Monday, March 11, 2013

Letter From Bob - The Battle of the Bismarck Sea

Dearest Rosie.

It's a long trip over the Owen Stanley Mountains to the Bismarck Sea, especially when your beloved P-38's cockpit cooling doesn't work. Like most of the fellows here I've been flying in nothing more than shorts, shoes and a parachute, but it's still a sweaty business.

As you may imagine, though, the perspiration isn't all from the jungle heat. Our CO says the newspaper boys have been crawling all over MacArthur's headquarters, so I expect you've already read about our big scrap with the Japs last week. How they were trying to ferry thousands of fresh troops to New Guinea from their big base in Rabaul, and how we stopped them.

But I doubt those newsboys wrote much about what we really did. They like to make everything look easier and simpler than it is.

A lot of the work was done by the fellows in light bombers like B-25s, A-20s and Bristol Beaufighters, retrofitted with heavy guns so they could attack like fighters. The Aussies and Americans flew right at the Japanese transports a just a few dozen feet above the waves, veering back and forth so their guns raked a wide swath of the ships' decks. At the last instant they'd drop their bombs, which had fuses just long enough to allow the bombers to escape the blast.

My buddies and I were mostly protecting the big Flying Fortresses, which dropped bombs on the Japanese transports in the more usual way. I have to tell you, Rosie, things didn't go all our way the first day. A pack of Zeros jumped one of the Fortresses and damaged it so badly the crew bailed out. And what did the godforsaken Japs do? Why, they shot the crewmen as they parachuted down. Three of my squadron peeled away to go after the Japs, and they were shot down as well. These were guys were my friends. We ate together, played cards together in the barracks during thundering jungle downpours, drank beer together and talked about what we'd do when we got home. Now they're gone, and I watched them die.

I've enclosed a picture of one of my buddies. His name was Bob, too.

Capt. Robert Faurot with his P-38, before he was shot down in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea.

But I had no time to mourn. We were back at it the second day. I remember thinking of my buddies as we flew back over the mountains, my heart hardening with each steamy mile. I'd be lying if I said revenge wasn't on our minds.

This time the convoy broke formation when the bombers arrived, which made the transports' anti-aircraft defenses less concentrated. The ships twisted and turned violently, trying to escape. We saw two burning transports collide. The bomber crews saw Japanese troops on the ships' decks lined up with rifles, but the guns on the planes had greater range so the Japs were mowed down before they could fire back.

It was over in 20 minutes, most of their fleet sinking. We returned in the afternoon for another 20 minutes and finished the job. Eight transports and three destroyers went to Davy Jones' Locker.

Now comes the part that's harder to write about: For the next couple of days, we had orders to "mop up." This meant shooting up any lifeboats, barges or rafts we found. Our guns raked the sea whenever we saw anything floating that looked like it had Japs on it, throwing up red fountains. I didn't enjoy it, but whenever I hesitated to pull the trigger I thought of my dead friends.

I suspect the Japs will never try big convoys like this again; I suppose they'll stick to submarines, though how they'll be able to move large numbers of troops that way only Hirohito knows.

I'm sorry to write such grisly things to you, but war is changing all of us here, as I imagine it's changing you. I only hope we can forget all of these things when it's over.