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Pope celebrates WWII role by wearing blues August 14

  • Published
  • By Keith Alexander
  • 43rd Airlift Wing Historian
On the 43rd Airlift Wing's battle flag, our unit displays a streamer for Guadalcanal. The Battle of Guadalcanal occurred from Aug. 7, 1942 through Feb. 7, 1943, when the Japanese military evacuated their survivors from the island. 

In both his wartime and postwar oral history interviews, Maj. Gen. Alexander Vandegrift, the commanding officer of the 1st Marine Division, posited that Guadalcanal represented the first time the Allied forces defeated the Japanese on the ground and sea, as well as the in the air. In fact, the Marine general expostulated from that point forward Japan was on the defensive. 

Unbeknownst to most members of the present day 43rd AW, Guadalcanal was where our Airmen drew first blood and incurred their first battle losses in the Pacific. This essay examines the unit's first mission in August 1942. 

General Vandegrift led elements of the 1st Marine Division ashore at Guadalcanal Aug. 7, 1942. Within days, the U.S. Marines had secured portions of the island including the airfield, which they named Henderson Field. For nearly three weeks, the fighting was minor as the Japanese concentrated their forces for a major assault upon Henderson Field. 

The first of two squadrons from the USS Long Island arrived at Henderson Field Aug. 20, 1942. Shortly thereafter, several U.S. Army Air Force squadrons also commenced operations from Guadalcanal. Despite the presence of these squadrons, General Vandegrift knew the Allied forces had to establish air and naval dominance throughout the region. Otherwise, the Japanese possessed the ability to reinforce and resupply their troops. 

While General Vandegrift's Marines prepared for the first major Guadalcanal battle Aug. 21, 1942, for example, a Japanese convoy consisting of five ships was sailing through Milne Bay on the extreme southeast tip of New Guinea. According to various sources, this convoy was carrying supplies for Guadalcanal. 

In February 1942, the 43rd Bombardment Group (Heavy) departed the United States for the Pacific. After taking a circuitous route, this unit's squadrons, including the 63rd Bombardment Squadron (Heavy) reached Australia via ship in March and April 1942. Once there, the squadrons commenced their training, while waiting for their aircraft. Finally, the 63rd BS (H) received five B-17 Flying Fortresses Aug. 14, 1942. Anticipating the oncoming fight, this squadron qualified Capt. Kenneth McCullar's crew within a week after receiving their aircraft. 

Seven days later, Captain McCullar guided five airplanes from the 63rd BS (H) toward Milne Bay. A native of Courtland, Miss., Captain McCullar's comrades described him as a "skilful pilot," who possessed "unusual daring." In a wartime interview, Captain McCullar described bombing operations as "you get about the same thrill from bombing as you do from a ball game, only you don't have to put up with the bystanders heckling, and the game is for keeps." Upon reaching Milne Bay, the crews spotted the small Japanese convoy. Next, Captain McCullar directed his aircraft to attack the convoy. Although they were still learning to bomb real targets, the 63rd BS (H)'s crews scored several hits during their first wartime assault. In fact, Captain McCullar's aircraft received credit for damaging an enemy destroyer. 

While conducting one of their bombing runs, Captain McCullar's B-17 incurred damage from enemy fighters and anti-aircraft fire from the Japanese ships below. Captain McCullar's bombardier, Sgt. Earl Snyder, was killed in this attack. A native of Wilkes-Barre, Penn., Sergeant Snyder was the first Airman from the 43rd BG (H) killed as a result of combat during World War II. He died five days after this engagement. 

Throughout the rest of August 1942, the 43rd BG (H) conducted 14 sorties and dropped 13 500-pound bombs on enemy ships carrying troops and supplies for Guadalcanal. Although this Japanese convoy managed to get through, subsequent convoys barely made it. From their early months in battle, the 43rd BG (H)'s Airmen recognized the need for "skip-bombing." 

Now Major McCullar played an important role in developing the skip bombing techniques used by the 43rd BG (H) at the Battle of Bismarck Sea in early March 1943. Unfortunately, Major McCullar died in a crash when a bomb blew up inside his B-17 on April 12, 1943. At the time of his death, Major McCullar had earned the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star Medal with three oak leaf clusters, Distinguished Flying Cross with one oak leaf cluster, Air Medal with two oak leaf clusters, and the Purple Heart. To commemorate the 43rd BG (H)'s role in supporting the Battle of Guadalcanal, and the Airmen who flew those missions, wear your blues Thursday.