This World War II Rescue in the Pacific Was One of America's Finest Hours

December 9, 2017 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IIPacificJapanU.S. ArmyAir CorpMilitaryHistory

This World War II Rescue in the Pacific Was One of America's Finest Hours

“Please express my admiration to that saga writing Cat crew. This rescue was truly one of the most remarkable feats of the war.”

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.

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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.