It was about a month before Christmas, not that it meant much to American airmen stationed in Port Moresby. The war continued, and Japanese opposition on combat missions could still be serious. The first day of December 1943 dawned a bright and clear. An aircrew of the 90th Bombardment Group, the “best damned heavy bomb group in the world” as they now called themselves, busied themselves for a high-level mission against gun emplacements at Boram airfield near Wewak. Take-off was early and, although the flight over the purple Owen Stanley Ranges was uneventful, tufts of cumulus were building in the target area by mid-morning. This was characteristic for the region and time of day.
Prior to their Port Moresby departure Lt Vineyard’s crew had returned from a weather recconaissance of the area. Unbeknown to the approaching formation, the solitary Liberator had alerted the enemy to the strong possibility of an enemy raid. Although Wewak’s airfields had been badly bombed, both the 68th and 78th Sentais were still able to get their deadly Ki-61 Tony fighters airborne. The sleek fighters, designed with an in-line engine, had given their Japanese groundcrews no end of trouble. Designed with hydraulic systems which worked well in cold weather, Kawasaki’s design was a thoroughbred which gave all sorts of problems in New Guinea’s humid and hot coastal weather. However, once airborne and in the right hands, the Tony was deadly.
Three of the Group’s squadrons, the 319th, 320th and 321st, each with six aircraft, were led down the Ramu Valley by Major Ellis Brown. The 321st was led by 1/Lt Dusty Swanson from Blonde Bomber. The 321st was actually one aircraft short. An extra Liberator had been included in the squadron so that a rookie crew could earn much-needed combat experience, but it had turned back due to a dubious engine. Exiting the Ramu, the Group flew together along the coastline until about fifty miles short of the target. Today’s mission had a plan. The 321st broke right and headed north out to sea. They would make their bomb run from sea to shore. The other two squadrons were to slow their approach so that all could bomb together, in a criss-cross formation which hopefully would test Japanese anti-aircraft defences and fighters. Thunderbolt fighters from the 348th Fighter Group which were meant to escort them on their approach to the target were there alright, but were much higher than planned. Then there was a misunderstanding in leadership communication between the Liberator squadrons, and by time the six from the 321st arrived, the other two squadrons had already left, as evidenced from plumes of smoke far below.
Swanson would write in his diary that evening, “when we got to the target things were pretty screwed up and the group leader called and said to go in one way and then went in a different way himself. That sort of left me out on my lonesome with the squadron and before I made my run we were hopped by fighters. I made my run and got the devil out of there. . . they were on us for about thirty minutes . . . . it was a pretty screwed up deal today, and the Major who led the group can take a lot of the blame. . . I guess every squadron made a different run”.
The 321st released its bombs mid-morning at 1112 hours from a sultry and building Wewak sky as the two preceding squadrons made for home.
What happened next was both sudden and unexpected. A solitary fighter attacked from the direction of sun in a classic manouvre which was not quite head-on. Its firing pass was momentary, but accurate and effective, as cannon fire tore into the port wing of Ten Knights in a Bar Room. S/Sgt James W Cayten, tail gunner in Blonde Bomber, witnessed what happened next, “the number two engine caught fire. Approximately 15 seconds after the engine was afire, flames broke out through the bomb bay, and waist windows. I saw three chutes open behind the plane. I also saw an object which might have been a man leave the ship, but no parachute was seen. I saw two parachutes float with the clouds, and watched the other until out of view. The plane started losing altitude just after the engine was hit. After approximately a minute and half the plane wen into a dive and started breaking apart”. S/Sgt Clarence Roper, right waist gunner in Blonde Bomber, later submitted, “shortly after observing the fire in the waist, number two engine blew up and the wing came off, and as the plane started down the tail came off”. The attacking Tony was observed to turn on its back and follow the wreckage almost to the ground. Some in the Liberators wondered why it did not make opportunity for a second pass.
B-24D "Pistol Packin' Mama" 42-41209 piloted Richard A. Adams had two engines out but fought off fighters as far as Vitiaz Straights ditched near between Long Island and New Guinea coast – Liberator cart-wheeled in water killing four. four crew in two rafts rescued following day by fighter-escorted PT boats from Finschafen.
B-24D "Pudgy" 42-40830 crashed east Murik Swamp. 7 crew bailed out NE Richtofen Point. Lawrence N Smith shot down by flak. Moved out ahead of formation, smoking but apparently seriously in trouble.
#1 – Blonde Bomber 1/Lt Dusty Swanson
#3 –Kay-O – John Bird
#5 B-24D "Ten Knights in a Bar Room" 42-72806
#6 - Ten Knights in a Bar Room had been named and decorated in Port Moresby as a play on words after the book first published in 1854 by Timothy S Arthur, Ten Nights in a Bar Room , and What I Saw There. The book become a famous temperance novel, moralizing on the certainties of bar-room life, and had also been made into a play. The preface for the first edition commences, “This new temperance volume by Mr Arthur, comes in just at the right time, when the subject of restrictive laws is agitating the whole country, and good and true men everywhere are gathering up their strength for a prolonged and unflinching contest”. The crew who had named the aircraft thus demonstrated the mood of defiance so characteristic of the times - the name support an image of rescuers errant in the pursuit of the American way, but from the sanctity of the familiarity of a bar-room. Or did it? To many in the Group, the name of their aircraft was just something you just accepted.
Back at Port Moresby a wet cloth was used to rub out the number of the place and the assigned crew from the mission board. Next morning meeting at Colonel Art Rogers tent. He was upset about losses and in the afternoon group practice session.
On 10 November 1983 Art Rogers addressed his men for the last time at Cheyanne, Wyoming. He knew he was dying of lung cancer. Was put in charge of 90th BG at age 32. He died on 12 July 1984 and left his last message to his men as follows,
“To the Jolly Rogers: I have been assigned the longest and greatest reconnaisance mission that has ever been given to the organization. You will also have to make it someday, and I will be waiting for each and every one of you on the other side of the bridge. Art Rogers”