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|Pilot 1st Lt Gilbert E. Erb, O-398683 (survived) Chicago, IL
Co-Pilot 1st Lt Charles F. Watson, O-427062 (MIA / KIA) MI
Navigator 1st Lt John F. Twilley, O-431674 (survived) Shreveport, LA
Bombardier Sgt Richard G. Tennant 15012411 (survived) Farmington, WV
Engineer T/Sgt Francis A. Hewitt, 6814418 (MIA / KIA) VA
Asst. Engineer Pfc Sherland O. Pixley, 16001555 (survived) Charlevoix, MI
Radio T/Sgt Richard H. Howell, 6255824 (MIA / KIA) TN
Asst. Radio Cpl Edward J. Schneider, 15043539 (MIA / POW, executed) Garrett, IN
Tail Gunner Sgt Billy J. May, 13000074 (MIA / KIA) AR
Ditched September 12, 1942
Built by Boeing at Seattle. Delivered to the U. S. Army Air Force (USAAF) as B-17E Flying Fortress serial number 41-2663. Ferried overseas via Hickam Field then across the Pacific to Australia.
Assigned to the 5th Air Force, 19th Bombardment Group, 28th Bombardment Squadron. No known nose art or nickname.
On September 10, 1942 took off from Mareeba Airfield piloted by Erb with co-pilot Watson on a flight to 7-Mile Drome near Port Moresby. On September 11, 1942 flew from 7-Mile Drome to 17-Mile Drome and returned to 7-Mile Drome later that day.
On September 12, 1942 one of seven B-17s from the 28th Bombardment Squadron that took off on a bombing mission to attack Buna Airfield at low level. This B-17 was flying on the right wing of B-17E 41-9015.
After dropping its bombs from 1,600' west of the target area, this B-17 suffered a direct hit from anti-aircraft fire, setting a fuel tank on fire. Others observed the bomb bay and radio room seem to burst into flames, and three were seen to bail out within five miles from the airfield.
The bomber, still under control descent, parallel to the coast, crashed into the sea, 50 yards offshore, 10 to 20 miles south of the Buna area and sank quickly. Two men were later seen in the water, and emergency rations and weapons were dropped to them by B-17E 41-9015. The tail section separated from the airplane. One minute after the ditching, a large explosion occurred, sending a water spout 100' to 200' into the air.
Fates of the Crew
The three of the crew bailed out and five crew ditched with the B-17, and three aboard drowned in the ditching.
Schneider (formally a member of the 19th BG, 93rd BS) was captured by the Japanese and executed. Schneider's remains were found and buried in in the Buna area on November 15, 1942 in an isolate grave by Rev. W. J. Scheredler, Concordia College, Fort Wayne. On January 15, 1943, his skeletal remains were exhumed and reburied at Duropa Plantation Cemetery #1, grave 32 row 3 near Buna. Later, he was buried at Finschafen USAAF Cemetery No. 2 at grave 1566. Finally his remains were disinterred on May 14, 1948 and transported to Manila No. 2 Cemetery and placed into the the AGRS mausoleum.
The other two, Tennant and Pixley landed safely and fled into the jungle, and were later rescued.
Lastly, Lt. Erb and Twilley (who was wounded) made it to shore and fled into the jungle toward the east, and claimed to have "dodged several Japanese patrols" along the way.
According to the New Guinea Force Diary, the exhausted survivors made it to an Allied outpost manned by Australians at Tufi on September 19, 1942. After radioing back to base about flying them out from Wanigela Airfield, but the RAAF advised the strip was not considered safe, and suggested they be taken by boat to Dogura mission, or walk to Abau Island. After resting for a week and then departed.
Four returned to duty: Erb, Twilley, Pixley and Tennant. Erb returned to duty on September 24, and earned the Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his role leading his wounded crew member to safety. Afterwards, he was flying again on September 28, piloting B-17E "The Last Straw" 41-2432 on a flight in Australia.
Richard G. Tennant later served with the 43rd BG, 63rd BS and was MIA / KIA aboard B-17F "Fighting Swede" 41-24520 on May 8, 1943.
Recovery of Remains
The remains of Cpl Edward J. Schneider were later located and recovered. He is buried in Manila American Cemetery at Plot F Row 3 Grave 92. The four other members of the crew are still MIA.
The missing crew were officially declared dead on September 12, 1942. All are memorialized at Manila American Cemetery on the tablets of the missing.
Gilbert E. Erb Flight Log - September 10-12, 1942
American Battle Monuments Comission (ABMC) - Charles F. Watson
American Battle Monuments Comission (ABMC) - Francis A. Hewitt
American Battle Monuments Comission (ABMC) - Richard H. Howell
American Battle Monuments Comission (ABMC) - Billy J. May
Chicago Daily Tribune "Chicago Flyer Shot Down off New Guinea Reaches Jungle Base" September 24, 1942
New York Times "4 Fliers Foodless 2 Weeks in Jungle" September 28, 1942
Gore and Glory, page 74-77 by Captain William Crawford, Jr.
Captain William Crawford did not fly the mission, but wrote:
“The huge machine was hit on the nose by a shell, right before my eyes. I saw the flames spurt out, the Fortress reel like a drunken man and then plunge down on a crazy path towards the water."
American Heroes of the War in the Air - Erb Citation page 299
IDPF Cpl Edward J. Schneider
PNG Museum Aircraft Status Card - B-17E Flying Fortress 41-2663
Fortress Against the Sun pages 245-246
Thanks to Steve Birdsall, Edward Rogers for additional information
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