Sunday, August 18, 2013

TFH 8/18: Major Ralph Cheli, USAAF

Ralph Cheli (pronounced "Kelly") was born on October 29, 1919 in San Francisco, California. He later lived in Brooklyn, New York, and studied engineering at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania as a member of the class of 1941. He didn't graduate though, choosing to leave school in February 1940 to join the United States Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet.

He received his wings and a commission as a Second Lieutenant in November 1940 and was trained as a pilot for the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. With the United States' entry into World War II and the ramping up of the United States Army Air Forces for global combat, Cheli first found himself flying anti-submarine patrols in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

After promotions to First Lieutenant and Captain in early 1942, he was transferred to Barksdale Field in Louisiana (today's Barksdale Air Force Base) and assigned as the operations officer for the 405th Bombardment Squadron (nicknamed the "Green Dragons") of the 38th Bombardment Group - a new North American B-25 Mitchell unit that was being formed.

Cheli deployed for war in the South Pacific in August 1942. The group first went to Australia, and then rebased at Port Moresby on New Guinea once that area was recaptured from the Japanese and secured. He was placed in command of the Green Dragons on January 5, 1943 when the previous commander was killed in action. Cheli was promoted to Major in March of that year.

All told up through August 17, 1943, Cheli flew 38 combat missions against the Japanese. On August 18, 1943, he boarded B-25D S/N 41-30117 with four other airmen: Staff Sergeant Clinton H. Murphree (Gunner), First Lieutenant Vincent A. Raney (Navigator/Bombardier), Technical Sergeant Raymond C. Warren (Radioman/Gunner), and Flight Officer Don M. Yancey (Co-pilot). Joining the five Americans was an observer from the Australian Army, Captain John H. H. Massie.

Cheli, as squadron commander, flew the lead ship for the 405th for their raid against Japanese airfields around Wewak, northwest of Port Moresby on New Guinea. He was leading 30 B-25s, and the squadron was given escort by Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighters. The target area had been struck in the days before by other units, and they reported no fighter opposition - the crews of the Green Dragons weren't worried then when they lost contact with their fighter escorts in bad weather on the way to the target.

However, Japanese fighters were in the area, and as the Green Dragons made their low-level bomb run at about 150 feet altitude, they pounced on the American bombers. Cheli's plane was among the first hit, and as he was the lead ship of the attack, he could choose to try and save himself or continue leading the Green Dragons into the target. As Addison Baker and John Jerstad chose during the Ploesti raid on August 1, 1943, Ralph Cheli put the mission first, kept his squadron focused on the target, and joined the ranks of our Nation's greatest heroes.

From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II (A-F):

Image from Military Times' Hall of Valor

*CHELI, RALPH (Air Mission)

Rank and organization: Major, U.S. Army Air Corps. Place and date: Near Wewak, New Guinea, 18 August 1943. Entered service at: Brooklyn, N.Y. G.O. No.: 72, 28 October 1943. Citation: 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 2 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.

Flight Officer Yancey was awarded the Silver Star for assisting his aircraft commander in keeping the damaged plane flying and on target.

All crew members aboard Cheli's aircraft were thought to have perished in the crash. After the war, it was learned that at least three of the crew - Cheli, Murphree, and Warren - survived and were captured by the Japanese.

Major Cheli was imprisoned by the Japanese on Rabaul at Tunnel Hill. After several Allied bombing raids on the island, the Japanese murdered thirty-one of their prisoners, including Cheli, sometime between March 3-6, 1944. After the war, Cheli's remains were exhumed from a mass grave and repatriated to the United States. He today rests in peace in a communal burial with thirteen of his fellow victims of the Tunnel Hill Massacre at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri. The names of the men (all were USAAF airmen) buried with him are:

  • Technical Sergeant John M. Barron
  • Staff Sergeant Edward T. Constantin
  • Second Lieutenant Thomas F. Doyle
  • Sergeant Raymond J. Farnell, Jr.
  • Staff Sergeant William C. Harris
  • Second Lieutenant Joseph W. Hill
  • Sergeant Michael H. Kicera
  • Major Frederick K. Koebig
  • First Lieutenant Anthony Kuhn
  • Staff Sergant Romulus F. Mull
  • Staff Sergeant Lawson Stewart
  • Second Lieutenant Alston F. Sugden
  • Corporal Vincent Wasilevski

It is not known what happened to either Staff Sergeant Murphree or Technical Sergeant Warren between their capture and the end of the war. Both of them, along with First Lieutenant Raney and Flight Officer Yancey, are listed on the Tablets of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines. Their names are just four of the 36,285 Americans whose names are listed there.

Australian Captain Massie's name appears on the Lae Memorial on New Guinea.

Cheli's World War II units later were part of the United States Air Force after its establishment as a separate service in 1947. The 38th Bombardment Group was last active as part of the 38th Bombardment Wing and was deactivated in 1957. The 405th Bombardment Squadron ended its service as the 405th Tactical Missile Squadron, armed with MGM-13 Mace cruise missile. They were deactivated in 1966.

The veterans association for the 38th Bomb Group still has a website, but the organization ceased operating in December 2012. That's something we'll be seeing more with more vets organizations as we lose our World War II veterans to age and time.

Their Finest Hour will never cease working to see we never lose what those men did to only distant memories.

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