|K e n s m e n : 4 3 r d B o m b G r o u p (H), 5 t h A A F|
|Sandwiched between shipping
strikes during the winter of 1942-1943 were attacks on the enemy's
garrisons at Lae, Buna, Madang, and Salamaua, New Guinea, and raids on
harbor installations and the airdromes of Rapopo, Lakunai, and
Vunakunau, Rabaul. On 5 January "Ken's Men" participated in their first
daylight raids against Rabaul. During that mission a plane piloted by
Major Jack Bleasdale, former Commanding Officer of the 64th Squadron,
and carrying Major Allen Lindberg, 64th Squadron Commander, and
Brigadier General Kenneth Walker, Commanding General of the V Bomber
Command, was lost in action. Throughout the remainder of the month the
43rd kept up small but effective strikes against Rabaul at regular
intervals; it sometimes added novelty to the missions by dropping beer
bottles and garbage on the city.
By the end of January 1943 the 43rd Bombardment Group's aircraft strength had been greatly reduced as a result of the hard service the B-17's had seen for more than six months. Of the 55 B-17's on hand, approximately 20 were undergoing depot repair at all times. Perhaps 50 percent of the remainder were in daily combat mission, and a quarter of these were used regularly for reconnaissance flights. Consequently, there were no more than 14 planes for a striking force. As a result, during the next few months the 90th Bombardment Group --destined to be a rival of the 43rd Group-- began to take over a major share of the heavy bomber operations in the Southwest Pacific.
March 1943 was highlighted by the 43rd Bombardment Group's participation in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, one of the decisive victories for the Allies in the Pacific War. For its outstanding performance of duty in action during the three-day period from 2 to 4 March, the Group was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation.
After the Bismarck Sea engagement, "Ken's Men" turned their attention toward the reduction of enemy airdromes in New Guinea and New Britain and destruction of shipping in the neighboring waters. Targets hit in the succeeding weeks included Wewak, Madang, Rapopo, Arawe, and Casmata. Most of those attacks were carried out by a small number of planes because most of the Group's B-17's had been damaged in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. The unit's diary on 19 March noted: Reinforcements have been taking place at all enemy airdromes and General Kenny [Commanding General of the Fifth Air Force] is in Washington trying to get more planes and men over here to help us out. Our planes are badly shot up, but the boys still love 'em."
Few if any of the Group's attacks against Rabaul in 1943 were carried out against shipping because the Japanese were making greater use of the more distant harbor at Kavieng, New Ireland. The most devastating anti-shipping blow of April and May 1943 was directed against a convoy which had been tracked to Kavieng. In a period of four days beginning on 1 April, 21 B-17's of the 43rd Group and 9 B-24's (probably from the 90th Group) harassed ships at anchor in Kavieng harbor. The B-24's dropped 500-pound bombs from 5,000 feet and observed large explosions. Some of the 43rd Group's B-17's also attacked from medium altitude, but the Fortresses skip-bombing from 75 to 250 feet caused the greatest damage. The official reports indicated that a 6,000-ton vessel was "left sinking," and two to four destroyers were damaged. That mission, which General Douglas MacArthur described as "a honey," considerably reduced the enemy's capabilities of supplying its beleaguered garrisons in New Guinea. Tragedy struck the Group several days later on 12 April; Major Kenneth McCullar and his entire crew were killed when, during a take-off, his plane hit a kangaroo and crashed at the end of the runway.
From May through July 1943 the Group continued to hammer away at the enemy's bases in New Britain and New Guinea. Two events of interest occurred during June. On the 15th the 403rd Squadron became the first unit in the Southwest Pacific to lay mines. On that mission 18 mines were dropped from an altitude of 300 feet in the mouth of the Sepik River, in order to obstruct enemy shipping moving up the river to Marienburg, New Guinea. The Following day Major (then Captain) Jay Zeamer, Jr., and Lieutenant Joseph R. Sarnoski participated in a mission for which they were later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Since the text of the citations is located elsewhere in the history, it is not necessary to give an account of that mission. However, previous exploits of Major Zeamer and the crew of the B-17 Lucy should indeed be mentioned. Major Zeamer was awarded the Silver Star for sinking 8,000-ton ship in Rabaul harbor on 16 January 1943. On 5 May, over Madang, New Guinea, the Lucy was badly damaged by enemy action --60 holes in the wing, the stabilizer unit shot out, and the oxygen tanks holed and exploded. On a mission to Wewak on 28 May Major Zeamer became annoyed by the blinding effects of the enemy searchlights trying to pin his plane for antiaircraft fire. He dove the B-17 down to 900 feet, at which altitude his gunners extinguished three searchlights and damaged two others. It was reported that Zeamer's crew known as the "Eager Beavers," would follow Zeamer "to hell and back."