A WARTIME LINK BETWEEN THE 417th BOMB GROUP AND THE
3rd EMERGENCY RESCUE SQUADRON
On the morning of Oct. 1, 1944, units of the 5th Air Force launched two missions from separate bases in the Pacific which were destined not only to result in joint actions that day, but were also to set the stage for a dramatic reunion 56 years later. The first was a bombing mission staged out of Noemfoor Island, Netherlands East Indies, to strike the Japanese air base in the Kai Islands south of Western New Guinea. Lt. Col. M. W. Johnson, Exec. of the 417th Bomb Group, flying a B-25, led a 47-plane formation of A-20s. His B-25 carried a bombardier with a Norden bombsight; the solid-nose A-20Gs were to drop bombs on sighting the bomb release from Col. Johnson’s B-25. The objective of the attack was simply to “post-hole” the enemy Langgoer Airfield on the main Kai Island.
The second mission was a strike-cover mission flown by a Catalina aircraft (OA-10A) of the 3rd Emergency Rescue Squadron, staging off Sorido Airstrip, Biak, an island in Geelvink Bay (now Teluk Irian), 70 miles east of Noemfoor. This was a day-long mission covering airstrikes in the vicinity of Timor, three hundred miles southwest of the Kai Islands. The pilot-in-command was Lt. Walter Griffeth and the rest of the crewmen were: Lt. Bill Laxson, Co-pilot; Lt. Joel Wareing, Navigator; T/Sgt.Jack Lessure, Engineer; S/Sgt John Cannon, Radio Operator; and S/Sgt. Gordon Whitney, Radar Operator. There was no intended connection between these two missions flown from different bases and targeting different Japanese locations.
After bombs were dropped at Kai, Col. Johnson led the 417th A-20s back towards Noemfoor. During the brief action over Langgoer, there was strong anti-aircraft response and one A-20, piloted by Lt. Norman Summers, sustained flak damage to one of its engines. Leaking oil, spouting flames, and running progressively rougher, the damaged engine forced Lt. Summers to reduce airspeed and leave formation. He was closely followed by another A-20 as the rest of the 417th flew back to Noemfoor. The damaged engine gave up the ghost near the southern coast of New Guinea and Lt. Summers was forced to ditch his A-20 in the sea between Adi Island and the mainland. During the ditching, Lt. Summers received a severe gash when his forehead impacted his gun sight and S/Sgt. Bob Evans, gunner on the mission, suffered a compound broken leg. Lt. Don Kline, flying the escorting A-20, circled overhead to verify the two airmen made it out of the sinking plane and into a small two-man rubber life raft, then headed for home base.
After crew debriefings at Kornasoren Airfield on Noemfoor, Col. Johnson and others were lounging around when news came through that Lt. Summers had ditched and made it into a life raft. Col. Johnson hurriedly assembled a three-plane sortie to locate the downed airmen and summon rescue assistance. Within minutes, three A-20s were refueled and set off in the reported direction of the ditching. The lead plane was flown by Col. Johnson, the second by his younger brother, Major C. W. (Bucko) Johnson, and a third was piloted by Major R. P. Klein.
Soon after take-off, Col. Johnson was able to contact the 3rd ERS Catalina, call sign DAYLIGHT 30, returning to Biak after a long day around Timor. After brief confusion over a link-up point, visual contact was made and DAYLIGHT 30 followed the A-20s across the Vogelkop Peninsula to the vicinity of Adi Island. A search by the four aircraft did not succeed in locating the tiny rubber raft. During the search, an unlucky Japanese JAKE floatplane blundered into the area and was shot down by Col. Johnson flying his A-20 like a fighter plane in a 1-minute dogfight. After more fruitless searching, Col. Johnson released the 3rd ERS Catalina to return to Biak. On the A-20s’ return path to Noemfoor, a red signal light was spotted 40 miles to the east of the reported ditching position. Their course was changed to investigate and soon three A-20s were circling over Lt. Summers and Sgt. Evans in their life raft.
Unable to renew radio contact with DAYLIGHT 30, Col. Johnson left two A-20s circling over the raft and flew back west to find the Catalina, already at 6000 feet climbing over the mountains. With radio transmissions still garbled and hand signals useless, Col. Johnson lowered his landing gear and flaps to slow his A-20 down to the Catalina’s 120 mph airspeed, then, placing his plane on the Catalina wingtip and turning into its path, he succeeded in “herding” the lumbering seaplane back to the life raft on the water.
After a day-long mission and unplanned late-afternoon diversion to a rescue operation, the Catalina was low on fuel. Lt. Griffeth made a difficult landing on a rough sea in gathering darkness. Finding it difficult to taxi alongside the raft as it bobbed up and down on the waves, Lt. Griffeth turned the controls over to Lt. Laxson, tied a rope around his waist and plunged off the top of the Catalina wing. He swam out to the raft, tied the rope to raft, and raft and Lt. were then pulled up to the Catalina gun blister. Lt. Summers and Sgt. Evans were gently lifted into the blister compartment by Lt. Wareing and the rest of the Catalina crew. As Lt. Griffeth was drying off, Lt. Laxson made the hazardous take-off of the Catalina over choppy waters in near-darkness. After scaling the mountains of the Vogelkop Peninsula, DAYLIGHT 30 returned to Sorido airstrip on Biak at 11:00 PM and the rescued men were whisked away to a field hospital.
The next day, Col. Johnson flew over from Noemfoor to visit the men in the hospital. Lt. Summers returned to his Squadron in a few days, was given a one-month R&R in Australia, then returned to flying combat missions with the 417th. Bob Evans was evacuated to the U.S. and then dropped from sight. His wife wrote a letter to Lt. Griffeth’s wife expressing appreciation for Walter’s key role in rescuing her husband. In January, 1945, Col. Johnson became C.O. of the 417th Bomb Group when C.O., Col. Howard Ellmore, was killed in combat action. Johnson himself returned to the U.S. in April 1945 with a severe case of jungle skin infection and his brother, C. W. Johnson, assumed command of the 417th Bomb Group all the way to Japan. Norman Summers returned to the U.S. in April 1945, after attaining the maximum amount of combat flight time.
Col. Johnson was awarded two Silver Star Decorations for actions on Oct. 1: one for leading the mass mission against Kai Island and the second for the rescue of the two 417th B.G. fliers. He stayed in the USAF after WWII and earned three more Silver Stars flying combat in A-26s in Korea.
Now, skip forward some 53 years to find events slowly converging upon a reunion for the principal players in the drama which played out that afternoon in 1944. In September,1997, the 3rd Emergency Rescue Squadron was holding its 10th Reunion in Flint, Michigan. Ten years of searching had failed to locate any of the many men it had rescued during the war. (The civilian Hanks family, evacuated from Culion Island under the very nose of the Japanese in February 1945, had been located in 1994.)
The 417th B.G. had been having reunions a little longer than the 3rd and the events of Oct. 1, 1944, had been widely discussed at their meetings. A full page in the 417th B.G. Unit History had acknowledged the debt owed PBY units for having saved the lives of a dozen or so 417th airmen. The debt was cited as owed to the U.S. Navy and the 3rd ERS. Lack of any 1944 photo coverage had prompted a wartime 417th Aircraft Mechanic, Joe Nedela, to produce a number of oil paintings, including one of Col. Johnson downing the Japanese floatplane and one of the 3rd ERS Catalina landing to pick up Summers and Evans. It was not known that the 3rd was also holding reunions and seeking to connect with units it had assisted in WWII. There had been no contact between the veterans of the two units.
At the 3rd ERS reunion, there was considerable coverage by the local media. In a press interview, Flint resident Larry Haak expressed a desire of the 3rd to connect with anyone they rescued during the war. Another Flint resident was familiar with Joe Nedela’s WWII service in the 417th B.G. and forwarded a clipping on this interview to Joe, who was then living in Wisconsin. Joe immediately contacted Norman Summers and soon Norman was in telephone contact with Larry Haak, who had hosted the 3rd reunion that year. At this point, it was pretty clear that the 3rd ERS had rescued Summers and Evans, but the crew identity remained unknown. From this point on, things moved slowly, but deliberately. Bill MacDermott (3rd ERS historian) was contacted and was soon in regular communication with both Joe Nedela and (retired) Col. Johnson. The details of the Summers/Evans rescue were passed on to him in conversations and in written accounts produced by the 417th. In early 1998, Jack Lessure of the 3rd was first to claim recollection of a mission marked by “herding” of his Catalina to a life raft. His pilot, Walter Griffeth, had not been located at that time, but two other members of the crew were living and soon confirmed Jack’s recollection of the rescue - Copilot Bill Laxson and Navigator Joel Wareing.
In the fall of 1998 at the evening banquet of the 3rd ERS reunion in Dothan, Alabama, formal gratitude of Col. Johnson and the 417th B.G. was transmitted to the 3rd ERS and accepted by Jack Lessure representing the DAYLIGHT 30 crew. (Wareing and Laxson were not at this meeting and Walter Griffeth was not even known to be alive.) Excited by making the wartime connection, Bill MacDermott resolved to make a final attempt to locate Walter Griffeth. Within a week, through one of the national telephone directories on the Internet, he found several “Walter Griffeths”, one of whom was living in Juneau, Alaska. He made a “cold call” to this number and was answered by a young man who volunteered the information that, “yes”, his grandfather had flown flying boats during WWII. He was at that time in a Juneau hospital recuperating from a back operation. Positive this was his man, Bill called the hospital, got the Griffeth room and was greeted by a voice stating that he was Walter Griffeth. Bill’s next sentence was: “How would you respond to “get well wishes” from the 3rd Emergency Rescue Squadron?”
After what seemed like an eternity, silence at the other end of the phone was broken by a slow, measured answer: “Oh.. my.. God!” Thus was the wartime link of the 3rd ERS with one its premier pilots reestablished. That phone call was long enough to cover all the essentials of the 3rd reunions and, in particular, what had been learned in recent months about the rescue of Oct. 1, 1944. Without hesitation, Walter remembered and recounted the details of that rescue, in particular the action of Col. Johnson in “herding” the big flying boat to the 417th B.G. men in the life raft.
After many written and verbal exchanges, at the next 3rd ERS reunion, Springfield, Ohio, September 1999, there was an emotion-filled reunion of the three Lts. on the DAYLIGHT 30 crew - Griffeth, Laxson, and Wareing, picture of which is attached. (Health problems kept Jack Lessure from joining this trio.) It would have been a great climax to recount the eventual reunion of these three with the 417th’s Johnson and Summers, but such a meeting was not to be. In 2000 these three were invited to the 417th B.G. reunion in Oklahoma City, but Walter Griffeth had developed physical problems and could not respond. Joel Wareing and Bill Laxson did, however, and were joined by the 3rd Historian, Bill MacDermott. It was a moving experience for Joel and Laxson to reunite with Johnson and Summers, also for Bill MacDermott to observe. As Wareing met Summers, he extended his hand and recalled: “The last time I saw you, I was offering you this hand to help pull you up into our Catalina blister.” In addition to exchanging reminiscences, Col. Johnson presented the two 3rd ERS Lts. with a model of a Catalina which a friend of his had made for him. This model was eventually transmitted to Walter Griffeth and it is now suspended in flight attitude in his office in Juneau. The 3rd ERS men enjoyed not only meeting Col. Johnson and Norman Summers, but also developed a warm camaraderie with a host of other 417th veterans with whom they had so much in common. Bill Laxson and Mary Belle Johnson also found much in common as hey exchanged many tales of growing up on farms in Texas and Oklahoma.
It is simply impossible to say too much about the role played by Joe Nedela’s paintings in recreating the atmosphere and ambiance of the major happenings during the rescue of Lt. Summers and Sgt. Evans. Since the 417th Bomb Group had been formed in Oklahoma City in 1943, it was appropriate that several of Joe’s paintings were donated to museums in that city, the Kirkpatrick Museum and the Oklahoma History Museum. The latter, in particular, accepted the painting of the downing of the floatplane by Col. Johnson. One painting of Col. Johnson waving from the cockpit of his A-20, “Roff Rider”, was retained by his family after his death in 2003. The Nedela painting of the 3rd ERS Catalina approaching the open-sea landing for the rescue was donated to “Michigan’s Own War Museum” in Flint (Frankenmuth). In response to the warm feelings and friendships developed at the Oklahoma City reunion, and without telling a soul, Joe Nedela spent several months carefully repainting this picture of Walter Griffeth bringing the big flying boat down to land. In 2001, this second copy, in full color and detail, was presented to the 3rd ERS from Joe and the 417th B.G., as another token of gratitude. This painting lit up several subsequent 3rd ERS reunions, but it, too, eventually found a home in a museum collection - the USAF Art Collection at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Before this happened, however, Joel Wareing was able to obtain full-size (20x30), very-high-quality reproductions and one of these now hangs in each of the homes of himself, Walter Griffeth, Bill Laxson, Jack Lessure, and Bill MacDermott.
At this writing, July 2008, the passage of time has recorded the 2003 passings of Col. M. W.(Wayne)Johnson and Lt. Norman Summers of the 417th Bomb Group and T/Sgt. Jack Lessure of the 3rd ERS. Lt. Bill Laxson passed away during the Xmas season of 2005. Walter Griffeth and Joel Wareing are still alive to recall their actions on Oct. 1, 1944. These events will long be remembered by those of the 417th Bomb Group and 3rd ERS who are still living and, furthermore, will live on for posterity in the paintings of Joe Nedela.
I have been informed that Joe Nedela
POSTSCRIPT : I have been informed that Joe Nedelais in Home Hospice with pancreatic cancer. In March he was given an estimate of survival for about two months. He is still hanging in there. I know that ALL of the surviving 3rd ERS members wish him well and will say a prayer for him