A day in the life of Second Lieutenant Jack T. Laughlin:
The forgotten Story of his final day 29 Jan 1942
Mr. Jack G. Waid 47th Flying Training Wing/Historian Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas 29 Aug 2011
Mr. William Bartsch and Mr. Gary Boyd
Special Thanks To
James R. Morris, Eric Gen Salecker, John McManus, Lee Long, , Richard D. Koone, Jim Long, Jim Sawruk, Robert Dorr, Richard “Doc” Warner, Joaquin “Bill” Saavedra, Lt Garrett Martin, Capt Matthew Rodman and Jacki Laughlin-Mitchell
(U) When reading this special study it is important to note the story of Second Lt Jack T. Laughlin was lost and buried for years. The information was out there however, just out of reach and there was no real interest in digging for it. As far as most were concerned, the story or stories already written were enough. It probably was enough, however, for the past several months I spent a considerable amount of time researching Lt Jack T. Laughlin’s last day on this earth.
(U) He was the first casualty of WWII from Del Rio, TX and from whom Laughlin AFB receives its name. It is not surprising he was the first casualty of the war from Del Rio, he died so early in the war on 29 Jan 1942. The US was involved in minimal actions except in the South Pacific and the South Pacific is exactly where Laughlin ended up. Before the wars start, he was a certified pilot; he had joined well before the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Interestingly, his unit (9th Bomb Squadron (BS)) was preparing to move to the South Pacific prior to 7 Dec 1941.1
(U) The early days of the war in the Pacific were dismal and desirably forgettable. For me, Jan 1942, was once just as forgettable until I moved to Laughlin AFB to become the wing historian. Of course, one of my first efforts was to learn more about Laughlin and his final mission. My efforts slowed due to lack of information here in the history office relating to Laughlin and to his first and only mission. The office file on him was a decent starting point and initial internet searches seemed hopeless. However, once Laughlin’s fellow aviators received names and identification, the internet became an indispensable tool. Paragraphs here and there lead to references and in turn aided in the creation of a reference book list. The book list presented to the base library here at Laughlin AFB resulted in the purchase of more than four books by the library. These books related directly to the bombing mission by the 7th and 19th Bomb Groups (BG) on 29 Jan 1942. Inner library loans allowed for others books required, some are primary sources and others secondary; leading by way of reference to primary sources. Still the information was at times misleading and vague.
(U) Ultimately, the information complied was the very best Japan and the United States, could offer. I mention Japan because the Japanese Navy of WWII had information. Keys here and there and with the right knowledge one could open doors to a wealth of information. How sobering it was to realize many crewmembers and planes involved in the bombing mission of shipping in the Makassar Strait on 29 Jan 1942 were gone only weeks and months after of the 29th.
(U) Obtaining hard copy debriefs and other primary documents proved to be hopeless, especially when considering the Japanese maintained limited information and what was available was difficult to find. Regarding losses in the early war, I concluded, the Japanese reported accurately while US bomber crewmembers likely embellished on their reports. Statements such as, “Jap losses do not substantiate the shipping claims of the bombers in these missions,”2 and “Claims by the bomber’s gunners were as usual greatly inflated and on this occasion six fighters were thought to have been shot down,” (Bloody Shambles, by C. Shores, B. Cull and Y. Izawa, 2002), support exaggerated claims by the US. The US was losing the war and reaching for any success story. Exaggerated claims aside, AAC crewmembers still had a difficult time piecing whole missions together later when asked to recount a particular mission.3
(U) Beyond the personal accounts and claims, dates needed firming up. “Hammering down” an accurate date proved a difficult task. There are multiple dates (27 – 29 Jan 1942) used to establish when Laughlin’s final mission occurred. The book causing the most confusion should have been the most accurate. “The Army Air Forces in WWII, Vol I, Plans and…” documented Laughlin’s mission was on 27 January; this statement confused the whole timeline. Ascertained, using all the dates and information available, the “Official History” was incorrect concerning the date used for Laughlin’s final mission. Research went as far as considering the Japanese use of at least two different calendars. A valid point however, in the end the evidence confirmed 29 Jan 1942 was the date of Laughlin’s final mission.4
(U) The next issue for resolution was Laughlin’s position on the plane. While it is true, Laughlin was a trained and certified pilot, extenuating circumstances on the day of his first mission, forced him out of the cockpit. If not the pilot or co-pilot, what position did Laughlin operate the day of the mission? There is no conclusive evidence addressing his position on the plane during the mission. Without doubt it, he was not the pilot or co-pilot of B-17E, tail number 41-2476, during his final mission. Actually, Laughlin rarely receives mention in any account, save as a casualty.
(U) “Assigning” him the position of a waist gunner on his aircraft is a very real possibility and is the opinion of several historians. In most cases, B-17Es assigned to the 7th and 19th BGs did have a ball turret beneath the waist of the plane. Early designation was “Belly Gun or Belly Turret”. There were very few B-17Es with the Bendix remote-controlled and remote-sighted belly turret. This information is important when establishing Laughlin’s crew position.
(U) The early part of WWII was a mess, records were a mess and the aircraft and crews were in a mess. The Army actually transferred, “…approximately 100 men of the 2d Battalion of the 131st Field Artillery on temporary duty with the bomber command and the promise that at least some of them would soon display the American's vaunted aptitude for things mechanical (mechanics were needed).”5 These soldiers, now aircrew members, were ground crew by night and operated B-17 gun positions by day in the early part of the war. As mentioned in an E-mail from Lee Long, dated 14 Jun 2011, “I don’t recall the specific aircraft or pilots as we went with several different crews but, the time period was during the first and second weeks of Jan 42. A number of waist gunners died during that period, so the op’s officer assigned several crew chiefs as side gunners. Fly days, maintenance at night. First time I fired a .50 cal was in combat...you learn rapidly.”6 “All hands on deck,” so to speak and everyone was playing a role, soldiers such as PFC Jack E. Bingham, SN#20813175 and Pvt Don H. Barnes, SN#20813583 who were assigned temporary duty from the 131st Field Artillery, died while flying on a bombing mission. Later 1942, the war, in a sense, calmed and records were a little more thorough. Some attempted to reach back and record or document earlier incidents. In most cases, it was too late and memories were faint and obscured.7
1 (U) Laughlin Certificates and Forms (U) Multiple dates, SD 0123.
2 (U) Book (U) W.F. Carven and J.L. Cate, The Army Air Forces in WWII, 1948, revised 1983.
3 (U) Book (U) C. Shores, B. Cull & Y. Izawa, Bloody Shambles, (London, 1992), Appendix A, Appendix B, Appendix C.
4 (U) Book (U) W.F. Carven and J.L. Cate, The Army Air Forces in WWII, 1948, revised 1983.
5 (U) Book (U) W.F. Carven and J.L. Cate, The Army Air Forces in WWII, 1948, revised 1983.
6 (U) E-mail (U) Mr Lee Long, former B-17 Gunner, 29 Jan 42 Bombing Mission, 3 Jun 2011, SD 0124.
7 (U) Web page (U) Pacific Wrecks, SD 0125.
(U) Historical analyses of the engagement on 29 Jan 1942 reveal the need to dispel myths and record long forgotten truths. This special study will eliminate the following myths:1) Lt Laughlin was flying the plane
2) Lt Laughlin was co-piloting the plane
3) Lt Laughlin was a 1st Lt
4) Lt Laughlin’s plane was shot down over Java or the Java Sea
5) Lt Laughlin’s mission was to bomb Balikpapan, Borneo
6) 30 enemy pursuit aircraft attacked the bomber formation
7) 6 enemy aircraft were shot down during the mission
8) Lead bomber had a hung bomb requiring a second pass
9) A cruiser was bombed
10) The bombing mission occurred either on the 27th or 28th
Note: There are two lingering issues, though unresolved the issues are not major players in the story however; they do deserve mentioning. The day Lt Laughlin arrived in Sourabaya, Java, on 26 Jan 42; the crew consisted of the following: Capt Sparks, 2nd Lt Nyblade, 2nd Lt Laughlin, 2nd Lt Biggers, S/Sgt Drake, Pfc Terrell, Cpl Harman, Pfc Prichard, and S/Sgt Kennedy. What happened to Nyblade and Kennedy? Also, was there an additional waist gunner not mentioned and forgotten about? There may also be a missing man; evidence points to the need for a second waist gunner on a B-17E during this period of the war.8
(U) There are two questions to answer and the first question lead to this study. Where was 2nd Lt Jack T. Laughlin positioned on his B-17E, tail number 41-2476? In addition, what happened on the day of the mission? These questions are simple enough however; they lead to more questions deserving answers.
New Bomber and alternate route
(U) Laughlin’s assigned B-17E belonged to Capt Walter W. Sparks, but Laughlin, who was the co-pilot, surely would have claimed her as his own. It is likely he did not know his new bomber as well as his last D model. The plane was issued prior to the 9th BS’s departure from the states. He and the crew soon would become official “Globe Trotters”. A trip over the Pacific, should have only taken a few days, his aircraft along with many others had to travel East across the United States, down to South America, and across the Atlantic to Africa. While in Africa Lt Laughlin had time to send his last letter home to his wife Mary. This revelation helped piece the story together. Leaving Africa he continued to travel east through India into the Pacific. Lt Laughlin along with the rest of the crew landed at Sourabaya (the next day they transferred to Jogja 27 Jan 1942) on the island of Java on 26 Jan 1942. Now, just five days after leaving Africa, the crew of 41-2476, the bomber had no nickname, made their final preparations for their first combat bombing mission.9
(U) The mission on 29 Jan 1942, turned out not to be 2Lt Laughlin’s first mission as co-pilot. The pilot was a Capt Walter W. Sparks and the co-pilot seat for the mission belonged to 7th BG commander Maj Stanley T. Robinson. Maj Robinson is at the forefront of all conversations and recorded accounts. Capt Sparks receives mention on a few occasions. Major Robinson had flown several bombing missions in the area and wanted to make sure his “green” crews had proper guidance. For this mission Major Robinson brought along his own battle tested navigator, 2Lt Richard W. Cease. Little did Cease know while making his preparations and setting the sorties course for the day, his friend and navigator school classmate, 2Lt Louis G. Moslener became the nation’s first causality of World War Two. The first bomb dropped by the Japanese at the outset of their attack on Pearl Harbor, 7 Dec 1941; killed 2Lt Moslener. Over a month later, Lt Cease prepared for his final journey and joined his friend as one of hundreds of B-17 crewmembers who gave their last full measure for their country. For this mission alongside Lt Cease and below the pilot and co-pilot was the bombardier station, 2Lt William T. Biggers manned his station and was certainly trained on the use of his Norden Bomb sight. Behind him was Lt Cease’s navigation station. Lt Cease was likely erasing the last mission he flew from his navigation map and prepared it for their new one.10
(U) Behind the pilot and co-pilot seats was a gun station manned by SSgt J. Gordon Drake. SSgt Drake was the flight engineer and utilized two .50 caliber machine guns roosting in the Bendix-made top turret. Further to the rear of the plane and just past the bomb bay, bombs and external fuel tank is the radio room. Monitoring this station is Corporal Cecil R. Hammon. Within the mid section sat the “Belly Gun” later known as the Ball Turret, Private First Class Lloyd H. Terrell prepared his dual .50 caliber gun station. The final manned station belonged to Private First Class Charles T. Pritchard barely seen at his gun position as the tail gunner.
(U) The final crewmember for the mission was 2Lt Jack T. Laughlin, again for whom Laughlin Air Force Base, TX is named. Laughlin was born 17 Sep 1914, in Del Rio, TX graduating from the University of Texas with a degree in business administration in 1938. In September of 1940, he joined the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program and on 27 Apr 1941, he received his wings. While stationed in Sacramento, CA for B-17 training he met Mary Fundulakis and married her in the Fort Douglas chapel on 27 Aug 1941. Not long after his marriage, Laughlin received orders and departed from Ft Douglas. He was heading to the South Pacific. However, with the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the swift Japanese advance throughout the Pacific he and his crew made that trek around the world.11
(U) Lt Laughlin was likely disappointed and anxious. It was turning out to be a bad morning; first, he called home to talk with his wife but somehow ended up being transferred to his mother, after which he was relieved of his co-pilot seat for the mission. The only open positions on the aircraft were the two waist gun positions. Author of “Deadly Sky; the American combat Airman in WWII,” John C. McManus believes Laughlin may have been utilized as a tail gunner, but agrees with other historians he very well may have been a waist gunner on his first mission. There is weak evidence pointing toward Laughlin being a navigator, but this is hard to confirm; Laughlin along with all pilots certainly trained in navigation but he was not the navigator for this mission.12
(U) He was fresh from training with an untested crew and now Laughlin relegated himself to a supporting role on the aircraft as a waist gunner. His pilot training might have been unneeded this day however; he knew he would do what was necessary. Certainly, he thought of making his wife, family, hometown and his unborn daughter proud. Today, Laughlin had the opportunity to examine the portion of the crew he did not see much when training and assist wherever needed. Lt Laughlin likely played a role in these preparations receiving extremely important on the job training on the use of the guns. He likely rehearsed the basics with PFC Terrell. The training involved verbal instruction though once at altitude, hand signals rather than verbal instruction were common place due to rudimentary communications at the time, such as push button throat microphones. This B-17 had two .50 caliber machine guns positioned mid-section, one on each side of the plane. However, remedial reinforcement Laughlin would almost certainly have to fire those guns today. As a standard, Terrell sent several rounds from the weapons into the nothingness outside the aircraft. A .50 caliber firing is a great sound and must have sent Laughlin’s heart racing.
(U) The sound of four Wright R-1820-65 turbo-supercharged radial engines belonging to B-17E tail number 41-2476 were hardly distinguishable over the rumble of the four identical B-17s preparing for takeoff. On 29 Jan 1942, five B-17s participate in the bombing mission to the north. Three bombers from the 7th BG and two from the 19th BG prepared to take-off on a bombing mission off the coast of Balikpapan, Borneo in the South Pacific. The smell of engine exhaust was sure to be everywhere and all on board could feel the vibrations of the aircraft.13
(U) Earlier that morning as Jack approached the bomber it must have been much quieter and must have smelled quite different. Taking a deep breath of the humid jungle air, he could have heard all the jungle noises and watched as the melting pot of soldiers and Airmen “maintainers” hurried themselves with final preparations on their assigned aircraft.
(U) After the wheels were up on the B-17E, only eyes were visible on the crewmembers. Behind oxygen mask, faces and expressions were not visible. During this mission, the men were equipped for high altitude flying, which caused the cabin to be extremely cold, even in the Southwest Pacific. At extreme altitudes, all wore oxygen masks, goggles, leather flight helmets, leather fleece lined coats, pants, gloves and boots, and beneath all this was an electrically heated suit. Lt Laughlin and other crewmembers communicated by way of throat microphones pinched and pushed toward the throat to activate.
(U) It is almost certain Lt Laughlin wanted to grab his oxygen bottle, climb in behind the pilot, and co-pilot positions. There he would have been in his element. He could fly this plane anywhere. Today however, he was just proud to be part of this crew; he did not have to fly as a gunner, there were plenty of alternates for the position. Like his contemporaries, he must have considered his crew, “The best damned crew in the whole of the Army Air Corps.” With Major Robinson as co-pilot, it meant their bomber was the lead aircraft. With several missions under his belt, Major Robinson must appeared a hardened combat veteran. He would show Sparks the ropes and Sparks would have the opportunity to pass his knowledge to Laughlin.
(U) As the crew of Tail Number 41-2476, along with the additional B-17 crews settled in for their 7.5 hour of flight time, the reality of the day must have begun to sink in. Veterans consistently mention thoughts of home and loved ones crossing through their minds before missions. Along with these thoughts were those of how brave each man would be today and who would cower. The thoughts of home departed quickly as the reality of war quickly descended upon them.
(U) T/Sgt T.C. Reeves, an enlisted bombardier on 1st Lt Duane Skiles14 B-17E tail # 41-2454, states, Charlie Britt flight engineer and top turret gunner called over the interphone, “Formation of planes, right rear, high!” Reeves states, “they were coming down at (them) from 32 to 33,000 feet.”15 They encountered no anti-aircraft fire on approach to or over the target on the first run however, upwards of 14 enemy pursuits attacked the formation. By this time, the fifth bomber piloted by 1 Lt Edward Habberstad, B-17E tail number 41-2427, had returned to Java due to engine mechanical issues.16
(U) The enemy fighters focused their attack on Maj Robinson’s plane. With the lead out of commission, the formation would falter, the Japanese knew this and the pursuits devastated the lead bomber. The tail was so damaged Capt Sparks and Maj Robinson could not control the aircraft enough to allow the bombardier to line up his sights for their first run from South to North. “Robinson to flight, I’ve been badly hit in the tail – having trouble holding the nose of my plane down. I’m turning the formation.”17 A second run was suicide yet without it, the mission had no chance of success. The formation now made the wide turn from North to South.
(U) By this time, the original bombing altitude had drop. Robinson’s plane was losing speed and altitude. Maj Robinson orders Capt Skiles to take the lead. “Take the lead,” Robinson tells him (Skiles). I can’t keep up with the formation. I’ll drop behind. And slow the formation down so I can keep up.” Skiles confirms Robinson’s desire to make another pass at the target.18
(U) The enemy pursuits gave way as in the distance black plumes began to spread out in front of them. At first, they must have looked like black clouds but everyone knew it was flak, ACK-ACK fire or Anti Aircraft Artillery fire. As the bombers entered the black field of death, they began to rock about in manmade turbulence. Through their masks, the aviators smelled the cordite from the bursts. These black clouds caused the air to shift and sent shards of metals spiraling through the air. Crewmembers could hear plinking sounds around the thin shell of the bomber. Death was knocking and it was only a matter of time before the unwelcomed guest came in.
(U) “Robinson to flight. Use as your target that heavy cruiser moving out from the shore”19 With the new target, the bombers altered their course and after T/Sgt Reeves dropped his bombs the following bombers to the same. With bombs away, the flak dissipated as the fighters returned. The severely damaged bomber (41-2476) was an even greater target. The formation altitude and air speed made it an easy target for the Japanese fighters as they renewed their attack. .50 caliber fire erupted from the bomber formation. The calls over the radio, the gunfire, bullets flying and brass clacking everywhere must have been deafening.20
(U) Approximately 40 minutes after Japanese fighters first engaged the formation they broke off the fight. “Robinson to Skiles, radio the base at Malang to have an ambulance ready. We have two badly wounded men aboard.”21 Reeves speculates, “…it must be the tail gunner and the radio operator or his plane could have sent their own dot-dash message back to base.”22
(U) Drifting ever closer to the Makassar Strait the formation dropped to an altitude of 4,000 feet. Major Robinson passes command over to Lt Dufrane and orders him to get the formation back safely. He suggests he is going to crash land on an island or Southern Borneo. Dufrane speculates, at this point, Capt Sparks and Maj Robinson had their hands on the controls flying the aircraft in unison. By now, the formation had loosened its grip around Sparks’ plane. By all accounts, the bomber looked very difficult to handle. Lt Dufrane stated, “It was all I could do to maintain flight at our low speed.”23
(U) This was it; Lt Laughlin’s prized bomber broke away from the formation and dropped about a thousand feet. The bomber steadied but only for a moment. Seconds must have seemed like minutes as all crews watch their group commander and friends make a final attempt to stabilize their flight. 180 miles south of the target watching from his B-17 (Edmunds) reports Capt Dufrane as saying, “…they must have had the controls in their chest…,” as the rear stabilizer broke during their decent to the water.24
(U) From a steep dive, the ocean accepted Capt Sparks’ bomber and crew as they disappeared into a multicolor explosion. The formation flew a circle around the impact area; there was neither debris, nor survivors.25
(U) This was the only aircraft lost on the mission and for his actions and heroism; Maj Robinson, was apparently prompted to Lieutenant Colonel and was awarded the Distinguish Service Cross. The citation stated: “The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross (Posthumously) to Stanley K. Robinson (0-17388), Lieutenant Colonel (Air Corps), U.S. Army Air Forces, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving as Pilot of a B-17 Heavy Bomber in the Headquarters, 7th Bombardment Group (H), TENTH Air Force, while participating in a bombing mission on 29 January 1942, against enemy Japanese surface vessels in the Southwest Pacific Theater of Operations. On this date Lieutenant Colonel Robinson led his squadron against an enemy concentration of transports, one of which was sunk and another which was damaged. His squadron, while battling enemy planes, also damaged an enemy cruiser. Lieutenant Colonel Robinson was shot down and failed to return from this heroic air mission. The personal courage and devotion to duty displayed by Lieutenant Colonel Robinson on this occasion, at the cost of his life, have upheld the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, the 10th Air Force, and the United States Army Air Forces.” Office of the Department Commander, South West Pacific Command, General Orders No. 2 (1942), Office of the Department Commander, South West Pacific Command, General Orders No. 226.
(U) Along with the details stated in the DSC citation and after action reports a total of one Japanese transport was sunk, another was damaged, a Japanese cruiser was damage and six enemy pursuits, out of an exaggerated 30, are reported shot down. Reports from the Tainan Group or Ku, the Japanese Naval Air unit that attacked the bomber formation reports only one (possibly two) fighter lost and the Japanese Navy reports no ship sustained damage on 29 Jan 1942. Several US sources cite a cruiser in the area received damaged during attacks on it. According to the Japanese, there was no cruiser in the area for several hundred miles. The Sanuki Maru is the only large ship in the Makassar Strait during the bombing mission on the 29th. The original handwritten account of the mission states, “no hit on cruiser.”27 There was no cruiser, it was the aircraft tender Sanuki Maru. It is true however; on the 27th, the Sanuki Maru sustained minimal damage during another of Robinson’s missions to the area. The trade winds were blowing smoke from the burning oil refineries to the east. Though not report this would have obscured an individual’s ability to identify enemy shipping accurately and damage assessments suffered.
(U) As the U.S. bomber formation lined up for its bombing run, five Imperial Japanese Naval Tainan Ku (IJN Pilot/Ace, Subaru Saki was a member of Tainan Ku) A6Ms led by Lt Sasai attacked. Lt Sasai reports, “Three of the bombers trailed white smoke, but they could see no other results.”28 In addition, two A6Ms from Balikpapan airfield that were on patrol and attacked the bombers and moments later six additional pursuits from Balikpapan joined in the fight.29
(U) “NAP 1/C Toshiyuki Sakai, one of the pilots scrambled from Balikpapan, was shot down and killed 20 miles out to sea, while one of the original pair on patrol from the airfield, NAP 2/C Toshio Ohta, was badly wounded and had to return quickly to his base. He was subsequently hospitalized for several weeks, but on return to action he became one of Japan’s greatest aces with 34 victories before his death in combat at Guadalcanal the following October. All 12 surviving A6Ms landed at Balikpapan. Claims by the bombers’ gunners were as usual greatly inflated and on this occasion, six fighters are reported shot down. Due to the repeated fighter attacks over the target area, the results of the bombing were negligible.”30
(U) One A6M shot down! The Mitsubishi A6M is a Japanese Zero. Shooting down an A6M was a true feat. An additional four A6Ms received damage, with negligible bombing reports on shipping; Japanese reports are far different from U.S. aircrew reports. Interestingly the Japanese only report damage to the bombers but do not see B-17E, 41-2476 go down and in Lt Dufrane’s words, “thank God [they] didn’t see it.”31
(U) So ends the bombing mission, then with time and manipulation truth begins to fade. There were several misconceptions requiring research to get to the truth of Lt Laughlin’s last day. Sources from the Japanese and US helped established the true story and in this case, truth is better than the myth but, the story is not over.
(U) Months later on 2 July 1942, an Army Air Forces base for pilot training was established near Del Rio, TX and it eventually was proudly named after Second Lt Jack Thomas Laughlin. Citizens of Del Rio, TX will be eternally grateful for the sacrifices of the men and women who have trained at Laughlin and served their nation after learning their trade here. As well, Del Rio will always remember Laughlin as the first casualty of World War II.
(U) Now, the Laughlin story takes on new meaning for Airmen of today. All of Lt Laughlin’s training prepared him to fly and on 29 Jan 1942, he overcame the challenges of a new role. He stepped out of his element and accomplished a mission for which he did not train. The reality is Laughlin did not have to fly this mission however, he when called upon he acted instinctively. Airmen today are also asked to serve in roles outside their career fields (“in lieu of”), so Lt Laughlin did the same and performed all required tasks with valor and honor.
(U) We will never know all that Lt Laughlin accomplished on this day, but we can know with certainty he was molded, built and trained with the same materials Airmen are made of today. Lt Laughlin was part of a team; physically and mentally prepared to take care of his team and gave up everything to serve our country. 29 Jan 1942, marked the day that Capt Sparks, Maj Robinson, Lt Biggers, Lt Cease, Lt Laughlin, SSgt Drake, Corporal Hammon, and PFCs Terrell and Pritchard gave their last full measure for their country.
8 (U) E-mail (U) Eric Salecker, Author, “Fortress Against the Sun,” info, 30 May 2011, SD 0126.
9 (U) MEMO (U) 9th BS Movement, 10 Aug 1945, SD 0115;(U) Jacki Laughlin Mitchell, Letter from Africa, 10 May 2011, SD 0127.
10 (U) E-mail (U) Eric Salecker, Author, Fortress Against the Sun Info (crew positions), 30 May 2011, SD 0126; (U) Book (U) Col Ed Whitcomb, On Celestial Wings, AU Press, 2001, p. 13, 34, SD 0128.
11 (U) Laughlin Certificates and Forms (U) Multiple dates, SD0123.
12 (U) Laughlin Certificates and Forms (U) Multiple dates, SD0123.
13 (U) E-mail (U) Eric Salecker, Author, Fortress Against the Sun Info (crew positions), 30 May 2011, SD 0126.
14 1st Lt “Duke” Dufrane is Co-pilot on the mission, his plane was out of commission according to T/S Reeves. (U) E-mail (U) Eric Salecker, Author, Fortress Against the Sun Info (crew positions), 30 May 2011, SD 0126; (U) Book (U) W.L. White, Queens Die Proudly, (1943), Appendix A, Appendix B, Appendix C.
15 (U) Book (U) W.L. White, Queens Die Proudly, (1943), Appendix A, Appendix B, Appendix C.
16 SD 0112.
17 (U) Book (U) W.L. White, Queens Die Proudly, (1943), Appendix A, Appendix B, Appendix C.
18 (U) Book (U) W.L. White, Queens Die Proudly, (1943), Appendix A, Appendix B, Appendix C.
19 (U) Book (U) W.L. White, Queens Die Proudly, (1943), Appendix A, Appendix B, Appendix C.
20 (U) Book (U) W.L. White, Queens Die Proudly, (1943), Appendix A, Appendix B, Appendix C.
21 (U) Book (U) W.L. White, Queens Die Proudly, (1943), Appendix A, Appendix B, Appendix C.
22 (U) Book (U) W.L. White, Queens Die Proudly, (1943), Appendix A, Appendix B, Appendix C.
23 (U) Book (U) W.L. White, Queens Die Proudly, (1943), Appendix A, Appendix B, Appendix C.
24 (U) Book (U) Walter D. Edmunds, They fought with what they had: The story of the Army Air Forces in the South west Pacific, 1941-1942, (Zenger, 1982), Appendix A, Appendix B, Appendix C.
25 (U) Book (U) W.L. White, Queens Die Proudly, (1943), Appendix A, Appendix B, Appendix C.
26 (U) Web page (U) http://www.homeofheroes.com/members/02_DSC/citatons/03_wwii-dsc/aaf_p.html
27 (U) Notes (U) Original hand written notes, 7th BG, dated Feb 1942, SD 0118.
28 (U) Book (U) C. Shores, B. Cull & Y. Izawa, Bloody Shambles, (London, 92), Appendix A, Appendix B, Appendix C.
29 (U) Book (U) C. Shores, B. Cull & Y. Izawa, Bloody Shambles, (London, 92), Appendix A, Appendix B, Appendix C.
30 (U) Book (U) C. Shores, B. Cull & Y. Izawa, Bloody Shambles, (London, 92), Appendix A, Appendix B, Appendix C.
31 (U) Book (U) W.L. White, Queens Die Proudly, (1943), Appendix A, Appendix B, Appendix C.
Jack T. Laughlin:
17 Sep 1914 – Born in Del Rio, TX to Jack Thomas Laughlin and Anna McGehee Laughlin
May 1932 – Graduated from Del Rio High School
1938 – Received his bachelors degree in Business Administration from the University of Texas
Sep 1940 – Joined the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program Flying training at several California bases:
-- Santa Maria
27 Apr 1941 – Commissioned and was awarded his wings and assigned to heavy bombardment duty at Fort Douglas, UT
7 Aug 1941 – Married Mary Fundulakis of Sacramento, CA
Dec 1941 – Departed with orders to Java
Re-routed to the east across the atlantic
24 Jan 1942 – wrote last letter home, from Africa
26 Jan 1942 – Arrived at sourbaya, Java
29 Jan 1942 – died
14 Aug 1942 – his daughter Jacki is born at Randolph Field, TX
28 Mar 1943 – Field named after Laughlin…
Trained in B-17 B and C models flying out of Salt Lake City and assigned to the E model prior to departure. Assigned to 9th BS, 7th BG, 10th AF.
Lt Laughlin and Mary had only been married 4 ½ months prior to his departure.
32 (U) Laughlin Certificates and Forms (U) Multiple dates, SD0123. (U) Orders (U) 7th BG Movement Orders, 14 Nov 1941, SD 0119.
27 January 1942
On 27 Jan 1942, at approx 1450 after a 7hr 5 min flight to bomb warships and transports in the Makassar Strait off the coast of Balikpapan, Borneo, a formation of five B-17Es returned to Malang. The flight consisted of bombers from both the 7th and 19th Bomb Groups. This is significant as it shows the lack of available aircraft in the area. Most had been destroyed at Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, or in recent bombing missions by enemy aircraft.
There were still several bombers and crews heading to the South Pacific. Their destinations included areas around Australia and Java; however, these bombers had to take the long route from the United States to Java, as the more direct air routes into the South Pacific had been closed due to the advances of the Japanese throughout the Pacific. The alternate route extended from Florida, to Brazil, Africa, India, and into Australia before ending in Java. Laughlin’s last letter home was dated 24 Jan 1942 and was sent from Africa. According to Lt Laughlin’s daughter (Jacki T. Laughlin-Mitchell), who was yet to be born, the letter was for the whole family and both loving and encouraging.
The B-17Es returning from the bombing mission included 41-3074, piloted by Lt Cox, 41-2455, piloted by Lt Mathewson, 41-2466(?), piloted by Maj Robinson, 41-2466(?), piloted by Lt Preston, 41-2471, piloted by Lt Strother, and 41-2472 piloted by Lt Schwanbeck. (Java 1942) The flight debriefs recorded: two Japanese fighters shot down, one transport sunk, and waterline hits on a cruiser and another transport. (Java 1942).
In the book “Bloody Shambles,” the authors state that on Tuesday, 27 January 1942, “Somewhat before midday three B-17Es set off to raid Balikpapan, one returning early with faltering engines; as the remaining two approached the target area six A6Ms and a C5M of the Tainan Ku took off from Tarakan for an airfield strafe, while two scrambled from Balikpapan on patrol. The latter pair engaged the bombers as they attacked shipping, but reported that they could not shoot either down. The crews of Maj Robinson and Lt D.R. Strother claimed one large transport sunk, another and a cruiser damaged, and two A6Ms shot down. The vessel they had hit was the floatplane tender Sanuki Maru, which was damaged. One F1M (floatplane) aboard was also badly damaged, a second being hit less seriously.
(U) The other six fighters reached Bandjermasin airfield in south Borneo a couple of hours later, making a devastating attack on the aircraft dispersed at the base. Their recognition again left something to be desired, for they claimed four B-17s and two twin-engine aircraft burned. Actual losses were severe however, no less than seven Glenn Martins being destroyed and two more damaged; the damaged and abandoned B-17 which had force-landed two days earlier was also destroyed. As Lt Shingo led his formation back to base, his wingman, NAP 1/c Tanaka, and the C5M were both obliged to make force-landings at Balikpapan en route. The destroyed bombers included six aircraft of 3-VIG-III which had only just arrived from Kalidjati, replacing the battle-scarred bombers of 1-VIG-II, which had returned to Java; the other three (including M-558 and M-564) were from 1-VIG-1. With no aircraft remaining, 3e Groep (transcribed accurately from text) aircrews evacuated next morning aboard two Lodestars which had arrived from Java.
During this time Dutch flying boats continued their regular nocturnal attacks on Sarawak, but recent losses were beginning to diminish reserves of aircraft. GVT-4 was now disbanded, Do 24 X-13 transferring to GVT-7 and X-21 to GVT-6. At Kendari however, the JNAF’s 21st Air Flotilla now poised to aid in the invasion of Ceram and Amboina, was reinforced by 18 A6Ms and nine D3A dive-bombers of the 2nd Carrier Division from the carriers Hiryu and Soryu, which were to operate from land bases during the action. It may have been aircraft of this group which strafed Mina Riva airstrip (Timor) on the 28th, destroying an RAAF Hudson there.
A further Japanese landing was now underway in Borneo, this time Pontianak on the far south-western point of the island being the objective. Balikpapan airfield had proved unsuitable for bombers and the Takao Kokutai was therefore sent across to Kendari, Celebes, where much of the 21st Flotilla was based. The fighters of the Tainan Ku continued to move in to Balikpapan nonetheless.” (Bloody Shambles)
This information is significant. The Japanese record similar information…(give account). The Japanese confirm a transport? Or two? And a ship reportedly a cruiser had minimal waterline damage. This cruiser was actually the Sanuki Maru**.
28 January 1942
28 Jan 1942, at approximately 1215, aircraft B-17E tail number 41-2476 and crew (Capt Walter W. Sparks, 0-371902, 2nd Lt Nyblade, W.F. 0-420395, 2nd Lt Jack T. Laughlin, 0-413459, 2nd Lt W. T. Biggers, 0-431791, S/Sgt G.J. Drake, 6563404, PFC L.N. Terrell, 13014663, Cpl C.R. Hamman, 6931724, PFC C.T. Pritchard, 20939024, S/Sgt R. F. Kennedy, 6372675) arrived in Malang, Java. (source Java 1942?). Lt Nyblade and S/Sgt Kennedy were from the 19th and 11th Bomb Groups, most likely their B-17E had to be left behind due to mechanical issues. (Source – a note with file date of 16 Jun 2008, file number 8-A2 and Special Orders Number 7, dated 11 March 1942). There was minimal activity on the 28th though “Bloody Shambles,” states, on Wednesday, 28 Januray 1942, “From Balikpapan during the morning two A6Ms patrolled as far as Samarinda II, where two Brewsters were seen on the ground. The Japanese fighters, flown by Lt Sasai and NAP 2/C S. Isihara, attacked these and destroyed both in flames. With only one Dutch fighter remaining at the by-passed base, it was then evacuated.
Dutch flying boats attacked the fleet heading for Pontianak, but a raid by five Mihoro Ku G3Ms destroyed the supplies of GVT-6 here and the unit withdrew to Java. It was replaced temporarily by GVT-8, but when the landing in the area began next day, this unit also left for Java, as did all remaining Dutch naval elements in south-west Borneo. All Allied flyingboats now came under direct Dutch command. (Shores, date??, pg 229)
The Japanese had taken control of the airfields at Balikpapan and their aircraft were operating from them. “…by the twenty-eighth their (Japanese) air groups were operating from the Balikpapan airfields.” (The second World War Asia and the Pacific, by John Bradley, Thomas Griess…, 2002, pg 86) (Bradley notes his sources as following: Morison, Rising Sun in the Pacific, pg 285-289 and Kirby, loss of Singapore, pg 297-298)
29 January 1942
29 Jan 1942, at between 0723 and 0750 five bombers took off from Jogjakarta, Java. Lt “Duke” Dufrane shared his account of what happened to Chaplain William Taggart. “Robby was commanding from the lead ship. We were to drop our bombs after the bombardier in Robby’s plane let loose on the target (ships in the Makassar Strait). The bombs failed to drop from Robby’s plane (he could not control the aircraft and his bombardier was unable to zero in on the target), so we all went over the target on a dry run, but we met no enemy fire. When we returned we were met by Jap Zeros. Robby’s ship was hit and damaged. He (Maj Robinson) called me to take command, and his ship fell back. We dropped our bombs and headed back to the base. Robby’s ship kept falling back. I tried to stay to protect him (interesting how he states this as he was not in command of the plane he was on, Lt Skiles was the pilot). I pulled the throttle back as far as I could without stalling. Robby kept losing speed. Soon he radioed that he was going to crash land on the island. The plane banked for a turn, but he fell off the bank and crashed into the sea. My gunner (not sure which gunner but S/Sgt Reeves, see below, has much to say about the mission) said the plane exploded and flames leaped high into the air when she crashed. By the time we had circled and returned everything was quiet where Robby’s plane had fallen.” (Taggart, 1943, pg 90, note no dates provided for mission date).
Walter D. Edmunds writes, “….with four planes coming from the 7th BG and one from the 19th (note: both 19th BG and Summary of Air Action credit two planes on this mission as from the 19th BG and three from the 7th BG. However, four of the planes were flown by 7th BG pilots (Edmonds, 1951, pg 309)). But of the four 7th Group planes, two had reached Malang from the States only two days before and one had arrived that very afternoon. To Robinson it was unthinkable that these men should be sent into combat without experienced leadership…Robinson took off next morning in Captain Spark’s plane. He never returned.
Four of the Fortresses got up to Balikpapan (Habberstad had to turn back due to engine trouble) and went over the target in standard formation; but after they had complete their bombing run, the other crews saw Spark’s plane turn back for a second pass—whether because it bombs had run on the first run or because Robinson was determined to observe the results of his attack was not known. While they delayed, the formation was jumped by 30 Zeros.
By the time they managed to pull clear of this attack, all four B-17s had been pretty well worked over. Sparks’ plane was then at the rear of the flight and the other crews noticed at once that it was losing altitude. It kept up with them for a while but continued to sink lower every minute. At about 2000 feet it started to wobble, as if the pilot were fighting the controls. Suddenly it peeled off to the left and dove straight into the sea. No one was seen to jump and after the sea had closed again, there was no sign of either the plane or the crew upon the water.
This was the first of a series of dark days for the 7th Group…” (Edmunds, Date?, pg 309 – this account is dated 29 Jan 1942) Edmunds’ account is mostly recorded from Taggart’s book, “My Fighting Congregation” published in 1943. He also quotes an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Maj. Edward C. Teats. [He] was in the 19th BG and wrote a series of articles for the Philadelphia newspaper that appeared from December 1942 to January 1943. In Article IX, published on January 9, 1943, Teats writes about the Laughlin mission:
“Two of my classmates were lost on their first mission. Major Robinson had flown four missions in about a week, which is plenty of combat hours. He was due for a lay-off, but insisted on leading a flight on January 29 up towards Balikpapan because three of the crews which were booked for the formation were going into combat for the first time. Lieutenant Walter Sparks was his co-pilot. Robbie's citation for the D.S.C., which he received posthumously only two days after he was awarded the D.F.C. for an earlier mission, reads:
On January 29, Major Robinson, who had been directed by his immediate superior that he should not fly any more missions for a few days, having completed four well-led and well-executed attacks averaging over 10 hours each in the past nine days, beseeched and obtained permission to fly on the particularly hazardous mission scheduled for that date. He insisted because of the fact that in the formation to be led were three crews who had just arrived from the United States, and were entering combat for the first time. Major Robinson successfully led his formation to the target, but, upon withdrawal, was attacked by strong pursuit opposition, which resulted in his crashing into the sea due to damage inflicted by the enemy.
[Teats continues:] The formation was jumped and pretty well worked over. The fellows who flew the mission with them said that Robbie's plane was gradually losing altitude. When it was down to about 2000 feet, it began to wobble as though the pilot was fighting the controls. Then it peeled off to the left and nosed into the strait. Later, Radio Tokyo reported picking up a Fortress crew in the vicinity, but whether it was that particular crew we never heard.” (source Author Eric Gene Salecker in an E-mail dated 30 May 2011).
The most worded recollection came from a T/Sgt T.C. Reeves (enlisted bombardier on Lt Skiles B-17): account is found in the book "Queens Die Proudly" by W.L. White, published in 1943, the author quotes Reeves as saying:"Just before we took off Major Robinson called all pilots, bombardiers, radiomen, and navigators into the hangar room for a critique. He had a new idea."**The cruiser mentioned both on the 27th and 29th was the same ship. The only issue to be resolved is the fact there was no cruiser in the area of the bombing missions from 27 to 29 January 1942, as documented by US crews. The Japanese however, state that the Sanuki Maro, a floatplane aircraft tender, was in the area of the missions. Interestingly, it looks very similar to a cruiser at around 30,000 feet. On the 27th, the two front (or forward) holds of the Sanuki Maro are flooded from damage occurring during the five bomber mission lead by Maj Robinson. The damage sustained to the ship was most likely minimal. It was back in service on the 29th. (Source) To further support these findings the Japanese repair ship (Name) in the area, does not record maintenance on the Sanuki Maru until 26 Feb 42. (source) Once again we witness an exaggeration of claims by bomber crews.
"My plane is to be in his flight. When we make our pass over the target, my navigator is to watch Robinson's bomb doors, and when Robinson's bombs appear, and then he releases four of mine, I meanwhile sighting the target. Then the planes behind me release when I do. In this way we'll make a wide pattern, and get away from the target faster than by making a double run."
"We have clear weather, climbing for our altitude through a few scattered clouds, and thirty minutes away from the target we reach 30,000 feet and then level off, following the Borneo shore line of Makassar Strait. We're all at battle stations, I fiddling with my bomb sight. Presently we hear the top turret gunner over the interphone."
"'Planes' he's calling. 'Formation of planes, right rear, high!' They were coming down at us from 32,000 or 33,000 feet, but from the navigator's compartment I couldn't see them yet."
"Then they peeled off for the attack, concentrating on Robinson's plane. I could hear the gunners calling these plays over the interphones - couldn't see the Zeros myself yet, but I could see their tracers going into the tail of Robinson's plane. Then we turned in on our bomb run, and I'd catch glimpses of the Zeros as they overshot Robinson, some of them coming fifty feet from his plane."
"But I'm busy on my bombing run. I've picked my first live target, a row of three transports, broadside to our line of flight. Everything else seems to be going smoothly. I can hear Charlie Britt on the top turret guns, hammering away at Zeros, and I cuss him a little because he shakes my bomb sight."
"Lieutenant Dufrane is acting as fire-control officers. (He's really a pilot, but his plane is out of commission and he's come along as a copilot.) He is talking to the crew like a football coach. He's up above with his head stuck into the dome, and I can hear him through the interphones."
"'Beardshear,' he says, 'here comes one on your right. Get him, boy - don't let him get away. Good goin'!"
"Then he'll say to Britt, 'All right, Charlie, here comes one for you - now lead this one with your fire, don't follow it. Now you're cookin'!"
"He spread his chatter through the entire run. Before he started it, I guess we were on edge, and it sure made you feel good. Duke was a man's man. Even the old guns, in between, sounded different, not so sporadic - like his talk had oiled their machinery."
"But now we're on the run, coming in on the target, and I've set my drift in the sight, plus our true altitude and true air speed, so I can put those cross hairs on the target."
"now the pilot and I switch our earphones over to command, so we can listen to any orders Major Robinson wants to give from his lead plane, while the copilot stays on the interphones, so he can pick up what our gunners are doing."
"And in a minute I hear it. Major Robinson is calling."
"'Robinson to flight. I've been badly hit in the tail - having trouble holding the nose of my plane down. I'm turning the formation.'"
"We had been coming in straight at the coast of Borneo. Now, turning, we go down the coast, the Zeros swarming around us like flies on a hunk of rotten meat."
"The first one I really saw came up from beneath us and banks away, I get in a couple of good bursts at him with the little .30-caliber machine gun we have down there in the nose. I couldn't really see if I's hit him or not. Then:"
"'Robinson to Skiles. Go ahead.'"
"'Skiles answering Robinson,' says our pilot."
"'Take the lead,' Robinson tells him. 'I can't keep up with the formation. I'll drop behind. And slow the formation down so I can keep up.'"
"We're still going down the coast, remember. And now:"
"'Skiles to Robinson. Go ahead,' comes over the interphones."
"'Do you want to make another pass at the target?'"
"'Yes, Skiles, take the formation over the target again.'"
"We make our turn, the rest following, and head back."
"Just then a Zero dives down on the formation from behind, going between men and the plane on our right wing - about a hundred feet away - and then it levels off out in front of me. I happened to have the gun in the right-hand socket of the nose, so I can really lay it on him with my little .30-caliber sewing machine. It's taking plenty of stitches, but I can see my tracers slapping into his wing, close to where it joins the fuselage. He wobbles, goes into a dive. He is well out in front with plenty of forward speed, so it's almost like watching a bomb leaving my plane, which I can follow all the way down. This doesn't happen often. Usually I shoot at them, they go on back behind, and the wing gunners confirm whether I really got them or not. But now:"
"'Robinson to Flight. Use as your target that heavy cruiser moving out from the shore.'"
"So we alter course a little, approaching it at 30 degrees on the stern. There are about fifty boats there, and it is the only moving target. Because it is a Navy boat, we know it will be tricky. They can figure your altitude, and know when your bomb is going to leave, computing it about the reverse of an antiaircraft shell's curve."
"About this time the Japs begin throwing up a hell of a heavy ack-ack barrage in a line dead ahead of us. Looking at it, all I think of is that picture in the laundry-soap ad - of dirty wash hanging out on a line and then the slogan 'That telltale gray!' Most of it is coming up from the cruiser. Through the telescope, I can see the flashes on her deck and then, twenty seconds later, our plane shakes."
"We've already lost altitude waiting for the Major (we'd boxed him in so he could stay with us and the Zeros wouldn't tear him to pieces), and he seems to have developed engine trouble. We're down to 23,000 feet. And I'm the lead bombardier."
"But now the whole plan is again altered: I get it over the command radio. We're to lay them in chains across the target. So I set up the bomb sight again, put the cross hairs on that cruiser, aiming short of its stern, figuring this way: It's a Navy boat, and maneuverable. So if it backs up, my left wing man will score a hit; if it increases speed, my right wing man will get it; and if it turns either toward us or away from us, one of my chain will hit it."
"It is a perfect run. I even have time to take my eye off the sight, and fire bursts at two Zeros as they attack from the front. They start way ahead, to the left and a little below us. Now, coming on in at me, they cross over and up, towards the center of my fuselage, their guns pounding, and then slip on back and dive straight down and away."
"I get one because he miscues. The peanut butter must be running down his leg and he is afraid to come too close. Anyway, he flips over way out in front - broadside to me, a beautiful target, and I pour the stitches into him."
"Then, I jam my eye back onto that bomb sight. Everything is riding pretty - the cross hairs right where I want them, the bombs about ready to be released."
"It seems to the pilot and me that this is the longest run we've ever made. He finally calls down, asks how much longer it'll be. I look at the indicator, and you'd think the damned thing had stopped."
"'About ten seconds,' I tell him over the interphone."
"Yet they seemed like minutes. One second before the bombs leave my plane, I see that Jap cruiser starting to turn (he's figured our bomb-release line to the hair). He's turning towards us as I watch the bombs go down. By the time they arrived, the cruiser is three-fourths through a turn of 180 degrees. The first bombs are falling short - three of them. Now mine come - two direct hits on the cruiser, the other two going over. The plane back of me gets some direct hits. My left wing man's string is barely in front of the cruiser, my right wing man's string is barely behind it - the damned thing seems enveloped in bombs churning the water, and debris flying above the foam. Boy, that Japanese captain just turned the wrong way!"
"But now our formation swings and heads for home, Zeros still swarming around us, and we still losing altitude to stay back and protect the Major, who seems able to use barely enough throttle to keep her in the air. After forty minutes the last Zero drops away; they're short of gas and daren't chase us any further."
"Presently over the command radio:"
"'Robinson to Skiles. Go ahead.'"
"'Radio the base at Malang to have an ambulance ready. We have two badly wounded men aboard.'"
"'We wonder who they are. One is probably the tail gunner, since we saw Robinson's plane taking so many tracers there. The other must be the radio operator, or else they could have sent their own dot-dash message back to base."
"Meantime our radio operator is telling Malang to have the ambulance out. Our plane is now leading the formation. Major Robinson's just behind us. We've drifted slowly down to 4,000 feet altitude, protecting Robinson. Then, all of a sudden, Robinson's plane swoops down beneath us about 1,000 feet, and the incline sends it scooting on out in front of us, heading a little towards the coast of Borneo. Is Robinson going to beach her? And now over the command radio:"
"'Skiles to Robinson. Is there anything wrong?' our pilot asks."
"But there is no answer. We watch. Now Major Robinson is making a gradual turn, as though to rejoin the formation. But halfway in the turn his plane starts nosing over, goes into a dive, goes faster - straight down at the sea. We watch, holding our breath. Just before he goes in, his tail elevator blows off. The poor guy must have had the stick clutched back into his stomach trying to pull out of that dive, and the terrible air pressure on those elevators ripped them off. There's a huge splash - flame - a spiral of black smoke, and a widening circle of yellows, reds, and black, which is burning gas and oil on that topaz-green water."
"The second after it hits I call Lieutenant Dufrane on the interphone."
"'My God, Duke,' I said, 'did you see that?'"
"'Yes,' he said. And then in a minute he said, 'Thank God those Japs didn't see it.'"
"The formation circles above the dead Queen. We circle until the fire dies away, peering down at the widening disk of oil. But there is no sign of anything else on the surface."
"Until then it hadn't seemed like a battle - just a game. But now I feel like someone kicked me in the guts. There were guys on there (I's) drunk with. We'd sat around and lied to each other. I'd seen it happen, but I couldn't believe what I saw - it seemed like a bad dream."
"When we landed, all the crew assembled for the critique, each member dictating just what he had seen to the officer. That's when I was credited with three of the eight Zeros we knocked down. After the critique no one had much to say. We were all thinking about what we saw happen." (W.L. White, Queens Die Proudly, 1943, pg??).
Java 1942, published in 1988, was long believed to be the only book referencing Lauglin’s last day. The information in the book is as follows: “Operations was full of talk of the B-17E's they had watched taking off for Balikpapan. Three of the planes were from the Seventh Group and two from the Nineteenth. The flight leader, Capt. Walter Sparks, had arrived in Java just two days before, and this was his first combat mission. It was a particularly dangerous mission, too, because the target was troop transports and the Imperial Navy ships protecting them. A large carrier, reported in the area the previous evening, was suspected to carry a load of Zeros to protect the convoy.
That morning, just as the B-17E's taxied out, the Seventh Group commander, Maj. Stan Robinson, decided to go along in Capt. Sparks' lead ship. Maj. Robinson called over his navigator, Lt. Richard W. Cease, and asked him if he wanted to go with them to acquaint Capt. Sparks' navigator with some of the local territory. Cease agreed, and Maj. Robinson told the tower to hold up Capt. Sparks' airplane until they could get aboard. It was a tragic decision.
Crews returning from the raid reported that by the time they reached the target area, only four planes remained on the mission. One turned back because of engine trouble. For maximum protection against fighter attack, the four bombers pulled into a tight “V” formation as they started their bomb run.
Packed into the strait below them were dozens of troop transports and small and medium-sized naval vessels, but no capital ships -- nothing to warrant the combined bomb load of all four bombers. Maj. Robinson ordered the other pilots to follow him as he went around again for another run. They were told to go in single file in a clover leaf pattern and to pick their own targets.
The bombers had just finished lining up when the Zeros hit them, swarming in from the front and front quarter -- perhaps thirty of them flying a tight pattern as only Japanese pilots could fly it. The frontal pass was a new tactic against which the B- 17E's had little protection.
The Zeros concentrated on the lead bomber, staying slightly below, where they knew the B-17's guns were useless. In less than a minute, Capt. Sparks' ship slipped over into a steep dive that ended with a crash into the strait. There were no parachutes in the air and no survivors in the water. The three remaining B-17E's completed their runs, dropping their bombs on the enemy convoy with undetermined results.” (Graff, 1988, pg Chapter two). Further in the chapter, two aircrew members are discussing the recent loss of Robinson and bomber tactics, “While Skip and Big Bob (PFC Robert "Big Bob" Graf) waited for their food, Lt. Basye told them about the loss of Maj. Robinson and the Zeros' new frontal pass strategy. He wanted to generate some discussion of possible counter-measures. They were luckier than the other crews. With their Liberator gone to Australia, they wouldn't have to meet any Zeros head on until they'd had time to relax and do some planning. For the rest, the stress of the new frontal attacks was terrible.” (Java 1942, 1988, pg Chapter Two) “Big Bob”, continues with the discussion, “This crisis probably has as much to do with policy as it does with Zeros. Maj. Robinson taught us an expensive lesson, and the real question is whether or not we'll make good use of it. [Big Bob continues], Now consider Maj. Robinson for a minute," Big Bob continued. "Maj. Robinson was our Group Commander. He led the mission to the Straits today. He would hardly be the one to deviate from his approach on a bomb run. When Zeros came in after the formation with this new frontal pass, Maj. Robinson just continued on without as much as blinking. And when they came in from below -- where the top turret couldn't touch them -- Maj. Robinson must have had death staring him in the face. But to a professional like him, death's no reason to buck tradition. Maj. Robinson wasn't about to try any evasive tactics against those frontal passes -- even if he'd had time to think about it. So what happens? Maj. Robinson continues his bomb run, ignoring the enemy attacks, until his bomb bay tank explodes, and his plane catches fire. The Seventh Group lost a fine commander, a crew, and a brand new B-17E we need very much. Field commanders always have the option to deviate from orders to meet unexpected situations. Even a private learns that in the army. The problem here is that the reason for deviation -- say diving in front of the Zeros instead of continuing on a bomb run -- is not within the expressed parameters of the Seventh Group mission as defined in our orders. Our command pilots may balk at doing something contrary to those orders. What we need is not a deviation from orders, but a modification to allow us to make destruction of the Zero our number one priority. Then we can take evasive action without fouling up discipline." (Java 1942, 1988, pg Chapter Two) A Lt Bayse now takes his turn in the conversation, "I've been thinking a lot about that since Manado, Sir, and a lot more about it since we heard about Maj. Robinson. We should use countermeasures. We should drop our bomb bay tanks as soon as the Zeros hit us. One tracer in a bomb bay tank, and that's all she wrote. The Japs know that, so they're just waiting for us. Some of our pilots would try countermeasures right now, but there's no time to get our directives changed through official channels. And if that colonel hadn't borrowed our Liberator, we'd be facing Zeros on frontal passes tomorrow." (Java 1942, 1988, pg Chapter Two). Big Bob returns and offers further discussion. Lt Basye agrees with Big Bob but suggests it will not happen due to the distance they have to come and the cost. The conversation continues and eventually ends when all leave the table.
Reeves’ and Graff (Java 1942 author) offered very compelling insight. However, we have to start asking questions about what really happened. Graff writes his account years later and unless he was sitting there at the table transcribing, I am not sure his information completely accurate. His discussion regarding the auxiliary fuel tank exploding in Capt Sparks’ plane is the only reference that even mentions it. As he states, “The places, the people, and the events in this book are real. Some names have been changed, and some minor elements are fiction in the interest of a more concise narrative.” (Java 1942, 1988, Preface).
In extremely important detail, the book “Bloody Shambles” recounts the bombing mission from both sides on the 29th of Jan 1942, “Despite the departure of the Dutch, a US bomber attack on the shipping at Balikpapan was again launched, four B-17s from the 7th Bomb Group and one from the 19th making the raid. Three of the bombers and their crews had just reached Java from the States, and the men were consequently inexperienced. In order to give what aid he could to the new crews, Maj Robinson, the temporary commander of the 7th – although he had already flown four long range missions that week – elected to fly one of the aircraft taking part.
Five Tainan Ku A6Ms led by Lt Sasai had taken off from Tarakan to raid Samarinda again but finding nothing there, flew on to patrol over Balikpapan. Shortly after midday they saw four of the B-17s approaching and attacked: three of the bombers trailed white smoke, but they could see no other results. Meanwhile two A6Ms from Balikpapan airfield were also on patrol and attacked the bombers at the same time as Sasai’s formation; a further six were scrambled and all joined the combat, which continued for over half an hour. The pilots from Balikpapan reported, as did Sasai’s men that three bombers were smoking, but no further was result from their repeated attacks.
“NAP 1/C Toshiyuki Sakai, one of the pilots scrambled from Balikpapan, was shot down and killed 20 miles out to sea, while one of the original pair on patrol from the airfield, NAP 2/C Toshio Ohta, was badly wounded. He was subsequently hospitalized for several weeks, but on return to action was to become one of Japan’s greatest aces with 34 victories before his death in combat from Guadalcanal the following October. All 12 surviving A6Ms landed at Balikpapan. Claims by the bombers’ gunners were as usual greatly inflated, and on this occasion six fighters were thought to have been shot down.
“Four of the B-17s had in fact been damaged during the fight, including that piloted by Lt W.W. Sparks, in which Maj Robinson was flying as co-pilot. This aircraft (41-2476) gradually fell behind the rest of the formation as they headed home, and was suddenly to fall out of control into the sea, the whole crew being killed. Due to the repeated fighter attacks over the target area, the results of the bombing were negligible.” (Shores, Date??, pg 229-230)
Author of “Celestial Wings,” describes the event, “On 29 January the target was warships in the Makassar Strait, Thirty Zero fighters attacked his plane on the second pass of the target. Harold McAuliff, a classmate who was navigating another plane on the same mission reported, “We were bombing the Japanese fleet in the Makassar Strait and getting shot up by flak and Zeros. As the attack broke off and we headed for home, Robinson’s airplane went into a long dive and just kept on going until it hit the water. There was no fire and the only thing we could figure out was that the controls were shot out or the pilots were dead or badly wounded.” The plane carried a crew of nine flyers including Richard Cease to their watery graves.
There in the vast reaches of the Makassar Strait off the coast of Borneo, circular waves rolled out from the point of impact apparently as peacefully as from a pebble dropped into a quiet brook. It was unreal as a silent movie as the awe-stricken airmen in the five other planes looked on.”
Eric Salecker author of “Fortress against the Sun,” takes several of the above sources and summarizes them in the following account, “On January 29, three planes from the 7th BG and two from the 19th set off from Malang at 7:23 A.M. to strike Balikpapan. Of the five crews, Capt. Sparks’ and Lt. Mathewson’s had been in Java for only three days while Lt. Habberstad’s had only just arrived. Although Maj. Robinson had been grounded by Gen. Eubank and told to take a rest, he felt uneasy about sending rookie crews into combat without a seasoned leader. Pleading his case, Eubank reluctantly agreed and allowed the indefatigable Robinson to fly as an observer with Capt. Sparks.
“Shortly after takeoff, Lt. Habberstad, B-17E (41-2427), developed engine trouble and turned back. The others continued on and found more than 50 ships, including a number of transports and one heavy cruiser, off Balikpapan. For some unknown reason, the lead plane did not drop its bombs on the first bomb run so the planes circled for a second run. As they were approaching the target once again, they were hit by 14 Zeros.
“Lt. “Duke” Dufrane was flying as copilot/observer with Lt. Skiles, B-17E (41-2454, Craps for the Japs). ‘When we returned we were met by Jap Zeros,’ he stated. ‘Robby’s [Robinson’s] ship was hit and damaged.’ Hit hard in the tail, Capt Sparks’ plane, B-17E (41-2476), with Maj. Robinson as copilot/observer, began to lose speed and altitude. Protectively, the other planes circled their leader and attempted to fight off the swarming Zeros.
“’We’ve already lost altitude waiting for the Maj. (we’ve boxed him in so he could stay with us and the Zeros wouldn’t tear him to piece),’ remembered Sgt. Reeves, the bombardier with Lt. Skiles, “and he seems to have developed engine trouble.” Having come full circle, the bombers came over Balikpapan again and dropped their bombs on the heavy cruiser, scoring a few hits and setting the ship on fire.
“’We dropped our bombs and headed back to the base,’ wrote Lt. Dufrane. ‘Robby’s ship kept falling back. I tried to stay to protect him.’ The Zeros attacked for the next 40 minutes. Besides the damage inflicted to the Sparks/Robinson plane, the other three B-17s were slightly damaged. In return, the Americans reportedly shot down six of their attackers.
“Once the Zeros gave up, the Fortresses continued to fly in formation, hoping that Capt. Sparks’ badly damaged plane could keep up. B-17E (41-2476) continued to lose altitude and speed, making it difficult for the other planes to stay with it. ‘I pulled the throttle back as far as I could without stalling,’ recalled Dufrane. Soon, perhaps realizing that he would never make Malang, Maj. Robinson told Lt. Dufrane to take command of the flight and reported that he would try a crash landing somewhere.”
“‘We’ve drifted down to 4,000 feet altitude, protecting Robinson,’ Sgt. Reeves recalled. ’Then, all of a sudden, Robinson’s plane swoops down beneath us about 1,000 feet, and the incline sends it scooting on out in front of us…’ As the others watched, the Sparks/Robinson plane continued to descend and then suddenly fell off to the left and hit the water.
“’Just before he goes in’ remembered Reeves, ‘his tail elevator blows off. The poor guy [Robinson] must have had the stick clutched back into his stomach trying to pull out of that dive, and the terrible air pressure on those elevators ripped them off.’ The Sparks/Robinson Fortress hit the water nose first at a high rate of a speed. Dufrane, now in command, circled the flight and came back over the spot where B-17E (41-2476) had crashed. ‘By the time we had circled and returned,’ Dufrane said, ‘everything was quiet where Robby’s plane had fallen.’
“There were no survivors from B-17E (41-2476). Nine men had perished, including the CO of the 7th BG. Because of his unselfish act of wanting to fly as an experienced guide with one of his unseasoned crews, Maj. Robinson was posthumously awarded a Distinguished Service Cross. Maj. Austin A. Strauble, commander of the LB-30s of the 11th BS, assumed command of the 7th BG. (Fortress Against the Sun)
Bombers involved with 29 Jan 1942 mission to bomb warships and transports in the Makassar Strait:
- B-17E, tail #41-2427, Piloted by Lt Edward C. Habberstad, 0-380342 (arrived in Malang, Java 28 Jan 1942) – returned early from mission with engine trouble – 9th Bomb Squadron (BS)/7th Bomb Group (BG)
-- 41-2427 arrived via Africa from USA Jan 28, 1942 with 7-BG. Transferred to 19-BG on Java. Destroyed on ground at Malang, Java Feb 3, 1942
- B-17E, tail # 41-2454, Piloted by Lt Duane H. Skiles, 0-22836 (arrived in Java 19 Jan 1942, aircraft destroyed 3 March 1942) – Reportedly nicknamed the “Craps for the Japs”—9th BS/7th BG
-- 41-2454 (19-BG) destroyed on ground Mar 3, 1942, Broome, W. Australia following Java evacuation
- B-17E, tail # 41-2478, Piloted by Lt Ray Cox, No SN, (arrived in Java 28 Jan 1942) – 9th BS/7th BG (Edmonds, date?, pg 309 states from 19th BG)
-- 41-2478 crashed somewhere in Africa while on supply mission to FEAF
- B-17E, tail # 41-2455, Piloted by Lt Philip l. Mathewson, No SN, (arrived in Java 26 Jan 1942) – 32nd BS/19th BG
-- 41-2455 arrived from USA via Africa Jan 26, 1942 at Sourabaya. Transferred to 19-BG on Java. Destroyed on ground Java Feb 1942
Pursuit escorts were not available until Feb 1942. (Source: The AAF in WWII, Vol I, Plans and Early ops Jan 39 – Aug 42, edited by Craven and Cate, pg 384)