Seventy-four years and nine days ago one man sacrificed his life to save the lives of other men under his command. Major Raymond (Ray) Wilkins was the commander of the 8th Bombardment Squadron, 3rd Bombardment Group, 5th Air Army Air Force, stationed in Port Moresby, New Guinea since the beginning of the war in the Pacific in World War II. Veterans Day is the perfect time to share his remarkable story.
Major Wilkins had named his B-25 bomber “Fifi” after his Australian fiancée Phyllis although many under his command did not know he was engaged. He was a handsome 27-year-old young man who had already attained a command position and rank of major.
The 8th Bombardment Squadron, which flew both B-25 and A-24 bombers, focused primarily on the Japanese target of Simpson Harbor located in Rabaul, on the island of New Britain. Japanese forces had captured this port from Australia early during the war and its harbor provided them with a perfect location to attack shipping throughout the Southwest Pacific. The aftermath of this takeover is described in a recent book published by noted Australian author Ian Townsend. Line of Fire describes “The true story of a forgotten battle, a lost family, and an 11-year old Australian boy shot as a spy.”
It was Japanese battle ships and aircraft carriers located in Rabaul that sallied forth to engage the U.S. Navy in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Indeed, the Battle of the Coral Sea was fought to prevent the planned invasion of Port Moresby in New Guinea by the Japanese in Operation MO. New Guinea was hardly a Pacific paradise as former Army Air Corps members often referred to their service there as “fighting in the green hell of New Guinea against the yellow-bellied Japs.”
On November 2, 1943 Major Wilkins took off from Port Moresby for his final attack against Simpson Harbor and Rabaul. The 8th Bombardment Squadron was the last of the squadrons that attacked Japanese naval vessels docked in the harbor. Previous attacks had led to smoke-filled air from burning ships. Whether there was miscommunication or simple confusion on the attack plan, the planes under Major Wilkins’ command were dangerously out of position in the battle. Recognizing their peril, Major Wilkins placed his aircraft in a defensive position to protect his fliers, but it also opened him up to deadly anti-aircraft fire.
His men made it safely home, but Major Wilkins’ plane “Fifi” was shot downed over the harbor. Neither his aircraft or his body was ever recovered.
There were a total of 472 Medals of Honor awarded for bravery in all of World War II. Thirty-eight of those were given to members of the Army Air Corps. Major Wilkins was one of the posthumous recipients, when he was awarded the Medal of Honor in March of 1944. He was also awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross with 3 Oak Leaf Clusters, Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster and the Purple Heart.
Major Wilkins never married his fiancée. He never had children to remember his heroism. But his bravery was remembered by the men who served under him and they passed along his story to their children and grandchildren. One of those men was my father, Staff Sgt. Thomas Pyron, who was both proud and honored to have served under Major Wilkins. Allow me to share with you one of his pet peeves: it is called the Medal of Honor – not the Congressional Medal of Honor.
This is just one story among countless thousands of other tales of heroism, many of which have gone untold Here is the link to Major Wilkins citation for his Medal of Honor. May his memory be a blessing, along with all the veterans we honor today for their service to our country.