"THE 308th's DRUNKEN JAPANESE PILOTS!"
Martin L. Mickelsen
(webmaster's note: the bold lettering was added by me.)

On April 21st, 1944, nine Liberators from the 374th and 425th Bomb squadrons of the 308th Bomb Group, 14th Air Force moved to Luichow north of Nanning from their home bases at Chengkung and Kunming, China. Their mission was to leave the next day around noon in order to attack Japanese ships reported at Cap Saint Jacques in southern French Indochina, as Vietnam was called then. While the crews waited at Luichow, two extra fuel tanks were put into each plane's bomb bay so the B-24 Liberators could fly the 1,900 miles it took to go to Cap Saint Jacques and back, an estimated 13 hour round-trip flight.

On the evening of April 21st-April 22nd, Cap Saint Jacques sheltered a convoy of Japanese freighters and tankers. Japanese messages intercepted by American Intelligence indicated that the convoy was composed of eight ships, including an "escort destroyer," at anchor off the cape. According to the intercepted messages, the convoy was en route from Singapore to Japan, carrying civilian and military personnel as well as petroleum products. Chinese National Intelligence reported later that the convoy carried 5,000 soldiers, probably destined for the ICHAGO offensive that had begun the same day in China, April 21st. Some 50 motor launches were distributed among the convoy's ships as well, according to the Chinese. The Chinese reports cannot be confirmed. The convoy was a perfect target to attack, IF the planes from the 308th could get there.

The next day, April 22nd, the mission started on a sour note. Two bombers were scratched from the mission immediately: one Liberator developed engine trouble and would not start; the second B-24 did not take off because its pilot clipped and damaged a wing tip while taxing to the takeoff position. Consequently, only seven 308th planes lifted off from Luichow's gravel runway at 11:20 a.m. to begin the 308th's 95th mission since coming to China.

Three of the B-24s were from the 374th Bomb Squadron; four were from the 425th. Plane No. 310 of the 425th, Chug-a-Lug III, was piloted by Lieutenant Milton "Milt" H. Werner, seconded by Lieutenant Colonel Jack C. Averill of Headquarters Company. 425th pilots Lieutenant Ray E. Love and Lieutenant Grayson, flew plane No. 253, Burma Queen. Lieutenants Roger F. Haley and Melville, also from the 425th, were flying plane No. 318. Plane No. 235 of the 425th, Lonesome Polecat, took to the air under Lieutenant Lawrence and Lieutenant Cass. Lieutenants Shelton and Rex D. Arnold flew B-24 No. 249 of the 374th. Lieutenants Dale J. Younger and Morris Ethridge piloted the 374th' Plane No. 436. Finally Plane No. 316 carried Lieutenants John W. Smith and Homer G. Gillespie at the controls. ( note ).

The operational plan for the mission called for the bombers to leave Luichow around noon in order to reach the target at Cap Saint Jacques at twilight and then return after the attack on the convoy under the cover of darkness to avoid Japanese interceptors. Despite losing two planes initially, the plan worked almost as envisioned - with one exception.

After the bombers lifted off from Luichow, the pilots formed up into elements of three, flew south over the Indochinese frontier, and out over the waters off the Indochinese coast. The planes immediately encountered severe weather that dispersed the Liberators and scattered them.

Fighting the "soup" and violent storms for an hour, Lieutenant Shelton felt that his No. 3 engine was burning too much gas for him to fly all the way to Cap Saint Jacques and back. He turned back towards China and crossed over the Indochinese landfall near Dong Hoi, about a hundred miles south of Vinh, Indochina. By the time Shelton's B-24 reached the Vinh area, the weather had cleared enough for him to see what appeared to be a three-span railroad bridge, about eight miles southwest of Vinh. It was actually a four-span railroad bridge that stretched for 814 feet over the Ngan Pho River, connecting the villages of Cho Thuong and Duc Tho. Rather than return his bombs to his base, Shelton decided to attack and dropped down under the cloud cover to a height of only 150 feet, converting his "Flying Boxcar" into a B-25 Mitchell. Lining up the bridge in his bombsight, Shelton's bombardier released six 500-pound bombs in train at 50-foot intervals. The bombs walked up to, on to, and under the bridge, doing enough damage to knock two spans of it into the Ngan Pho River. After the attack, Shelton returned safely to his base.

The other six Liberators continued south despite the bad weather conditions, hugging the Indochinese coastline as best the pilots could. The pilots crossed inland around Tourane (present day Da Nang) and flew south following a group of eroded hills dominated by high isolated peaks that formed the spine of southern Annam, known as the Annamitique Mountain chain, down to Cap Saint Jacques.

Looking like a broken steak knife with its teeth on its western side, Cap Saint Jacques was a peninsula off the seven Mouths of the Mekong-called locally the "Seven Dragons" -- that flowed into Ganh Rai Bay to the west of the cape. On the east side of the cape was the South China Sea. The bay guarded the sole navigable sea approach to the Saigon River, which led to Saigon 53 miles away to the northeast. At the southern end of the peninsula, two tree-covered granite mountains rose abruptly from a sandy, marshy plain. The plain was bordered by two sandy beaches on each side and had dunes rising 30 to 50 feet high. The two mountains encased the cape's town, composed mainly of French military and government buildings. The smaller mountain on the western bay side rose to 558 feet; the other mountain, nearly twice as high as its sister, was 814 feet and looked out on the South China Sea. Other than anti-aircraft batteries placed on the two mountains, Cap Saint Jacques had no real importance, except as a resort for French vacationers seeking to escape Saigon's oppressive summer heat. Once the war had begun in December 1941, the cape served an anchorage for Japanese ships waiting to travel up the Saigon River to Saigon. Ships from Saigon also waited off the cape's coast to form up into convoys.

On the evening of April 22nd, Cap Saint Jacques sheltered a convoy of Japanese freighters and tankers just as Intelligence had predicted. Intercepted Japanese messages indicated that the convoy was composed of eight ships, including an "escort destroyer," at anchor off the cape. The pilots and crew, however, reported seeing only seven ships: five tankers, one transport, and a gunboat.

According to the pilots' mission combat reports, three ships were riding at anchor to the south of the cape. Based on descriptions of Japanese merchant shipping sunk during the war in several books, these ships were probably the Suiten Maru, the Sinsui Maru No. 3, and the Koryu Maru.

The Suiten Maru was a 1,805-ton former Dutch passenger steamer named "Schouten". The Schouten had been converted by the Netherlands East Indies navy into an anti-aircraft defense vessel on December 7th, 1941. In a battle in the Madura Straits, Japanese warships sank the Schouten, but the Japanese were able to refloat and repair the vessel later. Renamed the "Suiten Maru", the ship was put back into service on February 23rd 1943 as a transport, then converted into a tanker. The Sinsui Maru No. 3 was a 385-foot, 9,098-ton merchant tanker. The Koryu Maru, 445-feet long, had been built as a 10,100-ton fleet tanker in 1931.

      (click image for larger view.)
Mission reports also indicated that a large freighter and a "gunboat" were anchored about 300 to 400 yards to the west of the three tankers. As near as can be determined, these two ships were the Nissin Maru and the Nagata Maru.

The Nissin Maru, 550-feet long, was formerly a 16,764 or 22,190-ton whale oil processing ship that had been converted into a tanker. The Nagata Maru was a 385-foot, 2,969-ton transport that had been built in 1936. In 1940, she had been requisitioned by the Japanese navy and converted into a gunboat (hence the crew reports describing her as a "gunboat"). In 1942, however, the Nagata resumed her previous role as a small transport.

The crew's mission reports likewise indicated that there was one, and possibly two, ships sheltered near a cove about four miles northwest of the other ships at the entrance of the channel leading to the Saigon River. There were two ships. One was probably the London Maru, a 481-foot, 10,681-ton Army cargo ship and the other was the Kokuan-I-Go, a 550-ton tanker.

The crews did not see another ship, which was listed as a "destroyer" by American intelligence translating intercepted Japanese messages. This was probably the "escort vessel" mentioned in the intercepts, the CH 9, a 174-feet, 291-tons Submarine Chaser, armed with two 40-mm anti-aircraft guns.

Despite the severe weather conditions, the six 308th bombers emerged out of the gray turbulent sky and into scattered clouds ten or twenty miles southeast of the cape at approximately 5:40 p.m. Each B-24 was about five minutes apart from each other.

The bombers swung northwest towards the cape in order to begin their individual bombing runs. The first bomber, piloted by the 425th's Lieutenant Lawrence in Lonesome Polecat caught the ships and anti-aircraft defenses flatfooted so that Polecat met "practically no anti-aircraft fire." Zeroing in on the group of three tankers south of the cape, Lawrence singled out a 350-foot tanker, possibly the Suiten Maru, and attacked in a 320-degree direction at 100 feet, flying his boxcar-like a B-25. Polecat's bombardier dropped his bomb load of six 500-pounders in train, walking the bombs to the ship at 40-foot intervals. Only four of the bombs exploded, however, but none on the ship. To be generous, the bombs were near misses.

The next bomber met "intense machine gun and small arms fire from all the ships, with some bursts from larger guns," as it made its run about five minutes later. But the gunfire came only from the ships. The attacks were so rapid and so unexpected that the attacker drew no fire from the anti-aircraft batteries on the two Cap Saint Jacques mountains, which were in French hands.

In the face of the awakened and intense anti-aircraft fire, Lieutenant Ray E. Love of the 425th in Burma Queen also concentrated on the three tankers south of the cape. As soon as the Queen's bomb bay doors opened, however, her six 500-pounders tumbled out of the plane, exploding a mile short of the targets. The plane's bomb racks were defective and had released its load prematurely. Love pulled the Burma Queen up and over the three tankers and lowered the Liberator back down on the deck. His maneuver lined him up on the two 300-foot plus vessels - a freighter and a tanker anchored four miles northwest of the other ships near the cove at the entrance of the channel leading to the Saigon River. The freighter at the cove was probably the London Maru; the tanker was the Kokuan-I-Go. As the bomber neared the ships, Love's gunners aboard the Burma Queen opened up on the vessels with their machine guns. While en route to the cove, it appears that his gunners also peppered the Nissin Maru and the Nagata Maru as the crew could see a gush of steam erupt from a large ship. After Love pulled up from the deck and started turning his bomber away from the targets, his tail gunner reported that one of the ships had exploded! The crew would later emphatically insist "that their strafing ignited something in the ship and that they saw it blow up and burst into flames from stem to stern." The ship that exploded was probably the London Maru.

Confirmation that the London Maru blew up by strafing from the Burma Queen was confused by the report of the next bomber, Chug-a-Lug III, whose mission report suggested it sank the same ship with its 500-pounders. Intelligence at the 308th initially thought both bombers had hit the same ship and since it was unlikely that strafing would blow up a ship "it seems more probable that in one instance two planes scored hits on the same ship." But 308th Intelligence later correctly figured out that the Burma Queen sank the London Maru, while Chug-a-Lug III sank a whaling factory ship, the Nissin Maru.

Chug-a-Lug III's attack report confirms this interpretation. Lieutenant "Milt" Werner and Lieutenant Colonel Jack C. Averill in Chug-a-Lug III attacked the ships anchored 300 to 400 yards to the northwest of the three tankers, not the ships near the cove four miles away. Werner's Liberator was wracked by intense and accurate anti-aircraft fire from the tanker, the Nissin Maru, and from what looked to the crew to be a "gunboat," which would be the Nagata Maru, the former gunboat. Making his run on what the crew estimated was a 350-foot tanker (actually 550-feet), Werner could see steam pouring out of it, a testament to the accuracy of Burma Queen's gunners. Werner's bombardier toggled three bombs on the Nissin Maru and three more on the nearby "gunboat," the Nagata Maru. Both vessels exploded in a ball of fire and the Nagata sank immediately.

Chug-a-Lug's crew thought the Nissin also sank, but the ship survived even though she was badly damaged. Before they died, however, the Japanese gunners aboard the ships extracted their own revenge. A blast of Ack Ack from one of the ships' guns severely wounded Technical Sergeant Anastacio M. Contreras in the upper arm and tore up the B-24's hydraulic system. While Werner broke off his attack and turned back for the 900-mile flight back to base, his crew applied first aid to Contreras.

The next attack was made off to the south of the cape against the concentration of three oilers by Lieutenants Roger F. Haley and Melville of the 425th in Plane Number 318. Sweeping through the darkening skies lighted by white bursts of heavy anti-aircraft fire, Haley attacked the ships in a northerly direction. His target was a 300-foot plus tanker, the 5,863-ton Sinsui Maru No. 3. From an altitude of 300 feet, the Liberator's bombardier dropped six 500-pounders at 40-foot intervals on the Sinsui. At least three bombs were direct hits; the other three bracketed the ship. According to the crew, the bomb's explosions broke the ship in half and she sank.

The 374th's Plane Number 436 flown by Lieutenant Dale J. Younger and Lieutenant Morris Ethridge attacked the remaining ship anchored near the cove north of the cape, the 550-ton tanker, Hokuan-I-Go. Coming at her on a 330-degree run at a height of 125 feet, Younger's bombardier released six 500-pounders in train with 40-foot intervals. Only one bomb hit the ship, but the one bomb exploded amidships, setting the tanker on fire and causing her to sink quickly beneath the waters according to the crew. After Lieutenant Younger turned on a 60-degree course over the cape to head for home, his crew spotted and strafed a radio station tower about five miles from the cape's twin mountains near the cape's grass airfield.

Meanwhile, the 374th's Plane Number 316, piloted by Lieutenant John W. Smith and Homer G. Gillespie, made the mission's last attack by flying due west against the remaining two tankers located south of the cape. The first target was probably the Suiten Maru. Smith's bombardier toggled three bombs at the former Dutch ship and watched two of the bombs skip into the ship near the tanker's water line, exploding, and leaving the Suiten burning in the water and sinking. Smith next swung northeast on a course of 30 degrees to attack the remaining 300-foot long tanker, the 454-foot, 6,680-ton Koryu Maru. Of the three 500- pounds bombs dropped at her, one exploded on her deck, "causing a terrific explosion and fire." As Smith broke off his attack, the crew wrote off both ships as "definitely destroyed."

According to French witnesses on the cape, the Japanese ships sank within minutes of each other, confirming the crews' reports. French admiral - then a naval lieutenant - Paul Rome recorded in his memoirs that he could see the flames of a gigantic fire at Cap Saint Jacques from his location at My Tho, about thirty-seven miles away. The 308th crews estimated that they had sunk six vessels plus the smaller naval vessel that they identified as a "gunboat." After the war, however, the 308th received credit for only four ships.

Intercepted Japanese messages at the time, however, support the crews' claims. The intercepts reported that the planes had sunk six ships, five of which were transports; the other was a "destroyer." No "destroyer" can be identified as being sunk on the 22nd at Cap Saint Jacques so it is likely that an American code-breaker mistook the word for "coastal defense vessel" (the Nagata Maru) for the word "destroyer." Since no tankers were mentioned in the intercepts, it appears a similar mistake was made in their case with the code breakers unable to distinguish transports that had been converted into tankers for transports. A 14th Air Force photo recon plane flew over the area the next day and the pilot's observations supported the intercepted Japanese messages. The pilot reported seeing three burning ships in the channel while another ship was observed still burning off Cap Saint Jacques. The pilot did not see the other three ships for the simple reason that the 308th bombers had sunk them. This may be the reason why the 308th did not receive the credit it deserved for sinking seven ships. An 14th Air Force analysis of the photos taken by the photo reconnaissance plane identified the burning ship as an 18,500-ton converted tanker that probably had been a whale oil refining ship previously. This description matches the Nissin Maru, a former whale factory ship whose tonnage varied from 16, 764 to 22,190 tons. Although she was on fire, she did not sink, reducing the 308th total.

The aged Army cargo ship, London Maru, built in 1921, was also a 10,681-ton vessel. It is listed as sunk by books on Japanese merchant shipping, so the claims made by Lieutenant Love's gunners that they sank a ship by strafing are accurate, as improbable as that seems. Undoubtedly, the ship had flammable petroleum products, or explosives, stacked on her decks that were ignited by the "Burma Queen's" tracers.

An even older merchant tanker built in 1919, Sinsui Maru No. 3, weighing in at 9,098 tons, was also sunk under the 500-pound bombs dropped by Lieutenant Haley's bombs.

The Suiten/Schouten's war was not finished despite her sinking by Lieutenant Smith. The Japanese succeeded in raising her from her watery grave off the cape once more on July 12th, 1944 and put her back into service. On March 3rd, 1945, the Suiten/Schouten was stalked and torpedoed by the American submarine, Sea Robin, off Bawean. Rather than sink for the third time, her captain managed to ground the Suiten/Schouten on the nearby island where she finally sat out the war, battered and beaten. Since the Suiten/Schouten was eventually refloated, she too was subtracted from the 308th total of shipping sunk, leaving the mission with a total of only four ships sunk.

According to lists of Japanese merchant shipping lost during the war, another merchant ship in the convoy being used as a fleet tanker was definitely sunk by the 308th's attack. She was the 10,100-ton Koryu Maru, sunk by the bombs dropped by Lieutenant Smith's bombardier, giving the 374th's bomber two ships sunk. A smaller oiler was also sunk by the 374th, the 558-ton, Hokuan-I-Go, which was hit by Lieutenant Younger's bombs.

The total tonnage sunk by the 308th bombers on April 22nd was 41,967 tons, slightly more than the tonnage estimated by 14th Air Force Intelligence, possibly due to the variation in tonnage assigned to the Nissin Maru. To the total of destruction must be added the bridge knocked out by Lieutenant Shelton. A Japanese message, intercepted by American Intelligence, reported later that the 374th plane had knocked out one girder and one span. As a consequence, traffic over the bridge had to be halted and it would take engineers a long time to repair the damage due to a shortage of materials. Freight thereafter would have to be ferried across the river.

Ironically, intercepted Japanese messages gave the 308th bombers credit for sinking a "destroyer," as mention above. The only ship present at the cape that even came close to being a "destroyer" was the 291-ton escort vessel, Subchaser CH 9, built in 1939. It was the only ship not attacked by the bombers and emerged unscathed from the attack. She survived the war as well and was only captured in 1945 at the end of the war.

Except for the damaged Plane No. 310, Chug-a-Lug III, the 308th bombers' flight back to their base in China was uneventful and the five Liberators touched down safely fifteen minutes after midnight on the 23rd. Due to its shot-up hydraulic system, Warner attempted to lower his landing gear only to discover that only one landing wheel lowered. The wheel locked into place so that when Werner and Averill tried to raise the wheel in order to make a belly landing, the wheel could not be retracted, ruling out the belly-landing. To add to the problem, the flaps could not be lowered. Since Technical Sergeant Contreras was badly wounded, the two pilots decided to try a one-wheel landing. With expert skill, the pilots teetered the plane on the wheel for an instant, only to have it's tire blow out so that the left wing dipped down, burying the engine's two propellers into the ground, spinning the bomber around until it stopped. After the crash, "Chug-a-Lug III" was written off, but Lieutenant Werner and Lieutenant Colonel Averill had managed a miraculous landing, without adding to their casualties- thus ending a near impossible - but very successful mission which saw six B-24s sink at least six Japanese ships while a seventh Liberator took out a bridge. Sergeant Contreras also survived.

The audacity, daring, and results of the raid achieved by the six 308th bombers drew praise from Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific, whose intelligence experts had broken the Japanese convoy code and knew what the 308th had wrought: "Heartiest congratulations," Nimitz cabled Chennault, "The shipping destroyed by your air force on its attack 22nd this month on Cape St. Jacques can ill be afforded by the Japs." The historian of the 308th Bomb Group noted that "considering the forces involved, this was probably one of the most successful mission the Group has performed."

According to French observers of the attack, there was collateral damage to the Japanese as well: "face." Since the attacks had taken in full view of French observers living at Cap Saint Jacques, the Japanese were unable to cover up their losses and accordingly suffered a huge "loss of face" from the attack. Previously the Japanese in Saigon had strutted and lorded over the city's French inhabitants. After the attack, it looked as if the wind had been taken out of their sails as the French quickly noticed that the Saigon Japanese were "beaucoup moins arrogant!" ("very much less arrogant"). One wounded Japanese passenger taken from a sunken transport was brought to the Saint Paul Clinic in Saigon for treatment. Questioned about the raid, he refused to admit that American fliers from China had sunk his ship. Instead, he claimed that drunken Japanese pilots, who were out for a joy ride over Cap Saint Jacques, had sunk the ships! So for one day, the roster of the 308th contained a few drunken Japanese pilots named Werner, Love, Haley, Lawrence, Younger and the most Japanese of all names, Smith!

Note: Not all the pilots and copilots could be identified by their full names. If any reader knows the names (as well as the names of the crews), please contact the author. Locations of the Japanese shipping are conjecture, based on the pilots' mission reports and on the description of Japanese ships sunk during the war in several books on Japanese merchant shipping losses. (return to story )
Old China Hand Member # 319; Martin Mickelsen; email him;




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