Footage of skip
bombing practice against SS Pruth
Crash that claimed McCullar's life on April 12, 1943
Kenneth D. McCullar
Ken McCullar was a legend in the 43rd Bomb Group, a daring pilot who seemed to be indestructible. Crew chief Tony DeAngelis described him as "one of those rare people who could inspire a person to great heights! Anyone would follow him because he was always in front and fiercely loyal to the members of his crew".
McCullar flew B-17F 41-24355 overseas, arriving in Australia in the second week of August 1942 as part of the 63rd Bomb Squadron's Air Echelon. The plane and crew were immediately attached to the 435th Bomb Squadron of the 19th Bomb Group for training and indoctrination.
Sometime between August 21 and September 4, B-17F 41-24355 was "badly damaged by zeros" and grounded for repairs. It was dropped from 63rd Bomb Squadron records and later re-assigned to the 64th Bomb Squadron. So McCullar selected B-17F 41-24521 as his new plane when she was assigned to the 63rd Bomb Squadron on September 7, 1942 at Torrens Creek. He was responsible for choosing the nickname "Black Jack" because he was an avid gambler and the B-17's serial number ended in '21'.
McCullar flew her to Mareeba on September 12 and they completed their first mission on September 14, a reconnaissance of the area from Milne Bay to
Rabaul, looking for Japanese shipping.
McCullar Crew of "Black Jack"
Pilot: Captain Kenneth D. McCullar, O-393172
Co-Pilot: Lt Harry A. Staley, O-428427
Navigator: Lt Kenneth W. Beckstrom, O-420799
Bombardier: Lt Robert H. Butler, O-434615
Flight Engineer: Sgt Michael J. Paz, Jr., 7021462 *
Radio Operator: Sgt Edward P. Welcome, 6913555
Ball Turret: Sgt George B. Dirr, 6668584
Waist Gunner: Cpl Charles S. Reser, 14027622
Tail Gunner: Sgt Harvey Bancroft, 6977201
*Paz was killed flying as an “extra gunner” with McCullar on April 12, 1943
On September 20, 1942 Major Bill Benn noted in the 63rd Bomb Squadron War Diary: "Early in the morning 521 McCullar tested 10 fuses 5 second delay with 100# demo bombs on the hulk on the reefs off Moresby [SS Pruth]. Results proved fuse very close to 5 seconds and skip bombing the answer if we want to hit ships".
Crew Chief Tony DeAngelis recalled: "Old 'Black Jack' with Capt. McCullar and our C. O. Major Benn experimented [with] and perfected 'skip bombing'. They practiced on the old hulk in Port Moresby harbor. The nose section of the aircraft was crossed with lines as Major Benn tried to form some way of using the Plexiglas nose section as a bomb-sight. They finally got it after nearly knocking themselves out of the air with a live 100 lb bomb. Believe they went in too low plus the fact that the fuse on the bomb was instantaneous. They finally came up with a fuse that had a delay that allowed the bomb to "skip" rather than blow on impact."
The first skip bombing attack was on October 23, 1942 against shipping at Rabaul where the War Diary records that "McCullar hit a destroyer from 250' sinking it".
The association between Ken McCullar and "Black Jack" came to an end on the night of November 24, 1942, when the B-17s were sent to attack five Japanese destroyers in the Huon Gulf. The B-17s located their quarry easily, the ships silhouetted against the moonlit sea. "Black Jack" was at about 3,500 feet when McCullar selected a target and chopped his throttles back to make his first skip bombing run from 200 feet at 255 mph. His bombs hit just off the stern of the ship, but the return fire hit an ammunition can in the aircraft's tail, exploding about 70 rounds and starting a fire. Tail gunner Sgt Harvey Bancroft did his best to smother the outbreak with a blanket and some heavy flying clothes until extinguishers were rushed back and the blaze was put out.
A second skip bombing run resulted in hits directly on or very near the warship, starting a fire in the starboard bow. On this run three of the crew were injured, but none seriously.
As "Black Jack" flew through the bursting shells for a third low-level attack the left outboard engine was hit - the oil cooler was blown completely out of the leading edge of the wing, letting the oil pour out before the propeller could be feathered. McCullar was forced to climb to 1,500 feet then make another bomb run from 1,200 feet. Again the bombs hit close, but "Black Jack" took more punishment. McCullar took the B-17 up to 4,000 feet on the three good engines and made a fifth and final run, dropping the last of his eight bombs. This time the right inboard engine, hit in the fuel system, cut out. McCullar was able to feather the propeller but could not maintain altitude on the remaining two engines. The crew jettisoned all the loose equipment, while the radio operator began sending out their position and course, because things looked bad. The shot-up engine on the left could catch fire and explode at any time. The navigator and bombardier were ordered to the rear in case the propeller spun off and slashed through their nose compartment.
Eventually the propeller ground loose from the engine and spun off into the darkness, and the motor began to cool down. The pilots were able to restart the damaged engine on the right, drawing at least partial power from
it, but it took more than two agonizing hours for the B-17 to struggle up to 10,000 feet, just enough for McCullar to thread his way through a mountain pass and get safely back to Moresby. This time it had been worth it - later that night an Australian Beaufort crew reported seeing the destroyer Hayashio explode and sink.
McCullar concluded his fairly detailed but matter-of-fact report of the mission with the words "landed OK and forgot about it".
"Black Jack" was out of action for nearly two months. McCullar flew other planes and got into more trouble - he took B-17F "Tuffy" 41-24574 out on 8 December and brought it back with over 100 bullet holes and a couple of cannon hits.
McCullar moved on to take command of the 64th Bomb Squadron on January 15, 1943. Three months later he was killed with all his crew when B-17E "Blues In The Nite" 41-9209 crashed on takeoff from 7 Mile Drome.
5th Air Force commander, General George C. Kenney commented in McCullar's obituary: "He was a master at the art of sinking Japanese ships".