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POW/MIA: Of “Thuds,” ROLLING THUNDER and an Airman From Red Wing – 1965

By 1965, the US participation in Vietnam was reaching a juncture where it could choose to disengage (and thus concede the loss of South Vietnam to the Communist juggernaut – which then would then sweep across the rest of the SE Asia landscape).  It could “stay the course,” with a limited ground role using advisers to the ARVN and provide tactical and strategic air support from remote airbases and carriers – not entirely acceptable because to date, that process hadn’t produced the results envisioned and if projected to a defeat of South Vietnamese forces, a subsequent loss of face and faith in America’s abilities to defend other friends and allies in the region (notably Thailand and by extension, South Korea, Japan and Australia).  A third choice involved a larger commitment of US forces – ground, naval and air to bring pressure on the North Vietnamese and compel their withdrawal from actions against the South.  Knowing full well the costs in dollars and personnel of committing a large ground force to the war, air power was looked upon as an area of particular advantage to the US with McGeorge Bundy (Johnson’s National Security adviser) noting “Yet measured against the costs of defeat in Vietnam, this program seems cheap. And even if it fails to turn the tide—as it may—the value of the effort seems to us to exceed its cost.” The measure of that endeavor would soon be taken, beginning in March 1965 with Operation Rolling Thunder… SJS

The official press release:

“Air Force Pilot Missing From Vietnam War Identified
   The Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) announced today that the remains of a serviceman, missing in action from the Vietnam War, have been identified and returned to his family for burial with full military honors.
   Air Force Major Thomas E. Reitmann of Red Wing, Minn., will be buried on Sept. 8 in Arlington National Cemetery. In 1965, Reitmann was assigned to the 334th Tactical Fighter Squadron deployed out of Seymour-Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., to Takhli Air Base, Thailand. On Dec 1, 1965, he was flying a strike mission as the number three aircraft in a flight of four F-105D Thunderchiefs as part of Operation Rolling Thunder. His target was a railroad bridge located about 45 nautical miles northeast of Hanoi. As the aircrew approached the target area, they encountered extremely heavy and accurate anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). While attempting to acquire his target and release his ordnance, Reitmann received a direct AAA hit and crashed in Lang Son Province, North Vietnam. Other pilots in the flight observed no parachute, and no signals or emergency beepers were heard. Due to the intense enemy fire in the area a search-and-rescue team was not able to survey the site and a two-day electronic search found no sign of the aircraft or Reitmann.
   In 1988, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (S.R.V.) repatriated remains to the United States believed to be those of Reitmann. The remains were later identified as those of another American pilot who went missing in the area on the same day as Reitmann.
   Between 1991 and 2009, joint U.S.-S.R.V. teams, led by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), analyzed numerous leads, interviewed villagers, and attempted to locate the aircraft. Although no evidence of the crash site was found, in 2009 and 2011 a local farmer turned over remains and a metal button he claimed to have found in his corn field.
   Among other forensic identification tools and circumstantial evidence, scientists from the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory also used mitochondrial DNA – which matched that of his brother — in the identification of Reitmann’s remains.”

But wait – there’s more…
In February, 1958 a dark-haired 28 year old reported to Greenville AFB, Mississippi as student officer in the Aviation Cadet program. Born in 1930 in Red Wing , Minnesota, a small city (pop. 10,000) hard on the banks of the Mississippi River, he’d graduated from Red Wing High in 1948 and enlisted in the Navy, and subsequently saw service during the Korean War in England and French Morocco. Leaving the Navy in 1952, he returned to Red Wing holding down a variety of jobs, but it wasn’t enough to keep him in Red Wing.  Joining the Air Force, and following his graduation from the flight program and receiving his wings, he eventually reported to the famous 334th Fighter Squadron in 1958, then flying the F-100 Super Saber. The 334th traced its lineage back to the dark days of early WWII where it was incorporated as No 71 Sqdn of the RAF – an Eagle squadron of American volunteers. Along with the 335th and 336th, it formed the core of the VII Fighter Command, 4th Group which was the first Army Air Force unit activated in the European Theater of Operations. Flying Spitfires, P-47 Thunderbolts and then, until the end of the war, the P-51 Mustang, 334th pilots were credited with 395 kills against the Luftwaffe. In Korea, they were credited with 142 kills and tallied six aces in their membership. Relocating from Korea in 1957, the 334th was home-based out of Seymour Johnson from which detachments would deploy to Incirlik, Turkey and other locations as required. In 1958 it was re-designated as the 334th Tactical Fighter Squadron and in keeping with the re-designation, in 1959, the 334th transitioned to the F-105 Thunderchief.

The F-105 (aka “Thud” – among several, less complimentary nicknames) the F-105 was designed to be a fast, low altitude fighter-bomber with a mission to deliver a nuclear weapon, concealed in an internal bomb-bay. It was a very clean design, and with lessons applied from the F-102 (notably the area-rule or “coke bottle” fuselage) and a huge (for the time) after-burning Pratt & Whitney J-75, the F-105 could flat out move on the deck — in 1959 an F-105B set a world record of 1,216.48 miles per hour (1,958 km/h) over a 62 miles (100 km) circuit. The F-105D that the 334th was flying was the latest and largest production batch, that had markedly improved avionics and an internal gun as well as provisions for carrying external stores. In fact, a single F-105 could haul up to 14,000 lbs of ordnance, from dumb bombs to AGM-12 Air-to-surface missiles and AIM-9 Sidewinders.

Republic F-105D-5-RE (S/N 59-1719) in flight. (U.S. Air Force photo)(From a 1950's release) "A test pilot lines up with the Air Force's newest supersonic jet, the Republic F-105, and an assortment of the armamnet said to give the one man fighter-bomber as much destructive power as an entire big bomber formation of World War II. External stores displayed are (foreground) 2.75 in. rockets; Vulcan cannon (directly behind pilot) which can fire 6,000 rounds per minute of 20mm ammunition shown on either side. Boxes directly behind contain electronic equipment. Left side (L-R): first row: rocket launcher; air-to-air missiles with launcher; second row: fire bomb; chaff dispenser; 450 gallon wing fuel tank; "buddy" refueling tank; third row: fire bomb; two 750 pound bombs; 1000 pound bomb; bomb-carrying pylons; (extreme top left) flare dispenser. Right side next to plane (top to bottom) nuclear weapon bombing trainer; secret nuclear weapons; next vertical row: practice bombs; bomb bay fuel tank. (Note: all other items, including the pylons behind the practice bombs, are duplicates.) The F-105 carries nuclear wepons externally of internally. the "half shell" object to the left of the nose is the center fuselage nuclear bomb-carrying pylon." (U.S. Air Force photo) Republic F-105D-30-RE (S/N 62-4234) in flight with full bomb load. (U.S. Air Force photo)

From the start of ROLLING THUNDER it was apparent more aircraft were required – and not just to cover the mounting losses from AAA and a new threat, the SA-2 surface-to-air missile. The size of the target set was growing as the decision makers back in Washington planed a graduated and sustained air campaign to influence North Vietnam’s behavior. In September, after having traded their two-seat F-105Fs for single seat F-105Ds, the 334th departed its temporary location at Homestead (Seymour Johnson’s runway was being repaved) for Takhli Royal Thai AFB by way of Hickam AFB. Positioned in central Thailand, Takhli was equidistant to North and South Vietnam, but the F-105s were destined for sorties to the far more treacherous North. Arriving on September 2nd, the 334th would be assigned to the 355th TFW which was permanently re-located from McConnell AFB.

Takhli RTAFB, ca. 1965
Following the model developed in WWII and employed in Korea, tactical air forces were assigned transportation infrastructure to target. Rail yards, transportation centers and key choke-points – like bridges, were prominently featured on the target list. Around Hanoi, there were several such vital rail bridges, one of the most (in)famous being the Paul Doumer bridge southwest of Hanoi. To the north lay the the bridge at Cao nung that served the rail line between North Vietnam and China. It like so many other key facilities in and around Hanoi was guarded by heavy AAA, including 37mm, 57mm, 85 and even 100mm weapons. In early 1965 it was estimated there were on the order of about a thousand in North Vietnam – by the end of the year it had grown to over 2,000 spread across 400 key sites and supported by SA-2s and MiG-17s. It was a lethal mix that the Thuds were headed into, given early testimony by the first two attacks on the Thanh Hoa bridge  and subsequent attacks against SAM sites in the Hanoi region were to prove. One of the earliest casualties for the 334th was the CO, LtCol Killian, shotdown by an SA-2 while on a strike against the road and railroad bridge at Ninh Binh on 30 Sep 1965. On December 1, 1965, just a few days shy of his 35th Birthday, Capt Ted Reitmann climbed aboard his F-105D-25-RE (s/n 61-0182) as part of a strike package set against the Cao nung railroad bridge. During the ingress to the target, his aircraft was struck by AAA causing it to go out of control and crash two miles from the target – about 50 miles NE of Hanoi. No ejection was noted.

The F-105, like the Navy’s A-4 Skyhawk, was a workhorse in the early air war over North Vietnam. Between the first loss (written off for damage incurred over Laos in Aug 1964) until the last loss (Sep 1970 over Laos), the F-105D suffered 335 total losses of which 283 were directly attributable to combat. The F-105F/G added an additional 47/37 respectively. Like the A-4, it had been designed for a different war, to be fought in a different manner but it and the crews that flew the Thud answered the call and gave their best. A tough aircraft it still brought a number of its crews home (the running joke was Republic had planned to build the Thud out of concrete – until it found that steel was heavier…), but as both the Air Force and Navy were learning, a modern, integrated air defense system, like the one emerging over the key areas of the North required different aircraft, different weapons, and different training and tactics.
It was a lesson that was being written daily in the sacrifices of those like Capt Reitmann.

Epilogue
Major Reitmann USAF will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery in his final resting place on 8 September 2011 – forty-six years after his arrival in Thailand. By all accounts, he is the last of Red Wing’s casualties from the conflict – a total of 14 altogether.   He is survived by his wife, Carol Reitmann Sumner of Honolulu, Hawaii; daughter Kimberly Lorigan of Apollo Beach, Fla.; son Thomas Reitmann II of Eugene, Ore.; son Michael Reitmann of Clayton, Calif.; daughter Karen Mutobe of Ewa Beach, Hawaii; brother, Ed Reitmann of Excelsior, Minn.; nine grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Assigned to the 4th Operations Group, the 334th is today designated the 334th Expeditionary fighter Squadron flying the F-15E Strike Eagle flying missions in the CENTAF AOR.

Republic F-105D-5-RE (S/N 58-1173) in flight with full bomb load. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Godspeed Major Reitmann – and rest easy.  You are home now.

Sources:
Many sources were used in preparing this post, but the most noteworthy were Find a Grave, Together We Served (of which YHS is a member on the Navy side), the always helpful Virtual Wall and POW NET and the National Museum of the Air Force, source of most of the photos (mouse over for source citation)

Overseas RFI: 474th Fighter Group (WWII)

As I’ve noted elsewhere – one of the great things about running a blog are the contacts you make from around the world about the darnedest things. Some few years back I put up a post in the MIA section about the return of 2ndLt Ray Packard, a rookie P-38 pilot thrown into a battle of impossible odds over France in 1944 (see: “Flightdeck Friday: MIA Edition – Missing WWII Airman Returns Home” and “August 25, 1944 – Black Friday and the 474th FG“) that brought a very nice response and additional information from the historian of the 474th. Recently, in that same vein, I have received a request for help/information on another aspect of the 474th’s time over France in WWII, but this time from a local:

Dear Friend of 474th Fighter Group,

I’m french man, 55 old. Since many year I make searches about allied airmen fall in my french department: La Sarthe. Around the town of Le Mans, at 200 km west of Paris.
I’m proud to pay homage to all these heroes and keep the memories of these young men.
In this spirit, I prepared a ceremony, next 24 July, for the memory of Lt Charles A. PATTON, KIA the 27 July 1944 in the village of St Denis d’Orques. Charles PATTON was in the 428th F. S.
This crash was a double crash after the accident between Lt PATTON and Lt William Henry BANKS of the 429th F. S. He have more chance than Patton because he can jump of his plane and open his parachute. The french Resistance take care of him and like that he can wait IIIrd US Army hidden during 10 days.
If some of you can give me some information about these 2 heroes, I’m interesting.
Last Memorial Day, my wife and me have flowered the grave of Charles A. Patton in Britany cemetery at St James.
Sorry for my bad English. Have a good day and see you soon.
Very sincerely.
Jacky from France.

Of late and in some circles it has become fashionable to bash NATO and our European friends and allies, but we must remember that at the personal level there are many who still either remember first hand liberation or grew up in newly liberated territory, mindful of the distant cousins and relatives from over the horizon who made the ultimate sacrifice in freeing a continent – and those same people, like Jacky, are still to this day recognizing that sacrifice.

So here’s my request — if someone out there has some information, either first hand or knows of someone who could provide, please drop me a note offline and I’ll send you the contact info for Jacky. And Jacky — from the bottom of my heart, thank you and your English isn’t bad at all – message clearly understood…
w/r, SJS

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Flightdeck Friday – MIA Edition: WWII Navy Aircrew Returns Home

Last year, a small group of us spent the better part of the summer and fall writing on the Solomons Campaign.  That drawnout slugfest in the southwest Pacific receives little notice beyond Guadalcanal and some discussions regarding Santa Cruz.  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.  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.  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.  Witnesses last saw the aircraft flying at low altitude through a large explosion on an enemy airfield on Buka Island, Papua New Guinea.  None reported seeing the crash of the aircraft itself.  The American Graves Registration Service searched numerous South Pacific Islands in 1949 in an effort to gather data about aircraft crashes or missing Americans.  The team was unable to find any useful information, and failed to recover any American remains in the area.  A board of review declared both men unrecoverable.  In 2007, a Papuan national found a World War II crash site near the Buka airport, which was reported to U.S. officials.  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.  Local officials turned over human remains, McIntyre’s identification tag and other military-related items which had been recovered earlier.  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.  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.  And this November, as the Solomons campaign was drawing to a close, it would be needed in the coming invasion of Bougainville.  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.  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.  One such field was located at the northern end of Bougainville – Buka.  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.  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.  Distance to cover would be about 230-235nm with most resistance expected to be in the form of AA fire.  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.  Riley, the youngest of five brothers, was raised by them after their mother passed away in 1924 and their father in 1934.  While he was in the Pacific, his  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.  Mathew was also serving in the Army and Don had joined a Navy CB unit.  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).  An ammo dump was also destroyed along with many buildings around the field.  In all likelihood, it was the explosion of the ammo dump that probably killed McIntyre and Russell.  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.  Another pilot said Francis’ plane “appeared to go out of control.”  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.  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.  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.  A chance discovery, however slim, is enough though to put DPMO’s forensic teams to work in the most trying of field conditions.  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.  Today, 1 October 2010,  nearly sixty-seven years after they launched from a remote field in the Solomons, they will be interred in Arlington Cemetery.  And we welcome them home – wishing now for eternal rest and peace.


References:

Article Series - Solomon Islands Campaign Blog Project

  1. The Solomons Campaign: Geographical and Political Background
  2. The Solomons Campaign: Status of the United States Fleet and Plans After Midway
  3. The Imperial Japanese Navy after Midway
  4. The Solomon Islands Campaign: Prelude to the Series
  5. The Solomons Campaign: WATCHTOWER — Why Guadalcanal?
  6. The Solomons Campaign: Guadalcanal 7-9 August, 1942; Assault and Lodgment
  7. The Solomons Campaign: Unleashing the Assassin’s Mace
  8. The Solomons Campaign: Execution at Savo Island
  9. The Solomons Campaign: The Battle of the Eastern Solomons, 24-25 August 1942
  10. The Solomons Campaign: Strategic Pause and Review – Japan’s Last Chance for Victory?
  11. The Solomons Campaign: THE BATTLE OF GUADALCANAL, Part I
  12. The Solomons Campaign: THE BATTLE OF GUADALCANAL, Part II
  13. The Solomons Campaign: Cactus Air Force and the Bismarck Sea
  14. The Solomons Campaign: Operation Vengeance – The Shootdown Of Yamamoto
  15. The Solomons Campaign: Ground Action – The New Georgia Campaign, June 20-November 3, 1943
  16. The Solomons Campaign: The Bougainville Invasion, November – December 1943(Part I)
  17. The Bougainville Invasion: November – December 1943 (Part 2)
  18. The Bougainville Invasion (Part 3): December 1943 – March 1944
  19. The Bougainville Invasion (Part 4): March 1944 – May 1944
  20. The Solomons Campaign: Battle of Santa Cruz (Part I)
  21. The Solomons Campaign: Battle of Santa Cruz (II)
  22. Solomon Islands Campaign: Battle of Santa Cruz (III)
  23. Flightdeck Friday – MIA Edition: WWII Navy Aircrew Returns Home

Seven Missing WWII Airmen Identified

In the mail:

Seven Missing WWII Airmen Identified

The Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office announced today that the remains of seven servicemen, missing in action from World War II, have been identified and will be returned to their families for burial with full military honors.


Army Capt. Joseph M. Olbinski, Chicago; 1st Lt. Joseph J. Auld, Floral Park, N.Y.; 1st Lt. Robert M. Anderson, Millen, Ga.; Tech. Sgt. Clarence E. Frantz, Tyrone, Penn.; Pfc. Richard M. Dawson, Haynesville, Va.; Pvt. Robert L. Crane, Sacramento, Calif.; and Pvt. Fred G. Fagan, Piedmont, Ala., were identified and all are to be interred July 15 in Arlington National Cemetery.


On May 23, 1944, the men were aboard a C-47A Skytrain that departed Dinjan, India, on an airdrop mission to resupply Allied forces near Myitkyina, Burma.  When the crew failed to return, air and ground searches found no evidence of the aircraft along the intended flight path.   In late 2002, a missionary provided U.S. officials a data plate from a C-47 crash site approximately 31 miles northwest of Myitkyina.  In 2003, a Burmese citizen turned over human remains and identification tags for three of the crew members.  A Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command team excavated the crash site in 2003 and 2004, recovering additional remains and crew-related equipment—including an identification tag for Dawson.
Among other forensic identification tools and circumstantial evidence, scientists from JPAC and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory also used mitochondrial DNA – which matched that of some of the crewmembers’ families – as well as dental comparisons in the identification of the remains.

For additional information on the Defense Department’s mission to account for missing Americans, visit the DPMO Web site at http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo or call 703-699-1169.

But wait — there’s more:

Far away from the battlefields in Sicily and North Africa, far from Guadalcanal and the Solomons and so far from London, Pearl Harbor and Washington DC that it may well have been on the far side of the moon.  Covering terrain that ran from the dank, fetid jungles of the Mandalay peninsula to the rooftop of the world, the Himalayas — this was the China-Burma-India Theater.  The first Americans began flying in theater as part of Claire Chenault’s American Volunteer Group (AVG), better known as the Flying Tigers.  As the war progressed and America entered following Pearl Harbor, one of the challenges to be faced was how to provide supplies to Chinese forces fighting the Japanese in the interior of China.  The main road road from Burma to China had been cut when Burma fell to the Japanese Army in the spring of 1942.  The only way to get supplies to Chiang Kai-shek’s forces was to fly it in while plans were drawn up to recapture northern Burma and build a new road.

Building on the experience of CNAC and Pan American Airways whch had been operating in the area since the late 1930s, the Army’s Air Transport Command, using elements of the 10th Air Force, began flying cargo “over the Hump” in late 1942.  By the spring of 1944 the lift effort had substantially grown and was beginning to look to supply the first B-29 missions operating from China to try and attack the Japanese homeland (a story for another day).  Initially, C-47 Skytrain’s and C-46 Commando’s were used to fly the routes — with the nod going to the Commando for it’s higher service ceiling than the C-47 and pressurized cabin.  Later heavier lift C-54’s were added, replacing war weary bombers and their cargo variants and the C-46 on the riskier portions of the route.

Airlift Routes in the CBI Theater

As such, the C-47s continued in the southern, and no less challenging parts of the theater.

Burmese Combat Theater of Operations (click to enlarge)

Hard on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River lies the city of Myitkyina.  Literally meaning “near the big river,” Myitkyina is the northern most terminus for rails and river traffic – anything going north would have to be brought in by portage, mule or small boat around the lower elevations, the terrain is just too rugged for anything else.  As such, Myitkyina was by default, a strategically important position and one that in the spring of 1944 was still being contested for between the 33rd Imperial Japanese Army and Allied ground forces under General “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell.

On the 23rd of May, 1944, Adolf Hitler, his mood already foul from an RAF attack on Berlin overnight (Berliners had long worn out calling Goering ‘liar’)  throws a major rage when at a factory tour he learns that Me262 jets are being produced as fighters — not a bomber that could be used against the expected Allied invasion fleet.  B-17 and B-24 bombers of the Eighth Air Force attack rail-yards and airfields across occupied northwestern Europe while their smaller kin, A-20 and B-26 tactical bombers and P-47 and P-51 fighters fan out to extend the damage to the transportation infrastructure, all in support of the coming month’s invasion.  In the English Channel, Royal Navy motor torpedo boats sink a German minesweeper while RN destroyers chase away an attempted mine-laying operation by a group of German S-boats off Brighton.  On the Italian peninsula, Allied forces throw themselves against the Gustav line as the Germans dig in to make a stand for the Italians and in the Pacific, the Japanese garrison on Wake is under attack by CTG 58.3 led by the USS Essex and across the Solomons, sea- and air-assaults on Japanese forces continue unabated.

Air drop to troops in Burma (Photo: William Vandivert./Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images Jan 01, 1944)

At an airfield outside Dinjan, India the last part of the pre-flight inspection is underway.  The object – a long-in-the-tooth veteran C-47A Skytrain (aka Dakota).  Belonging to the 4th Troop Carrier Squadron of the 62nd Troop Carrier Group, they are recent arrivals in theater from operations in the Mediterranean.  The war was definitely heating up in the Imphal Valley and around Myitkyina.  Today’s mission would bring desperately needed supplies to the troops engaged around Myitkyina.  Capt Joseph M. Obilinski, already a decorated airman (DFC and Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster for operations in the Mediterranean Theater) and a native of Chicago, Illinois would be the mission pilot.  Accompanying him were the rest of his crew and cargo support personnel three members of Merrill’s Marauders(*) :

  • 1st Lt. Joseph J. Auld, Floral Park, N.Y.;
  • 1st Lt. Robert M. Anderson, Millen, Ga.;
  • Tech. Sgt. Clarence E. Frantz, Tyrone, Penn.;
  • Pfc. Richard M. Dawson (*), Haynesville, Va.;
  • Pvt. Robert L. Crane (*), Sacramento, Calif.;
  • and Pvt. Fred G. Fagan (*), Piedmont, Ala.

The flight would depart to the southeast, climbing over the Singpho and Namkiu mountain ridges enroute.  The terrain would vary wildly from the flat flood plains in India to mountain peaks over 20,000 ft tall, challenging the C-47 and its limited service ceiling.

Route of Flight (23 May 1944)

No one knows for certain what happened to the flight, except that it never arrived as expected.  Weather, the enemy, airframe fatigue — any of those or combination thereof could have conspired against them.  The inhospitable terrain was (and still is) notorious for hiding wreckage and remains — and over time, erasing all traces thereof.  Eventually a few aircraft dataplates and more importantly, dog tags and some human remains (likely bone fragments) made their way to the dedicated members of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command from a site northwest of the combat area.

View looking southeast towards the approximate location of the crash site (height of eye - 20,000 ft)

A citation for the 64th Troop Carrier Group and 4th Troop Carrier Squadron best summed the intensity of operations — and losses endured.  Welcome home all – may you and your families find the peace and rest you so richly deserve.

DISTINGUISHED UNIT CITATION

For action in the China-Burma-India Theater

WD GO 82, 1944

April 7 to 15 June 1944

The 64th Troop Carrier Group and the 4th Troop Carrier Squadron of the 62nd Troop Carrier Group are cited for outstanding performance of duty in action against the enemy in the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations during the period 7 April to 15 June 1944. On 1 April 1944, the 64th Carrier Group and the 4th Troop Carrier Squadron were ordered from their stations in the Mediterranean Theater to India to give desperately needed support to isolated Allied units fighting in the Imphal Valley and Myitkyina areas. Complying with utmost speed, the C-47’s were dropping supplies to the surrounded forces within 6 days after take-off from Italy. Realizing that a defeat in this sector would imperil the entire Allied effort in India and China, air and ground personnel of the troop carrier squadrons valiantly and perseveringly struggled against the most disheartening odds throughout the emergency to accomplish their mission. Flights were made in the unarmed and unarmored aircraft during daylight and darkness, often in adverse weather over strange jungle and mountainous terrain, where enemy ground fire and aerial attack were continually encountered. Despite the loss of 11 airplanes because of enemy action, inclement weather, and the necessity of operating from inadequately prepared landing strips, all pilots displayed unfailing heroism and tenacity of purpose. During repeated attacks by Japanese aircraft the transport pilots held to course so aggressively and were so skillful in pursuing evasive action that one Zero crashed when outmaneuvered and a second probably was destroyed. Frequently, the aircraft and crews were subjected to hostile fire while landing and unloading on improvised airstrips which were completely surrounded by the enemy. As the crisis intensified, safety precautions were relaxed and Pararacks and parachutes removed to permit the carrying of increased cargo loads. Through unsurpassed determination and endurance, pilots and crew members were able to average 290 flying hours per individual for the two-and-one-half month emergency. Flying more than 6,000 sorties, aircraft of these units transported 35,000 troops, 13,000 tons of food and equipment, medical supplies, arms, ammunitions, and 390 mules, evacuating on return flights more than 3,500 Allied casualties. Through the proficiency and heroic self-sacrifice on the part of each member of the expedition in accomplishing almost impossible feats, the reinforced Allied army was enabled to resume the offensive and drive the enemy from this area. The gallantry, fighting spirit, and outstanding performance in combat displayed by the personnel of the 64th Troop Carrier Group and the 4th Troop Carrier Squadron in these vital operations reflect highest credit on themselves and the military service of the United States.

The seven men from this flight were buried in Arlington Cemetery on 15 July 2010.

POW/MIA: “Prometheus” Unbound, The Last One Comes Home

"Prometheus" an AC-130A tail number 55-0044

In May 2008, I wrote of the final identification and return of the remains of two of the Prometheus’ crew, Maj Barclay B. Young and Sr. Master Sgt James K. Caniford, two of a crew of 14 lost one dark March night, 38 years ago. At the time, all but one MIA had been identified, that being (then) Capt Curtis Daniel Miller.
Today, closure has come for the crew of the Prometheus (c/s “Spectre 13″):

Air Force Pilot MIA From Vietnam War is Identified

The Department of Defense announced today that the remains of a U.S. serviceman, missing in action from the Vietnam War, have been identified and will be returned to his family for burial with full military honors.

Air Force Maj. Curtis Daniel Miller of Palacios, Texas, will be buried on March 29 in the Dallas-Ft. Worth National Cemetery. Miller was part of a 14-man aircrew, all of which are now accounted-for. Remains that could not be individually identified are included in a group that will be buried together in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va.  On March 29, 1972, 14 men were aboard an AC-130A Spectre gunship that took off from Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, on an armed reconnaissance mission over southern Laos. The aircraft was struck by an enemy surface-to-air missile and crashed. Search and rescue efforts were stopped after a few days due to heavy enemy activity in the area.
In 1986, joint U.S.- Lao People’s Democratic Republic teams, lead by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), surveyed and excavated the crash site in Savannakhet Province, Laos. The team recovered human remains and other evidence including two identification tags, life support items and aircraft wreckage. From 1986 to 1988, the remains were identified as those of nine men from this crew.

Welcome home — and may all of you now rest in peace…

Air Force Pilot Missing In Action From Vietnam War Is Identified

In the mail today:

The Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) announced today that the remains of a U.S. serviceman, missing in action from the Vietnam War, have been identified and will be returned to his family for burial.

Air Force Maj. Russell C. Goodman of Salt Lake City, Utah, will be honored this week at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., home of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbird demonstration team. At the time of his loss, Goodman was assigned to the Thunderbirds and was flying with the U.S. Navy on an exchange program. He will be buried in Alaska at a date determined by his family.

On Feb. 20, 1967, Goodman and Navy Lt. Gary L. Thornton took off in their F-4B Phantom from the USS Enterprise for a bombing mission against a railroad yard in Thanh Hoa Province, North Vietnam. They were struck by enemy antiaircraft fire and their plane exploded. Thornton was able to eject at just 250 feet altitude, but Goodman did not escape. Thornton survived and was held captive until his release in 1973.  Search and rescue attempts were curtailed because of heavy anti-aircraft and automatic weapons fire in the area of the crash.

But wait, there’s more…

20 Feb 1967.  Operation ROLLING THUNDER has been underway for almost two years now.  Today, USS Enterprise (CVAN 65), part of Task Force 77 operating on Yankee Station, is launching elements of Air Wing NINE on a strike to attack a railyard near the city of Tanh Hoa, in North Vietnam’s Tahn Hoa province.  In the strike package is an F-4B (NG 614/BuNo 150413) from VF-96.  Piloting “Showtime 614” was Maj Russell Goodman, on an exchange tour from the Air Force and a member of the 1964-65 Thunderbirds demonstration team.  Flying with him was his RIO (Radar Intercept Officer), ENS Gary L. Thorton, USN.

In North Vietnam, the leadership determined that since gaining air superiority over U.S. forces was out of the question, it would instead implement a policy of air deniability. At the beginning of the Rolling Thunder, North Vietnam possessed approximately 1,500 anti-aircraft weapons, most of which were of the light 37 and 57mm variety. Within one year, however, the U.S. estimated that the number had grown to over 5,000 guns, including 85 and 100mm radar-directed weapons. That estimate was later revised downward from a high of 7,000 in early 1967 to less than a thousand by 1972.  Additionally, North Vietnam’s deployment of SAMs was such that by 1967, North Vietnam had formed an estimated 25 SAM battalions (with six missile launchers each) which rotated among approximately 150 sites. With the assistance of the Soviet Union, the North Vietnamese had also quickly integrated an early warning radar system of more than 200 facilities which covered the entire country, tracking incoming U.S. raids, and then coordinating SAMs, anti-aircraft batteries, and MiGs to attack them.

During 1967 U.S. losses totaled 248 aircraft (145 Air Force, 102 Navy, and one Marine Corps).

Click on thumbnail to enlarge image

Somewhere south of the city of Tahn Hoa, an  S-75 Dvina (NATO designation: SA-2 GUIDELINE) surface to air missile is launched and approaches its target at speeds nearing Mach 3.  Near the target, its proximity fuse detonates the 430 lb fragmentation warhead, blowing debris in a lethal radius up to 150 ft.  Onboard Showtime 614, the aircraft is rocked by the blast, just off the portside and slightly below the wingline.  With communications lost to the pilot and the aircraft disintegrating around him, ENS Thorton ejects, his last image of Maj Goodman leaving him with the impression he was either dead or unconcscious because his head was down and wobbling back and forth.  Captured almost immediately by the North Vietnamese, ENS Thorton remained a POW until 4 March 1973 when he was reapatrioted along with the other American POWs as part of Operation Homecoming.  During his debriefing, ENS Thorton expressed his belief that Maj. Goodman did not eject.

Without confirmation though, Goodman would remain classified as MIA.  Back home, Maj Goodman left behind his wife of 12 years, June, two daughters and a son.

Between October 1993 and March 2008, joint U.S.-Vietnamese teams led by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) investigated the crash site twice and conducted two excavations, recovering human remains and pilot equipment. The aircraft debris recovered correlates with the type of aircraft the men were flying.  Among other forensic identification tools and circumstantial evidence, scientists from JPAC and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory also used mitochondrial DNA – which matched two of his maternal relatives — in the identification of Goodman’s remains.

The family learned their father’s remains had been identified about a week after their mother died Nov. 10 in Alaska, daughter Sue Stein told KTUU-TV in Anchorage.  Later this year, the children hope to spread their parents’ ashes on an Alaskan mountain. Before that though, the Thunderbirds will host a welcoming/remembrance ceremony at their homebase, Nellis AFB, tomorrow (13 January).

Maj. Richard Goodman (from left), U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron; Chaplain (Capt.) David Horton, 99th Air Base Wing; and members of the Goodman family salute as the remains of Maj. Russell C. Goodman are transferred Jan. 12, 2010, from an aircraft to a hearse at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

Rest easy Maj Goodman, and welcome home – may you find eternal peace and rest with your loved ones.

Note: this is my 1,000th post since beginning this blog some four years ago.  While it has covered a wide range of topics during that time, I can think of no better way to mark this milestone than the resolution of another MIA case by those wizards at the Joint POW Accounting Command. – SJS

August 25, 1944 – Black Friday and the 474th FG

Sixty-five years ago today, over the fields of France, 23 P-38s of the 474th Fighter Group engaged what could loosely be described as a gaggle of German Bf-109’s and FW-190’s in a frenetic, hard 040521-f-2295b-014fought, swirling dogfight.  Initially engaged in a fight were the odds were 2:1 against them, the 12 427th Fighter Squadron and 11 428th Fighter Squadron P-38J’s were joined in mid-battle by another flight of 32-plus FW-190s.  It was, as these kind of fights are wont to be, short, brutal and bloody.  The Americans lost 11 of their 23 fighters — four 474th FG pilots (Capt. Charles Holcomb, Lt. Joseph Stone, Lt. Jerry Zierlein, and Lt. Ray Packard) were KIA on that mission, five would escape and evade capture, and two were taken as prisoners of war. The crash sites of Capt. Holcomb, Lt. Stone, and Lt. Zierlein were discovered shortly after the war allowing for proper disposition and return of their remains stateside.  Ray Packard’s crash site remained a mystery, but was recently found.  And on the German side?  Go here to read the rest of the story…

(H/t to Eagle0025, official historian of the 474th FG , for the reminder about today)

Calling Former Marine F4U Drivers

Vmf215dt Looking for anyone who was part of VMF-215 from 1943-45, aviator, ground-pounder or those who may have flown with VMF-215 in combined or associated operations during that period.  Bryan Bender, a reporter with the Boston Globe, is looking for any of the above to flesh out a story he is working on stemming from earlier work on a returned MIA from that period and which was featured in an earlier Flightdeck Friday.  Feel free to go VFR direct — his contact info as follows:

email: bender@globe.com

Thanks All!
– SJS

Flightdeck Friday: MIA Edition – Missing WWII Airman Returns Home (UPDATE)

Courtesy Gary Koch, historian for the 474th FG, we have the pictures from Lt Packard’s funerl. Recall that he was involved in one of the largest air-to-air engagements in the ETO when 22 P-38s encountered a mixed formation of almost 80 German fighters.

Packard Funeral Pics

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Flightdeck Friday: USMC WWII MIA Return Edition

vmf321insignia

The Official press release:

Marine Pilot Missing In Action From WWII Is Identified

The Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) announced today that the remains of a U.S. serviceman, missing in action from World War II, have been identified and will be returned to his family for burial with full military honors
He is Maj. Marion R. McCown Jr., U.S. Marine Corps, of Charleston, S.C. He will be buried on Jan. 18 in Charleston.
Representatives from the Marine Corps Mortuary Office met with McCown’s next-of-kin to explain the recovery and identification process and to coordinate interment with military honors on behalf of the secretary of the Navy.
On Jan. 20, 1944 McCown was the pilot of an F-4U Corsair aircraft that failed to return from a combat mission over Rabaul, New Britain, Papua New Guinea.
In 1991, a Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) team excavated an F-4U crash site in Rabaul and recovered human remains and McCown’s identification tag. However, forensic science at that time precluded an identification.
In 2006, a JPAC team surveyed the crash site in preparation for a recovery. While at the site, a villager living in the area turned over to the team human remains that he claimed to have recovered from the site. In 2008, another JPAC team excavated the site and recovered additional human remains.
Among other forensic identification tools and circumstantial evidence, scientists from JPAC used dental comparisons in the identification of McCown’s remains.

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And now the rest of the story:

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Rabaul.  Few geographic locations or names carried the cache of raw challenge and threat during the war.  Situated on the north-eastern peninsula of New Britain, Rabaul was founded by the Germans in 1910 as they recognized the utility availaed of its large, deep water harbor that was afforded natural protection from both the elements and man by its surrounding high, volcanic pumice hills.  Captured by British Commonwealth forces, it became part of Australia’s mandated territory of New Guinea after the war.  Western militaries were not the only ones aware of the strategic utility of the port and surrounding territory – the Japanese military was very much aware of its potential.  In February 1942, Japanese forces swept away Australian forces as the juggernaut launched with the invasion of China and most recently, the bombing of Pearl harbor and occupation of the Philippines continued its inexorable march through the Solomons in a bid to isolate and eventually nvade Australia.

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Rabaul – the “unsinkable aircraft carrier.”  Rapidly, after the Japanese occupation forces settled in, additional troops, aircraft and ships arrived.  Five airfields were built to serve the several hundred land-based fighters and bombers that would offer airborne protection and far-ranging strikes throughout the area, controlling the seas and skies above.  From the harbor, warships and troop carriers sailed to further the reach of the Empire.  And from afar, the Allies pondered and planned.  By January of 1944, those plans – part of Operation “Cartwheel” were well underway.  It started with the Battle of Coral Sea when the Japanese thrust towards Australia was blunted in the first beyond visual range engagement of two fleets.  Continuing with the vicious land- and sea-battles on and around Guadalcanal and up the New Georgia chain of islands towards Bougainville, Allied forces established air and seabases along the way.  A noose was being built around Rabaul and the time was coming to tighten it.

One of the bases established was on a south-eastern point of land on the volcanic island of Vella Lavella.  Here, VMF-321 “Hell’s Angels,” stood up in February 1943, would establish their base of operations. The weapon of choice – the F4u-1 Corsair, known by the Japanese as “the Whistling Death”  From this base, VF-321 and others, like the infamous “Black Sheep” of VMF-214, would fan out and start to sweep the skies of Japanese opposition.  Partners to this effort were the carriers of the Fifth Fleet and land air forces of the Fifth Air Force.  The latter, notorious for the development of skip-bombing bombers taking a toll of shipping and which would prove signatory in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea while carrier aircraft swept into the lair itself in November 1943, twice striking the assembled fleet in the Rabaul harbor and effectively ending its usefulness as a staging point to threaten operations int he Solomons.

Still, to ensure the by-passed stronghold would not resurrect itself, regular bombing strikes were carried out by land-based Liberators and Mitchells, escorted by P-38s and Marine F4us.  And it is today, January 20th, 1944 that Major Marion R. McCown, USMC found himself at the controls of F4U-1 BuNo 17448 inbound to Rabaul.  The Charleston, South Carolina native had joined shortly after Pearl Harbor.  Having previously received his private pilot’s license while attending Georgia Tech, it wa clear form the beginning his intention was to become a “flying leatherneck.”  Having been stationed for almost a year now at Vella Lavella, he had come to appreciate the beauty of the area as well as the lethality of the action., having a hand in the 39 Japanese aircraft downed by VF-321 up that point since their commissioning.  However, as demonstrated just two days earlier, his luck was not only good, it was holding.  Then, returning from another mission to Rabaul, he had experienced engine failure.  Ditching over 50 nm from his base, he was found in short order by a passing PT boat and returned.  Now, the 27-yr old was back in the skies over Rabaul and, with eleven of his other squadronmates, found themselves in a swirling dogfight against forty Japanese Zeros.  As the dogfight progressed, and the air filled with lead, smoke fire and parachutes, he was last seen on the tail of a Zero with another closing on him.  A fellow squadronmate claimed to have shot the Zero off his tail, but McCown was not seen again.  Three others were also lost in the skies over Rabaul that day.

mccown_wreckage

In 1991, a forensic team received a set of dogtags and some bone fragments, but they were insufficient to verify the identity.  Later, in 2006, a team returning to the site to prepare it for recovery discovered a partial parachute, and, along with remains passed by a local who had recovered them rom the site, they excavated more remains and the aircraft remnants, garnering enough to positively identify it as the crash site of Major McCown’s F4u.  This was fortuitous as a 1997 eruption of the volcano on the west end of the peninsula had caused substantial destruction to a widespread area.  He is scheduled to be interred next to his mother and grandparents on January 18, 2009 in the Unitarian Church of Charleston’s cemetery.

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