Saturday, April 13, 2019

Naughty But Nice: A Famous Fortress's Gallant Life Through War and Peace

For the preceding half an hour they'd been circling high above Japan's once mighty South Pacific bastion, Rabaul. By that night in June of 1943, the place had little to offer the attacking American air forces but sporadic, and less-than-accurate, anti-aircraft fire. So little did crews fear it, loitering over the target wasn't even regarded as especially risky, especially in the darkness. It was an unexpected shock, therefore, when their B-17E was rocked with detonations and fire. Three rounds of hits, and the aircraft careened out of control. The navigator was the only member of the crew to get out of the burning machine. Drifting down towards the black jungle, suspended beneath his parachute, he didn't think in terms of escape. Below, the Japanese were waiting, unseen in the forest. Also unseen, the lone Japanese Navy night fighter that had shot down two Flying Fortresses in a mere few minutes. An epic end to the combat career of an aircraft that, by 1943, had experienced about everything that the War in the Pacific could throw at it.

B-17E serial number 41-2430 was built by Boeing in Seattle, Washington during days of peace. On December 6th, 1941, the aircraft left Hamilton Field, near San Francisco, California, with seven other new B-17s, on their way to reinforce General MacArthur's air force in the Philippines. On the morning of December 7th, the eight Fortresses were due to stop at Pearl Harbor's Hickam Field. The crew of '430' witnessed the Japanese attack in progress, and took the independent action of landing at a reserve field on the other side of the island (other B-17s in the flight scattered, one landing on a golf course, another trading fire with Japanese planes to brave a landing at Hickam).

B-17E '430' as she appeared between December 10th, 1941, and April 4th, 1942. Note the HAD camouflage, Hawaiian Air Force rudder stripes, and early Sperry remote belly turret. 

The atmosphere on Oahu at that time wouldn't really be experienced again by Americans until September 11th, 2001. Having been dealt such an unexpected and lethal blow by an enemy that had been grossly underestimated, something akin to near panic pervaded the military in Hawaii. Air defenses had been decimated during the initial Japanese attack, and in the minds of many there was an expectation of invasion. The B-17s that had arrived on the 7th were, therefore, pressed into local air defense. On December 10th, Brigadier General Jacob Rudolph ordered that the eight B-17s, including 430, be 'camouflaged to blend in with the local surroundings.' Accordingly, the Hawaiian Air Depot (HAD) used whatever paint they could find on hand to carry out the General's order. While the General was reportedly less than thrilled with the results, the scheme would set those few Flying Fortresses apart from all of the other 12,000 B-17s to see action throughout the war. 

430 undertook countless air searches from Hickam Field throughout the rest of December and into early 1942. As the threat of invasion abated on Oahu, but loomed ever larger in Australia, 430 arrived in Brisbane on February 16th. From then on until November, the aircraft stayed in Australia for training and refit. The older Sperry remote turret was replaced with a manned ball turret, light armament was added to the nose, and 430 became known as 'Naughty But Nice', with the hand painted addition of art to the starboard side of the nose. By that time, the short lived red and white national markings were removed from the rudder, and the red dots in the center of the stars were painted over with white. "Now the symbol is a white star without red dot," wrote one squadron historian on April 4th, 1942, "the Japs have changed our ideas about red."

B-17E '430' in Australia, between April and October 1942. The tail stripes and red star centers are gone, but she has yet to have her remote turret replaced, and she still has not received her iconic nose art.   

In November 1942, 'Naughty But Nice' was assigned to the 43rd Bombardment Group, 65th Bombardment Squadron, and participated in combat operations against the Japanese bastion of Rabaul from Garbutt Field, near Townsville, Australia. The missions were nothing like what was then happening in Europe. Washington's 'Europe First' policy meant that no new B-17 Flying Fortresses were being sent to the Pacific. While some B-24D Liberators began to trickle into Australia and Papua New Guinea, squadrons had to make do with what they had. It was common for sorties to consist of half a dozen bombers or less, flying for hours over open water, without any fighter protection. Any mechanical issue that caused an aircraft to drop from formation could lead to the loss of an entire crew, as lone bombers became lost, never to be seen again. If an aircraft went down in the water, there was only about a 25% chance that any survivors would be found and rescued. Since the missions were flown almost entirely over enemy controlled territory, any crew who bailed out of a stricken machine was likely destined to either die in the expanses of the jungle, or be captured and probably tortured and executed by the Japanese. The South Pacific was certainly not Europe in any sense. No British pubs catered to tired air crews in Papua New Guinea; only mud, sweltering heat, humidity, and malaria-carrying mosquitos. That's where 430 found herself by February 1943, operating from 7 Mile Drome, near Port Moresby.

By 1943, the War in the Pacific had turned solidly against Japan. Attrition in the Solomons and the loss of four fleet carriers at the Battle of Midway meant that the Japanese were unable to maintain any kind of air superiority at the front. When the Japanese Army was faced with a crisis in New Guinea, with the advance of Allied forces, they required heavy reinforcements to hold their line. Due to impassible rugged terrain, that meant a task force of troopships to land 3000 men and materiale by sea, without sufficient escort or air cover. On February 28th, 1943, eight troopships and eight destroyers set out from Rabaul, bound for the forward Japanese base at Lae. Their fate, although seldom appreciated, or even known, in the West, would be regarded by the Japanese as a national tragedy that was worse than their losses at Midway.

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea spanned only three days - from March 2nd through the 4th. All eight of the Japanese troopships were sunk, as well as half of the destroyer escort. Roughly 2890 men were killed. For B-17 'Naughty But Nice', it was her most harrowing mission so far of the war.

430 took off from 7 Mile Drome, piloted by 1st Lt. James L. Easter. Their target was Japanese shipping that was then off of Rooke Island. Over the target, the B-17 was attacked from the front by a pair of Ki-43 'Oscar' fighters of the 11th Sentai. The pair only made one pass at the bomber, but their fire was ferocious. 'Naughty But Nice was 'raked from nose to tail' by machine gun fire. Easter was severely wounded, and control of the bomber was taken over by copilot 2nd Lt. Russel S. Emerick, who aborted the mission and made an emergency landing at Dobodura Airfield with one blown out tire. Five wounded crew members were pulled from the aircraft, which was towed from the field for repairs. Sadly, Lt. Easter later died from his injuries. In 1948 he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery (Section 12, Site 4359). 

'Naughty But Nice' under attack by Japanese fighters during the Battle of the
Bismarck Sea, March 3rd, 1943.

By June of 1943, 'Naughty But Nice' was back in action, most often conducting small formation bombing missions against Japanese airfields around Rabaul. She was by then in the hands of a new pilot, 1st Lt. Hal C. Winfrey. On June 23rd, during a mission against a Japanese seaplane base on Timor, 430 was intercepted by Zero fighters, one of which fell to her .50 cal guns.

On June 26th, 430 lifted off from 7 Mile at the hands of pilot 1st Lt. Charles Trimingham. A young 2nd Lt. Trainee, Herman Knott, was also on board, in addition to the regular crew. The aircraft stopped at Dobodura to top off the fuel tanks and take on bombs. She was aloft again at 01:45, on her way to bomb Vunakanau, near Rabaul. It was a routine night operation. 430 dropped her bombs on target. Anti-aircraft fire was regarded as "intense" but still not threatening to the B-17. 'Naughty But Nice' loitered over the target for an additional thirty minutes, perhaps as part of  Knott's familiarization hop, and turned back for home.

Ensign Shigetoshi Kudo was regarded as a pioneer night fighter pilot in the Japanese Navy. Not content to merely follow established doctrine, he took it upon himself to both recognize the challenges being faced by his air service, and formulate all new tactics. He'd been flying against the American B-17s around Rabaul since August 1942. Like all Japanese fighter pilots, he both respected and hated the Flying Fortresses. Pre-war aerial doctrine wasn't formulated to deal with such a well armed and heavily armored opponent. On August 29th, 1942, Kudo destroyed one B-17, and possibly a second, by dropping aerial bombs on the aircraft from above. By 1943, however, American bombers were arriving over Rabaul with strong fighter escort, and were only vulnerable during night missions. Up until that point, the Japanese had no operational night fighter, which the Americans knew, and exploited with impunity. Frustrated Japanese fighter pilots, including Kudo, cowered night after night in bomb shelters, deprived of sleep, as the B-17s lazily rained down bombs from above.

Then the insufferable plight of the Japanese around Rabaul took a slight turn for the better. Ensign Kudo had left for Japan to be trained to fly a new weapon: the J1N1-S 'Gekko' night fighter. In May 1943 he returned to Rabaul, with a 'Gekko' under his control. The J1N1 was a very fast, long range, twin-engine reconnaissance aircraft. It was designed to infiltrate enemy airspace, obtain information on enemy activity, and fly away at such a high speed that enemy fighters couldn't catch it. One of Kudo's superior officers at Rabaul, Commander Yasuna Kozono, conjured up the idea that installing a pair of powerful 20mm cannon in the fuselage of a J1N1, pointing upward at a 30 degree angle, would make for a fast and stable gun platform against large enemy bombers. Kozono, and, later, Kudo, envisaged flying below and behind a B-17 in the dark, camouflaged against the background of the jungle below, approaching the bomber until within range of the cannon . . . It was believed that not even the resilient B-17 could hold together long while being pummeled by explosive 20mm shells fired into its belly.

All of these elements came together the night of June 26th, 1943; the B-17, the Japanese fighter pilot, the new weapon. The crew of 'Naughty But Nice' thought that they were receiving anti-aircraft fire. Ensign Kudo, firing from below at close range, was never seen. Kudo reported that he made three passes against the B-17. The second pass killed the pilot. The third pass set the portside wing on fire. Only 430's navigator, Jose Holguin, managed to bail out before 'Naughty But Nice' slammed into the Baining Mountains, not far from Rabaul. Another B-17, B-17F 'Taxpayer's Pride' (s/n 41-24448) fell that night to Kudo's cannon fire. Two Flying Fortresses shot down in a few minutes. Kudo only fired 164 shells to get them both. His 'Gekko' received no damage at all.

Thus ended the combat career of a gallant Flying Fortress, but the life of 'Naughty But Nice' wasn't over. She would have a new career as a memorial, healer, and a conduit through which former enemies would become friends.

Jose L. Holguin stands in the cockpit of 'Naughty But Nice' in 1982

Navigator Jose Holguin was the sole survivor among the crew of 430. The night of the crash, he was taken prisoner by the Japanese and interrogated regularly. He suffered abysmal conditions there for the remainder of the war. Holguin was liberated in September 1945. After the war, Holguin made it his life's mission to find the wreckage of his aircraft, locate other servicemen who served on her, and make amends with his former enemies: Japanese war veterans and, specifically, the men who held him prisoner in Rabaul.

Holguin's first visit to the crash site of 430 took place in 1981. With the help of local researchers and aviation archeologists, Brian and Leonard Bennett, and Bruce Hoy. One of the former pilots of 'Naughty But Nice', Hal Winfrey, accompanied the group as well. Holguin oversaw the excavation of the cockpit section on 430, and its removal from the crash site. The cockpit controls and original nose art were taken to the Kokopo Museum in Rabaul for permanent display - where they remain as of 2019. Skinning from the portside of 430, including repaired bullet damage inflicted upon the aircraft during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, and other components, passed through the hands of the Bennett family until acquired by Ron Cole of Cole's Aircraft in 2019. In keeping with Jose Holguin's desire to see pieces of 'Naughty But Nice' displayed, and her story of war and peace appreciated, Cole's Aircraft began offering small pieces of 430, accompanying Cole's original artwork depicting 430 in action, in April 2019.

The starboard side of 430, showing the original 'Naughty But Nice' nose art, on display in the Kokopo Museum in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea. The remains of the cockpit are also on display.

Two bullet holes in the nose of 'Naughty But Nice' are preserved: Made by 7.7 mm machine gun bullets fired by a Ki-43 'Oscar' fighter during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, they both pierced the portside aluminum skin just forward of the .50 cal side-mounted machine gun. 

The port wing of 430 after being uncovered in the early 1980s. The condition of the wreckage, exposed as it has been to the tropical elements around Rabaul, have taken a severe toll on the aluminum since then.

Starboard engine nacelle and landing gear of 430 c. 1982. 

Data plate of 430, in the collection of Leonard Bennett

Letters of provenance to Ron Cole from Leonard Bennett regarding the acquisition of parts
 taken from 'Naughty But Nice' between 1981 and 1984.

Ron Cole's artwork and display, honoring the aircraft and it's crew. 

Prints of Ron Cole's artwork, and limited relic displays that contain pieces of 430, can be obtained from Cole's Aircraft: Cole's Aircraft 'Naughty But Nice'

Copyright 2019


  1. Hello Blogger,

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  2. I'm glad to see the great detail here!. berezers

  3. Stumbled across this today. My great uncle, S/Sgt Pace Payne was one of the gunners on the Naughty but Nice. I was about 2 years old when his remains were recovered. My family has pictures of LT. Holguin at the funeral. It;s cool to see photos I've never seen before.

    1. My grandfather was the technical sargent/top turret gunner Robert Christopherson.

    2. He was my Uncle Bob also. My mother was his eldest sister,Ethel. I was very close to Bob's brother, Ivan, who passed earlier in the year.

  4. great story and article. Thanks for putting this together.

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