Saturday, November 02, 2013

TFH 11/2: Major Raymond H. Wilkins, USAAF

Raymond Harvel Wilkins was born in Portsmouth, Virginia on September 28, 1917. He enlisted in the United States Army in 1936 and volunteered for the Army Air Corps, which later became the United States Army Air Forces and the forerunner of today's United States Air Force.

By November 2, 1943, Wilkins had been promoted to Major and was the commanding officer of the 8th Bombardment Squadron (Light), flying the North American B-25 Mitchell. Major Wilkins, on that day already a veteran of over fifty combat missions against our Japanese enemy in the Pacific, led his squadron on an attack against enemy ships moored in Simpson Harbor, Rabaul, New Britain.

On this day seventy years ago, Wilkins briefed his squadron that he would lead them into the target putting his own plane, a B-25D nicknamed "Fifi", between the rest of the squadron and the enemy, drawing their fire and protecting his fellow airmen.

When Wilkins' B-25s arrived at the target area, other units had already attacked the enemy in the harbor, filling the sky with smoke as well as alerted, intense enemy anti-aircraft fires that they'd now have to fly through.

Photo taken from an 8th Bombardment Squadron B-25 on 11/2/1943
showing the approach to the targets in the harbor (

The 8th Bombardment Squadron screamed in at low level. They successfully struck their targets, including a direct hit delivered by Wilkins on a Japanese destroyer, sinking it.

Artist's depiction of Major Wilkins' attack on the destroyer
As they were going to make their escape, Major Wilkins saw that an enemy cruiser and her guns blocked the squadron's path to safety. As his bomber was being shot to pieces around him, he nonetheless bore in on the enemy ship to draw its fire away from the other planes, and for his final act of courage, was posthumously decorated with the Medal of Honor.

From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II (T-Z):

Photo from Military Times' Hall of Valor

*WILKINS, RAYMOND H. (Air Mission)

Rank and organization: Major, U.S. Army Air Corps
Place and date: Near Rabaul, New Britain, 2 November 1943
Entered service at: Portsmouth, Va.
G.O. No.: 23, 24 March 1944

Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with the enemy near Rabaul, New Britain, on 2 November 1943. Leading his squadron in an attack on shipping in Simpson Harbor, during which intense antiaircraft fire was expected, Maj. Wilkins briefed his squadron so that his airplane would be in the position of greatest risk. His squadron was the last of 3 in the group to enter the target area. Smoke from bombs dropped by preceding aircraft necessitated a last-second revision of tactics on his part, which still enabled his squadron to strike vital shipping targets, but forced it to approach through concentrated fire, and increased the danger of Maj. Wilkins' left flank position. His airplane was hit almost immediately, the right wing damaged, and control rendered extremely difficult. Although he could have withdrawn, he held fast and led his squadron into the attack. He strafed a group of small harbor vessels, and then, at low level, attacked an enemy destroyer. His 1,000 pound bomb struck squarely amidships, causing the vessel to explode. Although antiaircraft fire from this vessel had seriously damaged his left vertical stabilizer, he refused to deviate from the course. From below-masthead height he attacked a transport of some 9,000 tons, scoring a hit which engulfed the ship in flames. Bombs expended, he began to withdraw his squadron. A heavy cruiser barred the path. Unhesitatingly, to neutralize the cruiser's guns and attract its fire, he went in for a strafing run. His damaged stabilizer was completely shot off. To avoid swerving into his wing planes he had to turn so as to expose the belly and full wing surfaces of his plane to the enemy fire; it caught and crumpled his left wing. Now past control, the bomber crashed into the sea. In the fierce engagement Maj. Wilkins destroyed 2 enemy vessels, and his heroic self-sacrifice made possible the safe withdrawal of the remaining planes of his squadron.

The body of Major Wilkins, along with the remains of his other three crewmembers - Second Lieutenant Howard R. Bunce, Staff Sergeant George H. Chamberlain, and Technical Sergeant Miles L. Rowe - were never recovered. All four men are listed on the Tablets of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines.

A cenotaph was erected in Wilkins' memory at the Olive Branch Cemetery in his hometown of Portsmouth.

The 8th Bombardment Squadron (Light) is today active as the Air Force's 8th Special Operations Squadron. They are home based at Hurlburt Field, Florida and fly the Bell Boeing CV-22 Osprey on worldwide missions.

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