Rabaul harbour on New Britain was a natural deep water port that the Japanese had converted into their major forward base closest to the Soloman Islands. It was heavily defended by anti aircraft artillery batteries on the surrounding hills. On close by airfields there were as many as two hundred Japanese fighters.
A series of attacks had been made by the combined forces of the U.S. Fifth Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Force and the Royal New Zealand Air Force
After the U.S. Marines had made largely unopposed landings on Bougainville on 1st November Japanese ships had tried to attack the invasion force in the early hours of 2nd November but had been beaten off by US ships. It was only a matter of time before they tried again. Whatever the odds Rabaul had to be attacked again. This time it was to be a desperate low level attack
Dick Walker was a member of the 13th Squadron of the 3rd Attack Group, one of the two converted B-25 groups designated to carry out the attack:
The morning briefing conducted prior to takeoff was a very somber affair. Hearing the latest word on the extent of the Japanese defenses was pretty much a prediction that all of us would not be coming home. The twelve crews that were assigned to fly the mission sat grey faced and quiet during the briefing.
The attack was to be carried out by waves of bombers attacking by Squadrons in file with twelve airplanes per squadron flying in a line abreast sweeping across Simpson Harbor. My Squadron was the second Squadron scheduled in.
Our approach was “up the chute” the channel between New Britain and New Ireland.. We formed up from four three ship elements into an eleven ship line abreast while going northeast using the hills in that area to shield us from anti aircraft fire prior to turning south to attack. We were under fighter attack as we approached our turning point.
I was the inside man in my Squadron line and there were only two ships in my element because the leader of our three ship element, our Squadron Operations Officer, had turned back to home shortly after take off. Wheeling a line of eleven airplanes into a wide turn while flying line abreast puts a lot of pressure on the inside man. Carrying a heavy bomb load and making a tight turn without stalling out or getting ahead of the rest of the line is tricky, so just before we reached our designated turning point, together with my wing man, (because our element leader had turned back, I was now the element leader) I initiated a turn. When I completed my turn and started my bomb run I looked for the rest of my squadron and the only thing I saw was my Wing Man going down.
Our Squadron Commander for some reason, never turned in to attack. Instead he circled the city and dropped his bombs somewhere other than against the shipping. The rest of the squadron followed him and none of them never hit the target. By that time I was out in the harbor alone.
Prior to this, my heart was in my mouth. To say I was scared, would be an understatement, but for some reason, at this point I was now more calm. Maybe it was because I was resigned to my fate or because I was fully occupied concentrating on my bomb run, I don’t know, but I quickly reasoned that my best chance to survive was to stay low where I was a difficult target while flying between ships rather than above them.
I maneuvered among the ships flying as low as I could concentrating on staying between the ships and then lined up on a merchant vessel. That ships superstructure looked like the empire state building towering in front of me, but I drove in, released my bombs and hauled back on the yoke, the plane zoomed up in a steep climb and barely cleared the ships superstructure.
We made a good hit and photos taken from the rear of my airplane show smoke and debris in the air as my bombs exploded. I immediately got back down on the deck and after a minute or two I was out of the harbor and on my way home.
Later photos from following aircraft show the ship I attacked sinking stern down. In reality however, I think that I was fortunate to be the only attacker in the harbor at the time because I was not easily spotted by the Jap fighters while I was flying among the ships and as a result, they focused more on the large incoming flights following mine. I don’t know what happened to my squadron. I never saw them again until I got home. I made the return trip alone.
According to one report, on that day, we lost 45 airmen killed or missing. Eight B-25s and nine P-38s shot down and several more suffered major damage. A couple made crash landings on the way home and were rescued, but the rest of my flight was uneventful and my only damage was a couple of bullet holes from small arms fire.
I believe that we survived in spite of the confusion and danger because there was an unseen hand in the cockpit that gave us confidence and guided us safely through this “Valley of Death”. To this day, for some unknown reason, I believe that I was protected.
For Dick Waters full account see Oz at War.
Among the men who didn’t come back was Major H. Wilkins who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with the enemy near Rabaul, New Britain, on 2 November 1943.
Leading his squadron in an attack on shipping in Simpson Harbor, during which intense antiaircraft fire was expected, Major Wilkins briefed his squadron so that his airplane would be in the position of greatest risk.
His squadron was the last of 3 in the group to enter the target area. Smoke from bombs dropped by preceding aircraft necessitated a last-second revision of tactics on his part, which still enabled his squadron to strike vital shipping targets, but forced it to approach through concentrated fire, and increased the danger of Major Wilkins’ left flank position. His airplane was hit almost immediately, the right wing damaged, and control rendered extremely difficult.
Although he could have withdrawn, he held fast and led his squadron into the attack. He strafed a group of small harbor vessels, and then, at low level, attacked an enemy destroyer. His 1,000 pound bomb struck squarely amidships, causing the vessel to explode. Although antiaircraft fire from this vessel had seriously damaged his left vertical stabilizer, he refused to deviate from the course. From below-masthead height he attacked a transport of some 9,000 tons, scoring a hit which engulfed the ship in flames.
Bombs expended, he began to withdraw his squadron. A heavy cruiser barred the path. Unhesitatingly, to neutralize the cruiser’s guns and attract its fire, he went in for a strafing run. His damaged stabilizer was completely shot off. To avoid swerving into his wing planes he had to turn so as to expose the belly and full wing surfaces of his plane to the enemy fire; it caught and crumpled his left wing.
Now past control, the bomber crashed into the sea. In the fierce engagement Major Wilkins destroyed 2 enemy vessels, and his heroic self-sacrifice made possible the safe withdrawal of the remaining planes of his squadron.