Valor: Rabaul on a Wing and a Prayer

July 1, 1990

When Maj. Gen. George Kenney arrived in Australia early in August 1942 to be Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s air man, he had under his command only 60 heavy bombers; most of those that were combat-ready belonged to the 19th Bombardment Group. The 19th had been the only heavy bomb group in the Philippines when the Japanese struck on Dec. 8, 1941. What was left of its force of already obsolescent B-17Cs and Ds was evacuated to Australia late that month.

Almost immediately, 10 B-17s that the group could muster were sent to Java in a heroic but futile attempt to check the enemy’s drive south toward Australia. In March 1942, as the Japanese poured ashore at Java, it was back to Australia. From bases near Townsville, the 19th flew supply and combat missions to the Philippines, some 2,500 miles to the north, and evacuated survivors, including MacArthur. In May, the 19th joined Navy carrier aircraft in the first Battle of the Coral Sea and bombed targets on the north coast of New Guinea. The latter were 16- to 18-hour missions requiring staging out of Port Moresby in New Guinea. During the first six months of the war, the 19th was awarded four Distinguished Unit Citations, with two more to come, and earned its place as one of the most renowned bomb groups of World War II.

Harl Pease was one of the group’s pilots who participated in all of these hazardous events. He had joined the fight in June 1940, fresh out of flying school. Now a captain, Pease was operations officer of the Group’s 93d Squadron. He was soon to earn a unique position in the history of the 19th Bombardment Group.

On Aug. 7, the US Marines were to land on Guadalcanal. To prevent Japanese air attacks, Kenney ordered a maximum effort mission (20 B-17s of the 19th Group, a “mass” raid at that time and place) to hit enemy air bases at Rabaul at the northeast tip of New Britain Island. The group staged forward from Mareeba, its base in Australia, to Port Moresby. Bomb bay tanks were installed for the long overwater flight to Rabaul.

The day before the mission, a small diversionary attack was flown against the Japanese airfield at Lae, New Guinea. Pease’s B-17 was on that diversion. Over the target, one of his engines failed. Since an engine change could not be performed at Port Moresby, Pease was directed to return to Mareeba, 600 miles south over open water. He was, it appeared, not going to Rabaul, the most heavily defended Japanese base in the southwest Pacific.

Pease knew the importance of the Rabaul strike and was determined to go with the group. At Mareeba there was only one flyable B-17, a war-weary aircraft that was used for training. Its engines were tired, some of the armament had been removed, and the electric fuel-transfer pump was gone. Pease decided to take it anyway. A bomb bay tank was installed hastily, and a handpump was jury-rigged. In less than three hours, Pease and his crew, all of whom had volunteered to accompany him, were en route to Port Moresby, where Pease made a risky night landing on the marginally usable runway at 1 a.m. on Aug. 7. He had been flying almost continuously since 6 a.m. the previous day.

With less than three hours rest, Harl Pease nursed the “war-weary” into the air and managed to hold formation throughout the long flight to Rabaul. Short of the target, Vunakanau airfield, the group was jumped by 30 Zeros, with Pease’s corner of the formation taking the brunt of the attack, but the 13 B-17s that reached the enemy bomber base put their bombs squarely on the runways and dispersal areas.

On the withdrawal, enemy fighter attacks continued for 25 minutes until the formation dived into clouds. Pease’s B-17, which had suffered extensive combat damage, could not keep up. He was last seen dropping a burning bomb bay tank before he and his crew apparently went down in flames–the only combat loss of the mission. The group commander, Col. Richard Carmichael, twice awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, later wrote that had the condition of Pease’s B-17 been known to anyone other than his crew, he would not have been allowed to go on the mission.

Pease was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously On Dec. 2, 1942, the Medal was presented to his father by President Roosevelt in a White House ceremony. It was the second Medal of Honor awarded to an airman during World War II, preceded only by Gen. Jimmy Doolittle’s decoration for the Tokyo mission. In 1957, the SAC base at Portsmouth, N. H., near Pease’s hometown of Plymouth, was named in his honor. That base is to be closed in September 1990, but the memory of Pease’s dedication and heroism will remain forever a part of the Air Force tradition of valor.

Published July 1990. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.