|K e n s m e n : 4 3 r d B o m b G r o u p (H), 5 t h A A F|
|Penetrating the Philippine Blockade
by Arthur A. "Bud" Fletcher
The excellent account in our last newsletter of the role of HQ and HQ SQ of the 5th Air Base Gp and its detachments and their heroic effort to support the 19th and 7th Bomb Groups' air activities in the Philippine Islands filled a longstanding gap in our history for which we are genuinely indebted to Walter Regehr.
In the same way that relief of Corregidor by surface vessel was a high but foredoomed priority of Roosevelt, Marshall and Arnold, and many heroic boat crews were committed only to be sent to the bottom, so too our best efforts to rescue or indispensable personnel from the Philippine Islands met with only a dribble of success. Walter touched on these efforts in his postscripts to the 5th Air Base Group story, mentioning that the last such effort was made by Captain Alvin Mueller (formerly of the 7th BG)1 just days before General Wainwright's surrender rescript. Having been a part of that failed effort, I like to point out that our foundation's leader, General Horace Wade, made at least two such efforts that did not fail.
In response to an emergency plea from Mindanao for medical supplies, 1st Lieutenants Horace M. Wade and Ben I. Funk flew from Java to Darwin in an LB-30 and a B-24 to pick up the supplies and thence on 26 January, 1942 to Del Monte for a late-night delivery at the dimly-lit strip. They returned to Darwin with 29 enlisted mechanics of the 19th BG.
Again on 3-4 February, Lt. Wade and Lt. Murray Crowder repeated the trip in Liberators to deliver more of the same and evacuate still more personnel to Australia.
Two more such flights were made on 11 March in patched-up B-17s of the 19th BG, but one (Captain Henry Godman and crew) crashed en route off Mindanao with a loss of two lives. The other, piloted by Lt. Harl Pease, delivered its load, making a night landing without brakes and departing with more stranded technicians.
After our evacuation from Java in early March, our available B-17s and LB-30s reached its lowest ebb, partly because of the losses we took at Broome, Australia by a surprise Jap raid on that evacuation hub when we were most vulnerable--a bare-bones airfield receiving aircraft overloaded with personnel. Consequently, except for the rescue of General MacArthur and his party, no more mercy flights were made into Mindanao until late April. This was in response to a special appeal by General Wainwright requesting a last-ditch effort for two Navy PBYs to evacuate 50 key people from Corregidor. These included some nurses and a mixed bag of officers from the two services plus a few civilians. Under the most extreme difficulties of the blockade and bad weather, the rescue from Corregidor was carried out, but one of the "Cats" sprung a leak during the refueling stop on Mindanao, where it was abandoned.
At this point, volunteers were requested from the 19th BG which had now absorbed the 7th. A single B-24 named Old Bucket of Bolts was designated for nightly penetration into Del Monte by two alternating crews until Del Monte should fall under Jap control. Captain Alvin J. H. Mueller and I responded and proceeded to Darwin on 4 May, 1942 with our two volunteer crews. Our mission was to rescue the stranded PBY passengers and anyone else until debarred by the Japs. Mueller had made a daylight supply run to Del Monte in an LB-30 in April, at which time he had brought out 30 Army (mostly Air Corps) officers to safety in Australia. Knowing that fuel would be insufficient for a return if Del Monte fell, we devised a plan. Captain Mueller on a previous flight had spotted an island in the Halmaheras smack on the equator by the name of Yu (or Ju on some maps) that contained a land-locked lagoon. If we were lucky we could reach it for a ditching if Del Monte were in Jap hands. We did not divulge this plan to anyone for fear of a leak. So we flipped a coin to determine who would go first, and Al "lucked out". They departed knowing that only one person in the world had the key to their whereabouts if they had to ditch.
We did have a fall-back destination, an airstrip at Valencia, in event of bad weather at Del Monet, but it would not be viable if the Japs had control of the entire area.
As luck would have it, they arrived over central Mindanao during a severe thunderstorm and spent about two hours probing for Del Monte. Eventually, they found it but were greeted by weapons fire. With that delay, a retreat to Yu was already a marginal prospect, so without any further thought of an alternate, they headed for Yu. Al's crew of five included Lt. Paul Cool, co-pilot; Lt. Laurence E. Garner, navigator; M/Sgt. W. E. Brown, engineer; and S/Sgt. M. R. Morley, radio. En route to Yu they broke radio silence with a message to be passed to me personally at Darwin: "Proceeding to our alternate". A Sgt. came to my tent from the radio shack and delivered it. I asked him to stand by to encode and dispatch a message of my own to FEAF Hqs in Melbourne explaining the situation and asking for a rescue PBY to pick me up at Darwin to join the rescue effort. A reply came back advising that I could be picked up by a PBY the following day. But it never came---not the next day or the next or the next. Meantime, I was dispatching stronger messages each day pointing out the urgency posed by a ditched B-24 highly visible in enemy-controlled waters. In utter frustration I sent a frantic fourth bordering on insubordination asking if we intended to allow this "brave crew" to perish after daring so important a rescue mission. I finally got a response---in the person of an air corps colonel who had come all the way to Darwin to preclude further risky radio traffic. He put his arm around my shoulder and softly explained that the PBY had been scrubbed by the navy as too dangerous. A submarine was even now on its way to the rendez-vous. Saddened by being unable to participate in the rescue, we returned to Melbourne with the colonel.
The Island of Yu, meantime, was a lively place with five new inhabitants. As I learned later, they had reached it on a moonlit night with fuel gauges bouncing on empty. A quick buzz job preceded a pull-up, flaps down, and a professional job of ditching in the lagoon. There was only one injury. Lt. Gardner had ripped his hand on some jagged metal. A hole had been torn in the fuselage forward of the co-pilot position, and the old bird quickly settled to the bottom so that only the top of the fuselage remained above water. They were momentarily trapped as the water rose in the cabin, but Lt. Cool knew where the water had gushed in forward of his position. So when the gushing stopped, he dove in the darkness to the area of the hole and surfaced on the outside. He scrambled to the top hatch and got it open. They all remained atop the fuselage until dawn when a couple of canoes paddled out. In spite of a big-time language barrier, the natives were friendly and helpful. They provided food and primitive attention to Larry Gardner's festering hand.
The US Submarine Porpoise was on patrol in the area and coped radio instructions for a nighttime rescue attempt. A close-in surveillance gave them no clue. They observed natives and flickering fires but were too low on the water to see the two projecting tail fins. They were in the process of securing for a departure when a signal flare from the shore lit up the night sky. Mueller's crew had luckily salvaged the flare from the nearly-submerged Lib during their 5-day visit, and it tipped the scale, especially for Lt. Gardner, whose hand by then appeared beyond saving. The seas were too rough for the sub's rubber dinghy, but by bribing the natives with all their money and possessions, night canoe transportation by the wary natives was negotiated. The date was 11 May, five days after the Philippine Islands were surrendered by General Wainwright.
The trip back to Darwin was brutal because the Porpoise had been damaged by Jap depth charges a day before the rescue and the air conditioning system was hard down. Surface travel was out of the question during daylight hours, so they literally sweated out the 6-day voyage back to Australia. Larry's hand was in such bad shape that doctors feared even for his life and wanted to amputate immediately. But he resisted and pleaded for a second opinion and a non-stop flight southeast to more modern medical facilities. Ironically, we were reunited 2 weeks later on 31 May at the US Army General Hospital in Melbourne where my crew and I were taken after a fiery crash landing that changed our lives forever. But that's another story. When I returned to my squadron in Mareeba in the Northeast of Australia, for some resumption of combat duties in late July, Larry's hand was still not healed, but a series of grafts by the same fine medical staff that worked on us eventually restored the bad hand to full function.
Forty-five years later at the Boeing B-17 celebration in Seattle, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to hear these words from a pretty lady I had never seen before: "Thank you for saving my husband's life." Puzzled, I cast a glance at a shadowy figure behind a palm plant there in the hotel atrium. It was my old friend Larry Gardner wearing a big grin; and the pretty lady was Kay, his wife. I wondered if she realized that true comradeship is its own reward and never requires thanks.
1 Sam McGowan left a note in this site's guestbook which reads, "In the article Penetrating the Philippines Capt. Alvin Mueller is incorrectly identified as having been a member of the 7th Bomb Group. He was actually with the 19th BG in the PI and was awarded the DSC for a mission in December, 1941." I make note of this here for the cause of History (this footnote is not original to the above text written by Mr. Fletcher)