Discover more from World War II Today
An account of night action over Guadalcanal by a member of the secret 'Wright Project'- the USAAF 'Snooper Squadron' that fought the Japanese Navy
In August 1943, a highly classified US Army Air Force unit, code-named the “Wright Project,” departed Langley Field for Guadalcanal in the South Pacific to join the fight against the Empire of Japan. Operating independently, under sealed orders drafted at the highest levels of Army Air Force, the Wright Project was unique, both in terms of the war-fighting capabilities provided by classified systems in the ten B-24 Liberators that this small group of airmen brought to the war, and in the success these “crash-built” technologies allowed. The Wright airmen would fly only at night, usually as lone hunters of enemy ships.
“TWO SHIPS DEAD AHEAD! LOOKS LIKE DESTROYERS! PULL UP, PULL UP!”
The following excerpt from Nightstalkers: The Wright Project and the 868th Bomb Squadron in World War II is an account by the captain of ‘Devil’s Delight’, Vince Splane:
Battle of Empress Augusta Bay
We all thought that our SCR-717-B radar set was a great piece of equipment. On the night of 1/2 November , our crew was second into the air behind Sumner and he found a fast-moving Japanese task force just as it cleared St. George’s Channel coming from Rabaul. We responded to the Sumner position report and as we, in Devil’s Delight, flew to the scene of the action, Sumner radioed that he was having a problem with his LAB equipment. His bombardier, Bob Tressel, had dropped his bombs short on several runs on a maneuvering warship, and Sumner had no hits. This Japanese task force was headed to Empress Augusta Bay where our Marines had landed the previous morning, steaming hard to tear up the beach and destroy the transports.
My radarman, Al Smith, detected the targets from 75 miles away, and because he had his scope set on its 100-mile range, he initially saw only one big blob. At 25 miles that blob became 10 individual blips when “Smitty” gradually ranged the radar down as we closed on the target. We picked the largest ship at 10 miles range to set up our bomb run and went back out a ways, descended to attack level and made the approach. We had already radioed in a position, heading and speed report on the Japanese ships and been cleared to attack by COMAIRSOLS We set up a bow-to-stern quartering run from 15 miles out, approaching from an east-southeast direction.
My bombardier, Vince Zdanzukas, was making corrections to his bombsight. Smitty was calling off positions from his radar every 30 seconds or so, as “Zuke” worked from his scope to set up the LAB attack. The radar “spinner” located in the ball turret position made one revolution every three seconds in its normal search mode but, once we locked onto a target, Smitty would switch it to sector scan, meaning it would only oscillate 30 degrees on each side of the aircraft’s dead center. This gave us a stronger radar image and repeated a clean screen reading every second. Like almost all our LAB runs, we were at 1,200 feet throughout.
For my part as the pilot, the PDI [pilot’s directional indicator] on my instrument panel made sure I kept a constant altitude and airspeed, and within five miles of the target, any corrections were made with the rudders. At this point, the only voice that was heard was Smitty still calling off the range. The bombs were normally dropped by the system right after he made the one-quarter mile call. That night we knew we had a big, fast-moving and important warship target and we released all six 500-pound bombs at 30 to 40-foot intervals on the first run, with a one-tenth-second delay set on both nose and tail fuses. I counted, “one thousand … to four thousand” and then banked the aircraft hard over to the left to watch the impact. All six bombs exploded in sequence, each walking closer to the starboard side of the ship, and the last detonated directly alongside, so we called it a “very near miss.” The amazing thing was that this warship did not fire one shot at us, even after we near-missed her.
We continued to circle this task force, radio in position reports and I elected to make another LAB-guided close-aboard run, flying right up the phosphorescent wake of this or another large warship. Again, not one shot fired at us. Amazing. We stuck with this task force until it was met by our own U.S. Navy surface ships and then all hell broke loose below us. Early in that fight a warship was set afire and burned bright. We were apparently looking at the Japanese Navy light cruiser Sendai, which was sunk that night. But we would not learn the identity of the ship we had earlier hit—the heavy cruiser and task force flagship Haguro—until many years later. We had been out eight hours by the time COMAIRSOLS called us home and we landed back at Carney knowing we had run a great mission.
Ranging Farther From Munda
In our hunt for target vessels, which had become scarce in our normal patrol areas by December, we installed belly tanks in the front bomb bay position to give us an extra hour or two in the air. One mission that I recall was staging through Munda on 19 December. As was the routine on Munda, we were briefed by a U.S. Marine Colonel named Pitcher on possible Japanese convoy activity and we launched close to midnight and went out well beyond Rabaul. Here we found a nice eight-ship convoy that seemed to have departed Rabaul to head to Truk. We radioed in to COMAIRSOLS, reported our contact and asked for an okay to attack. We received no response. Our IFF was working and did not trigger a response from the ships below. A reasonable conclusion was that they were Japanese.
Not prepared to continue waiting for a COMAIRSOLS response, and not wanting to go home without attacking this target, we set up at 10 miles and made a LAB run on the largest target indicated by the radar, dropping three and getting two amazing hits. I had banked the aircraft over sharply after bomb release, almost standing it on its left wingtip, and flames from the exploding bombs seemed to come right through the open bomb bay doors. The ship continued to explode and burn and we went out to circle at 20 miles distance and could even see clearly from the flames on the water at 25 miles or more.
On radar we watched several of the other ships converge on the dead-in-water target, probably taking off crew or soldiers or whatever. After an hour or so, not wanting to waste our three remaining bombs on this sinking target, we went after what our radar told us was the second-largest target in the group, but only near-missed her, claiming no damage.
The problems began when we landed back at Munda. The good Colonel Pitcher was waiting for us, not to just debrief us but, as his first priority, to chew my ass, and chew on me he did. He yelled that we did not have permission to attack the convoy and as we were, “almost across the line and into MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific Command area,” and that convoy could well have been one of his task forces! But then he smiled broadly, shook my hand, held it firm and said “great mission guys.”
Working with the Marines
We knew that Rabaul probably had dedicated night fighters, or at least was now putting fighters into the air to intercept us in our night attacks there. A Marine pilot who came up with the idea to mate his U.S. Navy PV-1 Ventura with my aircraft in a hunter-killer combination convinced me to work with him. Our plan was that I would fly at and over Rabaul at 10,000 feet or so, and he would keep station on my six o’clock about a mile or so back and a thousand feet below us. We would use our radar to seek Japanese fighters and when we detected the same activity around our aircraft, or even coming after us, we would alert him and guide him with our radar to his target for an interception. He had radar that he could use in a closing phase but needed us for the search and, I suspect, to act as bait. We practiced this with a Navy fighter over Munda as our target and then made an SB-24 plus PV-1 run to Rabaul. We could not draw out any Japanese fighters that night so we threw in the towel, no more bait-the-hook missions over Rabaul for Lieutenant Hershberger. But it seemed like a novel idea that just might work and, after all, we were at war.
Sometimes it is not the fighters or the anti-aircraft or even blown-out engines on takeoff that kills you—it’s your own crew. On a mission up the St. George’s Channel in one of the other original Wright B-24Ds (our Devil’s Delight was in for engine overhauls), we found a target, made a LAB run and missed and headed home. My co-pilot wanted left-seat time so we switched and I thought that I might catch a cat nap. I had trimmed the aircraft out and set it to autopilot and she was flying nicely. But even with the autopilot flying, minute adjustments had to be made from time to time. I knew that Thompson also had a habit of drifting off to catnap on the way back so I watched him from the right seat out of the corner of my eye. He would drop his chin and close his eyes but always seemed to catch himself at the five-second point and regain focus. I made the mistake of falling asleep but did not realize that our flight engineer, who normally was with us on the deck and could watch Thompson, was back on the rear deck transferring fuel from the bomb bay tanks, thus I had no backup eyes on Thompson.
The aircraft bumped and I glanced at Thompson. He had his chin buried deep into his chest, was sound asleep, but his hand was on that autopilot knob, making those adjustments as he snored. But at that point, Flight Engineer Pona yelled on the intercom that he had pump valve problems and fuel starvation. “NUMBER FOUR CUT OUT, NUMBER THREE CUTTING OUT!” With this loss of all power on the two starboard engines the two functioning engines overcame the autopilot and Thompson was still not fully awake and had not reacted.
He was screaming, “PULL UP, PULL UP, WE’RE ON THE WATER!”
When I glanced at the instruments, I realized that we were almost on our back and we were down to 120 miles an hour and we had been cruising at 1,000 feet. I reached instinctively to feather number four prop to reduce drag on that right side, flicked off the autopilot, hit the fuel booster switches, grabbed the control wheel and hit the top rudder. All this time I was yelling at Thompson, “Could you give me some damn help!”
We got the ship back level and managed to get the nose down to pick up airspeed, got number four going and then number three and came into level flight somewhere between 30 and 50 feet off the surface of the water. We had just survived a near-death crash into the sea. Such a situation would typically see a B-24 stall out at this airspeed with the plane in this position—flaps up, 110 mile an hour and almost on our back. But this mission from hell was just starting.
As we flew at 50 feet or so and I was checking all instruments my radarman Smitty yells, “TWO SHIPS DEAD AHEAD! LOOKS LIKE DESTROYERS! PULL UP, PULL UP!” I yelled back, “The hell with them, I have to get this plane flying again,” as we passed just over the top of a destroyer’s mast.
Given the location, we assumed they were ours, and if they were, some U.S. destroyer got the closest buzzing that any But more was to come. This particular aircraft was the known “gas hog” of the Wright Project aircraft. No matter how much we reduced power settings and leaned her engines out, she consumed so much that every mission with her was a close run. After clearing the ships, we did a quick calculation and realized we could not make it back to Munda. We had an emergency landing field on Treasury Island off the south coast of Bougainville so we called them and said we were headed in.
They suspected Japanese aircraft so they had us do a turning exercise so they could watch us on radar, then check all the IFF signals, clear us as “friendly” and allow us to land. Finally, convinced that we were who we said we were, they turned on the landing lights. But we weren’t down yet.
I climbed back to 1,000 feet, made my crosswind leg and had just turned on the downwind leg when my navigator, Alabama-born and bred Cecil Cothran, came on the intercom. Drawling, Cecil said, “Vince…there….is…a…two…thousand…foot …mountain…right…out…there.” Now everyone on the crew was shaking as they thought that I was flying us into a mountain. But I turned on to the base leg hoping we had avoided it.
It was raining very hard and when I turned on our landing lights my co-pilot went crazy and yanked the control column back. He was screaming, “PULL UP, PULL UP, WE’RE ON THE WATER!” I reached across and gave him a karate chop, pounded on him, yelled some very bad things at him and his hands dropped off the control column. He had been blinded by the combination of the pounding rain hitting the front glass and our landing lights coming on and he thought we were crashing into the sea.
I got it down and we taxied to a hard stand off to the side of the runway. The rain was still beating down on us as we sat in that airplane. Pona crawled up on top of the wing, opened the access panel to the wing tank and shined the flashlight. He could see the metal bottom. We had just made it.
Our bombardier, “Zuke” Zdanzukas, came on the intercom, wanting to confirm the time of mission termination that he would enter into his bombing device log. He then asked, with total seriousness, “And just how much time should I log for Jesus Christ on this mission? Because you know, Vince, He was with us all the way!”
© Richard Phillip Lawless 2023 Nightstalkers. Reproduced courtesy of Casemate Publishers.
This is just one of the personal accounts by men of the 868th Bomb Squadron that author Richard Philip Lawless brings to Nightstalkers: The Wright Project and the 868th Bomb Squadron in World War II. This is the story of how cutting-edge technology from MIT Labs was brought to the battlefront - and of the men who made it a battle-winning success. A little-known aspect of the Pacific War when the USAAF became an integral part of the naval war. The unit developed its capabilities - through many challenging naval actions - right up to the end of the war.
If you have been forwarded this email … why not subscribe? Get the Sunday Feature every week. It’s free. World War II Today features an excerpt from a new title about a different aspect of the war most weeks.