The 5th Air Force were engaged in missions against the Japanese in New Guinea and New Britain. On the 17th April they flew against Japanese bases and airfield at Hollandia, New Guinea, now Jayapura, Indonesia. The mission was intended to destroy the Japanese planes in the area, prior to a landing by the Army and Marines.
There was a warning that there was a weather front moving in during the mission – but the orders were to go ahead anyway. Probably no one could have anticipated just how severe that tropical storm could possibly be. In the end it proved to be the cause of the worst operational loss suffered by the 5th Air Force in a single day, including combat losses. It is believed to be the biggest single weather-related loss in aviation history.
1st Lt. Calvin Wire was flying a P-38, escorting the bombers. It was only on the return trip they experienced problems:
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 wall 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.
Wire eventually had to ditch his plane. Read the whole account at 475th Fighter Group.
The experience of crews who did find an airfield was no better. Alfred B. Colwell,jr., was the Navigator/Bombardier on a B-25 in the 38th Bomb Group based at Nadzab, New Guinea:
Mission #48 – Hollandia.
The whole area was full of planes-B-24s, B-25s, A-20s and P-38s. We got down to 50 feet above the coast and followed it towards Saidor. I directed Polecat (Pilot Ed P. Poltrack) to the right and left along the coast. He and Jack were both flying, dodging planes. Once our airspeed went down to 120 – looked like we would have to ditch any minute. Now and then we would lose sight of the coast and weave back and forth along our course to pick it up again.
After 30 minutes of this we suddenly saw a strip ahead of us. Jack dropped the wheels and flaps and Poletrack nosed her down for a landing – we didn’t have any idea how long the strip was or what was at the other end – couldn’t see that far – but there wasn’t much choice. Polecat never made a better landing and we didn’t slide at all when he applied the brakes. We taxied over to one side. It was raining so beat Hell but we piled out in the middle of it.
Sitting at the end of the runway were three banged up 71st ships. Two landed okay and stopped; then the third came in and ploughed right through them – no one hurt.
As we walked over the strip, one of our planes broke through the rain about halfway down the strip(it turned out to be Harvey). He couldn’t see a thing either as he set her down, began to brake and started skidding to beat the devil. He was doing okay until he ran off of the end of the strip and hit the mud-then the plane started skidding sideways and suddenly the landing gear gave way and she went on a wing and and the belly. She was one hell of a wrecked ship but the whole crew came crawling out without a scratch.
About this time we saw a B-25 and a P-38 coming in for landings from opposite directions. Neither one probably never saw the other-they crashedd head on in the middle of the strip and exploded. Somehow one man got out of the B-25 okay; another was dragged out badly burned (died later); the others were cremated.
The situation was worse than ever now. The strip was blocked and the poor boys still in the air were about to go wild. All were running out of gas. The A-20s began coming in anyhow, the first one almost missing the burning wreckage but clipped off a wing; the second blew a tire, his nose wheel collasped and he skidded through the burning planes – both fellows got out okay.
The boys with the winches walked right into the burning, exploding mess hooked on to it and dragged it from the strip. Part of a burned body body slipped from the B-25.
Hamilton, another one of ours, came in next. He blew a tire – skidded off the strip but his plane was not damaged too badly. Next 2 A-20s and a P-39 came in almost at once, all gliding in out of gas. The P-39 hit the strip on its belly and the A-20s were right behind. Both pulled up their wheels and hit on their bellies. Not one of the three was hurt.