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Crash of a B-25 Mitchell at Rattlesnake Island
on 23 September 1943


The following story is an excerpt from a letter written by Walter Krell of the 22nd Bomb Group on 1 April 1989.


I'm not sure either how the crews and planes got there. I remember making a trip to Brisbane to inventory the aircraft that had arrived. I think the crews that ferried them in were the same ones that stayed on and that either we or 38th Headquarters dispatched crews to escort the new ones back.

These were the first B-25s in the Pacific with the 75 millimeter gun. This was installed in the companionway leading to the bombardier's compartment. The navigator was required to load the gun which was fired by the pilot by means of an electrical spring-loaded button switch. There was an old weather-beaten, raunchy, renegade of a flyer who had emerged from Indonesia with the legend of having flown somebody's crown jewels somewhere. The one thing that made this guy dangerous was the fact that he was the apple of General Kenney's eye. He had been commissioned in the Air Corps very recently, was a Lieutenant Colonel, and a military disgrace. He was known only as Pappy Gunn.

Pappy Gunn argued that the 75 mm gun should be used to lay down a barrage ahead of our attacking aircraft, and that the big gun should be fired as rapidly as the navigator could reload. I agreed that this might work during certain strafing attacks, but that it was a precision instrument. With the aircraft equipped as it was with a pursuit-type of gunsight, I argued that the gun should be aimed and fired as the artillery piece it was intended. As if there wasn't enough to accomplish in insufficient time, this new weapon added another dimension to our training. Each day for about two weeks, after the morning briefing and the crews had started out to their aircraft, I'd take an airplane and a crew I had selected and fly to certain islands offshore north of Townsville which were designated for target practice, in order to work and learn that 75 mm gun.

The first step was to learn to estimate distance from the target. We selected 10,000 feet, roughly two miles from the target, as a beginning point. Then at each successive 1,000-foot increment while closing in on the target, the gun would be fired. The interval allowed ample time for the navigator to reload. The co-pilot held the stopwatch and, knowing ground speed by adjusting airspeed and windage, we soon surprised ourselves in developing reasonable accuracy. A certain rhythm and coordination developed with pilot, co-pilot, and navigator.

There was a major drawback, however. Because of the trajectory of the missile at distances greater than 5,000 feet, the nose of the aircraft had to be elevated so high that it obscured the target momentarily. The shell was explosive and several were usually fired before the first one exploded at the target.

This kicking the nose up to fire would play havoc with formation discipline. Worse yet, in approaching a target in successive waves of aircraft, and the aircraft needed to fire over, under, and through the guys out in front. However, I still felt there was a place for this weapon, particularly in situations where we sank the supply barges that were camouflaged under tree canopy up the tidal rivers along the coastal swamplands. The Japanese would travel by darkness, hide by daylight, and often stretch cables across streams to snare the low flying attackers.

I do not have this information as a result of first hand observation. Aircraft downed during these attacks may have been shot or may have struck low tree limbs. In any event the 75 mm gun could be effective toward this type of target. I decided not to push this, since the trainees had a ways to go just to come up to par in ordinary air skills. I don't know what eventually happened with this maneuver.

It was intended that our cannon B-25s be equipped with blisters of two 50 caliber guns on either side of the fuselage similar to the aircraft already so equipped in New Guinea along with the four 50 caliber guns in the nose. The modification was to be done by the 4th Air Depot in Townsville. Col. Vic Bertrandas was in charge. No guns for us in the nose; the placement of the cannon wouldn't permit it. I flew the first aircraft over to the depot as the prototype, and made it clear to the depot people that the crew chief of that airplane would remain with it at all times, to see what went on. I trusted nobody when it came to our ships.

There was an outstanding man at the depot by the name of Duncan. There was another very outstanding man by the name of Jake Schuster, sent over from Patterson-Wright as trouble-shooter. Jake had my total admiration; we'd flown together at Patterson while pulling the accelerated service tests on the B-26s during the summer of 1941. They seemed to be having trouble mounting the blister guns, and I couldn't understand why, since we had been able to modify all the previous aircraft so successfully.

The day came when the aircraft with its new guns was taken out to the firing pit for boresighting and testing. For hours, they made endless adjustments. The crew chief was there, as well as Duncan, Schuster, about four other officers, and some non-com mechanics. I had been making a nuisance of myself asking questions, and I finally said something like, "If she's set to go, let's go fly her." 

They said, "We'll do it after lunch, first thing this afternoon." 

There were a couple of guys with me, so we left to go eat lunch. When we returned about an hour later, the B-25 was gone. The firing pit was off to the southeast corner of Garbutt Field and, thinking that the plane had been taxied up to the ramp in front of the tower, we drove up there. The plane was nowhere in sight, but as we arrived in the tower area, an older tail dragger like a Lodestar was taxiing out of the Depot area. Colonel Bertrandas was at the controls. I swung the jeep around, stopped him, crawled up on the wing, and talked to him through his open window on the left side of his cockpit. He said that the B-25 had taken off with Maj. Duncan, Col. Schuster, and two or three others about an hour ago to test fire the new guns over the water off Townsville. They were supposed to have been back by now; but radio contact had been lost. Now Bertrandas was afraid they had gone down and he was on his way out to look for them.

I then went over to one of our B-25s parked on the field. Sergeant Sardom was near the plane--he was our line chief and the one really good man the 38th Headquarters allowed me to have, maybe because it was a step up from crew chief for him. Anyway, none of the men with me there that day were pilots, so they got aboard as observers, and with Sardom in the co-pilot's seat, we took off.

We searched until close to dark, checking from time to time by radio to see if the missing plane checked in. After landing, I found Bertrandas, and the conclusion was that the plane had gone down.

About two days later, it was mentioned to me that some floating debris had been picked up by a boat and was now piled in the corner of one of the offices in Bert's headquarters. I barged in asking to see the stuff, but though no one seemed eager to talk to me, I found where it was anyhow. There wasn't much material, but what there was appeared to be items from the cockpit. An intact parachute, papers, maps, manuals, and a cushion. The one startling thing was that all this stuff was badly charred as if it had been exposed to an intense fire. 

I reasoned that one or more of the pistol flares had been ignited. These I believed to be a magnesium type with their intense heat and awful fumes. If this had happened in the cockpit, there wasn't a chance for the crew. Flying as low as they must have been to work the guns, it was probably over fast. Somebody must have been able to kick open the hatches over the pilot's cockpit, which allowed the burned remains I saw to float free. I didn't attribute the mishap as having anything to do with the new guns, but I could imagine that if they had played with the cannon, a hot shell casing may have been ejected and kicked something off.

A day later, somebody caught up with me and told me that I was wanted at Depot Headquarters. When I arrived, I was taken right in to what appeared to be a hearing--a long table with about eight or nine ranking officers seated around it, with General Ennis Whitehead glaring across the table from the center seat, and Bertrandas sitting on my right at the end of the table.

The questions started: what kind of poor maintenance did my men perform on these aircraft?

I replied that the plane was new, fresh from the States, and had never been beaten up in combat. It was running like a jewel when delivered to this place, and we always kept our own men with the planes while they went through this place to make sure nothing happened we didn't like.

Then they queried me as to what I thought may have gone wrong. When I mentioned fire, Bertrandas went nuts, hollering, "What fire?"

I told him that I had seen the stuff dumped in the corner of a room in that same building and the material was well burned, as anyone could easily see. Bert was suddenly very quiet. He was clearly worried that his gun installations were suspect for having wrecked the plane. I went on to explain my theory--and this seemed plausible to them. Afterward, Whitehead asked me to wait outside for him. We rode around in the back of his staff car for an hour or so and talked about the war. He was in good spirits and friendly, which surprised me because over a year earlier at 7 Mile, I had refused to obey his orders by keeping four or more flights of aircraft on the ground. That episode is a story in itself and involved the 22nd Group.


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This page first produced 30 July 2000

This page last updated 15 December 2017