Dale Wilson: 17-Mile Field, New Guinea

I wasn’t a very good history student in school. I remember, as an adult, asking my mother what New Guinea had to do with World War II.

In 1942, the Battle of the Coral Sea–which Donald Wilson’s ship was part of–stopped the Japanese attempt to attack Australia by sea. 

But they captured Rabaul on New Britain Island and built it into a major air and naval base. From there they planned to capture Port Moresby, New Guinea, which would isolate Australia. Moresby was raided by air dozens of times. The Allies finally stopped their attempt to reach Moresby by land from the north, securing the area by August 1943.

Runways and buildings were started immediately for a half dozen bases. The air echelon of the 823rd Bomb Squadron didn’t arrive until mid-October, but they were some of the first to bring the B-25G into combat. Most B-25s you see in pictures have Plexiglas noses, but the G model was the first to carry a 75-mm cannon in the nose. Earlier models of the bomber were modified to carry the cannon for use against shipping in the Pacific.

b25Gwithcannon

The 823rd was one of two new squadrons assigned to the 38th Bombardment Group based at Durand (or in Australian style, 17-Mile) Field near Waigani Swamp. A bomb group normally had four squadrons, with sixteen planes each. The two new squadrons brought the 38th Bomb Group up to the four squadrons, but they were still short of planes.

Moresby
Durand Drome, or 17-Mile Field, is at the top of this 1944 map.

Dale Wilson, who had been training in Australia since August, 1943, could only write home about personal things, so other information is from unit histories, combat records, and letters from other B-25 pilots based with the 38th Bomb Group.

Pilot Wieland, copilot Wilson, navigator Stack, radio operator Banko, and  gunners Woollenweber and Sidebottom were the combat crew assigned to Mitchell B-25G #42-64889 (abbreviated #889). October 17, the bomber made the four-hour trip from Townsville, Australia, to Port Moresby, New Guinea. The small dusty city was protected by the Bismarck and Owen Stanley Mountains on the north and east, the Gulf of Papua on the west, and the Coral Sea to the south.

log2

There were letters from his siblings–Donald, Delbert, Darlene, and Junior (now 18 and had just been inducted into the Army Air Force at Camp Dodge)–waiting for him when Dale arrived at 17-Mile Field.

The new crews learned that those who had arrived a week earlier had been on their first mission, and that two planes had already been hit. One was the new one B-25G that Dale’s crew had ferried across the Pacific. The other bomber crashed into the sea, but the men were rescued.

According to Lt. Col. USAF (Ret.) Robert W. Elliott, the bombers of their squadron parked in single graveled revetments cut out of the jungle, along a corrugated metal runway. The Operations Building, or “Ops” as they called it, and the control tower were near the runway and next to Woogoni (or Waigani) Swamp.

17mi2

17Mi1 (2)

SwanHQ

“Dale, like all of us, lived on a mountainside in a 16’X16’ tent,” Lew Pavel wrote decades later. Four to six officers lived each tent, which had a dirt floor and one small light bulb. Each man had a canvas cot with a mosquito net. The shower was in an unroofed canvas-screened area with unheated water. Food came from Australia–usually dried “bully beef,” dehydrated cabbage and potatoes. When anyone needed to take a plane to Australia for repairs, the men had a fund–contributed to each month–which they sent along to scrounge up fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat (usually mutton) as they could carry back to augment the squadron mess.

The target of Dale’s first combat mission was Bogadjim Road along New Guinea’s northern coast. Four bombers were ordered to strike “targets of opportunity.” It was Dale’s first trip over the treacherous Owen Stanleys, although Lieutenant Wieland had been over the range a few days earlier as copilot on a milk run with an experienced pilot.

Mitchell bombers carried life rafts and crew members carried seal packets of money, flags, and maps. A message in each packet stated that the airman was American and that there would be a reward for helping him return to the Allies. Each man wore a “Mae West” life vest and a seat parachute containing a knife, compass, fish hooks and line. Also first aid supplies, including morphine.

Over Marilinan in the highlands, they met their escorts, two flights of P-40s. The bombers of the Fifth Air Force would begin their runs with a mass of forward gunfire, followed by delayed action and parachute bombs. Because strafers attacked at such low altitudes, delay fuses allowed them to escape before the bombs would explode–eight to eleven seconds after impact. That day they destroyed huts and bridges.

Dale recorded his first strike mission in his pilot’s logbook, “Durand to Marilinan to Bogajim Road & return.”

In his letter home he wrote, “If I remember right, this is Richard Wilson Scar’s birthday. I will always remember this day because we went on our first strike mission this morning. Yes, No. 1 on Richard’s birthday. I can remember a year ago when I received the little announcement from Darlene while I was at Basic.”

Richard was Dale’s only nephew, the son of his twin sister Darlene.

rich
Richard Wilson Scar

Their navigator, John Stack, recorded in his diary that it was his first mission and “nothing seemed to work out the way we wanted it to.” While closing the bomb-bay doors, he’d accidentally salvoed all the bombs in the parking area when the bomber was still on the ground. He got the armament men out of bed to put them back. He got a good ribbing about it, but the rest of the mission went smoothly.

Still in Australia, Stack was pretty disgusted with Dale, when Dale’s transfer to fighter planes was denied. He even said that he “should never have left his farm in Iowa,” and had developed a lousy attitude even though he was one of the best fliers the army had.

Living conditions were primitive. They’d found a knoll a little larger than the tent and cleared it off. They’d dug drainage ditches, so water could run off in all directions, and built up a clay foundation for their own tent. “The sweat runs off you like water,” he wrote. “I actually sweat out more liquid than I can drink. We even urinate very little. I am thirsty all the time and drink water continually.”

SwanOtents

There were plenty of mosquitoes in hot and sticky New Guinea. “The ‘skeeters’ here are blood-thirsty and persistent devils,” he wrote. Dale typed that letter sitting on his cot with a continuous hum of mosquitoes of them trying to break through the net around him.

“The story going on around here has exaggerated their size somewhat,” he said. “One ‘skeeter’ said to the other, “Shall we eat him here or take him outside?” The other replied, “Let’s eat him here–if we go outside, the big ones will take him away from us!”

Another pilot in Dale’s squadron, Lt. Ed Poltrack, recorded in his diary: “To my point of view New Guinea [is like]. . . the cellar of the world but storing nothing of value. . . . It’s perpetually damp and musty. Inhabited by enormous rats, lizards, crocodiles, frogs, centipedes, mosquitoes and snakes. And, oh yes, bats. Not clean wholesome animals like lions or tigers but weird creatures, remindful of the prehistoric. Viewed from the air it’s beautiful. On the ground it’s repulsive.”

The tropical air was very unstable and thunderstorms formed every afternoon. Some of cumulonimbus clouds were enormous, and flying through one of them would be very dangerous.

The bomber crews practiced bombing the “Moresby Wreck,” a rusting hull of a WW I German freighter in the harbor, and an ideal practice target. In bombing ships, B-25 crews also used low-level tactics and skip-bombing. They strafed coming in over water towards a ship at “less than masthead height,” then dropped the bombs as the plane pulled up at the last moment. They bombs would skip along the water and slam into the side of the ship.

The four squadrons of the 38th Bomb Group were nicknamed Wolf Pack, Green Dragons, Black Panthers, and Tigers. The two older squadrons already had their mascots painted on the noses of their Mitchells. Word went around the squadron one day that the Japanese had offered a reward for the capture of any pilot from the Dragon squadron. The men were sobered by the news that the Japanese had captured a transport pilot at Lae and, in an elaborate ceremony, had beheaded him.

 

See also: A History of the 38th Bombardment Group (M) November 20, 1940-April 21, 1946 by John “Hank” Henry, 1978

Air Combat at 20 Feet: Selected Missions From a Strafer Pilot’s Diary by Garrett Middlebrook, 2004.

The Menace from Moresby: A Pictorial History of the 5th Air Force in World War II edited by Russell L. Sinton.

The Forgotten Fifth: A Photographic Chronology of the U.S. Fifth air Force in the Pacific in World War Two by Michael John Claringbould.

12 comments

  1. Good overview! One small detail about the top photo you have when you were writing about the B-25G: the photo is of a J model and missing the cannon you were referring to. Your post reminded us of a video demonstrating the fire power of the 75mm cannon. We once read about a pilot swearing his plane flew backward for a split second after firing that cannon and it’s easy to see he wasn’t exaggerating.

    Like

    • Wow, you’re right! I think I found one to replace it. I’m gonna borrow your video for it, too. The veterans that helped me with the maps and diary are all gone now. I did the research before coming down with fibromyalgia and not being able to work on it at all. I’m reading Flags of Our Fathers right now. Should be required reading for American kids, or at least a shorter version of it. just brutal. The famous flag photo was made the day that Dale Wilson’s younger brother was MIA (actually KIA but they didn’t know it until months after the war was over) in Austria, and their older brother was on the Hancock (CV-19) crew supporting Iwo landing and other islands and Japan proper.

      Liked by 1 person

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