"THE TRAGEDY OF MISSION 19 TO HAIPHONG", page 2
Excerpted from the "308th BOMB GROUP" chapter of Martin L. Mickelsen's forthcoming book about the History of French Indochina.
At 1:05 p.m. on September 15, 1943, seven B-24s of the 308's 373rd squadron attempted to lift off the ground at their base at Yangkai to bomb the plant. The mission started off badly. As radio operator Glenn Roberts' ship was being taxied onto the runway by Lieutenant Dana Hill, Roberts recalled that the landing gear broke through the crushed rock surface, and the ship became "mired down in mud" created by several days of monsoon rains. Another B-24 blew out her nose wheel tire while taking off and aborted. The remaining five Liberators continued on their mission; "Daisy Mae," under the command of squadron leader, Captain Leroy Cunningham; "Pistol-Packin' Mama", flown by Lieutenant Earl Johnson; "Temptation" by Lieutenant William Rutledge; "Doodlebug" with Lieutenant Bernard O'Hara at her controls; and "Flub Dub" piloted by Lieutenant Ruie Suggs. The B-24s had no fighter escort. Why, is unclear, though conventional air force doctrine had long held that bombers were capable of fighting their way to the target, dropping their bombs, and then fighting their way back to their bases. Mission 19's experiences over Haiphong clearly proved that this doctrine was flawed. John T. Foster, author of China Up and Down, recalled hearing scuttlebutt that the reason for the lack of fighter protection may have been due to a mauling 14th Air Force fighters had taken a few days before in which seven planes were lost. He found no 14th records to support this rumor, however. The lack of fighter support proved fatal to Mission 19
French records reveal that "enemy" fighters had stirred up the Japanese in northern Indochina by an incursion into Tonkin before the 373rd planes crossed the border. The French tracked the fighters as they entered Tonkin, flew south to Haiphong, attacked nothing, turned north, and returned to China over the French fort of Lang Son. Fourteenth Air Force records support the French sightings. Two P-38s on a reconnaissance flight followed the route and reported no concentration of Japanese fighters in the area. The finding of the P-38 pilots substantiated the experience of Mission 18 the day before, September 14th. Liberators from Kunming had bombed the Haiphong docks (hitting a Japanese casern, destroying four anti-aircraft guns and killing eighteen Japanese soldiers and six Indochinese civilians) and reported that they had met no enemy aircraft, only heavy anti-aircraft fire. After the raid, however, thirty-five Japanese fighters were transferred to the Japanese airbase at Gia Lam, outside Hanoi. News of the arrivals at Gia Lam was reported to the 14 Air Force by the French underground, but the report arrived too late to do the 373rd any good. The two P-38s, moreover, had not flown over Gia Lam where the new concentration of fighters was waiting. In view of the reports by the P-38 pilots, there appeared to be little danger to the Haiphong-bound bombers so that fourteen P-40s were assigned instead to protect another B-24 mission against Japanese targets at Wuchung (which was indeed attacked by twelve Japanese fighters).
The five 373rd Liberators flew in a V-formation thirty-miles out over the Gulf of Tonkin at 12,000 feet and swung around to line-up on the cement factory at Haiphong. By the time the formation had reached Dau Island (Hon Dau) at 3:20 p.m., it had left its cloud cover and had dropped down to 8,000 feet into clear skies and bright sunlight. Thirteen old-styles "Zekes" (A6M2s) attacking out of the sun and from behind thunderclouds, immediately jumped the B-24s. The Japanese fighters had been alerted by the incursion of the P-38s and were waiting for the bombers. The original Zeros were joined by thirty-five new-style planes (A6M3s?) from Gia Lam airfield, and began their attack against "Daisy Mae." The Gia Lam fighters had been notified of the in-coming flight by Admiral Decoux's air raid warning posts at Chang Poung (in Ha Giang Province) on the border. According to the crewmen from the "Doodlebug", the Japanese pilots were "extremely capable and aggressive, pressing their attacks to within very short range." Five or more fighters would attack a B-24 simultaneously, coming in high from the rear or low from the front. "They would go out in front of formation, do a chandelle," Pistol Packin' Mama's engineer Earl S. Vann recalled in Chennault's Forgotten Warriors by Carroll Glines, "come back and rake us from both sides of formation." Based on 14th Air Force intelligence estimates of Japanese air strength in Tonkin, the Japanese threw every plane they had that could fly at the 373rd planes.
Cunningham's Liberator was hit first and spun down into the gulf "like a stone," according to a French observer, falling equidistant from Hon Dau and the mouth of the Thai Binh River. The plane apparently had her controls cut or her two pilots were killed during the first Japanese pass. "Daisy Mae" exploded on contact with the water, throwing a huge geyser of water into the air. The French observer, a lighthouse keeper, immediately went to the spot in a launch but found only oil slicks and part of an oxygen mask. Two bodies were recovered from the sea two days later, but only one could be identified by his driver's license: T/Sergeant Kenneth Pershke. Pershke was normally the radio operator on "Hell's Angel," but had filled in for "Daisy Mae" crewman, Bill McCavick, who was racked by malaria. McCavick's death was postponed to another mission. Pershke's body had washed up on the shore of the village of Hop P0 in the sub-district of Tien Hai (Thai Binh). He was buried in a nearby cemetery with full military honors. Another corpse was found on the beach of Ngai Thau, close by the Thai Binh-Dong Thau road. Too long in the water, he was buried in place without being identified. After the war, Graves Registration concluded the body was Cunningham's. A search team could not find the plane, though it was reported submerged in only six meters of water, possibly because the search team looked in the wrong place. Consequently, "Daisy Mae" is still in her watery grave.
308th Bombardment Group Tribute
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