3d Bomb Group
U.S. Army Air Force's 3d Bomb Group (Light), based out of Savannah,
Georgia, at the time Pearl Harbor was attacked, traced its lineage all the
way back to World War I. As an air group it was initially organized
under the name "Army Surveillance Group" on July 1, 1919, and re-named
the "1st Surveillance Group" a month later. Its component squadrons were
veterans of combat in France where they had established a solid record of
combat service. Most had served as observation aircraft on low-level
missions, though they had also engaged in both bombardment and pursuit combat.
The 8th Aero Squadron had been the first to
fly DeHavilland DH-4s, often called Flying Coffins but also
known as Liberty planes for their new Liberty engines. Five
years after the war ended the 8th adopted its official logo based upon
this designation, consisting of an eagle clutching the famous Liberty
Bell, and all this superimposed upon a target.
The 90th Aero Squadron, known as The Dicemen
for insignia featuring a pair of dice displaying a lucky
"7", flew a variety of aircraft in World War I including
Sopwith 1s, Salmson 2s, and even the newer Spad XIs. The
were frequently low-level reconnaissance forays into enemy territory.
The 104th Aero (Observation) Squadron,
which was later
consolidated with the 13th and re-designated the 13th Attack Squadron,
flew Spads in World War I and adopted insignia depicting a skeleton
with a bloody scythe. They became known as The Devil's Own
Despite a primary mission of low-level
reconnaissance, observation, and aerial photography, the original
squadrons that became the 3d Bombardment Group saw considerable combat
action in the air. The 8th squadron was credited with eight aerial
victories in World War I, the 90th with fourteen, and the 104th with
four. (At the time the Group was established in 1919 there was a
fourth squadron, the 12th, which was subsequently replaced by the 26th
Early post-war missions for the 1st Surveillance
Group consisted of patrolling the nation's coast and borders. In 1921 the
pilots in their DH-4s began intensive observation flights of the
Texas/Mexico border. Such low-level specialties attracted the
attention of General Billy Mitchell who saw in the group the potential
for low-level strafing support of ground troops. He also noted the
potential for dive bombing, and pilots and planes of the 1st Surveillance
Group played an important role in the late-1921 experiments off the
Virginia coast that proved air power would soon achieve preeminence over
Perhaps as a direct result of the Mitchell
tests, in 1921 the 1st Surveillance Group was re-designated the 3d Attack
Group and adopted a crest featuring Maltese Crosses to depict its
component squadrons' aerial victories in World War I. The Group's motto: "Non
Solum Armis" (Not by Arms Alone), noted its important role in
observation and reconnaissance. The green cactus on the crest
symbolized the Group's post-war role patrolling the tense desert border between
Texas and Mexico in defense of the homeland.
Between the world wars the 3d Attack Group flew
nearly every airplane developed and performed a variety of missions.
On September 4, 1922, a young 90th Squadron pilot who had participated in
the Mitchell experiment the previous year, took off from Pablo
Beach, Florida, in his DH-4 sporting the logo of the Group's Dice Men.
Twenty-two hours later Lieutenant Jimmy Doolittle landed at San Diego,
California, becoming the first airman in history to cross the United
States in a single day.
In a 1924 paring of America's combat air force, the
3d Attack Group was reduced to two squadrons, the 8th and the 90th.
Five years later the 13th was reactivated. In the decade of service
that followed, a period marked by training and experimentation critical to the
development of air power, the 3rd Attack Group became the root stock for
U.S. Army Air Corps low-level bombing and strafing tactics. In 1939
it was again re-designated, this time as the 3d Bombardment Group (Light). The
3rd seemed not to suffer from an identity crisis as a
result of four different titles in twenty years. By now most of the pilots
of all three squadrons, as well as the newly assigned 89th Squadron, had
adopted the nickname of the 13th. As a Group they were
becoming known as The Grim Reapers.
In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor the Army Air Force
stripped the veteran 3d Bomb Group of all officers above the rank of first
lieutenant, dispatching them to train the new recruits this new world war would
require. The Group's A-20 combat planes were crated for
shipment and one month later the Group, pared down to 17 officers and 800
enlisted men, sailed for Australia on the SS Ancon. The Group
commander was First Lieutenant Robert Strickland, the highest-ranking
The 3d Bomb Group was one of the first air-combat
units deployed in World War II, arriving in Australia on February 25,
1942. On March 10 the Grim Reapers moved to Charters Towers,
90 miles inland on Australia's north-east coast. The unit was told
that they would soon receive a shipment of new A-20 dive bombers, but at
the moment Lieutenant Strickland had very few pilots, no airplanes, and
four squadrons that basically existed in name only.
Shortly after the arrival of the 3rd
Bomb Group Colonel Big
Jim Davies arrived at Charters Towers with 42 officers and 62 enlisted
men--all that remained of the 27th Bomb Group. These men were the pilots
and crew that left the Philippines in December to get aircraft, men that had
arrived in the theater on the Pensacola Convoy. With these
new planes they hoped to return to
defend their comrades. That return was halted at Java by the
advancing Japanese, and by
March little remained at Luzon for them to defend. The pilots, including
Lieutenant Wilkins, along with eighteen A-24 Dauntless SBDs,
were assigned to the 8th Squadron under command of the 27th Group survivor
Captain Floyd Buck Rogers.
his senior rank, Big Jim Davies assumed command of the 3d Bomb
Group while Lieutenant Strickland became his Executive Officer. For
Davies it was something of a reunion. He had served as a pilot in
the 3rd Bomb Group in the late 1930s, as had some of the other arriving 27th
BG pilots. These were men who had been pulled from the group for duty in the Philippines
the previous November. Also joining Davies at Charters Towers was a
retired, enlisted Naval pilot who had received an Army commission shortly
after the war began. He was a man who would become legendary in the Pacific,
Captain Paul Irving Pappy Gunn.
Pappy Gunn will long be remembered as the man
who could work design miracles in any existing airplane in the Pacific,
but in March 1942 the only existing aircraft in the 3d Bomb Group arsenal
were the eighteen old A-24 Dauntlesses. The promised
inventory of new A-20 attack bombers had yet to arrive. What Pappy Gunn
did in late March to obtain the needed aircraft is a legend all its own.
As with any legend, details have been changed and
embellished in the retelling. The facts are, that a group of B-25 Mitchell
Bombers ordered by the Dutch Air Force arrived in Australia in
March. They had not gone unnoticed by Pappy. In his book The Grim
Reapers, Lawrence Cortisi recounts what happened next:
On 27 March, a few
days after Davis took over the Reapers, Gunn came into Big
Jim's office and grinned. "Johnny, there's a couple
dozen B-25s at Batchelor Field* in Melbourne."
Davis was surprised
and asked if the executive officer had heard anything. Strickland
shook his head. He had not heard of any aircraft reaching
Australia for consignment to the 3rd Bomb Group. Davis then turned
to Gunn with a frown.
exactly ours," Gunn said. "I think they've been
allocated to the Dutch Air Force, but from what I hear, they'll
never use them because they have no pilots. The planes are just
sitting there, and we've got a war to fight. Why don't we go down
and get them."
"You mean steal them?"
"They said our
planes were on the way," Gunn shrugged. "Who's to say
those Mitchells aren't ours?"
*This may have been an error in
Cortisi's account, as Batchelor Field was near Darwin, and there
is no such record at Melbourne.
Pappy Gunn did indeed fly a contingent of 3d
Bomb Group pilots in his C-47, either to Bachelor Field to pick up two dozen
Dutch B-25s, or to Archerfield near Brisbane to pick up eighteen crated Mitchells.
The newly arrived bombers were indeed property of the Netherlands Air
Force, which in fact no longer had pilots to fly them. Whether
appropriated by Pappy, "With all of the aplomb of a
second-story bandit and a river-boat gambler" as described by
General William Webster (USAF/Ret), or willingly bequeathed to the 3d Bomb
Group by the Dutch, Big Jim Davies pilots at last had
airplanes. The legend of how the Grim Reapers
"stole" their bombers from the Dutch is an interesting story,
well worth reading despite its discrepancies and obvious
embellishments. Indeed Pappy got his planes, sans bomb
sights, which he returned two days later to get (according to some written
reports at gun point.)
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle,
though most men who knew Pappy Gunn can easily imagine him doing
exactly what the legendary accounts detail. At any rate, at least fifteen
B-25s were obtained from the Dutch and assigned to the 13th and 90th
Squadrons at Charters Towers. Pappy promised to have them
combat-ready within two days.
On April 5, eleven days before Colonel Jimmy
Doolittle and his sixteen Mitchell bombers took off from the USS
Hornet near the Japanese coast, pilots of the 3d Bomb Group flew the
first B-25 mission of the war. It was a largely uneventful attack on
Japanese airfields at Gasmata on the south coast of New Britain Island,
but for the Grim Reapers it marked the opening of their war in
their questionably appropriated B-25 bombers. In the years that followed, they
would turn those Mitchells into dive-bombers scarcely recognizable
by their manufacturer, and re-define the term "low-level
Four days before the Gasmata raid Lieutenant Bob
Ruegg led six A-24s of the 8th squadron in the first combat mission of the
3rd BG. Target for the day was the Lae Airdrome, but the port city
was fogged in and the flight instead dropped five bombs over Salamua.
The first of repeated assaults on Lae did not occur until April 7 when
eight Dauntless dive bombers, escorted by six RAAF Kittyhawks,
bombed the airfield. That flight was led by 8th BG commanding officer
Captain Floyd Rogers. His wing man was Lieutenant Raymond
Wilkins. It was the young pilots' first combat mission.
April 7, 1942, was also the day the Grim Reapers
suffered their first combat casualties. In the mission over Lae
Lieutenant Henry Swartz and his gunner Sergeant J. Stephenson were shot
down. Three months later Buck Rogers was killed in a fateful July 29 mission. When the LAST bombing attack on Lae was
mounted by 8th Squadron B-25Ds more than a year later on September 13,
1943, the mission was led by Captain Raymond Wilkins. He was, by
then, the only pilot remaining
from the first Lae mission.
At one o'clock in the morning on April
11 Big Jim
Davies and Pappy Gunn led ten of their B-25s from the 13th and 90th
Squadrons in a 1,600-mile flight back to the Philippines. All of the
pilots and co-pilots were volunteers; ten of the twenty were former
officers in the 27th Bomb Group who were returning with supplies and,
hopefully, reinforcements for their beleaguered comrades who had been left
behind. Sadly, the Royce Mission, named for its commander Brigadier
General Ralph Royce, was too late. Two days before their departure
General King had been forced to surrender his command at
For three days Colonel Davies and his B-25s flew
missions out of Mindanao, south of Luzon, while three B-17s from the
19th Bomb Group struck enemy targets near Manila. One of the Flying
Fortresses was destroyed, the other two badly damaged, and the
Japanese advance continued. At midnight on April 13 the two
remaining B-17s and nine of the ten B-25s left Mindanao to return to
Australia. Each was filled to capacity in a futile evacuation
attempt, including one bomber that ferried out PT Boat Commander John
Bulkeley. Bulkeley was awarded the Medal of Honor for his own heroic
actions in the early days of the war, and the daring leadership he had
displayed when he ferried Douglas MacArthur safely out of Corregidor.
For their role in the Royce Mission the 3d
Bomb Group was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation and Big Jim Davies
was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. There was little joy in
the small success of that last effort to defend the Philippines.
behind at the mercy of an enemy who knew no mercy were more than 400
airmen of the old 27th Bomb Group. They were stranded with thousands of beleaguered
American foot-soldiers and sailors, and a small contingent of Army
nurses. Many would be lost in the Bataan Death March, others would
vanish over the four years of war that followed. Few would ever
be heard from again.
Also left behind was Captain Paul I. Pappy Gunn.
For two frantic days his crew worked to replace his shot-up, long-range
fuel tanks with two tanks from a destroyed B-18. When his Mitchell
landed in Australia on April 16 it was fitting--the last American bomber
our of the Philippine Islands was flown by Paul I. Pappy Gunn.
Left behind in Manila along with the thousands who couldn't be rescued
were his wife and children.
Charters Towers was home for the 3rd Bomb Group, and
from there the 89th Squadron operated as a maintenance echelon while
awaiting arrival of promised A-20s. Meanwhile the 8th Squadron with its A-24s
was moved to Port Moresby on the south coast of Papua, New Guinea, in late March.
From there they began launching the squandron's first missions beginning on April 1.
At the time Japanese troops were landing en mass
on the north side of the peninsula, and regular raids were mounted against
both airfields and ground forces on the north side of the Owen
The slow SDBs often flew into enemy
territory with fighter protection from the RAAF's No. 75 Squadron, but the
valiant Australian pilots were also vastly outnumbered and their Kittyhawks
were old and battle-damaged. On April 11 as the 3rd Bomb Group's B-25s
were flying into Mindanao on the Royce Mission, dive-bombers of the 8th Squadron were again
attacking Lea led by 27th Group veteran Captain Bob Ruegg.
Lieutenant Gus Kitchens and his gunner Sergeant George Kehoe never
returned and the casualties continued to mount.
From April to July Captain Rogers repeatedly led his
brave men in their aging Dauntless bombers over the mountains and
into harm's way. His frequent wing man was Lieutenant Wilkins, who
admired his squadron commander. The declassified official history of
the 8th Squadron notes:
"2nd Lt. Wilkins' schooling made him an
able and cool, yet determined and eager pilot and forceful combat
leader. (He) came under "Buck" Rogers, in the first half of
1942, when the 8th Squadron traded blows in A-24s against infinitely
superior Jap forces. His training in Squadron administration and in fair
but firm dealing with his men and officers, was by Captain Virgil
Schwab, Operations Officer during the same period. Many times later in
his friendly and instructive talks with younger pilots, Wilkie would
refer to his two ideals,
Bible-reading but hard-riding
"Buck" Rogers as the best combat leader he had ever known,
Captain Schwab, as the absolute prototype of
the idea army officer, always on the job, conversant with every
department, with his primary thought the welfare of his men whom he
inspired and led because they wanted to be as he was."
On July 29 Lieutenant Wilkins flew his last mission
with both Captain Rogers and Lieutenant Schwab (both men were
posthumously promoted, accounting for the difference in rank in some
historical documents.) Neither man returned and for Ray Wilkins,
it was a crushing moment--his two most highly-regarded role models lost
in the Solomon Sea or the jungles of New Guinea. It is interesting
that the 8th Squadron history goes on to note:
"When he (Lieutenant Wilkins) had matured
and become C.O. of the 8th, Wilkie was the incarnation of the best in
these two men he had strived to emulate. He was at times hard but
always fair. He earned and held the respect of all his enlisted men
and officers in a manner rare in the Air Corps."
Fifth Air Force
The tragic July 29 mission was the breaking point for
the 8th Squadron, now reduced to fewer than ten pilots. Colonel
Davies submitted Lieutenant Wilkins, the last survivor who had somehow
managed to bring his badly damaged plane home, for the Distinguished
Service Cross. (The award was still pending at the end of the war
and there is nor record of it being subsequently awarded.) For his
actions in combat from April to the end of July Wilkie was awarded
the Silver Star. It was little consolation.
Big Jim Davies ordered what remained of the
8th Squadron back to Charters Towers and, their heavy losses bearing mute
testament to the inadequacies of the A-24, ended the Army use of the Dauntless.
William Webster remembers the mood when he arrived to join the 8th
Squadron shortly thereafter:
"The 8th Squadron Officers Mess and tent
area was a very somber place for several months after that fateful July
29, 1942. In the deathly quiet you could almost, but not quite, hear the
tell-tale whirring of an A-24 engine trying to get back home to the
safety of the 8th Squadron."
Meanwhile, the 13th and 90th Squadrons continued
their own missions, staging through Port Moresby to attack enemy airfields and
shipping. The 89th Squadron was within a month of getting their
first A-20s when something of vastly greater need arrived in
On August 4 Far East Air Force
commander General George Brett returned to the
United States. His replacement, General George Kenney, had arrived
six days earlier. On the day Brett left Australia, Kenney flew to Charters Towers to check on his 3rd Bombardment
General Kenney had initially appraised the conditions in the Far East
Air Force as "The Goddamest mess you ever saw." At
Charters Towers he found a group of pilots, most of whom were still without planes.
He also witnessed the ragged remnants of the 8th Squadron, devastated and
demoralized by heavy losses and especially the disastrous July 29 mission. Despite these challenges and
tragedies, Big Jim Davies' men were a resourceful and determined
lot. In the mess that was the Far East Air Force Kenney described
the 3d Bomb Group as a "Snappy, good looking
The tragedy so recently heaped upon the 8th Squadron
struck a sensitive nerve for General Kenney. This was his alma
matter. From October 1919 until the following May Captain George C.
Kenney had been Squadron Commander for the 8th. His keen understanding of
the Group's history and mission is evident in his memoirs when he wrote of
"The 3rd, which
used to be the 3rd ATTACK Group back
home, did low-altitude strafing and bombing work. They still
wanted to be called an Attack Group, so I told them to go ahead
and change their name. That organization had trained for years in
low-altitude, hedge-hopping attack, sweeping in to their targets
under cover of a grass cutting hail of machine-gun fire and
dropping their delay-fuzed (sic) bombs with deadly precision. They
were proud of their outfit and they liked the name 'ATTACK.' Now
the powers that be had changed their name to 'Light Bombardment parenthesis
Dive' and they didn't like it. I knew how they felt. I had
been an attack man myself, had written textbooks on the subject
and taught it for years in the Air Corps Tactical School. It seems
like a little thing but it really isn't. Numbers, names, and
insignia mean even more to a military organization than they do to
Masons, Elks, or a college fraternity."
From that day forward, no matter what name the
"brass-hats" at high headquarters chose to give the men of the
3d Bomb Group, they called themselves:
The 3d Attack Group
General Kenney's rare insight into
the importance of a name went beyond the air group based at Charters
Towers. One month later the Far East Air Force became the U.S.
Army's FIFTH AIR FORCE. For many war-weary, demoralized airmen, that
new sense of identity provided a fresh start. They took advantage of
it with a vengeance that, in a few short months, ripped aerial superiority
from the Japanese.
Kenney's visit to Charters Towers
turned into both a reunion and an introduction. It was a return to his
roots, the unit he had commanded in his own early days. It also
introduced him to the man who would bring to life some of Kenney's own
radical and innovative ideas--Captain Pappy Gunn.
first Douglas A-20 Havoc dive bombers that had been promised to the 3rd Bomb Group had
arrived in May. Well-suited to low-level attack, their light
armament however was too meager for the demands of war in the
Pacific. Implementation of the new aircraft was delayed while Pappy
Gunn and Captain Bob Reugg began experimenting with design
In August the 89th Squadron began
getting its first shipments of new A-20 Havocs. These too, required
modification. With General Kenney's eager support Pappy
began installing four, forward firing .50-caliber machine guns in the
bombardier's compartment (nose) to add massive strafing power. Two
405-gallon fuel tanks were installed in the bomb bay to increase their
range, and special racks were invented so the dive-bombers could carry
parafrag bombs, one of General Kenney's most innovative weapons.
While Pappy was rebuilding
dive-bombers, Colonel Davies began sending home the few remaining, battle-weary
veterans of the old 27th Bomb Group. Lieutenant
Wilkins elected to stay and was transferred to the budding 89th Squadron.
Most of the other surviving 8th Squadron pilots and ground crews were relegated to status as
support to the other squadrons. Their only combat missions resulted
from TDY (temporary duty
assignment) to the 89th Squadron. Since July 29 the 8th
Squadron had ceased to exist as little more than a resource for the other
On September 2 the first six
modified A-20s flew to Port Moresby to begin operations. Four days
later Lieutenant Wilkins arrived at New Guinea with six more modified Havocs. For
the next six months Wilkins flew repeated missions as a member of the 89th
Squadron, many of them missions against Japanese ground troops crossing the Kokoda Trail to within 30
miles of Port Moresby. Additionally, again and again he returned to bomb and
strafe Lae, Salamua, and other targets north of the high mountains.
When Big Jim Davies turned
command of the 3d Attack Group over to Lieutenant Colonel Strickland in
October, 1942, and returned home, Ray Wilkins was one of the few remaining pilots from the
old 27th. Only a few, like Davies, had lived to claim the well-deserved
rotation home. Far too many had simply vanished into deep waters or dense
jungle, their fate forever unknown.
November Pappy Gunn's remarkable talent for turning A-20s into
formidable staffers was turned towards the B-25s that were the staple
of the 3d Attack Group's assault on enemy air fields and shipping.
First, the bomb sights were removed. In a low-level, diving attack from
only a few hundred feet, they were unnecessary. In the bomb sights
vacant cavity in the nose of the bombers Pappy mounted four, forward-firing
.50-caliber machine guns to augment the two 50s
on either side of the fuselage.
The prevailing theory was that with
such formidable a fusillade, the bombers could come in fast and low with
guns blazing to clear the deck of a ship moments before skipping a
500-pound bomb into its side. When used against enemy airfields,
such formidable incoming fire power could drive anti-aircraft gunners for
shelter while the B-25s made their low-level pass to drop parafrags.
These small, 23-pound parachute-deployed explosives in turn would explode
on impact or with only a brief delay, shredding enemy fighters and bombers
on the ground.
skills left 5th Air Force pilots wondering what he would come up with
next. One cartoon featured a Pappy Gunn creation that was
part bomber, part tank, and part battleship. Indeed, if the modified
B-25s hadn't proved so successful on their own, Pappy might have
actually built such a contraption. His skill attracted not only General
Kenney's attention but that of North American's field representative Jack
Fox. (North American was the company that built the B-25 Mitchell.)
With the help of Fox, Pappy's proto-type, christened Margaret,
began field tests in December.
Despite the success of these initial
tests, and despite Pappy's legendary reputation, the men who would
be tasked with flying the modified B-25s remained skeptical. Captain
Jack Jock Henebry recalled the sales job Pappy had to do to
convince the pilots:
is too dangerous," someone said. "With all the guns and
ammunition in the nose, you'd have too much weight forward, too far
ahead of the designated center of gravity. Where's your center of
gravity?" Pappy answered. "Hell, we took that out to
lighten the ship and sent it back to Air Corps Supply."
By the time the first full year of
World War II came to a close the tide was turning in the Pacific.
At Guadalcanal U.S. Marines had established a foothold in the Solomons and
were turning control over to the U.S. Army while, they pulled back to
prepare for the next assault. On the north shore of the Papuan
Peninsula American and Australian ground forces were closing on Buna and
Gona, poised to turn the strategic north side of the peninsula over to
Allied control. At Port Moresby the A-20s and B-25s of the 3d Attack
Group continued their important missions against enemy targets at Lae,
Cape Gloucester, Arawe, Gasmata, and against enemy ground forces
still hiding in the jungles of New Guinea. Longer range B-17s and
B-24s were increasingly attacking further north in deadly night-time,
high-altitude bombing missions against Rabaul. Far south in
Australia, Pappy Gunn was pushing his crew of mechanics and welders
as they worked their magic that would turn B-25 bombers into deadly
In early January 1943 Buna and Gona
fell, and quickly General Kenney began moving his air assets to new fields
north of the Owen Stanley Mountains, increasing the range of their reach
into enemy territory. In February the 90th Attack Squadron was
equipped with the first B-25C staffers rolled out by Gunn and Company at
Brisbane. In the opening days of March a Japanese convoy intent on
reinforcing Lae was sighted in the Bismarck Sea, initiating one of the
greatest air/sea battles in history.
March 4 a dozen of Pappy Gunn's modified B-25s of the 90th Squadron
saw their first test under squadron commander Major Ed Larner. Jock
Henebry was leading the second element when the enemy ships were
sighted, and recalled being "scared as hell at the thought of flying
right up to their sides at water level."
"Larner peeled off and bore
in on the lead cruiser. We watched him go in strafing, get a hit and start
after the next one. Well, that instilled tremendous confidence in the rest
of us. If he can do it so can we...and all hell broke loose then."
Mitchells blazed a flaming trail of bullets and bombs across the
enemy convoy. Twelve A-20s from the 89th Squadron
followed. When the 3d Attack Group had
finished its first major combat test of Pappy Gunn's B-25s, left behind
were two sinking
destroyers (Henebry had mistaken a destroyer for a cruiser), and three
sinking transports. Both Grim Reaper squadrons returned to their
elated at the success of the first-ever daylight, low-level, skip bombing
mission of the war.
(On April 30 Major Ed Larner was killed in an air crash. Captain Jock
Henebry assumed command of the 90th Squadron.)
After the great success of the March
4 air/sea battle the only disappointed member of the 89th
Squadron was Lieutenant Raymond Wilkins. On leave to Australia
during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, he had missed out on all the
action. Two of his old friends from the 8th Squadron, on temporary
assignment to the 89th, did see action and were awarded Distinguished
If there was any consolation for
Wilkie it was to be found in fond memories of that brief R&R in
Australia. A beautiful young Australian girl named Phyllis had
attracted his attention. Upon his return to New Guinea he had his crew
Melvin Freeman paint her nickname on the nose of his A-20. When
Captain Wilkins transferred back to the 8th Squadron as Operations Officer
in May and began flying B-25s, it too was named Fifi.
That same month John Hill, Finlay
MacGillivary, Bob Anderson, Ed Chudoba, and Captain Ostreicher
rotated back to the United States. These five, aside from Ray
Wilkins, were the last remaining 8th Squadron pilots from the dark days of
the A-24 Dauntless. Captain Wilkins could have joined them in
the return home, having already served fourteen months in combat, but he
declined rotation to remain with his men.
Rabaul - Japan's Pearl Harbor
The spring and summer of 1943 was a
busy time for the 3d Attack Group, all four squadrons of which were now
based on New Guinea. The 8th, 13th and 90th Squadrons were equipped with
modified B-25s and the 90th Squadron with A-20 Havocs. In
desperation the Japanese struggled to reinforce their far-flung empire in
the Southwest Pacific. A steady flow of troops, supplies, and
aircraft were ferried regularly from Tokyo to Rabaul at the north tip of New Britain
Island. From there they were dispersed east to Bougainville and the
Solomons, south to Cape Gloucester and besieged Lae, and west to the north
coast of New Guinea at Wewak.
Rabaul's supply chain to the Solomons gained
new precedence for Japanese war planners on June 30. Admiral Halsey
landed the 43d Infantry Division on New Georgia Island northwest of
Guadalcanal, and American soldiers were knocking on Bougainville's back
door. From the Munda Airstrip on New Georgia, American aircraft mounted regular missions against
Bougainville, and Rabaul as well.
Meanwhile B-17 Flying Fortresses and
B-24 Liberators based in Australia and New Guinea continued to pound Rabaul from miles above
it's sheltered Simpson Harbor. The 3d Attack Group Mitchells and Havocs
simultaneously did their best to intercept ships at sea. Hunting
became slim-pickin's, but remained quite dangerous. Since the horrible defeat
in the Bismarck Sea, seldom did ships travel any longer in convoys, and
never without impressive fighter cover.
On July 9 Wilkie's good friend Bill
Webster was shot down by seven enemy fighters 50 miles south of Salamaua.
It was a solemn reminder to Wilkins, who had lost all of his close friends
in the deadly July mission one year earlier, that there was grave danger in
getting too close to the men you flew with. It was a lesson
especially driven home to him by his leadership roles. Fortunately,
in this rare occasion, Webster and most of his crew were rescued by an
Australian coast-watcher and returned to the squadron.
Promoted to captain in February, upon
his return to the 8th Squadron Ray Wilkins led repeated barge hunts and low-level
strikes against Salamua, Lae, and other enemy strongholds. On July
20 he lead the attack on the Gogol River bridge near Madang, the deepest
penetration by American attack bombers to that date.
On July 28 he led the squadron in an
attack against two destroyers off Cape Gloucester. Without fighter
cover and under an intense barrage of surface-to-air fire, he made two
passes on one of the enemy ships. Returning through a melee of enemy
Zeroes, his B-25 was riddled with bullets but somehow he managed to break
free and nurse it home. The very next day he returned to find one
surviving destroyer, scoring two direct hits and sending it to the ocean
floor. For that action he was awarded his first Distinguished Flying
Cross. Soon thereafter he received an Oak Leaf Cluster to wear on
his DFC, this for completing 50 combat missions.
In mid-August General Kenney
unleashed his heavy bombers and attack squadrons against the heavily
reinforced Japanese airfields around Wewak. After a year of support
roles to the 89th Squadron, and a summer of routine barge hunts and small strafing
missions, this marked the first major operation for the 8th Squadron since
the loss of six of seven A-24s the summer before.
All three B-25 squadrons of the Grim
Reapers were all involved in the important August 17 mission led by
Group Commander Colonel Donald Hall. Twelve 8th Squadron Mitchells
under Captain Wilkins attacked the Boram airdrome, destroying 25 enemy
fighters and bombers on the ground and destroying at least twenty more
with strafing rounds and parafrags. The 13th and 90th Squadrons had
similar successes. The 3d Attack Group suffered no losses.
The following day 8th Squadron
Commander Major James Downs led a second attack against Boram. Again
the mission met with great success and combined with the efforts of other
Groups, in two days the men of the 5th Air
Force destroyed as many as 200 enemy planes, most of them on the
ground. Over Wewak the 38th Bomb Group lost Major Ralph Cheli, who
was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor. Over Boram, the 8th
Squadron of the Grim Reapers lost two B-25s. William Webster
"This loss was the only
drawback to an otherwise pair of successful missions that really marked
the rebirth of the 8th Squadron, literally from the ashes of July 29,
1942. At last we had earned respectability and self-confidence in combat
after a year of virtual anonymity. Floyd Rogers et al were finally
On August 25 Major Raymond Wilkins
lead his squadron in the first low-level attack on Hansa Bay.
Diving into a withering hail of ground fire Wilkins hit two enemy ships,
sinking one while the rest of his squadron claimed five more. Three
days later he led three squadrons of Grim Reapers back to Hansa Bay
where he personally scored direct hits on two more ships. For that
action he was awarded a second Oak Leaf Cluster for his Distinguished
Early in September Major Downs was
promoted and moved to Group Headquarters, preparatory to assuming Group command
upon the departure home of Colonel Hall. Major Raymond Wilkins, the
last survivor of the original 8th, became squadron commander. Always a
leader, Bill Webster remembers the impact Wilkie's new role as a commander
had on him.
"He (Wilkins) had a unique
business-like personality, especially when compared to the
happy-go-lucky styles of Ed Larner and Jock Henebry. He (had)
turned down two earlier chances to end his combat tour because he felt
he could personally influence the outcome of the war by his own
commitment and example. Now he had his own squadron, and he'd shown
everyone how to run a combat unit.
"He moved away from the other pilots, because, as he told me, 'You
can't be both a good friend and a good combat squadron commander at the
same time and I am choosing the latter.
"He seldom laughed or joked with the pilots at meetings. He
addressed everyone by his rank, and he ran a tight ship both in Squadron
Headquarters and on the flight line. He seemed to know what was going on
all the time in every section."
For Major Wilkins, command and
leadership were inseparable characteristics. Over the next eight
weeks virtually every mission tasked to the 8th Squadron was lead by its squadron commander. These included the first mission against enemy shipping
near Kairuru Island (Wewak) on September 27. Leading all three
Mitchell squadrons in the mission that wreaked devastation on the
enemy supply line, Wilkins personally destroyed a 4,000-ton ship in
Victoria Bay. For that, and for his leadership in the
highly-successful raid, he was awarded a third Oak Leaf Cluster to be worn
on his Distinguished Flying Cross.
Lae, the last Japanese bastion on the
Papuan Peninsula, fell to Australian ground troops supported by the Fifth
Air Force on September 16. By October the enemy forces on New
Guinea's north coast at Wewak, at Cape Gloucester across the Huon Gulf,
and across the southern coast of New Britain were reeling from the
unrelenting air attacks. Further east in the Solomons, New Georgia
was in Allied hands and the captured Munda Air Field had been rebuilt to
support the next step in the leap-frog advance, the long-anticipated
assault on Bougainville.
Tokyo scrambled to reinforce the
region, pulling task forces from other critical duty stations and sending
them to New Guinea and Bougainville. Hundreds of fighters and
bombers were marshaled for deployment in the region and thousands of
infantrymen, tanks, and equipment were shipped south. As always,
all enemy assets marked for duty in the region had to pass through Rabaul.
George C. Kenney stared intently downward, as he had one so many times in
the previous year, at his large table-top mock up of Simpson Harbor and
the nearby fortress that was Rabaul. From the earliest days of war
in the Southwest Pacific the critical Japanese port had been the major
obstacle in Allied advances throughout the region. Kenney's boss,
General Douglas MacArthur, believed Rabaul to be the key to
the Philippines. It was the wall, the barrier, that had to be destroyed
before his promised return.
Heavy bomber missions had targeted
Rabaul again and again since the summer of 1942. The surrounding
jungles and waters were strewn with the rusting hulks of American B-24s and B-17s,
and the bodies of valiant airmen.
One of the earliest such missions had
been mounted on August 6-7, 1942, the day U.S. Marines launched the first
ground offensive of World War II at Guadalcanal. To keep enemy
aircraft based out of Rabaul from attacking the Marines, a B-17 strike
against the harbor had been ordered. One of the B-17s never
returned. Somewhere over New Britain, after dropping its bombs, it
fell to a hail of enemy gunfire from attacking Zeros. The pilot,
Captain Harl Pease who had survived the fall of the Philippines, was never
heard from again. Posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for that
mission, he was the second Army airman (after Jimmy Doolittle) to earn the
Long-range, high-altitude bombing
missions had continued against Rabaul through the last months of 1942 and
into the next year. On January 5, 1943, Brigadier General Kenneth
Walker was lost in a daylight bombing raid over Rabaul. He became
the third Army Air Force Medal of Honor recipient of the war. His
tragic loss was felt throughout the Fifth Air Force. Ultimately the
highest-ranking MIA (missing in action) of World War II, Walker had been
commander of Kenney's V Bomber Command.
Throughout the spring and summer of
1943 Japanese troops, aircraft, and supplies continued to flow through
Rabaul. Fifth Air Force heavy bombers mounted regular
missions despite heavy losses. By fall, with advanced airfields
and Pappy Gunn fuel tank modifications, Kenney's fighters and light
bombers were at last in range of Simpson Harbor. In October, with
Admiral Halsey's forces in the east preparing to make their next move up
the Solomon Chain to attack Bougainville on November 1, Kenney mounted his
largest campaign to date to knock out, or at least neutralize, Rabaul.
It was a formidable assignment. Rabaul was known throughout the theater as
The Gibralter of the Pacific.
Simpson Harbor is the world's most
protected sea port, a natural inlet surrounded on three sides and lying in
the shadow of four semi-active volcanoes. The city of Rabaul, heavily
fortified by Japanese troops in 1943, lies at the west end of the harbor.
In addition to more than 100,000 ground troops to garrison the Gazelle
Peninsula and man more than 350 anti-aircraft guns, five major airfields
stood guard ominously at all approaches. In October General Kenney ordered
his fighter and attack squadrons to begin assaults on these airfields on every day in which the weather was suitable for flying.
The attack squadrons that had so
effectively shellacked the Japanese air fields on the northern New Guinea
coast in August now called the technique of low-level strafing and
parafrag bombing "Wewaking." On October 12, in one of the
largest raids yet mounted on the Gazelle Peninsula, the 3d Attack Group Wewaked
the major airfield at Rapopo.
John Jock Henebry (right) led the 90th Squadron over Rapopo in his
B-25 Notre Dame De Victorie. Even at low altitude, Rabaul was
clearly visible in the distance. Its sheltering Simpson Harbor was
filled with enemy ships. They were "juicy, off-limits
targets," he recalled. "Top priority for us then
remained the destruction of the enemy air capability."
Joining Jock and his crew of
four in Notre Dame De Victorie was an extra passenger. INS
correspondent Lee Van Atta had hitched a ride for this mission and then
described it vividly in the story he filed.