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  TBF-1 Avenger Bureau Number 23987 Squadron Number 22
September 1945
Pilot  Ensign Donald D. Atkiss, 263870 "D. D. / Doo Doo" (POW died May 30, 1945, BR) Philadelphia, PA
Gunner  AOM2c Richard I. Lanigan, 3381863 "Dick" (POW died May 29, 1945, BR) St. Louis, MO
Radio  ARM2c John B. Kepchia, 6528343 "Kep" (POW, survived) Greensburg, PA
Crashed  May 21, 1944

Aircraft History
Built by Grumman as model G-40. Constructors Number 4670. Delivered to the United States Navy (USN) as TBF-1 Avenger bureau number 23987.

Wartime History
Assigned to Torpedo Squadron 305 (VT-305) "The Red Ass Squadron". No known nickname or nose art. Squadron number 22. Call Sign "Stone 22".

On September 16, 1943 took off on a mission with gunner Joseph D. Zollinhofer.

Mission History
On May 21, 1944 at 7:50am took off from Piva North Airfield (Piva Uncle) piloted by Ensign Donald D. Atkiss armed with four 500 pounds bombs with 25/1000 second delay fuze on a bombing mission against the runway at Vunakanau Airfield near Rabaul. This was the crew's 34th combat mission.

The formation included eighteen Avengers from VT-305 led by Lt. A. V. Vorndam plus six RNZAF Avengers from No. 30 Squadron. Inbound to the target, two Avengers from VT-305 aborted the mission. Also participating in the mission were twenty-four SBD Dive Bombers. The weather was clear over the target area as they approached over Tobera Airfield from the southwest then turned right at 12,500' and peeled off to the left pushing over from 9,500' at 9:45am to commence glide bombing runs releasing their bomb between 4,000' to 2,500'.

During the bomb run, this Avenger was hit by anti-aircraft fire causing the engine to loose power and Atkiss radioed that he was going to make a force landing and crashed into a coconut plantation roughly seven miles southwest of Tobera Airfield, just north of Warangoi Plantation and seven miles north of the Warangoi River. Above, TBF Avenger Number 19 piloted by Lt. McCarson with Addison and Grogan watched it go down and after the crash looked for any activity around the crash site, but saw none and presumed the crew was dead and departed. When this plane failed to return the crew were officially listed as Missing In Action (MIA).

Later in the day, a PBY Catalina "Dumbo" and PV-1 Ventura searched with negative results.

Fates of the Crew
On impact, Atkiss was injured when the control stick hit his chest. Kepchia suffered a shrapnel wound on the top of his head, but was unhurt in the landing. Lanigan survived unhurt. Soon afterwards, all three were captured by a group of forty Japanese and became Prisoners Of War (POWs). During their captivity, none received any medical treatment. All three were severely beaten, especially Lanigan who seemed to receive twice the number of beatings as the others.

Initially the prisoners were tied to trees, then 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. During June 1944, they were handcuffed and transported by truck to Tunnel Hill POW Camp.

By May 1945 Atkiss and Lanigan had both contracted malaria and never received medical treatment. As their malaria became worse, both were in a coma for two weeks before they died in captivity. Lanigan died on May 29, 1945 and Atkiss died on May 30, 1945. Both died in the arms of Kepchia and asked him to visit their families if he survived captivity. For unknown reasons, both were declared dead by the Japanese or in error two months later: Lanigan on July 29, 1945 and Atkiss on July 30, 1945.

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.

At the of the Pacific War, Kepchia was the youngest Allied POW to survive captivity at Rabaul. On September 7, 1945 Kepchia and other surviving prisoners were liberated by Australian forces. They were embarked aboard HMAS Vendetta (D69) and transported to Jacquinot Bay. The next day, flown aboard a C-47 from Jacquinot Bay Airfield to New Guinea, then to Leyte were the American prisoners recovered for three weeks at a military hospital before being transported by ship to Seattle.

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."

Atkiss died in captivity on July 30, 1945. He was buried on June 26, 1948 at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, PA on the grave of his parents A. Lincoln Atkiss and Adeline S. Atkiss. His epitaph reads: "Ensign Donald David Atkiss U.S.N.R. Aviator-Pilot [USN aviation logo] cited by the President of the United States for his indomitable fighting spirit at Bougainville, Buka and New Britain in keeping with the highest traditions of the Navy. Died in Japanese prison camp at Rabaul New Britain July 29, 1945 World War 2 Age 22 Years."

Lanigan died in captivity on July 29, 1945. He was buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery at section 71 site 504.

Kepchia passed away January 29, 2023 at age 98 in Monroeville, PA. He is buried at Westmoreland County Memorial Park in Greensburg, PA.

Logbook of Joseph Kepchia, May 21, 1944 notes lost Avenger as bureau number 23978 [sic 23987]
Logbook of Donald Zollinhofer, September 16, 1943 list TBF-1 Avenger 23987 [sic] as assigned to USN VC-40 lost September 16, 1943 piloted by Hahn [TBF Avenger 23909]
Navy Serial Number Search Results - TBF-1 Avenger 23987
USN Overseas Aircraft Loss List May 1944 - TBF-1 Avenger 23987
NARA VT-305 War Diary May 1944 pages 5, 7, 8, 66
(Page 5) "21 May, 1944 - Eighteen aircraft struck Vunakanau R/W [Runway], New Britain. Plane #22 piloted by Ensign Donald D. Atkiss, A-V(N), USNR, serial #263870, with John B. Kepchia ARM2c, USNR, #652 83 43 as radioman, and Richard I. Lanigan, AOM2c, USNR #338 18 63 as turret gunner, failed to return from the flight. Shortly after he completed his dive over the R/W he called Lt. Vorndam, who was leading the flight that his engine had been hit and that he was going to make a force landing. Lt. Vorndam was unable to to contact him to get his position, so he left the formation and searched the part of retirement for the missing plane, but with negative results. Later a PV-1 reported seeing either an SBD or a TBF crash into the sea between one and two miles south of [blank] Island in the St. Georges Channel. There were no survivors of that crash. Searches carried out by a Dumbo and PV-1 later in the day were with negative results."
(Page 7) "Roster of Officers - Ensign Donald D. Atkiss, AV(N) USNR 263870
(Page 8) "Roster of Enlisted Men - John Bozer Kepchia, 6528343 ARM2c USNR, Richard Irl Lanigan, 3381863 AOM2c USNR"
(Page 66) COMAIRSOLS Strike Command TBF Intelligence - 21 May 1944
"Plane #22 - Pilot: Ensign D. D. Atkiss, US failed to return, reported making a force landing, but gave no position."
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 July 29, 1945
NARA World War II Prisoners of War Data File - Lanigan Richard Irl died July 30, 1945
FindAGrave - Donald Davis Atkiss (grave photo) date of death listed July 29, 1945 [sic July 30, 1945]
FindAGRave - Richard Irl Lanigan (grave photo) date of death listed July 30, 1945
Deposition of John B. Kepchia, September 8, 1946 - claims Atkiss died on May 29, 1945 and Lanigan died on May 30, 1945
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 or 1945] 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."
M.I.A. Over Rabaul South Pacific (1996) by John B. Kepchia
The Siege of Rabaul (1996) by Henry Sakaida pages 93 (Rabaul's Military Prisoners - Atkiss), 94 (Rabaul's Military Prisoners - Lanigan, Kepchia)
FindAGrave - John B. Kepchia (photo)
Thanks to John B. Kepchia and Henry Sakaida for additional information

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Last Updated
August 5, 2023

Tech Info

3 Prisoners
2 Died
1 Survived

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