First Blood – The 7th Bomb Group to Menado
While the 19th was ‘showing the flag’ way up north, a critical situation developed in Northern Celebes. The Japanese were invading Menado. Orders were issued to strike ‘with all available force’ at Menado airfield and the Japanese shipping in Menado Bay.
And all available force meant the recently arrived 3 LB-30’s and 2 B-17E’s that had been at Singosari for 4 whole days…
Watched by a few even newer arrivals, that had trickled in that day via the African Route, the five bombers took off at 12.10 on January 16 and disappeared north, towards the Kendari II (K2) staging field at the South-Celebes coast. There they would stay overnight and carry out a dawn attack against Japanese forces in the Menado area on January 17. The LB-30’s were to attack Menado’s Langoan airfield; the B-17’s were to attack shipping in Menado Bay on what was the first operational mission of the B17E in the Pacific theatre
To say that their orders were rather vague is putting it very mildly. The LB-30 crews lacked accurate target information and it took them 20 minutes to locate the airfield. By the time they had found the airfield, twenty miles south of Menado, and had dropped their bombs, 5 Mitsubishi Zeros aggressively attacked them and raked their unprotected bellies. The bomber crews fought them off, claiming one Zero shot down, but on the way back to Malang, it was clear that two LB-30’s (Dougherty’s AL535 and Basye’s AL576) were really in trouble.
Dougherty found that that not only was he very low on gas but the LB-30’s damaged controls made it increasingly difficult to keep his plane in the air. Halfway across the Java Sea, Major Straubel saw the bomber disappear from sight, with a smoking engine and four injured men aboard. Dougherty somehow managed to crash-land the LB-30 on a streak of sandy beach on Greater Mesalembo Island. The crew survived but the weather turned thick. Huddled in their wrecked plane, they waited for nine days, with little else but coconuts to live on and no proper shelter or medical care for their wounded. Their only hope was for the weather to clear so the wrecked plane could be spotted by a friendly aircraft. This finally happened after eight days, when – on January 24 – they were spotted by a very low flying B-17E (Flown by the 7th Bomb Group’s CO Major Stanley K. Robinson). The next day a Patwing 10 PBY came to pick them up.
Basye’s LB-30 had been hit in two engines and had part of its flight controls shot away. And two of his gunners were badly wounded; Sgt Wallace L Oldfield and Pfc Robert D Chopping (who had a bullet lodged within an inch of his heart). Basye crash-landed his ship at Macassar and both wounded were rushed to a Dutch hospital. The bomber was damaged beyond repair and the crew decided to strip it of all salvageable parts .
The two ship B17E flight fared little better. At 05.30 am, on the run in for the shipping attack in Menado bay, they were completely blinded by the sun rising directly in front of them. The only solution was to pass over the target area and reverse course 180 degrees. Now they could finally see some targets: two large, two small transports. But the two bombing raids they made were a fiasco. All bombs hung on the first run and on the second run six bombs hung in one of the B-17’s (of which they later managed to drop two on Langoan airfield). Four bombs were still on board when they landed at Kendari II.
And while they wrestled with their unwilling bombs, they were relentlessly attacked from 0540 to 0620 by approx. 15 Japanese fighters, two of which were claimed shot down by B17 gunners. But they came at a steep price.
When Necrason’s tailgunner, Pvt. Arvid B Hegdahl shot down his fighter, a Japanese cannon shell shattered his right leg above the knee. Fortunately, quick action by the 7th Bomb Squadron’s line chief – 60 year old engineer MSgt Louis T “Soup” Silva – saved his leg. After giving first aid as well as he could, Silva then heaved Hegdahl aside and took over as tail gunner. He later got a DSC for his actions.
Both B17E’s landed at Kendari for much needed medical aid, repairs and fuel. An hour later, Necrason’s co-pilot ‘Bernie’ Barr had helped a Dutch doctor to staunch the blood flow and splint Hegdahl’s leg. They were fueling up and frantically trying to repair DuFrane’s engines when, without warning, five Japanese Zeroes swooped down and attacked the field.
Necrason immediately took off, in a desperate attempt to save his plane (and crew) from being shot to pieces. Somehow he managed to get airborne and the crew fought off three of the Zeroes that went after their lone bomber. Still unaccustomed to the B17E, the Japanese attacked from behind and below, right into the tail-gunner’s field of fire.
When they reached Singosari in their badly shot-up bomber, they heard that only Straubel’s crew had brought back their LB-30 (AL609) more or less undamaged.
Wade, without a plane, had remained at Singosari, to ensure that there was someone present to greet and guide new arrivals expected via the African Route. But when Necrason told him that ‘Duke’ DuFrane’s crew and shot-up B-17E were still at Kendari II, he immediately had Straubel’s LB-30 refueled and hurriedly took off at 13.15 to help DuFrane. Wade landed at K2 just after dark but came too late. DuFrane had been told that the invading Japs could arrive at K2 any moment. He had attempted a 3 engine takeoff but it failed; the field was simply too wet and soggy to gain sufficient speed on 3 engines. Unable to repair his fourth engine to get his plane out in time, DuFrane decided there and then to burn his B17 to deny it to the Japs. Upon arrival at Singosari early next morning, he and his crew received a severe dressing down from Eubank who was furious about the destruction of a brand new B-17.
Thus ended the 7th Bomb Group’s first mission in Java. According to ‘Summary of Air Action’, one Japanese transport was hit and seen to capsize while some damage was done to an airfield on which no planes were visible.
And these scant results had been achieved at the cost of 7 wounded crew members (of which 3 were severely wounded) and the loss of two LB-30’s and one B-17E, while one B-17E was badly damaged. Only a single LB-30 remained unharmed.
— To Be Continued —