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Royal New Zealand Air Force

rnzaf units on green island

page 301

rnzaf units on green island

New Zealand squadrons were maintained on Green Island until June 1945, when RNZAF operations from there ceased.

Of the two fighter squadrons stationed there at the beginning of the year, No. 14 completed its tour of duty in late January and was relieved by No. 17. No. 16 returned to New Zealand in the middle of February and was replaced by No. 15. No. 17 remained on the island until the end of March, when it was relieved by No. 24. No. 21 relieved No. 15 in April. In May No. 20 Squadron came up and was quartered at Green Island while awaiting the erection of accommodation at Jacquinot Bay.

Fighter-bomber operations from Green Island were discontinued in the middle of May in order that the servicing units could prepare to move to Jacquinot Bay. At the end of the month all the pilots of No. 20 Squadron and half of No. 21 had moved to the new location, and the rest of No. 21 joined them on 12 June.

No. 1 (Bomber Reconnaissance) Squadron, which had been on Green Island since October 1944, was relieved at the beginning of the year by No. 2. No. 2, in turn, was relieved in March by No. 3, which remained there until 9 June, when it went to Jacquinot Bay.

The three servicing units which had been posted to Green Island in 1944 continued to support the flying squadrons based there in rotation. When the RNZAF left the island they were transported by LST to Jacquinot Bay with their equipment.

No. 3 (Fighter) Servicing Unit was the first to go, leaving Green Island on 18 May and arriving at Jacquinot Bay next morning. No. 14 (Bomber Reconnaissance) was the next. The main body sailed on 27 May, leaving a small party behind for some weeks to complete repair work on several unserviceable aircraft. The third unit, No. 30, was also to have left during the last week in May, and had all its equipment packed and ready to move; but it was delayed because no further shipping was available. After nearly two months of waiting, it finally sailed on 14 July.

The fighter squadrons stationed at Green Island during 1945 continued to provide aircraft for local defence, offensive operations against Rabaul and Bougainville, and ‘Dumbo’ escorts.

In the early part of the year many bombing strikes were made on barges, camps, and other targets in the Rabaul area; but from March onwards operations over the Gazelle Peninsula were confined mainly to security patrols. Whenever the weather permitted, sections of four aircraft were maintained over the area from dawn to dusk, denying the Japanese the use of their aerodromes and reporting any untoward activities.

page 302

Enemy opposition was limited to anti-aircraft fire, which varied in intensity and accuracy but was seldom absent. The weather was often a more formidable hazard.

Nos. 14 and 16 Squadrons had a disastrous day on 15 January. Twelve aircraft from Green Island and twenty from Piva made a combined bombing attack on Toboi, a few miles south-west of Rabaul. Immediately after the attack Flight Lieutenant Keefe,1 of No. 14 Squadron, had his aircraft hit by anti-aircraft fire. He baled out and landed in Simpson Harbour.

Keefe was an exceptionally fine swimmer and struck out for the harbour entrance. For some time he made good progress, and reached a point midway between Matupi Island and Vulcan Crater. Then, in the middle of the afternoon, by which time he had been swimming for six hours, the tide and wind changed and he began to drift back up the harbour. All day he was covered by aircraft of Nos. 14 and 16 Squadrons. A Catalina stood by, but anti-aircraft fire prevented it from going in to rescue him. Two rafts were dropped, one falling within 100 yards of him, but he was not seen to attempt to use them.

At evening, with their petrol running low, the patrolling aircraft had to leave to return to Green Island. On the way they ran into a tropical storm which had developed with unexpected suddenness. Flying in darkness through torrential rain, five of the Corsairs crashed into the sea on the way home, and one crashed at Green Island when about to land. A seventh simply disappeared. An intensive search next morning failed to find any trace of the missing pilots or their aircraft.

The following account of the episode is taken from No. 14 Squadron's operations record book:

A combined strike was scheduled for targets No. 1 and 2 at Toboi, on the Western side of Simpson Harbour. Twenty Piva-based Corsairs were to lead in on No. 1, followed by eight aircraft from 16 Squadron and four from us on No. 2 target. Flying Officer Corbett's2 aircraft went unserviceable so we had only three aircraft, each carrying 2 - 500 lb. bombs. Just after release, and when between 2,000 and 2,500 feet, Flight Sergeant Cook,3 the last man in, saw Flight Lieutenant Keefe, who was immediately ahead of him, get hit by anti-aircraft fire in the port wing. There was a burst of flame and the aircraft climbed steeply to 3,000 ft. with black smoke pouring from the engine and pieces of the aircraft flying about. At 3,000 ft. it did a wing-over and went straight down. Flight Lieutenant Keefe managed to bale out, landing in the water between half a mile and a mile North of Beehives. Apparently he was unharmed, as he started to make immediate progress towards the entrance of the harbour. When he was about mid-

1 Flt Lt F. G. Keefe; born Auckland, 23 Jul 1916; driver-mechanic; died of wounds while p.w. 1945.

2 Fg Off D. A. Corbett; Auckland; born Millerton, 10 Oct 1922; University student.

3 F/S A. I. Cook; Bluff; born Invercargill, 7 Dec 1924; cadet telegraphist.

page 303 way between Matupi Island and Vulcan Crater the tide and wind changed. This was mid-afternoon. Remaining more or less stationary for at least an hour, he then started to drift gradually back into the harbour. If there was any possibility whatsoever, Dumbo was going in, but as a precaution two small bamboo rafts were sent up by Ventura. As Flight Lieutenant Keefe was losing ground, it was considered to be suicidal for Dumbo to do anything, so the rafts were dropped at about 1800 hours. One landed 100 yds. East of him and the other 100 yds. West, but no-one observed him making any attempt to reach them. Squadron Leader Green1 of No. 16 Squadron made two low runs over Keefe and saw him lying across a log. He could not say for sure, but it appeared as if Keefe's head was under water. There were 15 Corsairs patrolling overhead at the time. They were ready to give protection should Dumbo put down, but as there was nothing more they could do they set out for base at about 1845 hours.

Flight Lieutenant Hay,2 leading our two sections and followed by a section from 16 Squadron, came round Cape St. George and, as there was a front between there and base, he set course for Feni Island, no doubt in an attempt to get round it. The front developed very rapidly just before the aircraft left Rabaul and there was no means of knowing how thick or wide it was going to be. When just South of Feni, Hay received a course of 125 degrees from Shepherd Base and decided to turn on to it. As they entered the front, Flight Sergeant Walther3 noticed that his altimeter was reading 300 ft. although, because of high pressure, their height was estimated to be about 450 ft. In a flash of lightning, only a minute or two after entering the front, Walther, who was No. 4, saw Hay and Flight Sergeant McArthur4 collide. With the latter's aircraft burning at the wing-roots, they dropped behind. Immediately after the collision he saw the lights of Flying Officer Steward,5 No. 3, go down. This left Walther on his own and he put up a magnificent effort in getting home. Pilot Officer Crump's6 section, led by Flight Sergeant Munro,7 as Crump's R/T was not working, became separated from the others, but Munro did a grand job in bringing them home as it entailed nearly twenty minutes blind flying after dark and in heavy rain. Unfortunately, fate was still against them. Munro, with Flight Sergeant Mitchell8 on his right, were going down the down-wind leg at 500 ft. before landing with a ceiling of less than 600 ft. when the former was seen to pull up sharply and disappear into cloud. What happened to him, nobody knows.

No. 16 Squadron did not escape. Of their section, which had formated with Hay, two were seen to hit the water and explode immediately prior to the collision. The remaining pair managed to get home but they were extremely lucky. Squadron Leader Green led his pair home almost on a

1 Sqn Ldr P. S. Green, DFC, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Kawakawa, 15 Dec 1919; statistician.

2 Flt Lt B. S. Hay, m.i.d.; born Taihape, 2 Dec 1921; clerk; killed on air operations 15 Jan 1945.

3 W/O D. G. Walther; Woodville; born Woodville, 28 Aug 1921; dairy farmer.

4 F/S J. S. McArthur; born Christchurch, 18 Aug 1920; electrician; killed on air operations 15 Jan 1945.

5 Fg Off A. N. Saward; born Hamilton, 4 Dec 1922; farmhand; killed on air operations 15 Jan 1945. [Name incorrectly given as Steward in squadron record book.]

6 Fg Off H. P. Crump, m.i.d.; Dargaville; born Dargaville, 19 Sep 1921; University student.

7 F/S I. J. Munro; born Kaitaia, 15 Aug 1924; farmhand; killed on air operations 15 Jan 1945.

8 Fg Off R. R. Mitchell; Petone; born Palmerston North, 10 Apr 1924; fireman.

page 304 direct course at low level. One got lost and was lucky to fluke base as his R/T was out of action. The other pair reached the island safely but in a turn Flying Officer Randell1 lost height and crashed.

After the war it was reported by Japanese captured at Rabaul that Keefe had swum ashore at Vulcan Crater, and later had taken a small boat and tried to row down the harbour. A wounded arm made it impossible for him to row properly, and he was taken prisoner by a Japanese naval party. He died of his wound while a prisoner of war.

In addition to regular patrols over Rabaul, Green-based fighters took part in a number of bombing strikes on the Japanese bases in southern Bougainville in April and the early part of May, thereby releasing the Piva squadrons for an all-out effort in support of the Australian ground forces. Attacks were also made on targets on Buka and northern Bougainville.

1 Fg Off G. Randell; born Tauranga, 14 Oct 1920; electroplater; killed on air operations 15 Jan 1945.