Senators urge commemoration, search for legendary bomber
On Jan. 5, 1943, a bomber formation of six B-17 Flying Fortresses plus six B-24 Liberators took off from an airfield in Papua New Guinea to attack Rabaul, the Japanese foothold in the South Pacific about 500 miles northeast, on the island of New Britain.
The lead aircraft was a B-17F called the San Antonio Rose, and aboard were two high-ranking observers, Major Jack W. Bleasdale and Brigadier General Kenneth N. Walker, along with the Flying Fortress’ nine-man crew.
“The San Antonio Rose was last seen heading into a cloud, pursued by Japanese fighters,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who on Friday announced a bipartisan Senate coalition has introduced a resolution to both commemorate the 75th anniversary of the loss of the San Antonio Rose on Jan. 5, 2018, and to pledge to continue the search for the lost aircraft.
Blumenthal, D-Conn., made the announcement in the rotunda of Yale University’s Woolsey Hall, its interior walls inscribed with hundreds names of Yale graduates who were killed in action from the Civil War to the present.
“The crew of the San Antonio Rose must never be forgotten,” he said. “We must honor their memory through continuing this search to fulfill our nation’s promise to finally bring these heroes home.”
Blumenthal was accompanied by Douglas Walker, 84, who was 10 years old when his father — the highest-ranking American to go missing in action on a combat mission during World War II — led the 5th Bomber Command.
General Walker would frequently fly on missions so he could best understand what his airmen were up against, and he survived a number of scrapes. Bombers making the run to Rabaul were often hit with flack and attacked by fighter aircraft.
“He was a charming, stylish guy and a man who was totally committed to his work,” his son said. “He was part of the group to write the Air War Plan prior to the Pearl Harbor attack.”
Douglas Walker, of New Canaan, said it’s believed that his father was sitting in the co-pilot’s seat on the San Antonio Rose’s fateful flight.
“He managed to bail out — one of two to bail out — and it’s believed that he was subsequently interrogated and later executed by the Japanese,” Walker said. “It was from that interrogation — and we have the translations — that the location of the aircraft might be determined.”
Vance R. Tiede, an archaeology professor who searches for clues from the past through satellite surveys, said the technology to find the missing B-17 has advanced to the point where a search would likely succeed.
“You’re dealing with triple-layer canopy rain forest,” Tiede said. “There are at least six other allied aircraft that went down in that general area, and it’s only in the last 10 or 15 years that we’ve been able to find an airframe hiding in the jungle like that.”
The San Antonio Rose was part of the 64th Bombardment Squadron; the six B-24 Liberators were from the 90th Bombardment Group.
General Walker was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The entire crew of the San Antonio Rose was officially declared dead on Dec. 12, 1945.