Rabaul, Radar, and Aces

 

Robert M Hanson, USMC (USMC Photo).

One of the delights of writing a book is the aha! moment. That is the moment where apparently unrelated facts come together and reveal the answer to some puzzling inconsistency. Sometimes these moments change the book. Other times they provide an answer to a nagging question.

In Rabaul 1943–44, a book I wrote for Osprey, one such moment centered on the death of a Marine fighter ace.

Robert M. Hanson was a Marine Corps fighter ace who flew a Corsair fighter in Marine Fighter Squadron VMF-215, operating out of Bougainville. He was credited with 25 kills before dying in combat.

I say credited because many of his claimed kills occurred while he was flying alone. He was a legitimate ace, indeed at least a double ace, and possibly a triple ace. During combat, Hanson’s wingmen would lose him, and Hanson would return to base solo, claiming multiple kills. On one occasion Hanson claimed five kills on one mission – ace in a day. The problem was the Japanese only lost three planes that day.

Hanson definitely shot down one that day, witnessed by his wingman among others. (His other four claimed kills occurred while he was flying alone.) His wingman shot down a second. A third was shot down by another member of VMF-215. VMF-215 claimed a total of 13 Japanese aircraft that day, so Hanson was not the only pilot claiming kills that could not have happened.

But Hanson made a habit of claiming multiple kills while solo and unwitnessed. His explanation to junior members of the squadron was that he hid in clouds until he spotted a lone Japanese aircraft, and would then pounce. There were too few Japanese aircraft available to be shot down to justify Hanson’s kill rate. Hanson’s squadron commander became curious. He assigned an experienced pilot as Hanson’s wingman with orders to stick to Hanson. It worked for most of one mission – and Hanson got no kills. Then Hanson shook off his wingman and went solo.

Marine Corsair On Bougainville (US Navy Heritage and History Command)

Hanson’s wingman intended to report Hanson’s behavior, but the report was moot by the time the wingman returned. Hanson had caught up with the rest of the squadron. He had then been shot down and killed strafing a building at Cape St. George on the southern tip of New Ireland. Hanson would be awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor and suddenly the issue of inflated kill claims was not only irrelevant – it was embarrassing.

According to contemporary press reports Hanson was killed “attempting to destroy a lighthouse that often gave the fighter group trouble by firing flak at the fighter group as they passed the lighthouse.”

That explanation made no sense to me. It smelled. Why risk fighter aircraft to knock out an easily avoided flak position? Yet that lighthouse was frequently attacked over the course of the campaign. It seemed obvious the antiaircraft artillery was at and around the lighthouse to protect something.

It could not be the lighthouse. Lighthouses are important navigation landmarks, but not during wartime. Their lights are doused, especially in a war zone. But something was near that lighthouse, something so secret its presence could not be mentioned at the time. Whatever it was, it was important at the time, but not important enough to merit attention after the war had passed it by.

Authors run into a lot of those types of puzzles researching books. Hanson’s death was peripheral to the larger tale of reducing Rabaul, so I left it unsolved, and left the whole puzzle out of the book. The answer came later, researching Japanese air defenses, specifically their early warning radar network.

Japanese Radar Coverage, 1944 over New Britain and New Ireland (US Strategic Bombing Survey).

Japan invested a lot into the defense of Rabaul, including over a third of the Imperial Navy’s available early warning radar units. These had an effective range of 150 miles (for formations of aircraft). They placed one radar site at the southern tip of New Ireland, next to the lighthouse. This station provided Rabaul an extra thirty minutes warning of any air raid coming from Bougainville. This was my aha! moment.

In early 1944 radar was still one of the war’s secrets. Censors routinely cropped photographs of warships to cut off the radar and HFDF antennas on top of the masts. Press discussion of radar was discouraged. RAF publicity officers issued press releases explaining their night fighter pilots were fed carrots for improved night vision to avoid mentioning airborne radar. It was then a Big Secret.

Many, civilian as well as military, knew about radar. Just like sex in the 1940s, radar was then something polite people did not discuss in public. If there was no official public discussion of Allied radar and radar capabilities, there was not going to be any discussion of Axis radar. (It avoided the embarrassing issue of why, when the Axis had radar, didn’t the Allies have radar?)

Captured Japanese Early Warning Radar (US Navy Heritage and History Command).

The Cape St. George radar station would have been a priority target. It was frequently the target of dive bombing raids. Radar stations are notoriously hard to knock out by bombing. Usually, they can be quickly repaired. Thus it would also have been a target of opportunity for homeward bound fighters with extra ammunition. (The Allies ruled the sky south of Cape St. George, so being low on ammunition was not a big risk.)

However, it would have been a target the Japanese would have defended tenaciously. They had plenty of anti-aircraft artillery when they installed the radar station, and used generous amounts to protect the station. The St. George lighthouse would have made an excellent flak tower, as well as a noticeable landmark. Attacking it would have been risky, but certainly worth risking an aircraft or two. Knocking it out, even for a day or two, would ultimately save more aircraft.

Hanson’s death caused a problem, however. Hanson was then a famous fighter ace, the most famous ace in the theater when he died. His death would make the news. To protect the radar secret, it was reported he died attacking the flak trap at St. George Point – a literally true, but incomplete explanation.

By the time the radar was no longer a secret, Hanson was yesterday’s news. No “now it can be told” stories were written to update the story of his death. No one felt the need. He went into the history books as the man killed attacking a lighthouse.

Rabaul 1943–44: Reducing Japan’s great island fortress (Air Campaign) will be released tomorrow. I hope you don’t mind my teasing your interest in the book with this story. I thought it would interest you.

Mark Lardas (aka Seawriter)

This originally appeared on the Osprey Blog in a slightly different form.

There are 23 comments.

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  1. Chuckles Thatcher
    Chuckles
    @Chuckles

    I keep sending you money by way of Amazon.

    Guess its time for another donation to the cause.

     

    • #1
  2. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    What are the country markings on what I take to be a P-40?  Were they still used at that time?

    • #2
  3. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    What are the country markings on what I take to be a P-40? Were they still used at that time?

    New Zealand. Yes, they were. The picture depicts an incident which occurred during the first fighter sweep over Rabaul. Both pilots survived the collision, and the Japanese pilot (who was 17 when the collision occurred) survived the war and eventually came to the United States. He was apparently a fixture at air shows and veteran’s gatherings in the 60s and 70s, getting into a lot of verbal sparring with Boyington.

    • #3
  4. Mike-K Member
    Mike-K
    @

    There is a commenter on Chicagoboyz who has done lots of research on radar and other electronics in the Pacific campaign. He often posts on Friday.

     

    Did they not have gun cameras at that time?  A friend flew  Corsairs from Guadalcanal and Bougainville but he has passed on. He was a Marine fighter pilot there and in Korea, both with Corsairs.

    His son, son in law and grandson are/were Marine pilots.

    • #4
  5. Pugshot Member
    Pugshot
    @Pugshot

    This is fascinating! Thanks so much for sharing this – and for letting us know about your book. Time to head to Amazon.

    • #5
  6. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Mike-K (View Comment):
    Did they not have gun cameras at that time?

    Nope. Neither side had gun cameras. It was all word of honor.

    Some of the overclaims were honest mistakes. Two or up to four fighters simultaneously shooting at an enemy aircraft. They would all be focused on their targets and be oblivious to the other fighters shooting at “their” target. The engines of Japanese fighters would smoke if the engines were suddenly firewalled – as would happen when the Japanese pilot noticed bullets whizzing past. The American fighter shooting at the Jap sees a big cloud of smoke and thinks he hit (and knocked out) the engine. Or maybe in a melee you think you hit when you missed.

    Hanson though was claiming he was stalking and then deliberately ambushing enemy aircraft, typically when he and the his target were the only aircraft in the area.  There would have had to have been a lot of wishful thinking – or fabrication.

    There were big rewards for being an ace. Padding your bag wasn’t hurting anyone else (except maybe your abandoned wingman who might be in trouble and needed an escort going home). And there were a lot of glory seekers. The most famous case was Thomas G. Lanphier, who claimed credit for shooting down Yamamoto’s plane – loudly from the time he got back to base – when another pilot, Rex Barber was the actual man with the kill.

    • #6
  7. DocJay Inactive
    DocJay
    @DocJay

    Worthy stuff.   Wonder what drove him to lie.  Maybe he wanted a chest full of medals for the ladies.

    • #7
  8. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    DocJay (View Comment):
    Wonder what drove him to lie.

    When your in your early twenties and have been kind of an outsider all your life? Glory, acceptance by your peers, and their adulation would have been a big thing. Promotion would have been another. Not really all that different than pro sports figures cheating to rack up a better record.

    • #8
  9. DocJay Inactive
    DocJay
    @DocJay

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    DocJay (View Comment):
    Wonder what drove him to lie.

    When your in your early twenties and have been kind of an outsider all your life? Glory, acceptance by your peers, and their adulation would have been a big thing. Promotion would have been another. Not really all that different than pro sports figures cheating to rack up a better record.

    Ya.  I’m no stranger to lying but that was my dating years.

    • #9
  10. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    DocJay (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    DocJay (View Comment):
    Wonder what drove him to lie.

    When your in your early twenties and have been kind of an outsider all your life? Glory, acceptance by your peers, and their adulation would have been a big thing. Promotion would have been another. Not really all that different than pro sports figures cheating to rack up a better record.

    Ya. I’m no stranger to lying but that was my dating years.

    Well, this was the dating years for a lot of guys in uniform – all services and all nations.  And there were millions of young men in uniform. Not all of them were saints.

    • #10
  11. Mike-K Member
    Mike-K
    @

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    The most famous case was Thomas G. Lanphier, who claimed credit for shooting down Yamamoto’s plane – loudly from the time he got back to base – when another pilot, Rex Barber was the actual man with the kill.

    That’s very controversial. My father in law knew Lanphier. I don’t think it was ever settled.

    • #11
  12. Mike-K Member
    Mike-K
    @

    Officially, the after-action report gave Captain Lanphier and his wingman First Lieutenant Rex T. Barber each half-credit for the kill. While the USAF did not reverse its 1991 decision giving half credit to each pilot,[4] a retired lawyer / historian[5] and state of Oregon politicians credit Barber with the sole kill[6] after an inspection analyzed the crash site and determined the path of the bullet impacts, thereby validating Barber’s account and invalidating Lanphier’s claim.

     

    That’s from Wiki.        Acepilots.com says this:

    Since all sources agreed that Holmes had sent one into the sea, Barber and Lanphier, between them, had only gotten one. With an unusual amount of public acrimony, Barber and Lanphier stuck to their stories. The Air Force, presumably reluctant to discredit either man, allocated one half credit to each man

    Many believe that Barber had the better claim. Besby Holmes wrote that during the battle, it was his impression that Barber had shot down Yamamoto. A group of aviation enthusiasts and pilots, led by the ace George Chandler, has lobbied strenuously on Barber’s behalf. Nonetheless, Lanphier always maintained that he had scored the kill, gunfire from his P-38 sawing off the Betty’s right wing.

    • #12
  13. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Mike-K (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    The most famous case was Thomas G. Lanphier, who claimed credit for shooting down Yamamoto’s plane – loudly from the time he got back to base – when another pilot, Rex Barber was the actual man with the kill.

    That’s very controversial. My father in law knew Lanphier. I don’t think it was ever settled.

    Mainly because of Lanphier. Sole credit was eventually awarded to Barber, ultimately after both men died. As I recall, Lanphier lost credit for another kill postwar is no longer rated as an ace.

    • #13
  14. DocJay Inactive
    DocJay
    @DocJay

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    DocJay (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    DocJay (View Comment):
    Wonder what drove him to lie.

    When your in your early twenties and have been kind of an outsider all your life? Glory, acceptance by your peers, and their adulation would have been a big thing. Promotion would have been another. Not really all that different than pro sports figures cheating to rack up a better record.

    Ya. I’m no stranger to lying but that was my dating years.

    Well, this was the dating years for a lot of guys in uniform – all services and all nations. And there were millions of young men in uniform. Not all of them were saints.

    Indeed.  God Bless the sinners that did their jobs too.

    • #14
  15. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    DocJay (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    DocJay (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    DocJay (View Comment):
    Wonder what drove him to lie.

    When your in your early twenties and have been kind of an outsider all your life? Glory, acceptance by your peers, and their adulation would have been a big thing. Promotion would have been another. Not really all that different than pro sports figures cheating to rack up a better record.

    Ya. I’m no stranger to lying but that was my dating years.

    Well, this was the dating years for a lot of guys in uniform – all services and all nations. And there were millions of young men in uniform. Not all of them were saints.

    Indeed. God Bless the sinners that did their jobs too.

    Well . . . the ones on our side.

    • #15
  16. Richard Easton Coolidge
    Richard Easton
    @RichardEaston

    The British had cameras.  A documentary about George Beurling said that he was shooting down planes which the camera was not recording. If memory serves, he was shooting them down in an unconventional manner.

    • #16
  17. Ontheleftcoast Member
    Ontheleftcoast
    @Ontheleftcoast

    The story that got me was the one in James Bradley’s Flyboys. Chichi Jima, an island near Iwo Jima, had a similar radar and communication facility and the Navy likewise sent a lot of planes to try to destroy it in the runup to the Iwo invasion. All failed.

    Not only that, but the Japanese commanders on the island were veterans of the invasion and occupation of China, where among other atrocities, they engaged in cannibalism: They ate parts of the bodies of captured soldiers. They took this practice to their ultimate assignment, defending Chichi Jima. They murdered several American pilots shot down attacking the radar installation and ate their livers and other body parts.

    The last USN attempt to destroy the radar was made by a young pilot named George H. W. Bush. He too was shot down, and a Japanese boat set out from Chichi Jima to pick him up. The USS Finback, a submarine on lifeguard duty, beat the Japanese to Lt. Bush’s life raft and he survived the war.

    After this, the Navy stopped trying to destroy this installation, didn’t invade the island, and the Japanese defenders of Chichi Jima remained until Japan surrendered. Several senior officers were hanged for the atrocities they committed.

     

     

     

    • #17
  18. Concretevol Thatcher
    Concretevol
    @Concretevol

    Ontheleftcoast (View Comment):
    The story that got me was the one in James Bradley’s Flyboys. Chichi Jima, an island near Iwo Jima, had a similar radar and communication facility and the Navy likewise sent a lot of planes to try to destroy it in the runup to the Iwo invasion. All failed.

    Not only that, but the Japanese commanders on the island were veterans of the Chinese invasion of China, where among other atrocities, they engaged in cannibalism: They ate parts of the bodies of captured soldiers. They took this practice to their ultimate assignment, defending Chichi Jima. They murdered several American pilots shot down attacking the radar installation and ate their livers and other body parts.

    The last USN attempt to destroy the radar was made by a young pilot named George H. W. Bush. He too was shot down, and a Japanese boat set out from Chichi Jima to pick him up. The USS Finback, a submarine on lifeguard duty, beat the Japanese to Lt. Bush’s life raft and he survived the war.

    After this, the Navy stopped trying to destroy this installation, didn’t invade the island, and the Japanese defenders of Chichi Jima remained until Japan surrendered. Several senior officers were hanged for the atrocities they committed.

    That was a damn good book.  Amazing, when you think about it, how H.W. Bush was so reticent to brag about his war record.  That usually indicates the person actually has one.

    • #18
  19. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Concretevol (View Comment):
    Amazing, when you think about it, how H.W. Bush was so reticent to brag about his war record. That usually indicates the person actually has one.

    True that. I have a friend who has an Air Force Cross, a Silver Star, and five Air Medals among other things. (He had them mounted in a shadow-box frame in his office at home.) He is now a doctor. When I saw them, instead of asking about them directly I asked what he had done in Vietnam. He said  he was the doctor on a team that rescued downed fliers. Nothing much he said. I asked if that included rescues in North Vietnam as well as in South Vietnam. He said it had. I then stated “Well, I see how you got those,” waving at the display case. His response was, “Someone had to get them. Some were badly wounded.”

    I’d known him for over ten years by that time, and he had never mentioned any of this before. Where do we get such men.

    • #19
  20. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    Thanks, Seawriter!  Will be checking this out…S/F!

    • #20
  21. Mountie Coolidge
    Mountie
    @Mountie

    My father flew for the RAF during the war and had been ordered to tell people that he regularly ate carrots. I kid you not.

    • #21
  22. CarolJoy Coolidge
    CarolJoy
    @CarolJoy

    Great bit of investigative work. Do you find this addictive? Most people wouldn’t get how research can be that way. But it is.

    • #22
  23. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    CarolJoy (View Comment):
    Do you find this addictive?

    Yup. I do.

    CarolJoy (View Comment):
    Most people wouldn’t get how research can be that way. But it is.

    Just think what they miss.

    • #23

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