The author was the navigator on the crew of Capt Bill Tarver, pilot of PACIFIC PROWLER, B-25 C and D #129710. The 38th learned to fight the hard way against the cream of the Japanese Fighter aces. The 38th transitioned from medium altitude bombing to low level skip bombing and strafing and helped the 5th Air Force lead MacArthur back to the Philippines.
Charters Towers, Australia lays approximately 30 miles west of Townsville, Queensland in eastern Australia. The time was mid-August, 1942. In route to New Guinea the flight echelons stopped for a brief period of time at Charters Towers. We were to practice low level flying and check out our planes. Navigators were to swing compasses and check alighnment of Drift Meters. One day during practice, 1st Lt. Earl Ducci was leading and 1st Lt. Bill Tarver (my crew) was on the right wing. We were at about 50-75 feet altitude with an indicated airspeed of about 180 MPH flying west of the air strip. We were approaching the eastern edge of a medium sized lake. The planes were almost upon the lake when a whole floch of large birds, frightened by the engine noise, took flight en mass from the surface of the lake. One large bird crashed through Ducci's widshield, struch him in the righr eye and continued across the navigators compartment, through the tunnel and struck the turret gunner on the left side of the shoulder. Blood, bones and feathers everywhere! 1st Lt. Ducci was stunned but recovered in a few minutes. his face was a bloody mess; his eye was badly swollen and closing fast. Lt. Ducci headed immediately for the landing strip and made an uneventful landing. He recovered completely without the loss of eyesight. The bird was an ibis; usually about 10-12 pounds, wing span 2-2 1/2ft.
The 38th Bomb Group lost a crew while practicing low altitude attack flying at Charters Towers during the last two weeks of August 1942. 1st Lt. Dick Sharp did not see communications cables strung over a wide depression through which he was flying. After training at Charters Towers, the 38th Bm Grp flight crews were staged through Horn Island at the tip of eastern Australian; when space was available in New Guinea, crews continued on to the Port Morseby area. My pilot, 1st Lt. Bill Tarver had foresight enough to to buy several cases of canned pears to supplement our food rations. We were supposed to eat in the Aussie mess, but found out we could not eat the mutton fed to us. We lived a whole week on canned pears. The water was reputed to be about 80% epsom salts. We slept under the wing of the plane.
At Horn Island, alert signals were always being sounded to signal a Japanese air raid. They always turned out to be false. The two runways at Horn Island formed an X; Aussie Fighters used one, the 38th used the other. During one scramble, Lt. Pittman, flying B-25, "Suicide's Flying Drunks" found an Aussie Fighter in his way when he had almost reached take-off speed, both pilot and co-pilot 1st Lt. Dean Hall, hauled back on the with all of their combined strength. The B-25 jumped over the fighter but stalled out. The plane was wiped out completely. Strangely, none of the crew was hurt.
Around mid-September 1942, the 405th and 71st were in place in New Guinea. Tents were pitched about 100 yards south of the pierced steel plank runway. We were in mosquito infested Kunai grass about 6 feet high. Fortunately these conditions did not last long. We moved away from the runway an on to higher ground; no grass, just clear ground. Shortly after we arrived in New Guinea, it was decided that the 405th Squadron had a large number of highly qualified air craft commanders; there was a balancing of strength in the squadrons. 1st Lt. Bill Tarver and crew were shifted from the 405th to the 71st. There were others but I can not recall their names.
The 38th BGP flew it's first mission around the third week of September, 1942. There was no fighter cover for us. The Group lost one plane, 1st Lt. Carey. 1st Lt. Bill Tarver flew his first combat mission on October 5th, 1942. we were three planes; Capt. Alden G. (Bud) Thompson leading the formation, 1st Lt. Larry Tanberg on left wing and 1st Lt. Bill Tarver on right wing. The mission was to search out destroy Japanese shipping hiding out in the rivers emptying into the ocean off the north coast of New Guinea from Buna to Sanananda Point. We had no fighter cover. Weather was good, partly cloudy. We cleared the Owen Stanley Range and headed north along the coast. We finished the nortward run, turned around and retraced our path. Suddenly the radio cracked, "Zeros"! THe flight leader must have pushed his throttles through the firewall. Instantly the wing men were left behind. Then the leader made sharp turn to the right leaving Lt Tanberg hanging loose on his left. Next a sharp turn to the left and Lt Tarver was left hanging on the right. Turret gunners were firing at the Zeros. The formation was heading south over the coast. Zeros were firing at our formation. Capt. Thompson was zig-zagging his flight path towards the south end of the Owen Stanely Range. After about 15-20 minutes, the Zeros broke off the chase. Our formation came into the Port Morseby area from the south and got home safely. Lt. Tarver's plane had 8 bullet holes in it, all through the mid-section of the plane. No one was injured.
Sometime around the month of May 1943, it was decided to try the 75mm cannon in the nose of a B-25. Lt Tarver's plane 129710 "Pacific Prowler" was chosen for the original model. Bore sighting the gun was done by an army artillery Major. After three corrections, we flew missions with the gun. The pilot had all of the controls in sighting on the wheel and the navigator did the gun loading from a rack of 21 shells (seven long-three deep). When the breech was closed and loaded , an electric cicuit flashed a ready light on the control column. When the gun fired, the plane seemed to stop in mid-air; the vibation popped many rivets in the fuselage. All the firing on a run at the target required constant and very quick adjustment of the sight. On one mission, the navigator was able to set off 12 rounds which was almost a miracle; I don't think we caused much damage. However on a later mission (single plane recco) near the back end of the Lae strip close to the mountains, we received machine gun fire: Lt Tarver fired one shell but it was about 20 yards short. We circled around to the left (away from the mountains); Lt Tarver lined up on the machine gun tracers and scored a direct hit. No more firing from the Japanese outpost. The 75mm program was discontinued. The planes were returned to their original congiguration very shortly.
The 38th BGP bombed Lae air strip regularly to damage the runway and keep the Japanese from bombing Morseby and nearby air strips. When Lt. Col. "Shanty" O'Neill was made 38th BGP commander, he subsiquently brought Major Robert McCutcheon from the 22nd Bomb Group (O'Neill's former organization) to be squadron commander of the 71st squadron. McCutcheon quickly earned the label of "meathead" because of his obnoxious attitude. One evening Major McCutcheon's crew and Capt. Tarver's crew were to bomb Lae air strip together with Major McCutcheon to lead the flight. He told Tarver: "I'll take off, circle the field and you can pick up my plane from the exhaust stacks". It was approximately 11 PM. McCutcheon took off, ten seconds later Tarver took off and circled the field. He circled a second time, then a third time. Capt Tarver told his navigator, 1st Lt. Ed Gervasi "I can't find him, what do you want to do?" I said "piss on him, we will go by ourselves" We did go by ourselves and completed the mission with no difficulty. At post mission briefing McCutcheon put on the act of "where were you?".
On another daytime mission against Lae, Capt. Tarver's airplane came from the north side near Madang. We reached the north end of the Lae strip, when Capt. Tarver called out "one Zero at 2 o'clock level headed this way". The Jap fighter had been alerted, scrambled and made a wide sweep toward the lower part of the mountain range. He continued his turn and cut right in front of our plane, slightly higher than the nose of our plane. He was less than 2o yards in front of us. I saw a typical Japanese face - slightly buck teeth, receding chin, black hair wearing sun glasses with dark frames. He had goggles on his cloth headgear. I was standing between pilot and co-pilot seats and was able to give a good report to the Aussie Intelligence Officer, John Massey, attached to our Group. When the fighter pulled up to clear the trees, he was shot down by our gunner Paul Lane. That fighter was CLOSE! Intelligence reported that many Jap fighter pilots who attacked Pearl Harbor were now flying in the South West Pacific area.
Aussie coast watchers did great work in reporting the movements of Japanese shipping. Lae strip was a busy place. Constant efforts were being made to keep Lae strip open and in operation. It was reported that a Japanese desroyer was making it's way around the western end of New Britian Island to reinforce Lae. Capt. Tarver led a flight of three . We came down from the north side of Lae strip; the destroyer was unloading motorized barges. We had caught them completely by surprise. Our bombardier, Jim Craig got all lined up for his run; barges headed for shore, destoyer started pulling anchor and AA guns and machine guns were firing at the formation. I was in the nose of the B-25 with the bombardier. He worked his sight and I fired the 30 caliber machine gun on the right side of the nose. Jim Craig shouted"Bombs Away". We both craned our necks to follow the bombs falling away under the right wing. In a few seconds we saw the bombs hit, but it was all water. Craig did not use enough lead and also used the intervolometer. The bombs hit about 10 feet off the back of the destroyer: the Japanese boat captain had really gotten up enough speed to avoid being hit. The only casualties were several barges.
LIVING CONDITIONS IN NEW GUINEA- The change from the runway camp area to a slightly higher area with small trees and shrubs was great. However most tents were very old and in some cases badly torn. We had a regular mess line with mess kits. The bread was really like raisin bread but the raisins were ROACHS. After several months the cook got the hang of sifting the flour first before he mixed it. We had "bully beef" and SPAM forever. The navy seemed to get all of the steaks. A mess hall was built and things and things improved considerably.
Around December 1942, comedian Joe E. Brown visited the area and put on an enjoyable show. The military was seated on a sloping hillside with a small stage set up at the base of the hill. It was the same setup for a movie projector where the projector housing was cut into the base of the hill.
Soon after Joe E. Brown's visit, a regular movie was being shown; the sky was dark because it was about 9:00 pm. Gradually the audience noted the sky was getting lighter. Eyes looked up - there were three flares floating down not far from our theatre. There was an immediate chorus of "Air Raid"; every body scrambled for a safe spot. I scrambled into the cut in the hill side made for the projector shack. About 10 seconds later, bombs went off approximately 400-550 yards from us. The next day we discovered some bombs had damaged several Norden bombsights stored in the armament tent, very close to our plane revetment area.
During late January 1943 another air raid, at least two Japanese planes came down the south side of the Owen Stanley Range and tried to bomb Port Morseby. I don't know if they were successful but our AA guns kept them at high altitude. With searchlights sweeping the sky it was difficult to get a fix on the planes. Finally, one searchlight found one of the planes: other searchlights closed in and established a good target. Immediately one of the planes was hit, fell back from the formation and after a few seconds, caught up with the other planes flying to the north side of the range near Buna. While all this activity was going on, almost all of the 38th BGP personnel were following the drama and cheering the lights and AA. I was standing near the front of my tent during the battle and heard a loud thump, something hitting the ground about 20 feet to the side of the tent in low brush. I checked it next day and found a piece of AA shrapnel about 14 inches long, about 8 inches wide and 1/2 inch thick. It must have weighed at least 10 pounds. We were responsible for digging our own saftey trench. Capt. Luke Wright, the Group Intelligence Officer, had dug a trench 5 feet longx 4 feet deep x 2 feet wide. Another Jap air raid on Port Morseby in January 1943 had everybody scrambling again. Luke headed for his trench at full speed and jumped in. He had forgotten about recent heavy rains. Luke was in two feet of water. From that point on he was known as "Slit Trench Luke"