Capt Harl Pease, 19th BG, PI, JAVA, Australia
by John Mitchell and Fay Benton
What Really Happened to Harl Pease?
One of Americas first Medal of Honor winners in World War II was Captain Harl Pease from Plymouth, New Hampshire, whose B-17 was shot down after a raid on the Japanese fortress of Rabaul in August of 1942. The citation reads in party ".... although he was not scheduled to take part in this mission, Captain Pease selected the most serviceable airplane at [the] base and prepared it for combat, knowing that it had been found and declared unserviceable for combat missions." The citation goes on to report that, with a crew of volunteers, Pease took part in the bombing raids but was last seen under attack by a swarm of Japanese Zeros. "It is believed that Captain Pease's airplane and crew were subsequently shot down in flames as they did not return to their base." the posthumous citation concludes.
When I began research into the feats of the 19th Bomb Group in the Southwest Pacific, I accepted the assumption that Pease and his crew had perished in the plane crash. But with the help of Brace Hoy, curator of the Air Museum at Boroko, Papua New Guinea I was able to uncover an amazing story.
The first hint that Harl Pease had survived the crash of his plane came in February of 1943, when a Japanese radio broadcast monitored in Australia claimed that two Air Force officers had been shot down and taken prisoner in New Guinea. One officer's name was given as "Peace."
In 1948 the wreckage of the B-17 was found, and a native of the area told searchers that he had seen a parachute floating down. In 1949 the Australians found a Catholic priest who had been interned by the Japanese at the time of the crash. He said that Pease and one of his crewmen had been captured and later exectited.
The final piece of the puzzle was provided by another Catholic priest George Lepping who was taken to a Japanese prison camp near Rabaul in September of 1942. He found Pease there already along with three other American flyers.
"I have never been able to keep Harl Pease out of my mind" Father Lepping wrote to me. "Everyone respected him, including the Japanese guards He was a leader without trying to to one.
"The Japanese looked up to Pease because they were in awe of the B-17... and to have a Captain of a Boeing as they called them, was something to be remembered. The younger guards would ask Harl in broken English, `You, you, ah, Captain Boeing?' And Hart would stand up straight and say, `Me, me, Captain Boeing.' "
Father Lepping confirmed that on October 8, 1942, Pease and the other three Americans along with two Australian prisoners were given picks and shovels and taken into the jungle to work on a new airfield. "We never saw the six men again," Lepping wrote. "The other prisoners who had been there from the begining knew the routine. The six men had been forced to dig their own graves and then they were executed by the sword."
Thirty years ago the U.S. Air Force honored Harl Pease again by naming the air base at Portsmouth, N. H., Pease Air Force Base. But until now, the true story of his death has never been told.
photo of oil painting in the home of Mrs C. Benton
September 13, 1995
You asked me to tell you what Fr George told me in his last letter as he was recalling 50 years ago. He said they were hoping for the end of the war but afraid that if the Allied attack came on Rabaul, especially by land, that the Japanese would kill all of them. There were more than 300 in the prison camp; white missionaries and about 75 natives. They did find out later that they were slated to be killed, attack or not. They had seen a big blind tunnel that the Japanese guards had forced the native men to dig – no exit. It was next to their guard house half way up the hill. They knew from native intelligence that two pieces of explosives, probably some kind of a bomb, could be regulated for the explosion. When the war ended, the Japanese guards told the Bishop, the spokesman for the missionaries, not to be frightened by the noise they would make. They took the two explosives down the valley a distance and exploded them – getting rid of the evidence. Fr. George said that documents appeared at the crime trials for the guilty ones and it was discovered that a date had been set, no matter what, for their execution, Aug 23 (22 in US). Fr. George said whenever he met anyone, missionary or otherwise, and learned that they had been a POW of the Japanese, he asked them about the date August 23 and what would have happened to them on that day. It was the same everywhere. And of course you know from John Mitchells book about the close call Fr George had when the Japanese planned to execute him.
October 8, 1992 at Plymouth NH following Memorial Service
Col Ed Jadquet, Ed Troccia, John Mitchell, Col John Wallack, Col Frank Bostrom, Harry Eays
Ed Troccia, Harry Eays and John Mitchell at Fay & Charles Benton’s home
Charles Benton, Harry Eys and Fay Benton at Benton home
Ed Troccia, Donald and Virginia Wood, Donald is brother of Lt Richard Wood, Nav on Hals crew.
Claranell Murry, Mildred Smith, Shirley Strickland & Mary Jo Cayton,
sisters of Sgt David Brown Gunner on Hal’s crew
Left: George Lepysing, S.M. Marist priest, that was POW in the camp where Hal was taken.
Right: Representative from Honor Guard from Hanscom Air Force Base, presenting flag to Fay Benton following service at Trinity churchyard in Holderness, NH. Oct 8, 1992
Honor Guard from Hanscom Air Force Base at memorial services for Capt Harl Pease and crew.
Held at Trinity Churchyard at Pease family lot in Holderness, NH.