Apaches in the Pacific: The Story of the 345th Bombardment Group

Captain John Yossarian was crazy, or wasn’t crazy. I mean, he kept flying combat missions and that made him crazy. But he tried getting out of flying combat missions, so that’s not being crazy? Putting aside the Catch-22, one cannot doubt the fierce fighting over the skies of Europe and the Pacific in World War II. When you read about the survival odds of heavy bomber crews and airplane pilots, the level of carnage and death they faced was unfathomable. Stories of airmen not knowing the names of their fellow crew-members because they died so quickly were commonplace. The Pacific Theater was the United States’ first foray into the global conflict, and the longest. In 1942, the Japanese Empire stretched throughout the western Pacific, conquering the Philippines, sections of Southeast Asia, mainland China, and Oceania. With the success of the U.S. Navy at the Battle of Midway, Japanese expansion halted and the United States began to work its way through the Pacific by hopping from one major island chain to the next. Controlling the airspace was just as crucial as controlling the sea lanes and in April 1943 as plans to retake New Guinea and the Solomon Islands formulated, the first United States Army Air Force (USAAF) unit arrived in the South Pacific: the 345th Bombardment Group, the ‘Air Apaches’.

A B-25 Mitchell Bomber flying over during the Battle of Wakde Island, May 1944 (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Air Force)

Originally slated for service in the European Theater, the 5th Air Force and 345th was re-routed to the Pacific in order to conduct heavy bombing raids on Japanese occupied islands. Bombers were a new element in aerial warfare; they were larger, more heavily armored, and could travel longer distances. The B-25 Mitchell was the selected plane for the 345th, a medium-range bomber with twelve machine gun emplacements, making it a deadly gunship. Their payloads of 3,000 pounds of bombs were ideal for hitting targets likes ships and airfields; what the Japanese relied on for their Pacific expansion. The B-25’s were a signature aircraft for the USAAF as they were the same models used in the Doolittle Raids on the Japanese home islands on April 18, 1942. Generals pushed the envelope on maximizing the deadly use of the bomber and the 345th led the way during its Pacific campaign.

The 345th Bombardment Group patch

New Guinea and the Bismarck Islands were the first stage of the 345th’s bombing campaign. Their actions performing reconnaissance missions, dropping supplies, and attacking Japanese ships through the Bismarck Sea arguably prevented a serious threat to Australia. Between April 1943 and July 1944, the 345th relentlessly attacked the Japanese garrisons and ships running through the sea. The triple approach of high level bombing, heavy machine gun strafing, and skip-bombing (bouncing the bomb off the water like you would skip a stone across a pond) was effective in breaking Japanese control and opening the way for the liberation of the Philippines.

Setting aside the campaign history for a moment; like modern U.S. Air Force units today, the 345th was comprised of multiple squadrons that each carried out specific missions. For its time in the Pacific, the four squadrons were:

  1. 498th Bombardment Squadron “Falcons”
  2. 499th Bombardment Squadron “The Bats Outta Hell”
  3. 500th Bombardment Squadron “Rough Riders”
  4. 501st Bombardment Squadron “Black Panthers”

These four units were the center of the entire group. From their formation in South Carolina in September 1942, the men who served in these squads did so throughout the duration of the war. When able-bodied men between 21 and 45 registered for the peacetime draft (known as Selective Service) they only anticipated serving the minimum one year commitment. When the United States declared war on Japan and Germany though, draft terms extended through the conflict. Draftees could expect to serve for as long as it took to defeat the Axis Powers; dishonorable conduct, injury, and death were the ticket out of the service. Similar to what the United States faced in the First World War, the country’s military lacked in size and armament in comparison to European nations. Rapid upgrades in military industry, expanding draft requirements, and federalizing National Guard units helped make up for lost time in 1942 as the country mobilized for war. With the construction of new medium and heavy bombers, the air war would take on more importance than ever before. Approximately four thousand men served with this unit and the training they endured was unlike what most servicemen faced in the 1940s. While the physical training was grueling enough, technical and flight training on using these new bombers was a novel challenge. Crews worked closely as a team to make sure every part of the bomber functioned and was defended by faster enemy planes.

Clark Air Field – The U.S. base was captured by the Japanese after the fall of the Philippines. During the Battle for Leyte Gulf, Japanese kamikazes flew from Clark and inflicted heavy damage on the U.S. Navy. When Americans recaptured the islands, Clark was used by the 345th to launch missions throughout the Philippines and into Southeast Asia, January 1945 (Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

Circling back to the 345th’s ongoing war, they took to the skies again from July to November of 1944 hitting targets in the southern Philippines. The Japanese knew that the United States would reclaim the country (heard from Gen. MacArthur’s famous address in Australia, ‘I shall return!’) and the 345th made it a point to cut a path to Luzon and clear the war for the American recapture. Mission after mission, the 345th lost hundreds of crews and bombers as they were shot down by Japanese fighter planes or hit by flak from enemy ships. During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a kamikaze hit a group of 345th personnel stationed on the ground before they could get airborne. By the beginning of 1945, the 345th began bombing missions as far north as the Sea of Japan, hitting shipping and communication lines down through China and southeast Asia. Destroying such targets were necessary for military planners as operations were drawn up for the long anticipated invasion of the Japanese home islands (Operation Downfall). Both the United States and Japan knew that the cost in human lives would be astronomical. Intelligence analysts at the time estimated that casualty figures would easily reach into the millions as the Japanese military and civil defense organizations prepped for invasion. By July 1945, the 345th was positioned on Ie Shima in the Okinawa island chain ready to receive new combat orders. That all changed on August 6th and 9th when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hit with the first atomic bombs. Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender six days later on August 15th and now the 345th had a different set of orders: to escort the Japanese emissaries for the formal surrender before General MacArthur. Three B-25s and fighter planes were ordered to escort the Japanese detachment to the Philippines where they began discussing the terms of surrender and allied occupation of Japan. The escort was not without some hiccups though; hard-line nationalists in the Japanese military wanted the escort shot down because tradition held that surrender was worse than death. These fears were assuaged as the 345th escort mission formed a bracket around the Japanese planes and chaperoned them safely to Manila. Surviving airmen of the 345th remained stationed on Ie Shima until they received orders to rotate back to the United States and on December 29, 1945, the unit was deactivated.

Awards were showered on the 345th Bombardment Group throughout the war. They earned multiple Distinguished Unit Citations (now called the Presidential Unit Citation), unit citations from the Philippines, numerous Air Medals, Distinguished Flying Crosses, and hundreds of Purple Hearts. They were one of the most decorated USAAF units in the Pacific Theater. But why exactly am I talking about this group? What else makes them stand out? This stems from a personal stake: my grandfather, Fred L. Richardson, served with the 345th and his squadron was the 499th ‘Bats Outta Hell’. As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced me (and millions of others) to work remotely, I had more time to think about my grandfather’s service. I knew tons of stories from childhood, but I decided that a shadowbox of his awards, photos, and other memorabilia should be erected. I obtained several old photographs he took while in the Philippines and even the original Air Medal he received in 1945, but his service record was long gone. The great fire at the old National Personnel Records Center in 1973 saw to that fate. Not to be dissuaded from a researching challenge, I assembled a working chronology of his service from the 345th’s history, the photographs, and the two surviving documents we had; his draft card and enlistment payroll record. On April 26, 1943, he signed his registration card and was drafted three months later. He officially entered the service on July 20, 1943. From here until about October 1944, there’s a gap that I cannot account for, but I do know from family stories and some of the notes on the back of the photographs, he was on leave in California before heading to the South Pacific. There’s a leave slip authorizing a trip to Australia in February 1945 and by August 1945, there are dozens of small photographs of the Japanese surrender delegation. I couldn’t believe what I saw seeing; could these be unpublished photographs from World War II? History was in my hands and now the plan is to digitize them following the completion of grandfather’s shadowbox.

Draft registration card for Fred L. Richardson – He signed it on his 18th birthday (Image courtesy of the Oklahoma State Archives via Ancestry)

The Air Apaches achieved a distinguished war record in the Pacific. They flew more missions than other flight squadrons and were a central component of the Japanese surrender. When I reflect back on the war stories my grandfather told me, I can’t help but think of what he and thousands of other airmen went through. They were heroes to many and he was, and still is, my hero.

My grandfather was pretty good-looking back in the day, yeah?

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