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B-17F "Black Jack" 41-24521 Tail Gunner
by Paul J. Blasewitz

"It was a clear and beautiful night, the B-17 sat on the runway at 7 mile air strip in Port Moresby. The bombs were loaded, we held a full load of gas and all the machine gun ammo we could carry. Hidden in the darkness were our thoughts and apprehensions of the coming mission-- the most heavily defended Japanese base in our area of the South Pacific -- Rabaul.

Rabaul, its very name and reputation brought thoughts for dealing sudden death to those attempting to bomb or otherwise dare to invade their air space. Rabaul had 3 active air bases and runways with Simpsons Harbor a staging place for many Japanese warships and freighters constantly loading supplies and soldiers for disbursement to Guadacanal, New Guinea and dozens of other Japanese held islands.

Our bomb crew for this mission, which was my 35th, was 5 regular crew members that had flown together before and 5 new men, one or two of them total rookies. As much as I could see in the dark, the flight would consist of 10 B-17s all carrying the same bomb load, eight 500 lb. bombs. Take off was uneventful although I thought the plane was very sluggish. It would not lift off the runway and took almost the whole runway to get off the ground. The night was clear at takeoff but after about 2 hours out, the weather abruptly changed. Strong winds threw the plane every which way bouncing up and down and slipping heart-stopping sideways. The rain pelted the fuselage like little bullets with a steady tattoo of noise. Lightning flashed constantly and for the first time I saw St. Elmo’s Fire. I was sifting in the tail compartment after test firing my two 50 cal. machine guns when all of a sudden a huge halo of light completely encircled my 2 guns. I never saw anything like it and I was a little afraid to touch the guns as I thought I would get an electric shock. I called the cockpit to ask about this situation and the navigator told me on the intercom that he thought it was safe to touch the guns which I did a little cautiously.

Now the plane was really running rough, one of the engines had quit and the prop was feathered. We were still about 45-50 minutes away from Rabaul and the pilot. Capt De Loach asked each of the crew members if they wanted to abort the mission and turn around and go back to Port Moresby. The voices on the intercom all agreed that we had come this far that we would bomb Rabaul and try to make it home. As we approached Rabaul everything on the plane was ready. The bombs fused and bomb bay door open for the bombing run through the search lights and antiaircraft guns. We were now in the search lights and the Jap guns were firing as fast as the could. We were the only target for them as each plane went single file down the air strip for maximum effectness. The lights were very bright and as I was looking out the tail window, a Japanese nightfighter, a twin engined plane, suddenly appeared directly in back of us as plain as daylight as he was in the lights, too. I called the pilot and told him what I saw and yelled “take evasive action”. Cpt. De Loach dived left and down and I started firing at the night fighter, my tracers and incendiaries were sailing all around him. Suddenly, the Jap search lights went out leaving us in the dark, twisting and turning dropping from 20,000 feet to 5000 and the night fighter right behind us. Using my gun sights I figured the night fighter was at least 500 to 600 yards

Behind us when the lights went out. tip to this time, he had not fired a shot at us that I could see. If he used all armor piercing ammo, I would not have seen them. I would have seen his tracers go past us, but I did not see any tracers. While all this was going on, the Bombadier had dropped the bombs on the runway and closed the bomb bay doors. I couldn’t see the lap anymore, it was pitch dark out, no stars, no moon, still raining hard. We were in some kind of tropical storm. Capt. De Loach stayed close to the ocean on our way from Rabaul, because another engine had developed trouble and was running very rough. We were losing power and were now in a bit of trouble. Capt. De Loach held the plane steady and on the course the navigator thought would get us home. The lightning had disabled our compass and radio homing device, so the navigator took an educated guess on what our heading should be. The storm let up and we were flying in bright light, almost dawn. We were at 2500' altitude.

De Loach got one of the disabled engines running at half speed but listening to the intercom, I heard the navigator tell Dc Leach that we were lost and he didn’t know where we were. We kept flying along. It was now day light and in front of us was a shoreline, but what island? Where were we? De Loach asked the crew if any one could recognize where we were. No one knew. We kept flying along the coast not bowing if we were in enemy territory or friendly territory. Fuel was running low. We had already thrown everything out of the plane to lighten it so we might go farther. We were in big trouble. Were the laps on the shore or not? Soon we had no choice -- the once full fuel tanks read ‘E’. Dc Leach told everyone to take positions for ditching into the ocean. One of the gunners spotted a red flag on top of a small hill but we had no choice. We all thought it was occupiedhy the Japs. Prisonsers of war or torture and death were real possibilities now that is if we survived the crash landing. DeLoach aimed the plane and tried to hit the water and skip to a shallow reef but at 200 mph we hit the water and missed the reef. The plane stopped, water rushed in and filled the plane half full. Real fear and confusion slipped in as thoughts of drowning, sharks and laps on shore dominated our minds.

Three men were badly hurt, one with a broken back [Smith], one a broken leg and one a broken arm. I was not hurt. Before touchdown in the water, I had tied a Thompson submachine gun to an inflated Mae West with 50 rounds of ammo. I placed the gun in the radio room by the biggest escape hatch we had. I told Joe Wilson the ball turret gunner to make sure he pulled the handles on the inflatable life rafts and showed him where they were. Joe did exactly that and both rafts popped out of the side of the plane into the water. Everyone was scrambling to get out, the plane was sinking steadily. I could not find the machine gun with all the water rushing in and trying to get the injured men out the hatch before the plane sank. De Leach and the people up front went out the cockpit windows to safety. One life raft was completely inflated. The large one was only partially inflated and still tied to the plane when it went down with Black Jack. We got the injured men in the smaller raft and the rest of us held on to the sides. We untied the raft from the plane, drifted a little and watched Black Jack slide so quietly into the water, a few bubbles and she was gone out of sight. Black Jack sank in one minute.

We were now about 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile off the shore and we could see the natives coming towards us in small boats like canoes. When they reached us they seemed friendly, they were not armed in anyway. They grabbed hold of the ropes on the raft and started paddling towards shore and a small beach with huts on it. As the raft pulled up on the sand, I jumped out and pushed and pulled one of the natives indicating I wanted to go up the beach and into the jungle growth towards where we had seen the red flag flying. There was a small path from the beach going toward the top of this hill. Up the path we went, the native and I. About 50 feet up the path, I saw some people coming down. I grabbed the native, cocked my 45 and hid behind some bushes. They got in sight and would you believe it.. .it was an Australian Coast Watcher and 2 natives coming down the trail as fast as they could to help us! The spotter’s name was Eric Foster, his story and people like him is almost unbelievable. Here they take a man, fly him or boat him as close to the laps as they can get, drop him off with a radio transmitter and supplies to last a year so he can radio back to the allies when the laps are about to bomb, or notify where convoys are sailing. Here he was all by himself in the worst of jungle, within 3-4 miles of the enemy. Out of nowhere, not within 300 miles either direction would we have gotten help, when appears Mr. Foster with radio capabilities. We got off the beach, went up the trail to Foster’s camp site, laid out the injured as best we could and radioed for help.

A day later, a small sea plane, Australian, put down and took the injured men away. Two days later, a PT boat showed up and took the rest of us to Goodenough Island, which has a small runway just barely big enough for a DC-3. It arrived, we boarded, and went back to Port Moresby. We got two weeks leave in Sydney then went back to bombing missions. I flew 52 missions before being sent back to the U.S. In 1993, 50 years later, I received recognition for these missions from the U. S. Army by being awarded the distinquished flying cross."

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