Last year, a small group of us spent the better part of the summer and fall writing on the Solomons Campaign.Â That drawnout slugfest in the southwest Pacific receives little notice beyond Guadalcanal and some discussions regarding Santa Cruz.Â The purpose of that exercise (here and over at USNI’s blog) was to surface the larger – and smaller aspects of that entire campaign and put it in context of the overall Pacific theater campaign.Â Well, in the (e)mail this past week came a small piece of that campaign as relates to the Bougainville Invasion from November through December 1943:
“The Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) announced today that the remains of two servicemen, missing in action from World War II, have been identified and are being returned to their families for burial with full military honors.Â Navy Lt. Francis B. McIntyre of Mitchell, S.D., will be buried on Sept. 29, and Aviation Radioman Second Class William L. Russell of Cherokee, Okla., will be buried on Oct. 1. Both men will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
On Nov. 10, 1943, the two men took off on a bombing and strafing mission in their SBD-5 Dauntless dive bomber from Munda Field, New Georgia, in the Solomon Islands.Â Witnesses last saw the aircraft flying at low altitude through a large explosion on an enemy airfield on Buka Island, Papua New Guinea.Â None reported seeing the crash of the aircraft itself.Â The American Graves Registration Service searched numerous South Pacific Islands in 1949 in an effort to gather data about aircraft crashes or missing Americans.Â The team was unable to find any useful information, and failed to recover any American remains in the area.Â A board of review declared both men unrecoverable.Â In 2007, a Papuan national found a World War II crash site near the Buka airport, which was reported to U.S. officials.Â In May 2008, specialists from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), working with the country’s national museum, investigated the crash site but were unable to excavate it because of inclement weather.Â Local officials turned over human remains, McIntyre’s identification tag and other military-related items which had been recovered earlier.Â After examining the remains in 2008 and 2009, JPAC determined that no excavation would be required since the two sets of remains were nearly complete.
Among other forensic identification tools and circumstantial evidence, scientists from JPAC used dental comparisons for both men and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory used mitochondrial DNA which matched a sample from Russell’s relatives and DNA extracted from a hat belonging to McIntyre.
At the end of World War II, the U.S. government was unable to recover, identify and bury approximately 79,000 individuals. Today, more than 72,000 Americans remain unaccounted-for from the conflict.”
But wait — there’s more…
AirSols, formerly the Cactus Air Force (and truth be known, always thought of as such) had grown from a ragged band of Navy and Army Air Force fighters and attack aircraft hanging precariously to Henderson Field on Guadalcanal to large force spread across several airfields throughout the Allied occupied Solomon islands.Â Working in concert (though not always coordinated) with carrier-based aircraft, surface ships and subs, they choked off Japanese transport and supply throughout the Solomons, waged an aggressive campaign against the major Japanese facility at Rabul and provided support to amphib and shore operations as needed.Â And this November, as the Solomons campaign was drawing to a close, it would be needed in the coming invasion of Bougainville.Â The first forces had gone ashore on 1 November, and following a botched attempt to interdict and destroy the American beachhead at Empress Bay and a devastating strike against a heavy cruiser force the following day, the Japanese Navy was not going to factor.Â The Americans with their ANZUS allies were gaining local air superiority and set about sealing that by attacking fortified airfields like Rabul and other outlying fields.Â One such field was located at the northern end of Bougainville – Buka.Â Begun by the Australians, after the Japanese invaded and took the island in March 1942, they set about expanding it to accommodate the G4M1 Betty medium bomber, which, along with other aircraft like the Kate, they hoped to control the littorals.
Buka airfield’s turn came on 10 November 1943.Â A composite strike group of 34 TBF Avengers (armed with 2,000 lb bombs with a 1/10 sec delay) and 55 SBD Dauntlesses, carrying 1,000 pounders set for instantaneous detonation would be escorted by another 54 fighters.Â Distance to cover would be about 230-235nm with most resistance expected to be in the form of AA fire.Â Manning up a VC-24 SBD-5 Dauntless (BuNo 35391)was the crew consisting of the pilot, LT Francis B. ( ‘Riley’ ) McIntyre from Mitchell, South Dakota and his radioman/gunner Aviation Radioman Second Class William L. Russell, of Cherokee, Oklahoma. VC-24 had been converted to an all SBD squadron and kept ashore when the CVL they were destined for, USS Bellau Wood (CVL-24) was assigned to the Gilberts invasion.Â Riley, the youngest of five brothers, was raised by them after their mother passed away in 1924 and their father in 1934.Â While he was in the Pacific, hisÂ brother John, was flying B-17s with the 8th AF in England (he would later die over Germany) and another brother, Joe, who was the lead bombardier with a B-26 squadron in the 9th Air Force.Â Mathew was also serving in the Army and Don had joined a Navy CB unit.Â Today he would be leading his division in the attack.
By all accounts it was a highly successful attack — beginning at 0810L the SBDs did an admirable job at taking out most of the AA batteries early in the attack and the runway would be put out of commission with 7 craters (from the delayed fuze bombs).Â An ammo dump was also destroyed along with many buildings around the field.Â In all likelihood, it was the explosion of the ammo dump that probably killed McIntyre and Russell.Â In a letter sent to his relatives, the CO of VF-24 wrote:
“Francis was leading a division of planes in an attack on a Japanese-held airfield in the northern Solomon Islands on Nov. 10, 1943. He had dropped his bomb load, hit the target, and was flying low when his plane was seen to pass through the blast of a large explosion on the enemy base.Â Another pilot said Francis’ plane “appeared to go out of control.”Â This, the letter said, had been Francis’ fourth flight in enemy territory. Francis, it said, “led his division skillfully and with good effect on each of them.”
So it was that in the brief flash of an instant – a young JO from Washington and Sailor from Oklahoma vanished in flame and fire and with them, their Dauntless built just up the road from Russell’s home in Tulsa.Â For the next 64 years the plane and crew would be carried as “missing – presumed dead” while time and the elements worked to erase any signatory remnants.Â As we’ve written here before, the jungles of SE Asia and the Southwest Pacific are especially destructive when it comes to eradicating man’s work, and where, for example, an aircraft that landed short of a runway in Greenland can remain pristinely preserved in the Arctic chill for decades, serving as a talisman for future aircrew, in the jungle, vegetation and mud from the ever present rainfall make quick work of crash sites.Â A chance discovery, however slim, is enough though to put DPMO’s forensic teams to work in the most trying of field conditions.Â And so it is, through their efforts, that we can report the return of LT. Francis B. “Riley” McIntyre, USNR and AR2 William L. Russell, USNR to their families and native soil.Â Today, 1 October 2010,Â nearly sixty-seven years after theyÂ launched from a remote field in the Solomons, they will be interred in Arlington Cemetery.Â And we welcome them home – wishing now for eternal rest and peace.