The credit doesn't belong to those of us who came back but to Major Benn, Ken McCullar, Andy and Moore and the others who paid the price to make the Blank Squadron [Identity censored for security by the War Department ED.] what it was, 'the hottest outfit in the Southwest Pacific.'"
Capt William E O'Brien, of Milwaukee, told the story of his heavy bombardment squadron from the unit's official combat diary. Young only 22 he looked more like a college boy than a veteran Fortress pilot, but the ribbons on his tunic told a different story.
"When the squadron reached Australia in the late summer of 1942, the 19th Bombardment Group, which had been pushed back through the Philippines and Java, had only three serviceable aircraft left; the Japs had everything their own way. When I left last July, the situation was rapidly being reversed.
"During the intervening 11 months the squadron was through the thick of it all bombing Rabaul, Gasmata, Lae and other Jap bases, hitting their shipping and remaining on alert night and day to halt any attempt by the Japanese to extend the perimeter of their conquests.
"Very early in our operations, the squadron began the use of skip-bombing. Experiments had been made previously by others but it was our squadron that first used skip-bombing extensively and developed it as a technique for heavy bombers in their attacks upon shipping. Lieut Gen George Kenney and Major Benn (Maj William Benn, commanding officer of the squadron) and Major McCullar were pioneers in that field.
"The first experiments were made in September, 1942, by McCullar on the reefs off Port Moresby, and on October 23 six Fortresses, led by McCullar, put skip-bombing to its first real test in combat.
"Our planes struck at Rabaul and it was really jackpot night for us. McCullar hit a destroyer from 250 feet, sinking it. Green (Capt Franklyn T Green) hit a 5,000-ton cargo ship, a large cruiser and put two hits on a 15,000-ton cargo vessel, causing a fire on the latter which burned for hours.
"Considerable damage was done to other ships in the harbor, and, best of all, not a single plane was lost in the attack. The Japs couldn't figure it out. Their gunners were shooting straight up in the air while we were coming at the ships from the side at almost mast level.
"Yes, we knew then that skip-bombing would really pay dividends, and the whole squadron worked to perfect the technique with the result that we had the almost unbelievable record of scoring hits with 72 per cent of all bombs dropped.
"Basically the principles of skip-bombing were simple. We approached the target at low altitude and high speed and let the bombs fall short of the vessel so they would dance along the water and strike the side of the ship. Through continued experiments we developed almost sure-fire methods of sighting, of calculating the distance of the bounce, and of the conditions necessary to make skip-bombing successful.
"It was dangerous in a way but hardly more so than any other type of bombing. Gunners aboard ships, we found, can keep a high-flying plane in their sights for a considerable length of time but they can't traverse their guns fast enough to get more than a shot or two at low-flying aircraft.
"And, very early, we also found that Jap fighter pilots would not attack a Fortress at very low levels where they cannot make their pet frontal attack.
"This Silver Star that I was awarded was a result of one of our early skip-bombing attacks. That was on November 18 when six of us went in to attack a heavily-protected convoy off Gasmata. I got three direct hits on a destroyer and the ship was seen to break in half and sink. Andy (Lieut Lewis A Anderson of New York) got a hit on a cruiser and the bomb must have found the ship's magazine for the vessel first started to burn and then exploded. McCullar and Lieut William M Thompson really played hell with some Jap landing barges and succeeded in sinking most of them.
"We went after warships again on November 24, hitting a convoy in Huon gulf which was apparently headed for Lae. This time we left two destroyers burning fiercely and probably sinking and also got a hit on a cruiser.
"We nearly lost McCullar that day. His plane was hit on the first run by ack-ack which exploded about 70 shells in the tail gunner's ammunition can. The gunner, Sgt Charles Reser, however, smothered the fire.
"On the second run, McCullar's radio operator and two other men were injured by ack-ack, his No 1 engine was hit and his controls damaged, but McCullar made still another run and this time his No 3 engine was put out of commission. How he ever got back to Moresby we were never able to understand. The plane couldn't pick up sufficient altitude to clear the mountains but somehow McCullar was lucky enough to find a pass and sneak through.
"During most of the fall of 1942, our squadron did not lose a single plane using the skip-bombing technique. In fact, until December, our only losses had been several aircraft and crews that crashed in Australia while the squadron was still in an embryo state and before it had gone "on strike" at Moresby. The first loss in combat was on December 8 when Lieutenant Anderson failed to return from a bombing mission over Lae.
"Andy was my 'buddy' pilot but we lost track of one another in a storm," said Captain O' Brien. "He just never came back. That was last December, but when I left the South Pacific his wife was still writing him a letter a day.
"The War Department, of course, notified her and some of the boys wrote to her trying to explain just what happened, but she writes back that she is sure Andy will turn up in camp again one of these days and she wants him to have a letter a day from her when he does.
"Soon afterward the squadron suffered another heavy blow. On January 18 a plane carrying Major Benn disappeared on a reconnaissance flight over Buna. Major Benn had been transferred from command of the squadron to a higher post in November but we were 'his boys' and his loss was something very personal to each one of us.
"It was he, more than anyone else, who helped conceive the skip-bombing tactics that McCullar and the rest of us put into practice, and it was he who was mostly responsible for making a first rate combat outfit of us. He called us his 'first-line team' and we were known as such throughout the entire Southwest Pacific.
"But despite our feeling of loss in the deaths of Andy and Major Benn, we had to keep at the Japs almost daily during December, January and February. We continued to attack their harbor installations and airdromes and wrecked several more convoys. There were reconnaissance flights almost daily.
"The Jap fighter pilots gave us ample evidence that they had high respect for the fighting qualities of the Fortresses and often the Zeros would refuse to intercept us. But we had more than one lively scrap.
"One of those dog fights almost meant curtains for me and my crew. We were over the Rabaul area again and the ack-ack from a cruiser carried away my No 1 engine and destroyed the left elevator, making it hard to maneuver the plane. "Just then 13 Zeros hopped on us and I had to dive within 20 feet of the water. I still don't know how the plane ever pulled out of that dive, but she did and we fought off the Zeros a good part of the way back to our base.
"In January we moved our permanent base from the Australian mainland to Jackson Field near Moresby. This enabled us to give better support to our ground troops who were driving hard against the Japs on the other side of the Owen Stanley Mountains. The jungles were full of malaria and some of the tales that the foot soldiers told us were harrowing.
"One time last February one of the infantrymen who had been in the Buna-Gona fight and then been confined to the hospital at Moresby for malaria asked Capt James DeWolf if he 'could go on the next mission as he wanted to see the Japs get it good and proper.'
"We had a taste of Jap meanness ourselves on March 1 when we sighted a convoy of 22 ships, including cruisers and destroyers, heavily protected by a fighter screen. We flew out to the attack and for five days and five nights we had our hands full in the battle of the Bismarck Sea.
"We had a few Lightnings with us on the first day but most of the time we had to rely on our own gunners for protection. With Zeros attacking continually, sometimes as many as 10 or 15 to a single Fortress, our planes made their bombing runs.
"We shot down a good number of the Jap fighters, but Lieutenant Moore's plane was set on fire and plunged into the sea. Seven men were seen to bail out, all of the 'chutes opening. But I don't believe any of them were alive when they reached the water. The Zero pilots strafed them unmercifully as they floated down.
"It was one of those things that makes you mad and burning mad. We hit those Japs plenty in the next few days. Major Ed Scott successfully bombed a large flotilla destroyer that night and he and the other Fortress pilots went down to within 50 feet of the water and gave the Japs a taste of what a real strafing means. What we didn't get the sharks got.
"One gunner expended 1,100 rounds of ammunition and burned out two guns. Every man in the squadron would have given two months' pay to have been in on that strafing.
"The next day we continued our strafing on landing barges which the Japs were attempting to put ashore at Lae. The PT boats, meanwhile, had come to help us with our work and by March 5 the convoy was annihilated. The lone destroyer which survived the first four days was caught running like hell for Rabaul and was promptly sent to join its dishonorable ancestors.
"For days and days after that our reconnaissance planes sighted barges and rafts with dead Japs all along the New Guinea and New Britain sea lanes and the few Japs who survived were seen landing for weeks throughout the D'Entrecasteaux group of islands.
"General MacArthur termed our victory one of the most annihilating combats of all time and General Kenney wired us: 'I am so proud that I could bust a fuse.'
"Our squadron lost only one plane during the entire engagement but soon after we were hit rather hard. First, Major McCullar was killed when his plane struck a small kangaroo during a takeoff at Moresby. The whole bomb group lost its best pilot in the accident which took his life.
"Then, early in May, we lost two planes within two days. One was piloted by Captain Heichel, who had been with the squadron from the start of its operations, and the other was flown by Capt Robert Keatts, who had joined us that spring. Captain Heichel's plane disappeared over the New Ireland-New Britain area and Keatts is presumed to have crashed on the New Guinea coast between Finschhafen and Wewak.
"The only clue we had to the disappearance of either plane was a broadcast we picked up from Radio Tokyo, and it, we think, explains Captain Heichel's disappearance.
"'On May 8, over Rabaul,' the broadcast stated, 'a pilot sergeant of the Japanese air force attacked a Boeing Flying Fortress after his best friend had been shot down by this same Fortress. He dived his Zero-type fighter into the Fortress and both planes exploded in midair. All men were killed.'
"I had a few more missions late in May and June and part of the time I was an 'aerial chauffeur' for Lieut Gen Walter Krueger, commander of the ground forces in the Southwest Pacific.
"When I finally left for the Australian mainland you could hardly recognize the squadron. Few of the old pilots were still with the outfit and even the enlisted personnel had changed greatly.
"Replacements had been arriving thick and fast during the spring and early summer and we welcomed them with open arms for they meant furloughs and home."
This article was originally published in the March, 1944, issue of Flying magazine, vol 34, no 1, pp 58-59, 140, 146.
The PDF of this article [ PDF, 8 MiB ] includes a portrait of Captain O'Brien, a photo of the Captain and Lt Gen Krueger at the tail of a transport plane, and a full-page color photo of a B-17 bombardier at work.
Photos credited to The Milwaukee Journal, Harold W Kulick.
"Blank Squadron" would be the 63d Bombardment Squadron, 43d Bombardment Group, Fifth Air Force. According to Peter Dunn's Australia @ War page, they were known as The Sea Hawks. JLM