Major Ralph Cheli
5th US Army Air
Major Ralph Cheli's eyes seemed to
blur as he piloted his B-25 Mitchell over the vastness of the Bismarck
Sea, hidden below him by an endless gray shroud of storm clouds.
Somewhere beneath him and the trailing twelve bombers of his 405th Bomb
Squadron was a parade of Japanese warships and troop transports.
Finding them, and sending them to the ocean floor, was critical.
the Buna-Gona region had fallen to Allied forces on Papua, the Japanese
made the defense of Lae their primary concern. The heavily fortified
port city was the gateway to the Bismarck Sea, and control of the Bismarck
Sea meant ownership of the waters that stretched past Guam and the
Philippine Islands, all the way to Tokyo.
Despite Allied possession of the
Papuan Peninsula, the war for New Guinea was far from finished. Lae,
scores of small islands in the region, and villages further west on New
Guinea's northern coast line, still hid dozens of Japanese airfields. From
them regular raids were launched across the peninsula.
In February General Kenney had
learned that the Japanese planned to reinforce Lae with the 51st Infantry
Division. Intel suggested this massive force would be shipped out of
Rabaul late in the month. They would depart Rabaul under the cover of the first major storm.
On March 1 the cloud cover over the
Bismarck Sea parted long enough for a lone B-24 Liberator to note
fourteen Japanese ships making their way across the waters below.
Then the clouds masked the convoy again. While six
Australian Bostons attacked the Lae aerodrome to keep Japanese
fighters on the ground, seven B-17s scoured the northern coast line of New
Britain Island in a search for the convoy. When darkness fell the
American pilots resorted to flying fifty feet over the turbulent waters, lights on and dropping flares to attract attention, and, hopefully
enemy fire. If the enemy convoy saw the flight of Bombers, they didn't
bait. The Flying Fortresses returned to Port Moresby at
midnight, still frustrated in their search.
The following day the weather broke-up slightly, and shortly after dawn Lieutenant Archie Browning
noted movement across the waves beneath his B-17 The Butcher Boy.
Cheers erupted among Browning's crew as they scanned the massive movement
across the sea, each man
trying to count. There were at least fourteen enemy ships below, all
steaming for Lae. Less than two hours later a wave of eight American
Fortresses came in at 6,500 feet to drop the first bombs in the Battle
of the Bismarck Sea. One of the largest of the enemy transports
became the first victim, leaving 850 Japanese troops floundering in the
water. Two destroyers moved into to rescue the drowning infantrymen
and, under cover of darkness, to land them near Lae before
returning to the convoy.
Other attacks were mounted, and there
were other reports of hits and victories, but by nightfall the weather had
done its job of shielding most of the enemy force. Largely intact,
the convoy continued on
Virtually every available fighter and
bomber was launched on March 3 to find and attack the Japanese armada
bound for New Guinea. Twelve B-25 Mitchell bombers trailed
Major Cheli as he lead his 405th Bomb Squadron northward on the mission
that would ultimately, more than any other raid of the war, vindicate the
ideas espoused by their bomber's namesake.
At 1000 hours Rear Admiral Shofuku
Kimura's armada, destined for New Guinea with its cargo of 7,000 Japanese
soldiers, was in the midst of changing the watch when the alarm
sounded. More than 100 American aircraft had located Kimura's convoy
when it moved into the open waters of Huon Gulf, the home-stretch before Lae.
Twelve Australian Beaufighters led the attack, screaming in
on the enemy fleet at an altitude of 200 feet to rake the decks with the
four cannon and six machine-guns mounted in their nose and wings.
Mistaking the twin-engine fighters for torpedo bombers, Admiral
Kimura ordered his ships to turn bow-on into the attack. It was
a major blunder.
Moments later thirteen American B-17
bombers began unloading their deadly 1,000-pound orbs from high above.
Japanese Zeroes rose to attack in defense of their ships. One Flying Fortress
fell in flaming ruin while American P-38s from the 39th Squadron streaked
in to intercept and engage the fighters. In the thirty minutes that followed Major George Prentice's
airmen knocked down ten of enemy planes, while pilots of the 9th Squadron and
gunners in the B-17s claimed ten more. (Further away at
Finschhafen, a young American Ace named Dick Bong, flying in support of
the over-all mission, would claimed his sixth victory.)
While the aerial dogfight raged, a
short distance behind the Australian Beaufighters and the initial
flight of Flying Fortresses, Major Ralph Cheli got an early
preview of the deadly combat that lay before his squadron of
B-25s. From miles out he could see the near-misses of the bombs
that fell from B-17s high above, and the smoking ruins of the enemy
ships that had taken direct hits. With the enemy convoy now in his
own sights, Cheli nosed his bomber downward to nearly
Behind Cheli's formation, twelve
B-25C1s from the 90th Squadron followed his lead. These bombers
had been modified with extra guns for low-level strafing. Captain
Jock Henebry, leading one flight from the 90th, recalled seeing all those
ships and feeling "scared as hell" at the thought of flying
right up to their sides at water level. Skip bombing had always
been done at night, when incoming airplanes could find at least a small
element of safety in the darkness. Major Cheli was leading this
force directly into the guns of the enemy ships in broad daylight.
Major Cheli made his run on the
convoy, releasing his bombs in the face of a deadly fusillade from guns
firing point-blank at his nose. Behind him the other twelve Mitchells
of the 38th Bombardment Group released their own deadly explosives,
coming in low and pulling upward only at the last minute in order to
clear the masts of the enemy ships.
Behind Cheli's lead formation came
the 90th Squadron, raking the enemy with their heavy guns and each
dropping three or four bombs before breaking away. These, in turn,
were followed by twelve A-20's of the 89th Bombardment Squadron and six
B-25's of the 13th Bombardment Squadron. The forty-two American
planes that had followed Cheli into the maelstrom left behind them two
sinking destroyers and three sinking transports. During the
pivotal Battle of the Bismarck Sea, 23-year-old Major Ralph Cheli had
led the first daylight, low-level skip bombing mission of the Pacific
war. That mission proved to be one of the most successful air-to-ship
attacks in history.
Born in San Francisco, California, on
October 29, 1919, Ralph Cheli's youth took him across the nation
before his military service sent him across the globe. In
February 1940, 19-year old Cheli enlisted in the Army as a
flying cadet in New York City . He trained at Tulsa, Oklahoma, and at Randolph
and Kelly Fields in Texas before earning his wings in
November. He served assignments as a pilot with the 21st
Squadron, and then served with the 43rd Bomb Squadron flying B-24 Liberators
out of MacDill Field, Florida, when World War II began.
In the early months of 1942 he flew anti-submarine patrols in the
Caribbean and was promoted to first lieutenant.
In July 1942 Lieutenant Cheli was transferred
to Barksdale Field, Louisiana, to serve as operations officer for
the 405th Bomb Squadron, one of three remaining squadrons in the
38th Bombardment Group. (Two of the 38th Group's squadrons
were sent to Hawaii earlier in the year and participated in the
Battle of Midway. They did not subsequently rejoin the group.)
When Lieutenant Cheli joined the 38th BG,
only the air echelon remained stateside. Ground crews had
departed for Australia earlier in the year, while pilots and
air-crews remained in Louisiana to train in their B-25 Mitchell
Even before Cheli joined the 405th Squadron in May, the B-25
Mitchell had a distinguished record of service in
the Pacific. The twin-engine, medium-range bomber had been
responsible for the first American victory during the famous
Doolittle raid over Tokyo.
designed for low-level bombing missions, the B-25 was smaller
than the long-range B-24 or B-17, and had a range of only about
1,200 miles. Normally it carried a crew of five, half the
number assigned to the larger bombers that had been built for
high-altitude bombardment of industrial plants and
factories. Often forgotten among the great aircraft of
World War II, the B-25 established an enviable record of service in China
and North Africa. It was particularly well-suited for
General George Kenney's low-level flight strategy in the Pacific
newly-promoted Captain Ralph Cheli led the 405th Bomb Squadron to
Brisbane, Australia, in August, the 405th was the first B-25 squadron to
reach the combat theater in an over-water flight. That the
22-year-old pilot with less than three years in service would be
given such responsibility is testament to his leadership
ability. Ralph Cheli was well respected and was considered
one of the finest officers in the 38th Bomb Group.
405th Squadron, which called itself the Green Dragons,
arrived in northern Australia on August 22. Captain Cheli
flew his first combat mission three weeks later on September 15, a
strike against Japanese installations at Buna on the northern
Papuan coast. Thereafter the men of the 38th Bombardment
Group flew regular missions against enemy air bases, oil
production facilities, ground forces, and anything that moved on
the water. Almost from the beginning the primary tactic of
their B-25 Mitchell bombers was tree-top level strafing of their
targets prior to releasing the ton of bombs each aircraft could
Cheli's immediate superior, 38th BG
commander Colonel Brian Shanty O'Neil, set a great example
for his officers. Walter Krell, a pilot from the 22nd Bomb
"His (O'Neil's) stature as a brave
man set him high among other brave men. He was in total command
of himself, the men, the machine, and the situation. When a
Group order was issued prohibiting squadron commanders from
flying combat, Shanty would have none of it. As C.O. of the 38th
Group, it was not uncommon for Shanty to go off in the lead
plane, get back several hours later and hop right back into the
lead plane of the next flight.
Colonel O'Neil lead his men by example and
demanded the same from his squadron leaders. In October the Green
Dragons under the command of Captain Cheli relocated to Port
Moresby for combat operations. In the six months that followed
Cheli lead his men in more than 30 air missions. One month
before his historic daylight, low-level skip bombing raid during
the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, Ralph Cheli was promoted to
major. This marked him one of the Army Air Force's youngest and
fastest-rising commanders. Of Cheli, Walter Krell recalled:
"(22nd BG commander Dwight
Divine) Divine used to wince when I sounded off about how squadron
commanders should be the flyingest SOBs in the squadron. That's
the way Shanty had it in the 38th. Cheli and Tanberg did more
than their share.
" The sad thing about Cheli was that he had said
about two days before he got lost that he would be a colonel
before he was 25 years old. I'd been at it almost a year by then
and Cheli was still gung-ho fresh.
" I remember thinking it was
dangerous talk. Little wonder, though, that I wanted to follow
Shanty to an outfit that worked from top to bottom."
to the Philippine Islands
Within six months of the attack on
Pearl Harbor the Philippine Islands had fallen and American forces were
pushed all the way south to Australia to recoup. In the summer of
1942 all that stood between Australia and imminent invasion by Japanese
forces was the Island of New Guinea.
By the fall MacArthur's forces were
on the offensive, moving across the Coral Sea to push the encroaching
enemy forces backward. MacArthur's strategy to return to the Philippines
was to first cross the Owen Stanley Range to establish forward positions
at Buna and Gona, and then begin the long trek over the enemy-infested
northern coast of New Guinea. When Buna and Gona fell in the
opening days of 1943 it placed increasing importance on the
Japanese-held port city at Lae. Lae was critical for both Allied war planners,
as well as the
Japanese high command. Lae was indeed the front door to the
Pacific and the the Philippine Islands.
The failed Japanese effort to
reinforce Lae in the first days of March 1943 was a crushing
defeat. The Battle of the Bismarck Sea not only resulted in the
sinking of four, and possibly as many as eight, enemy battleships, but
the loss of all eight transports carrying the 7,000-man 51st Japanese
Infantry Division to Lae. More than half of that ground force
destined to battle for possession of Lae was lost at sea. Fewer
than 2,500 Japanese soldiers were rescued and returned to Rabaul.
Only the 800 or so men rescued after the first transport was sunk,
soldiers which were landed by destroyers on the night of March 2-3, ever reached
New Guinea. (Many of these were killed by strafing squadrons early
the following morning while the major air-sea battle was being waged in
the Huon Gulf.
The deadly disaster proved to the
Japanese that Ken's Men now controlled the skies in the region,
and that further attempts to reinforce New Guinea by sea would be met
with similar devastation. To adjust, the Japanese began building
air fields further west on New Guinea's northern coast line, hidden in
dense jungle far enough from Allied forward bases to offer some safety,
but close enough to continue harassment of American forces at Buna, Gona,
and across the mountains at Port Moresby.
For the men of the Fifth Air Force,
this shift meant fewer missions against enemy shipping and increased
emphasis on finding the myriad of hidden enemy airfields. Every
enemy plane destroyed on the ground meant one less enemy pilot to tangle
with in the sky. Each Nippon fighter or bomber burning on the
ground also meant several fewer deadly machineguns to strafe Allied
airfields or advancing American and Australian infantrymen. As they
had been since the formation of the Fifth Air Force, Ken's Men
were innovative and creative in developing the necessary tools of their
trade to accomplish this mission.
When Air Chief General Hap
Arnold called George Kenney to Washington, D.C., in the spring
of 1942 to ask him to transfer to Australia and fix the mess that
was the Far East Air Force, Kenney made two special
requests. One was for fifty P-38 fighter aircraft and
pilots (including Lieutenant Bong) to fly them. The other
was for a shipment of 3,000 parachute-fragmentation bombs.
Kenney advised Arnold that if he was to assume command of the
Pacific air operations, he wanted total air superiority--"air
control so supreme that the birds have to wear Air Force
insignia." This could only be achieved by the
destruction of Japanese airplanes, either in the air or on the
ground. The P-38s would knock them out of the air, the
para-frag bombs would destroy them before they ever became
Para-frags were small small,
ten-kilogram (23-pound), explosives that could be hand-thrown from
aircraft to slowly descend to earth and explode on impact.
They could be very quickly scattered across a wide area from a
low-flying B-25 Mitchell or A-10 Boston, and would settle into the smallest opening behind the revetments enemy
engineers had created to protect their planes while on the
ground. Upon detonation they spewed out nearly 2,000 shards
of white-hot metal to tear through wings and fuselages, rupture
gas tanks and to set grounded planes on fire.
Five thousand of these
para-frags had originally been manufactured in 1928 for shipment to
Australia, but only 2,000 had been delivered. The 3,000
requested by General Kenney was the remainder of a weapon
stockpile that more than a decade later, no one else seemed interested in. Ken's Men
put them go great use with their innovative minds, coupled with the
creative genius of an aircraft engineer the men of the Fifth Air
Force called "Pappy."
It is probably not
over-simplification to note that Douglas MacArthur had the plan to
defeat the Japanese and return to the Philippines, but that it was
General George Kenney that made that dream possible.
Similarly, the success of General Kenney and his courageous and
innovative young airmen was possible thanks in no small measure to
a 40-year old, retired Navy machinist's mate named Paul Irving
Gunn. Because of his age the beloved legend of the Pacific
war was, however, simply known as Pappy.
Born in Arkansas, Paul Gunn
joined the Navy at age 17 hoping to become a pilot. Lack of
formal education, however, hampered his plans. Instead of
flying, Gunn spent most of
his Naval career teaching other men to fly. Subsequently
retiring to the
Philippine Islands with his wife to run a small inter-island
airlines, Pappy's exploits to ferry VIPs and other trapped Americans
out of the Islands in the days before the Japanese gained full
control were legendary.
Pappy was given the
rank of Captain in the Far East Air Force and was working as an
engineering and maintenance officer at Charters Towers, Australia,
when General Kenny met him on August 5, shortly after the latter's
arrival. Kenney quickly saw the potential in the man whose
informal education was beyond equal. Pappy Gunn could
do impossible things to aircraft, enabling them to do things
previously deemed improbable.
Pappy is perhaps best
remembered for his modifications to Fifth Air Force airplanes that
made it possible for them to mount and fire more than a dozen 50-caliber
machine guns, and for his innovations enabling them to carry extra
fuel and extend their range of operations. But General
Kenney's first assignment for Pappy centered on the arrival
of his 3,000 para-frag bombs. General Kenney gave Pappy a
two-week deadline to modify his A-20s to carry the small,
parachute-deployed explosives. As he always did, Pappy
came through. By fall para-frags were dropping on Rabaul, and
elsewhere in New Guinea and the Pacific Islands.
The little 23-pound
innovations proved to be worth their weight in blood!
In the spring of 1943, scores of
small enemy airfields were springing up in the jungles around Lae.
On a near-daily basis Japanese Zeroes made the hop over the Owen
Stanley range to harass the seven American airfields at Port Moresby, or
to try and intercept bombers over the Solomon and Bismarck Seas. On April 15 General MacArthur
met with Admiral William Halsey, who was commanding
the forces in the Solomon Islands. The two commanders met in Brisbane to plan and
coordinate their next step. The plan they devised was labeled Cartwheel,
and called for their two separate forces to begin a near-simultaneous advance on
Operation Cartwheel was
launched on June 30 when Halsey landed the 43d Infantry Division on New
Georgia Island, in what he estimated would be a two-week campaign to
secure the island and control the Munda Airstrip. In fact, the
heavy jungle and tenacious Japanese forces turned the campaign into a
month-long battle throughout July, costing more than 1,000 American
lives. In the last four days of July, with Halsey's battle-weary soldiers
making their last desperate drive to take the Munda Air Field, three
soldiers earned Medals of Honor, including a young Ohio National
Guardsman named Rodger Young. Corporal Young died in his moment of
valor but his name and the account of his deeds became the lyrics of
one of the war's best known ballads.
On the same day that the 43d
Infantry landed at New Georgia Island, back on New Guinea a mixed Australian-American
unit known as McKechnie Force landed at Nassau Bay near Salamaua, a scant sixty miles from Lae. Desperate jungle fighting
followed, but in the two weeks that followed the McKechnie Force
moved half-way to Lae. The Fifth Air Force flew repeatedly in
support of that operation and General Kenney's B-25s were the chief
Meanwhile Kenney's heavy bombers and
fighters were busy preventing any Japanese re-supply for the embattled
forces at Lae. They also worked hard at keeping enemy aircraft on the
ground, and those Jap fighters and bombers that did get in the air were quickly shot down. On July 26
thirty-five B-25s and eighteen B-24s were bombing enemy positions
in Salamua and Lae when sixteen enemy fighters tried to intervene.
Eight escorting P-38s promptly shot down eleven of the enemy. Four
of them fell to the guns a Lieutenant Richard Bong, doubling his
previous one-day record and earning him the Distinguished Service
Two days later, while escorting
bombers in an assault on enemy shipping north of New Britain Island, the
same P-38s shot down eight of fifteen enemy fighters. Dick Bong
got his sixteenth victory to tie Captain Tom Lynch as the leading Army Air
Force ace in the Pacific. Unfortunately for Bong, his airplane was
damaged and he spent the next month on R & R in Australia.
General Kenney's fighter pilots
were doing a great job of knocking down Jap planes, but as the situation
at Lae became more desperate for the Japanese, it seemed more and more
enemy planes were rushing to the rescue. General Kenney suspected
that many of these were coming from airfields further west, hidden in
and around Wewak. There were, in fact, four new airfields under
construction at Awar, Boram, Wewak, and Dagua. Determined to fight
an offensive war, Kenney knew it was time to move further west.
For the Major Ralph Cheli and the pilots of the B-25s based at Port
Moresby, it was to be their deepest penetration of enemy territory to
For Major Ralph Cheli, who had now
logged 39 combat missions, it would also be the most dangerous.