By Mike McCoy
his extract from Mike's forthcoming book takes us among clouds of damselfish that hover over the remains of the once proud bomber plane. He also takes us back to September 1942 ...
The twin guns of its top turret aim outward at an unchanging blue emptiness now. But not the blue of the sky - the blue of an underwater vault, but no less majestic for that. Colonies of soft leather corals, reminiscent of some giant convoluted fungi, jostle for living space on the huge expanse of its wings. Clouds of damselfish hover above it and vast schools of tiny metallic fish - golden sweepers - swarm through the fuselage, its interior draped with trees of soft coral and sea fans. Lying on an otherwise featureless plain of gray sand at a depth of 16 metres, it has, in its dying, become a living reef, a haven for myriad forms of smaller marine life which in turn attract larger predators. Inevitably the sea has exerted its claim upon this machine of war. A gentle but inexorable claim that began more than fifty years ago when, amid a burst of sea spray and steam from hot engines, this giant American bomber slammed onto the surface of the sea off the Guadalcanal coast and sank with a grim finality.
It was the twenty-fourth day of September, 1942 - a Thursday - and the aircraft was a B-17 returning from a bombing raid over Japanese positions on Shortland Island in the far western Solomons. After the manner of its time, a time of passionate and aggressive patriotism, it was named Bessie Jap Basher and it was almost home. Twenty kilometres, perhaps five minutes flying time, from the safety of Henderson Field. But those scant five minutes were a lifetime away for the doomed bomber and her crew. Badly damaged by bullets from attacking Japanese fighters over the Shortlands, with one engine out and the propeller feathered, the pilot - Lieutenant Norton - struggled to maintain some control over the bomber as he prepared to land on the sea less than a hundred metres off the coast. Henderson Field heard their radio call - they were hit by enemy fire and ditching. Was there fear, or panic, or a professional coolness in the voice from that dying B-17? Military records afford little consequence to such human considerations. In September the tradewinds would have been blowing and the gusting south-easterlies would have been full on the nose of the B-17, reducing its airspeed as the crew, high on adrenalin, braced themselves for the impact. It hit nose-first, crumpling the metal and distorting the lettering of its now singularly inappropriate name. However, Bessie Jap Basher did not break apart and apparently all the crew survived the ditching - at least they all escaped from the stricken bomber. But none were ever to see their homes, their friends and loved ones again; and for most of them, their fate still remains unknown to this day. Conjecture: could they all swim; were some seriously injured, unable to make the short distance to the beach? did some of them drown? did some of them parachute from the crippled aircraft before it crashed? were they lost forever in the rolling blue swells of a tropical sea?. Questions that now will never be answered.
Lieutenant Norton at least made the shore. For the next six days he remained on the beach. Was he hurt? scared? hungry? thirsty? Was he alone? Probably all of these. Lieutenant Norton passed finally and forever into history on Wednesday, 30 September 1942 when he was found by enemy troops and, as captured Japanese records later revealed, "...died as he arrived at Japanese Battalion Headquarters."
In late January 1944, almost a year after the fighting had ended on Guadalcanal, a US Seebee salvage team attempted to salvage Bessie Jap Basher. In their efforts to haul the corpse of the bomber to the shore, they were not successful. It came apart, the tail and rear fuselage breaking free. Divers explored the interior of the aircraft, searching for human remains - they found none. Below the pilot's seat was a briefcase bearing the name "C.E. Norton" - a statement of inanimate poignancy. On the shore the skeletal remains of a crewman - Sergeant Osborne - were found. But the rest of the crew of Bessie Jap Basher? - their fate became summarised with a tragic simplicity in that heartbreakingly inadequate epitaph - Missing in Action.
The official report, while perhaps dramatic by its very scarcity of emotion, nonetheless gives no heed to the terror and the pain of that Thursday afternoon in September so many years ago:
Loss of B-17E, Serial No. 41-2420, of 42nd Bombardment Squadron: On September 24, 1942, this B-17E, named Bessie Jap Basher was attacked by Japanese Zeros on a mission over the Shortland Islands. It was severely damaged and on the way back to Guadalcanal crashed in water about 100 yards off Doma Cove. Evidently the Japanese fighters pursued it to the point where it crashed. The pilot was Lt. Charles E. Norton and the other crew were 1st Lt. Bruce B.S. Barker, 1st Lt. Leo M. Eminger, S/Sgt. Peter F. Novak, S/Sgt. William L. Hotard, S/Sgt. Fred S. Croyle, Sgt. Bruce W. Osborne, Sgt. James R. Mathewson and Pfc Edward A. Carroll.
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