by 1st Lt. Joe Forster

MISSION: Escort B-24s at 18,000 feet over the target of oil refineries at Balikpapan, Borneo on 14 October 1944

The 475th Fighter Group flew from it’s home base at Biak, New Guinea on 13 Oct 1944 to Morotai, Halmahera, an austere staging base for B-24s, P-38s and P-47s. Creature comforts were non-existent, worst of all no lights or running water. Pilots had to refuel and preflight their aircraft.

The next morning pilots were roused from their bare cots at four AM and instructed by Group Commander, Lt. Col. Smith, to build a large bon-fire while he went to operations to obtain the latest information on the mission and weather forecasts. He returned shortly and the pilots gathered around the fire for light to make notes on take off time, rescue call signs and location of the PBS’S, submarines and etc.

Take off was at 0655 and the Group started its slow cruise/climb on course while the squadrons pulled into formation. Forster was element lead in “White Flight.” The target was 836 miles distance in Borneo. Power settings that Charles Lindbergh had recommended were working great. The flight to target was uneventful and the weather beautiful crossing the equator in the Celebes.

Arriving at the target no organized air resistance by Japanese fighters was evident. Suddenly a P-38 crossed Forster’s flight path, chased by a Zeke in hot pursuit. Forster dumped the nose of his P-38 and fired a one second burst at 90 degrees deflection and the Zeke came “unglued.”

Shortly thereafter, a Zeke came out of an overcast in a vertical pass firing on Red Leader but never touched him. He followed through with a high speed immelman and came in on Forster’s starboard at five o’clock high, firing with vengeance. Joe’s radio crackled, “Joe, he is firing at you” and with a loud boom Joe knew he was hit.

A quick right roll into a split-s with maximum power was the best solution to escape. After the air speed had surged beyond the red line and the aircraft began to buffet from terminal velocity, he made a quick half roll to the right going straight down. (Japanese aircraft could not roll to the right as fast as the P-38 with its boosted ailerons and counter rotating props that neutralized engine torque.) At this point the instrument panel was shaking so violently that it was impossible to read the altimeter or air-speed since the sea was coming up so fast a pull out was an absolute necessity. At first the aircraft did not respond to the elevator, but when the dive flaps were extended a slow recovery began. Joe barely missed the tops of the huge waves as he leveled out. Salt spray off the waves was like flying through a rain storm. The cockpit filled with smoke and fire seemed imminent. Left oil pressure was zero and oil temperature was above the red line. That bit of info dictated the left engine had to be shut down and the prop feathered. Everything worked without a flaw.

Joe reported his situation to Col. Smith and he recommended Joe try to make it to one of the submarines, PBS’s or belly in on a beach in the Celebes. The sea was so rough that ditching the aircraft was unthinkable. The best solution was to head for the Celebes. There is no tolerance for flying error at zero altitude. However, the aircraft did not want to climb. The decision was made to lighten the load by firing all ammunition. The aircraft then seemed to get new life and started to climb.

The Celebes Islands were occupied by the enemy and had many installations with anti-aircraft guns. Joe elected to circum-navigate these rather than risk being shot down by ground fire. As a result, it was a zigzag course across the Celebes. All went well and the right engine continued to run perfect.

Before leaving the Celebes, Joe’s calculations for ground speed, remaining fuel and “distance to go” looked very dubious. A change in wind condition could be disastrous. Lack of options dictated that Joe take the risk of making the longest over water leg of the flight — from the Celebes across the Molucca Sea to Morotai, Halmahera was the best course of action, although the distance was 240 miles without a check point.

Now visibility dropped significantly due to haze. Sighting landfall would be difficult approaching Halmahera. After an hour from the Celebes and no landfall in sight Joe began calling Morotai GCI for a radar steer to base. No contact could be made. After 15 minutes of futile calling a squadron mate, Lt. Ratajski, who was over the strip at 5,000 feet responded that he would relay Joe’s request to the GO station. Joe was directed to make a 90 degree turn to the right and fly one minute for identification. That accomplished, GO corrected his course about 35 degrees to the right and steered him directly into the strip for a single engine landing.

Mission flying time was eight hours and twenty minutes of which four hours and twenty minutes was on single engine. The return zigzag course across the Celebes covered over 900 miles. The rest of the squadron refueled their aircraft and returned to home base at Biak the same day. Joe’s aircraft had a severed engine mount and a shredded oil cooler. The ship never flew again, although it had less than 25 hours flying time. The next day, Sunday 15 Oct, Forster helped unload a C-47 to impress the pilot he needed to hitch-hike back to Biak.

Forster’s reward for the mission was a verbal reprimand by the squadron commander for being one day late with his combat report.