The Long Journey Home

WASHINGTON — The barrage of anti-aircraft fire came out of nowhere. Blasts encircled the B-24 bomber from its “Hot Garters” nose art to the Jolly Rogers skull-and-crossbones symbol painted on the tail.

A day earlier, clouds had covered their target at Hansa Bay in New Guinea. But on this day, April 10, 1944, the clouds had parted and visibility was good for the 12 crew members of Hot Garters, the lead B-24 in a seven-aircraft formation.

The crew had one mission: to help the Allies in their relentless attack of Hansa Bay.

The 5th Air Force had been blasting the region for weeks, striking villages, docks, bridges and roads along the northern coastline of New Guinea. They bombarded a fuel dump, causing several warehouses to burn so fiercely that airmen saw “fires leaping 500 feet through black smoke,” according to field reports.

The crew members of Hot Garters were not career military men. Before the war they’d had jobs in banking, retail sales, plumbing and land surveying.

At 20, Tech. Sgt. Charles L. Johnston Jr. of Pittsburgh was the youngest. As radio operator, his job was to keep contact with the base, maintain a log of transmissions and to take turns manning guns with the flight engineer.

First Lt. Bryant E. Lt. Poulsen of Utah was in the pilot’s seat.

Next to him was the co-pilot, First Lt. Herbert V. Young, Jr. of Arizona, a new father who hadn’t yet met his infant daughter. He normally flew with his own crew but his plane was under repair and the Hot Garters needed another man that day.

Sgt. Charles A. Gardner of California shouldn’t have been on the bomber that day, either. Military records show he was assigned to the 320th Bomber Squadron. This was the 321st.

First Lt. Donald P. Greenman of Rhode Island, was navigating.

First Lt. William Daniel Bernier, a bombardier from Montana nicknamed “Laddie,” was in the nose of the bomber. His job was to target and release the bombs

Staff Sgt. Donald C. Crotteau of Wisconsin, Staff Sgt. John E. Copeland of Kansas, Staff Sgt. Charles J. Jones of Georgia, and Sgt. William T. Hyler of New York City, were the gunners.

Sgt. William M. Handleman of New York was the crew’s photographer and Tech Sgt. Hugh F. Moore of Maryland was the engineer.

The Hot Garters departed at 10:25 a.m. from Texter Strip at Nazdab Airfield on a northwest course toward Hansa Bay.

The B-24 was leading a column of bombers, each one ready to peel off for separate bombing runs.

‘The plane disintegrated’

As Lt. Poulsen banked left toward his target, he was buffeted by anti-aircraft fire, airmen aboard other planes in the formation would later report.

The pilot of the second bomber in the formation, 1st Lt. George R. Anderson, would report the next day that just as his plane prepared to drop its bombs, a shell struck the No. 2 engine of the lead plane, Hot Garters. As the B-24 lost altitude, Lt. Poulsen turned gradually left and the crew jettisoned its bombs as flames consumed the tail, Lt. Anderson reported.

A bombardier in another plane said Lt. Poulsen’s B-24 was trailing flames and smoke.

“His left wing seemed to be dropping a little and the ship was in a left turn. I was told by my pilot that they had already salvoed their bombs and we began to follow them. As the crippled ship was losing altitude the ack-ack continued to track them. The bursts seemed to break not more than 25 feet from each other and had the ship bracketed,” the bombardier, 2nd Lt. Stanley J. Coogan, reported the next day.

Lt. Anderson wrote that “The fire in No. 2 engine had diminished and then blazed up again. The left wing folded up and the plane disintegrated” at 10,000 feet.

The blast sent the plane into a spin, Lt. Coogan reported.

“Several large parts of the ship began to fall and I assumed they were the engines on the right wing or the gas tanks as they were solid masses of flame,” he wrote.

Then the tail broke off.

One airman bailed out and his parachute opened. He landed on a bald hill and was followed by others, Lt. Coogan reported. As they descended, flaming parts of the plane fell around them.

A bomber command rescue officer worked out a search plan while the crew of a B-25 from another squadron dropped food and supplies to the downed airmen, including one whose parachute got caught in a tree.

A fighter sent to the area made wide searching circles flying as low as 1,000 feet before spotting the downed plane about five miles from its target. It was “completely burned,” according to military records.

A witness who had been flying in the squadron guided a search team’s B-25 back to the area to look for survivors, but thick clouds prevented them from spotting the wreckage.

There was still a war to fight, and the squadron kept at it, achieving good results on another mission over Hansa Bay on April 11th, according to the 321st Squadron’s monthly report to headquarters. The report includes only the briefest mention of downing of Hot Garters: “One plane lost to A/A (anti-aircraft artillery) over the target was seen crashing 5 miles west of Nubia.”

Other records show that the search resumed two days after the attack, when visibility was reported to be perfect, but the thick jungle obscured the wreckage.

It isn’t clear what turns the search took after that, but on Dec. 18, 1948 the effort ended, according to a wartime memo by the American Graves Registration Service.

Raging war limits search

Bill Mall, a cousin of Sgt. Johnston, doesn’t fault the military for giving up the search. As a retired two-star general who commanded an Air Force search-and-rescue operation himself in 1983, he understands the challenges.

The war was still raging, the bamboo forest was thick, resources were thin and thousands of other American fighters were dead or dying, too. Searchers would have had to conduct their operation on foot and in low-flying planes using a patchwork of whatever resources they could draw together.

“There were people dying all over the place. They didn’t have the resources and the time,” Mr. Mall said.

Searchers had to rely on accounts from airmen flying combat missions while they sought to get their bearings enough to be able to report where the wreck went down and how many parachutes they saw open.

Witnesses on the ground saw four crewmen bail out of the damaged bomber, all badly burned, carrying one pistol between them and asking to be guided inland, Lt. W.A. MacGregor of the Australian Armed Forces later wrote in a report three years after the attack.

“The natives told them that the Japs were in the village behind and it would be better to hide there, however the airmen insisted they be taken inland south of Seffen so as to make for the Ramu River,” according to the Australian lieutenant, who was in charge of the region after occupation by the Allied Forces.

They never made it to the river.

Within four days they were taken prisoner by the Japanese.

Villagers including a “bush boy” named Marbong who spoke with the military in the 1940s knew the fate of the four: One was shot because he was too weak to walk, a second also was shot, another was beaten to death after he struck a Japanese soldier, and one “with severed bones” died from his injuries.

Through descriptions of the men, their uniform insignia, and reports the Japanese provided after the war, the military determined they were Lt. Greenman and Sgts. Crotteau, Hylor and Handleman.

But what of the other eight crew members? Surely they died in the crash, but where was the wreckage?

And where were their bodies?


Text: Tracie Mauriello

Washington Bureau Chief

Photo: Rebecca Droke

Other credits

Design: Zack Tanner
Editing: Lillian Thomas & Matt Smith
Visuals Editing: Danese Kenon