“We were flying over Rabaul at 15,000 feet and went into a dive in our (Douglas Dauntless) SBD dive bombers. Suddenly, I saw this Japanese Zero coming toward me. The pilot looked right at me as I started firing,” former Sgt. Mel Clark recalled six decades later.
“I had my canopy open. The slipstream caught my ammo belts and twisted them around, and my machine guns jammed. All I could do was point my guns at him. The enemy fighter turned and flew off at the last moment.”
The 85-year-old Port Charlotte, Fla. resident, a backseat gunner/radio operator who flew shotgun in a Douglas SBD dive bomber, made 14 missions over Rabaul in World War II. It was the largest Japanese base in the Solomon Islands. There were five air bases, two fighter bases and three bomber bases located there. In addition, the huge enemy supply depot had a deep-water port crawling with ships. It was defended by a forest of anti-aircraft guns.
Clark’s unit, VMSB-341, a Marine bomber squadron, was based initially at Munda in the New Georgia Islands, between Guadalcanal and Bougainville.
Their dive bomber was equipped with two .50-caliber machine guns, one in each wing. Clark had twin .30-caliber machine guns that could swivel 360 degrees in a rear seat. Their plane could also carry a single 1,000-pound bomb or a couple of 500-pound bombs.
On his second mission over the Japanese stronghold on Jan. 3, 1944, Maj. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, commander of VMF-214, “The Black Sheep Squadron,” was shot down. He parachuted into Simpson Harbor at Rabaul. The flamboyant Corsair fighter ace was flying cover for Clark’s dive bomber unit when he splashed.
Boyington was picked up in a one-man life raft by a Japanese submarine before he could be plucked from enemy waters by an Allied flying boat. He spent the rest of the war as a prisoner.
By January 1944, Clark’s unit had moved closer to Rabaul. They were flying off Green Island, near New Ireland Island, which was adjacent to Rabaul and much closer to their target.
During one of the flights Clark made with 1st Lt. Mark Blackburn of Tennessee, who was the pilot of the SBD during most of the 57 combat missions he flew, their engine quit.
“We were flying over New Ireland when our engine stopped. We dropped 1,000 feet, right straight down,” he said. “Immediately, Mark turned the plane around and started heading back to our base on Green Island. We knew we couldn’t make it.
“He told me, ‘Mel, I think you better throw your guns out, because we’re too heavy.’ I pulled my two machine guns off their mounts and threw them over the side. Then Blackburn dropped the 1,000-pound bomb we had been carrying.
“Pretty soon our motor coughed a little bit. Then it started putting along. We made it back to base. We found out later we had water in our gas.”
Most of the time, Clark’s unit knocked out enemy gun emplacements. With canopies open, they would dive at full bore to 1,000 feet above the deck and drop their load of bombs on target, if they were lucky.
All the while, enemy gunners were firing away at them with cannons and machine guns as the Marine dive bombers got lower and lower. It was a harrowing ride on the wild side for the bomber crews, who only had a couple of .50-caliber machine guns to defend themselves from ground fire on the way down.
When they weren’t knocking out gun emplacements, VMSB-341 was employed as air support for Marines on the ground in places like Guadalcanal, Bougainville and eventually Rabaul. They would fly from Munda to Bougainville and gas up, then fly on to Rabaul, back to Bougainville for more gas and home to Munda. It was a long, 12-hour round-trip.
“Whenever we could see any troops on the ground, we would strafe and bomb them,” Clark said. “But generally we couldn’t see much because of all the trees.”
One of his closest brushes with death came in early 1944 at the conclusion of a flight over enemy territory, seconds after their SBD touched down.
“The Japanese would bomb us on Green Island, leaving big bomb craters on our runway. Because the SBD landed on its tail wheel, the pilot couldn’t see what was right in front of him on the runway,” Clark said. “So the gunner in the back seat would jump out on the wing about the time the plane touched down and stand beside the pilot, directing him around the bomb holes.”
This particular time, Clark’s dive bomber must have gotten one tire shot out. As the plane landed, it skidded off the edge of the runway. He could see what was coming and dived into the back seat at the last moment before the crash. As the SBD went off the side of the strip with its nose down, its propeller hit the sand.
When it did, Clark was catapulted out of the rear cockpit through the radius of the prop that had only stopped turning a fraction of a second before. He landed on his tailbone and spent the next three days in the base hospital, none the worse for his close call.
By late 1944, eight months before the end of WWII, Clark and his unit rotated back to the States. For his efforts, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross for one of his flights over Rabaul and six Air Medals, for combat missions, along with his Air Crewman Wings with three stars that indicates he fought on air, land and sea, and three battle stars for major engagements in the Pacific Theater of Operation during the war.
All of this was ancient history until a few months ago, when the old aviator was nominated to become a member of the carrier USS Yorktown‘s Enlisted Combat Crew Roll of Honor. Each year, the staff of the Yorktown II, now a WWII memorial moored at Mount Pleasant, S.C., across the river from Charleston, inducts 45 enlisted men into this group. Their names are displayed in a place of honor on the ship’s bulkhead.
“All of us were gunners. Seven of us were from World War II, the rest were from the Korean War or were helicopter gunners in Vietnam,” Clark said. “My whole family came to the affair. My wife, Bettie, two grown sons and daughter and my grandchildren were all there.
“It was nice to be remembered after all these years. It was really a thrill,” he said. “I don’t consider myself a hero or anything like that. I just did what I was supposed to do.”
This story first appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Jan. 11, 2004 and is republished with permission.
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