Uncommon courage

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Bill Eldridge
  • 13th Bomb Squadron commander
This June 14 marks the 90th anniversary of the 13th Bomb Squadron. Established in World War I as the 13th Aero Squadron, the "Grim Reapers" have fought in nearly every major campaign since 1917. 

Some of the surviving veterans of WWII, Korea and Vietnam occasionally send me e-mails about the squadron's history and their personal exploits. Some can be a bit racy. However, one story recently sent to me described the uncommon courage of a young WWII bomber pilot. 

Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the start of WWII, the 13th BS mobilized and deployed to Australia. After a few months in Australia, the squadron received its new B-25 bomber aircraft (some of the planes were "borrowed" from the Dutch Air Force, but that is a different story). 

As part of the 3rd Attack Group, the Reapers' mission was to attack Japanese airfields and shipping to prevent them from supplying and expanding their bases in the Pacific.
One of the major bases for the Japanese in the South Pacific was Rabaul on the island of New Britain about 1,000 miles north of Australia. Rabaul was the Japanese "Pearl Harbor" of the South Pacific. 

It was heavily defended and served as a staging area for naval and supply ships, bombers and fighters. In late October 1943, the Japanese began to assemble a major naval force at Rabaul. On Nov. 2, 1943, Rabaul's harbor, full of ships, was the target for the 13th BS. 

One of the young bomber pilots on that raid was 2nd Lt. Rich Walker, now a retired colonel living in Seymour, Mo. That morning, Lieutenant Walker and his crew planned to fly their B-25 bomber in a 36-bomber formation that consisted of three 12-aircraft squadrons. Each B-25 was converted to carry eight forward firing 50-caliber machine guns plus a bombing system that allowed for very low-level deliveries. 

Despite the Reapers' tactical preparations, the Japanese defenses were formidable. Intelligence estimated 400 enemy fighters stationed at nearby bases, multiple anti-aircraft artillery pieces lining the harbor and heavily armed ships in the harbor. Colonel Walker described the morning briefing as a "somber affair" and he assumed that "all of us would not be coming home." But, his crew climbed into their B-25s, launched and formed up into four aircraft elements for the flight to the target. 

As the three bomber squadrons approached the target area, they reformed into twelve ship line abreast formations. These formations were designed to provide the maximum coverage for the 50-caliber machine guns while minimizing the bombers' exposure to enemy fire from the ships. 

Approaching the harbor, the B-25 group immediately came under enemy fighter attack. Instantly, the group's leader was shot down. Lieutenant Walker's operations officer, flying a B-25 on the inside of his squadron's long line of bombers, had turned around earlier leaving Lieutenant Walker as the pivot man in the formation. 

As he finished the turn to line up with the harbor, Lieutenant Walker noted that the rest of his 12-aircraft squadron was no longer on his wing. Only his wingman remained and he was shot down just prior to starting the bomb run. 

For some reason, Lieutenant Walker's squadron commander also never turned in for the bomb run. Instead, his commanding officer circled the city near the port and dropped his bombs elsewhere. The rest of the squadron followed the CO leaving Lieutenant Walker alone in the harbor to attack the heavily defended ships. He wrote: 

To say I was scared would be an understatement, but for some reason, at this point I was now more calm. Maybe it was because I was resigned to my fate or because I was fully occupied concentrating on my bomb run, I don't know. But I quickly reasoned that my best chance to survive was to stay low where I was a difficult target while flying between the ships rather than above them. 

I maneuvered among the ships flying as low as I could, concentrating on staying between the ships, and then lined up on a merchant vessel. That ship's superstructure looked like the Empire State building towering in front of me, but I drove in, released my bombs and hauled back on the yoke. The plane zoomed up in a steep climb and barely cleared the ship's superstructure. We made a good hit and photos taken from the rear of my airplane show smoke and debris in the air as my bombs exploded. 

Lieutenant Walker did not know what happened to the rest of his squadron. He did not see them again until he returned home -- a trip he and his crew made alone.

The group lost 45 Airmen and eight B-25s that day, plus nine of its P-38 fighter escorts. After returning to base, the squadron commander and operations officer were relieved from duty and sent home. Lieutenant Walker was appointed the operations officer and promoted to captain. Later, he became the squadron commander and was promoted to major -- at the age of 24 years old.

When called, every Airman hopes to make uncommon courage become common. Colonel Walker's example lets us know it's possible.