Long Way Home for Fallen Long Rangers, Part I

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  • 307th Bomb Wing

(Editor’s Note: Ted Mikita is leading a group of private citizens on a mission to recover the remains of several fallen 307th Bombardment Group Airmen. The group believes the bodies of the fallen Long Rangers are still located off the coast of a small Pacific island. The Airmen, known informally as the Dixon crew, sacrificed their lives during World War II in an effort to defeat the Japanese forces in the Pacific. This is the first article in a series detailing the exploits of these Airmen and Mikita’s efforts to bring them home.)

Old, yellowed and faded, the 372nd Bombardment Squadron (Heavy)’s standard mission report for August 28, 1944 is easy to look past. A close look at the tiny print, however, reveals the ominous tale of a routine bombing mission to a backwater Pacific island chain that turned into a fight for survival for the six B-24 Liberators from the 372 BS.

The eleven Airmen on Capt. William Dixon’s aircrew did not live to tell the story of the battle. Their sacrifice helped to halt the Japanese war machine, but many of their remains have never been brought home.

Today, nearly 75 years since they gave their lives, relatives of the aircrew’s members are on mission to recover their ancestor’s remains, possibly still resting where the fell on that fateful day.

The Storm Rages

According to the official mission report on August 24, 1944, the aircraft encountered its first struggle when they ran into bad weather on the way to Palau.  Rain pounded and ice frosted the frames of the bombers as turbulence bounced them in the skies over the Pacific. Already fatigued from hours of navigating open water, the crew pushed through the storm toward their objective.

Only minutes away from Palau and unable to see the other planes through the weather, Dixon made the risky decision to break radio silence. Doing so had the potential to alert the Japanese to their location, but as the lead plane in the formation, Dixon had to communicate with the other aircraft to coordinate the timing of the bombing run. Without the benefit of visibility, keeping radio silence risked mission failure.  

As the aircraft broke from the clouds and began to circle into formation, another pilot placed a transmission to Dixon, this one well within range of listening Japanese radios on Palau. The pilot asked Dixon what his altitude and speed would be when his crew released their bombs.  Dixon’s response was short, but it was enough to make someone in another plane voice his concern via radio.

“I hope they didn’t hear that,” said the discontented Airman.

“The Long Rangers”

The summer of 1944 saw several missions launched against the Japanese, leading up to the Dixon mission to Palau. Throughout World War II, strategic bombing raids where an important part of the United State’s efforts to push the Japanese out of the Southwest Pacific theatre. These raids became especially important as the Allies began their efforts to retake the Philippines.

“The idea was to bomb out Japanese infrastructure and supplies on islands our forces had to invade as a stepping stone to the Philippines,” said Jim McCabe, 307th Bombardment Group Association historian. “There were also islands we only planned to circumvent, but had Japanese bases which needed to be taken out.” 

Among the bombing units that carried out these missions was the 307th Bombardment Group (Heavy, meaning they were armed with four engines). Nicknamed “The Long Rangers,” the 307 BG specialized in attacking targets hundreds of miles away from their base using the B-24, said McCabe.

By August of 1944, the 307 BG was looking for a new home and new Japanese targets to neutralize.

“They had bombed out the enemy garrisons on the islands of Truck and Yap by then,” said McCabe. “Any other islands that had a Japanese military presence were out of range of their station in the Admiralty Islands, north of New Guinea.”

A prime candidate proved to be the islands of Palau. In order to attack the Japanese forces there, 13th Air Force headquarters ordered The Long Rangers to a freshly-captured airfield at Wakde Island, off the coast of New Guinea, from there they’d be within range of Palau.

All-Instructor Crew

That August day, it was an unlikely scenario for anyone on the Dixon crew to have ever flown a combat mission or come together as a team. It was not, however, because they lacked any skill. 

“All of Dixon’s crew had originally started as instructor pilots, navigators, bombardiers, gunners and engineers,” said Ted Mikita, the leader of the Dixon crew’s family member group and second cousin to one of the aircrew’s waist gunners. “They were responsible for getting new B-24 crews trained and shipped overseas.”

Eventually, this role wore on Dixon, who had been an instructor pilot even before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

“He thought it was high time he get his own crew, made up of other instructors, and gain some combat pilot experience so he could get in line for a combat command spot,” said Mikita.

Normally, such a team would have never been assembled. However, Mikita thinks the state of aviation technology and techniques were the reason Dixon’s crew was able to come together.

“At that point in the war, there were new tactics and methods for flying and fighting out of the B-24 Liberator, especially when it came to gunnery,” said Mikita. “An instructor crew would be able to share these techniques with the Airmen who did not have the chance to come back to the states for more training.”

With his leadership’s blessing, Dixon interviewed other instructors and put his crew together. The men Dixon chose all came from different walks of life, but what they had in common was a high level of capability.

“I call them the Dream Team,” said Mikita. “It was a very special, very talented group.”

After two weeks of training together to establish rapport, the Dixon crew reported to the 307 BG in June of 1944.

Twists of Fate

By the time the Dixon crew set out for Palau two months later, they had completed more than two dozen sorties and went from flying in the back of the bombing formations to leading them with Dixon as commander of the 372 BS (H).

It was a sign of the skill the Dixon crew brought to the table.

“The lead aircraft would usually have the best pilots, navigators, and other crew aboard,” said McCabe. “It was considered an honor to be out in front of the formation.”

When Dixon took off on August 28, however, he didn’t have all of men he recruited to be part of his crew with him. A substitute navigator replaced their regular one, who was training off base that day. The usual bombardier was swapped for Capt. Max Tenton, the top bombardier in the squadron, who had volunteered to fly the one last mission he needed to meet his quota and finish his tour. They also had 1st Lt. John Sarles, an observer from 13th Air Force, flying with them. He too was trying to meet the flights he needed to return stateside in order to meet his infant daughter for the first time. There was also an issue the crew faced on the psychological front.

“Three days prior, two planes in the 372nd crashed into each other while flying through a cloud,” said Mikita. “The crash being in the back of everyone’s mind was what probably led to the radio chatter, as everyone wanted to stay on the same page to avoid another in-air collision.”

Going Down

After Dixon broadcast the information of his bombing run to the other B-24s, the formation began their descent, targeting military radio towers in Palau’s biggest city, Koror Town. 

Below, the Japanese anti-aircraft gunners waited for them, still tense from the effects of a bombing raid only days earlier. They hurled a barrage of flak into the sky with deadly accuracy, intent on destroying as many B-24’s as possible.

Dixon flew through the melee, putting the B-24 over its target. Just as Tenton opened the bomb bay, anti-aircraft fire ripped through the center of the bomber, causing it to fall several hundred feet.

Mikita said the Dixon bombardier’s next move, though technically correct, ultimately doomed the plane and its crew.

“He followed the correct procedures to keep the ship from losing altitude by dropping all of their bombs at once in order to lose weight,” said Mikita. “The sudden release of weight forced the plane upwards too hard, making the right wing break off.”

What happened next has kept many members of the crew’s remains from being found and repatriated, according to Mikita’s research.

He said the plane began spinning toward the earth, causing the nose to twist off and fall away from the rest of the fuselage.

 “It fell quicker than the rest of the ship and had no smoke coming off of it, so it was hard for other crews to see,” said Mikita.

The nose landed in shallow water off the coast of the island.  Eyewitnesses from other B-24s, however, only saw the hull of the bomber land in the city, said Mikita.

Three remains from the crash site of the B-24’s hull were eventually recovered, but Mikita believes many of the other bodies remain in the nose of the plane, seemingly forgotten by history.

Their family members, however, are intent on making sure the sacrifice of their ancestors is properly recognized.

“I wish for them all to be brought back and reunited with their brothers who were already buried,” said Mikita. “It will give comfort to our entire group and provide confirmation that, whenever possible, we as Americans will not leave men behind on a foreign battlefield.”