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  B-24D-20-CO "Pretty Prairie Special" Serial Number 41-24186  
USAAF
13th AF
5th BG
HQ

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5th BG c1943

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5th BG Dec 31, 1943

PacificWrecks.com
FindAGrave Aug 28, 2009

PacificWrecks.com
Randy Watkins 2010

Pilot  Colonel Marion D. Unruh, O-298478 5th BG C.O. (POW, survived) Pretty Prairie, Kansas
Co-Pilot  1st Lt Thomas B. Fessenger, O-663706 (POW, died July 15, 1944, BNR, MIA) San Francisco, CA
Navigator  Major Frederick K. Koebig, O-375573 (MIA / POW executed March 5, 1944) Los Angeles, CA
Bombardier  1st Lt Anthony Kuhn, O-738645 (MIA / POW executed March 5, 1944) Dickinson, ND
Engineer  S/Sgt Lawson Stewart, 34425408 (MIA / POW executed March 5, 1944) Summit, MS
Asst Engineer  Cpl Vincent Wasilevski, 1303815 (MIA / POW executed March 5, 1944) Duquesne, PA
Radio  S/Sgt Roy E. Bixler, 35005257 (MIA / KIA) Salem, OH
Asst Radio  Sgt John J. Gillis Jr., 20610868 5th BG, HQ (MIA / POW died August 2, 1944) Chicago, IL
Gunner  S/Sgt Edward T. Constantin, 14123662 (MIA / POW executed March 5, 1944) Rockaway Beach, NY
Gunner  S/Sgt Romulus F. Mull, 14187785 (MIA / POW executed March 5, 1944) Kanapolis, NC
Photographer/Gunner  S/Sgt Albert Schaffran, 13039217 (MIA / KIA) Pittsburgh, PA

Crashed  December 30, 1943
MACR  1620

Aircraft History
Built by Consolidated at San Diego on November 11, 1942 at a cost of $289,276.00 using funds F-1 under aircraft order number W535-AO-4 DA. Constructors Number 981. The main spar of this bomber was constructors number 982, likely due to the wing assembly being switched with the next bomber in the assembly line during construction. Constructors Number 982 was assigned to the next bomber in the production line B-24D 41-24187.

Delivered to the U. S. Army Air Force (USAAF) as B-24D-20-CO Liberator serial number 41-24186. This bomber was modified at Fort Worth, Texas and noted as constructors number 981 in Consolidated records. Afterwards, ferried overseas via Hickam Field to the South Pacific.

Wartime History
Assigned to the 13th Air Force, 5th Bombardment Group, Headquarters Squadron to pilot Marion D. Unruh 5th Bombardment Group Commanding Officer (C.O.) who nicknamed the airplane "Pretty Prairie SPECIAL" after his hometown of Pretty Prairie, Kansas with the nose art of a sunflower on the right side of the nose. Later, the 5th Bombardment Group logo was added above the nickname. Below the cockpit were yellow bomb markings indicating combat missions flown and a single Japanese rising sun flag indicating an aircraft claimed by the bomber's gunner. On the lower side of the wing was "U. S. Army" in black. This bomber had olive drab upper surfaces and gray lower surfaces.

This B-24 operated from Carney Field on Guadalcanal and later Munda Airfield on New Georgia. During 1943, this bomber flew at least twenty-one bombing missions in the South Pacific over the Solomon Islands and Rabaul.

When lost, engines R-183043 serial numbers 42-43512, 41-14865, 42-37030, 42-59069. Aboard were ten .50 caliber machine guns plus one spare. Also two .30 caliber machine guns. None of the weapon serial numbers were noted in Missing Air Crew Report 1620 (MACR 1620).

Mission History

On December 30, 1943 took off from Munda Airfield on New Georgia piloted by Colonel Marion D. Unruh armed with 1,000 pound bombs leading a maximum effort bombing mission against Rabaul. Inbound to the target, the weather was very poor as the formation flew following the western coast of Bougainville before flying westward towards the target. Over the target, the bombers were intercepted by enemy fighters but managed to successfully bomb Rabaul.

Returning, this this bomber sustained some damage causing the bomb bay doors to hang open. About five to ten miles southeast of the Duke of York Islands over the sea, two explosions were observed within the aircraft: one ahead omitting clear blue smoke and causing three of the four doors to fall off. Afterwards, this B-24 rocked its wings to signal that it was dropping out of formation with the no. 2 engine smoking before entering cloud cover over the center of St. Georges Channel.

Last seen by Captain Leo L. Hunt, Major John F. Zinn and Captain Oscar G. Fitzhenry and 2nd Lt. James D. Robertson at 12:37 descending into clouds from an altitude of 10,000' roughly ten miles north of the southern tip of New Ireland under control. When this bomber failed to return, it was officially declared Missing In Action (MIA).

After descending through the clouds, this B-24 was seen by local people with the engine smoking coming from Cape St. George before the crew bailed out and the bomber crashed into hillside on the southeastern coast of New Ireland.

Statement by Major John Zinn, Jr. via Missing Air Crew Report 1620 (MACR 1620) page 15:
"First indication of trouble to airplane #186 was when bomb doors were hanging open after bombing run. Soon thereafter the doors came loose. About two (2) minutes later there was a well coordinated rolling motion about the lateral axis of #186, followed by a diving turn left. This airplane disappeared into a deck of stratus clouds at about 10,000' apparently under control, and on the course of 120°. I assumed lead of the formation, radioed a report of the incident, and proceeded to Koli Field."

Statement by Captain Leo L. Hunt via Missing Air Crew Report 1620 (MACR 1620) page 16:
"When bombay doors were closed after bombing run, doors were hanging from ship #186, indicating damage thereto by enemy fighter fire. Three doors later came off. About five (5) to ten (10) miles southeast of Duke of York Islands over water, this pilot observed two explosions within the stricken airplane one in front and one in rear, omitting a clear, blue smoke. At this points only one (1) bombay door had fallen off. Almost immediately after, stricken aircraft rocked wings violently to signal that he was dropping from the formation and did drop from formation taking up course of approximately 100°  mag, turning back to 120° mag as the airplane arrived at cloud cover. #2 engine at this point was smoking badly and seemed to be on fire. Aircraft last seen descending into clouds at altitude of 10-12,000' over New Ireland, ten (10) miles north of south tip. When airplane left formation all visual indications were that pilot had full control of airplane and it is of the opinion of this pilot that pilot on airplane #186 was loosing altitude of his own accord, knowing that fire in #2 engine would burn off left wing."

Search
After the loss of this bomber, Lt. Col. Joseph C. Reddoch, Jr., O-21315 was the officer in charge of the search. On December 31, 1943 five B-24s from the 5th Bombardment Group took off from Koli Field (Bomber 3) on Guadalcanal conducted a search mission over Bougainville and New Ireland. Three of the bombers reported nothing and returned to base with negative results.

At 10:30am the two B-24s piloted by 2nd Lt. James D. Robertson and Captain Oscar G. Fitzhenry spotted something white on the southern coast of New Ireland. Flying closer and down to lower altitude, they spotted a white parachute being waved by eight men at roughly Lat 4.43 Long 153.00. Flying at low altitude, the B-24 piloted by Fitzhenry took three photographs of a group of eight white men on the beach plus native people and native huts among the coconut trees. They were unable to determine their precise identity but believed the tallest man was Colonel Marion D. Unruh. The bombers circled at 400' and 100' and dropped a medical kit, rations and relayed their position at 11:30am and noon before departing due to lack of fuel and returned to Guadalcanal.

Statement by Captain Oscar G. Fitzhenry via Missing Air Crew Report 1620 (MACR 1620) page 17:
"I flew within 100 feet of the men on the beach, and at the same time my waist gunner counted eight men on the beach. We buzzed the place once more, dropping the large emergency kit and taking two photos. The gunners thought they recognized Col. Unruh standing on the beach, and identified one of the Colonel's enlisted men. Both ships then left and each of us sent a message to COMAIRSOLS, telling them the time sighted, position, and number of persons sighted. Lieut. Roberson, pilot of the other plane sent his message 1130L and I sent mine at 1200L. Before this latter message was sent, the identical message was sent to COMAIRSOLS through DANE Base, and I was told the message would receive immediate attention. Upon landing, we found that Group Operations already had word, proving that at least one of the messages was received. The film was developed and found to show eight men on the beach, several natives in the background, and a number of native huts among the coconut trees. We did not land at Munda Airfield because of bad weather."

Statement by 2nd Lt. James D. Robertson via Missing Air Crew Report 1620 (MACR 1620) page 19:
"Flying one of five planes on special search mission for Col. Unruh, I approached to within one mile of the coast of New Ireland and proceeded south along the coast line. Just as I was pulling away to join the formation, one of the gunners noticed something white on the shore. I flew over to investigate and found the object to be a parachute waved by several men on the beach. I flew over them at about 400 feet. They were white men, and eight in number. As I circled and buzzed them at an altitude of approximately 50 feet, my crew threw the plane's emergency rations kit overboard. It was observed to land and break up on the beach near the stranded men who ran to salvage the contents. Sgt. Clute, waist gunner, said he was certain that he recognized an enlisted man on Col. Unruh's crew. At this time, Capt. Fitzhenry was also circling and dropping rations. We then started for home. My radio operator immediately sent a coded report to COMAIRSOLS and received an acknowledgment and he heard Capt. Fitzhenry's message sent and acknowledged a few minutes later. This message was sent to COMAIRSOLS through DANE Base."

Statement by 1st Lt. Paul L. Driscoll via Missing Air Crew Report 1620 (MACR 1620) page 18:
"Upon receipt of Captain Fitzhenry's report, a Dumbo was dispatched but the search proved negative. Additional searches were conducted by COMAIRSOLS with negative results, and on 4 January 1944, we received notification that searches would be discontinued for a period to prevent attention being directed to the Japs as to the location of the men sighted."

On January 2, 1944 2nd Lt. James D. Robertson was flown to Munda Airfield to participate in an attempt to rescue the crew. On January 3, 1944 a U. S. Navy PBY Catalina "Dumbo" escorted by fighters was sent to the location where the crew were spotted but did not see the men. Additional searched yielded no results and the search for this crew was terminated on January 4, 1944.

Fates of the Crew
Two of the crew: Bixler and Schaffran were never seen again and are both listed as Missing In Action (MIA) the day of the mission. Both are presumed to either have bailed out with the rest of the crew or may have gone down with the B-24 when it crashed.

New of the crew: Unruh, Fessenger, Koebig, Kuhn, Stewart, Wasilevski, Gillis, Constantin and Mull all parachuted out of the B-24 over southeastern New Ireland. Several of the crew landed in the sea and were aided ashore by natives in outrigger canoes that paddled out to assist them.

By December 31, 1943 nine survivors were together a native village on the coast. At 10:30am they survivors were spotted by two B-24s piloted by 2nd Lt. James D. Robertson and Captain Oscar G. Fitzhenry that dropped a medical kit and rations before departing. They were never seen again by other search aircraft.

Sometime after December 31, 1943 the eight survivors were ambushed at night by Japanese forces that opened fire on the hut they were sleeping inside. During the ambush, the crew attempted to flee.

After the ambush, six were captured: Koebig, Kuhn, Stewart, Wasilevski, Gillis, Constantin and Mull and taken to Cape Saint George then transported to Rabaul and became Prisoners Of War (POW) of the Japanese Army Kempei-Tai.

On January 3, 1944 a U. S. Navy PBY Catalina escorted by fighters attempted to rescue them but they were never seen again.

After the ambush, Unruh, Fessenger managed to escape after the ambush and fled into the jungle and were able to evade capture approximately two until they became separated and were both captured January 15, 1944 and transported to Rabaul and became Prisoners Of War (POW) of the Japanese Army Kempei-Tai.

The eight men became Prisoners Of War (POW) and were detained by the Japanese Army Kempei-Tai at Tunnel Hill.

Missing Air Crew Report 1620 (MACR 1620) page 6:
"3. On or about 15 to 20 June 1944, several members of the 5th Bombardment Group (H) overheard a radio broadcast from Radio Tokyo in which messages were read, purporting to come from known members of the missing crew. One example was heard by Major Edward T. Brown, O-316413, and Captain Thomas M. Clyburn, O-260325, in which the journal text of the message was along the following lines, 'We are bringing you a message from Lt. Thomas B. Fessenger, glad to be out of the war.... and similar statements of propaganda, ending with a request that his Mother, 'Mrs. H. L. Fessenger, 4 Cortes San Francisco, California', be notified he was well and for not to worry. [Fessenger died on July 15, 1944] A similar message was heard by the same two officers about 21 June, pertaining to Major Frederick K. Koebig, O-375573, statements were made '.... when our reporter interviewed Major Koebig he was in good health, etc [Koebig was executed March 5, 1944]".

On March 5, 1944 six of the crew: Koebig, Kuhn, Stewart, Wasilevski, Constantin and Mull were executed in the Talili Bay Massacre at Talili Bay. Afterwards, Fessenger and Gillis continued to be detained at Tunnel Hill.

On July 15, 1944 Fessenger died and his remains were never recovered and is listed as Missing In Action (MIA).

On August 2, 1944 Gillis died and his recovered postwar as Unknown 139 (X-139) and later identified.

After he was captured in the middle of January 1944, Colonel Marion D. Unruh was briefly detained at Rabaul and interrogated by the Japanese. A document detailing his interrogation was captured by the Allies and translated by late February 1944. Unruh was correctly identified as the Commanding Officer (C. O.) of the 5th Bombardment Group. Afterwards, he was transported to Japan.

Missing Air Crew Report 1620 (MACR 1620) page 6:
"4. A captured document, translated and distributed by Headquarters XIV Corps, Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2, APO 453, 25 February 1944, covers the Japanese interrogation of a Commanding Officer of the 5th Bombardment Group (H) to enemy action."

Afterwards, he was transported to Japan and detained at several locations including Rokuroshi POW Camp. As the senior officer in that camp, he became the commander of the American prisoners. At the end of the Pacific War, he accepted the surrender of the camp commander Lt. Tsuntaro Habo who turned over his sword to Unruh in front of the U. S. flag before it was raised over the camp when Japan surrendered. On October 25, 1945 he was reported at Osaka Main Camp Chikko in Osaka then repatriated to the United States.

Recovery of Remains
Postwar, the remains of the Koebig, Kuhn, Stewart, Wasilevski, Mull and Constantin executed at Talili Bay were recovered were recovered and transported to the United Sates for permanent burial.

Memorials
Bixler was officially declared dead on December 30, 1943. He earned the Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters and the Purple Heart, posthumously. Bixler is memorialized on the tablets of the missing at Manila American Cemetery. He also has a memorial marker at Mount Union Cemetery in Alliance, OH in the eastern part of the cemetery.

Schaffran was officially declared dead on December 30, 1943. He earned the Air Medal and the Purple Heart, posthumously. Schaffran is memorialized on the tablets of the missing at Manila American Cemetery.

Gillis was officially declared dead August 2, 1944. Postwar, his remains were recovered as Unknown 139 (X-139) and later identified as Gillis. He was initially buried at the American Cemetery at Finschafen at USAF Cemetery Finschafen No. 5 Cemetery at temporary 2, grave 2. Later, his remains were transported to the Philippines and permanently buried at Manila American Cemetery plot D row 6 grave 1.

On March 21, 1950 Koebig, Kuhn, Stewart, Wasilevski, Mull and Constantin were buried in a group burial with others executed at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery at section 78 sites 930-934. The grave lists the date of death as March 5, 1944 for Kuhn, Stewart, Wasilevski, Mull and Constantin and March 6, 1944 for Koebig.

Mull also has a memorial marker at Mulls Chapel Cemetery in Cooksville, NC.

Constantin also has a memorial marker at Green Hill Cemetery in Waynesville, NC in section two.

Postwar, Col. Marion D. Unruh remained in U. S. Air Force (USAF) and during the Korean War served in Japan. During World War II, Unruh earned the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) with an oak leaf clusters, Silver Star, Legion of Merit with two oak leaf clusters, the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) with four oak leaf clusters and the Purple Heart. After retiring form the military he returned to his hometown in Pretty Prairie, Kansas. He died on April 14, 1968 in a plane crash. He is buried at Lone Star Cemetery in Pretty Prairie, KS.

Relatives
Jack Unruh and Jesse Unruh (son of Marion D. Unruh)

Dale Anderson (nephew of Anthony Kuhn)

Joseph Ugalde (first cousin twice removed Edward Constantin)
"This is absolutely remarkable! This information really helps us put the pieces of the puzzle together and have a better understanding of our family during those challenging war torn years. I have already shared much of what we discussed with the family and they are just astounded. It's honestly like something out of a movie."

References
USAF Serial Number Search Results - B-24D-20-CO Liberator Liberator 41-24186
Pete Johnson adds:
"Al’s information came from original Consolidated data.  I actually have a copy of the Ft Worth mod line records that show C/N 981 as S/N 41-24186, and 41-24187 as C/N 982. It is quite feasible that the spars were swapped on the production line or even the whole aircraft was mis-identified when the serial numbers were applied. The only real indicator would be the data plate located in the cockpit on the center console somewhere."
IARC B-24D Liberator 41-24186
Missing Air Crew Report 1620 (MACR 1620) created January 5, 1944
Individual Deceased Personnel File (IDPF) - Roy E. Bixler
Nippon News "U. S. Unable to Endure Long War, States Captured American Flier" by arrangement with the Asahi March 18, 1944
Marion D. Unruh - Memorial Day Speech 1946
NARA "World War II Prisoners of War Data File" Unruh Marion D. last report Oct 10, 1945
NARA "World War II Prisoner of War Data File" Fessenger Thomas B. last report July 22, 1944
NARA "World War II Prisoner of War Data File" Koebig Fredrick K. last report Mar 5, 1944
NARA "World War II Prisoner of War Data File" Kuhn Anthony last report Mar 5, 1944
NARA "World War II Prisoner of War Data File" Stewart Lawson last report Mar 5, 1944
NARA "World War II Prisoner of War Date File" Wasilevski Vincent last report Mar 5, 1944
NARA "World War II Prisoners of War Data File" Gillis John J. Jr. last report August 14, 1944
NARA "World War II Prisoner of War Data File" Constantin Edward T. last report Mar 5, 1944
NARA "World War II Prisoner of War Data File" Mull Romulus F. last report Mar 5, 1944
Deposition of John B. Kepchia, September 8, 1946 "And Sergeant Gillis, from either Chicago or New York, who died about November 1944"
The Story Of The Fifth Bombardment Group (Heavy) (1946) pages 39 (Unruh photo), 56 (rescue photo)
(Page 39) "Two commanders of the 5th Group Col. Allen left and Col. Unruh, right, pose together on Espiritu Santo"
(Page 56) Colonel Unruh Shot Down - December 30: In a maximum 5th Group effort Liberators of the 72nd and 394th Squadrons from Munda bombed Rabaul. Approximately 60 to 70 enemy fighters intercepted our formation. Despite two dozen friendly fighters who were covering the strike, nearly every Liberator in the formation was credited with downing one or more Zekes.
On this day the group suffered a terrible loss Colonel Unruh and crew were shot down. The next day search planes reported sighting eight of the missing men, including Colonel Unruh, on the east beach of New Ireland. Emergency rations were dropped. However a successful rescue was never effected.
When this news arrived in the group, morale slumped, Colonel Unruh had endeared himself to all his men. A deathly quite hung over the New Year's celebration: and newcomers to the group, a year later, heard all about the wonderful leader, officer and man that Colonel Unruh represented to the men of the 5th Bomb Group. On December 31, 1944 Lt. Col. Joseph E. Reddoch assumed command of the group."
PNG Museum Aircraft Status Card - B-24D Liberator 41-24186
Bomber Barons 5th Bombardment Group Heavy (1982) page 41
"On 10 August 1943 Col. Marion Unruh took command of the 5th Bomb Group. Col. Unruh and his ten-men crew led 31st Squadron and other 5th Bomb Group planes in an attack on Rabaul on 30 December 1943. Over New Ireland Island, the Colonel's plane, The Pretty Prairie Special, was hit by Japanese Zeros and crashed into the water [sic]. Two crew men were never seen again. Natives in dugout canoes brought nine of the crew to shore on the southeast coast of New Ireland. Eventually, the Japanese captured the nine. Several of the men died of disease in Japanese prison camps. The rest were executed. Only Col. Unruh survived, spending the remainder of the war in a Japanese prison camp. Col. Joseph Reddoch took command of the 5th Bomb Group on 31 December 1943."
Scootin' Thunder (2006) pages 172-173, 201 (epilogue)
Courage Before Every Danger, Honor Before All Men (2010) pages 196-198 (Dec 30, 1943), 390 (footnote), 411 (Pretty Prairie Special), 415 (Unruh)
Target: Rabaul (2013) pages 288-289, 318-319, 327, 384 (index)
American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) - Thomas B. Fessenger
American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) - Roy E. Bixler
American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) - Albert Schaffran
FindAGrave - Marion D. Unruh (photo, grave photo)
FindAGrave - 1LT Thomas Bruce Fessenger (tablets of the missing photo)
FindAGrave - Frederick K Koebig (group burial photo)
FindAGrave - Anthony Kuhn (photo, group burial photo)
FindAGrave - Lawson Stewart (photo, group burial photo)
FindAGrave - Vincent Wasilevski (group burial photo)
FindAGrave - SSgt Roy E Bixler (tablets of the missing photo)
FindAGrave - Roy E Bixler (memorial marker)
FindAGrave - Sgt John J Gillis, Jr (grave photo)
FindAGrave - SSGT Edward Thomas Constantin (grave photo)
FindAGrave - Sgt Edward T. Constantin (photo, memorial marker photo)
FindAGrave - Sgt Romulus F. Mull (memorial marker photo)
FindAGrave - SSgt Albert Schaffran (tablets of the missing photo)
Thanks to Rodney Pearce, Robert Rawlinson, Pete Johnson and Donna Esposito for additional information.

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Last Updated
September 26, 2018

 

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