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B-17 at Black Cat Pass
by Steve Birdsall
For years this wreck was shrouded in mystery. It should have been easily identified by the numbers painted on the tail, 41-9234, a B-17E delivered by Boeing in Seattle on May 26th 1942. But this Fortress displayed RAF markings on the fuselage and wings, and British serial number FL461 although there are no records of any British or Australian units ever flying B-17's in the Southwest Pacific.

Fifty three years ago the B-17 at Black Cat Pass had been just one of 32 brand new Flying Fortresses delivered to Cheyenne Wyoming, USA, bound for Britain as part of the Lend-Lease Agreement. Boeing applied basic RAF markings but also displayed their original USAAF radio call numbers on their tails. These would be painted over after the aircraft arrived in England. However, during the first week of August 1942, four of these B-17s 41-9196, 41-9234, 41-9235 and 41-9244 were ordered to Hamilton Field in CA where they were flown to Hawaii and down to Australia to join the 19th Bomb Group.

Within 3 months, 2 of the 4 were lost. 41-9196 lost with Lt. Earl Hagerman on October 5, 1942 during a morning raid on Vunakanau Airstrip at Rabaul. 41-9235 ditched off Cooktown on October 29, 1942. When the 19th Bomb Group went home in late 1942, 41-9234 and 41-9244 were passed on to the 43rd Bomb Group, based at Seven Mile Strip near Port Moresby.

Although the Japanese had suffered major setbacks in New Guinea, they appeared determined to hold Lae and Salamaua at all costs. Aliied aircraft continually patrolled the sea lanes from Rabaul to the Huon Gulf and on January 6th a convoy, reported as "two light cruisers, four destroyers and four medium transports" was sighted heading for Lae. The convoy was battered by Allied aircraft over the next two days, but it reached Lae on January 8th.

And so began a desperate day as Allied airmen battled though foul weather and aggressive enemy fighters to attack the ships as the unloaded their cargo, which included about 4,000 troops.  The 43rd Bomb Group sent its B-17's out on small missions all day. Available records indicate that 63rd Squadron's "Lulu Belle" arrived over Lae at 4:45 and at 06:00 bombed a "cluster of lights: Four B-17s from the 64th Squadron attacked the convoy at 09:30 claming one near miss. They reported that heavy, accurate AA fire began five miles out from the target.

At 13:00 Captain William Thompson in the 63rd Squadron's Panama Hattie took off from Jackson Aerodrome with Lt. Ray Dau from the 65th Squadron as his wingman. Ray Dau and his crew were flying 41-9234 and it was their 13th mission. A third B-17 was forced to turn back soon after takeoff, but Thompson and Dau went on.  The two B-17's reached Lae at midday fighting their way through a swarm of Japanese fighters. On the bomb run, the B-17 was hit by AA fire which shattered the nose.

The B-17 was being rocked by fire from guns on the ships, shore and was hit at least three times. Fight Sergeant Lloyd DuMond was wounded and the top turret was put out of action, both port engines were crippled and the controls were damaged. The tail turret gunner, Sgt. Henry Bowen was badly wounded by shrapnel. Still the ordeal of 41-9234 and its crew was not over; there was a 30 minute running battle with the Japanese fighters during which Dau's gunners claimed three Zeros destroyed.

With only two good engines, Dau and his copilot Lt. Donald Hoggan could neither climb nor turn. Dau recalled, "We were headed up a small valley and couldn't get over the mountains. I knew it was just a matter of time, so I began looking for a soft place to set her down. We glided in on the side of a mountain at about 110 miles an hour, and as luck would have it, there were no trees - nothing but nice soft grass - so we slid along into a crash landing".

The crash had been observed by the Australians at Wau and Cpl Hohn Smith led a small rescue party to the crash site. The wounded airmen were carried to Wau in litters, reaching there about dawn on January 9th. And B-17E 41-9234, still rests on the side of that hill that pilot Ray Dau put it down on, that fateful day back in January 1943.

Bud Cole, Lloyd DuMond, Ray Dau, Janice Olson, Bruce Hoy and Lex McAulay

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