John "Jack" Heyn
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Gd'evening Col. Eldridge;
I got this favorable response from Dick Walker, Col., A.F.Ret. WW II 13th Sq. Commander. It will probably be the only one you get from him, but it's a good one.
The Raid on Rabaul, 2 November1943
Late in October 1943, the Japanese began to assemble a major naval force at Rabaul New Britain. The purpose of this assembly was probably to reinforce their positions on New Guinea or Bouganville where they had suffered earlier defeats and loss of territory. On the 2nd of November, the Fifth Air Force was directed to attack this force which was assembled in Simpson Harbor at Rabaul. We earlier had success in attacking shipping by low level bombing using converted B-25 medium bombers equipped with eight forward firing 50 caliber machine guns plus bombing mechanisms that us allowed us to drop our bombs at tree top level. The plan by the Allies was to use this force to attack the Japanese armada at Rabaul.
I was a member of the 13th Squadron of the 3rd Attack Group, one of the two converted B-25 groups designated to carry out the attack. Rabaul was a heavily defended Japanese installation, probably second only to the bastion at Truk. Reconnaissance reports indicated that there were about 200 fighters based at Rabaul and these had been reinforced by 200 or more additional fighters flown in from the Japanese base at Truk. There were numerous anti aircraft artillery batteries stationed all around the harbor and there were several heavily armed warships in the harbor itself. About the only way you can defeat a determined air attack is to destroy all the attacking aircraft before they get to the target. It takes a lot of defense to accomplish this, but the Japanese were obviously going to try.
The morning briefing conducted prior to takeoff was a very somber affair. Hearing the latest word on the extent of the Japanese defenses was pretty much a prediction that all of us would not be coming home. The twelve crews that were assigned to fly the mission sat grey faced and quiet during the briefing. The attack was to be carried out by waves of bombers attacking by Squadrons in file with twelve airplanes per squadron flying in a line abreast sweeping across Simpson Harbor. My Squadron was the second Squadron scheduled in. . Our approach was "up the chute" the channel between New Britain and New Ireland.. We formed up from four three ship elements into an eleven ship line abreast while going northeast using the hills in that area to shield us from anti aircraft fire prior to turning south to attack. We were under fighter attack as we approached our turning point. Major Wilkins, who was the leader of our three squadrons was shot down while we were still approaching the turning point.. I was the inside man in my Squadron line and there were only two ships in my element because the leader of our three ship element, our Squadron Operations Officer, had turned back to home shortly after take off.. Wheeling a line of eleven airplanes into a wide turn while flying line abreast puts a lot of pressure on the inside man. Carrying a heavy bomb load and making a tight turn without stalling out or getting ahead of the rest of the line is tricky, so just before we reached our designated turning point, together with my wing man,(because our element leader had turned back, I was now the element leader) I initiated a turn. When I completed my turn and started my bomb run I looked for the rest of my squadron and the only thing I saw was my Wing Man going down. Our Squadron Commander for some reason, never turned in to attack. Instead he circled the city and dropped his bombs somewhere other than against the shipping. The rest of the squadron followed him and none of them never hit the target. By that time I was out in the harbor alone. Prior to this, my heart was in my mouth. 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 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 ships 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 ships 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. I immediately got back down on the deck and after a minute or two I was out of the harbor and on my way home. Later photos from following aircraft show the ship I attacked sinking stern down (photo attached). In reality however, I think that I was fortunate to be the only attacker in the harbor at the time because I was not easily spotted by the Jap fighters while I was flying among the ships and as a result, they focused more on the large incoming flights following mine. I don't know what happened to my squadron. I never saw them again until I got home. I made the return trip alone.
According to one report, on that day, we lost 45 airmen killed or missing. Eight B-25s and nine P-38s shot down and several more suffered major damage. A couple made crash landings on the way home and were rescued, but the rest of my flight was uneventful and my only damage was a couple of bullet holes from small arms fire. I believe that we survived in spite of the confusion and danger because there was an unseen hand in the cockpit that gave us confidence and guided us safely through this "Valley of Death". To this day, for some unknown reason, I believe that I was protected.
Shortly after this event, as a result of the Squadrons poor performance, our Squadron Commander and Operations Officer were sent home and a new Commander brought in from another Squadron. I was appointed as the new Operations Officer and promoted to Captain. I eventually became Squadron Commander and at the tender age of 24, was promoted to Major.
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