When 2d Lt. James T. Murphy arrived in the southwest Pacific on Aug. 18, 1942, he had already earned the first of many distinctions. Earlier, at Hamilton Field, Calif., where he joined the 63d Bomb Squadron of the 43d Bomb Group, he had been made an aircraft commander at a time when some B-17 copilots were captains.
The war was not going well for Maj. Gen. George C. Kenney’s Fifth Air Force in the summer of 1942. Its primary mission was interdicting Japanese shipping from the great enemy base at Rabaul, New Britain. General Kenney had but a handful of B-17s, his only bombers with the range to reach Rabaul from New Guinea. The results of high-altitude bombing had been negligible. A better way had to be found. Maj. Bill Benn, commander of the 63d Squadron, convinced General Kenney that low-altitude skip bombing was the answer. Jim Murphy was one of several volunteers to perfect that technique, along with Capt. Kenneth McCullar. [See “Skip-Bombing Pioneer,” December 1990.]
Experiments showed that accurate delivery was best achieved at an altitude of 200 feet, flying at 200 to 230 miles an hour with bomb release about 300 yards from the target. The bombs then would skip across the water into the side of the target ship. This required precise flying. In his remarkable book, Skip Bombing, Murphy says the number of bomb hits increased from one percent in high-altitude attack to 72 percent by skip bombing. It was a major airpower development of the Pacific war.
Skip bombing was based on surprise–on stealth. The B-17F was a large, relatively slow target for enemy gunners. Rabaul was heavily defended by antiaircraft guns and searchlights; hence, all attacks were made at night to conceal the attacking bombers and to silhouette target ships against the rising moon or breaking dawn. Skip bombing was an extremely dangerous undertaking.
Flying presented plenty of hazards in that part of the world. The route from New Guinea to most targets was from 500 to 700 miles over dense jungle and open sea. The likelihood of rescue if downed was virtually zero. That area also is the home of violent weather fronts, unequaled in ferocity in any other combat zone of World War II. Add to that miserable living conditions in New Guinea, and a combat tour in the southwest Pacific was a test for the best.
Beyond skip bombing in Rabaul Harbor, Lieutenant Murphy was a major player in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, where 43d Bomb Group B-17s were joined by Fifth Air Force medium bombers and fighters. The battle, fought under the worst weather conditions in early March 1943, was a desperate, and successful, attempt to destroy a large convoy of troop transports and warships sent to reinforce Japanese troops in northern New Guinea. Complete destruction of the convoy ended Japanese hopes of conquering the island.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur called this victory “the decisive aerial engagement” of the southwest Pacific. Jim Murphy was credited with sinking one of the transports and several landing barges.
More than 60 percent of Lieutenant Murphy’s combat missions involved skip bombing. On the night of Nov. 13, 1942, he went against enemy shipping off the island of Bougainville. Murphy broke out of the most ferocious front he had encountered just as he approached the target area. As he descended for the bomb run, his number four engine was knocked out by flak, but his crew scored a direct hit on a cargo ship.
As the B-17 circled for a second run, a large section of its nose was blown out by ground fire. With a hurricane blasting through the open nose, Lieutenant Murphy destroyed another ship and fought off several Zeros. Now the challenge became fighting their way home through the front with one engine out, another running at half power, and torrents of rain pouring in through the shattered nose. Updrafts and downdrafts threw the B-17 from a near-stall to a 300-mile-an-hour dive before they finally made it through the front and landed at Port Moresby.
For that mission, Jim Murphy was awarded the Silver Star, presented by General MacArthur in General Kenney’s office. Twice before, Murphy had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (and several Air Medals) in a theater where decorations were not presented for number of missions flown but for outstanding achievement on a particular mission. Before Murphy returned to the States, he had sunk nine ships and stood second only to Ken McCullar in number of enemy ships destroyed by 43d Bomb Group crews.
After the war, Jim Murphy earned an MBA degree and spent several years in ballistic missile R&D before retiring from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel in 1965. He then served with NASA at Marshall Space Flight Center, retiring in 1982, as MSFC’s director of Administration and Program Support. Next, for eight years, he headed an aerospace consulting company. Now fully retired, he lives in Huntsville, Ala.
Published May 1994. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.