This Day in History: Captain Harl Pease, a hero flying an unserviceable plane
On this day in 1942, a United States Army Air Corps captain rejoins his squadron. He was determined to participate in an attack on an enemy-held airdrome near Rabaul, New Britain. Would you believe that he had to talk his way into the mission? At least one officer thought it was a bad idea.
Of course, Captain Harl Pease wasn’t really supposed to be there in the first place. The plane that he’d been flying the day before had lost an engine. Pease was with his squadron now only because he’d scavenged another damaged aircraft and made it serviceable—sort of. He’d worked for hours to patch that plane together, and he’d joined his squadron at 1 o’clock in the morning.
A little thing like an unserviceable B-17 Flying Fortress bomber wasn’t going to keep Pease down!
Even after Pease’s effort, at least one officer thought that he “had no business in the show.” And another pilot objected that Pease was trying to join the mission with a “defective plane.” But the squadron’s commanding officer knew that every bomber was needed. Pease would be allowed to participate.
Every crew member on his plane was a volunteer, joining the effort despite the fact that Pease’s plane wasn’t really up to par.
It would prove to be a death sentence. But these brave airmen didn’t go down without a fight. And they made an invaluable contribution along the way.
Pease worked wonders with that barely serviceable plane during the mission that followed. When the American squadron came under attack by Japanese fighters, Pease managed to find and bomb his target—under duress. Unfortunately, he also sustained a fair amount of damage to his already inadequate plane. Witnesses saw him jettisoning a burning bomb bay fuel tank. He and his crew went missing in action and, for a time, it was believed that he’d been shot down.
He received the Medal of Honor, but he was also presumed dead. As it would turn out, there was more to Pease’s story.
After the war, American authorities discovered the crash site for Pease’s plane. They also heard from eyewitnesses. Pease didn’t die on August 7, as everyone had thought. Instead, he’d parachuted out of his plane, along with one of his crewmen. Both men were captured by the Japanese and taken to a POW camp.
They wouldn’t stay there long. Early in October 1942, the two men were led out of that camp, and they were forced to dig their own graves nearby. Afterwards, the Japanese beheaded them. A Roman Catholic missionary happened to see all these events, and he finished burying the Americans.
Two brave young men, dying all alone in enemy territory. Hopefully they at least had the satisfaction of knowing that they’d accomplished their mission, against all odds.
P.S. In an interesting side note, Pease once had the opportunity to help evacuate General Douglas MacArthur from a difficult situation. MacArthur refused to join Pease, apparently believing the pilot too young or the plane too unstable (or both). Naturally, that is a story for another day.
Air Force Historical Support Division, Pease—Capt Harl Pease Jr (December 9, 2014)
Aurore Eaton, Captain Harl Pease Jr. and the mission to Rabaul (New Hampshire Union Leader; Jan. 29, 2015)
Aurore Eaton, The Story of WWII Hero Harl Pease Jr. of Plymouth (New Hampshire Union Leader; Jan. 14, 2015)
Aurore Eaton, The True Fate of Captain Harl Pease Jr. (New Hampshire Union Leader; Feb. 4, 2015)
Bruce Gamble, Fortress Rabaul: The Battle for the Southwest Pacific (2010)
Katie Lange, WWII Pilot Snubbed By MacArthur Earns MoH Months Later (DoD Live; April 30, 2017)
Medal of Honor citation (Harl Pease, Jr.)