The wreck of a Consolidated B-24J "Liberator" off Laura, Majuro Atoll
by Dirk HR Spennemann
The wreck of a B-24 aircraft rests in 1 to 1.5m of water (at low tide) on the lagoonal margin of the reef platform between Majuro ("Laura") Island and Ajola, in the northwestern corner of Majuro Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands.
Present are the port wing, most parts of the starboard wing, the central fuselage section between the wings, and four engines. In addition, a number of small parts can be found scattered around the area. All propellers can be seen in place save for those of the No. 1 engine, which has fallen off its mounting and is resting nose down in the sand. The blades of the propellers are not bent, indicating that the pilot could feather the engines before the crash landing.
The tip section of the starboard wing is snapped off and missing. One of the propeller blades has been removed from the plane and transported to the lagoonal entrance of Laura, where its shiny metal serves as a reflective marker by night to mark the location of the narrow pass.
Most of the fuselage of the plane has disappeared, most probably due to the forces exerted on it by waves and tidal movements across the reef flat. No pieces of the cockpit, front machine gun or the entire rear fuselage including rear ailerons could be located. Only a small part of the fuselage, the bottom of the port section directly behind the wings, is still extant.
Found, however, were the Martin machine gun turret in front of the wing, and a Sperry Ball turret, the belly machine gun unit with one barrel of the machine guns still present on the rear of the wing. The bottom of the lagoon shows a few isolated pieces of aluminium, among them parts on engine cowling some 20 meters behind the plane--evidence of the rough landing. Given the expanse of the sediment in the area, it is very likely that other pieces are still buried in the sand.
The aluminium is on the whole in good condition. The wings, in particular, are strong enough to step on and seem to be used as walking platform by many fishermen. In fact, two notches have been cut into one of the propeller blades to allow boats being tied to the plane. Given the strength of the aluminium, it can be expected that as long as no untoward actions happen, the plane will be around for some time.
Identity of the Plane
Based on historical records, the plane on the reef of Majuro Atoll has been identified as a B-24J-CO "Liberator" bomber, Serial number #42-73013, manufactured by Consolidated Aircraft Corporation at its main production plant in San Diego. The Army Air Force had ordered a large number of these planes (Order No. AC-30461) at a cost of US$ 241,924.00 each. The particular plane was delivered to the Army Air Force Modification Center in Tucson, Arizona, on 30 August 1943. The plane was then moved to the Hawaiian Air Depot, where it was received on 26 September 1943 and where it remained until 5 October 1943, when it was delivered to the 11th Bomb Group, VIIth Army Air Force. It would appear that the plane was put in active service by the VIIth AAF soon after.
Right: Aerial photograph of the Majuro B-24 wreck resting on the reefplatform off Laura. Photograph: Dirk H.R. Spennemann.
The 431st Bomb Squadron was still stationed in Funafuti, Tuvalu, because the base in Tarawa, Kiribati, captured by U.S. Marines in late November 1943 had not yet become fully operational. However, the planes of the 11th Bomb Group were staged through Tarawa on the day of the crash.
From the production numbers and the date it appears that plane #42-73013 is the 50th plane of the first production block of B-24J's rolling off Consolidated's San Diego plant. Thus it was one of the few planes fitted with Consolidated A-6 tail turrets as nose turret, as opposed to the Emerson power turrets which were installed by Ford and later also by Consolidated. It is unclear whether the particular B-24J (#42-73013) carried a nickname, but this is very likely given that apparently all other planes of the 431st squadron had such unofficial names.
According to the Missing Air Crew Report filed by the 431st squadron, the crew on board of the ill-fated flight consisted of the following ten crew members: 1st Lt. Ivan M. Osborne, Pilot; 1st Lt. Raymond D. Cloyer, Co-Pilot; 2nd Lt. Virgil A. Tramelli, Navigator; 1st Lt. Maxie G. Deer, Jr., Bombardier; T Sgt Edward J.Bislew, Engineer; T Sgt Joseph J.Perry, Radio Operator; S Sgt John J. Dell, Asst Radio Operator; S Sgt Warren C. Hill, Gunner; S Sgt Hulbert J. Swaim, Gunner; Pvt Williston F. Rumsey, Asst Engineer.
Events leading to the crash
On that 28 December 1943 a fateful combination happened: In total fifteen B-24s of the 7th AAF from Funafuti (staged through Tarawa) and from Canton Island (staged through Baker), hit the Japanese installations on Taroa on Maloelap, Mile and Majuro. Returning from its attack on Maloelap the B-24 which crashed on Majuro, therefore, drew the ire of the garrison of Maloelap as well as that of the Japanese caretakers on Majuro which had just been attacked by other planes. Both did not bode well for the U.S. downed airmen stranded on Majuro.
Together with eight others, aircraft #42-73013 had taken of from Funafuti, Tuvalu, headed towards Tarawa, Kiribati, where the squadron refueled and then headed towards Maloelap. On the return leg the aircraft was scheduled to once again land in Tarawa for refueling and then head back to Funafuti. However, the bombing mission encountered heavy clouds and intense fighter opposition over the target. The B-24 sustained damage over Taroa. With two engines out of order it limped back towards Kiribati, making it as far as Majuro.
Today, Majuro is the bustling capital of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. 28,000 of the Republic's approximately 50,000 inhabitants live here. In December 1943 the population of Majuro was less than 800 and the atoll a quiet spot. U.S. Intelligence had photographed Majuro Atoll and had found a Japanese military installation at its eastern end. Given what was known at the time, the U.S. Forces assumed that the sea-plane base was still operational. Thus, Majuro had been repeatedly bombed in December 1943 and in fact on the same day as the crash. In reality, however, the sea-plane base had never been totally completed and at the time of the crash landing the construction unit, as well as the military stationed on Majuro had long been transferred to Mile Atoll to construct the base there (since November 1942). In view of the state of intelligence at the time, however, it was quite understandable that the pilot tried to land as far away from the presumed sea-plane base as possible and thus landed near the native village of Majuro.
Right: Underwater photograph of the Majuro B-24 wreck showing the the starboard wing. Photograph: Dirk H.R. Spennemann.
"At 0001Z 29 Dec 1943 [=noon 28 December local time and date] I saw Lt Osborne make a crash landing on the reef in the northwest end of the lagoon of Majuro Atoll. The cause was the loss of two engines due to action by enemy aircraft in a bombing strike on Maloelap Atoll. As we left Maloelap #2 engine was hit and began throwing oil badly. A short time later #3 engine was hit and began smoking badly. It was then that Lt. Osborne left the squadron formation and headed for Majuro losing altitude all the time and indicating a speed of about 135 mph. We followed him down and watched him land. On the letdown #2 engine was feathered. He made a perfect landing but came to stop in about 100 feet. He was about a quarter mile out from a small island in water about 4-6 feet deep. Two Zeroes followed him down and one Zero made a pass at the plane in the water before we could chase him off. We passed the plane immediately after it stopped and could not see anyone getting out. The plane was not broken up and rested high in the water, most of the plane being visible. Due lack of ammunition and danger to our own airplane, we were not able to remain in the area." (Harvey T. Lundy, 2nd Lt Air Corps).
Upon leaving Majuro airspace a radio report on the crash landing was sent, followed by a more detailed account upon return to the base in Tarawa, en route back to Funafuti. It appears from the limited data available, that the U.S. Navy promised to immediately sent a "dumbo" plane, a PBY Catalina Flying Boat to investigate and potentially rescue the crew. For unknown reasons the navy failed to do so. A dumbo plane was finally dispatched on 2 January 1944, five days after the crash, to reconnoiter Majuro Atoll and to search for the crashed plane. The mission report of that plane reads as follows:
"The plane arrived at the northwestern section of Majuro Atoll ... and found the B-24 as reported, lying on the reef about midway between the two islands which were about 400 yards apart. The plane was broken in two just off the trailing edge of the wing and was awash. The remaining 500lb bomb was dropped but fell about 25 yards short of the target. Several strafing runs were made and a total of about 430 .50 cal and 200 .30 cal ammunition fired."
The action to bomb the plane was taken in order to deny the enemy the use of the plane, or its armament for intelligence purposes and apparently was standard practice. Very much to the chagrin of fellow pilots, no further action seems to have been contemplated, even though the crew lost was one of the most experienced of the 431st bombardment squadron.
A B-24 returning from a strike against Taroa on 10/11 January 1944 observed that "red and green flares were fired from the ground at Majuro". Still no actions were initiated by the VIIth Bomber Command. From oral history we can assume that the U.S. airmen were, at that time, still on Majuro. It is possible that the flares salvaged from the aircraft were fired off as a sign of notification. Given the lack of Japanese weaponry on the island we can exclude the notion that the flares were shot as a ruse to entice the B-24s to come lower.
Events after the landing
According to Marshallese oral history, only three Japanese were present on Majuro: two traders and one construction official. The latter, Petty Officer Nagata, had come to Majuro to pick up some construction material from the unfinished seaplane base for use on Jaluit. Such re-use had become a necessity in view of the carnage US submarines had caused among Japanese shipping. En route to Majuro his ship had been surprised by a B-24 and sunk. He drifted in a life boat for three days until he reached Majuro. It can be readily appreciated that he was probably fairly pleased to have in his powers a B-24 crew. On top of being enemies, they were fellow pilots of those who had bombed his ship and shipwrecked him, and of those who had bombed his precious building materials the very same day.
Left: The former Japanese administration building on Majuro Island ("Laura"), Majuro Atoll, photographed after the US landings on the atoll (Courtesy US National Archives).
The Japanese also went to the plane wreck, or ordered the Marshallese to recover from the wreck a number of items, among them two .50 calibre machine guns, possibly the waist guns, with ammunition.
Further Japanese Actions
Given the highly centralized system of administration, we can safely assume that the Japanese representatives on Majuro Atoll notified the 6th Fleet headquarters at Kwajalein Atoll, which then decided on further action. Oral history has it that a boat came to pick up the airmen. These, as well as at least one Marshallese, Alexander Milne, were then taken back to Taroa, Maloelap, the very base the plane had attacked.
As far as the events on Majuro are concerned, we also have a more incidental account by Milne's daughter May Kalmen:
"... a Japanese patrol boat came to atoll of Majuro and took my father, Alexander Milne away to Maloelap Atoll, Ngata and Imata, the two Japanese officers in charge of Majuro Atoll at the time, told the Captain of the patrol boat to take Alexander to Maloelap or trial. Mr. Milne was accused of spying for the Americans. He was also blamed for conducting Sunday services, and his main fault that cost him his life, was, he could not be found at the time an American plane came down in the lagoon, to act as an interpreter."
Who was this Alexander Milne? He was born on 12 June 1904 in Ebon, Ebon, the southern most atoll of the Marshall Islands, as son of James and Liomere Milne. A. Milne is mentioned in an U.S. Intelligence assessment of the Marshall Islands, which had been drawn up in August 1943, well before the U.S. landings in Kiribati, and is described as follows:
"Alexander Milne, the son of a Scotch-Gilbertese missionary father and a native mother, was born and reared in Ebon and educated at the mission school at Kusaie, where he taught for three years. He now lives on Majuro with his wife, a native woman of the upper class. He speaks both English and Marshall[ese], and probably teaches at the church school at Majuro, where he held the post of evangelist"
Milne, as well as all others figuring in the manual, was listed there because the U.S. intelligence thought of him as a potential source of local information, knowledge and possibly co-operation with the landing U.S. forces. The Japanese apparently had the same opinion of Milne and used the opportunity given by the rescue of the crew to rid themselves of a potential future threat.
Treatment of Prisoners of War
The official way U.S. Prisoners of War were handled was to transport them to the headquarters of the 6th Base Force on Kwajalein Atoll, where they would be interrogated, and then ferried on to the Headquarters of the 4th Fleet in Chuuk (Truk). If the prisoners of war were captured on non-garrisoned atolls, then transport from the nearest garrisoned atoll would be dispatched for pick up, and the PoW's might be kept on the garrisoned atoll for some time until the next transport became available.
After the fall of Kwajalein (end of January 1944) and the complete termination of Japanese surface shipping between the atolls of the Marshall Islands, as well as between the Marshalls and Chuuk, captured U.S. airmen were held on the garrisoned atolls. At the end of the war, no PoW's were handed over. All were said to have died either from the wounds obtained during the crash, or during U.S. air attacks when their bomb shelters were destroyed. These claims were often hard to disprove, but in a number of instances this was possible, and war crimes trails were held.
The execution of downed U.S. airmen was unfortunately rather common in Micronesia, although this contravened the stipulations of the Geneva Convention. Following surrender the U.S. forces conducted investigations and the military trials to punish the offenders. In the Marshall Islands we have evidence for such actions from Jaluit Atoll and Wake.
The trail of Milne and the B-24 crew goes cold on Taroa, Maloelap. There is a report that eight U.S. airmen were seen on a freighter arriving at Kwajalein and that two of them died in a U.S. attack on the very same vessel. The other six are said to have perished in the U.S. attacks preceding the landings. It is very likely, however, that this refers to the eight survivors of a B-24 crew which crashed on 2 January 1944 on Arno Atoll, some 10km east of Majuro Atoll.
Bibliographic citation for this document
Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1995) The wreck of a Consolidated B-24J "Liberator" off Laura.
Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.
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