The mission was originally scheduled for October 31st but had the flexibility to be pushed back a day at a time in case of bad weather in the target area. With approximately 500 miles from Dobadura to Rabaul over open water and no navigational aids other than compass dead reckoning (plus possible sun lines if you could see the sun ) it could be very hazardous to the three B-25 groups and the four P-38 fighter groups assigned to accompany the bombers. It was already stretching the range for both the fighters and bombers to get over Simpson Harbor in clear weather, much less milling around in possible clouds or engaging in any kind of prolonged dogfights. As 8th Squadron Operations Officer, I went to the initiaL briefing on October 30th at Group Headquarters. As I recall, the battle plan was essentially this - about one third of the P-38 fighters would first attack the airfields to hopefully keep the Jap fighters on the ground. Next in line would come the six squadrons of the 345th Group and the 38th Group with B-25 strafers loaded with phosphorous bombs whose mission was to neutralize the concentration of ground based anti a/c batteries dispersed around the shore of the Harbor. Next, two more Group of P-38s were to strafe the shipping in the Harbor to either minimize or at least disperse the ship borne anti-aircraft fire power capability. And last would come the 3rd Bomb Group's three squadrons with the 90th Squadron leading, followed by the 13th Squadron and lastly Col. Downs leading the 8th Squadron. The 3rd Group's assignment was to attack the warships, troop ships and freighters in the Harbor in a line of squadrons approximately a minute apart (1/4 mile) by approaching between the two volcanoes on the east side of the Harbor, the Mother Peak on our left and the North Daughter peak on our right on a heading of approximately 225 (i.e. from Northeast to Southwest) in the hopes of catching the shipping broadside in their customary anchorage positions. Sounded like everybody in the Fifth Air Force was paving the way for the 3rd Group, and that the 8th Squadron should really score well in our role as clean-up batters. About 75 B-25 strafers and 100 P-38's were to be involved, quite a large strike force for the 5th Air Force. The B-17s and B- 26s, after 18 months of attacking Rabaul, were pretty well played out by then, the newly arrived P-47s didn't have the necessary range, and the long range escort P-51s had not yet gotten to the SWPA. It was solely a B-25/P-38 affair. The enemy air defenses at Rabaul were supposedly weakened by the airdrome attacks of October 12, 18, and 24th. The high altitude, unarmed P-38 reconnaissance patrols over Rabaul were monitoring shipping and airfield activity daily as well as the stormy weather system which covered the area.
On the morning of October 31st (Sunday) all planes were fueled and armed, all flight crews were in the planes awaiting the "start engines" signal. After three hours in the cockpits awaiting the green light we were advised to return to Squadron Operations. It seems that the recci P-38 over Rabaul advised Bomber Command that the weather was too marginal in the target area to launch the attack that day. So, back to worrying about how it would go tomorrow.
That afternoon, two things happened to me that undoubtedly changed my life. First, I was notified by Group Personnel that I was eligible for rotation back to the States and that I was being reassigned to Group Operations for a week or so while waiting air transport availability down to Brisbane. I was speechless - snatched right out of the fire just in the nick of time. I was going home to see my wife and meet my six month old son!!! I started packing immediately. That night I got word to report to Wilkins' tent. He had cut short his leave to Australia and come back to participate in the upcoming Rabaul Raid. He told me he was happy for my good news and that he had three bits of good news also. First, the 8th Squadron was due to receive new A-20s shortly, next he was scheduled to move up to Group Headquarters, and third he and his fiancee had set a wedding date in late December. After mutual congratulations, he put a question to me that I'll never forget - "Will you delay your departure long enough to fly one more mission for the 8th Squadron? I need you as a flight leader and deputy commander on this upcoming Rabaul mission."
My immediate thought was an emphatic negative, but I remembered his twenty-two month stint of combat flying, particularly the first six months in the A-24s and all of the times he had put his personal war effort above possible personal preferences. Equally important to me was his commitment to keep on fighting the enemy as long as he was able. Against my better judgment, I said would honor his request to fly this last mission. We went to another briefing at Group Operations that night and the attack plan was reaffirmed. Henebry would be in the lead with his 90th Squadron, followed closely by Captain Art Small (41-1) leading the 13th Squadron, and Major Wilkins would now lead the 8th Squadron. We were still assigned to attack the shipping in the Harbor and follow the same plan to come in low off St. George's Channel between the two volcanoes at a 225 angle to catch the anchored ships broadside. Sounded simple enough, but the effectiveness of the 3rd Group role would depend on close timing and the approach plan as briefed. Wilkins was enthusiastic about the 8th Squadron's role in the mission.
The next day (November 1st) we again got in our planes and waited for several hours for the "start engines" signal - it never came and after two hours we again went from the aircraft dispersal area back to Squadron Operations. The weather was again reported to be bad across the Huon Gulf and the Solomon Sea all the way to Rabaul. This time, the "recci" pilot over Rabaul was able to pop out of the clouds long enough to spot and photograph many more ships in the Harbor than originally anticipated, and many newly arrived aircraft at all of the airdromes. Fifth Bomber Command was so advised of this build up, and the tension mounted hourly.
On November 2nd (Tuesday) we again were up at 4:00 AM for a meager breakfast of canned grapefruit juice with its galvanized tin taste, french toast made with dehydrated eggs and powdered milk, a little peanut butter and cheese and a cup of scolding black tea for me (coffee for most). Then into the jeeps and/or recon vehicles with all your personal flight gear. This consisted of your "flak helmet" (i.e. your regular metal helmet with the helmet liner removed so that it would fit over your radio head set) throat mike, life vest, shoulder holster with .45 caliber pistol, parachute knife, a web belt for ammunition clips plus any survival supplies, map board, head set, a canteen with freshly chlorinated water and a few K ration boxes in case you got hungry on the six hour mission. (Your parachute was left in the personal equipment section of Squadron Operations.) At the Operations tent, we had another pre-flight mission briefing by Captain Rignal Baldwin with an even more ominous forecast of heavy flak, and a review of the attack plan by Major Wilkins. This was to be a maximum effort mission, and eleven serviceable aircraft were all we had left after the losses of August, September, and October. Wve planned to have ten planes on our strike with the 11th plane as a spare in case we had any ground aborts. The bomb load was 2 x 1000 pounders armed with 8-10 second delay fuses (needed for skip bombing) and approximately 500 rounds of .50 caliber machine gun ammunition for each of the 8 forward guns, belted two explosive, two incendiary and one tracer. The Bendix top turret's twin .50 caliber machine guns had about 2500 rounds each. The total weight of the ammunition was at least 3,000 pounds. We had added a small auxiliary fuel tank in the bomb bay for these longer missions, so our fuel load was probably 1,200 gallons. Each 8th Squadron plane had two pilots and two gunners aboard, except Wilkins who had a fifth crew member (Navigator 2nd Lt. Howard R. Bunce. We were undoubtedly over grossed in weight and balance as far as the North American Aviation's factory specifications went, but fortunately the dirt strip at Dobodura was about 6000 feet long with no tall trees on the take off (East) end. We would need all of its length to get off.
We were all in our planes by 6:30 AM and again the waiting began. By now all of us were getting pretty skittish, staring into the early light waiting for the start engine signal. The sky was overcast and there were some scattered rain showers to the east. After two hours sitting in the cockpits with the air temperature getting up to 90 F heat and 90% humidity, we finally got the start engine signal and taxied out of our dispersal area and onto the run-up area.
As near as I can reconstruct it, here were the flight assignments: Leading the 8th Squadron was Major Ray Wilkins in his usual plane, #311 with the big letter "A" on the tail. With him was Lt. Bob Murphy as co- pilot and Lt. Howard Bunce as navigator. (Wilkins wanted a navigator along in case we had to come back "over the top" of the weather.) On his right wing was F/O Lee Trout with F/O Woody Keyes and on his left wing was Lt. Bill Mackey with Lt. Jim McCann. In the second flight, Captain Bill Webster with Lt. Andy Weigel (USMA '42 - our only West Pointer) and his wingmen were F/0 Ed Shook with F/O "Doc" Rankin, and Lt. Phil Patton with Lt. Dick Greenhalgh. The third flight was supposed to be Capt. Lil Virden and copilot, Capt. Willis Bridges and co-pilot, Lt. George Green and co-pilot, and Lt. Henry Rust with Lt. Sam Norris. Lt. "Whitey" Vinson was assigned as spare. (The spare taxied out last, and if any plane failed to check out on engine run up, the spare would fill in for the aborted aircraft. If no one aborted, he was to taxi back in, as he would be too heavily loaded with fuel if he were to take off and then immediately came back to land.
The actual take off signal was delayed awaiting a last minute weather report from the P-38 recci boys over Rabaul. After another long delay with all engines idling, Henebry leading the 90th finally got the green light from tower to take off. As planned, the 8th Squadron was the last to take off, and this made for another 10-12 minute delay waiting for the other two squadrons to go. As I recall, our first eight planes took off ok, but the ninth and tenth, Bridges and Virdon, aborted because of excessive rpm drop on magneto checks. The eleventh plane (Vinson in the spare) took off to round out the three 3-plane flights. lt was not an auspicious beginning, but for better or for worse, we were finally on our way to Simpson Harbor.
About 20 minutes after take off, Vinson apparently developed fuel transfer problems and pulled out of the formation to return to base. I am sure Wilkins was furious, but he would not break radio silence to reprimand. The other eight continued on, last in the long string of nine squadrons of B-25s heading northeast at about 3000 feet. The cloud level above was scattered to broken, but lots of rain squalls. The escorting P-38s took off as planned about 30 minutes after the B-25s and soon caught up with us as we neared the IP. Wilkins used the customary visual signal, a slow fish-tailing of his aircraft, to spread out the squadron's planes to test all guns and then we formed back up in two Vs and one two ship section behind and slightly to the east of the 13th Squadron which in turn was following the 90th. As low as we were and with the clouds to the North and West, we could not see the approaching coast of New Britain until we got into the St. George's channel abeam of Cape Gazelle. We put on our steel helmets and hunkered down in our seats with the armor plated backing. By now the fighter cover was running into Jap fighters, and the radio chatter on our common frequency became quite frenzied. The spacing between the leading 90th Squadron and the 13th Squadron seemed to be increasing. Wilkins increased his power settings, and the rest of us responded by going to max cruise power at 33'' manifold power and 2250 rpm on the props. We could barely see the 90th Squadron four or five miles ahead as they turned onto their approach between the Volcanoes. As briefed, the other B-25 and P-38 groups had attacked their targets and had set the Harbor up for the 3rd Group. Henebry, with Dick Ellis and Chuck Howe leading their flights, got the 90th through the slot and into the Harbor shipping for some highly successful bombing and strafing runs. If the Japanese shore batteries were momentarily surprised by the 345th and 38th Groups, they were fully recovered by the time the 90th Squadron came through the slot. These batteries set up a tremendous stream of flak and machine gun tracers across the slot opening anticipating correctly that the next squadrons would also take the same path. Unfortunately at this point, the combined efforts of thousands of ground personnel and possibly 400 combat crew men literally went down the tubes. The originally designated leader of the 13th Squadron had become ill during the very early hours of November 2, and he had to turn the lead over at the last moment to a less experienced flight leader, Captain Walter J. Hearn, who apparently had not attended either Group mission briefing. Seeing this curtain of fire that closed behind the 90th, and awaited the 13th, but not realizing the importance of that approach and the NE to SW attack angle, Hearn opted to not turn the 13th behind the 90th, but to continue to fly to the Northwest around the North side of the North Daughter volcano. Wilkins kept waiting for the 13th to turn to 225 as planned, but by the time he realized the 13th's error, it was too late for the 8th to get into the right angle of attack. Wilkins broke radio silence to try to get the 13th leader to realize his error. The 8th was already in an eight ship loose echelon to the right preparatory to a 90 turn to the left to start the attack through the slot. The 13th Squadron finally did a 90 turn to the SW to come over the western edge of the town and slightly west of Vulcan Crater. (It was later claimed that three of the 13th Squadron planes did break away from the Squadron leader and attacked small shipping probably in Keravia Bay.)
As for the 8th Squadron, Wilkins was committed to follow the 13th around the North Daughter about a mile astern but slightly inside the 13th's path. He continued in a descending 180 left turn to bring our 8 planes, still arranged in a rignt echelon, to a heading of about 100 and directly over the town of Rabaul. The smoke from the burning buildings and the phosphorous bombs of the 345th and the 38th Groups made visibility poor and the fumes made breathing difficult. At about 200 feet in a shallow dive Ray probably caught his first clear glimpse of the ship concentration in the Harbor and decided to get back on the original attack angle of 225. If he gave a radio signal or a wing di3 to indicate his intentions, I wasn't aware of it. First thing I knew he had racked his plane into a vertical right bank to get lined up on a destroyer. I don't know how his wing man (Trout) avoided hitting him. Each pilot had to do a similar vertical right turn to miss the plane on his left and hoped the plane on his right was alert enough to do likewise. By the time we recovered our balance, and went to max power (36" of manifold pressure), we were doing about 240 mph thundering out over the Harbor on a heading about SW (the prescribed course). By now, at least five minutes had elapsed since the 90th's attack and the surprise element was totally gone. The defenders definitely were waiting for us. Wilkins was over the approximate center line of the Harbor and the rest of us were more or less in an echelon formation to his right, possibly 50 yards between each plane. I did not see Ray's plane make his attack on the shipping or get hit. I was busy watching ahead of me and trying to pick a good target. The noise from the wide open engines and the eight machine guns made conversation impossible, even between pilots 24 inches apart. The smoke from our 8 machine guns filled the cockpit and made vision difficult. About half way across the Harbor, I became aware that there were no B-25s to my left where there had been three just a few moments earlier. Wilkins, his right wing man Lee Trout, and his left wing man (i.e. #3 in the right echelon) Bill Mackey had all taken heavy fire from the heavy cruiser and destroyers to the east of the Harbor. Wilkins and Mackey apparently crashed into the Harbor, but Trout did manage to pull his damaged plane out toward the west and limp home alone with two mortally wounded gunners. As for the 8th Squadron's other five, we made bombing and strafing runs on whatever shipping happened to get in our path. By now all 50-60 ships in the Harbor were scrambling for open water - some were smoking from the bomb damage of the 90th's attack, and the others were laying smoke screen to add to the confusion. It was sheer chaos - Dante's Inferno couldn't be worse. At wide open throttle and maybe 50 feet off the water, you don't have much maneuverability to make major heading changes. We were past a number of possible targets before I had a chance to get properly set up for a good bomb run. Columns of water shot up in our path as the Japs depressed their guns to purposely cause an added hazard. Our plane got a near miss on a large freighter and then tried to "throw' a 1,000 pounder sideways into a corvette. 1000 pounders don't throw well or skip far. We continued strafing at vessels crossing in front of our view as they skittered like water bugs trying to get out of the confines of Simpson Harbor anchorage into the larger Blanche Bay. From high above all sorts of spent bullets, shell casings and belt linkage showered down on the water. It looked like it was raining "spent meta!". I dodged the Beehive rock formations in the middle of the Harbor and was looking up at them as we passed - we were that low. The remaining four 8th Squadron ships joined up on me as we withdrew from the Harbor area heading SW over the jungles North of the Warangoi River and finally open water. We had several weak- hearted frontal attacks by Jap fighters, but a few bursts of our nose guns usually burned out by now discouraged closer approaches. During the run-up to the target, the botched approach and the withdrawal, the P-38s were having a massive dogfight all the way from 20,000 feet down to tree top level. The radio was a constant rattle of fighters calling to each other, and strafers calling out targets to each other. I don't recall hearing anything on the radio identifiable from our Group other than Wilkins yelling at the 13th Squadron leader. I can still hear the continuous warnings going out over the radio to somebody: "Bogies at five o'clock high", "three bogies astern", "there's one over to your left," "get that guy off my tail", etc, etc. The combination of the heavy smoke, our scrambled approach and near collisions, Wilkins' position relative to the rest of the Squadron and our disorderly withdrawal made for some very inaccurate and disjointed sightings.
The flight back to New Guinea was like a trance. We took off our helmets, but felt no elation at still being alive. My only conversation was to keep asking the turret gunner if he could see any B-25s trying to catch up, like Wilkins, Mackey or Trout. I slowed the flight down to about 170 mph to allow Patton's damaged plane to keep up. Even at that slow speed, we passed several P- 38s on single engine trying to limp back toward New Guinea as far as they could go before ditching. (The PBY Catalinas did recover a number of downed pilots along the path home that afternoon and the next day.) Each was close enough to wave to us and we gave them the thumbs up "Good Luck" symbol. Gradually the physical and emotional stain of the mission set in. The last thirty minutes of the flight took forever. The five 8th Squadron ships landed straight into Dobo strip from off the water and I taxied in with shaking knees. At my plane's revetment Col. Downs, the 3rd Group CO and a close personal friend, and Capt. Rig Baldwin waited with visible glee. They had heard at Group Operations the enroute preliminary strike report that the 90th Squadron had sent in, and they were anxious to find about what the 8th had done. The fact that I had only five ships taxi in didn't sink in on them at the moment. Jimmy was giving me the old two hands over the head" victorious boxer sign and Rig gave me a gleeful "thumbs up" as I swung the plane around and cut the switches. It was after 4:30 o'clock and we had been in that damn coffin for almost 10 hours on a 6:00 hour flight to hell and back with little hope for any good results and, as yet, uncertain losses of our own. (Trout and Keyes in their wounded plane managed somehow to avoid the Jap fighters picking off stragglers and limped back to land about 15 minutes behind us.) I was so stiff and wrung out emotionally, that I could barely get out of the plane. During debriefing Captain Baldwin was astonished at how the 13th Squadron had gotten so mixed up on the approach and at how none of us saw what happened to Wilkins' and Mackey's planes. We turned in unenthusiatic damage claims for our bombing and strafing runs, and the tail cameras later verified our poor results. For two days we kept hoping that each phone call to the Squadron Headquarters would be from a Navy PT boat squadron or a PBY squadron or even a submarine headquarters saying that Wilkins and Mackey had somehow been snatched out of the Harbor or picked up off a remote beach on the south coast of New Britain. The realization that Ray Wilkins, the one pilot who had outlasted all others in the Southwest Pacific and for 23 months had dodged that bullet bearing his name, was lost in action finally set in.
I'm sure General Kenney, a former 8th Squadron commander himself, felt a personal loss at Ray's death as did his squadron mates who certainly respected his memory and his dedication to duty.
Shortly after November 2, 1943, Colonel Downs was transferred to First Air Task Force, and Henebry was made Group CO. My departure orders came through and I was in Brisbane by November 15th and back in the States by December 1st. The 8th Squadron never flew another B-25 mission. Captain Radnik was made Squadron CO and the 8th Sqdn.got 20 new A-20's by mid November. Dick Ellis followed Henebry as 90th Squadron CO. and later as Group CO. Both had brilliant WWII records with the 3rd Group as well as later in their military careers. I often wonder to what heights Ray Wilkins could have climbed had our November 2, 1943, Simpson Harbor mission gone as planned.
The foregoing chronicle of events is as true and correct as I can recall or reconstruct. I have made no attempt to aggrandize anyone or conversely to discredit, disparage or denigrate anyone in expressing my opinions. I have tried to faithfully "tell it like it happened". I regret that I did not keep a better record of the enlisted air crew members in the 8th Squadron. This failure should not be interpreted as any lack of appreciation of their courage and unselfish contributions. It was just a fact of life that we did not have set crews with whom you flew every day during my 13 months in the 8th Squadron.
William. H. Webster B/Gen. USAF Ret.
This is an excerpt from a letter General Webster sent Larry Hickey IHRA on June 15, 1989.