The Municipal Airport in Portsmouth New Hampshire opened in the 1930s, expanding in 1951 to become a Strategic Air Command (SAC) base. The name was changed to Pease Air Force Base in 1957, in honor of Harl Pease, Jr., recipient of the Medal of Honor and Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism that led to his death in World War II.
The Japanese war machine seemed unstoppable in the early months of the war. In 1942, that machine was advancing on the Philippines.
United States Army Air Corps Captain Harl Pease, Jr. was ordered to lead three battered B-17 Flying Fortresses to Del Monte field in Mindanao, to evacuate General Douglas MacArthur, his family and staff, to Australia. One of the aircraft was forced to abort early, while the other developed engine trouble and crashed. Pease alone was able to land his Fortress, despite inoperative wheel brakes and used ration tins covering bullet holes.
MacArthur was horrified at the sight of that beat up aircraft and refused to fly on such a “broken down crate”. The General would wait two more days before making his famous exit, saying, “I shall return”.
Harl Pease wasn’t supposed to go on the “maximum effort” mission against Rabaul, since his aircraft was down for repairs. But he was determined. Pease and a few volunteers grabbed an old trainer aircraft on August 7, too beat up for combat service. Its engines needed overhaul, some armament had been dismounted, and the electric fuel-transfer pump had been scavenged for parts. Pease had a fuel tank installed in the bomb bay and a hand pump was rigged to transfer fuel. In fewer than three hours, he and his crew were on their way.
Captain Pease’ Medal of Honor citation tells what happened next:
“When 1 engine of the bombardment airplane of which he was pilot failed during a bombing mission over New Guinea, Capt. Pease was forced to return to a base in Australia. Knowing that all available airplanes of his group were to participate the next day in an attack on an enemy-held airdrome near Rabaul, New Britain, although he was not scheduled to take part in this mission, Capt. Pease selected the most serviceable airplane at this base and prepared it for combat, knowing that it had been found and declared unserviceable for combat missions. With the members of his combat crew, who volunteered to accompany him, he rejoined his squadron at Port Moresby, New Guinea, at 1 a.m. on 7 August, after having flown almost continuously since early the preceding morning. With only 3 hours’ rest, he took off with his squadron for the attack. Throughout the long flight to Rabaul, New Britain, he managed by skillful flying of his unserviceable airplane to maintain his position in the group. When the formation was intercepted by about 30 enemy fighter airplanes before reaching the target, Capt. Pease, on the wing which bore the brunt of the hostile attack, by gallant action and the accurate shooting by his crew, succeeded in destroying several Zeros before dropping his bombs on the hostile base as planned, this in spite of continuous enemy attacks. The fight with the enemy pursuit lasted 25 minutes until the group dived into cloud cover. After leaving the target, Capt. Pease’s aircraft fell behind the balance of the group due to unknown difficulties as a result of the combat, and was unable to reach this cover before the enemy pursuit succeeded in igniting 1 of his bomb bay tanks. He was seen to drop the flaming tank. It is believed that Capt. Pease’s airplane and crew were subsequently shot down in flames, as they did not return to their base. In voluntarily performing this mission Capt. Pease contributed materially to the success of the group, and displayed high devotion to duty, valor, and complete contempt for personal danger. His undaunted bravery has been a great inspiration to the officers and men of his unit”.
Pease was presumed lost until the capture of one Father George Lepping, who found Captain Pease and one of his airmen, languishing in a Japanese POW camp. Captain Pease was well respected by the other POWs, and even among some of his Japanese guards. “You, you ah, Captain Boeing?“, they would say. Pease would stand up straight and say, “Me, me Captain Boeing.”
Japanese officers were a different story. They would beat the prisoners savagely on any provocation, or none at all.
On October 8, 1942, Captain Harl Pease, Jr. was taken into the jungle along with three other Americans and two Australian prisoners. They were given picks and shovels and forced to dig their own graves. And then each was beheaded, by sword. Captain -Pease was 26.
Many years later, an elderly Japanese veteran passed away. His family found his war diary. The old man had been a soldier once, one of the guards ordered along, on the day of Pease’ murder.
The diary tells of a respect this man held for “Captain Boeing”. Beaten nearly senseless, his arms tied so tightly that his elbows touched behind his back, Captain Pease was driven to his knees in the last moments of his life. Knowing he was about to die, Harl Pease uttered the most searing insult possible against an expert swordsman and self-styled “samurai”. Particularly one with such a helpless victim. It was the single word, in Japanese. “Once!“.