BEHIND HANGAR DOORS
by Albert Black
CHAPTER 4: ONE MOVE CLOSER
Standing-by days were just about to end. Our ships were at the piers in San Diego harbor and
were taking on provision for the trip to the South Pacific and shortly would start loading our
squadron gear and aircraft. Since there were at least four squadrons loading, most of the gear,
other than aircraft and vehicles, was being loaded in the cargo ship as well as most of the ground
echelon personnel and the pilots, that were not field carrier trained. The Navy had provided the
USS Nassau, a jeep carrier for the aircraft and vehicles, and for the balance of the supplies and
personnel we had a captured German cargo ship designated the USAT Puebla (not to be confused with the spy ship captured
off Korea in the 1960s). We boarded the ship late in September, and I was assigned to a
stateroom that before the war carried two people, but now due to Army efficiency, I had eight
cell mates. To say that we were crowded would be like saying that sardines have space to swim
around in the can. We needed a pecking order to determine who had a right to be out of his bunk
at any particular time. We were crowded but knew that it was only a temporary arrangement, and
that soon the ordeal would be over and that we would have some island to stretch out on. We loaded in the afternoon and by evening
meal time we had our table assignment and our meal call number. For the number of officers on
board, the ship had two mess calls and you were expected to be fed during your call. The
evening menu was always a choice of two entrees, and the side items were the same with either
menu choice. On the first evening meal, I had chosen roast pork, and by midnight I was deathly
sick. I had one of my cell mates get the doctor, and was surprise to learn that I wasn't the only
one vomiting that evening. It turns out that all that had eaten roast pork were on the sick list. The
doctor did some checking and found that the pork had spoiled. For the rest of the trip, the second
choice on the menu was roast pork, and I don't know of a single taker. I guessed that our two-day
delay in departing San Diego harbor was probably caused by some of our provisions being
replaced, including the pork. It is easy to assume that the roast pork on the menu for the rest of the
trip was probably OK, and since none of the passengers were eating pork, the crew was
probably living high-on-the-hog and enjoying roast pork every evening.
After the two-day delay, the ship finally got under way on September 30. Once the ship had
passed Point Loma and was completely clear of the harbor, with no indications of returning, the
word was passed down through out adjutant that our destination was Samoa. Of the nine in our
cell, none knew exactly where Samoa was located, so we broke out some charts and all started
acquainting ourselves with the islands of the Pacific.
One feature stood out from the First observation, and that was that Samoa didn't seem to be very
close to the war zone now that Guadalcanal had been taken. The Japanese easterly perimeter
seemed to lie quite westerly of Samoa. This observation proved to be true, and once we reached
Samoa we found out that we were not quite ready to take the final step into combat. As I had
indicated, when we were augmented by new pilots on the west coast, there were some doubts
about operating with people we did not know, and it appeared that the Marine Corps was going
to give us a couple of months to get acquainted.
Once the news of our destination had spread around and been thoroughly digested, most settled
back to enjoy the cruise to a tropical island. Our fears for the trips were minimized, but those of
the ship's skipper seemed to be a constant problem. He had evidently spent time in the Atlantic
where the German submarines were a constant threat to cargo ships, so he was constantly
reminding the crew and passengers about throwing candy wrappers, cigarettes, garbage, or any
pieces of writing paper or newspaper overboard. He also made it known that port holes would
be closed at sundown, and that no lights would be on or showing during darkness. This included
the fire of any cigarettes.
Our cell was unbearably hot with nine people and no air circulation, so we decided that with
nine people, if we set up a one-hour watch list, that we could, with the loss of only one hour of
sleep each night, station each cell mate on the porthole watch for one hour, and if any one
attempted to enter the blocked sate room door, the on-duty officer would shut the porthole before
any light from the hall passageway could escape, once the door was finally opened. This little
arrangement showed ingenuity and made sleeping bearable, without endangering the night time
dark-out imposed on the ship. Our problem seemed to be solved, but I wondered how the
enlisted men could survive in the holds where they were bunked.. There were air scoops or
funnels to carry air to them, but I noticed a lot of the men were sleeping on the hold, hatch covers,
and main deck during the trip, so the air scoops probably were not too efficient.
We had been zig-zagging at about 12 knots (I'm giving the tub credit for great speed) when on
about the seventh day, or nearly halfway to Samoa, the ship went dead in the water. One of our
two engines went dead. On a twin-engine aircraft, if one engine failed your didn't go dead in the
sky, so I have no explanation of why we went dead at sea. I do have a slight insight into what the
ship's captain must have been going through even though I had never seen or met him throughout
the trip. He must have been terrified of a possible attack from a Japanese submarine. He had
passed the word that there would be NO noises emitted from the ship. He ordered that all
passengers and crew remove their shoes; the sound of a heel on metal could be transmitted
through water for miles and picked up by any submarine that was monitoring the area. The men
were not allowed to roll dice except on a blanket and against a pillow. Stateroom doors and
overhead passage doorways were to be bolted open or closed and not changed except in an
emergency. The metal bunks used by the men were to be left in the down position. The crew
members that were working on the faulty engine had to wrap their wrenches and tools in
toweling. He had everybody on double alert to prevent a single sound from reaching any
submarine lurking within miles of the ship.
The break-down, which lasted for over two days, produced many other problems besides the
sound problem. Once the ship had gone dead, so had the air flow that was so important for the
unbearable heat in the living quarters, and especially so for the men quartered below the main
deck. Being near the equator didn't help the temperature problems either. Once again my cell
mates devised a plan to make our living conditions more palatable. We decided to break the nine
into three groups of three. One group would sleep for four hours while the second group would
go on deck, and the third group would go to the dining area for the four hours. In the dining area
they could read, play cards or just try being comfortable while killing time.
To prevent the possibility of sounds being generated in the galley by the pots and pans, the cooks
were ordered to prepare sandwiches for each meal, and to break out any fresh fruit or vegetables
they could find. By the middle of the second day, sandwiches were getting boring and hopes for a
meal of even roast pork would look good and probably not be refused.
On the third day of silence, we felt a flow of air and the sound of engines as the old ship once
again made the effort to get back up to her 12 knots (give or take three). On the 10th of October
we officially crossed the Equator, and with everyone in the mood for something other than
silence. King Neptune Rex held court on the forward hatch and all of the pollywogs were
initiated into the stately order of Shellbacks. Most had a fairly easy time of passing the
inquisition, but there were a few crew members and a few sergeants that didnít have a very easy
time of doing King Neptuneís bidding and suffered his wrath. Most punishment was humiliating
but not too physical. A good time was had by all and the monotony was temporarily relieved. We
were back on our old schedule, and the roast pork was still off limits to most of the passengers.
The ship was back to the zig-zag course with no escort ships on the horizon. One wonders if a
radio message was sent at the time of our trouble describing our condition, and whether the Navy
or Army was concerned that we were a sitting duck, just waiting for a Japanese submarine to
pick us off. Of course, from our point of view, we doubted if a submarine commander would
waste a torpedo on our ship. "Better let the Americans suffer on board than put them out of their
Somewhere about the 20th of October, we steamed into the harbor at Pago Pago (pronounced
Pango Pango) in American Samoa. Across the harbor we could see the carrier at anchor. We
dropped our anchor, and once a barge came along side we boarded for a trip to the shore. On
shore we were met by a platoon of Samoan Marines, our official reception committee. The
platoon was dressed slightly different than we. They were wearing their official uniform that
consisted of a white tee shirt, a pith helmet (no white band), a red lava lava with the Marine
Corps emblem in a lower corner of the wrap around red lava lava. I don't recall if they were
wearing shoes or not, but if memory is correct they were bare-footed. They did carry the current
issue rifles, and their drill was smart and well rehearsed. By comparison we were a rag-tag,
sweaty, un-pressed, bunch of poor examples of how a Marine should look, and yet we were
received as though we had just stepped-out in full dress blues. We toured the small village for a
couple of hours, avoiding the one main hotel that was reported as the General's Headquarters.
The village could have been a stage setting for one of the scenes from South Pacific, but it was
Back on ship we waited for the brass to make a decision on who and what was going to be
stationed where. It must not have been determined before we left the states, which unit or units
would be unloaded at which island. Evidently the skippers were all meeting
with the General to settle the matter. The final decision was probably based on how the planes
were loaded on the carrier. Since our planes, as well as VMF-321 were loaded forward, and
closest to the catapult, it was decided that VMSB-341 and VMF-321 would be offloaded and
stationed at America Samoa and British Samoa. The remaining units would off-load at Wallis
Island and Ellice Island.
The decision made, Major Clasen prepared his pilots by informing them that he would take the
lead by being catapulted first, and he said that after the third plane landed in the water, the rest
would stay aboard. To prepare for the catapult shots in the harbor, the SBDs were defueled
down to about 30 minutes of fuel, the gunners were left on board, and anything of weight was
removed from the aircraft. Major Clasen was first, and as his plane cleared the end of the
catapult, it dropped down almost to water level and even his prop caused water spray to come
from the surface. He made it and then flew to the landing strip just outside the harbor. He
probably was the heaviest to make the trip, but others kicked up spray before gaining any
altitude. All 18 SBDs made it to the air strip safely. Again one wonders why the carrier didn't
leave the harbor and unload the aircraft with a strong wind over the deck.
For the rest of us, we were again underway, since the decision had been made that VMSB-341
was going to be stationed at British Samoa, VMF-321 was going to be stationed at America
Samoa. The rest we didn't worry about. A day later our floating hotel pulled into what some
called a harbor at Apia, British Samoa. It was late in the afternoon, and from all indications there
would be no unloading until in the morning. A water taxi arrived along side and a group of about
20 made the trip to shore - to check out the natives. As we approached the dock we could hear a
band playing popular music; our first thought was that it was a radio, but the laughter and spacing
of the songs didn't indicate any programmed radio show. Our curiosity whetted, we headed for
the source of the sound and found that it was coming from what appeared to be a corrugated
metal shed with a storefront facade. We quietly entered and observed a formal dance going on
with over 100 people and with a full dance band playing all of the popular tunes of the '30s and
early '40s. There didn't seem to be anybody that had the least concern that there was a war going
on just over the water from their location. For us it was quite a sight, war was going to be fun.
The young women were wearing long dresses or lava lavas in delightful colors and most had
flowers in their hair or were wearing a corsage, and were all dancing to the popular music,
barefooted. The manager came over and informed us that it was a private party, and that we
would have to leave. No one objected, and we did leave, but listened to the music, once outside,
for a short time before continuing our tour of Apia. Most stores were closed, but some of the
small family businesses were still open, especially the ones where the family probably lived in
the rear of the store.
It was in one of these small shops, a few days later, that I saw what I believed to be one of the
most beautiful young ladies that I have ever seen. Her mother was Chinese and her father was
white Russian. She was so attractive that almost every one in the squadron (even the married
ones) had to make a trip to the variety store to see this beautiful person. Her father made sure that
all knew that she was off-limits to any temporary personnel. She certainly was a very effective
means of advertising. Every Marine I knew spent money in the shop, buying items they didn't
need just to get another look at the young lady.
Once we had finished our evening tour of the area near the port, we returned to the ship to await
the morning, and the orders to start unloading. During our travel time to the harbor, the aircraft
were flown from American Samoa to the airstrip just west of the town of Apia, and the carrier
had managed to enter the harbor, unload our vehicles, and depart a full day ahead of our arrival.
In the morning, following breakfast, the pilots of VMSB-341, went ashore with their gear and
were met by our trucks, and transported the 15 miles along the coast to our new temporary home.
Prior to our arrival, the Samoan Islands had been defended at one time by three Marine
Regiments, and a smattering of antiquated aircraft (38 at one time). As the war progressed
westerly, with the landing at Guadalcanal, the former defenders of Samoa moved into that
conflict as well as the conflict being generated in the Central Pacific. Our arrival in the Samoan
Group didn't do much to help end the war, but we were going to get more training for later on.
For the present we were to become a part of the 4th Marine Base Defense Aircraft Wing. As members of the 4th MBDAW, in addition to training, we
were going to provide escort duty for ships making the supply runs from the west coast of the United States to Australia, and to the support bases for the
Guadalcanal operation. (end pages 34-39)
The Seabees had a sawmill, and Bougainville was loaded with mahogany trees that had to be
cleared for the construction of the runway and camp sites. Curiosity was placated, but I did write
to my father that I was living on mahogany floors and that our walls were made of mahogany.
Before we could get through the first night in our new home, the Japanese decided to give us a
welcome call, sometime before midnight. I was asleep in my shorts when the siren started. I got
out from under the mosquito net, slipped on a pair of moccasins that I had under the cot and made
a direct approach to our new fox hole. With landing gear down, I jumped into the fox hole ahead
of my ten mates, and landed in about one foot of water. No lizards, but a shock just the same.
What they failed to tell us was that the phreatic surface (water table) in the Torokina area (flats
of Empress Augusta Bay) was only about three feet below the surface. As soon as we finished
our digging, and cleared out the hole, water started to fill the cut, which we discovered near
midnight, however we stayed in the water until the all clear sounded. It was very clear that we
had a project to do the following day: to build a bomb shelter above ground, by using the sand
bags we had already filled, plus a lot more.
The next day, the 26th, I was on the strike schedule for Rabaul and the Diary had the following
entry: "26 January, 1944: Thirty-two pilots with their gunners were assigned to strike Lakunai
Airfield, Rabaul. The strike was led by Maj. McDaniel, Lt. Howard Coonley, and his gunner.
PFC Jack B. Thomann, USJMCR, Ser. No. 502579, did not return from the strike. They were last
seen going into their dive over their assigned target. Lt. Coonley's plane was No. 105, BuNo.
36231. Six pilots returned before reaching target because of plane trouble. Mission report
attached. Lt. Gibson took a patrol hop, dropping bombs on a Jap bivouac area, Lt. Sparlings went
on a Spotter Hop with PFC Sporko replacing Sparling's regular gunner. Sparling later went on a
strike against Jap barges. Lt. Postlewait was assigned a search hop."
The mission was complete by 1400 (2 p.m.) which gave us plenty of time to work on rebuilding
our water-logged fox hole before the nightly visit of the boys from Rabaul.
I completed a strike on the 29th to the Tobera air Field at Rabaul. On the 30th our strike was
directed at the secondary target because the primary target was socked-in, which meant that the
Cape St. George Lighthouse was going, once again, to have many near misses.
February was going to be a continuation of the same patter as January with my active
participation on the 3rd aand 7th for strikes on the Tobera air field.
By the 11th of February, the air crews of VMSB-341 were on their way by SCAT airplanes back
to Effete. Our first tour of about six weeks was complete and we were now going by groups of
20 a week to Sydney, Australia for a week of Rest and Relaxation. I was in the first group to
leave and we departed Bauer Field on the 17th for New Caledonia, where we boarded a PBM
(martin mariner) flying boat for Brisbane. At Brisbane we refueled and the passengers went
through Customs check before continuing on to Sydney. At this time in the war American
cigarettes were like gold in Australia so most carried as many cartons as they could pack in their
luggage. We were allowed to carry enough for our own personal use, and it was interesting to
see how many Marines became three and four carton a day smokers the day they left for Sydney.
The Customs people were nice and told the dock workers to only open the bags that showed
square corners, which would indicate a case of cigarettes. It was standard for people going on R
& R to take and use a parachute bag for the trip. The parachute being left on your bunk or turned
into the parachute loft for airing and repacking. The parachute bag would neatly hold a case of
cigarettes, and if you weren't clever enough to hide the corners, the Customs people would have
a case of American cigarettes for themselves and their friends. A pack of cigarettes would pay
for a taxi ride to most places in Sydney, and would buy a round of drinks for your table at any one of the night clubs. They were readily
accepted as an adequate tip for most services.
After the customs inspection, we once again boarded the PBM for the trip down the coast to
Sydney where we landed in Rose Bay. Once we had docked we were escorted to the Navy
Liaison Office, where we checked in and had our orders endorsed, showing the time that we
arrived, the time we would depart, and the telephone number that we would call each day,
reporting our whereabouts-if we knew. We were handed a list of the things to do and not to do,
along with a fairly large list of places to stay. Besides hotels, there were private homes that
would rent rooms, and many provided breakfast or brunch included in the very reasonable fee. I
never felt anything but a genuine welcome from the people of Australia, and I'm sure there were a
few ugly Americans that probably took advantage of a very grateful and fine group of people. It
was great to once again see civilization, and just outside of the Navy Liaison Office, the
American Red Cross had a service trailer that had a lot of the items that we didn't have in the
islands. The one item that interested most, other than the women workers, was fresh milk. Most
managed to down at least a quart before looking at any other of the goodies. Milk in the islands
was powdered and by 1944, the only part that resembled fresh milk was the color. It didn't smell
or taste like milk, and breakfast cereal didn't do anything to improve it. The Red Cross even had
a hamburger grill going with all of the trimmings available. The best part of an hour was spent
Close by the liaison office was a facility similar to our RMCAs where several of our group took
their luggage and checked into the bunk room for the night. The location was fine for the first
night, but it had one drawback which was noticed right from the beginning - we didn't have any
place to lock up our cigarettes. Everything else was fair game and of little value to a
light-of-hand artist if one were in the area. Fortunately, we didn't have much to worry about. The
people we came in contact with were people you could trust.
On the 2nd of April the flight echelon started to move back to the combat area, but this time we
were going to have our ground echelon to service our aircraft and to be our valuable
housekeepers. With a great leader and our complete team together, the second tour would surely
be a tour to remember.
One other piece of information had been passed to all before we departed and that was that we
were now going to be based on Green Island. Green Island was at least one hour closer to
Rabaul than Bougainville, which also made it possible for the Japanese to have a target an hour
closer to them. Most of the Japanese air power located in and around Rabaul had been
eliminated as had most of the Naval Forces, so the prospect of an attack on Green Island was
minimized. One other advantage to being on Green was that the maintenance crews could work
on the aircraft both day and night, without the constant fear of being shelled by artillery from the
surrounding hills. Green Island had no hills, and no Japanese soldiers lurking in the jungle just
waiting to attack your perimeter. Attack from the sea was always a possibility, because the
Japanese still had a very formidable base at Truk, which was only 1,000 miles to the north.
BEHIND HANGAR DOORS
CHAPTER 6: TOUR TWO AND THREE
When Admiral Halsey in November 1943 ordered the landing of troops in the Torokina area of
Empress Augusta Bay, Bougainville, Japanese General Hyakutake had approximately 40,000
troops, many evacuated from Guadalcanal, located mostly in the Buin area at the southerly end of
Bougainville. He had approximately 10,000 in the Buka area at the northerly airfield areas, and
at most 2,000 in the Torokina area. General Hyakutake had made an error, much as Hitler had
made of the Allies invasion of Europe, in assuming that the landing at Empress August Bay was
only a feint, and that the main allied force was going to strike at the southerly tip of Bougainville
where the Japanese had already cleared and built several airfields and complete facilities for
their operation. He had his troops ready for the invasion that was never to come, and by the
middle of December 1944, it probably was also becoming apparent to the General that the
feinted area was being used as a staging area for strikes against the Japanese bastion of Rabaul.
It probably should have occurred to him that after the many successful shipping strikes at Rabaul
in January, he was losing his means of resupply by airor sea. Our earlier strikes of the General's
area from Munda may have given him the false idea that we were doing preparatory strikes for an
invasion, but we were only trying to reduce pressure on our own invading troops at Torokina.
Sometime during the December-January period the General must have decided that there was no
invasion coming and that he had best start planning to drive the allies out of the Etorokina area by
attacking the perimeter defense area. To do this, he formulated a three point attack plan, hitting
the perimeter from the north, from the northwest, and from the east. To carry out the plan required
a Herculean effort on the part of the Japanese solders. To carry out the attack, all supplies,
weapons, and ammunition had to be hand carried for miles over the most primitive of jungle
trails and up and down very rugged mountains. The artillery was finally placed behind hills near
the perimeter so that it would be hard to find for counter-fire. By the 8th of March, the General
had his forces in place and started an artillery barrage against the perimeter area. Some 200-300
artillery shells fell on the Torokina area damaging many aircraft, killing a few of the soldiers,
and aviators in the area, and wounding many more. The stories of the ground battle that followed
are chronicled in many publications. Robert Sherrod on page 209 of his book has the following
to say concerning the air part of the battle:
"Next day Japanese infantry made their charge against the perimeter, and carved a slice out of
Hill 700 which they held for three days. Strike Command flew 107 bombing missions, dropping
65 tons on Hills 1111, 1000 and 250. In the first of 14 spotting sorties Lieut. W.B. Gilbert' s
SBD from VMSB-244 exploded in mid-air, killing him and his observer, Lieut. Vernon H.
Brooks USA; it was assumed that the plane had been hit by machine-gun fire or AA, although
U.S. artillery was active in the area at the time.
"ComAirSoPac' s Plan Able, providing for the evacuation of all planes at night to Barakoma,
Munda or Green Island was executed 9 March. This meant that the ground crews at each of these
fields had to service 40-100 extra planes each night, and to care for their crews.
In the morning the loaded planes would return to Bougainville for another turn at the attackers,
dropping their bombs on an enemy position before landing the first time. On 10 March, 160
Strike Command sorties were flown, and in the perimeter "where Pistol Pete had brought in all
of his relatives in the past two or three days" no shells fell. But on 12 March the shelling
intensified again on both Piva strips, worse on Yoke, only 2,000 yards from the front lines. One
Cub plane. was destroyed and the Marston mat on all three airstrips was holed. By now 114
SBDs and 45 TBFs were flying "almost continuously" and Airsols Intelligence noted that gun
positions were being pinpointed more accurately. Aviation personnel casualties were I killed, 14
"On the 13th, 131 SBD and 95 TBF sorties dropped 123 tons of bombs and also spotted for the
artillery and for destroyers firing their 5-inch guns offshore On the 14th, 145 tons of bombs were
unloaded by Strike Command on gun positions around Hills 111, 500, 501, 600 and 150 - 'one
good reason why Pistol Pete was quiet for once.' But Pistol Pete and his kin were good for
several more shots before Hyakutake's attack finally failed...
"Although many SBDs and TBFs were permitted to resume their bombing of Rabaul, Lieut.
Colonel Schwable kept an average of 30 light bombers on perimeter duty. Army fighter bombers
(P-39s and P-40s) stayed at the same task.
"The last big effort was staged by Hyakutake's soldiers on the night of 23-24 March. They made
some penetration but were thrown back a few hours after they started. Pistol Pete showed that he
was not dead by wounding 16 men, including 2 pilots in the MAG-24 camp. Prisoners reported
that Griswold's artillery had scattered the attackers.
"After 16 days the airfields in the Torokina perimeter were free to continue the bombing of
Rabaul, and on Kavieng..."
VMSB-341, being safely out of the area during all of Hyakutake's efforts, had missed the main
chance to provide close support for the men on the ground, which the Marine Corps had spent
years, since the 1920s, developing the technique. The strikes on Rabaul were probably
contributing very much to the invalidating of the Rabaul Fortress as a tool of the war. The strikes
also provided combat training for pilots that the 1st MAW would be calling on for the eventual
invasion of the Japanese homeland. Helping the men on the ground to hold their perimeter, could
give one the satisfaction of contributing directly to their local success, while the strikes on
Rabaul were rather impersonal. The few local missions, such as Pistol Peteís and spotter
observation type flights, seemed much more personal and gave me a great feeling of
accomplishment. The better you performed your job, the less you had to worry at night.
With the uncertainty of future actions by the Japanese on Bougainville, VMSB-341 was, for its
second tour, being sent to Green Island, which as stated earlier was at least one hour closer to
Rabaul for the continued neutralization, and was also close enough to Bougainville in the event
Hyakutake should reassemble his troops for any future attacks against the perimeter.
There were many noticeable differences after being away from the combat area for six weeks.
Some were obvious and others were subtle and took a little time to Spot. One of the first things
noticed after checking into our new tents on Green Island, was the lack of any air raid shelters.
At most one could see a small trench along side of the tent. This was a sign that the raids on
Rabaul had just about eliminated any vestige of enemy aircraft
in the area. This also was evidence that the night-fighter
capability had improved to the point that the night bombers from Rabaul were not making it to
their planned targets. Another item was the lack of a perimeter, where gunfire could emanate
from at the will of the Japanese. Green Island was completely surrounded by water (that's why
they called it an island) and the island was free of the enemy, even if there were any before the
landing (The natives on Green Island had been moved to a neighboring island before the invasion
started). All of this didn't preclude that we could be hit by a fast carrier task force, but the Navy
had its eyes and ears tuned to that possibility and was just itching for such a thing to be tried.
(Japanese held Truk was only 1,000 miles north of Green Island).
My first strike, after arriving on the 6th of April, was on the 7th. Our target was the air field at
Kavieng, on the northwesterly end of New Ireland. This strike was considerably smaller than the
ones I was on in January and February. The Mission Summary only listed 30 SBDs, 15 TBFs,
and l2 F4Us, so it appeared that one of the subtle changes, was the size of the striking force.
My second strike was on the 9th to Rapopo Airfield at Rabaul. The Mission Reports for the two
strikes were, in general, that we had good coverage of assigned target areas, though specific
bomb hits for the most part unobserved (difficult to pick out gun positions, since most of them
were not firing). On the 9th we were casualty free, but the 7th we had a couple of planes hit by
bullets, and we lost one TBF. It appeared from the second strike that the Japanese had given up
on any future use of Rapopo Airfield, and our mission was to see that they didn't repair any of the
runways, then on a moonlight night launch a major strike against us.
Once we had finally settled in for the next six weeks, our schedule was a strike day, followed by
a shipping stand-by day, followed by a day off, and since the strike force size was being reduced,
there were days when it was your turn to be on strike that you didn't get assigned. For once we
had pilots galore.
In the beginning of the tour, if you were on shipping stand-by, you were required to spend the day
in a triple tent next to operations. It was an excellent time to write letters, sleep, tell stories and
jokes, and like most good Marines, join in a good game of "Smoke the Bitch." (Old Maid for the
youngsters). Since the Japanese had pulled most of their ships out of the Rabaul area (the sunken
ones they left behind), the shipping stand-by people were never utilized, and spending the day at
operations, required transporting the crews, for chow and head calls, so our squadron initiated a
slight change in our operating procedure. We appointed a Lieutenant as the Squadron Duty
Officer for a week at a time, who would spend his time at Operations, and if the shipping strike
boys were needed, he would drive to the camp area and gather up the crews. In the meantime,
while at operations the duty Officer could write letters, sleep, play solitaire, and after a few days
could tell stories and jokes to the Gods. After a week of the duty the Squadron Doctor, would
have to certify that it was safe for you to again be in control of an aircraft.
I flew strikes on the 17th (Kabanga Bay Supply & Bivouac Area), 20th (Vunakanau Airfield),
26th (Rapopo Airfield), and one began to notice a definite decline in April in the intensity and
accuracy of the AA fire. It was as though the loss of their air arm and their Naval capability had
put a damper on the will-to-fight by their AA gunners. By May we began to see an up change in
the attitude as though the Emperor had given them a pep talk or maybe offered a reward for each
plane shot down, because the intensity and accuracy seemed to show considerable improvement.
The size of our strike force had been reduced to basically 30-36 dive bombers, 12-15 TBFs, and
no more than 12 fighters. By May we were making strike missions without the aid of any fighters,
but on the last day of April, 22 pilots were assigned to an intensive search mission looking for 4
F4U pilots that were shot down. As the War Diary States, "With negative results."
I personally flew on many searches, and the Diary always said, "With negative results." This
statement always sounded as though you hadn't done your job, and I believed the statement should
be, "Nothing sighted." At least, if you did a thorough search, your area could be eliminated from
any future searches and reduce the number of possible remaining areas for the location of the
down pilot or pilots.
PT Boat Incident* (Account of the April 29 attack on PT Boats)
One event occurred during this period, that I would consider a "Behind Hangar Doors" event and
I shall cover it at this time. I have been unable to find it in any of the many books that I have read
on the South Pacific Battles, and it is not mentioned in the VMSB-341 War Diary or in any of the
Mission Reports from that time that I have perused... The fact that the event doesn't appear in the
VMSB-341 War Diary is understandable in that 341 may not have had any pilots assigned to the
strike on the day of the occurrence. I was on shipping stand-by, and in Operations, when the
morning Rabaul fighter sweep reported to Operations that two Japanese PT type boats were
spotted in the Saint George Channel (near the Rabaul area) and that they had shot down one of the
F4U planes that had made a check run on the boats. Normal Operating Procedure would be to
send the shipping stand-by planes to attack the boats, but since the strike force was ready to
take-off for a Rabaul strike, their orders were changed and the leader was told to take care of the
boats, and once they had been disposed of, to send the rest of the force on to the primary AA
targets, the date of this event was probably in April or May 1944. I base the date on the fact that I
was on shipping stand-by, and since I was in Operations at the time of the strike departure, our
squadron probably hadn't initiated the duty officer program. One other piece of information to
help establish the date was that we were at Green Island. Part of our third tour was at Emirau,
but this event emanated from Green Island,
During the invasion of Italy, the U.S. Navy had managed to shoot down a fairly large number of
Army C-47 transports that were carrying troops in support of the invasion, and the whole world
read about the mistake. Our mistake was much smaller, so we didn't make as many headlines - if
any at all. It seems that two American PT Boats (from MacArthur's Southwest Pacific area) had
been working in the Rabaul area during the night, and as their orders indicated, they were to be
back across a certain Parallel (into the Southwest Pacific area) by 8 a.m. This routine had been
going on for some time, and was working well. Anything east of the Parallel after 8 a.m. was
considered to be enemy and was fair game for the fighter sweeps or for our shipping stand-by or
strike force. This particular early morning, one of the PT boats had run aground on a coral reef.
A second PT boat had seen the problem and went to the aid of the first. The first should have
destroyed their boat and joined the second and high-tailed it out of the area, but boat No. 2 tried
to pull the No. I boat free and spent too much time in the wrong area. The morning fighter sweep
from the South Pacific area had spotted the two boats, and since they were in an enemy area, it
resulted in one of the fighter planes going down for a look-see. Since the F4U was a fairly new
fighter in the Pacific, it is possible the crews on the boats (not being from our area) didn't
recognized the aircraft as an American aircraft and started shooting at the fighter, and managed to
splash it. Of course this action convinced the rest of the flight that the boats were enemy boats,
and the rush to report the incident so the shipping boys could flex their muscles and take on the
enemy. One of the mysteries of the war is that events can occur that on the surface appear to be a
miracle, or that the Almighty is looking out for oneís best interest, and this is one time that a
miracle seems to have taken place.
The actual sinking of the PT boats and the action involved is strictly from hearsay and my
memory of the event. The incident did actually happen, although I'm not able to pinpoint the
actual date. The flight leader took the strike force to the area, and detailed enough of the force to
sink the boats. He said afterwards that he had some doubts about the boats, and couldn't
understand why two sailors were on the stern of one boat waving a Japanese flag. If one thinks
about it, waving an American Flag might appear to a diving pilot as a red and white rising sun
flag, since the blue color probably didn't show as well as the red and white. If the sailors had
held a steady, stretched out American Flag the red and white stripes would appear as parallel
stripes and not as possible radials emanating from a center sun.
Once the boats were destroyed the Dumbo aircraft landed to pickup the fighter pilot that had
made a water landing after being shot down by the boat crew. It was during the rescue that the
mistake suddenly came to light. One of the crew members on the Dumbo had spotted a red head
swimming in the water, and asked his pilot if there were any red headed Japanese. The pilot
didn't know of any, so they taxied closer to the swimmer, and discovered that the red head also
spoke and swore in English. Instead of rescuing only one pilot the Dumbo rescued close to 20
crew members of the two PT boats. (Three people had died because of the violation of an order,
and the lack of proper recognition training on the part of the pilots and on the part of the PT
crews. The skipper responsible for the order violation was one of the three casualties). The
rescued sailors were asked how they were able to survive the bomb attack, and they reported that
they had waited until each dive bomber dropped, and then they went under water and held onto
coral until the explosion, then surfaced for air and waited until the next bomber dropped before
going under to grab a piece of coral. It didn't take too many bombers to destroy the boats and then
to go onto the primary target.
The miracle comes about because our shipping stand-by planes were not dispatched to sink the
boats. The strike force planes were loaded with 1,000-pound bombs with instantaneous fuses, the
bombs exploding on the surface of the water. The shipping stand-by planes were loaded with
1,600-pound armor piercing bombs (capable of going through the decks of ships) with 0.5 second
delay fuses. Had we made the strike, the first bomb would have killed all of the sailors clinging
to the coral, because the delayed fuse would have let the bomb go to the bottom before
exploding. This incident resulted in many pilots taking a ride on a PT boat, others having a
chance to look one over, and the PT people painting a white stripe on the deck for pilots to see
from the air. It was a horrible accident that could have been avoided by following orders, and by
more training in recognition for the Aviators as well as the Naval Personnel. And those sailors,
alive today, can be thankful that they were on small boats and not on ships, that would have
drawn the shipping boys out of hibernation.
The month of May started out with most feeling a little relaxed and maybe a little bit over
confident following the actions of April - less accurate and effective AA, losses to a minimum,
no enemy fighter aircraft, and from all indications, no attempt to repair the damage inflicted to the
airfields. Fortunately for the less experienced among the young pilots, those in command didn't
believe that the enemy was suddenly giving up and kept the strike pressure on each day.
May 1st was a routine day for our squadron, but the 2nd was all but routine, and once again the
members of 341 realized that they were still in a deadly game of war. The War Diary had the
"2 May, 1944: Thirty four (34) pilots and their gunners were assigned to a strike on Tobera
Airfield, Rabaul, New Britain. Mission report attached. Capt. Walter L. Jordan and his gunner,
S/Sgt. Van Cicero Swearingen, SerNo. 486652, crashed in flames after their plane was hit by
AA. The plane exploded at 5000 ft and crashed on the east end of the Tobera runway. 1st Lt.
William K. Harkins and his gunner, Sgt. Robert V. Anderson, SerNo. 821216, are both missing
from this same strike. Lt. Harkins radioed that he was going to make a water landing and one
parachute was seen to open and land in the water about 1 mile off shore, north of Birar. Dumbo
searches were negative. Lt. Rasmusson flew a test hop."
The mission report, in addition to the casualties, listed the following damage to the VMSB-341
Plane #l17 & 121 Crashed.
#107 - 1 crease in diving flap, left wing, .50 cal.
#104 - Shrapnel hole in right wing.
#105 - Plane went off left side of R/W on landing because of right brake failure.
#l l l-l x .50 cal. hole in windshield and small shrapnel hole above baggage compartment door.
#140 - Shrapnel hole thru center right wing.
Plane # 142 - Hole thru approach light on leading edge of left wing, light machine gun slug. l x
7.7 hole in diving flap.
# 138 - Light MG bullet holes in both elevators; shrapnel hole center section right wing.
#129- 8" shrapnel up thru leading edge of left wing; 2" shrapnel in under side of wing root; 2"
shrapnel hole in leading edge right wheel well, MG bullet hole up thru belly on rt. side just
hitting and marking the right main tank.
#A11-10-15 x .50 cal. holes in fuselage; 1 x .50 hole in right wing tip and two in tail.
#A16- 1 x 7.7 mm hole in rudder.
For all of us who had the feeling that this second tour was turning into a picnic after a few light
responses to the April missions, we had a rude awakening following the May 2nd mission. It was
the third time that I had my plane hit. The first time was a single bullet hole, the second time was
a rather strange incident, in that I had just entered a dive and I heard a sound as though I had fired
my .50 cal. MGs, but I hadn't started firing, so passed it off as just a strange sound. Back at Green
Island, my plane went through the usual after-flight inspection for damage and none was found.
Later in the day, I was informed that a piece of shrapnel was found in the engine cowling and that
there were some minor nicks on the back side of the propeller and on the cooling vanes of a
couple of cylinders. A small piece of shrapnel had bounced back and forth between the engine
and propeller producing a rapid sound like a machine gun before coming to rest in the cowling,
I don't know if it was the shrapnel incident or the May 2nd incident, "A.A. Black hit by A.A.
Fire," that someone put the two sets of AAs together and I started carrying the nickname of "Ack
Ack" Black (AA fire is often called Ack Ack). Some said it started earlier and that fact I am not
sure of, but the nickname lasted through the war and then went dormant for 50 years to once again
surface at our 50th reunion - but that is another story - told at the end of the book.
Our life on Green Island, was much more relaxed than it had been on Munda or Bougainville, and
much of that can be attributed to the Marine Fighter Squadrons (day and night) that had almost
eliminated any form of harassment by enemy aircraft. The extremely heavy losses (after war
estimates of over 1,500 planes) had goaded Admiral Koga to recall almost all of the remaining
combat aircraft from Rabaul to Truk so that he would have aircraft to protect the remaining
portions of the Japanese fleet. This made it possible for Green Island to have uninterrupted
movies each night in a large open air theater. Our movies were on 16mm film and one can only
say the quality was great, the subjects interesting and none of the liberal themes that we are
expected to watch and accept today. During our second and third tour, while at Green Island, we
were entertained by two great traveling USO groups. One was headed by a comedian named Jack
Benny, and the other by a never say quit comedian named Bob Hope. Their shows were great, as
were the young females that somehow picked up everybody's desire to return to the good old
USA. One other visitor that made a stop at Green Island on a fact finding tour for the
Commander-in-Chief was the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. She wasn't there to entertain, so the
turn-out for her visit was much smaller and attended mostly by the curious and those who wanted
to show their respect for her husband, our CIC.
Melvin Clark takes a dive
Another incident, that occurred while at Green Island that had the potential of becoming deadly,
was recognized and terminated on May 2nd. The SBD was a fine aircraft, but on the ground it
needed a "seeing eye" dog to lead it to its parking place, and that "seeing eye" dog turned out to
be our faithful, rear seat gunners. The idea was, that as soon as the pilot had finished his landing
run and turned off the landing strip, the gunner would climb along side of the cockpit and help the
pilot to taxi, by being his watchful eyes stationed in a position to see into the blind spot caused
by the engine and forward portion of the fuselage. This practice had been going on since we were
stationed at Atlantic Field and no doubt had prevented, in the past, dive bombers from becoming
rear seat passengers in the plane they were following. The problem started when the gunners
decided that they should be there for the pilot, to help him land the airplane, and it truly seemed
that some of the gunners were climbing out onto the wing while the plane was still in the final
stages of the landing roll-out.
This was brought to light by the accident described in the May 2nd Mission Report as "Plane
#105 - Plane went off left side of R/W on landing because of right brake failure." The mission
report failed to mention that Lt. Blackburn's gunner S/Sgt. Melvin Clark was standing along side
of the cockpit when the plane veered to the left and ran into a mound of dirt, nosed-up, and sent
Clark flying through the air and through the arc of the propeller and landing on the mound of dirt
himself. The only reason Clark lived through the experience is because, when the plane
nosed-up, there was sudden stoppage of the engine, and the propeller was stopped and was not
turning to butcher the flying Clark as had happened with the unfortunate cow at Efate. The
practice of the gunners racing to see who would be first along side of the pilot ended on the 2nd
Since the enemy fighters had all but disappeared by the end of March, the engineering people had
wondered "out loud" if it might be possible for the pilots to start showing some respect for the
engines in the SBDs. The normal period for the SBD engine was about 400 hours, then it was due
for an overhaul, but the pilots were pushing the engines very hard and the overhaul cycle was
being cut to 200 hours, necessitating a lot of extra hours for the maintenance people. So strike
command decided to try and help the maintenance crews by having the pilots cut back on power
after dropping their bombs.
The strikes on Rabaul required the pilots to fly about 40 miles down St. George Channel after
dropping their bombs to get to the rendevous point. In January amd February, the run was
hazardous to oneís health, because the dive bombers were strung out in one long daisy chain
which made it difficult for the friendly fighter boys to give much protection, and opened the strike
force to the enemy fighters and the enemy guns placed one chain side of the channel. To reduce
the time of exposure to the enemy, and to get joined up for mutual protection, the SBDs were
being pushed past the prescribed operating limits during the 40-mile run.
The pilots manual for the SBD, stated that the engine should not be operated above 35 inches of
manifold pressure for more than five minutes except in an emergency. During take-off the pilot
usually used about 40 inches, and once airborne, throttled back to climb power at or near 35
inches. As stated before, once reaching 10,000 feet, the pilot would shift into high blower which
would give him additional manifold pressure and allow him to exceed the pressures used in low
blower. The problem was resulting from not following the manual when it came time to make
your dive. To follow the manual, at the time of entering your dive, the pilot should shift into low
blower, throttle back, open your dive flaps, turn on your camera, pick up your target, arm and
select which bombs you were going to drop, and not worry about what the enemy was doing. I
didn't know anyone that bothered to shift to low blower and throttle back before diving, so what
was happening, as one reached the drop point, the bomb was released and the pilot immediately
closed the dive flaps so the plane would start picking up speed. He would hug the ground or
water with the engine in high blower and a manifold pressure over 40 inches for the run to the
rendezvous point. Once you joined up in formation, it was necessary to bring your power in line
with the leader's power, so the pressure was reduced, and by then you had mutual protection and
the fighter boys were able to mother and protect their chickens from the hawks.
According to a Confidential Report that I managed to acquire a copy thereof , Strike Coimmand
talked the flight leader into reducing power to 35 inches manifold pressure immediately after
dropping his bomb. He briefed the flight of his plan and instructed all pilots to follow his lead.
According to the report, he stated afterwards, that he reduced his power to 35 inches after
dropping and he was the last man out of the harbor.
The incident is confirmed.