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  TBF-1 Avenger Bureau Number 23987 Squadron Number 22
USN
VT-305

PacificWrecks.com
September 1945

Pilot  Ensign Donald David "D. D. / Doo Doo" Atkiss, 363870 (POW, died July 30, 1945) Philadelphia, PA
Gunner  AOM2c Richard "Dick" Lanigan, 3381863 (POW, died July 29, 1945) St. Louis, MO
Radio  AOM2c John Bozer "Kep" Kepchia, 6528343 (POW, survived) Greensburg, PA

Crashed  May 21, 1944

Crew History
Atkiss and his crew completed 33 combat missions together. Donald D. "D. D." or "Doo Doo" Atkiss was 21 and Richard "Dick" Lanigan 20 in 1944. John "Kep" Kepchia was 19. The crew was lost on their 34th mission.

Aircraft History
Built by Grumman. Constructors Number 4670. Assigned to the United States Navy (USN). Assigned to the US Navy to VT-305. No known nickname or nose art. Squadron number 22. Call Sign "Stone 22".

Wartime History
On September 16, 1943 took off on a mission with turret gunner Joseph Donald Zollinhofer.

Mission History
On May 21, 1944 took off from Piva North Airfield (Piva Uncle) on a bombing mission over Rabaul armed with four 500 pounds bombs with 25/1000 second delay fuses. Over the target, damaged by anti-aircraft fire over the target that caused the engine to loose power. Crash landed into a coconut plantation on New Britain, roughly seven miles southwest of Tobera Airfield, just north of the Warangoi Plantation and seven miles north of the Warangoi River.

TBF Avenger Nose 19 piloted by Lt. McCarson with crew members Addison and Grogan saw Atkiss' plane going down. They watched for any activity around the crash site, but saw none and presumed the crew was lost, then departed.

Fates of the Crew
On impact, Atkiss was injured when the control stick hit his chest on impact. Kepchia suffered a shrapnel wound on the top of his head, but was unhurt in the landing. Lanigan was unhurt in the crash. All three were captured by a group of forty Japanese and became Prisoners Of War (POWs).

Initially tied to trees, they were marched approximately 3.5 miles and detained in a cave for two weeks, fed only with a half bowl of rice and occasionally some shark meat. Afterwards, handcuffed and transported aboard a truck to the 6th Field Kempei Tai at Tunnel Hill POW Camp arriving during June 1944.

The entire crew was captured by the Japanese and held as prisoners at Rabaul POW camp. None of the crew received any medical treatment. All were severely beaten, especially Lanigan who seemed to receive twice the beatings as the others.

Atkiss and Lanigan contracted malaria and never received medical treatment. Both reportedly contracted malaria and were in a coma for two weeks prior to their deaths: Lanigan on May 29, 1945 and Atkiss on May 30, 1945 each died in the arms of Kepchia, and asked him to visit their families if he survived the war. (World War II Prisoners of War Data File states July 29 and July 30 respectively).

Kepchia received no medical attention and his weight dropped from 170 pounds to 74 pounds from dysentery during 17 months of captivity. He was subjected to medical experimentation by medical officers Dr. Fushita and Dr. Hirano, including over a hundred injections in each arm with unknown fluids, to test their effects. He contracted malaria four times from the injections and suffered from elephantiasis swelling of his testicles, hands, feet and faces. All the while, he and the other prisoners were expected to work.

He and the other surviving prisoners were liberated on September 7, 1945 by Australian forces. He was the youngest Allied prisoner of war to survive from Rabaul. Transported aboard HMAS Vendetta to Jacquinot Bay. The next day, flown aboard a C-47 from Jacquinot Bay Airfield to New Guinea, then to Leyte were the prisoners recovered for three weeks at a hospital on Leyte before being transported aboard a ship to Seattle.

Wreckage
After their capture of the crew, Kepchia was taken to the crash site of his Avenger.

M.I.A. Over Rabaul South Pacific pages 56-58
"Only one Jap accompanied me into the hut. I was given a hammer, pliers and a screwdriver and told to open the IFF box, Identification Friend or foe box [salvaged from the crashed Avenger]. I took the hammer and hit the top of the box with all my might and put a hell of a dent in the top before the Jap made me stop. He indicated that I should use the screwdriver and pliers. I finally opened the box and couldn't contain a smile. The magnesium bar had melted when we crashed just as it was supposed to. The box was useless to the Japs.

I was then taken back to the truck and we traveled for a short distance and halted. I was taken out of the truck again. I was led through the forest and thick jungle grow to what looked like a giant had cut a large swath through.

We marched a little farther and and there in front of me was our downed TBF. How strange it looked laying there with outstretched wings, wheels folded up underneath and the engine laying twisted in front. There were large holes on both sides of leading edge of the wings where we had hit the coconut trees coming down. The TBF looked like a giant bird laying on the ground with outstretched wings and a broken neck.

I had on my helmet and was given a cigarette then told to stand on the wing and point to where the radio equipment was housed. While I was pointing, the Jap said something and I laughed to appease him, just then the other Jap snapped my picture. I knew I had been "had". This picture was for propaganda purposes. I never did see the picture."

References
Donald Zollinhofer logbook, September 16, 1943 list TBF-1 Avenger 23987 [in error?] as assigned to USN VC-40 lost September 16, 1943 piloted by Hahn [TBF Avenger 23909]
M.I.A. Over Rabaul South Pacific by John Kepchia
Deposition of John B. Kepchia, September 8, 1946 - claims Atkiss died on May 29, 1945 and Lanigan died on May 30, 1945
NARA World War II Prisoners of War Data File - Kepchia John Bozer
NARA World War II Prisoners of War Data File - Atkiss Daniel D. died as of July 29, 1945
NARA World War II Prisoners of War Data File - Lanigan Richard Irl died as of July 30, 1945
USN Overseas Aircraft Loss List May 1944 records bureau number of this Avenger as 23987
Logbook of Joseph Kepchia May 21, 1944 notes lost Avenger as bureau number 23978
Australian Army "Memorandum for Department of External Affairs –  O-420600 Lt David S. Hunter: U. S. A. Airman: Deceased" July 19, 1950, Page 2
"5. The only other record I have is that a Japanese Captain Hirano of Japanese Medical Forces was attending to some of the US officers and that in or about July 30 or 31 1942 [sic, 1944] two US officers died at his hospital, their names were -
1. Ensign Atkins [sic Atkiss] US Navy Air Force
2. PO [sic AO] 2nd Class Richard J. Lanigan of St. Louis.
If there is any record of Capt Hirano he may be able to throw light on the matter."

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Last Updated
January 5, 2018

 

Tech Info
Avenger

POW
MIA / POW
3 Prisoners
2 Died
1 Survived

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