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Marion’s Shoes

   IMG0083 nara 57 marion carl Marion Carl grew up in the tiny village of Hubbard, Oregon, a few dozen miles southwest of Portland.  After graduating from high school, he enrolled at Oregon State University.  While studying engineering, he also joined the Corps of Engineers and  ROTC.  In the fall of 1937, during his senior year, Carl learned to fly on a Piper J-2 Cub at an airport just outside of Corvallis.  In May, 1938, Carl went up to Fort Lewis, Washington tried to enlist in the Army Air Corps .  The Air Corps turned him down, citing unspecified physical reasons.  Later, Carl discovered that the recruiter had filled his quota for the month and had rejected him for that reason.

            He graduated from OSU in June, 1938 and spent the summer up at Fort Lewis as a second lieutenant in the Army.  Despite the Air Corps’ reject, Marion was determined to find a way into the air. He went to see a Navy recruiter and was accepted into the naval aviation cadet program. In August, he reported for duty in the Navy.  In one day, he went from a second lieutenant in the Army to a Seaman Second Class in the Navy to a Private First Class in the Marine Corps!  Years later, Marion Carl would become one of the rarest of officers–one who worked his way up from private to general in the course of a most distinguished military career.

            Carl recalled in a 1992 interview that he chose the Marine Corps for two reasons, “I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about being at sea so much.  The other was, of the eight of us  there, I was the only one who qualified for the Corps.  I was the only one with a college degree.  The Navy was taking men with two years, but the Marines weren’t.  You had to have a college degree.  On top of that, I got to Pensacola a month ahead of the others.”

            Of the eight other young men Carl joined up with that summer, three washed out of flight school. The other five became Navy pilots.

            When the war began, Carl was serving with VMF-221, a fighter squadron equipped with the squat, barrel-shaped Brewster F2A Buffalo.  Just after Pearl Harbor, Carl and the squadron boarded the U.S.S. Saratoga as part of the Wake Island relief expedition.  VMF-221 was supposed to be launched from the Saratoga, fly to Wake and help defend the atoll with the remnants of VMF-211, the Wildcat squadron already there.

            Just before the Saratoga came into range of Wake, the operation was canceled.  The frustration the Marines felt was palpable, and on the bridge of the Sara, officers talked openly of disregarding these orders.  Nevertheless, the task force turned around and aborted their mission.  A short time later, the gallant defenders of Wake Island surrendered to overwhelming Japanese forces.

            Instead of going to Wake, Marion Carl and VMF-221 went to Midway Atoll.  There, amongst the gooney birds, the men wallowed in boredom for nearly six months, flying training missions but never sighting the Japanese.

Another shot of Midway Atoll. This is Sand Island.

Midway Atoll. This is Sand Island.

            At the end of May, 1942, Midway received a sudden influx of reinforcements.  They came in drips and dribbles– a few B-17s, a quartet of Marauders from the 22nd Bomb Group, and six TBF Avengers from Torpedo Eight. Having broken the Japanese naval code, JN-25, the Americans knew the Japanese would soon be attacking Midway.  Every available airplane was rushed to the Atoll.

            That attack came on the morning of June 4, 1942.  VMF-221 took to the air in defense of Wake Atoll.  Carl took off with the squadron flying a Grumman F4F Wildcat, one of six the squadron now possessed.  Together with the Buffalos, the Marines were able to put up twenty-five fighters to meet over a hundred Japanese aircraft, all flown by crack veterans of the China Incident, Pearl Harbor and the Ceylon Raid.   The result was a slaughter.  The Zeroes flying cover for the Nakajima B5N Kates and Aichi D3A Vals had  placed themselves too high and too far behind their chargees to prevent the Marines from making one unhindered pass.  The Americans took advantage of the mistake and managed to claw down a couple of bombers before the Zeroes descended upon them in all their fury.  The Brewsters, unmaneuverable and slow, were chopped to pieces by the expert Japanese pilots.


One of the surviving F4F-3 Wildcats at Midway, seen after the battle.

One of the surviving F4F-3 Wildcats at Midway, seen after the battle.

Marine Carl not only held his own, he damaged a bomber before the Zeroes swarmed all over his division.  Climbing out of the fight, he went looking for trouble at 20,000 feet.  In 1992, he recalled to me, “The next thing I knew, I had a Zero on my tail.  I didn’t know he was there until these tracers started going by.  I racked it into a tightest turn I could.  He followed me and made it look easy!  So, I headed for the nearest cloud.  He hit me eight times.”

            Just inside the cloud, Marion cut his throttle and skidded the Wildcat.  When he popped out the other side, he caught sight of the Zero scuttling along below. Marion shoved the stick forward and opened fire at the same time.  The sudden dive jammed all his guns, allowing the Zero to escape.

            After clearing three of his guns, he returned to Midway to discover a trio of Zeroes lagging behind the rest of the strike group.  Carl followed the three Japanese fighters, waiting for his opportunity to strike.  Finally, as one of the three Zeroes began falling behind the others, the Oregonian attacked.  He dove down behind the Zero and opened fire from dead astern.  The Mitsubishi crashed into the water  off the reef that surrounded the atoll.

            It was the first of eighteen kills Marion Carl would claim in two years of combat.

            When he returned to Midway, he discovered that fully half his squadron had been killed in the fight.  In fact, besides his own Wildcat, only one other fighter was operational.  It was a grim introduction to combat.

            Two months later, Carl and VMF-223, his new unit, landed at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal.  Throughout August and September, the gritty Marines fought a desperate battle of attrition in their daily encounters with the Japanese. On August 24, 1942, in the middle of the Battle of Eastern Solomons, Carl and his division intercepted an inbound strike from the Japanese carrier Ryujo.  In the dogfight that followed, the young Oregonian gained credit for downing two Zeroes and two B5N Kates, making him the first U.S. Marine Corps ace.

            Only a few weeks later, the hunter became the hunted.


Henderson Field Guadalcanal Aug 22 42 861 4x6

Henderson Field, Guadalcanal seen August 22, 1942.


MAS077 F4F Scramble Guadalcanal

An F4F scrambles at Henderson Field.

September 9, 1942 was a typical day for the beleaguered American Marines on Guadalcanal. Shortly after 11:00, Australian coastwatchers reported a major Japanese raid headed for Henderson Field (code-named Cactus), the airfield the Marines were doggedly trying to defend. Cactus Control ordered a full-scale scramble as soon as it received news of the impending attack. The pilots of VMF-223 and -224 raced to their fighters, which had been warmed up and ready to go since dawn. Captain Marion E. Carl  was one of the sixteen Wildcat pilots in the cockpit that day. He climbed into his F4F-4, strapped in, and taxied out of the dispersal area. With his stubby fighter now on the runway, he opened the throttle. The Wildcat careened down Henderson Field and bounded into the cloudy skies above Guadalcanal. After Carl took off, one pilot from VMF-224 did not quite make it. He stalled just as he got airborne, and his Wildcat smacked into the ground at the end of the runway. Now there were fifteen Grummans to meet the Japanese attack.

Gdl037 Smith galer carl 5x7

John L. Smith, Bob Galer (Medal of Honor) and Marion Carl at Guadalcanal.

Though Carl had only been on the island since August 20th, he had already carved a niche for himself in aviation history. Six days after arriving at Henderson Field he had shot down his fifth Japanese plane. In doing so, he became the first U.S. Marine to ever reach acehood. He had continued to add to his score, and only his squadron’s commander, John L. Smith, had any chance of catching his tally. Smith and Carl enjoyed a friendly rivalry, each one determined to leave Guadalcanal with the laurels of top ace status. Carl to this point had remained comfortably in the lead, but the September 9th mission would alter the balance between the two aces.

The Wildcats pointed northward and labored for altitude. For once the Marines had received enough warning to climb above the Japanese bombers. Often, word of an impending attack came too late for the F4F’s to get to a proper intercept altitude. The frustrated pilots would watch the Mitsubishi G4M Betties pass serenely overhead while their Wildcats struggled for altitude thousands of feet below. This time, though, the Marines managed to get to about 23,000 feet before the noontime raid arrived. The raid consisted of two formations; one Vee of G4Ms, and another of escorting A6M2 Zekes. The Zekes trailed behind the bombers, keeping watch over their charges as they shepherded them to the target area.

betty gsap water color c 4x6

A formation of G4M Betty bombers seen later in the war at Okinawa. This is a still image from gun camera film taken by an F6F Hellcat belonging to VF-17.

On this day, the Marines had the altitude advantage. Like the intercept over Midway,  the escorting Zekes were again caught slightly out of position.  Carl led his men to a point about a mile ahead and off to one side of the Vee of Betties. In column formation, the Marines executed 180 degree turns and dropped down on the bombers. With his nose pointed almost vertical, Marion’s Wildcat accelerated to over four hundred miles per hour. He had just enough time to give a Betty a long burst  from his six fifty caliber machine guns as his Wildcat howled through the formation. The fifties stitched the bomber from nose to tail, tearing apart the crew positions.  It fell earthward, mortally wounded.

f4f usmc ii031Engine roaring, Carl swept under the stricken plane, ready to make another  attack on the formation. Using the speed he had gained during his first pass, he zoomed back up above the Japanese and turned to make another overhead run on them. Down he went again, his Wildcat whining furiously as he pushed the nose towards the vertical again.  Guns chattered, tracers flew.  Another Betty dropped out of the formation, victimized by the sharpshooting Oregonian, its engines coughing up great spumes of smoke.

Then, Marion got reckless.

g4m betty over water gsap color 4x6

Another gun camera still from VF-17’s Okinawa dogfight. This Betty was carrying a rocket-powered suicide stand-off bomb called a Yokosuka MXY7 Ohka. It is just visible under the Betty’s centerline.

Carl had limited himself to only one or two passes at the bombers on his previous  intercept missions. After two runs, the Japanese fighter escort usually had enough time to intervene. After his second pass, he would roll inverted and dive for the deck. No Zero could keep up with a Wildcat in a steep dive above 10,000 feet, so the maneuver ensured he would make it back to Henderson to fight another day.

On September 9th, Carl saw no Zeroes, heard no warning calls. He decided to attack the bombers one more time. He climbed back over the Betties, selected one and rolled in on his target.

As he started his run, his F4F suddenly shuddered. Cannon and machine gun strikes rocked the Wildcat, and Carl had no chance to react. A Zero had somehow slipped behind him. In seconds, Carl’s engine exploded in flames. Smoke poured into the cockpit, stinging his eyes and disorienting him. The smoke forced him to open the canopy, which added such drag to the Wildcat that Carl knew he was now a “dead pigeon” for the Japanese pilot behind him.

With the smoke came an intense wave of heat. Later he would recall, “The one way I didn’t want to go was to get burnt, to get fried. I don’t take long to make up my mind on something like that. So I just rolled the [Wildcat] over and out I went.”

Carl had bailed out at about 20,000 feet. By the time his parachute opened, the air battle had passed him by. Not a single aircraft remained in sight. He spiraled downwards in his chute, enjoying a birds-eye view of Guadalcanal and its environs. He landed in the water about a mile off shore.

For several hours, he floated in his Mae West, treading water and trying to prevent the current from dragging him away from shore. He kept his flying shoes on, and held onto his Colt .45, figuring he’d need them when he got ashore. Still, the weight of these burdens tired him out, and he began to lose headway against the current. Before he had bailed out, his face had been slightly burned by the heat in the cockpit, and the wound began to ache.

1st marine div patrol guadalcanal 8x10

A Marine patrol on Guadalcanal in the fall of 1942. After Carl ended up in the water, he faced a challenging trip to get back through Japanese lines to reach the Marine perimeter around Henderson Field.

Fours hours later, a native canoe cut through the choppy waves towards him. Exalted that help had arrived, Carl began to shout out, “American! American! American!” The native wasn’t completely convinced, however, and circled the downed aviator for several minutes before concluding he indeed was an American. He helped Marion climb into the canoe, introduced himself as Stephen, then began to paddle towards shore. He brought Carl to a small native encampment, where he was introduced to a native from Fiji who had been serving as a doctor for the local inhabitants. Corporal Eroni spoke good English, and proved more than willing to help the American get back to Henderson Field.

After trying unsuccessfully to get  back to the perimeter overland, Carl and Eroni decided to go by sea in an  eighteen foot skiff. The small boat was powered by an ancient single cylinder engine which at the moment did not work. Fortunately the resourceful Marine had plenty of experience with small engines, as he had purchased a scooter some months before that had demanded constant mechanical attention. He managed to get the skiff’s engine working after tinkering with it for most of an evening.

That morning, around 4:00 A.M., Carl, Eroni and two other natives set out for Henderson Field. The boat weaved its way along the coast, the two men keeping a sharp watch for any Japanese troops. By 0700, they had reached Lunga Point, where the Oregon Marine splashed ashore to report back for duty.

When Brigadier General Roy Geiger, the commander of the air striking force on Guadalcanal, heard of Marion’s return, he sent for the intrepid Marine immediately. Moments later, Carl stood before him, saluting happily. The two men chatted amiably for a while, then Geiger mentioned that Smith had just shot down his sixteenth plane. With the two Betties he got on the ninth, Carl had only twelve. “What are we going to do about that?” demanded Geiger playfully.

Gdl209 Carl-Smith-Mangrum_

John L. Smith, Dick Mangrum and Marion Carl.

“Goddamnit General, ground Smitty for five days!” Carl replied.

Smith finished the war with 19 kills and the Congressional Medal of Honor. Carl ended his WWII combat career with 18.5 victories.

Word spread quickly throughout VMF-223 that Carl had returned. His comrades were overjoyed to see him, though some were also a little embarrassed. After he went missing, the pilots figured he was gone for good and divided up his possessions. Marion had to spend the day rounding up his personal belongings. Finally, he managed to recover his scooter, his short wave radio and all his other nick-knacks except for a pair of shower shoes. He had kept them carefully under his cot, his name carefully marked on their soles in black, indelible ink. Carl searched high and low, but found no trace of them.

In the late 1950’s Carl was stationed in Headquarters, Marine Corps in Washington D.C. as part of the Commandant’s staff. He’d become a colonel by then and was on track to get his brigadier’s star.

One day, the Marine Corps Commandant, General David M. Shoup, took him aside after a meeting and said to him, “By the way, Marion, I’ve gotta pair of shoes of yours.”

MAS057 Foxhole Henderson Mar43

A Marine dug out at Henderson Field.

Puzzled, the Oregonian asked, “What do you mean you’ve got a pair of my shoes?”

Shoup explained that he’d been serving with a Marine line unit defending Henderson Field that fall. After Marion had gone missing in action, Japanese warships shelled the Marine perimeter. The onslaught had flatted Shoup’s quarters, along with many other tents and structures around the airfield. After the Japanese ships steamed back up the slot, Shoup crawled out of his foxhole and went looking for a place to sleep. He came across Carl’s tent, learned that the Oregonian had been posted missing, and decided to curl up on his cot. In the morning, as he headed back to his regiment, he caught sight of the shower shoes under the cot. He scooped them up, figuring a dead man didn’t need them, and disappeared.

Shoup finished his tale by telling Carl he wasn’t going to give them back. “They’re the luckiest pair of shoes I’ve ever had,” he told Carl. “I credit them for keeping me alive during the war.”

at the waters edge 300 dpi bw

Betio Island, Tarawa, November 1943.

They must have been truly lucky shoes. Shoup carried them in his pack when he hit Beach Red at Betio with the first Marine waves in November, 1943. In the first desperate hours of the invasion, he took command of the Marines clinging to the waterline and led the push inland. His actions that day earned him a Medal of Honor. Later, though assigned as a divisional staff officer, he found his way to the front lines during the Battle of Saipan, where he was trapped in a forward observer’s position for several hours. He later received a Legion of Merit for his role in the Marianas campaign.




David Shoup receives the Medal of Honor at the Navy Department in Washington D.C. on January 22, 1945.

David Shoup, with his family looking on, receives the Medal of Honor at the Navy Department in Washington D.C. on January 22, 1945.


            Marion Carl stayed in the Corps after the Japanese surrender.  As a Marine test pilot, he earned numerous “firsts” in his illustrious career.  Besides being the first Marine ace, he was the first pilot in the Corps to land a jet fighter on an aircraft carrier, and he set a world’s speed record in 1947, going 650.6 mph in a Douglas Skystreak.  Later, he commanded the first jet aerobatics team, was the first military pilot to wear a full pressure suit and in 1986, he became the first living Marine to be enshrined in the Naval Aviation Hall of Honor.  Brigadier General Marion Carl retired on June 1, 1973, with over 14,000 hours in some 250 different plane types, ranging from experimental rocket propelled aircraft to canvas-covered puddle jumpers.  In the course of his thirty-four year career, he earned two Navy Crosses, five DFCs, four Legions of Merit, and fourteen Air Medals.  Not bad for a  small town farm kid.

            In June of 1998, a 19 year old drug addict broke into Marion’s ranch house east of Roseburg, Oregon.  Wielding a shotgun, the intruder wounded Marion’s wife, Edna, with a blast of gunfire.  Hearing the racket, Carl burst out of his bedroom and flung himself in front of his wife, just as the addict pulled the trigger again.  Carl was killed instantly.  He died as he had lived—a true hero whose measure lay not in his many accomplishments, but rather in the size of his enormous heart.f4f usmc airborne034

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The Curious Case of the Ohio National Guard’s 147th Infantry

147th inf Regt Japanese MMG with M1917 30 cal MMG on range at New Caledonia 112444 (1 of 1)

Men of the 147th on a heavy weapons range learning how to fire a captured Japanese Nambu machine gun. The photo was taken on New Caledonia Island in November 1944.

During the Second World War, the Ohio National Guard’s division, the 37th, served in the 1943 Solomons campaign before playing a key role in the liberation of Manila during the 1945 battle for Luzon. The division was one of the only National Guard units to be commanded by the same general through the entire war.

The 37th Infantry Division’s service was exemplary, and its courageous Soldiers earned seven Medal of Honors and a hundred and sixteen Distinguished Service Crosses during its two years in island combat.

Men of the 147th capture a Japanese hold out on Iwo Jima during their three month long ordeal on the volcanic island.

Men of the 147th capture two Japanese hold outs on Iwo Jima during their three month long ordeal on the volcanic island.


37th Inf Div M-4 Sherman and GI's Drive on Manila Luzon Philippines Campaign 01--45 no cap-1

While the 147th Infantry battled against the Japanese on Iwo Jima, the rest of the Ohio National Guard was fighting to liberate Luzon during the 1945 Philippines campaign.

This post is about the division’s lost regiment, the 147th Infantry.  The 37th had been organized as a square division during World War I which meant it had four infantry regiments. The 147th became the odd unit out when the Army reorganized to the triangular division.  In 1942, the 147th was pulled from the 37th. It spent the entire Pacific War as an independent regiment, bouncing from campaign to campaign and doing heavy fighting that has been all but forgotten to history.

To clear the caves and tunnels, the 147th's infantry platoons went into action with an exceptional level of firepower, including extra BAR's, bazookas and flame throwers.

To clear Iwo Jima’s caves and tunnels, the 147th’s infantry platoons went into action with an exceptional level of firepower, including extra BAR’s, bazookas and flame throwers.

The 147th first saw combat on Guadalcanal in 1942-43, taking part in the U.S. Army’s bloody counter-offensive that ultimately forced the Japanese to abandon the island in February 1943. The regiment then pulled garrison duty on Emiru, later serving on Saipan and Tinian in the wake of the Marine Corps’ landings.

147th Inf Regt Flame Thrower Attack on Japanese Cave Iwo Jima Bonin Islands 040845 (1 of 1)

An infantry platoon from the 147th attacking a Japanese-held cave with a flame thrower during a firefight on April 8, 1945–months after Iwo had been declared secure.

In the spring of 1945, the 147th landed on Iwo Jima, ostensibly to perform more garrison duty. Instead, they found themselves locked in a bitter and thankless battle with thousands of Japanese hold-outs waging a desperate guerrilla campaign against the Americans on the island from well-supplied caves and tunnels.

For three months, the regiment slogged across the island, digging out these Japanese with explosives, flame throwers and satchel charges. Some sources credit the regiment with killing at least six thousand Japanese soldiers in those anonymous and merciless small unit actions.

Always serving in the wake of the Marines, the regiment’s service in the Pacific has been virtually lost to history, yet this National Guard unit was the only one in the Army to fighting in the Solomons, the Marianas and Iwo Jima.

I first came across the 147th while scanning photos at the National Archives a few years back. I came across these combat scenes from Iwo Jima and was absolutely stunned to learn the Ohio National Guard had taken part in what is remembered as the quintessential Marine Corps battle.

If anyone has further information about this regiment, please feel free to post. These men need some recognition for what they did during WWII.

147th Inf regt Soldiers Exhausted on March in Burma CBI 120444 (1 of 1)

If being overlooked by history is not painful enough, the Signal Corps also misidentified this group of GI’s in Burma as being part of the regiment. The combat cameraman’s caption says these men belonged to 2nd Battalion, 147th Infantry, and the shot was taken 30 miles behind Japanese lines in Burma following a night patrol on December 4, 1944.


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Beer Bombing in B-17’s

b17 buzzing base late 1942 swpa099 5x7Over the years, I’ve come across interesting things American air crews have thrown out of their planes during bombing missions. One of the more famous was a donkey that was a B-17 group’s mascot. They’d picked the donkey up in North Africa and brought it back to England, where the local kids were given rides on it. The donkey kicked the bucket one day, so the guys in the bomb group somehow put it in an NCO’s uniform, gave it a set of dogtags and dropped it over Germany during their next mission. You know that somewhere, in some archive, is a report of finding a flattened, uniformed donkey in some poor German farmer’s field.

In 2010, while I was with TF Brawler at FOB Shank, Afghanistan, I was on a Chinook that was near-missed by an RPG as we were coming into land at COP Tangi. The village by the COP was pretty hostile, and aircraft often took fire getting into that outpost. I wanted to take pee-filled Gatorade bottles and drop them on that village the next time we had to get out to Tangi Valley. Unfortunately, the prudent Chinook company’s commander nixed that idea. Apparently, raining pee down on the populace doesn’t really lend itself to the whole hearts-and-minds thing. Still, it would have been good for morale.IMG_7484

Anyway, I was reminded of that suggestion today while reading through a Boeing tech rep’s report from the SWPA.  He’d been hanging out with the 43rd Bomb Group “Ken’s Men” in Australia and New Guinea, and had written a report home on how the B-17’s were holding up in the tropics. The author of the report, R.L. Stith took detailed notes on what was one of the largest heavy bomber raids launched in the Pacific to date.

On February 13, 1943, the 43rd Bomb Group put aloft thirty-five B-17’s so heavily laden that Stith remarked, “How can one talk balance when they get away with this and worse?” The main force of thirty-three Forts carried sixteen three hundred pound demolition bombs that had been wrapped with wire to create more shrapnel when they detonated. Alongside those three hundred pounders, the ground crews stuffed the bays with sixty incendiary clusters each weighing twelve pounds. In the radio compartments of each plane, four twenty-two pound flares were stashed. And just forward of the waist guns, the Forts carried more than a dozen twenty pound fragmentation bombs. Somehow, another three hundred pounds of emergency gear was stashed throughout the fuselage of each aircraft as well.

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Rabaul and Simpson Harbor.

The plan called for a night attack on Rabaul with the intent of setting parts of the town afire with the incendiary bombs. The main force would hit the target area sometime after 0300 on February 14th. Two other B-17’s had been assigned to go in ahead of the main force, and it was their load-out that got my attention.

The two B-17s were supposed to keep the Japanese awake and in their slit trenches for hours so that by the time the main effort reached Rabaul, they would be worn out and demoralized. To do this, Stith noted they had been loaded with a mix of incendiary clusters, fragmentation bombs–and beer bottles.5th af b17 at port morebsy 1943 4x6

Americans. Piss us off, and we’ll rain our empties down upon you without remorse. Go us.

5th af series swpa b17 rabaul raid january 43 374I did a double take when I saw that in an official report. Beer bottles? They seriously dropped Coors Light on the Japanese at Rabual?  Then it dawned on me: an empty bottle dropped from 6,000 feet has got to make the mother of all whistling sounds. That kept with the mission profile for those those B-17’s–keep the Japanese awake and in their trenches. The beer bottles were a cheap, field expedient noise maker that didn’t take up much space or weight and could be hurled out of the waist positions at the crew’s leisure. In a theater known for its innovation, this small one was nothing short of brilliant.

That night, the first two Flying Forts reached Rabaul and began trolling back and forth over the target area. Searchlights speared the sky around them, anti-aircraft fire peppered the night’s sky, and the the American pilots changed the pitch on their propellers to maximize their noise signature. They gradually released their bombs. Between them, the beer bottles came shrieking down on the Japanese.

At 0340,  main effort arrived in four waves, flying at altitudes ranging from four to nine thousand feet. Over the next several hours, the 43rd Bomb Group dropped sixty-nine tons of bombs on Rabaul, sparking a massive conflagration among known supply dumps around Rabaul, destroying searchlights, food stockpiles, oil tanks and grounded aircraft. The 3,700 incendiaries dropped on the target created a sea of fire a half mile long and a quarter mile wide. The flames were estimated to be two hundred feet tall, and the plume of smoke from the attack towered ten thousand feet over the target area. The conflagration could be seen from the air for a hundred miles.5th af series swpa rabaul367

Surviving Japanese documents describe the attack as a costly one and very damaging. Some fifteen aircraft were destroyed, as were ammunition dumps and other installations. Total casualties have been lost to history, but the Japanese sources mention a heavy loss of life.

There is no record of their response to the beer bottle barrage, but the attack (and another one the following night) clearly had an impact on the garrison’s morale. Bruce Gamble, in his outstanding work, Fortress Rabual,  notes that one illness-plagued petty officer assigned to Air Group 705 later wrote, “I felt beaten physically and emotionally. I tossed and turned to ease the suffering, but the nightmares kept possessing me with no break.”

One has to wonder if he heard those beer bottles shrieking earthward in his nightmares.
What’s the most unusual thing you’ve heard about dropped during a bombing raid?











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The Lost, Last Letter

Guadalcanal SBD VMSB-231 4x6

A VMSB-231 SBD over Guadalcanal, late 1942.

Frank Christen grew up on a Depression-Era farm just outside of tiny Jerseyville, Illinois, graduating from the high school there in 1938 at age 19. He scraped enough together to continue his education at Washington College in St. Louis, then transferred to the University of Texas at Austin. In June 1941, he enlisted in the USNR and was accepting into the flight training program. He learned to fly at Grand Prairie, Texas and graduated the following year from NAS Corpus Christi on May 20, 1942. He was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the Marine Corps and assigned to VMSB-142, a Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombing squadron.n3n corpus christi color 4x6

While at the University of Texas, Frank had met Ruth Clark of Corning, New York. He and Ruth were married on July 30, 1942 just before he was assigned to NAS Coronado in San Diego.  The couple lived together there in Southern California for a brief few months before Frank shipped out to the South Pacific in early November.

He reached Guadalcanal several weeks later with VMSB-142 while the fighting in the southern and central Solomons still raged fiercely. He twenty-three years old and flung to the farthest reaches of the planet, far from friends and family. Like the others in his squadron, he did his duty to the utmost.

Henderson Field


On December 16, 1942, he was ordered to strike targets around Munda, New Georgia. Four SBD’s took off from Henderson Field, Guadalcanal at 2105 hours. This was Christen’s third combat mission in two days. He’d bombed Munda with his squadron the day before, and attacked a Japanese vessel early that day on the 16th. This was a mixed force of Dauntlesses from both VMSB-132 and VMSB-142.

During the flight through the growing darkness, the formation ran into a rain storm.  Christen and his section leader, Lt. Jackson Simpson, lost the rest of their flight. The other two SBD’s continued on and made a night bombing attack on the Japanese-held airfield at Munda.ijn dd under attack sbd palau 44 300 dpi c

Christen and Simpson discovered a Japanese destroyer in the waters off New Georgia. Christen made the initial run on the destroyer and illuminated it with flares. Fully alerted, the Japanese anti-aircraft crews poured fire up into the night. Simpson rolled in on the ship and scored a direct hit. Christen followed a moment later.

That was the last Simpson saw of the Jerseyville native’s SBD. It vanished in the attack.

Fourteen days later, a War Department telegram arrived at Ruth Clark’s place in Austin and delivered the news that Frank was missing in action. She packed up and headed straight for Frank’s family in Illinois to await further word. Weeks passed. Nothing. At the end of January, she returned to Austin for the next school term.

Months passed without any word. One can only imagine the family’s torment. In August, 1943 Ruth received a letter informing her that Frank had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his attack on the destroyer that night. After that, there was no further word.

sbds iv 300 dpi cin the fall of 1943, Ruth returned to Illinois and spent time with the Christens. Then she went home to Corning to see her own parents. Waiting for her in Texas was a letter from a stranger with an overseas APO address. The day she returned to Austin, she tore it open and read the words every devoted wife longed to read. The letter came from an American serviceman somewhere out in the Pacific who had tuned into a Japanese short wave radio broadcast. The announcer was reading in English the names of Americans captured in the South Pacific. Included in that list was Frank Christen and the Japanese even read out Ruth’s address during the broadcast.  Ruth called Frank’s family in Illinois and related the incredible news.

Three weeks later, the War Department declared him killed in action.

Frank Christen never returned home. His body was never located, and his fate was never learned. There is a plaque honoring him in the MIA section of the American cemetery in Manila, PI.

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An SBD over Guadalcanal late 1942.


Today, I was sitting in a coffee shop in Dallas, Oregon and reading through a pile of documents in hopes of finding another story for this website. I tumbled across a translated Japanese report captured in Manchuria in May 1943. It included Frank Christen’s interrogation report. With considerable help from my Marine Corps historian friend, Mark Flowers, we identified Frank (his name was not included in the document, just his date of birth and educational background) and we were able to find out more about his life and last mission.

He’d been shot down during his bomb run over the Japanese destroyer. His SBD crashed into the water and his tail gunner, PFC Glenn Shattuck from Granby, CT, was killed. Though wounded by anti-aircraft shrapnel, Frank got out of the aircraft and discovered the plane’s life raft floating nearby. He inflated it, got in and began rowing toward the nearest island. It was 2300 hours, December 16, 1942.

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Marine Dauntlesses over the Central Solomons.

He paddled ashore and looked for help. Calling out in the night, he failed to find any locals. Concluding that the island was uninhabited, he decided to keep moving.

He set out to sea again in his raft, intending to make it to another nearby island. For 18 hours he bobbed in the waves, paddling as his waning strength allowed. Finally, he made it on the afternoon of December 18th. He came ashore and found some coconuts to eat. Not long after, two Japanese soldiers walked out of the jungle and spotted him. They ordered him to surrender, but he bolted and ran.

A search ensued. Later that day, the Japanese found Frank high in a large tree next to the island’s jetty.

He surrendered and was taken to Rabaul, New Britain and interrogated. Christen was asked about his family–he had five brothers and two sisters–where he attended school, how he joined the Marine Corps and even what he thought of African-American military personnel.

The interrogation was thorough and probably brutal. He was asked about the number of aircraft at Guadalcanal, the performance and bomb loads of his SBD Dauntless. He was asked about the resentment between Marines and the Army, and about the morale of the forces on Guadalcanal in general. He answered the questions.

At one point, his captors wanted to know what Americans thought of the Japanese. He answered honestly: that he and his comrades had little understand or knowledge of Japan before the war. After Pearl Harbor, they had no doubt the United States would prevail. But then, in the South Pacific, they discovered the true strength of the Japanese. He felt that America had completely underestimated the power and capabilities of the Japanese Navy.

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Rabaul under 5th Air Force B-25 attack, March 1944. Most of the POW’s at Rabaul did not survive the war.

Toward the end of the interrogation, Frank was asked if he’d seen any Japanese prisoners of war himself while on Guadalcanal. He told them that there were a few kept near Lunga Point. One Japanese soldier was captured after he’d been badly wounded. The Marines had taken him to an aid station, where a doctor had been working on him. The soldier had not been properly searched, and while on the table, he pulled out a grenade and detonated it, killing himself and the doctor trying to tend to his wound. The interrogation report added, “In general as soon as a Japanese soldier is captured, he commits suicide. For this reason, it seems that there are only a few PW’s.”

After the pulled all the information they could out of Frank Christen, he asked if he could write a letter home to his wife. His captors agreed and promised him they would deliver it.

It never reached Ruth.

I read the brief letter today seventy-three years after this scared, traumatized young American wrote it and I wondered if there is still anyone out there who loved him and would want to see it. So, in case there is, here it is.  The last letter home of an American doomed to die as a prisoner of war somewhere in the South Pacific.

To My Beloved Wife,

I am writing you a short note to let you know that I am a Prisoner of War. They (The Japanese Army) are hoping that this letter will be able to reach you, and I of course am hoping this reaches you. Please let my mother know as soon as possible. You can send me packages through the International Red Cross.

They (The Japanese Army) are very kind to me. You will undoubtedly hear many things, but don’t ever believe them. I was injured by shrapnel but it was mostly a case of fright.

I must close now. I love you. I will be able to return when this war is over. My love for you will never change.



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Please forward this story far and wide. Share it on as many forums and sites you can think of so, if Ruth is still alive, we can get her Frank’s final words.


Thank you,


John R Bruning








Categories: The Missing, World War II in the Pacific | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

The Toy Salesman

JS 7 Chinese Troops

Chinese troops in action against the Japanese Army. The fighting had raged in China for almost five years when Prisoner 529 joined his cavalry brigade there.

On July 7, 1944, an emaciated, fever-wracked twenty-three year old Japanese aviator crept into an Allied camp near Maffin, New Guinea in search of food.  He’d been part of about three thousand survivors of the 6th Flying Division, based at Hollandia who had tried to escape the Allied cordon through a torturous overland retreat to Sarmi. For most who set out on this desperate bid for survival, the trek became a death march. Disease, starvation and hostile New Guineans thinned the ranks, and the weak were left behind.

Though his name has been lost to history–we’ll call him Prisoner #529, the five foot four native of Okayama-Ken was one of the lucky few who fell into American hands and survived that crucible in the jungle.

Grateful for food and decent treatment, he spoke freely to the Japanese-Americans who interrogated him after his capture. 529 had been fortunate to have finished twelve years of education, the last three at a commercial school that proved to be a stepping-stone to his first career. He became a wholesale toy salesman until he was conscripted into the Japanese Army at age 20. AS he was leaving to report for duty, his mother wished him farewell with one final order: at all costs, do not allow yourself to be captured.

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Chinese troops man a .30 caliber machine gun.

He was called up at Osaka, where with several hundred other conscripts, he was put on a ship and sent to Korea. From there, they were put on trains to northern China and assigned to the Sakuma Cavalry school for basic training. The cavalry was considered one of the elite arms of the Japanese Army, and Prisoner #529’s intelligence and education probably earned him that coveted slot.

It was hard transition going from the toy business to the cavalry, to say the least. The training was brutal and very intense. He was beaten almost every day, and once his jaw was so badly injured he could barely move it for a week. Another time, three of his squad mates were caught violating rules and the entire squad was assembled and forced to beat each other. Prisoner #529 was slapped by officers, hammered across the back with a wooden cane, whipped with belts and beaten with shoes. Most of the time, 529 felt the punishments were wanton, cruel and unjust. He and his fellow recruits were beaten whether they had did anything wrong or not. Sometimes, infractions were fabricated to justify otherwise inexcusable beatings.

After he told his interrogators about the physical abuse, he added that at times it did work. After all, it “knocked the sloppiness” of the men.

Later that spring, he was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Brigade’s Koike Regiment. One day, #529 and twenty-four other fresh-faced replacements reported for bayonet training near Kitoku, China. When they assembled, five Chinese prisoners were led out to the training ground. Hands bound and blindfolded, their Japanese guards gave them each a drink of water and a cigarette.

Then Colonel Koike ordered the new recruits to bayonet the prisoners.

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Bayonet training with live Chinese POW’s was not uncommon during the war. Some twelve million Chinese were killed between 1937-45.

529 had never killed before. He watched as his fellow replacements took turns bayoneting the Chinese prisoners and was deeply moved by the stoic calm of their victims. They didn’t scream, and remained steady and courageous until the end. And the end was not always very fast. Those who survived the initial bayonetings were stabbed repeatedly as each replacement took his turn. The Toy Salesman took his turn with the bayonet, too. Later, he told his interrogators that no Japanese Soldier could have match the quiet resolve of the five Chinese prisoners killed that day.

That moment in Kitoku was a turning point for 529. His quiet life back home spent trying to bring a little happiness into the lives of children was forever behind him. In the months ahead, he watched as his unit and others beheaded and bayoneted Chinese prisoners and those suspected of anti-Japanese activities. Such episodes were common.

In January 1943, he transferred out of the cavalry brigade and joined the 41st Division at Soken (still in Northern China). He remained there for only a short time before being ordered to New Guinea.  On May 1, 1943, he reached Wewak in the Zuisho Maru (which would be torpedoed and sunk a few months later off the Borneo coast by the American submarine Ray).

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A Kawasaki Ki-48 “Lilly” found at Clark Field, Philippines, spring 1945.

From the cavalry to the infantry and now in New Guinea, Prisoner 529 became an aerial gunner. He went through a crash, ten week course at Hollandia before joined the 208th Sentai, a Kawasaki Ki-48 “Lilly” medium bomber regiment.

It was at Hollandia he came to realize the hopelessness of Japan’s situation in New Guinea. He’d gone to China, an eager and willing recruit. who viewed the war as a titanic clash between races. He was anxious to prove himself and serve his country in this epochal moment in history. Even the atrocities to which he bore witness and participated in during his time in China did not diminish that sentiment. When he received orders to the Southwest Pacific Area, he looked forward to carrying his nation’s flag to new, exciting and distant places.

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The nose gun mount in a Ki-48. Prisoner 529 told his interrogator that the mount was so restrictive that it only had a 45 degree field of fire.

In New Guinea, the constant air attacks, the lack of supplies and rare mail deliveries drove that eagerness out of him. The war devolved into a bitter struggle for survival on an alien island while increasingly surrounded by Allied forces. Disease became an ever present enemy. The men cleared brush from around their quarters in hopes of deterring insects and slept under mosquito nets at night. During Allied air raids, they would take to their bomb shelters wearing nets over their heads and gloves. To stave off malaria, the men took daily doses of both quinine and atebrin. Despite their best efforts, the men were plagued by tropical infections and fungus. By early 1944, almost everyone in 529’s squadron suffered from ringworm and other skin diseases.

529’s squadron included fifteen Ki-48 Lilly’s, fifteen pilots and radio operators, sixty gunners and about a hundred and twenty ground crewmen. The regiment had forty planes total, half of which were destroyed in a series of Allied raids in the spring of 1944 at both Wewak and Hollandia.

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The dorsal gunner’s position in a Ki-48.

While other Ki-48 units had new models with heavier armament, the 208th’s planes were equipped with only five machine guns–one 7.9mm in the nose, another in the ventral position, a pair of 7.7mm waist guns and a single 13mm for the dorsal gunner. That latter position was a tricky one, and the gunners had gone through extra training for it since it was very easy to accidentally shoot the tail off. Prisoner 529 had been told cautionary tales of dorsal gunners who sawed their vertical fins and rudders off in their eagerness to hit an incoming enemy fighter. The result was usually fatal.

During daylight missions, the 208th flew with five men in each aircraft: a pilot (who also doubled as navigator), a radio operator, waist gunner, nose and dorsal gunners. The radioman also manned the ventral gun. At night, they left the waist gunner on the airfield and flew with four. They had no trained bombardiers ala the USAAF. Usually, either the pilot or the nose gunner would toggle the aircraft’s six 50 kg bombs that composed its normal load out. Exactly who did that was left to the individual crews to decide, but usually the senior or more experienced man got the job.

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A 5th Air Force P-39’s gun camera film records the final moments of a KI-48. The radio operator’s ventral gun position can be seen under the fuselage.

To increase the Lilly’s range, the 208th Sentai’s bombers had an additional fuel tank mounted inside the fuselage in front of the radio operator’s seat. Three feet long, three feet high and about twenty inches wide, it was not armored and not self-sealing. This meant a single bullet strike could have ignited the tank, bathing the radio operator in flaming gasoline.

On missions, the 208th carried out most of its attacks at between ten and twelve thousand feet. On a few knuckle-biting ones, however, the crews used their Ki-48’s like dive bombers, nosing over and making steep angle descents to three thousand feet before pickling their loads.

Mission briefings were far more informal than in the USAAF. Usually, the squadron commander would select the aircraft and crews the night before the attack. In the morning, just before take-off, the aviators would be given the target, the approach to it and any special instructions specific to the mission. When they returned, each plane captain would give an oral report to the squadron commander.

Intelligence on the Allies was minimal and very restricted. Prisoner #529 rarely even saw a map while he was in New Guinea, as those were reserved for the officers. Most of the time, they did not even know what their targets looked like.

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Ki-48’s under parafrag attack by 5th Air Force B-25’s. Hollandia, spring 1944.

To #529, defeat looked inevitable. Yet, he also believed that no matter what followed, the Japanese people would fight to the last man, and woman.

During the spring of 1944, Allied air attacks repeatedly struck the 208th airfields at both Hollandia and Wewak. At Hollandia, the raids seemed particularly accurate, as if the Allies knew the exact location of every building, revetment and aircraft. (Thanks to the 5th Air Force’s reconnaissance efforts, they did). By April, every facility on the strip at Hollandia had been bombed to splinters, though the 208th did not lose many men in these attacks thanks to the many shelters and slit trenches constructed for them.

The B-25 Mitchell was particularly feared.  Racing in at low altitude with their nose guns blazing, dropping parafrags in their wake, these American bombers destroyed fuel dumps, blew up grounded aircraft, wiped out anti-aircraft positions and terrified all those exposed to their strafing. With eight to twelve .50 caliber machine guns in the nose of each B-25, the gunships were devastating weapons.

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Another Ki-48, along with the wrecks of Ki-21 “Sally” bombers at Hollandia.

The 5th Air Force’s B-24’s were also greatly feared. Though they made their attacks from higher altitudes, their accuracy astonished the Japanese. The 208th concluded that the Liberators had to have had bomb sights far superior to what Japan had produced.

In April 1944, the Allies launched a surprise amphibious invasion at Hollandia. The  Oregon and Washington National Guard division, the 41st, quickly stormed ashore and secured the airfields there. There were few Japanese combat troops in the area, and Prisoner 529 fled into the jungle with the rest of his unit when the landings began.

Chased by American patrols, without food or good weapons or supplies of any kind, the three thousand survivors from 529’s air division attempted to make it to Sarmi, a small Japanese outpost on the coast, some one hundred fifty miles west of Hollandia. For months, the survivors plodded through the jungle, only to discover the Americans had outflanked them again at Wakde and Maffin Bay. The altogether, there were probably about twenty thousand Japanese on this trek for survival, including the remains of the 224th Infantry Regiment.

In mid-June, a battle raged for almost two weeks around a six thousand foot tall mountain overlooking Maffin Bay. Known as the Battle of Lone Tree Hill, the Japanese lost over a thousand men in direct combat with the Americans—and at least another eleven thousand to starvation. Afterwards, the Japanese retreating from Hollandia had little hope left. With Americans behind them, the ocean to their right flank, the inhospitable mountains on their left, they’d come through the jungle only to find the path ahead firmly in American hands.

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The 5th Air Force raids on Wewak and Hollandia between August 1943 and the spring of 1944 broke the back of the Japanese Army Air Force. Most of its units in the SWPA were completely wiped out, with few of the air or ground crews escaping to fight another day.

The survivors scattered, breaking into small groups to forage for food and try to find some friendly garrison to join. Most died of disease or starvation. Some resorted to cannibalism, preying on other Japanese or on local New Guinea natives.

Prisoner #529 remained in the Maffin Bay area after Lone Tree Hill ended, hoping to steal food from an American encampment. Instead, he was caught and captured, a source of utter humiliation to him. He felt he’d let his mother down, and that if he were to ever return to Japan, he would be court-martialed for allowing himself to become a prisoner. To his surprise, he found Americans to be jovial and mostly friendly toward him. In training, he had been told the Americans would kill him if he ever surrendered. Instead, he found them “outgoing, liberal and happy.”

After reconciling himself with his situation, his sense of humiliation at his capture gradually drained away. He began to dream of life post-war, and he hoped that he could settle in Australia and become a farmer.

Of the 250,000 Japanese troops, aviators and sailors sent to New Guinea during the war, less than 15,000 survived the war and returned to Japan. In 1949, eight Japanese hold-outs were discovered living in a village a hundred miles from Madang, New Guinea. They surrendered and returned to Japan in February 1950, possibly the last survivors from the New Guinea campaign to do so.






Categories: America's Opponents; The View from the Other Side, World War II in the Pacific | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

The Mysterious Major Stevenot

Stevenot (at right) in 1917 with the son of the first Philippine President.

On Sunday December 7, 1941, a dapper, fiftysomething American businessman climbed into Philippine Air Lines’ only Beech Staggerwing for an unusual charter flight from Manila’s Nieslon Field to a remote jungle airstrip in southeastern Luzon.  Joseph Stevenot was a legend in the Philippines by this time. Born in 1888, he played a pioneering role in the development of aviation in the Philippines just after the Great War. He’d served in the National Guard and ran the Army’s aviation section on Luzon. Later, he became Curtiss’ tech rep in the Far East and established a flying school under the company’s auspices. He and one other American trained the first Filipino military aviators, flew the first aircraft into Cebu (it was a mail run) and pioneered many other aspects of aviation in the Philippines.


The box the PAL Staggerwing came in. It had been Andres Sorianos’ private aircraft through the 1930’s, and Paul Gunn had come out to Manila to be his personal pilot in 1939. Later, Sorianos and his business partners established Philippine Air Lines, and Paul Gunn was hired to be its operations manager.

In the 1920’s, he helped consolidate the many different telephone companies in the Philippines into one corporation, and he became the vice president of operations for Philippine Long Distance Telephone and Telegraph (PLTD). He made many friends in high places, and his family’s connections back in California also played a role in his many successful business ventures, including a mine operation company he started in the 1930’s. He hailed from one of the wealthiest families of the Sunshine State, where one of his brothers was perhaps the most successful hotel owner of his era and another was a senior executive with Bank of America.

He was known as a bon vivant, charming and charismatic. He moved easily through Manila’s high society, where his comings and goings were reported by the local press. In 1936, he was one of seven men who officially established the Boy Scouts of the Philippines, and he took an interest in scouting through the next five years.


The PAL hangar at Nielson Field, the Staggerwing at right.

In July 1941, Stevenot was back in Washington D.C., and he met with Secretary of War Henry Stimson to urge him to build a closer relationship with the commanders in the Philippines. He advocated for a higher defense budget for the islands as well on other occasions.

Through all his entrepreneurial efforts, he remained an Army reservist. He’d been a major for almost twenty years as he built out his life in Manila.

In the fall of 1941, Stevenot and PLTD played a key role in the development of the USAAF’s air defenses in the Philippines. Radar sets had just started arriving in the the islands, but it would be months before radar coverage would be anywhere near adequate. To spot incoming Japanese aircraft, a broad network of aerial observers was established, similar to what the British had during the Battle of Britain in 1940. These posts were scattered all over Luzon and manned mainly by Filipinos. Stevenot oversaw the construction of the phone lines that tied all this vital network into the air plotting center that had just been built at Nielson Field that fall.

On December 7th, Stevenot flew in the PAL Beech to a tiny jungle airstrip right on the water at Paracale, a tiny mining community a hundred and twenty miles southeast of Manila. Paul “P.I.” Gunn piloted the Staggerwing that day right into a raging storm that had turned the Paracale area into a sea of mud. When they touched down there, the Beech was damaged beyond local repair. Parts were later brought out to it, the plane repaired and flown back to Manila.

The next morning, Monday December 8, 1941, Paul Gunn learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor and made an epic trek back to Manila by boat, train and bus in order to be with his family. But Stevenot stayed behind at Paracale for almost a week.

What was the sixtysomething businessman doing out there on the coast that was so important Paul Gunn had to fly him through a near-monsoon to get him there?macarthur in the philippines just before pearl harbor867 8x10

As I’ve been writing the initial chapters of Indestructible, my biography of Paul “Pappy” Gunn, Stevenot’s trip has both fascinated and  frustrated me. His letters archived at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA., make no reference to that trip. He just wrote his family that he was doing interesting stuff that he couldn’t talk about.

There were a series of gold mines at Paracale that I thought may have been the reason for the trip out there. The PAL Beech made weekly runs to the strip there to carry out about 125 lbs of gold per flight, but making that trip on a Sunday in terrible weather seemed unlikely . Perhaps Stevenot had a crisis he needed to handle at one of the mines his company operated? Nope. I tracked down the ownership and operating companies of those mines and discovered that none of them were run or owned by Stevenot’s corporation. His mining operations were all further south.

Bataan 1942783Then I made a startling discovery. The USAAF had sent a detachment from an early warning company out to Paracale, by ship to establish two radar sites in the area. One was supposed to be a permanent facility using an SCR-271 radar that had arrived in the Philippines that October. The other was a mobile set similar to the one seen in the movie Tora Tora Tora.

The men in that detachment were unhappy campers. When they reached Paracale, there were no facilities of any kind for them. They’d basically been thrown out on the edge of nowhere without any logistical support, or even a place to stay. The NCO’s were able to find a partially empty warehouse, and the men ended up calling that home for the next several weeks. Meanwhile, the det commander, a brilliant electronics specialist named Lt. Jack Rogers, bunked down in one of the mining company’s club houses. That was relative luxury compared to what the men were dealing with, and that caused a lot of internal rancor that lingered for decades.

Stevenot was not only a telephone and telegraph expert, but he’d overseen the construction of teletype networks and radio telephone facilities all over the Philippines. He’d set up the first trans-Pacific phone line to the the United States, and in the early 30’s he’d made headlines when he and eleven of his  family members carried on a party line phone conversation from all over California and Manila.

In short, Stevenot was an expert in modern communication systems.

Rogers’ air warning det had taken the mobile radar set, an SCR-270, and dragged it up the side of steep mountain overlooking the water outside of Paracale. They’d set it up and got it running on December 6th, but only Rogers knew anything about how to use it. The men were so untrained that later they missed the signature of a B-17 coming over them en route to Legaspi. Only when it buzzed right over their heads did they learn of its presence in their airspace. They’d also had no time to calibrate the fussy electronics, which made it virtually useless even with operators who knew how to make it work.SCR-270-NavalPostGrad-

There was no phone lines tying the mobile site to the plotting center at Nielson. All communication from Paracale to their chain of command back around Manila was conducted by radio, which problematical thanks to the rugged mountains in the area.

The SCR-271 set was supposed to be the basis of a permanent air warning site, but it had not been uncrated by December 8th when the Japanese attacks began. But, all the sites were supposed to be tied into Nielson via the same sort of phone adn teletype network the observer stations and other bases used.

Paracale did have phone service, so Stevenot was probably out there on December 7th to check out the new det and figure out ways to get better commo to their mountainous post.

Of course, it was too little, too late. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor that Monday Philippines time, and by lunch, Clark Field lay under a towering cloud of smoke and flames. Stevenot stayed at Paracale and even reported (by phone) sighting a Japanese invasion force off shore on December 13th.

Lt. Rogers’ det was ordered back to Manila after the Japanese landed in Southern Luzon. Much of the equipment was lost–abandoned or blown up as the Japanese approached, and several members of the det were either killed in action or were separated from their brothers and ended up fighting on as guerrillas. The rest made it back to Manila in time to retreat into Bataan. Those who survived the next four months endured the Death March, captivity and the Hell Ships. bataan death march326

Stevenot returned to MacArthur’s headquarters and retreated to Corregidor with the general’s staff at the end of December. He arrived on the Rock with a big box labeled “Signal Corps Tubes.” Actually, the box was full of good hooch, which General Charles Willoughby never forgot. In his post-war memoirs, Willoughby wrote about Stevenot busting out shots of his good stuff whenever morale was down or the FilAmerican Army had suffered another bad day.

Meanwhile, Stevenot kept a direct line open from the Manila switchboard to the yacht basin on the Rock. He would go down there and talk to his fearless employee, a female operator, who used the line as a way to eavesdrop on Japanese military conversations. After taking Manila, the senior Japanese officers used the phone system like anyone else, and those conversations yielded a gold mine of intelligence until February 1942. By then, word of how the Japanese were treating the local Filipino population had reached MacArthur’s staff, and Stevenot decided he couldn’t keep endangering his employee. He’d learned that a niece of his in Manila had been seized and tortured by the Japanese in an effort to get her to reveal Stevenot’s location, and that might have contributed to his caution in this case.

Bataan us troops surrendered 4x6Stevenot remained on the Rock until almost the very end. But after MacArthur made it to Australia, he personally ordered Stevenot out on one of the last submarines to reach Manila Bay. He was evacuated just before the Japanese landed on Corregidor in May.

He served through 1942 and the spring of 1943 throughout the SWPA, never revealing to his family what role he was playing on behalf of MacArthur’s GHQ. He was promoted to LTC then full bird colonel. In June 1943, he died in a plane crash in the New Hebrides Islands. MacArthur wrote a personal letter of condolence to his widow.

Despite searching through the GHQ records at the MacArthur Memorial, I’ve been unable to determine exactly what Colonel Joseph Stevenot was doing for the U.S. Army in 1941-43. Lists of officers and their official positions do not include him. Yet, the Japanese knew who he was and were anxious to find him. Whether it was for his role as a civilian senior executive, or for his military role remains a mystery, as does so much of his last two years of life. Whatever the case, MacArthur deemed him an essential officer who could not be allowed to fall into Japanese hands. And the Japanese considered him so important they tortured at least one woman to try and locate him.

So, I thought I’d do this: If anyone has any further information on Joseph Stevenot, I would love to hear from you. While he is just a passing character in the book I’m writing, his fascinating life and accomplishments have become of great interest to me. In the meantime, he’ll remain the mysterious major of Indestructible‘s early chapters.

John R. Bruning

Categories: World War II in the Pacific | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

348th Fighter Group Air-to-Air Kills Over New Britain 1943

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An Aichi D3A Val under the guns of a 348th Fighter Group P-47 pilot over Arawe, New Britain, December 27, 1943.

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Robert Sutcliffe, a Thunderbolt pilot assigned to the 348th Fighter Group, makes a pass on a formation of Japanese bombers over Cape Gloucester, New Britain on Boxing Day 1943.

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Sutcliffe cripples a Japanese Army Air Force Ki-43 over Cape Gloucester on December 26, 1943.

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Lawrence O’Neil, another 348th Fighter Group P-47 pilot, making a low side pass on the same bomber formation Sutcliffe attacked on December 26, 1943.

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George Orr, 348th FG, making a stern attack on a Japanese bomber over Cape Gloucester, December 26, 1943.


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The Cumberland Clerk of Clark Field

Confession: Part of the perils of conducting archival research far from home is that I get easily distracted. I’ll be plowing through piles of government documents looking for nuggets relevant to my next book, then I’ll stumble across an insanely cool story that I can’t help but to track down. This was the case this week while working at the MacArthur Memorial archives in search of material related to Paul “Pappy” Gunn. There I was, digging around in the collection when I came across a debriefing document related to a clerk named Corporal Joseph Boyland. So I love stories about unlikely folks who step up in moments of great turmoil and crisis to become bigger characters than their rank and role might lead you to believe. In Afghanistan in 2010, I met a quartermaster named Captain Andrew Alvord–who happened to be out commanding an air assault platoon composed of support troops like fuelers and clerks. He led the platoon on many patrols, fought several sharp engagements during Taliban ambushes, and made friends out of local villagers. That is the kind of American who makes our nation great.

Which leads me back seventy years to a Cumberland, Maryland factory worker who, in the throes of the Depression, sought service in the Army Air Corps as a way out of his small town circumstances. Enlisting in 1937, he trained as a clerk and was sent to the Philippines in 1941 to be a paper-pusher in the newly established V Bomber Command Headquarters. In four years, promotion had come slowly for him, and when  Japanese aircraft  appeared over Clark Field on December 8, Boyland was a corporal.  He was at Clark when the attack came and destroyed most of MacArthur’s air force on the ground, and in the chaotic days that followed, he was culled from the HQ element and sent to the 192nd Tank Battalion, where he trained as an M3 Stuart gunner for six weeks at the start of the Bataan Campaign.

In February, he received a week’s worth of infantry training, then was posted at Cabcaben Airfield, where he manned a .50 caliber anti-aircraft machine gun. Between standing watch over the field, he participated in dismounted patrols around Mariveles, and did such an impressive job that he received a spot commission to 2nd Lieutenant by the 31st Infantry’s Major Miller. Along with most of the other marooned FEAF ground and air personnel, he served in combat with the 71st Infantry Division (Philippine Army) until malaria and dysentery knocked him out of action.

As the situation on Bataan began to collapse in early April 1942, he was ordered to Corregidor, but the FilAmerican Army surrendered while he was trying to find passage to the Rock. The Japanese captured him at Mariveles. With twenty other American POW’s, he was pressed into service as a truck driver for the Japanese. Under guard, he drove around Bataan, Guagua, and Pampanga, forced to do whatever the Japanese demanded of him. Yet, his experience was easy compared to what thousands of other half-starved, sick POW’s faced on the Death March. Boyland and his crew of truck drivers often were allowed to go into Manila to purchase food and even alcohol. This comparatively easy life changed later that spring when and thirteen other American drivers were taken to Olongapo and crammed aboard a Japanese transport vessel. The ship took them to Negros Island, where he and his fellow POW’s drove and repaired trucks for the next year.

On Negros, Boyland experienced the opposite extreme of the Japanese occupation. In the months that followed, beatings became increasingly frequent, and he bore witness to the full horrors inflicted on the Filipino population, especially after the Kempeitai showed up on Negros. One Kempeitai Lieutenant in particular terrorized the inhabitants of Bacolod, killing civilians with his sidearm.

Towns suspected of supporting the growing guerrilla movement were dealt with harshly. Several times, Boyland witnessed Japanese troops pour into this villages and massacre the residents with machine guns and bayonets. Other times, the Japanese would capture a group of Filipino males, tie them up and spend days torturing them. They’d be left in the sun without food and water, burned with cigarettes, and mutilated with scissors. Afterwards, Boyland and his fellow Americans would be ordered to bury the bodies.

Sometimes, the Japanese made clumsy attempts to connect with the Filipino population. In April 1943, Boyland was ordered to drive in a two truck convoy. In back, instead of just bayonet-armed Japanese Soldiers, he and the other driver transported a brass band, a singing trio, two Filipino nurses and a couple of doctors. With music merrily playing, they rolled through the countryside, visiting hamlets around Bago. They would stop, hand out candy, cigarettes and donated clothing to the impoverished populace while the medical staff tended to the sick. Sometimes, they’d host dances and games, complete with prizes.

The pistol-fond Kempeitai lieutenant went along on the sojourns, keeping a watchful eye on the spectacle. The Japanese called these Peace and Relief Missions.

Such tactics couldn’t sway the Filipinos, who remained fiercely loyal to the United States despite the reign of terror unleash on them behind the facade of brass bands and free shirts. That point was driven home to Boyland once day when his truck broke down during a Peace and Relief run to Ponte Verde. As he worked to repair it, the locals came out to him, and when the Japanese weren’t looking slipped him fresh fruit and eggs. The mayor even gave him some money.

Enough was enough. Beaten almost every day for months, bearing witness to horrific atrocities then burying the victims, all while driving around a traveling road show with the sadistic Kempeitai officer was too much for Joe Boyland. In April 1943, a Japanese officer smacked him across the face and that humiliation became the final straw.

The next day, he was in the market place at Bago, paused between runs in his truck. His Japanese guard walked across the street to buy cigarettes, and Boyland saw his chance. He slipped into a nearby shop and bolted out the back door. He linked up with a local guerrilla cell, which took him up into the mountains to escape the Japanese.

For most of the next year, Joe lived the life of an American insurgent, operating with the guerrillas of Northern Negros. They carried out ambushes, sometimes attacking the very trucks that he’d been driving. By July, all but two of the American drivers he’d been with had escaped and linked up with various guerrilla groups as well.

Boyland soon found the shadow war on Negros had an ugly underbelly. The Filipinos in the movement hated the local Spanish aristocracy. They represented the elite of the old colonial order, and they took out centuries of pent-up resentment on them through midnight raids and violence. The Spanish left their outlying properties and moved to Bacolod where the Japanese could better protect them, and many openly collaborated with the occupation force as a result.

Martinez Godinez was an exception. He and Boyland had become friends after Martinez provided food, whiskey and safe places to crash. He was officially the Spanish Consul for Negros, and despite his nation’s neutrality in the war, he played an important role in keeping Boyland’s guerrilla cell in the fight. Despite this, other insurgent groups considered him an enemy, and they marked him for death. Boyland protected him as much as he could, but eventually convinced Martinez to send his family to Manila, where they would be (at least for the time) safer.

Then there were the anti-American guerrillas. The most notorious, at least to Boyland, was a former sergeant in the army named De Asis. Reputed to have gone on a blood-feud killing frenzy that claimed the lives of some twenty-seven Filipinos, De Asis was all about settling scores and exercising grudges. He had a deep seated hatred of Americans, and was rumored to have killed several. In January 1944, Boyland went in search of De Asis, probably to try and halt his depredations, but he proved elusive and Joe never found him.

Bacolod, the largest city on the island, teamed with intrigue. Plenty of the locals supported the guerrillas, but there were always fifth columnists, spies and sympathizers working with the Japanese. A German named Weber was one of the most aggressive pro-Japanese civilian in the city. He would strut through the streets in shorts, armed with a pistol and would “arrest” anyone he suspected of supporting the insurgency, then turn them over to the Japanese authorities.

In February 1944, after months of shadowy operations, ambushes, near misses with Japanese patrols and rival guerrillas, Boyland was evacuated off Negros and taken to Australia, where he was debriefed then sent home to Maryland.  When he returned to Cumberland, he learned that one of his brothers had joined the Navy and was serving in England. He later took part in D-Day as part of a landing craft crew.

Joe was given a hero’s welcome in his hometown. So few had escaped from the Philippines that the local papers celebrated his arrival, but noted repeatedly that he wouldn’t talk about his experiences. It later came out that he’d been thoroughly interrogated at the Pentagon after his return from the Philippines. Once he was given 30 day leave and came home to Cumberland, the Secret Service kept him under constant surveillance to ensure he did not speak of what was happening in the Philippines. That level of paranoia was also experienced by other escapees, including the legendary Ed Dyess.

Boyland went to OCS and stayed in the military after the war, learning to fly and serving as a pilot in the Air For Parce before finally retiring as a lieutenant colonel. In December 1975, his car got stuck in soft mud on the side of Route 301 in North Carolina, outside of Rocky Mount. While walking along the shoulder to a nearby gas station to get help, he was hit by a passing car and tragically killed, a terrible end for the warrior clerk.

He never spoke to the press about his wartime experiences in detail, honoring the order given to him during his Pentagon debriefing to keep his mouth shut. But he did tell his hometown paper once of a poignant moment after he was captured that haunted him through his captivity.

While being taken to a POW camp, he spotted a billboard on the side of the road advertising Kelly-Springfield tires.  Cumberland was home to an 88 acre Kelly-Springfield factory, completed in 1921 when Joe was just four years old. The company employed much of the town, and was a pride of the city until it was purchased by Goodyear the year Joe graduated from high school.

The billboard brought him back to his hometown, and as he watched the advertisement pass by, he was filled with memories of City Hall Plaza, Bedford street and all the little shops in downtown Cumberland. As it slipped past his truck, the billboard served as a reminder to all he’d lost, and all he’d fight to regain in the difficult years to come.












Categories: American Warriors, World War II in the Pacific | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Most. Unusual Distinguished Flying Cross. Ever.

The Philippine Air Lines hangar at Nielson Field in 1941. PAL flew Beech 18's and a Staggerwing (at right).

The Philippine Air Lines hangar at Nielson Field in 1941. PAL flew Beech 18’s and a Staggerwing (at right).

When the Pacific War broke out in December 1941, thirty-three year old Harold Slingsby was employed as a pilot with Philippine Air Lines, working for the legendary Paul “Pappy” Gunn from the company’s hub at Nielson Field outside of Manila. Far Eastern Air Forces had no transport force in 1941, and in those dark December days, the huge hole that left in MacArthur’s air capabilities was keenly felt. With no way to move personnel or supplies around by air, General Louis Brereton drafted Philippine Air Lines’ pilots and aircraft into the USAAF. Slingsby became an instant captain.*

At the end of December, it was decided to move General Brereton’s headquarters to Australia. Key staff officers were ordered out of the Philippines to help establish the new HQ. Slingsby was one of the pilots who flew those officers to Northern Australia. Upon arrival, he was pulled into the nascent Air Transport Command as part of the 21st Troop Carrier Squadron (the only cargo squadron in theater at that point) and spent much of the rest of 1942 flying the PAL Beech 18’s, Lockheed Lodestars and C-47’s around from base to base before returning to the States in early 1943.

The 5th Air Force was just being set up, and things were pretty chaotic in Australia in early 1942, so these transport missions were often anything but routine. On February 23, 1942, he was tasked with flying to Brisbane to haul back to Batchelor FIeld the intact wing of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. Pappy Gunn, who commanded the 21st, was probably on this flight with “Buzz” Slingsby and took photos of this remarkable salvage job. They arrived at Brisbane and somehow shoehorned the wing under the fuselage of their transport. Exactly what aircraft Slingsby was flying is unknown, but it was probably an ancient B-17D the ATC pilots had been using since it had been flown out of the Philippines. The  B-17 wing was lashed to the underside of the fuselage, and they took off the following night to get it back up to Northern Australia where ground crews were waiting to pair the salvaged wing with another damaged Fort so it could be returned to service.

In times of great peril, the men of the 5th Air Force rose to the occasion and figured out a way to stay in the fight without adequate supplies, spare parts or aircraft. If Buzz and Pappy had been flying the old 19th Bomb Group B-17D’s that day, and nothing else in theater could have handled such a load, they were piloting an aircraft whose engines were so worn out and unreliable that the 19th had cast it off as uncombat worthy at a time when they were desperate for flyable bombers. Every minute in the air must have been a gut-check for them, but Slingsby made three landings and take-offs with the heavy, awkward load and got the vital wing up to the Darwin area.

For this incredible feet of ingenuity, Pappy put Slingsby in for a DFC. Here is his award citation:





*Kenney’s book, The Saga of Pappy Gunn states that Slingsby was a Consolidated employee ferrying PBY Catalina flying boats to the Dutch East Indies when the war broke out, but other sources state he was an employee of PAL in December 1941.

Categories: World War II in the Pacific | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

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