(The following account later came to be called the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” in the squadron.)
Nine PB4Ys (B-24s) took off at 0945 and joined up very nicely in the same disposition as yesterday. We headed NW towards Bougainville Island. Accompanying us “up the slot” were 12 F4Us and 10 P-38s. Our target was three Jap freighters (AKs) off Buin. We approached over Fauro Island at 20,000 feet. As we passed over Ovau Is. the Jap AA opened up on us. Far below us we could see dust clouds being raised on Ballale and Kahili fighter strips as the Jap Zeros took off to meet us. Meanwhile the Jap AA was giving us a terrific pounding. Their altitude was perfect and deflection ditto. The deadly black puffs were all around us. AA gives you a hell of a feeling of naked helplessness because you cannot fight back but must maintain a steady run at the target. We dropped our 72 – 1000 lb. bombs and blasted the target ship into oblivion (170 mph indicated.)
We turned slowly to port and began losing altitude to pick up speed. The AA kept pounding at us until we reached Shortland Is. All planes sustained some damage from the “ack-ack.” I suffered hits on the tail service and in my #3 engine, where a rocker box was blown off. The engine streamed oil all the way home, but continue to run. My tail turret was virtually demolished by shrapnel. Both guns were knocked out of commission, all the glass was broken, even to the heavy bulletproof pane. The entire metal casing was riddled with holes. The entrance door at the gunners back had a large hole torn in the center of it, the fragment miraculously missing the gunner, whose injuries consisted of a badly cut face (from flying glass) and bits of steel and glass in his eyes. The gunner’s seat-type parachute caught fire under him. Despite this he (Radioman s/c Tinsley) stuck to his post and succeeded in getting one gun working again, without even telling anyone of this predicament.
As we we passed over Shortland the AA fire ceased and 5,000 feet above and ahead of us I saw the reason why — a waiting swarm of Zeros, thick as a cloud of mosquitoes. Cooper in #3 had sustained in a a hit on his right wing which was pouring out a precious cloud of gasoline. One of the last AA shots nicked Bacon’s tail and momentarily he pulled off to the side a bit, but immediately closed up. Then the Zeros hit us!
Above us 5,000 feet the 10 P-38s fought off 20 to 30 zeros which attacked them from above and below. Two or three thousand feet over us a group of Japs dropped phosphorus bombs on us. On each side of our formation sat four F4Us, while ahead another four crisscrossed back-and-forth to protect our vulnerable bows. Their maneuverability was very restricted due to their shortage of gasoline. A mile off to the right were five or six biplane float jobs with 10 Zeros covering 3 or 4,000 feet above them. They were bait being offered to our fighter escort. One F4U succumbed to this temptation, went for the floatplanes, got jumped by the waiting Zeros, who shot up his plane and engine, which quit. He glided back under us and headed for the NW end of Choiseul Is. with two Zeros on his tail (later learned that he landed OK, got into his rubber boat, was strafed by the Zeros, but made the shore safely, where he was picked up by the coast watcher natives and eventually return to Cactus).
Ahead of us into each side were approximately 40 to 50 zeros making runs on us as they chose. As Bacon was still getting back in the position after the AA hit on the tail a Zero appeared in the distance ahead of us. Both Beswick and I, who were flying “on” Bacon, saw him, but apparently Bacon’s bow gunner didn’t. The Zero closed at a terrific rate. No one seemed to see him, especially the fighter escort. Our speed being over 200 mph (indicated) and the Zero’s speed being at least 400 mph, our closing rate lay between 600 and 700 mph. The Zero’s cowling became ringed with flame as his machine guns and cannon opened up. In the last few seconds Bacon’s guns started to fire, but it was too late. The Zeros 20mm shells were exploding in the bow and pilots compartment of Bacon’s plane. Beswick, on his side, saw the flashes of the explosions while, I, on my side (poor Kolyzik) saw the debris and broken glass coming out of the pilots compartment. The Zero passed under Bacon’s port wing within a foot or so of the fuselage. I thought he was going to ram him head on! As the Jap flashed by me I saw he was coal black. The red sun on his fuselage stood out clearly, as did the red Japanese characters along his fuselage.
Bacon’s plane flew on for a split-second, then nosed over violently in a slow spiral to the right. He passed from my view, but my gunners later reported that at about 12,000 feet his left wing broke off at the #1 engine. The plane snapped around into a left spin flat throwing the tail turret right out into space, with the gunner still in it. Some say they saw two or three puffs of silk blossom out before the plane hit the water. Anyone who did escape drowning under their chutes, must’ve been captured by the Japs on Shortland and tortured.
As the Army told us when we first arrived out here, there are three distinct grades of Jap fighters, called the first, second, and third “strings.” The First String boys fly black Zeros and are supposed to be ace carrier pilots. It was a black one on a regular suicide run that got “Jay” Bacon and “Ski” Kolyzik. The second string Zeros are for tan or brown colored, while the third string are floatplane fighters. Except that one black job, all the rest seem to be second and third string boys, the latter being very easy to intimidate with a few tracers.
A Zero making a run on Glanz’ belly, was set on fire. The Jap kicked his flaming plane around and rammed an F4U head on.
Above us three P-38s had been shot down by the much more maneuverable Zeros. Another P-38 had a badly smoking engine. He was last seen headed for a crash water landing over the Russell Is.
The Zeros, noticing the gas pouring from Cooper’s wing, made a special attempt to get him. One succeeded in raking his plane from stem to stern, blowing the top turret off. As we passed east of the New Georgia Group Cooper began to lose altitude. The fight was now almost one hour old. The last of the Zeros left us and headed for nearby Munda Field.
Cooper slowly sank toward the water. In desperation he was now turned towards the shoreline of new Georgia Is., ten miles away. Over my high-frequency set I could hear him talking to the skipper, “Big Op from Coop. Am going down. Go ahead. Don’t wait for me.” Slowly he settled until he was just skimming the water. Then, incredibly it seemed to me, his tail skid touched the water once, twice, three times, and then the plane gave up and settled into the water, skimmed along the top a ways, settled more, and lurched to a stop in a circle of greenish white foam. The nose was a foot or so below water, the wing awash and the tail was about a foot or so above water. Etched in pale green foam on the deep blue water was a V — three dots and a long dash — at the end of which lay Cooper’s plane like a dead bird.
By this time the formation had broken up (against orders) and we were circling the sinking plane. Despite the fairly good landing, no one ever got out of Cooper’s plane. At least no one we could see. The water around the plane had debris such as floating ammunition boxes, a wheel, oxygen cylinders, parachutes, etc., but no sign of life. We couldn’t understand it. Admittedly Cooper’s plane was badly shot up and no signs of life had been seen aboard her on her long run with us. The guns had all hung out the ports wobbling unattended in the airstream. But we had all heard Cooper talking. “Now why didn’t they get out?”
We circled for 15 minutes, each of us expecting the Japs to comes streaming over the hills from Munda at any moment. Our fighter escort was getting desperate. Their gas was very low. Finally, with sinking hearts, we left old Cooper (just married only two months before) and his lifeless plane. When last seen, 25 minutes after landing, it was still afloat. As we headed home, my tailgunner Tinsley called on the interphone, and asked if he could leave the tail. I could hardly understand him, but I did grasp something about “wind” and “flying glass” – that was my first inkling of the heroic part he had played.
We landed at Henderson Field at 1430, a very badly shaken outfit. Tinsley’s face was streaming blood and I sent him to the hospital. Bentley, one of the waist gunners, claim to have shot the wing right off of Zero which had made a run on us. (This was later corroborated by a P-38 pilot.)
Total official score for the day was one Jap freighter sunk, 14 Zeros shot down (nine by us, five by the fighters, four P-38s lost and two F4Us lost, plus two PB4Ys (24 people, 12 per crew).
Conference after flight revealed all pilots, including fighter pilots, badly shaken by the ordeal. All of us felt it constituted a virtual suicide mission, against such odds. The official intelligence count of landplane Zeros on the Kahili and Ballale strips (from photos) for the last few days is 117 fighters! I have little doubt, but that almost 100 of these were against against us, although the official estimate is 75 Zeros. Yesterday and today mark the debut of the F4U in combat.