|Preface||Chapter 10||Chapter 12|
The job of constructing a camp while operations against the enemy continue, is something most of us would rather not think about. But at Stirling we got a good break by meeting the very competent 82nd Seabee Battalion, who had adopted and taken the 42nd to its heart by virtue of Lieutenant Swartzfager's earlier landing when only 1300 feet of the runway was built. By the middle of February, the 82nd's helping hand had enabled us to have all of our offices and shops set up and all personnel housed fairly comfortably.
Our overall mission for this period was the neutralization of enemy airdromes on New Britain so that landing operations could be carried out on Green Island on the 15th of February, and the building of an air-strip on that island could be accomplished without aerial opposition. In addition to the Green Island operation, there was still the matter of keeping the Torokina, Bougainville, perimeter free from enemy air attack, and this could only be accomplished by constantly hammering Jap airdromes within range of these allied bases. So, each day found 24 Crusader crews carrying "bomb bundles to New Britain," hitting first one airdrome, then another, until by the middle of the month all fields were practically devoid of enemy planes, and "D" day on Green Island was carried out successfully.
This first outstanding raid in February took place on the 4th when with Capt. Wilmot E. Y. Paxton and Maj. James B. Henson leading the 70th and 100th respectively, they smacked Vunakanau at mid-morning from 12,000 feet. One hundred and fifty quarter-tonners were dropped, with at least 21 scoring direct hits on the runway. Many gun positions were blanketed by the rain of bombs.
On February 5 the Commander of the South Pacific, Admiral Halsey, sent the following commendation down to all hands:
"Your bag of Jap planes during the last ten days is most remarkable. Therefore please convey my heartiest congratulations to all AAF personnel on their destruction of Jap aircraft in the Solomons-New Britain area. Your continued effort will have an important and continuous effect on all further operations in this theatre.
On February 11, 22 Mitchells from the 70th and 75th, led by Capt. Robert M. Morris and Lieut. Charles Rocks, pressed home a medium altitude attack against Vunakanau in the face of determined interception and scored hits on the runway and throughout the revetment area. No planes were lost to Nip interception although AA caused Lieut, John H. Van Schaick to ditch his plane in the water just outside of the range of shore guns. His plane sank in 3 minutes, and 55 minutes later Dumbo picked up the entire crew.
The week ending on February 12 was a strenuous one during which all groups of the XIII Bomber Command, with naval forces, struck against possible reinforcements at Kavieng and Ponapai, New Ireland; Talasea, Hoskins, and Gasmata on New Britain; Garove in the center of the Bismarck Sea; and Lorengau and Momote in the Admiralties. During the week five raids hit Kavieng, terminal for Jap convoys down from Truk and the Carolinas. This was part of the process that reduced the base to the "Kavieng Graveyard" in late February.
This drive built to a climax with three major strikes against Rabaul on the 14th by the Crusaders. On this day the festivities were started off by a surprise daybreak strafer against parked aircraft on the Tobera Airdrome. Led by Lieut. Reed Stevens of the 70th, four Mitchells dumped 36 centuries and blasted over 5000 rounds of ammunition into the target with devastating effect. Thirty Nippers were caught sauntering across the strip, perhaps on their way to get their morning rice. This group suffered the effects of the forward firing guns without benefit of any cover. Fifteen enemy aircraft parked on the ready-mat and in the revetment areas were strafed with certain effectiveness and two more in the area covered by the bombs. The control tower and adjoining buildings were well worked over in passing. The same day two more attacks were carried out against Vunakanau from medium altitude, unloading over 40 tons of bombs on that well-plastered target.
On the 15th, the invasion of Green was carried out successfully and shortly thereafter the airdrome was in operation, an airdrome that was to be much used by Crusaders limping back from Rabaul. The airdrome was given the name of Ocean Strip, and many an Allied plane was saved from the ocean by the location of this strategic field.
On the 18th, Major Henson and Capt. R. E. Shanks, 100th Operations Officer, pulled another "sneaker" on Tobera, but this time instead of catching them on the ground as Lieutenant Stevens had done, the Japs were in the air with some 15 or 20 assorted fighters. Henson and Shanks were covered by four P-38's who got five of the Japs, while Capt. Shanks accounted for one caught taking off and one destroyed on the ground by strafing.
February 20 was a day for Lieut. E. G. Keefer and his crew, all of the 75th Squadron, to remember, for in a long-to-be-remembered raid on Lakunai, he was forced to ditch seven miles off the St. George Channel, where he and his crew were picked up by Dumbo one hour later. The raid was conducted at medium altitude with 35 Mitchells from the 69th and 75th participating. Two hundred and ten quarter-tonners were well placed, and photo interpretation showed 21 hits on the runway, direct hits on AA positions, five large buildings and an indeterminate number of smaller buildings destroyed, a warehouse 95' by 95' demolished, and numerous fires in supply areas. Not a bad day's work. There was no interception this day, nor were there any unidentified aircraft seen over any portion of the Gazelle Peninsula. It is interesting to note that from this day on, the Crusaders met no more enemy interception for the duration of the time they were destined to remain in the Northern Solomons.
During the time that the Japs' fighters roamed the sky, the backbone of his interception was the Zeke, with generous interlardings of Hamp and Oscar and a sprinkling, in the later stages, of Tony and Tojo. Although as many as 100 enemy fighters intercepted on several occasions, the usual number throughout the campaign ranged between 40 and 70, lowering to 25 to 40 near the end of his air defense. On February 19, Allied air attacks destroyed 70 per cent of his interceptors, and although photographs showed that he still possessed fighters on the deck, during the ensuing period he entirely abandoned the air defense of Rabaul.
In the raid of the 25th, S/Sgt. Clarence K. Willey, gunner of a 100th crew, was killed at his post by an AA shell, thus becoming the first casualty suffered by this organization since its advent to combat.
In February, also, General MacArthur sent the famous First Cavalry Division into the Admiralty Islands on a reconnaisance-in-force. So completely did they keep the situation in hand that they asked for reinforcements and permission to stay. So, what originally came off the high staff's planning board as a landing for reconnaissance purposes and then a withdrawal, a la Dieppe, turned into a major operational invasion that would give the Japs one more problem for their limited air resources. Even if the Jap had desired to reinforce the Bismarcks from the West, the continued pounding of Jap airfields along the New Guinea north coast by the Fifth AAF had left Hollandia, 500 miles from Rabaul, the nearest Jap strip where a plane might be based with safety. At home the Jap was turning to the wailing wall for fair, as witnessed by this interesting radio intercept: "We are yielding to the advance of enemy bases. In the Bougainville area, for instance, Torokina, where the American forces have landed, is situated between swamps, and the rear is immediately closed in by mountain ranges. This area is a ghastly jungle belt. In building up this air base their strategy is to intercept our supply lines. Whenever the enemies build an air base on an island, our communications and supply with other islands become difficult. This is the way the Americans operate. They attack us, relying on unlimited numbers of aircraft. Even though we drive them away in air battles, our planes cannot stay up in the air beyond a limited time, so we have to return to base. Therefore, we can hold air supremacy only a short while in a day, and after that, the enemy's fresh aircraft will dominate the air. The essential feature of American air attacks is the employment of mass assaults. They repeat the attacks in waves. Two or three hours after the first attacker has withdrawn they come back with more and renewed strength. They repeat this operation. At first we can take off our aircraft to intercept them and battle it out in the air, but as fuel and munitions run out we have to land our craft. At that time, if the enemy renews the attack on us, the battle will become very unfavorable to our side. Meanwhile the enemy reconnaissance planes will fly over us and report the 'splendid target' by radio to the forces waiting at base and call tens of hundreds of aircraft. This is an everyday occurrence in the Southern Region. Our soldiers are saying: What has happened to the Japanese air power?"
Although as usual the Japs had exaggerated the conditions to some extent to stimulate civilian effort in aircraft production at home, nevertheless it conveyed a picture in part, of our strategy. And the shoe was beginning to pinch the would-be rulers of the world.
By the end of February, the Crusaders were as comfortably set up as they had been at any base prior to Stirling. Much work, hard work, had begun to show some real results. The group theatre under the combined direction of Capt. C. W. McClelland and Lieut. Les Sokler, I & E Officer, was well attended by half of the units on the island. A GI show conceived and staged by Lieut. Reed Stevens and Capt. R. H. Cohn was good for a few laughs although the Chaplains on the island couldn't quite see it that way. This jungle epic played nine nights, a new theatre each night, and moved Sgt. Russ Ahlbum, talented writer and cartoonist on the staff of The Mitchell, the official newspaper of the Crusaders to write:
"The Mitchell, on behalf of its three million readers (non-paying) does hereby award to each and every member of the "Stirling Heat Waves" cast, to the 82nd C. B. Band, and to Lieutenant Stevens and Captain Cohn, the organizers and supervisors of the show, the coveted and highly valued honor of being chosen as Charter Members of the Treasury Island Homestead Association.
"This honor, given for unusual service strictly below the call of duty, is our way of showing appreciation for the outstanding work of all concerned. Along with the membership go certain valuable rights and privileges, including a return ticket back to the Pacific's Palatial Paradise (Treasury Islands), and the homestead right on any ten-foot-square plot of ground. Of course, the latter privilege is conditioned on six years of continuous residence on that chosen plot.
"The boys (and girls) of the Heat Waves clearly indicated their right to membership in this select association. Their efforts provided the 'natives' with some swell and slightly risque entertainment.
"In the warped and calloused opinion of this reviewer, top honors were shared by Miss Beverly Eager-Britches (Hal Robbins), Tom Rooney and his distinctive songs, Charlie Imbranone, and the "Rabaul Maidens."
"Scarcity of space makes it impossible to praise all of the performers and they all rate plenty of praise. Lieutenant Stevens and Captain Cohn, the organizers, directors, etc., rate a big band for their efforts in making such entertainment possible."
In October, 1943, some 440 enlisted men and 10 officers were assembled at Seymour Johnson Field, Goldsboro, North Carolina, and under secret orders were sent to Greenville and Columbia Army Air Bases in South Carolina for "22 days unit training."
The force was split into two equal shipments and arrived at their destination, unheralded and unexpected, November 1.
Greenville and Columbia at that time were B-25 advanced schools, and the men were put to work acclimating themselves to this particular plane. The period at Greenville was a 22-day lark for 220 men who had been cooped up at Goldsboro for from three to six months with few passes, and no place to go even when they had passes.
The editor, by machinations beyond his control, was appointed CO of the contingent on arrival at Greenville, holding that post for three troubled and work-filled days. During that time he had signed Class A passes for the entire group, had got them billeted, had set up a mess hall, obtained equipment, and with the help of four other eager second lieutenants had apportioned the men about the field in their MOS jobs.
At noon of the third day, Maj. George M. White, former Executive Officer with a heavy group at Boise Air Base, reported in, saluted snappily, and was forthwith handed the entire organization.
On November 22 the two groups again assembled at Goldsboro from whence, a week later, they entrained again, this time for the POE, Camp Kilmer, N. J. The departure was preceded by an address by a corpulent major who congratulated us on getting the chance to go overseas, and who deplored the fact that the exigencies of the service prevented his accompanying us. "You'll live in dirt," he told us smilingly, "you'll eat dirt, and you'll love it." From his address rose the AD736B battle cry, "You never had it so good."
Nine weeks were spent at Kilmer, 30 miles from New York. There was nothing to do at Kilmer. The days were spent in short hikes, close order drill, goofing off, and dodging 104's. The First Sergeant's whistle routed the men out for morning roll at 0630; a retreat formation closed the day. One half the organization was allowed passes each day, officers included.
GI ingenuity made the pass situation a mockery, and only weariness or lack of funds kept a man on the post. New Brunswick, Newark, and New York City were each less than an hour away by train, all with a wide variety of preferred entertainment.
On December 19, half the group, AD736A, with Capt. George Dean in charge, Lieuts. Norman Schussler, Jack May, Ed Vassalo, Wesley Flora, Harry Dole, James Perrott, and John Daniels left New York harbor on the S. S. Exiria. Engine trouble kept them in Panama for 10 days, and on February 1, 1944, they arrived at Noumea, repeating the experiences of all who bad gone before at the Sixth Replacement Depot and Camp Barnes.
A month later, after Christmas and New Year's in New York, the second half, AD736B embarked from New York on the SS Robin Doncaster, getting into Noumea February 25. Major White, Lieuts. Herbert Bender, Fred Green, Gerald Markoe, Earl Cross, Donald Van Dam, Joseph Reiff, and Marvin Wachs accompanied the contingent.
These two outfits ultimately assembled at Stirling Island in early March and took over the duties of the homeward bound "old" 69th and 70th.
From there on, their lives are inextricably bound up with the Group.
March found the Crusaders taking an active part in the systematic destruction of Rabaul Town. This work was completed by the end of the month except for a few isolated buildings which did not warrant further area bombing, and efforts were diverted to surrounding supply areas. These areas were extremely lucrative when first hit, and great fires were the usual results from the bombs. Also the Group was periodically assigned to hit airdromes which had to be kept unserviceable at all times. The Group was particularly successful in this endeavor, never failing to score sufficient hits to put the strip out of operation, and on several notable strikes was able to string bombs from one end to the other, completely plowing up the entire runway. For 30 consecutive days (March 2 to March 31) the planes were able to reach some enemy target upon which they could effectively drop their bombs, and this long period of sustained operations enabled the organization to establish a new high for bombs dropped in a one-month period.
During March Maj. James Barlow arrived with a detachment of Mitchells equipped with 75 MM cannon, and several crews. A barge search was added to the list of Crusader missions, with a pair of cannon-equipped Mitchells searching the Gazelle Peninsula for enemy barges. The only loss during the month came when a plane piloted by Capt. E. M. Shanks of the 100th was forced to ditch after an attack against the dock area of Simpson Harbor. Fighter cover in the area, upon seeing the Mitchell plane land smoothly into the water, were heard to exclaim over the radio, "Jesus Christ! Did you see that landing? just like a goddam Dumbo!" Many friends of handsome, soft-spoken Edwin Shanks, who later became Operations Officer of the 390th, will recognize his habitual understatement of his own accomplishments in the following remarks on his water landing. He said, "Oil pressure and manifold pressure dropped to 40 pounds. I broke radio silence to inform the other members of the squadron that we would be forced to make a water laiidinla. Then I gave orders to the other members of the crew to toss everything loose overboard so we could stay afloat as long as possible after we hit the water. I couldn't feather the propeller and we lost altitude rapidly. Fortunately we had a smooth sea when we hit the water at 110 miles per hour. We glided over the sea for about 200 yards and came to an abrupt stop. We had plenty of time to get in the life raft as the plane stayed afloat for two and a half minutes. One of our planes radioed to the emergency rescue seaplane base which immediately dispatched a plane to rescue us. Another of our planes circled us for an hour until the Navy plane picked us up. It is certainly a good feeling to know that those Navy boys are right on the job, and a fine commentary on the excellent cooperation which exists between the Army and Navy out here."
This was the second water landing for Lieut. James V. Fairley, bombardier, who had 46 combat missions to his credit in the South Pacific. It was the first mission for Lieut. C. L. Johnston, Navigator, who had recently arrived in this theatre from the States. He commented, "I guess they are breaking me in the hard way." Other members of this crew were Lieut. Antonito F. Alagna, copilot, S/Sgt. Norman Gidley, radio-gunner; S/Sgt. Denver D. Bergman, photo-gunner, and S/Sgt. Robert G. Akers, Jr., armorer-gunner.
In speaking of his first forced landing from which he was rescued after 25 hours in a life raft, Lieutenant Fairley said: "We were on an administrative mission and were flying between Espiritu Santo and Guadalcanal when our engines conked out. We rapidly lost altitude and were forced to land in the water 100 miles South of San Cristobal. The radio operator was still sending messages when we hit the water, and broke his leg because he didn't have time to brace himself for the shock. We got everybody into two life rafts and made a sail out of a parachute. We had a pretty harrowing night on the water, for it was stormy and the radio operator was spitting up blood, which attracted sharks. We were prepared to shoot them if they attacked but all they seemed to want to do was rub their noses on the rafts to get rid of lice. We didn't want to shoot them for fear they would attract other sharks. We were picked up the following day by Navy Kingfishers and a PBY. We weren't rescued right away, for as we found out later, our message didn't get through to the home base, but was picked up by chance by another plane in the vicinity which radioed the message in the following morning. We traveled 60 miles during the night and were only 40 miles from San Cristobal when we were rescued."
March 8 also brought one of the few Condition Blacks, when the Japs counterattacked in force on the Allied perimeter at Torokina, Bougainville. The Group played a part in ending this fray, strafing guns and concentrations beyond the perimeter. The attack was soon brought under control but ComAirSols staffers spent some anxious nights in their foxholes, and the Piva strip was temporarily knocked out by Pistol Petes. It was officially estimated that over 5000 Japs were slaughtered in their foolish and desperate attempt to break out of their virtual imprisonment in the fastness of the Bougainville mountains.
On March 20, Allied troops landed unopposed at Emirau Island, northwest of Kavieng, and construction was immediately started on two bomber strips-strips which provided a base much closer to Truk and completed the encirclement of Rabaul. The strategy of island-hopping was beginning to assert itself in no uncertain terms. It was a strategy that became a familiar pattern throughout the hostilities against Japan.
|Preface||Chapter 10||Chapter 12|