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  B-17F-20-BO "The Reckless Mountain Boys" Serial Number 41-24518  
USAAF
5th AF
43rd BG
63rd BS

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43rd BG c1943

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IJN May 1943

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Jeff Ridges 2005

Pilot  Captain Byron L. "Dutch" Heichel, O-421699 (POW, survived) ID
Co-Pilot  1st Lt Berry T. Rucks, Jr., O-43786 (POW, survived) TN
Bombardier 2nd Lt. Oscar Melvin Linsley, O-666689 (KIA, BR) Sioux City, IA
Navigator  2nd Lt Marcus L. Mangett, Jr, O-734579 (MIA / KIA) Tiffin, Ohio
Student Navigator  2nd Lt. Eugene D. Bleiler, O-734528 317th TCG, 39th TCS (MIA / KIA) PA
Engineer  T/Sgt John E. Fritz, 16948783 (POW, died en route Japan, MIA) PA
Asst Engineer  S/Sgt Kenneth P. Vetter, 6669847 (WIA , POW, executed Nov 25, 1943, MIA) Rutherford, KY
Radio  M/Sgt Clarence G. Surrett, 6956646 (POW, survived) Dewey, OK
Asst Radio  T/Sgt James E. Etheridge, 6958335 (POW, survived) TX
Gunner  S/Sgt Gilbert A. Flieger, 19095893 (MIA / KIA) ID
Gunner  Pvt Frank L. Kurisko, 11036019 (POW died en route Japan, MIA) NH

Ditched  May 7, 1943 at 11:50am
MACR  16237

Aircraft History
Built by Boeing at Seattle. Delivered to the U. S. Army on July 23, 1942. Outfitted at Lowry Modification Center on July 29, 1942. On August 27, 1942 flown to Sacramento Air Depot then to Hamilton Field. On August 31, 1942 departed Hamilton Field flying via Hickam Field then across the Pacific to Australia.

Wartime History
Assigned to the 5th Air Force, 43rd Bombardment Group, 63rd Bombardment Squadron. Nicknamed "Reckless Mountain Boys" a term associated with the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys mentioned in the folk song, "The Martins and the Coys". The nose art depicted a flintlock musket and power horn. The B-17 was adorned with dark green "tiger stripes" on the tail.

On January 5, 1943 took off from 7-Mile Drome near Port Moresby piloted by Adams on a bombing mission against Lakunai Airfield near Rabaul. This B-17 was one of three B-17s from the 403rd Bombardment Squadron along with B-17F "The Reckless Mountain Boys" 41-24518 and B-17F 41-24538 each armed with 100 pound general purpose bombs. On the way to the target, this B-17 aborted the mission due to engine problems.

On February 18, 1943 took off from 7-Mile Drome near Port Moresby piloted by Neil G. Kirby on a bombing mission against Tonolei Harbor on southern Bougainville. Returning, this bomber ran short on fuel and landed at Hula Airfield Airfield (Hood Point Airfield). Afterwards, refueled and returned to 7-Mile Drome.

Mission History
On May 7, 1943 took off from 7-Mile Drome near Port Moresby on a solo photograph reconnaissance mission over Kavieng, without ordinance. Aboard was 2nd Lt. Bleiler, a student navigator from the 317th Troop Carrier Group (TCG), 39th Troop Carrier Squadron (TCS).

Over Kavieng, this B-17 was spotted and six A6M2 Zeros from the 253 Kōkūtai took off from Kavieng Airfield to intercept this B-17. The Zeros made firing passes that hit the B-17's no. 2 engine setting it on fire, knocked off the ball turret door and badly wounded gunner Vetter. Pilot Heichel dove down to sea level to avoid being attacked from below and headed southward until the the no. 2 engine failed. Repeated attacks by the Zeros disabled the no. 1 engine. During the attacks, Linsley, Bleiler and Fleiger were hit by gunfire and killed. Three others: Ethridge, Vetter and Mangett were severely wounded.

Damaged, the B-17 ditched onto a coral reef roughly 50 yards offshore Komalu on the southern coast of New Ireland. During the crash, the nose section impacted the reef and broke the fuselage rear of the top turret. The rest of the aircraft remained above water largely intact.

Fates of the Crew
Eight of the crew survived and escaped through the co-pilot's cockpit window and took cover among the coral boulders as the six attacking Zeros strafed the downed B-17 before departing for Kavieng Airfield.

Afterwards, the crew made their way ashore with the help of native people. The three crew members who died in the crash: Linsley, Bleiler and Fleiger were recovered from the B-17 and buried on the beach by the crew with the help of native people.

The survivors were armed with three pistols, a Springfield rifle, a machine gun and a "Gibson Girl" portable radio. Together, they fled to Komalu Plantation then into the hills with a local.

By the time Japanese overseer Tadashi Imamura arrived at the plantation, the crew were gone. The next morning, a gunboat from Rabaul arrived in the area. Also, Japanese Army troops arrived from Namatanai and Special Naval Landing Force (SNLF) troops arrived from Kavieng.

Rudolf Diercke the German manager of Komlu Plantation wrote a note in English that was delivered to the crew. It read: "I am a German, and I can vouch for the intentions of the Japanese. It is best that you surrender your arms to the native boy and come to us. We are gentleman and have no desire to maltreat you. Three of your fellow crew members found dead in the airplane have been buried with a simple ceremony in the kanaka [native] cemetery."

Realizing resistance was futile, the entire crew complied with the note and surrendered to the Japanese. Immediately, a stretcher was provided for each prisoner. Each many was searched, interrogated and guarded.

The enlisted men: Fritz, Surrett, Ethridge, Vetter and Kurisco were loaded aboard the gunboat and transported to Rabaul. The officers: Heichel, Rucks, and Mangett were carried on stretchers northward across the mountains to Karu, then aboard a truck to Kavieng for further interrogation.

Afterwards, the officers were transported to Rabaul and reunited with the rest of the crew at the Navy POW Camp at Rabaul. During captivity, Vetter gave his ring to a Japanese guard who later mailed it to his mother.

Reportedly, on November 25, 1943 Mangett and Vetter plus seven other Americans were taken from the camp and executed by the Kempei Tai at Rabaul. The remaining six crew members were sent to Japan but Fritz and Kurisko died en route.

Heichel, Rucks, Surrett and Etheridge were interned at Ofuna Camp near Yokohama and were beaten, interrogated and labored until the end of the war. All survived captivity and returned to the United States. Surret is listed as liberated from Tokyo POW Camp (Shinjuku).

Search
When this B-17 failed to return, American searches found no trace of the bomber and the entire crew were presumed Missing In Action (MIA).

Recovery of Remains
On May 7, 1943 the three crew members who died in the crash: Linsley, Bleiler and Fleiger were recovered from the B-17 and buried on the beach by the crew with the help of native people. The next day, Tadashi Imamura instructed locals to exhume them and rebury them in the native cemetery at the Catholic Mission. Afterwards, Rudolf Diercke the manager of Komalu Plantation erected a cross over each grave.

Postwar, American Graves Registration Service (AGRS) exhumed the bodies of the three buried at the Catholic Mission. Reportedly, an airman's wrist watch was found in one grave. When the dirt was wiped away and winder twisted, the watch began ticking.

Memorials
Fritz, Vetter Kurisko and Mangett were officially declared dead on January 3, 1946. All are memorialized on the tablets of the missing at Manila American Cemetery.

Linsley, Bleiler and Flieger were officially declared dead May 7, 1943. Postwar, their remains were exhumed by American Graves Registration Service (AGRS) and transported to the Philippines and United States for permanent burial.

Bleiler and Flieger were buried at Manila American Cemetery. Bleiler at plot A row 14 grave 143. Flieger at plot A row 8 grave 133.
Linsley was buried at Graceland Park Cemetery in Sioux City, IA.
Mangett has a memorial marker at Saint Joseph Catholic Cemetery in Tiffin, OH.
Etheridge died on April 13, 1981 and is buried at Evergreen Memorial Park in Crockett, TX.
Surrett died on March 5, 1993 and is buried at Moore Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Arlington, TX.
Heichel died on April 2, 2013 and is buried at Arlington Municipal Cemetery in Arlington, WA.

Wreckage
On May 8, 1943 twenty or more Japanese soldiers and native police investigated the B-17 crash site including civilian war correspondent Hajime Yoshida who took photographs and shot 16mm cine footage of the B-17 and prisoners. Later, this footage was used in a Nippon News with the narration: "May 7: B-17 which planned an attack on our South Pacific base was shot down by our sea eagles. Once, natives stared wide-eyed with wonder and envy at US & British material civilization. However they are delighted by Japanese strength to actually look at it now. They cooperate with the Imperial Army heartily."

A tripod was mounted over the nose, to extract the Norden bomb sight and equipment. During May 1943, the Japanese dismantled the B-17. One engine was shipped to Rabaul, and the fuselage of the plane was cut up and stacked on the beach under trees.

After their salvage, all that was left on the reef off Komalu were three of the engines. Today there are just two propellers and a couple of lumps of rusted metal, partially encrusted in coral.

Rod Pearce recalls:
"I went to this village to look for this B-17 around 2003. We met two people there who witnessed the incident. One was an old man who recalled it landing in the water. He recalled the Japanese 'jacked it up' out of the water and took it all away. In the village they had a bit of aluminum under a tree that had been in salt water, it was very corroded."

Relatives
Lynda Peck (daughter of Heichel)
"You brought tears to my eyes. Dad said something to all us last weekend as we read looked at those pictures. It went something like this: You kids standing in this room don’t ever have to apologize for that war or your right to live in this country. Your right to live here has been bought and paid for personally by me. He looks at those pictures and says it seems like a dream, so long ago. He says, 'I can’t believe it happened to me'."

Tom Ackerman (nephew of Oscar Linsley)
"My uncle Oscar Linsley was the bombardier on 'Reckless Mountain Boys'. In researching the crash, I obtained documents pertaining to his recovery and verification of remains. He was buried in Sioux City, Iowa May 1949."

Dale Neikirk adds (nephew of Marcus Mangett)
"My Uncle Marcus Mangett was the navigator on board the Reckless Mountain Boys when it crashed. Your website has provided me with new information which astounds me. I am grateful for it, as his disappearance was a life long agony for my mother and her family, as well as a mystery for the members of my generation. I really can't thank you enough for what you are doing."

Ellen Surrett (daughter of Clarence Surrett)
"Thats my dad in the stretcher looking at the camera [in still from film]."

Jennifer Downing (great niece of James E. Etheridge)

References
Nippon News - May 1943 cine footage by Hajime Yoshida today owned by NHK
Asahi Daily Newspaper June 7, 1943
Obituary of SSGt Kenneth P. Vetter "Pacific Hero Listed Dead" 1943
Obituary of 2nd Lt. Oscar Melvin 1943
Pride of Seattle pages 9, 10, 13 & 28
Lost Lives: The Second World War and the Islands of New Guinea
The following crew have no listing at ABMC or NW Grave Locator: Linsley, Bleiler and Fleiger
Flightpath "Somewhere, A Camera Out There" by Michael Claringbould, page 24
NARA World War II Prisoners of War Data File - Byron L. Heichel
NARA World War II Prisoners of War Data File - Berry T. Rucks, Jr.
NARA World War II Prisoners of War Data File - Clarence G. Surrett
NARA World War II Prisoners of War Data File - James E. Etheridge
American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) - Marcus L. Mangett Jr.
American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) - Eugene D. Bleiler
American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) - John E. Fritz
American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) - Kenneth P. Vetter
American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) - Gilbert A. Flieger
American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) - Frank L. Kurisko
The Herald "Obituary Byron Luther Heichel" April 4, 2013
"Byron was born March 17, 1916 in Tripoli, Iowa, one of seven children; he went to be with his heavenly Father April 2, 2013. Though his family grieves, we know he is with his Creator. Byron served his country during World War II in the Air Force as a pilot. He was shot down and captured by the Japanese, and was a prisoner of war for two and a half years. He was honorably discharged as a Major.
He is survived by his loving wife of 71 years, Julie; children, Susan Christianson, Nadine Heichel, Lynda
(Michael) Peck and Byron Jr. (Rita) Heichel; and five grandchildren, Chad, Chip, Sarah, Brett and Rachel.
A military graveside service will be held Saturday, April 6, 2013, 11:00 a.m. at the Arlington Cemetery. A gathering will follow at the family home in Stanwood."
FindAGrave - Byron Luther Heichel
FindAGrave - Oscar M Linsley (grave photo)
FindAGrave - Marcus L Mangett (memorial marker)
FindAGrave - Clarence G Surrett (grave photo)
FindAGrave - James E. Etheridge (grave photo)
FindAGrave - Pvt Frank L Kurisko (tablets of the missing photo)
Lost Lives Places - New Ireland - The Reckless Mountain Boys

Target Rabaul pages 254-262
Thanks to Tom Ackerman, Dale Neikirk, Ellen Surrett, Rod Pearce, Edward Rogers, Janice Olsen for additional information.

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Last Updated
January 5, 2018

 

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