An Air Force adventure

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Kali L. Gradishar
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
It was a dark and stormy night. Typically this is how a children's horror story begins, but for Col. Clarence LeMeiux (ret.), it was an all too true beginning to one of the most extreme adventures in his military career.

The Great Depression was nipping at the heels of the Americans. Joining the military, being provided $21 a month, was a glowing choice for many at the time. For young Clarence LeMeiux, 17 years old and fresh out of high school, it was worth making a career out of it.

From Hamilton Field, Calif., to Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, and numerous destinations in foreign countries, he bounced from an enlisted troop in 1935 to a retired colonel in 1965 - enlisting in Spokane, Wash., and retiring from the same place after an honorable 30-year career in U.S. Air Force.

Through all of the career field changes, bases and assignments, there is one that remains boldly engraved in his mind.

The day after the Pearl Harbor attacks, he and his crew left Hamilton Field for Hawaii. From there Colonel LeMeiux found himself assigned to a bombing mission that would take him for the ride of his life.

Around midnight Feb. 22, 1942, nine bombers were preparing for take off. The mission was to attack ships near Rabaul, New Britain, an area controlled by the Japanese at the time.

"We were the first ones to take off," said Colonel LeMeiux, the flight engineer on the two-crew, two-pilot flight. "It was cloudy as the dickens that night. We couldn't see the other airplanes."

Nine bombers were supposed to take off that night. Only five even made it off the ground due to tumultuous circumstances and only two bombers made it to the attack destination, said the colonel. Theirs was the only aircraft, a B-17E Flying Fortress, to make it to the area.

They made one round through the drop zone, but had to come around once more over the target. Just then, they realized more trouble was one the way. Not only were they flying solo, but a few Japanese fighters were on their tail, recalled Colonel LeMeiux.

"We had to climb fast to get away. They were really on our tail 'til we got speed," he said.

The fuel gages were showing short, especially after the quick climb at high speeds, and it was determined the aircraft would not make it to Port Moresby, Papa New Guinea, the original landing zone for the mission.

The pilot decided to land the B-17 in what looked like a plush hayfield, bringing the aircraft down without major injury to the crew. The crew piled out into not a hayfield, but a grassy swamp.

"We had life rafts, two gallons of water, machetes and water up to our necks. We couldn't pull the raft, dumped it and carried what we could. We found bushes to lay on, piled 'em up," he said. "By the third day, we were hungry. One guy lost his shoes. He was talking silly."

Signs of exhaustion, hunger and possibly malaria - mental confusion.

They made it to a small island where the native Papuans brought the crew to an Australian magistrate. Luckily falling upon the hands of friendly folk, the crew was provided with food, water and blankets.

Thirty-six days after the crash, a boat arrived at the crew's location to transport them to Port Moresby. Finally. What was intended to be a one night mission, turned into a 36-day nightmare for the nine crewmembers.

And so it was, the whole crew was able to scramble out of the swampy abyss as survivors, and the downed Flying Fortress became known as The Swamp Ghost by those who traveled to and above it. That is, until it was brought up from the deep in 2005 after 63 years.

Colonel LeMeiux, now 91 years old, still remembers the dynamic details of the adventure that came to a thankful end on April 1, 1942 - an adventure that is hard to forget.

(Information from an article in the October 2007 issue of Smithsonian magazine was used in this story.)