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|Pilot Ensign Donald David Atkiss, 263870 "D. D. / Doo Doo" (POW died May 30, 1945, BR) Philadelphia, PA
Gunner AOM2c Richard Irl Lanigan, 3381863 "Dick" (POW died May 29, 1945, BR) St. Louis, MO
Radio ARM2c John Bozer Kepchia, 6528343 "Kep" (POW, survived) Greensburg, PA
Crashed May 21, 1944
Atkis, Lanigan and Kepchia completed 33 combat missions together. In 1944, Donald D. "D. D." or "Doo Doo" Atkiss was 21 and Richard "Dick" Lanigan 20 and John "Kep" Kepchia was 19.
Built by Grumman as model G-40. Constructors Number 4670. Delivered to the United States Navy (USN) as TBF-1 Avenger bureau number 23987. 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 turret gunner Joseph Donald Zollinhofer.
On May 21, 1944 at 7:50am took off from Piva North Airfield (Piva Uncle) piloted by Ensign Donald David 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.
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).
Initially the prisoners were tied to trees, they 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 the 6th Kempei Tai (Military Police) and detained at Tunnel Hill POW Camp.
During their captivity, none of them received any medical treatment. All three were severely beaten, especially Lanigan who seemed to receive twice the number of beatings as the others.
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.
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 (D69) 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.
M.I.A. Over Rabaul South Pacific pages 56-58
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.
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September 6, 2020
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