June 16, 1943

June 16, 1943

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  • Jan, 12 , 24

South Pacific Air War is an analytical history of the air combat in the New Guinea and Solomon Islands campaigns during the Second World War. Author Richrd Dunn compares both Allied and Japanese primary source reporting to describe operations in a granular, nearly day-by-day fashion. Below is an excerpt from the book:

 

The events of June 16 were in some sense remarkable, but contemporaneous accounts elevated them considerably beyond their actual significance. A photographic-mapping mission by a B-17 resulted in the only occasion when two members of the same aircrew earned the Medal of Honor. The shipping attack on Guadalcanal gained the sobriquet “the Big Raid,” suggesting it was larger than X-attack in April. Claims for destruction of Japanese aircraft exceeded anything seen before.

The Medal of Honor mission was flown by a specially equipped B-17E assigned to the 43rd BG. Bougainville, where the mapping photos were to be taken, was at the northern edge of the Solomon Islands but within the SWPA boundaries, and photo planes both from SWPA and South Pacific commands operated over Bougainville on a regular basis.

In addition to eight cameras that could produce photomosaic maps, other modifications had been made to the B-17. It did not carry bombs but was up-gunned with twin .50-caliber guns mounted in the waist positions and radio compartment. There was also a fixed .50-caliber in the nose, which the pilot could fire from the flight yoke. Extraneous equipment had been deleted so that the weight of added guns and ammunition did not adversely affect speed and range. The pilot of the B-17, Capt. Jay Zeamer, was ordered to take mapping photos along the coast from the north of Bougainville down the west coast to Empress Augusta Bay, where, unknown at the time, five months later a landing would take place. A last-minute change included Buka airfield as an additional photo target. Intelligence officers thought this not to be particularly dangerous, since generally only a few bombers utilized the strip. During the mission, Zeamer was badly wounded and 2Lt. Joseph Sarnoski was killed; both earned the Medal of Honor. The rest of the crew received the Distinguished Service Cross.

Zeamer’s Medal of Honor citation reads as follows:

On 16 June 1943, Major Zeamer (then captain) volunteered as pilot of a bomber on an important photographic mapping mission covering the formidably defended area in the vicinity of Buka, Solomon Islands. While photographing the Buka airdrome, his crew observed about 20 enemy fighters on the field, many of them taking off. Despite the certainty of a dangerous attack by this strong force, Major Zeamer proceeded with his mapping run, even after the enemy attack began. In the ensuing engagement, Major Zeamer sustained gunshot wounds in both arms and legs, one leg being broken. Despite his injuries, he maneuvered the damaged plane so skillfully that his gunners were able to fight off the enemy during a running fight which lasted 40 minutes. The crew destroyed at least 5 hostile planes, of which Major Zeamer himself shot down one. Although weak from loss of blood, he refused medical aid until the enemy had broken combat. He then turned over the controls, but continued to exercise command despite lapses into unconsciousness, and directed the flight to a base 580 miles away. In this voluntary action, Major Zeamer, with superb skill, resolution, and courage, accomplished a mission of great value.

While the actions of Zeamer and his crew were undoubtedly meritorious and brave, commentators since have tended to aggrandize the danger and importance of the mission. The mission proved dangerous because Zeros of Air Group 251 had staged into Buka in preparation for the Guadalcanal strike later in the day. Photos taken on the previous day showed only three aircraft identified as fighters on the field. This influx of fighters was discovered only when Zeamer flew over Buka. Eight intercepted his B-17; one Zero ditched and three were hit during the combat. The mission leader, W/O Yoshio Ohki, was hit in his first pass and returned to base accompanied by his wingmen. This left five to continue the attack. The Zeros expended 546 rounds of 20 mm shells and more than 700 rounds of 7.7 mm ammunition, plus an unknown amount from the Zero that did not return. The Japanese pilots believed they had fatally damaged the B-17.

Some commentators have asserted that had Zeamer not completed his photo mission, the Bougainville invasion nearly five months later would have been jeopardized. It should be kept in mind that the New Georgia campaign had not even begun at this point. Whether there would be an invasion of Bougainville was not decided until July 11. When the Bougainville invasion would take place depended in considerable measure on how preceding operations fared and how resources were allocated between the southern and central Pacific. As of the date of Zeamer’s mission, the invasion of Bougainville had not been confirmed as a future operation. The presumed location of a Bougainville landing was southern Bougainville, not Torokina, which was in Zeamer’s mapping coverage. There was ample time to obtain photo mapping of the future invasion area once a decision was made as to the location of the landing.

The crew of the B-17 identified one of their attackers as a twin-engine fighter. This report has been given credence by many commentators. It is almost certainly a misidentification. In June 1943 the Japanese had two types of twin-engine fighters in the theater. The navy’s Type 2 land reconnaissance plane (J1N1 Irving), modified with slanted cannon, was used as a night fighter. This has been ruled out. Available records of Air Group 251 to which the two operational aircraft of this type were assigned document many missions by this type during June, all over Rabaul. Additionally, due to its angled weapons, its attack profile was fundamentally different than that reported by the bomber’s crew. The army’s twin-engine fighter was the Type 2 two-seat fighter, of which a couple of dozen assigned to the 13th FR were at Rabaul and Wewak. The mission of those based at Rabaul was the air defense of the local area. There would be no reason for any to fly 150 miles to an area of navy responsibility. Known operations away from Rabaul at this time include escorting bombers on a supply run to Tuluvu in western New Britain on the sixteenth, and encounters with American heavy bombers over the Dampier Straits a day before and two days after the sixteenth. The intelligence report, based on crew debriefing, stated, “The engine nacelles appeared to extend to or beyond the trailing edge of the wing.” This was true of neither Japanese twin-engine fighter. There are documented cases of single-engine fighters being identified as twin-engine aircraft. In one case a pilot went into detail describing the engine configuration of the “twin-engine” aircraft he attacked, only to be shown his own gun camera imagery that revealed it to be a single-engine fighter with underwing tanks. The misidentification theory is further bolstered since the crew thought an Me 109 attacked them along with other aircraft “similar to Fw 190 SSF Fred.”

What distinguishes this mission from several others in which lone bombers survived attacks by multiple enemy fighters, claiming numerous kills while suffering significant damage and crew casualties? The heroics of Zeamer and Sarnoski, despite their severe wounds and volunteer nature of the mission, seem to be the key distinguishing factors. There is no need to add a gloss that the mission was perceived ahead of time as extremely dangerous, that it was critically important to the timing of the Bougainville landing, or that opposition was stronger or more varied than it was.

 

The above represents only about half of the book’s coverage for this specific day, as Dunn goes on to describe the aforementioned “Big Raid” on Guadalcanal. As you can imagine, given this level of detail, South Pacific Air War is a long book at nearly 600 pages. The latter 55 pages include extensive endnotes along with a bibliography and index. Maps and an eight-page photo insert are included as well.

South Pacific Air War: The Role of Airpower in the New Guinea and Solomon Island Campaigns, January 1943 to February 1944 is available for preorder now. We are expecting backorders to ship in early March.

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