WWII Pilot Snubbed By MacArthur Earns MoH Months Later

By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

This blog is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we’ll highlight one of the nearly 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor. 

Army Air Corps Capt. Harl Pease Jr. Photo courtesy of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society

Army Air Corps Capt. Harl Pease Jr. Photo courtesy of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society

It’s almost impossible to recount all of the gallantry that went on during World War II. But the pilot we’re highlighting today gave his life on a mission he volunteered for just months after one of the war’s most famous generals refused to fly with him.

Harl Pease Jr. joined the Army Air Corps in September of 1939. About a year later, the Plymouth, New Hampshire, native was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He was immediately put on active-duty in the Pacific theater, flying B-17 Flying Fortress bombers between the U.S., Hawaii and the Philippines.

In March 1942, Pease was transferred to Australia, where he was to help handle evacuees from Japan. One of those missions included bringing Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur out of Manila Bay just before the Philippine island of Luzon was invaded by the Japanese – although it didn’t go particularly well.

When MacArthur was successfully moved to a safer part of the Philippines by the Navy, the 24-year-old Pease was tasked with picking the general up and flying him to Australia. But when MacArthur saw the condition of Pease’s bomber – it had damaged turbo supercharges, faulty brakes and bullet holes patched by ration cans – he turned Pease away, refusing to fly in such a “broken-down crate.”

Despite that snub, Pease went on to do great things, including in August 1942, when one aborted mission led to his last.

Pease had been promoted to captain by then and had also turned 25. On Aug. 6, he was part of a bombing mission over New Guinea when his B-17 lost an engine, so he was forced to turn back to Australia.

Army Air Corps Capt. Harl Pease Jr. Air Force photo

Army Air Corps Capt. Harl Pease Jr. Air Force photo

Meanwhile, there were plans for his unit to attack an enemy-held air base the next day on New Britain (an island of Papua New Guinea northeast of Australia). Pease wasn’t scheduled to be part of it since his plane was out of commission. But he didn’t want to miss out, so he and his crew volunteered anyway, even though all of the usable planes were assigned to other crews.

Pease’s crew quickly found an unassigned bomber that was NOT considered combat-ready and spent hours making it acceptable to fly. They then made the trip back to Port Moresby, New Guinea, to join the rest of their squadron.

Early the next morning, despite very little sleep, Pease was able to keep his ramshackle plane in formation until the enemy caught up to them about 50 miles from their target. For the next 25 minutes, Pease and his crew dodged about 30 Japanese fighters, shooting several of them down and fighting their way to the target so they could drop their bombs as scheduled.

A map of Papua New Guinea. The red marker is on the island of New Britain. Northeastern Australia is to the bottom left.

A map of Papua New Guinea. The red marker is on the island of New Britain. Northeastern Australia is to the bottom left.

After that, the rest of the squadron was able to dive into some clouds for cover. But Pease’s crippled plane couldn’t keep up. Before it got to the clouds, enemy aircraft blew up one of his bomb bay tanks. Others in the squadron saw Pease drop the flaming tank from the plane, but that was the last they saw of him.

Pease and his crew never returned to Port Moresby. It’s believed that their plane was shot down. According to two Catholic priests who had been at a nearby prisoner-of-war camp, Pease and another crew member had managed to bail out of the plane and were captured. They were held at the camp for several weeks. On Oct. 8, 1942, they were forced to dig their own graves and executed.

The final mission Pease and his crew flew was a success, thanks to their efforts. The fact that they volunteered for such a dangerous mission was a great inspiration to other men. That’s one of the many reasons why Pease earned the Medal of Honor. MacArthur himself recommended the pilot for it. Late in 1942, it was presented to Pease’s parents by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Many years after the war, Pease was memorialized at Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines, where more than 17,000 other U.S. service members are buried. In September 1957, the air base at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, near where Pease grew up, was named in his honor. It’s now known as Pease Air National Guard Base.

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