9.

“LET’S DIVE-BOMB THE BASTARDS”

He left for Australia from Hamilton Field in the predawn of June 20, 1942, flying west in the diminishing darkness out over the Golden Gate Bridge bound for the first stop in Hawaii. He had not been able to tell Dora, who was staying behind with the two children in the rented house at Menlo Park, when he would return because he had no way of knowing. Bennie did not bid farewell to the great span across the entrance to San Francisco Bay. He was wrapped in a sleeping bag in the back of one of the new B-24 Liberators, the second of the strategic bombers that was entering the inventory of the U.S. Army Air Forces as an alternative to the B-17. Bennie was not saying a sentimental adieu to the Golden Gate because he had stayed up most of the night drinking and playing poker. He had thought he was safe doing so because the weather forecast the day before had said they would not be taking off that morning. There were reports of strong headwinds that would slow them down and possibly run them perilously low on fuel over the 2,400-mile stretch of the Pacific to Hickam Field on Oahu. The reports turned out to be wrong. He had gone to bed about 4:00 A.M. and slept only an hour or so before someone shook him awake and told him to get out to the flight line for departure. The sleeping bag he had thoughtfully brought for the journey and the solitude in the tail section of the bomber provided a refuge in which he managed to get several more hours of sleep. When he woke he searched his pockets and wallet and discovered that Captain Schriever (he had been promoted that April) had lost his identification card, but was a couple of hundred dollars richer from the poker game, something he had forgotten because of the drinks.

At Hickam he was informed that he was going to have to delay his onward movement until the personnel section could complete the formalities of issuing him a new ID card. He would have had to stay there for a while in any case. B-17s were desperately needed in the Southwest Pacific and he had been tabbed to fly one to Australia. The aircraft had, however, been damaged during the battle of Midway in June, the first Japanese naval defeat of the Pacific war, and was awaiting repair at Hickam. He was patient for the better part of a week, while the mechanics kept saying that parts they needed were on the way from the mainland. Then he told the officer in charge that since no one seemed to know when the B-17 would be ready, he really ought to move on. The man agreed and Bennie climbed into another B-24 for the most perilous segment of the journey, a nearly twelve-hour flight to the first refueling stop at Canton Island, a coral atoll about four miles wide and eight miles long that rises a few feet above the waters of the Pacific 1,650 miles southwest of Hawaii. The Pacific Ocean covers a third of the globe and in a few years Canton Island would once again return to obscurity in the Pacific’s 70 million square miles, but in 1942 it was famous, or perhaps one should say infamous, to American airmen. In order not to facilitate Japanese attack, the island had no radio beacon or other navigational aids to guide aircraft to it. The navigators had to resort to celestial navigation and dead reckoning with the compass. If the navigator erred and the plane ran out of gas before the pilots could find the island by “boxing the compass” (flying west for forty-five minutes, then north, east, and south), the water was waiting. (Bennie’s crew had no difficulty, but the First World War ace Eddie Rickenbacker was not so fortunate while flying to Australia on a high-level mission in a B-17 that October. The crew missed the island and had to ditch in the ocean. Rickenbacker and six of the other seven men aboard the plane survived when they were rescued in a near miracle after twenty-seven days in a pair of rubber rafts.) The next stops were easier—Viti Levu in the Fiji Islands and New Caledonia—before they finally touched down at Newcastle above Sydney on Australia’s east coast.

Schriever arrived in Australia hatless. He had left his officer’s cap, through a bit of uncharacteristic absentmindedness this time, not drink, on the hat rack in the club at Viti Levu. He hustled a replacement before reporting for duty in Melbourne, where there was a familiar face, his father-in-law, George Brett, now a lieutenant general commanding Allied Air Forces, Southwest Pacific Area—all U.S. Army and Royal Australian Air Force and Royal New Zealand Air Force aviation in the theater. The reunion was not a happy one. Brett was about to be sacked by Douglas MacArthur, who had reached Australia in March after his escape from the Philippines and been appointed supreme commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific. Brett had drawn a hard-luck assignment. Hap Arnold had put him in charge of what meager Army Air Forces elements existed in the Far East at the outset of the war when the Japanese advance seemed inexorable and all resistance was collapsing before it. MacArthur was furious that Franklin Roosevelt and George Marshall, the Army chief of staff, had declined to reinforce him in the Philippines, a physical impossibility in any case, given Japanese naval strength at the time. His vanity had been pricked by his defeat there and, although Roosevelt had ordered him to leave, he was full of guilt at having abandoned his troops to their fate on Bataan and Corregidor. On the lookout for scapegoats, MacArthur had lit on Brett as near to hand. He had demanded that Arnold replace him. George Kenney was on the way. Bennie got the impression that his father-in-law, in order to avoid any appearance of personal favoritism, left to subordinates the decision as to where Schriever should be assigned in Australia.

Captain Schriever was sent to the 19th Bombardment Group, a B-17 unit that was in the process of shifting to Mareeba, up toward the northeastern end of Australia across from New Guinea. Bennie did not know it yet because the War Department orders were still in the communications channels to Australia, but while en route he had been promoted to major in another of the mass promotions Hap Arnold was employing to turn the prewar officer corps into a cadre that would organize and lead the vast U.S. Army Air Forces he was raising. Bennie and the others of his era were like the foundation and steel beams of a skyscraper. The hundreds of thousands who were following were to be the walls and the roof and the interior. The Army Air Forces would number 2.4 million officers and enlisted men at their height in 1945.

The 19th was the original bomber group in Australia, put together from the survivors of the Philippines and the battle for Java in the Netherlands East Indies, the Dutch colony that was to become Indonesia. The Java remnants had fled by plane and ship to refuge in the southern continent just a week before 20,000 Dutch troops surrendered there in March. A third of the group’s officers and most of its enlisted men had been unable to escape and were abandoned to Japanese captivity. It had since been built back up with replacements to a working strength. Bennie was designated the new engineering officer, in charge of maintenance. Getting every bomber possible into the air was vital, as the Americans and their Australian ally were about to go over to the offensive. By late July 1942, the Japanese were overextended and vulnerable to a counterstroke. Few yet understood this, despite the turning-point naval battle of Midway in June, because of the formidable success of the initial Japanese onslaught. Shaken by the Midway setback, the Japanese had become disjointed in their movements, advancing in too many places at once without concentrating enough force to be certain of victory at any of them.

One of the endeavors they were pressing forward was a campaign to seize all of New Guinea as a base from which to launch an invasion of Australia. The Australian government was in a panic and wanted to abandon New Guinea and form a defensive line based on Brisbane on the central east coast. There was also an atmosphere of discouragement within much of the American military in Australia. MacArthur’s staff, in particular, was pessimistic. In a shrewd and brave act of generalship, MacArthur rejected the fears of the Australians and the pessimism of his staff. New Guinea was the place to stiff-arm the Japanese, he decided. He would stymie them there and then begin pushing them back on the long road of his return to the Philippines. He reasoned that if they ever got loose in Australia’s open spaces it would be impossible to halt them, but that the “green hell” of New Guinea’s forbidding mountains and rain forests would be just as punishing an obstacle to the Japanese as it would be to his forces in repulsing them. As a demonstration of his resolve, he moved his headquarters from Melbourne at the southern end of Australia up to Brisbane in the latter half of July.

George Brett was a decent man, but a better administrator than a fighter. George Kenney, who replaced him at the end of July and who was to become another of Bennie Schriever’s mentors, was a superb leader of airmen in war. He was an imaginative and innovative air warrior who swiftly perceived his enemy’s weak points and found ways to generate the most out of what he had at hand. His aggressiveness and talent quickly won over MacArthur and rightly so, because Kenney contributed more than any other senior officer to the subsequent success of MacArthur’s campaign in New Guinea. He solved MacArthur’s dilemma of how to get the combat elements of an Australian infantry division and two American divisions that were arriving in Australia across the 600 miles of the Coral Sea to Port Moresby on the southern coast of New Guinea without subjecting them to the risk of having the Japanese navy sink their transports. The engineers built five new airstrips at Moresby and Kenney flew the troops over in C-47s in the first major airlift of the war. He dismantled their jeeps and had the chassis frames of their trucks cut in half with acetylene torches, stuffed the halves into the planes, and then had them welded together again in New Guinea. Port Moresby was transformed from a beleaguered outpost into MacArthur’s principal offensive base. Kenney took relatively ineffective B-25 medium bombers and turned them into terrifying machines to strafe Japanese shipping by letting a tinkering genius named Paul “Pappy” Gunn and a technical representative from North American Aviation named Jack Fox install ten simultaneously firing .50 caliber machine guns in the nose, sides, and top turret of the fuselage. He had parachutes attached to twenty-three-pound fragmentation bombs so that an American aircraft could skim low enough over a Japanese airfield to drop the bombs with accuracy on the enemy planes in their protective revetments. Because the parachutes retarded the descent of the bombs, the American attacker could pull up and away before the bombs went off and the explosions destroyed it too.

Although still outnumbered and outclassed by Japanese air strength in the summer and fall of 1942, Kenney decided that he could wrest air superiority from the Japanese over New Guinea by destroying their aircraft on the ground through persistent raids on their bases. He especially wanted to neutralize Rabaul, an air and naval bastion the Japanese had created in a capacious harbor at the northern end of New Britain Island on the other side of New Guinea. In addition to its critical airfields, the Japanese were using Rabaul as a staging point for convoys to supply and reinforce their troops in New Guinea and other Japanese troops who were battling to drive the 1st Marine Division off Guadalcanal, an island near the far end of the adjacent Solomon Islands chain. On August 7, 1942, in the first major offensive action by the United States in the Pacific war, the Marines had sprung from the sea in surprise amphibious landings at Guadalcanal and neighboring Tulagi Island.

Schriever was not content just fixing B-17s for other men in the 19th Bombardment Group to fly. He and Major John Dougherty, a wild streak of an Irishman who was the group operations officer, put together a headquarters strike crew. Daylight raids on Rabaul were halted after the B-17s proved too vulnerable to the Mitsubishi Zeros stationed there. (The Zero was the most advanced fighter in the Pacific in 1942. Only the twin-engine Lockheed P-38, of which Kenney had a mere handful then, came close to matching it.) The 19th switched to night attacks with flares for illumination. The Zero was not originally meant to be a night fighter and for some reason the Japanese never attempted to retrain the pilots and send them aloft after dark. Schriever rigged up a flare-dropping device for the B-17 he and Dougherty flew. They would first drop flares for the other bombers and then they themselves would bomb.

On the night of September 23, 1942, they were after ships assembling in the harbor. Jack Dougherty, who was to end his career as a brigadier general working for Schriever, had had a lot of experience at combat flying and thus was, by mutual agreement, the pilot and aircraft commander. Bennie flew as his co-pilot, even though he was senior by date of promotion. A survivor of the Java disaster, Dougherty was doubly fortunate to have escaped in that he had been shot down and by good luck rescued from a small island off the Java coast. The narrowness of his encounter with eternity had not intimidated him. At Mareeba, in addition to plenty of flares, they loaded four 500-pounders into the bomb racks “to be sure that we had our amount of fun,” as Schriever put it in his after-action report. They stopped at Port Moresby to top off their fuel tanks, then headed with the rest of the raiding formation north across the Solomon Sea for Rabaul. They made several passes at 4,000 feet over the wide harbor, formed by the remnant crater of an ancient volcano after it had erupted and exploded, dropping a sequence of five flares to enable the other B-17s to pick out one of the estimated thirty Japanese ships anchored there that night. After they realized the moon was so full and bright that night that flares were unnecessary, they decided to try their own hand at bombing and climbed to 10,000 feet. The new and still top secret Norden bombsight required long minutes of level flight to focus on a target, suicide against antiaircraft fire at 4,000 feet. Unfortunately, a cloud bank right at that lower altitude where they had been dropping flares now obscured the ships and made it too difficult for the bombardier to aim.

In a moment of insane inspiration, Dougherty suddenly said, “Let’s dive-bomb the bastards.” Although Schriever later admitted he was not the type to have thought of anything so rash and hair-raising, he did not object. “I’ll watch the air speed and the altitude,” he replied, so that they would not dive too rapidly and tear off a wing. They could not actually dive-bomb a ship with a B-17, but they did the next best thing to it. To keep the Japanese from hearing the noise of the engines as they descended and gain an element of surprise, they cut back the throttles. Then Dougherty pushed the wheel forward and down the big four-engine bomber went, leveling off at 1,500 feet as Dougherty raced straight for four large ships he could see lined up in the middle of the harbor. “To say that AA [antiaircraft fire] was ample would hardly cover the case,” Schriever later wrote in his report. “Every ship in the harbor and most ground installations were firing at us. Tracers were converging [from] so many directions that it is a wonder they didn’t collide with each other.” The Norden bombsight was useless at this speed and altitude. Schriever glanced at the airspeed indicator and it was registering 260 miles per hour. In fact, no one was ever known to have attempted bombing with a B-17 in this harum-scarum manner. But the bombardier, another Irishman, Lieutenant Edward Magee, who had also escaped undaunted from the debacle on Java, had sufficient expertise to be up to the challenge. He eyeballed the bomb release range and angle and, when his instinct said “Now,” let a 500-pounder fly. The first bomb turned out to be a dud. With the second, Magee scored a direct hit on a freighter estimated in the 8,000-ton class. The ship was probably destroyed instantly, as a secondary explosion erupted from within the hull right after the bomb struck. Magee then tried for a troop transport in the 12,000-ton class, but had a near miss.

As soon as the third bomb was away, Dougherty threw the B-17 into a series of violent, evasive maneuvers, turning, sliding from one side to another, dancing around the sky while climbing to 4,000 feet to clear the ridge on the other side of the harbor. Schriever was convinced afterward that Dougherty’s skill at aerial acrobatics was what saved them from being shot down. As they topped the ridge and were headed back out over the sea they spotted a Japanese destroyer anchored in a bay along the island’s shore. They had one 500-pounder left and Magee, crouched in his little compartment under the flight deck in the nose of the B-17 and caught up in the same frenzy of combat that possessed Dougherty, did not want to waste it. “Let’s get the son of a bitch,” he urged over the intercom. Dougherty turned, dropped to 1,000 feet, and bore down on the Japanese warship. Unfortunately, the bomb hung up in the rack—its release was delayed—and it sailed over the destroyer and exploded harmlessly on the shore.

Back at Mareeba, Schriever and Dougherty were surprised to find only six hits on the B-17 and all by small-arms fire. They also learned they had been doubly lucky. Bennie had not been at Mareeba long enough to know the history of his aircraft. They discovered in the maintenance records that the plane they had exposed to such inordinate stress was what Dougherty called in his after-action report “an old clunk.” The main wing spar had nearly been shot away on a mission sometime before. It had been repaired in Australia, but how well was uncertain. It had been sent back to the 19th only because there was such a shortage of B-17s. To prevent the plane from coming apart in the air there was a warning in the records that it was “red-lined”—restricted—to a top speed of 200 miles per hour, clearly a perilous craft in which to undertake an aerial tango. As the pilot and aircraft commander, Dougherty was awarded a Silver Star for Gallantry. Schriever was also recommended for a Silver Star but, as the co-pilot, received an Air Medal instead. “It was a wild night. Fun though,” Dougherty concluded in his report.

They were back over Rabaul on October 8 in the biggest raid of the war so far. Through his skill as an engineering officer and by motivating and driving his maintenance crews, Bennie managed to put fifty-one B-17s from the 19th Group into the air above the Japanese bastion that night, a record number. (Previously, one third of this number was considered a big raid.) He and Jack Dougherty and the rest of the headquarters strike crew were flying the flare plane again. Suddenly there was a big flash and one of the engines caught fire, its propeller running away out of control. They assumed they had taken a hit from the antiaircraft guns, although they later discovered that the feathering device for the propeller had ruptured and sprayed oil back on the hot engine. Schriever and Dougherty were due to get a few days of combat leave, called R&R for “rest and recreation,” down in Sydney, and Schriever’s first thought was, “Jesus Christ, we’re not going to get to Sydney.” Dougherty managed to shut off the engine, the fire went out, and the wind feathered the propeller. They should have headed back to Mareeba immediately, but they hadn’t dropped their bombs yet and hated to waste them by jettisoning them into the sea. So they stayed over Rabaul for another forty-five minutes on three engines, first dropping the rest of their flares in one bunch to light up the whole place in what Schriever remembered as “a hell of a 4th of July,” then plastering the town where the Japanese garrison was located, starting a number of large fires.

Had they lost another engine to antiaircraft fire or mechanical failure, they probably would not have seen Sydney again. Bennie and the other pilots carried pistols (Schriever wore strapped into a holster the .22 caliber Smith & Wesson target pistol his CCC youngsters had given him in farewell), not for self-defense but to shoot themselves if they had to parachute out over Japanese territory and face capture and the horrors it entailed. As Schriever later noted, “The Japanese were different.” During the previous daylight raids on Rabaul, when the Zeros had shot down B-17s, the men in the other bombers had seen parachutes billow as the crews bailed out, but nothing was ever heard of them again. They did not show up on International Red Cross lists nor did the Japanese announce their capture. The Australian troops who repulsed a Japanese landing at Milne Bay on the eastern end of New Guinea in the latter half of August in MacArthur’s first counter-stroke had afterward found the dreadfully mutilated and tortured bodies of comrades captured during the fighting. Japanese soldiers almost invariably committed suicide or died in banzai charges rather than be captured. An unofficial policy evolved; as the Japanese took no prisoners, the Americans and the Australians took none either. When a Japanese ship was sunk, American and Australian pilots mercilessly strafed the survivors in the water.

Bennie and Dougherty were both awarded Purple Hearts for their valor over Rabaul on the night of October 8, a medal later given only for wounds, but which in 1942 could also be awarded for acts of courage under fire. After they returned to Mareeba that night, Schriever had only a wink of sleep. He was up at first light, inspecting damaged planes and driving his mechanics through the day so that a record-tying fifty-one B-17s from the 19th Group hammered Rabaul for a second night on October 9.

Kenney called Schriever down to his new Fifth Air Force headquarters in Brisbane late that month. (In September, to better utilize his growing American air strength, Kenney had organized the U.S. units into a separate air force, which he commanded. He retained control over the Royal Australian Air Force and Royal New Zealand Air Force elements, however, by keeping his second hat as commanding general, Allied Air Forces.) The 19th was being sent home and replaced, Kenney informed him, because too many of its men had seen their share of comrades falling to an airman’s end and the bomber group had become war-weary. Bennie was not going with them, Kenney explained, because he needed all the engineering talent he could get and Schriever had also not flown enough combat missions to qualify, up to that point only ten. Instead, Kenney said, he was transferring Schriever to the Fifth Air Force Service Command as chief of the Maintenance and Engineering Division.

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