Lieutenant Shorty Schroeder oversaw the bomb loading of Dogpatch Express. Eight 500-pound general purpose bombs were loaded in the plane’s bomb bay racks from bomb trailers pulled by a truck. Most of the bombs were fused to explode on impact; some were equipped with delay fuses. Once the plane was loaded, Yankus checked the landing gear for four inches of travel in their shock-absorbing struts because less could cause the gear to fail.

Taking Off Toward Nauru

After a fitful few hours of sleep, the crew of Dogpatch Express walked to their plane. Yankus made certain the ignition switches were off, then he and Lipe pulled the propellers through, counting six propellers at each engine, two full revolutions of the Liberator’s three-bladed prop. While Scearce rechecked his radio equipment, Yankus climbed aboard and fitted the pilot and copilot parachutes into the recesses of their seats, then reported to Lieutenant Joe Deasy that the plane was ready.

On the flight deck of Dogpatch Express, Deasy and copilot Lieutenant Sam Catanzarite completed their preflight checklist as pilots and copilots aboard 22 more Liberators on Funafuti’s moonlit runway completed their own. At engine start, four 14-cylinder Pratt & Whitney R-1830-43 radial engines, 1,200-horsepower each, joined the motors of the other aircraft to produce a mighty harmony unlike anything Funafuti had ever heard before.

Before his takeoff roll, Deasy opened the throttles and held the brakes until engine manifold pressures reached 25 inches of mercury. When Deasy released the brakes, Catanzarite held the throttles to the stops so they would not creep back. Yankus called out speed as Dogpatch Express accelerated, slowly at first with its full bomb load. Deasy began to apply gentle pressure, pulling the yoke back, and the heavy bomber lifted off Funafuti’s dusty coral runway.

In the predawn darkness of April 20, the B-24s took off, each loaded with 4,000 pounds of bombs. One plane developed an engine problem and turned back to Funafuti, but the remaining bombers droned on toward a midday strike against Japanese positions on Nauru.

Nauru lies 26 miles below the equator, 1,000 miles northwest of Funafuti. Oval shaped with about eight square miles of territory, it is ringed by trees and a sandy beach on its perimeter. The interior of the island is almost solid high-grade rock phosphate, essential in metal alloys and used in bomb production. Phosphate mining, refining, and shipping facilities operated by the British on Nauru before the war were shelled by a German auxiliary cruiser in 1940 and seized by the Japanese in 1942. Far flung Nauru, with the unusual distinction of being occupied by the British and attacked by both German and Japanese forces already during the war, was about to be bombed by Americans.

“Man Your Guns”

The Liberators drew closer to Nauru and more than 220 air crew and observers were wholly and irrevocably committed. There was no way to avoid whatever was to come, no place to hide. Nauru lay just beyond the horizon, the distance closing at more than three miles per minute. The American bombers would reach their target at noon, each man keenly aware that the bright, beautiful day meant Nauru’s Japanese defenders would see the bombers approach with plenty of time to prepare their reception.