Places - New Ireland - The Reckless Mountain Boys
Father John Glynn recounts the story of the American B-17 bomber which crashed on the reef at Komalu in 1943. When parish priest of Karu in 1997, he was contacted by Janice Olsen, who had collected a lot of information and had also interviewed the Captain of the plane in the US. Following her visit, he decided to find out more from the old people. Here is his story.
In the early dawn light on Monday 7th of May 1943, a B-17 bomber of the 43rd Bomb Group of the 63rd Squadron of the American Army Air Force took off from an airstrip at Port Moresby in Papua to make a reconnaissance flight over New Ireland in the New Guinea islands far to the north. The crew had decorated the nose of their plane with 'nose art' showing a long barrelled, muzzle loading musket and powder horn, and the proudly scripted name, The Reckless Mountain Boys. High on its tail the aircraft bore its official designation, the number 24518.
It was to be a routine flight for Captain Byron 'Dutch' Heichel and his crew, and they had no premonition that disaster loomed. The B-17 was called The Flying Fortress. It was heavily armoured and fairly bristled with machine guns at the nose, in the tail, on top and in a retractable turret underneath, and in the sides. Crews felt safe in this plane, regarding it as pretty much 'unknockdownable', and well equipped to fend off attacking fighters. One of the crew, Staff Sergeant Vetter, was late in coming and Captain Heichel found a replacement for him in Sergeant Gilbert Fleiger. Then Vetter came trotting up at the last moment, but Fleiger decided to go along anyway, and boarded the plane clutching a loaf of bread to eat on the long dull haul to the north. It was to be the last meal he would ever eat.
Those early months of 1943 were a time of great drama, struggle and tension on the world stage. Millions of men tore at each other in furious bloody battle in Europe, and in Asia, and in Africa, and in the Pacific. In the Pacific War's early stages the Japanese boiled out of their home islands and swept south and west in invincible and unstoppable advance. At last they had been halted in the Battle of The Coral Sea, turned back from Port Moresby at Kokoda, defeated at Buna and at Guadalcanal, but the Allies had yet to make any great inroads on the vast amount of Japanese occupied territory, and New Ireland lay deep within that territory.
Within minutes of taking off from Port Moresby the great four engine aircraft was climbing steadily over the Owen Stanley Ranges, flying east of north to stay out over the sea on its long reach to Kavieng. They were on their way to take photographs of Japanese installations and fortifications in and around the town and were not carrying bombs. No other aircraft flew with them. No Allied ships sailed the waters below. They were on their own, eleven young men depending on each others skills and loyalty, and on the performance of their aircraft, to get them through their mission and home again safely to base. There could be no hope of rescue if they came to grief, but that was not something to brood about. They would come in from the north, swooping down over the town to take their pictures, then be up and away again almost before the Japanese knew they were there, and they were well enough armed to beat off their pursuers.
They made landfall over New Hanover, turned and came down over Kavieng with cameras clicking. The result was like poking a wasp's nest with a stick. One of the gunners reported fighters coming up and Captain Heichel turned away and began to climb. (An old man in Kavieng told me that as a small boy during the war he once saw a big American aircraft fly two circles over the town, without dropping any bombs, and then come under attack from Zero fighters. He watched as the air battle moved away to the south.)
The Reckless Mountain Boys flew south. Captain Heichel began climbing to 4000 feet, and found that there were fighters already up there, waiting for him. The Zeros, of the 253rd kokutai, swarmed around them, the young warrior pilots screaming in triumph as they bore in on their monstrous target. The equally young American gunners in their turrets swung round in all directions, firing, spraying bullets at their fierce and unrelenting enemies. Machine guns and cannon hammered at the Flying Fortress. Fire broke out in the number two engine. The ball turret in the belly of the plane was hit and its door knocked off. The gunner, Vetter, was wounded and now The Reckless Mountain Boys was unprotected from below. At a 43rd Bomb Group reunion in 1994 Captain Heichel recalled diving for the sea, trying to fly so low that his attackers could not get beneath him. They still headed south, and could see clouds over the island, but the navigator, Second Lieutenant Mangett, said they concealed 4000 foot mountains and offered no safety. They lost their number two engine and there was fire in the plane, and they could smell the fumes from broken fuel lines. Everybody was yelling. Sergeant Fritz, the engineer, was screaming, 'We're going to blow up! Get down! Get down!' They roared along just over the wave tops, and a flight of three Zeros came blazing in and knocked out the number one engine.
They were flying just off the coast of central New Ireland, and the sight and sound of their passage became a story to be repeated for years afterwards in the Barok villages of Kono and Konogogo and Kokola. The mortally wounded plane fled like some great beast, howling, trailing smoke and flames, off the outer edge of the coastal reef, hemmed in and harassed by the screaming Zeros. The reef is wide and fairly level off the Catholic Mission station at Komalu, and it was there that The Reckless Mountain Boys finally came down, juddering, dragging and scraping along the reef to come finally to rest less than fifty yards from the shore. The Zeros circled, swooped, and strafed the stricken bomber, and then flew off. Second Lieutenants Linsley and Bleiler, and Staff Sergeant Fleiger were dead. The surviving American crew men helped each other through the shallow water to the narrow beach. Sergeants Vetter and Ethridge were badly wounded and had to be carried. It was shortly before noon on that same day, the 7th of May 1943.
The Catholic Mission Station at Komalu had been established in the early years of the century by Missionaries from Vunapope, near Rabaul. It became quite a large Station, where the German Priests and Brothers ran a school, dispensed medical aid, raised chickens, ducks and pigs, slaughtering the pigs for sausages and smoked meats. The missionaries patrolled up and down the coast on horse back, and followed bridle paths through the mountains to the east coast. Neighbouring the Mission was a large coconut plantation run by a German family, and relations between Mission and Plantation were very close and friendly. When the Japanese arrived there was just one priest in residence at Komalu Mission. He was Father Henry Kholstette, MSC, and he was taken away and interned at Kavieng with the rest of the New Ireland Catholic Missionary priests and brothers, who were German and Irish. All of them were executed by the Japanese as the War came to an end. The Station was totally destroyed by Allied bombing during the War and has never been re-established.
The first people to meet the American survivors of the air battle were labourers from the plantation. They were soon followed by a group of men and boys from the village. On being told that there was no one living at the Mission the Americans asked to be guided to the plantation. At that time the family in residence at the plantation were of mixed American, German, Samoan descent. They were of the clan of Queen Emma. Emma Forsayth had been born in Samoa, daughter of a Samoan noblewoman and the American Commercial Agent in Samoa, Jonas Myndersee Coe. Emma and her husband, James Forsayth, established themselves, first on the Duke of York Islands, and then, permanently, at Gunantambu, near Kokopo on New Britain in the late 1870s. Emma was the brains of the partnership, and began buying land and developing a far reaching trading empire. She began bringing out from Samoa her numerous relatives, especially the female ones, and married them off to the German officials at Kokopo. Emma's youngest sister, Phoebe, arrived with her husband R.H.R. Parkinson in 1882. The Anglo-German Parkinson established the first large, commercial, coconut plantations in the islands. Komalu was one of them.
There was no one at the plantation house when Captain Heischel and his men arrived. They found empty Japanese beer bottles stacked in the garage, and then spotted a man they thought was Japanese walking, whistling, through the trees. They backed off and sought help again from the local people. All of the people of the area were Catholics, and the leader of the Church was the Catechist, Alois Tabarabeo. This man assembled a small group of helpers and guided the Americans into the bush. They climbed a little way up the steeply rising land at the back of the plantation and the local men quickly built a simple shelter. There the Americans camped, while their helpers departed again for the village. The fliers were armed with a .45 pistol and a Springfield rifle, and they had an emergency radio set, a 'Gibson Girl', which proved to be of no use to them. It rained that afternoon, and they were wet, and cold, and sick, and very miserable.
The manager of the plantation was Rudolf Diercke, and he had with him on the plantation his mother, Nellie Hatton, her cousin Emma Kapple, and his grandmother, Phoebe Parkinson, widow of R.H.R., who was a month short of her eightieth birthday at the time. Also living on the plantation was a Japanese civilian overseer, Tadashi Imamura. At the time of the plane crash Imamura and Diercke were some miles away to the north, at Kokola, where they were inspecting road works. Diercke worked with the Japanese developing the west coast road, and constructing a vehicle road through the mountains to Karu on the east coast. Thus, for the time being at any rate, he was allowed to remain on the plantation caring for his family. Via the usual jungle telegraph Diercke heard that something had happened at Komalu. He would have heard The Reckless Mountain Boys hurtle past with her escort of Zeros, and at first he thought that a bomb had fallen on his house, but when he made a hurried return there he was told of the American plane crash on the reef, and of the surviving crew hiding in the bush. He at once wrote a note to the Americans advising them to come into the plantation and be prepared to surrender to the Japanese. He seems also to have written a note addressed to the Japanese military at Namatanai advising them of what had happened at Komalu. There were no Japanese forces stationed anywhere in the local area.
When they received the note the Americans decided to give up. They had no other choice. The six of them who could walk accompanied their guide down to the plantation, and Diercke then sent men back with stretchers to bring in the wounded Sergeants Vetter and Fritz. Earlier, Diercke had been to the beach to view the wrecked plane and had found the three bodies of the dead. One was still floating in the sea and the other two had been laid on the beach and covered with a layer of sand to keep the flies off. He gave orders for graves to be dug and the bodies interred in the little Catholic Mission cemetery nearby.
It was already after dark when the exhausted Americans arrived at the house. They were fed, and Mrs Parkinson tended to their wounds. We do not know if she told them that she herself was the daughter of an American. Diercke and Imamura sat at the kitchen table with Captain Heichel, and they gave him whiskey. The young men were all very shocked, very frightened, and some of them gave way to tears. The whiskey was too much for Heichel, who fainted.
In the morning the Japanese arrived in force; from Namatanai came soldiers; from Kavieng came a large party of marines; and from Rabaul came a warship. The marines seem to have been in charge, mounting guard, searching and interrogating the Americans. Stories conflict slightly concerning what happened next, however, it seems that the five enlisted men, Sergeants Fritz, Vetter, Surrett, Ethridge, and Private Kurisco were all taken directly to Rabaul on the warship, while the three officers, Captain Heichel, his co-pilot First Lieutenant Rucks, and navigator First Lieutenant Mangett were carried on stretchers across the mountains to Karu and then up the east coast road by truck for interrogation in Kavieng. Captain Heichel recalls hearing the whirring of a camera as he was being carried along through the bush to the east coast, so no doubt he eventually featured in a newsreel movie.
Eventually all of the Americans were reunited at the prisoner of war camp in Rabaul. From there Heichel, Rucks and Ethridge, and possibly one other, were shipped to Japan, and survived the War. Those who remained in Rabaul were never heard of again.
At Komalu all was quiet again. Within a year Diercke and his family were all removed by the Japanese and interned at the camp for civilian prisoners at Bopire Plantation a few miles north of Namatanai. And there, on the 28th of May, 1944, Phoebe Chloe Parkinson (née Coe) died. She was buried in a grave just outside the entrance to the camp. All memory of whereabouts the old lady was buried was lost for many years, until in 2003 an old man in a nearby village was found who directed relatives to the grave site. The grave was exhumed and finally, after almost 60 years, Phoebe Parkinson's remains were taken to Rabaul and re-interred next to her husband's remains on their former plantation.
In the little cemetery at Komalu the three young American airmen slept in peace, their graves marked in traditional New Ireland style by clumps of colourful crotons. They were never forgotten. When the War ended, and the Australians had returned, there was a Patrol Officer stationed at Namatani who never failed to visit the cemetery whenever he was in the area. The old people still remember his, to them, strange behaviour. With his accompanying policeman he would visit the grave site, where he would stand for a while, bareheaded and in silence. Then he would take the rifle from the policeman and fire a single shot in the air, and move on.
After some time a party from the American War Graves Commission arrived to exhume the bodies and take them home. They recruited a few young men from Komalu village to do the digging, one of whom was Phillipus Tabunain. Before the War Phillipus had been a schoolboy at Komalu Mission, where he had helped the Brothers smoke bacon and make sausages, and where he had often been the one to carry a basket of eggs to Mrs Hatton on the plantation, and bring a freshly baked cake back in return. In 1943 Phillipus had helped dig the graves and bury the bodies of the slain airmen. Now, an elderly retired Catechist and active great-grandfather, he still feels deeply moved at the memory of their pitiful remains. He remembers that one of the Americans in the party found an airman's wrist watch in a grave, wiped the dirt from it and gave its winder a twist. The watch began ticking again.
There exists a blurred photocopy of a lost photograph showing the crashed body of The Reckless Mountain Boys sprawled on the reef at Komalu. On the tail fin the number 24518 can be read. Twenty or more soldiers are standing on the plane, and in the shallow water around it. A tripod is mounted over the nose, no doubt being used to extract the bomb sight. The Japanese totally dismantled the plane. One engine was shipped to Rabaul, and the body of the plane was cut up and stacked on the beach under the trees. It was probably intended for shipment back to the war factories of Japan. At war's end all that remained on the reef at Komalu were three rusting engines. Today there are just two propellors there, and a couple of lumps of rusted metal, partially enclosed in the coral. Together with the fading memories of a very few elderly men and women that is all that remains of a proud and powerful war machine and its warrior crew, The Reckless Mountain Boys.
© John M. Glynn 2005
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