Above & Beyond: A Bougainville Mystery

Above & Beyond: A Bougainville Mystery

Air & Space Magazine

On December 4, 2004, while wandering through a flea market at the Tulsa, Oklahoma Fairgrounds, I came across a picture frame that held three items:

  • an American Red Cross envelope on which was written “Air map of a P.38—which was shot down by Zero in Dod [Dog] fight. The piolet [pilot] was killed and plane burned. February 1943”;
  • inside that envelope, a singed piece of a map showing the southeast tip of Papua, New Guinea;
  • a “Surrender Pass,” written in both Japanese and English.

I bought the framed group. Curious as to what the items had in common, I started by investigating the map. I contacted Joe Milazzo, a map librarian at Southern Methodist University in Texas, and he responded via e-mail: “[Your map] resembles in its construction some aerial photographic surveys…produced by Tobin.” During World War II, that company had turned out maps for the invasion of North Africa and Normandy, among other purposes. I contacted Tobin, but unfortunately, at the end of war, the Army had removed all war-related material from the company premises.

I moved on to the surrender pass. Herb Friedman, who has extensively studied war propaganda leaflets (psywarrior.com), looked over the pass and observed: “There is no code so we can’t tell when or where it was used.”

I turned to the shootdown recounted on the envelope. Though spare, the account included many details: The aircraft was a Lockheed P-38 Lightning; it was lost in February 1943; it was shot down by a Japanese Zero; and the pilot was killed. The map fragment, from the bottom edge, suggested he had been flying over New Guinea or, north of New Guinea, over the Solomon Islands.

Assuming the P-38 had been part of the U.S. Army Air Forces fleet, I found a Web site summarizing the U.S. Army Air Forces’ Missing Air Crew Reports (armyairforces.com/dbmacr.asp). In February 1943, there had been five P-38 crashes in which the pilot was killed. After sending a request to the National Archives, I received microfiche of the MACRs from the five crashes. Three of the reports referred to possible mid-air collisions, and one recounted engine trouble. Those four did not match the information on the envelope. But the fifth MACR, No. 586, was promising (see www.airspacemag.com). It told the story of a P-38 piloted by Second Lieutenant Robert P. Rist. His airplane was lost on February 13, 1943, near Bougainville—located in the Solomon Islands. The MACR states: “Last seen by Major Westbrook, 44th Ftr. Gp., with right engine smoking and Zeros on his tail.” The Zeros fit my information.

I found more details about Rist’s last few days in two books: Guadalcanal and the Origins of the Thirteenth Air Force (Army Air Force Historical Studies #35) and Bill: A Pilot’s Story by Brooklyn Harris (Graphic Press, 1995). On February 13, Rist was flying one of four P-38s (along with seven P-40s) that were escorting six B-24s on the second wave of a bombing mission to the Shortland-Buin area. Two P-38s and three P-40s had to return to Guadalcanal, leaving limited fighter cover for the bombers.

The bombers were attacked by 30 Mitsubishi Zeros and 15 Japanese float-equipped fighters, with support from heavy flak fired by naval vessels below.

The U.S. cover fighters dove into the fight. A B-24, its wing and engine on fire, dropped out of formation, and Rist escorted it toward Choiseul Island. Ten to 12 Zeros tried to finish it off. Rist shot down two Zeros, then, out of ammunition, continued to divert the Zeros by diving on them. Finally he was shot down. His efforts enabled Lieutenant Harold G. McNeese to fly his crippled B-24 to the north coast of Choiseul and ditch, which saved the lives of five crew members.

Later, I would learn that on September 10, 1943, fellow 339th Fighter Squadron pilot Darrell Cramer wrote Rist’s mother a letter that read in part: “We were greatly outnumbered and Bob dove into the whole enemy force and broke them up long enough for our force to run to safety. I saw the whole thing and it was the most courageous action I have ever seen… . I never saw Bob’s plane again but I heard him on the radio so I know he survived the original dive on the enemy but his plane was damaged… .”

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