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Peter Turnbull "Points the Bone"

(Excerpted from "Air Force News".  Author Bob Piper.)

After leaving 3 Squadron in Africa, Peter Turnbull was thrown into the desperate fight in Papua New Guinea, just to Australia's north. 
Peter died in action at Milne Bay in August 1942 and one of the wartime Milne Bay airstrips was then named "Turnbull Field" in his memory. 
Below is a remarkable incident from Peter's days defending Port Moresby.

   
Flying Officer Peter Turnbull at 3 Squadron's advanced landing ground at Rosh Pinna, Palestine, in 1941,
with
the Squadron's Curtiss Tomahawk aircraft in the background.  [AWM SUK14924]

March 31st, 1942:  While Australian troops and airmen based at Port Moresby watched in disbelief, a lone Japanese GM3 “Nell” bomber, flying high overhead, darted through a small cloud and then, with an audible crack, one wing broke off and the plane plummeted to the ground. 

As dense black smoke boiled upwards from the impact site, the bomber's severed wing continued to flutter down slowly.  Not a shot had been fired and not a single Allied aircraft had attacked the enemy aircraft.  It was a most bewildering incident.  It is recorded in the diaries of the Australian Air Force’s No. 32 and No. 75 Squadrons and in a report by Flight Lieutenant S.H. Collie, a Melbourne barrister and intelligence officer based at Port Moresby in 1942. 

At that time, Japan ruled the skies over New Guinea.  Australia had only a token squadron of Kittyhawk fighters as well as some Hudson bombers and long-range Catalinas to attempt to stem the tide.  Meanwhile, enemy fighters and bombers, in ever-increasing numbers, continued regular raids from Lae and Rabaul against Port Moresby and Horn Island.  

The first report of the mystery aircraft was a few minutes before one o’clock on March 31, 1942.  Some thought it was a lone reconnaissance aircraft as it hummed serenely along at 10,000ft, in and out of fair-weather cumulus cloud, near Seven Mile Strip and some 16kms inland from Port Moresby town.

Australian P-40 Kittyhawk fighters were ordered to intercept but did not depart.  Not a single Army anti-aircraft gun fired.  The “Nell” (the Allied code name for the Mitsubishi Type 96 bomber) had approached from the north-west, hesitated and turned south-west, then resumed course from the north- west.


Painting of a Japanese “Nell” bomber by Peter Connor.

An unusual account of the bomber’s last moments was later given by a 75 SQN fighter pilot, Jack Pettett.  He was off-duty and, with fellow pilot Peter Turnbull, viewed the whole action.  Pettett later recounted that Turnbull, who was a country boy with a sense of humour, performed an Aboriginal dance and pretended to “point the bone” (cast a spell) at the incoming bomber.

At this point, the Nell's wing broke off and came spinning down.  Turnbull is remembered as turning to the others around him and exclaiming:

“Got the bugger!

The full story behind the crash is even more bizarre: Japanese records, obtained by American historian Henry Sakaida, now tell the full story of that fateful day, and reveal the names of the men on board.  Actually, the crew of the Japanese Navy bomber had been sent on a one-way mission to “self destruct” against the Port Moresby defences

- Was this then the first kamikaze mission of World War II, but using a full crew and aircraft? 

Perhaps it was just a prelude of things to come?  (Later, hundreds of young Japanese pilots would be asked to hurtle down, with devastating results, on American and Australian ships as the Allies edged closer to Japan).

The Japanese crew of the bomber had previously been involved in an attack on Clark Field, in the Philippines, on December 12, 1941.  Their port engine had been hit by anti-aircraft fire and the aircraft forced to alight on the northwestern side of Mount Arayat.  Subsequently, the entire crew of eight was captured.  Meanwhile, back at base, as the men had failed to return, they were listed as missing in action and, according to naval custom, given a one-rank promotion.

As Japanese ground forces overran the Philippines, the men were discovered and released.  This is when things began to become increasingly embarrassing.  Officially, the men were dead, but here they were, back like a proverbial bad penny with their promoted rank.

Not the best example so early in the war to the rest of the services and of an instruction of "no surrender".

(There has also been some mention in Japanese records that the crew in fact were not actually captured by the Americans but lived with Filipino village people before the area was taken by incoming Japanese forces.  When this point was raised with their high command, however, it was apparently dismissed as being irrelevant.)

Segregated from other aircrew for morale purposes, this crew was continually placed in the most vulnerable position of the bomber formations sent against Australian targets.  But, despite the fury and danger of the battles in which it was embroiled, the crew just kept coming back.  Finally, when the matter could no longer be tolerated, Admiral Takajiro Onishi issued an instruction that the bomber crew was to fly over Port Moresby, with no escort, and a last order: “Do not return”.

It is said the crew shared a cigarette and drink before setting out from Lae on the morning of March 31, 1942.  At 12:45 (Moresby time) a message was received from the bomber back at Rabaul:

“Finished bombing. All bombs hit mark”.  

Fifteen minutes later, another message came on the radio:

“We will go in.  All around is clear.  Thank you for your kindnesses during our lifetime.  Banzai for the Emperor (Tenno heika).”

It now appears that even though the aircraft was armed, those bombs – reported as released at 12:45 – were never dropped on Australian positions...

Meanwhile, it is reported, other Japanese airmen and ground-staff back at Rabaul and Lae were silently furious that the men were given the one-way flight – what a waste of men, training and equipment.  The Japanese fighter ace Saburo Sakai confirms this in his book.  The subject is also briefly depicted in the 1976 Japanese movie on Sakai’s life story, though no names are given or the fact that the wing broke off before their mission could be completed.

To this day, the Japanese believe the bomber crew really did complete their suicide mission.  At the same time, the Australians thought it was just another lightly-built Mitsubishi bomber that, as they recorded, fell apart because it was, “Made in Japan.”

[Operations Record Book of 75 Squadron, 31 March 1942:
1255: Enemy aircraft reported approaching from the N.W., turned S.W. then N.W. again, and when about 4 to 5 miles distant, enemy aircraft observed to be diving to earth.  One wing came adrift, and the aircraft crashed to the ground, and a huge cloud of black smoke arose.  No A/A bursts seen or heard; obviously a case of aircraft 'Made in Japan'.]

It has taken 62 years for the full story to be told...

Those aboard the bomber were:

* Petty Officer 1st Class Takeo Harada (captain);
* Hidetoshi Tokuda (co-pilot);
* Yoshitaka Shirai and Toshiho Nishida (observers);
* Kanichi Shudoh and Sadakane Watanabe (radio);
* Goro Seino and Asakichi Miura (mechanics).

All eight crew, who carried out their instructions to the last, are believed to be buried somewhere outside Port Moresby.  May they rest in peace.

[Originally published in 'Air Force News' 29/7/04 with acknowledgment to Henry Sakaida in the USA, Harumi Sakaguchi from New Guinea, and Professor Ikuhiko Hata in Japan.]

Editor's Note: 

Historian Harumi Sakaguchi has since found further evidence that the bodies of the Japanese crew were recovered (although not all) and were buried in a temporary war cemetery, maintained by the Australians, at Bomana near Port Moresby.  Surprisingly, the bodies may still be there today in unmarked graves, as the POW cemetery rapidly became neglected after the war and there is no record of the remains being repatriated to Japan (this issue is currently being investigated). 

Additional contemporary witness statements are available on the excellent Pacific Wrecks website (repeated below) which shed further light on the crash of this plane (part of the Japanese Navy's 1st Kōkūtai).  It is possible that the bomber crew detonated one of their bombs inside their aircraft.  It is clear that they did not deliberately crash into any military targets.

Frederick C. Eaton Diary March 31, 1942:
"I happened to be out at 7 Mile Drome when an air raid alarm was given at 11:15am.  A two-engined bomber flew over us at 15,000 feet without a shot being fired.  His wing broke off and he crashed about a mile away from me in flames."

30 Brigade Intelligence Summary no. 27 - 2 April 1942:
Moresby Recce 31 Mar. "... One bomb was jettisoned before the plane crashed and a number appeared to explode on the plane as it hit the ground."

George Johnston War Diary 1942, page 46:
"Jap Bomber falls to pieces!  An extraordinary incident this afternoon.  A big Japanese bomber was overhead on reconnaissance in cloudy weather - the same plane that tried unsuccessfully to drop bombs yesterday.  None of our fighters went up and the AA never fired a shot, but suddenly the bomber was seen to be falling after losing part of a wing or tail plane.  It crashed into the hills in a big cloud of smoke. The bodies of the crew were found in the wreckage - including the body of a high ranking Japanese officer in full uniform and wearing his sword!" 

Intelligence Report No. 21:
"Plane bore same markings, large black figures "67" on underside of both wings, as recce plane on previous day."

According to Pacific Wrecks, one day earlier, on March 30, 1942, this crew had been ordered to take off from Lae Airfield and fly over Port Moresby at low altitude without escort.  Amazingly, they returned without a scratch and managed to take excellent photographs of 7-Mile Drome.
 

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