While I had not become blase enough to consider combat as ho-hum, our May
23 mission came close. Moresby's S-2 (intelligence) wanted us to bomb our usual
target: Lae airport. On previous missions against Lae we had safely flown through
their anti-aircraft fire and had weather fighter attacks by their Zeros. This
time we had six B-25s, Our leader Captain Lowry, the 89th BS commander hand
Timlin and Keel on his wings and I had Shearer and Birnn on mine. Lt. Wuerpel,
one of the rare Mexican-American pilots was my co-pilot. He had co-piloted
for me before but an ear infection had grounded him. This was his first flight
since he came back on duty. He told me he was happy to be flying with me again.
When we started to board our B-25 in its revetment, Cpl Sevene one of the
maintenance crew on my plane walked over and asked me, "Lt. can I go
He was not part of the crew, but I once before had let one of the ground
crew fly with me. "OK, I just hope we don't have any trouble. Grab yourself
a parachute. You can ride in the navigator's compartment.
When we took off from Port Moresby, Shearer failed to join formation, which
left us with just five B-25. Izzy, I knew, would claim plane trouble and his
absence did not surprise me. He had avoided combat often. No one wanted to
die, but each of us reacted differently to being shot at. A few pilots had
not gone to their commanders and said they would not fly combat anymore. I
don't know what happened to those guys they just disappeared. Izzy would fly
up from Charters Towers, but recently before leaving Port Moresby he often
would concoct some excuse. Not something you would expect from a West Pointer.
Some guys were so nervous that if they ate before a mission they threw up.
A few enjoyed the missions, much as some people thrill to a scary roller-coaster
ride. Must of us just followed orders and if others thought like i did, we
assumed someone else would get shot, but not me. Enlisted me, our bombardiers
and gunners had few options, they went with the pilot.
We approached Lae, as usual by coming towards it from the sea. I noticed that
Sevene had leaned forward in the navigator's compartment until his head was
between Wuerpel and mine, watching the action. When we opened our bomb bay
doors at six thousand feet and 210 mph, a Japanese Zero started a head-on attack
on Lowry's plane. Just after we dropped our bombs, a shell from this Zero exploded
in Henry Keel's right engine. Lowry throttled his engines back and nosed down
so that Henry, limited by one engine might stay with us for a while and be
protected somewhat from further attack by our formation, but Henry either could
not keep up or did not want to increase our exposure to the fighters attacks.
Henry waved me ahead and I moved into his right wing position. He dropped back
and down to our right where I could no longer see his plane. Wuerpel, my co-pilot
strained to watch Henry's plane from his right-side window.
A few minutes later, Wuerpel leaned towards me and almost in tears said, "Henry
landed on the water near the beach." Wuerpel crossed himself, "I
pray to God he'll be ok."
Near the point where we usually turned towards Moresby, Lowry climbed to about
four thousand feet and turned west. Almost immediately a Japanese Zero surprised
us with another head on attack on Lowry's plane. I wondered if this was the
same Zero which had aimed at Lowry before and instead hit Keel's plane on Lowry's
right wing. Now I flew in Keel's old position. I soon had the answer.
A shell exploded in the cockpit. White smoke blinded me and I smelled burnt
gun powder. A deafening rushing sound drowned out my engines. I felt ok,
but I could see nothing for about 20 seconds. When the smoke started to clear,
I saw that Lowry and the other planes were now far ahead. I was on my own.
I turned to speak to Wuerpel, but what I saw turned me away. Wuerpel had
received the full power of the explosion, his body was shredded beyond recognition.
Although I did not believe in God, I knew that Wuerpel was religious. If
ever there was a time for my conversion this was it, but all I could think
yours now God."
I saw my right engine had stopped. I tried to feather its propeller to reduce
its drag, but couldn't do it. I trimmed the plane's controls to compensate
for the missing engine. I thought about our situation. I would have to climb
several thousands of feel to get through the pass to Port Moresby. We were
about a hundred miles from Port Moresby, over territory not occupied by the
Japanese, and bailing out seemed best. Seconds later I felt a hand on my right
shoulder, it was Sgt. Webb, my bombardier. He had crawled back through the
navigator's compartment just behind my seat. I flipped the emergency bail out
switch and bells in the front and back of the plane rang.
"We're bailing out" I yelled at Webb. "Pull the door release
down there." When I pointed back at the navigator's compartment, I saw
for the first time the mechanic, Sevene who had come with us to see what combat
was like, lying crumpled on the floor. Webb knelt to examine him. "Sevene's
dead" Webb yelled up at me. "He head's a mess and I can't open
the door because he is lying on it."
"For Christ's sake, Webb, you've got to." I screamed. "Shove
him in the bombardier's tunnel. I can't help I've got to fly the plane."
Sevene outweighed Webb by at least fifty pounds. Every time I glanced back,
I saw that Webb with his feet braced against the side of the compartment, had
moved Seven's body further into the tunnel.
"He's out of the way now." Webb yelled and pulled the door release.
When the door left, a 200 mph wind shrieked up from the navigator's compartment
adding to the other noise and the plane nosed down. I leveled the B-25 and
looked back just in time to see Webb slip out of the opening.
I called on the intercom "Gunners are you still there?" I heard
no response. I tried again and the emergency bells still rang. Either they've
left or they've been shot There no way for them to com up front.
Before bailing out, I re-adjusted the trim tabs for a minute or so. The plane
had to fly straight and level, with my hands and feet off the controls, at
least long enough for me to get out of the open door. When satisfied with my
trim settings, I unfastened my safety belt, climbed down into the navigator's
compartment and without hesitation slipped through the opening.
I grabbed the parachute release ring, yanked it and threw it away. My parachute
jerked me to a stop and I saw my plane speed away. My plane started a slow
turn to the left that resurrected an old fear. While in flying school I had
once dreamed that I had bailed out and the unoccupied plane circled around,
came back at me and its propeller chewed me to bits. Now this dream appeared
to be happening. I decided to collapse my chute if necessary by pulling the
cords on one side, to dodge the plane. About three quarters of the way around,
my fears were relieved, the plane nosed down and with its engine screaming,
dove into the jungle.
Then the silence was overwhelming me. I wondered if I had lost my hearing.
I tapped my ear, No, this silence was real. In the B-25 beginning with the
explosion, the sounds deafened me - air rushed thought he cockpit hole, alarm
bells clanged, hurricane winds whistled when the door dropped away. They were
all gone now. I floated in absolute silence a half mile up, suspended by hundreds
of white chords ascending to a silk mushroom.
Although I knew I must be dropping, I felt almost stuck in space. I needed
help. At first the ground below looked like green velvet. Gradually the velvet
turned into bushes and trees. Off to the left some distance away I saw reason
for hope: some palm trees, unlike the rest of the greenery. I'll bet that was
a village. I watched those palms until I dropped into the trees.
I had landed in a shallow, tree-filled swamp. The tree branches had slowed
my fall and softened my landing. I knew there was emergency equipment in my
parachute seat pack. I unfastened the zipper and happily grabbed a compass.
The palm trees were south, south west of me. In the seat pack there was also
a large sharp bowie knife, which might be useful to cut through the underbrush,
a water bag, some water purification pills, some quinine pills and some matches.
I read the directions on the water purification pills: 'Fill your water bag,
drop in a pill and wait at least 15 minutes before drinking.' I stood in murky
swamp water about four inches deep. I filled the bag put a pill in it and noted
Small trees and undergrowth enclosed me. A small snake slithered across the
surface of the water to remind me I was not the only creature in these parts.
I headed southwest hacking my way through the undergrowth by breaking branches
or something cutting them with my knife. I was glad that the swamp never got
much deeper. After fifteen minutes, I succumbed to a craving for a drink from
my water bag. One swing curbed that desire. After another ten minutes, I came
to an opening and saw a smooth section of damp mud that I guessed was a path.
I confirmed this when I saw human foot prints several yards further along.
"Hoary" i shouted and dashed down the path. Ten minutes later, out
of breath, I rounded another corner into a clearing where I saw six natives
standing about 100 yards away. I raised my hand waved and yelled 'Hello".
They shrank back.
I saw these men as my saviors and I did not want to scare them. I approached
them quietly and slowly and when I was near one man I offered my hand. The
man took my hand tentatively. I smiled. He smiled in return, to me a startling
smile that revealed shiny black teeth and bright red gums. With their fear
dispelled, the others came to me and shook my hand.
They had accepted me. The other men's smiles revealed the same shiny black
teeth and pink gums. The man who seemed to be their leader, spoke to me in
pidgin english. "My name Hungery." [His name was actually spelled
In response I showed him my Army dog tags which hung around my neck and
he laughed. "Me no school boy" he said I knew that he meant he could
not read. Hungery pointed and said "Go home" and the men strode
along the path and I followed.
When we approached their village, my new found friends shouted something and
the entire village, about fifty men, women and children came out an lined up
to greet me. I shook each of their hands, while they chattered and giggled
as I followed Hungery into their village.
Hungery led me to a seat near a fire pit n their village and beckoned me to
sit there. It was then that, although I had not noticed it before, a native
pointed to blood on my right sleeve. I zipped down my flight overalls and pulled
my arm out of the sleeve. There was a small hole about 3/8 of an inch diameter,
in my bicep. It had stopped bleeding, and since it did not affect my arm movement,
I did not think it serious. Nevertheless, in a few minutes one of the natives
brought me a pan of warm water to wash my arm. Other natives brought some citrus
fruit from their garden.
Gradually, as I sat there, I realized how lucky I was. Here I was, a complete
stranger, who had arrived unexpectedly and did not speak their language, and
yet they had made me feel welcome. Earlier that day I had been in combat. Now
I knew that at least for a while, I would not be shot at. I felt like I had
dropped into a different world.
While I ate some fruit and rinsed my arm, all the villagers crowded around.
Hungary and I tried to talk, He interpreted for the villagers. I had to work
to make myself understood. When ever I could not understand Hungery, he recognized
it and said, "You no listen?"
Hungery made me understand that they saw me falling in my parachute but
were afraid to come and help. He told me that he once had been a houseboy
for an Australian in Port Moresby. When I asked the name of his village he
said something like "Papoda". I tried but could not pronounce it
to Hungery's satisfaction. (A few years ago, my son John came up with an
explanation of the name he said, 'I think he was trying to say Papua, the
name of the island, not the name of the village.' I agree.) [ The village
name was actually Fufuda]
Hungery knew about happenings outside his village, for instance he knew that
a war was going on although nothing yet had occurred near his village.
I realized that these natives did not live in isolation, they had such things
as: old cooking pans, knives, and clothes especially the colorful cotton worn
by some of the women. They lived in thatched huts about 8x10 feet. The floors
were raised by poles about three feet off the ground. Besides the village,
near a small stream they had a large garden, and the coconut palm trees I had
seen. Small dogs and pigs wandered about the village.
I told Hungery they could have my parachute. He did not understand the word
parachute until I pantomimed it. When he figured out what I meant, he laughed
and sent several young men to go after it. They ran off and about a half hour
later returned with it. I showed them how to put it on. They young boys and
men took turns putting it on and laughed when they pretended to be hanging
in the air. From their laughter, I knew they would play 'parachute' long after
I had left.
Before the sun went down Hungery took me to his thatched hut and pointed
to a shelf like extension, about 3 feet wide by 8 feet long on the end of
his hut. He pantomimed that I could sleep there that night. He gave me a
straw matt to lie on. I was too excited that night to sleep. Surrounded by
smoke from a smoldering fire under Hungery's house to keep insects away would
have made sleep impossible anyway. Early the next morning Hungery said, "Go
I had never heard of Buna,
but I was in his care. After eating some fruit, Hungery, two other men and
I climbed into their outrigger canoes made from a hollowed out log. They
paddled downstream, through the jungle to the ocean where we got out and
walked south east along the beach. We walked for two hours, waded through
three rivers, one deep enough to come up to my chest. Apparently thinking
I might be tired we stopped and sat in the shade of some palm trees. While
we rested one of Hungery's companions scrambled up a palm to fetch a coconut.
Using my knife with a few deft swings he hacked the husk away and handed
me a coconut cup of cool, delicious juice. While sitting there Hungery said "Mission
I did not understand but soon after we began walking again, he pointed to
a thatched building on the beach ahead. When we arrived at that building, the Gona Mission Station, I was warmly greeted by Mavis Hayman, Anne Parkinson
and the minister, Reverend Benson. Their thatched house significantly bigger
than the village huts, looked like a mansion to me. It was about a hundred
feet from a beach lined with palm trees and a large lawn covered the ground
around the back of their house. There were a few small building in the rear.
Reverend Benson spoke to Hungery in his language and Hungery nodded. Then
the reverend turned to me, "The Australian military are at Buna about
10 km along the beach will reward him for helping you. Write a message for
Buna to send to Port Moresby." He said, "They have radio contact
I knew Hungary had envied my bowie knife from the time he first saw it.
Before he and his companions left Gona I gave it to him. [Collins No. 18
knife, also known as the "Gung
Ho" knife. It was included as part of the survival gear. Later, the
USAAF changed to a folding machete.] He rewarded
me with a huge smile of glistening black teeth that I'll never forget. We
said goodbye and they walked towards Buna. Unfortunately, I did not see my
saviors when they passed by Gona on their return trip to their village. Reverend
Benson explained that their black teeth and red gums were caused by their
chewing on betel nuts.
Reverend Benson was a heavy man, well tanned and in his fifties. Miss Hayman
was the nurse and Miss Parkinson was the school teacher. They took me into
their thatched house and showed me the kitchen, dining room and bedrooms. My
coveralls were torn, bloodied and dirty. Reverend Benson brought me a shirt
and pants which though much too large fit surprisingly well when I tied a sash
around my waist. Unexpectedly, I had become a missionary of sorts.
Mavis Hayman, a petite woman about thrity-five looked grim when she examined
my wound. Already there was some pus drainage. She cleaned it with alcohol,
put medication on it, and wrapped it in a bandage. "Your infection worries
me. I don't have much in the way of medicine. This is a horrible place to have
an open wound." she said.
Reverend Benson ran the mission. He came from England. His denomination was
the Church of England - called the Episcopal Church in the United States. Miss
Parkinson and Miss Hayman were Australians. Anne Parkinson conducted a school
for natives and Mavis Hayman cared for their medical needs as best she could.
Periodically, these three missionaries hiked to villages within a 20 mile radius.
For adult natives stayed at the mission as servants for them. The Church of
England had several missions along the Papua east coast. Their mission headquarters
was at Wedau, near the eastern tip of New Guinea. Fearful of the war, the mission
headquarters had urged them to leave Gona, but Reverend Benson and the tow
women had decided to stay.
A mission supply boat traveled along the coast and stopped at each mission
station to deliver goods and take orders for the next trip. When they told
me they expected the boat soon, I decided to wait at Gona until it came.
Two days after my arrival at Gona I received the following message: "BUNA
26th May 1942 Lt. Dickinson, Gona. Dear Sir, We have just received the following
radio (at 10:30am): For Lt. Dickinson from RAAF stop. Advise exact position
491 stop regret no transport only fast ship which can bring salvage mil command
moresby 1750 hours 24.5.42"
Nothing else had been received, but I will send messages to you as they arrive.
Please retain the Papuan Constable to bring any messages you may have back
to this station and advise if there is anything else we can do. Yours faithfully,
Sgt. Major Yeoman, ANGAU Patrol Officer, Buna.
Since I had already planned to ride the mission supply boat south, I sent
that message back with the constable. I did not contact Buna station again.
The missionary's native built house was comfortable. Located about 100 feet
from the beach, It was cooled by sea breezes. Thatched palm-free fronts covered
the roof and kept the rooms dry except during torrential rains. A few welcome
geckos, small lizards scampered around on the walls, floor and ceilings of
their rooms and devoured insects.
All the missionaries meat came out of cans. Bully beef almost always graced
the table. They had a garden and grew vegetables peculiar to the tropics like
taro, but a few that I was familiar with. Their meals were as good as the army
food back at Charters Towers, and far superior to the food at Port Moresby.
At meals Reverend Benson said grace but all the times I stayed with them they
never discussed religion with me.
I explored the mission premises. The sandy beach, shaded by numerous palm
trees, would have caused any resort owner to drool. Although New Guinea is
near the equator, the sea breezes kept Gona comfortable. I often walked along
the beach but I never went into the water. I had seen too many sharks swimming
along the New Guinea coast when I was flying. Twice, I saw a B-25, perhaps
from my squadron, fly over and I tried to signal using a small mirror. I learned
how difficult it was to aim a mirror at something in the sky. These planes
only served to remind me that I was still in the Air Corps. I spent many days
sitting in the shade of the palm trees on the beach cooled by the breeze off
the ocean, reading books from the missionaries' bookshelf. I felt more relaxed
and at peace that I had since before the war began. The three missionaries
treated me as a special guest.
Servants cared for the 50 x 100 foot lawn behind the house. Two natives using
long sharp knives knelt on the lawn and swung their knives like scythes for
hours to cut that grass. When they were finished, it looked like it had been
mowed. Nothing would have please those natives more than lawn mower.
Anne, perhaps twenty years old, had blonde hair, blue eyes, freckles across
her nose and cheeks, and white teeth, which beamed when she smiled. Shy at
first, she and I spent most of our evenings together. Rather a plain looking
girl when she was serious, she blossomed when she laughed. She told me about
her growing up near Sydney, Australia where she had graduated from the equivalent
of our high school.
"I only went out with boys two times, I was too shy." She said. "My
folks heard about this job at the mission and urged me to take it. Not having
anything else to do, I accepted. I'm happy I came now, although I was homesick
at first. Now guess what?" She laughed. "My folks are begging me
to come home, they're worried about the war."
"I wish you would go home Anne, the Japanese aren't far away." I
said, "You never know what might happen."
"What is there to be afraid of Wes?" She sounded defiant. "I
know God won't let the Japanese bother our little mission."
I told her about my life, how I had met Averyl, and how I had gotten shot
On many evenings Anne took her portable wind-up phonograph and her precious
Gilbert & Sullivan records out to the beach. Waves lapped a slow rhythm
against the shore, stars eaves dropped through the palm trees and a flowery
fragrance filled the air. We wormed our toes in the sand, lay back and
sang along with her scratchy records. When the record player slowed down,
we did too. Since neither of us sang well, we laughed a lot. It was a romantic
setting, but I was inhibited. I had committed myself to Averyl even though
I had dated her only four times. I knew Anne far better than I did Averyl.
If I had never met Averyl, Anne in Gona, New Guinea would have been my
Lt. Dickinson survived the war. Anne was captured by
the Japanese who landed at Gona in July, and killed in August. Wes Dickinson's
story about the May 23 mission that he sent to Malchus from his book "I Was Lucky" pages 125-139