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Black Sunday

by 1st Lt. Calvin Wire

 

16 April,1944 at Nadzab.

On this day, the 475th FG lost more men in a single day to weather related accidents, than in any combat action with the enemy. Here is a survivors tale.......

Our mission today is escorting B-24's and B-25's to Hollandia. This is to be our 7th mission of softening of the general area prior to the proposed landing of the Army and Marines. The weather reports of last two days have been bad, with the possibility of a hurricane moving in. The meteorologists strongly recommended that all flights be canceled, however the man in charge said the mission must go on as planned.

As usual, the bombers took off first, formed out and headed for Hollandia. Some 15 minutes later, the three squadrons of the 475th Fighter Group took off and headed out. We flew Through the normal clouds and rain storms, catching up to bomber formations south of Wewak. Normal procedure is to takeoff on our main tanks and as soon as we gained altitude, we switched to our belly tanks.

As we closed in on the Hollandia area, Captain Kimball, who was leading the 433rd squadron, called to tell us to switch to our internal tanks and the to drop our belly tanks. I was flying P-38L, which have, besides the main and reserve tanks, two small 45 gallon tanks in the wings, out near the tips. (Where possible it is best to use this gas first, so that the extra weight on outside wings is reduced prior to entering into any violent maneuvers. It just makes good sense.) I switched from my belly tanks to my outer wing tanks and both engines died. I immediately switched back to my belly tanks and got the engines started again. This time I switched only to the left outer wing tank and again the left engine stopped. I switched back to the belly tanks and tried again with the right tank- same result. I then went to my main tanks with no problem. I called Captain Kimball and told him my problem, and he replied as we might need all fuel we had, I was take my wing man and head back home. I called my wingman, Lt. Mort Ryerson. and told him I had to "SNAFU" and that he was to come with me. At this time, I was back to my belly tanks to make sure I would have is much time in the air as possible.

We flew at about 12,000 to 13,000 feet altitude, between a solid overcast and lower broken clouds. We had no problems until we were south of Wewak, approaching the edge of the Owen Stanley Mountain Range. At this time, we were looking into a solid all of clouds from the ground to as high as we could see. I had flown a number of missions in this general area before and knew that some of the mountains were 13,000 to 14,000 feet high, so we climbed 20,000 feet looking for any opening- no luck. We then headed North and went down to 12,000 feet again. We flew East and West along the wall of clouds, searching for any opening. Nothing doing! As we were headed back east, I saw a plane on our left and so we headed for it. There was a nice big B-24 heading home. I called Morton said: "We hit it lucky, this guy has a co-pilot, navigator and radioman let’s latch on and follow him home". We snuggled in close on his right wing. He rocked his right wing to let us know we were welcome and then headed into that awful wall of clouds, we kept tucked in for about 10 to 15 minutes, when all of a sudden the B-24 went into a sharp left turn. I told Mort to hang on and climb. We made a 180 Degree turn and headed out.

It took us about 10 minutes settled down, and about this time along comes a full squadron of B-25's. Again we tucked in on the right wing of the rear B-25. After about 5 Minutes or so, the whole squadron of B-25's went every which way. And again we went straight up an into a 180 degree turn and back out. After we were out of the worst of it, I called Mort and told him that usually along the coast, when the weather came in from the east, the clouds would rise a bit as they approached land and leave a space we could fly in and still see what was ahead. He said: "Okay, let's give it a try." So then we proceeded east to the coast and headed south. My guess was correct to some degree as we had about 40 Feet between the clouds and the water and they kept working up and down. As it was raining hard, our vision through the windshield was nil, so we flew by looking out of the right side windows at the line of surf. I tried to maintain a minimum of 20 feet in altitude and about 50 feet east of the surf line. Everything was working out OK, until suddenly the coast took a sharp turn out to sea. I pulled back on the stick, but too late. I didn’t quite make it over a tree which I nicked with the right propeller. We got back out to the surf line OK, but my right engine were shaking a bit, so I feathered the right propeller and shut the engine off. About this time Mort called and said "Wire, I can’t take anymore this. I've got plenty of gas. and recently have had a lot of instrument flying. I'd like to break off and try to climb out of this." I told him, "OK Mort, best of luck." He started climbing and I found out much later he made it fine. In the meantime I kept going down the coast, and I was awfully tense and as you can probably imagine, downright scared. I really had no idea just where I was except somewhere on the East coast approaching Lae. I kept going and all of a sudden I saw a small landing field with some planes on it just inland from the water. I immediately swung to my right to make a landing. however I was going to fast to make the turned to the field so I flew over the Westside the field and then headed out over the ocean. When I got out far enough so I could just see the field, I headed south down the coast. As I did the clouds came down forcing me lower and lower. All of a sudden I saw a wave that seemed to be higher than my wing. I hauled back on the stick, but too late. I hit the top of the wave. Hitting the wave bounced me up a bit and the nose started going down. I pulled back on the stick to level out and it came all way back into my lap. I knew then, I had lost control the plane. I leaned back and locked my shoulder straps, cut the mixture control off, and dumped the canopy. All this took very little time, but it felt like I was in a vertical dive, but it was probably not vertical. But none the less a dive. (The P-38, as you likely know, handles well at 220 miles per hour indicated and this was what I had been flying at the time)

I cannot remember hitting the water. I couldn’t see it coming, nor feel it, nor hear it. All I know is I came to feeling is though I had needles in my ears. I unfastened my seat belt and kicked out of the plane. My clothes and parachute had enough air in them to float me to the surface. All I could think of was getting my life raft out. It took me some time and struggling to do so. I was getting tired of trying to stay above water. Then I thought "You fool, you have a Mae West on." I pulled the string and it inflated and I laid back for a bit of a rest. I finally got a my life raft out and inflated. This will show you how stupid or cocky I was: Here I was in the sea with real strong and awful waves, trying to get into that raft over the big end.

I finally figured it out and turned it around and climbed in. It was full of water so I spent the next 15 or 20 minutes bailing it out. That was another mistake, with the water out it rode high like a big piece of balsa wood. The wind through me and my raft around like a balloon and it didn't take long to push the small end underwater and fill boat so it would ride better.

I think I was about a half-mile off the coast when I crashed. All went well after I got the water in the raft. The wind in the meantime was pushing me toward the shore. I could see line of huge breakers ahead of me crashing over a reef and into the bay. This gave me another fright, but I must have been on the crest of a wave and it carried me over the reef and into the bay and much smoother waters. Coming toward me from the shore was what looked like a native dug out canoe with two men. Both of them were wearing some kind of conical hats. I immediately thought they were Japanese. I got my .45 out and tried to shoot at them. Luckily the gun wouldn't fire. They were GIs and towed me to shore. We had to wait at the landing strip for two B-24's and two B-25's to crash land on the strip before we could cross. They took me to their first aid station and made temporary repairs to my face. I had torn off the bridge of my nose, and had a large cut on my forehead, in over my eyebrows. and my front teeth had been driven through my lip. They told me that the strip was at Yami Point. North of Saidor. The next day they sent me by LST to Saidor, and then by plane to in Army hospital in Sydney. They kept me there for about four months for plastic surgery and R&R and then back to Biak in August.

Save the date! 2013 475th Fighter Group Reunion