With his plane in flames, WWII pilot led his squadron on daring bombing raid
By PAUL MUSCHICK | The Morning Call | Published: August 29, 2020
(Tribune News Service) — Pilot Ralph Cheli buzzed his B-25 Mitchell just above the rainforest treetops of New Guinea, followed by several dozen other bombers from his squadron known as the Green Dragons.
The mission: bomb and strafe an airfield crammed with hundreds of Japanese planes.
The American bombers were vulnerable, having lost their escort of P-38 fighters because of cloud cover.
Two miles from the airfield, a dozen or so Japanese fighters attacked from above. Maj. Cheli, leading the formation, was in their crosshairs. Flames shot from his plane’s engine and right wing.
The 23-year-old commanding officer had two choices. He could parachute to safety. Or, he could continue leading his squadron on its mission, then take his chances with a crash landing.
Cheli didn’t have to be in that position in the southwest Pacific 77 years ago, on Aug. 18, 1943. He chose to be.
Three years earlier, he had dropped out of Lehigh University and joined the Army Air Forces, as America neared its entry into World War II.
Instead of finishing his final year and earning his engineering physics degree, he earned the country’s highest award for military service, the Medal of Honor, for his bravery that day. He’s one of only 473 Medal of Honor recipients from World War II.
A lot has been written about Cheli (pronounced Kelly) and his squadron’s mission, in books, on veterans’ websites and official Air Force documents. But Cheli’s complete story has never been told by The Morning Call. I researched it after a tip by someone who knew his story from a connection at Lehigh, and I was pleased to be able to track down some of his relatives through Facebook.
Born in San Francisco, Cheli moved to Bethlehem with his mother, Julia, an immigrant from Italy, during his early school years. He enrolled at Lehigh and was married while in college, which wasn’t uncommon at the time. The family lived adjacent to Lehigh’s campus on Broadhead Avenue, at a property the university now owns.
As a student, he was protected from being drafted. But he gave that up, leaving behind his wife, Geraldine, and their 18-month-old son, Raphael, whom he called “Butch” and adored.
The blue-eyed, fair-haired Cheli, 20, headed to New York City to enlist. His talents showed quickly, and he rose rapidly through the ranks.
He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1940 and trained as a B-17 co-pilot. His unit patrolled the Florida coast, scouting for enemy submarines.
After the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, the now-captain was named operations officer of the 405th Bomb Squadron, known as the Green Dragons. They flew B-25 Mitchells, medium-range bombers with a crew of up to six. Then he went off to war.
That August, he commanded America’s first flight of B-25s to the war zone in the southwest Pacific, leading them from California to Australia. Within a month, he had flown his first combat mission.
Cheli later led the first “masthead,” or low-level, bombing attack to occur in daylight in the southwest Pacific, in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea in March 1943.
Instead of bombing from above, pilots flew along the water and released their bombs so they would skip into the sides and bottoms of enemy ships and explode just after the bombers pulled up and out of harm’s way.
At least a dozen Japanese destroyers and troop transports were hit.
Cheli’s reputation grew as he flew more missions. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal.
Following the death of the squadron’s previous commander, Cheli was promoted to commanding officer of the Green Dragons.
As commander, Cheli didn’t have to fly on every mission. He chose to participate in the big ones. And that summer, his unit prepped for perhaps its most important mission yet. It would be Cheli’s 40th in 11 months.
The Japanese kept hundreds of bombers and fighters at an airfield at Dagua, New Guinea, and a few others nearby. If the Allies could destroy those positions, and the aircraft there, it would open a path to the Philippines.
It was a daunting task. Pilots would have to fly over 500 miles of jungles and mountains to reach the target. A series of four raids occurred over five days in August. They decimated the Japanese air corps, which lost nearly 300 planes.
The first two attacks met with minimal resistance. While there was the anticipated anti-aircraft fire from the ground, the Japanese didn’t launch much of a defense from the air.
When Cheli led four dozen bombers on a low-level run on Dagua on day three of the blitz, the Japanese were waiting.
Visibility was poor because of clouds, and the bombers were separated from their escort of P-38 fighters. When the bombers, led by Cheli, descended on their targets, they were targeted from above by Japanese fighters.
They focused their fire on Cheli, leading the formation.
He was low, at only 150 feet, when he was hit on the right wing and engine.
Still two miles from his target, he faced his choice.
Cheli had his wife and son at home in Bethlehem to think about. He also had to consider the fate of the crews on the bombers behind him.
“He could have pulled up and bailed out,” another pilot told Time magazine in an article that was republished by The Morning Call on Sept. 3, 1943.
“We were flying so tightly, however, that if he had done so, he would have broken up the formation and ruined the attack, besides exposing others to isolated interception. Cheli undoubtedly realized that, and pressed his attack ferociously.
“His parachute bombs dropped among the [enemy] aircraft; he kept his guns blazing from one end of the field to the other, doing tremendous destruction. By that time, his plane was in a bad way and his guns were white hot.”
Twenty-six of the 49 bombers reached their targets. Only after they pulled up did Cheli direct his wingman to take over the lead position, according to a 1988 article in Air Force magazine under the headline “Triumph and Tragedy.”
Then Cheli went down.
Lt. Thomas A. Deptula, flying on Cheli’s right wing, later documented it in his journal.
“Zekes attacked at 10 & 12 o’clock. Shot down Major Cheli ... Crash landed in flames after making run on target.”
Deptula, of Wilkes-Barre, made his own run on the airfield. He and his crew shot down two enemy fighters.
“OK. Thank God,” Deptula wrote in his journal, excerpts of which were shared with me by his son, Ron Deptula, of Lewisberry, York County.
His father served 33 years in the Army Air Corps and Air Force, including during the Vietnam War. He retired as a colonel. He didn’t talk much about the war.
“I hadn’t read his diary until he passed away,” said Ron Deptula, who followed his father’s footsteps into the Air Force and retired as a major.
He didn’t hear of his father’s mission bombing the Dagua airfield with Cheli until they visited the Air Force Armament Museum near Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. His father told him after they viewed a display of Medal of Honor winners that included Cheli’s story.
“I got chills,” Deptula told me.
Cheli’s fate wasn’t immediately clear.
Initial reports, including one in The Morning Call, indicated he died in the crash. But officially, he and his crew of four – First Lt. Vincent Raney, Flight Officer Don Yancey, Technical Sgt. Raymond Warren and Staff Sgt. Clinton Murphree, plus Australian liaison officer John Massie – were classified as missing in action.
On Oct. 28, 1943, Cheli was awarded the Medal of Honor. The citation reads:
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with the enemy. While Maj. Cheli was leading his squadron in a dive to attack the heavily defended Dagua airdrome, intercepting enemy aircraft centered their fire on his plane, causing it to burst into flames while still two miles from the objective.
“His speed would have enabled him to gain necessary altitude to parachute to safety, but this action would have resulted in his formation becoming disorganized and exposed to the enemy.
“Although a crash was inevitable, he courageously elected to continue leading the attack in his blazing plane. From a minimum altitude, the squadron made a devastating bombing and strafing attack on the target.
“The mission completed, Maj. Cheli instructed his wingman to lead the formation and crashed into the sea.”
In late 1943, an unconfirmed Japanese broadcast indicated Cheli and some of his crew had survived and were being held as prisoners of war, according to the Air Force magazine article.
Cheli and at least two others from his plane were taken to the Japanese prison at Rabaul. Other American prisoners, after being freed, recounted that Cheli was badly burned and banged up. He was the senior officer in the prison camp, so he was interrogated and beaten frequently, according to the article.
There were reports that Cheli was being transferred to Japan and died when the ship he was on was bombed by his former unit.
The truth later emerged.
After Allied troops took over the prison, a mass grave was discovered for 31 soldiers, including Cheli. They had been executed on March 3 and 4, 1944, in what was known as the Tunnel Hill Massacre, or Talili Bay Massacre, according to his profile on the website TogetherWeServed.com.
“I wish he had gone down with the plane, unfortunately,” his great niece, Janet Bizjak, of California told me.
Cheli was buried in a communal grave along with the remains of the other soldiers at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis.
“We’re not going to let him be forgotten,” Bizjak said.
She participates in geocaching, a virtual treasure hunting game using GPS coordinates, and has a coin hidden in Cheli’s honor. When someone finds the coin, “Lest We Forget,” they are directed to a website with his story.
The website reads, “This coin is traveling to remind us all of those veterans who have lost their lives for our beautiful country. It is a reminder to NEVER forget their sacrifices.
“So many children are not taught about the great wars anymore and hopefully this coin will open a discussion and maybe some research so that our veterans and their stories will not be forgotten. This coin is dedicated to my great uncle, Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient Major Ralph Cheli and the sacrifice he made for all of us.”
Cheli has not been forgotten by the Lehigh University community. If you’ve been on the campus in Bethlehem, you may have run across his name.
The university’s chapter of the Arnold Air Society, which works to build strong officers for the Air Force, is named for him; the Ralph Cheli Squadron.
His name also is one of many – too many – on a plaque in the Alumni Memorial Building that honors alumni who died during World War II.
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