Monday, June 10, 2019

Attack on Dagua

While last week was "Semana de Anniversario" what with 3 of the 6 members of my immediate family celebrating birthdays, this past weekend served as the actual celebration of said occasions.  Little Juvat and Little Juvat's Wife (LJW appears to be her blogging sobriquet now) managed to visit Normandy and view some of the ceremonies being held there.  Pictures to follow, however, not just yet.  They were returning to the sandbox this weekend and rescuing their pup from durance vile.


Saturday, we're looking for something to fill our time until BD Cake and presents time ( many ways...I'm still about 8 years old.) so we decided that we would visit the Nimitz.  Unbeknownst to me, Mrs J, MBD and SIL had never visited.

Well....That's just No bueno!

I think it was my fifth or sixth visit, and I still find something new or a fact I knew nothing about.  For instance, there was an exhibit that had casualty figures for all countries involved in WWII.  The exhibit included both military and civilian.  According to that display, China suffered between 13 and 18 million civilian deaths.  One of our commenters had mentioned that China had lost an extremely large number, but I had no idea that it was that high.

Another exhibit that expanded my knowledge dealt with the Japanese Civilian population.  I had known about the Japanese Military Police, the Kenpeitai, but did not realize they also had a civilian version, the Tokubetsu Kōtō Keisatsu, generally referred to as the "Tokko" or thought police.  In the Olympics of Evil, these organizations gave the NKVD and the Gestapo a run for their money.  My takeaway is the more a government moves towards using these type organizations, the less free that society is.

Take from that what you will.

One of the last displays as you approach the exit is a listing of all the names of Medal of Honor recipients from WWII.  There were 464 of which 266 were posthumous.  As I read through the list, I noticed a couple that I hadn't reported on as yet.  So rectifying that, a bit, will be today's post.

Today's post will be about Major Ralph Cheli.  He's of Italian descent, so his last name is pronounced "Kelly".
Major Cheli enlisted in the US Army Air Corps in early 1940, was commissioned and went to Pilot training.  Upon completion, he was assigned to B-17s and gained experience flying Naval reconnaissance missions in the Atlantic and Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.   In June of 1942, now Captain Cheli is transferred to B-25s and became the Operations Officer of the 405th Bomb Squadron.  In November of '42, he leads the squadron in the first deployment of B-25s to the Southwest Pacific Theater of Operations.

I did a little googling on that one.  According to this source, the B-25 had a max ferry range of ~4300 Km or ~2672 miles.  Leading a squadron, will reduce that range as the other airplanes adjust throttles to maintain formation.  According to Google Earth , It's about 2100 miles from Hamilton AFB CA to Hickam AFB HI.  That doesn't leave much room for error.
Yellow line is direct Hamilton to Brisbane and ~6250NM.  But traverses Japanese held airspace. The red line is their probable course
Looking closer at Google Earth, I think they probably went Hickam to Palmyra Atoll (945 NM), Palmyra to Samoa (1331 NM), Samoa to Fiji (620 NM), Fiji to New Caledonia (703 NM) and New Caledonia to Brisbane (794 NM).  All at 250K.

Given the navigation systems of today, that doesn't sound that hard, but back then, it was heading and airspeed until, hopefully, you got close enough to the next airfield to pick up a radio signal.  Arrival was not a foregone conclusion.  However, they did manage to arrive successfully.

The squadron further deployes to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea where, now Major Cheli, assumes command of the squadron on the death of the squadron commander.

Employment of B-25s at that time involved medium altitude attacks from altitudes in the 10-15K range.  Unfortunately a combination of terrain, jungle and weather seriously reduced the effectiveness of these attacks.  Weather usually involved low ceilings and strong winds, while the jungle made detection of targets on land difficult and steep terrain and low ceilings is a recipe for disaster.

So, the squadron was retargeted to interdicting shipping.  While this helped with the weather, dropping bombs from medium altitude against moving and maneuvering ships still resulted in poor results.

Once again, tactics were reviewed and new ones developed.  At this point Major Cheli's squadron trained and employed skip-bombing.  Much like skipping a stone across a pond, this involved coming at the target at ultra-low altitude just above the water.  They would release the bomb and pull up.  The bomb would hit the water and skip to the target.

This turned out to be a fairly effective, if dangerous, tactic.  The number of Bombs actually hitting the target went up significantly.  However, so did losses.
The black flecks in and around the middle explosion are pieces of a B-25 that flew into the frag pattern of the preceding attacker. Source

Flying that low definitely reduces the time available for the target to react, but it also reduces the attacker's ability to maneuver and defend itself.  One of the changes that was made was to add fixed machine guns to the noses of the B-25s.  Some bombers were modified with up to 8 x 50 caliber machine guns. This proved to be somewhat effective in reducing the threat from the target.  However, the other threat was the Enemy's Defensive Counter Air.

On Aug 16 1943, Major Cheli is leading a strike of 28 B-25s  against Dagua Air Field.  The field is under a low ceiling as the strike force arrives.  They will attack in formation so as to reduce reaction time for the Japanese.  Unbeknownst to them, 10-15 Nakajima Oscar fighters are orbiting in the clouds overhead.

As the B-25s approach, they are vectored out of the clouds and proceed to attack.  Major Cheli's B-25 is hit in the right engine which catches fire.  Major Cheli continues the attack and drops his bombs on the airfield.  At this point the fire has spread to the wing (fuel tanks) and the cockpit.  He has enough speed from the attack that he could climb high enough to bail out, however because of the low ceiling, the formation would be disrupted if he did that.  He elects to belly the bomber in.
For continuing the attack despite the danger, Major Cheli is awarded the Medal of Honor.'s where the story get's hinky.  It's originally believed that Maj Cheli and his crew were killed on impact.  However, later information is acquired that says they survived and were captured by the Japanese.  They were then transferred to a POW Camp on Rabaul.

According to the Air Force Magazine posting about Major Cheli dating 1988 and again by AF.Mil in 2014, Major Cheli  died on March 6 1944 when the POW Transport Ship taking them to Mainland Japan was sunk by American Forces.  However,  other sources state Major Cheli was executed by the Kenpeitai in what became known as the Talili Bay Massacre and buried on Rabaul.  Remains were recovered from a mass grave for 22 Americans and 8 Australians executed in that massacre.  Forensic evidence was sufficient to identify the remains enough to inter them at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St Louis.

So...Why the different versions of his demise? I have no idea.

Major Cheli's Citation:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with the enemy. While Maj. Cheli was leading his squadron in a dive to attack the heavily defended Dagua Airdrome, intercepting enemy aircraft centered their fire on his plane, causing it to burst into flames while still 2 miles from the objective.

His speed would have enabled him to gain necessary altitude to parachute to safety, but this action would have resulted in his formation becoming disorganized and exposed to the enemy.

Although a crash was inevitable, he courageously elected to continue leading the attack in his blazing plane. From a minimum altitude, the squadron made a devastating bombing and strafing attack on the target.

The mission completed, Maj. Cheli instructed his wingman to lead the formation and crashed into the sea.

Rest in Peace, Warrior!


  1. Get real low over the water, fly right into the Japanese defenses, drop bombs to make them skip over the water...

    What could possibly go wrong?

    Wow, the cojones on those guys!

    1. Yeah, pretty gutsy, but much more accurate and therefore effective. If the fighter cover hadn't gotten separated from them in the weather....well...if If's and But's were candy and nuts....

  2. Agree with Sarge about the cojones - brave men all! As far as Japanese executions, this most iconic photo from Life magazine aptly illustrated the brutality of the Japanese forces.

    1. I've seen that picture before. Still gives me the willy's. Talk abut a collision of cultures which, to a large extent, is still in existence.

  3. My father’s in a group burial at Jefferson Barracks.
    I’ve managed to visit twice.

  4. Great Story. Sounds like Navigators were pretty important onboard those long flights!

    1. Very much so. We did a Trans-Pac when I was flying the F-4. The F-4 had an Inertial Nav System, LORAN, as well as TACAN (which had a useful range of about 200 miles) plus a radar which could be tuned for Air to Ground. Additionally, we were flying formation with several tankers. Still, there was a feeling of relief when Wake was sited. And then again when Okinawa was sighted about 5 hours later.

  5. Skip bombing and then also dropping small bomblets attached to flare parachutes. The innovations done on a shoestring were amazing.

    Everyone thinks the Pacific is a beautiful place. It is, but Beautiful Places will kill you. Cloud formations that whip up over any land mass quicker than anything. The aforementioned lack of precise navigational tools, just a degree off on a 500nm flight could easily be the difference between a land and a water landing. And the Japanese were very good with their AAA. Very very good.

    Seems I've read more than one account where the lead plane has decided to keep leading no matter what. Aviators back then had big brass everything.

    As to the IJ treatment of prisoners, one guy I knew basically said they were aliens. As in thinking they were aliens made it easier to understand them. Good people, but...

    Great post. I think there would have been more MOH from the Pacific except too many just went... missing.

    1. I've got to wonder if that's why the AF hasn't changed the story. In '88, the JASDF (which was all I was familiar with of Japanese forces), was coming into it's own as a worthy ally. An accident of war resulting in the deaths of our own folks is one thing, murdering prisoners would be another. At least from our point of view. The article Tom cites above points out the Japanese point of view (at that time) which reflects their culture. Which in my mind does not excuse, merely explains.

      Thanks, One thing that writing this series of posts has confirmed is that the difference between a Medal of Honor, a Service Cross and a Silver Star if frequently the skill of the writer and the politics of the situation. Shouldn't be that way, but....

    2. Peter Grant, over at BayouRenaissanceMan, addresses the awards issue in this article.

      Seems that someone in power finally figured out that medals were being slow-rolled, and lit a fire under some people's derrieres. About time. (And then some loudmouth yahoo had to go pontificate... :) )

  6. I read that. Actually, I'm all for due diligence and patience. Let ALL the facts come to the surface. Some of the acts of Heroism are black and white. Others just look that way. Suffice it to say that I don't trust the folks at any Headquarters above Wing level (and even those only sparingly) as far as I can through the building. (Given enough ARGGGHHH and I can throw most people pretty far). That having been said. Afghanistan started almost 20 years ago. Iraq 10. That should be sufficient time to sort things out. Oh wait...wasn't about 8 years of that time spent with somebody as Commander in Chief that....Never mind. I don't want to impugn his record.


  7. Amazing and scary what we asked our warriors to do during WWII. We would never ask that of our aircrews today, but then again, there wasn't the same risk of SA-7s, and other Anti-Air weaponry that we have today, so the chance of success was better. Eventually, the SCS will be a no-go zone for ships and aircraft.

    1. Let's hope not. Got to admit though I think the probability of that being allowed to happen would be significantly higher were DJT's predecessor still in charge or the Hildebeast had won.

  8. I remember reading about the Aleutian campaign and wondering "why this guy but not that guy?". Later I mentioned it to a fellow who'd been in the Rangers who pointed out the "no living witnesses" problem. One man had done his deed in view of his unit: the other had walked off into a blinding snowfall, and those following him only saw bodies and cleared positions. About skip-bombing: there are some photos of A-20s skip-bombing IJN warships (photos snapped from other A-20s that had just done the same thing) that make my stomach sink to think of doing it. As in the Wild Weasels motto: YBTBSM!

    1. Skip bombing was/is definitely a risky business. It doesn't work if the bomb is retarded (meaning High Drag, Beans). It's got to maintain energy all the way to the target, meaning it's flying formation with you. Agressively pulling up to above the blast radius (2500' or so for modern 500 pounder) was highly advised. But if released in range, in level flight with enough airspeed. the likely hood of a hit was much greater than any kind of dive delivery or higher altitude level delivery.

  9. Replies
    1. I don't know, "You BETTER be S#!&&#N" Me" has a certain ring to it also.

  10. Low altitude is always 'interesting', and yes, reaction time is pretty much nil. All honors to him and the other crews that died.


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