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david leigh-smith
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On This Day…May 31st.

British Expeditionary Forces try to stand down after being evacuated from Dunkirk, May 31st, 1940.

By the date alone, you can see where this story is heading to. US. Army Air Force Boeing B-17E bombers of the 431st Bombardement Squadron take off from the airfield on Eastern Island, Midway Atoll, on the afternoon of 31 May 1942.

May 31st, 1942, and US Navy torpedo bombers are for the first time deployed in Pacific Theater: 6 are dispatched to Midway, including this aircraft which was the only Avenger of Torpedo Six to survive in the Battle of Midway. Below is this very aircraft realised by iModeler's @lgardner

A personal favourite; USS Princeton with a deck full of aircraft on her shakedown cruise, 31st May, 1943 off Antigua.

On the evening of 31st May 1942, Japanese Navy Lieutenant Katsuhisa Ban and Petty Officer Mamoru Ashibe piloted the midget submarine M-24 around the defensive nets in the Sydney Harbor and fired two torpedoes at USS Chicago moored off the inner-city locality of Garden Island of Sydney, Australia; the torpedoes missed Chicago, but one of them struck Australian accommodation vessel Kuttabull (above) killing 19 Australians and 2 Britons.

One of the torpedoes ran aground (above).

Midget Submarine ‘21' was sunk in Taylor Bay at 5am in depth-charging by the Yarroma, and fellow-patrol boats ‘Steady Hour' and ‘ Sea Mist'.

A composite build of midgets 21 and 14 (sunk in the anti-submarine nets), was constructed and toured the country, and found a home in the War Memorial, , in April, 1943.

‘The Day, May 31st 1940' painting by Howard Gerrard.

Ordinary stories, rather than heroism, sometimes hold the true the impact of war.

William Mertens Williamson was one such young man who sacrificed his life for our freedom.

He was born on October 17, 1918 in Pennsylvania, US where his parents William and Agnes were born and raised. As many Americans are, his background was of those ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free' - his paternal grandparents were from Scotland and his maternal grandparents were from Belgium.

His father worked as a coal miner and William had one older sister, one younger brother, and three younger sisters. He married Virginia Pubar on March 17, 1937. By 1940 William had completed four years of high school after which he moved to Detroit, Michigan, US.

He enlisted in the army on January 24, 1940 and sadly divorced Ethel in May. He volunteered to serve in the Army Air Corps and qualified for flight school where he trained to be a bombardier. He became a 2nd lieutenant in the 398th Bombardment Squadron, 21st Bombardment Group, which was equipped with Marauders. Training included a period of time based at MacDill Field in Florida, US.

He remarried to Virginia on April 25, 1942 and they had two sons.

On May 31, 1943 Lt. Williamson and his crew where practicing ‘instrument flying' with a hooded cockpit (to blank out the vision field) during a heavy electrical rain storm. His plane crashed near Bradentown, Florida and five men on board were killed.

His grave is at Roseland Park Cemetery in Berkley, Michigan. His widow remarried after the war and died in 1991.

Interesting photo of aircraft flying over the over the Indianapolis (CA-35) during a fleet review off New York City, 31 May 1934. I believe the ship alongside, although I can't verify this, is Indy's sister ship, the USS Portland.

Consolidated Liberators of the 15th Air Force over Romania, May 31st, 1944 during the series of attacks on Ploiesti. Below, a painting of the 531 raid by Stanley Dersh.

Cruiser USS Chicago (CA-29) underway in Sydney Harbor, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, before the Japanese midget submarine attack that took place later that night, May 31, 1942 (see story above).

Royal Air Force Spitfires on USS Wasp (CV-7), in May 1942.

Clarence B. Craft was awarded the Medal of Honor for his action on May 31st, 1945 on Okinawa.


“Clarence B. Craft was a rifleman when his platoon spearheaded an attack on Hen Hill, the tactical position on which the entire Naha-Shuri-Yonaburu line of Japanese defense on Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands, was hinged.”

“For 12 days our forces had been stalled, and repeated, heavy assaults by one battalion and then another had been thrown back by the enemy with serious casualties. With 5 comrades, Pfc. Craft was dispatched in advance of Company G to feel out the enemy resistance. The group had proceeded only a short distance up the slope when rifle and machinegun fire, coupled with a terrific barrage of grenades, wounded 3 and pinned down the others. Against odds that appeared suicidal, Pfc. Craft launched a remarkable 1-man attack.”

“He stood up in full view of the enemy and began shooting with deadly marksmanship wherever he saw a hostile movement. He steadily advanced up the hill, killing Japanese soldiers with rapid fire, driving others to cover in their strongly disposed trenches, unhesitatingly facing alone the strength that had previously beaten back attacks in battalion strength. He reached the crest of the hill, where he stood silhouetted against the sky while quickly throwing grenades at extremely short range into the enemy positions.”

“His extraordinary assault lifted the pressure from his company for the moment, allowing members of his platoon to comply with his motions to advance and pass him more grenades. With a chain of his comrades supplying him while he stood atop the hill, he furiously hurled a total of 2 cases of grenades into a main trench and other positions on the reverse slope of Hen Hill, meanwhile directing the aim of his fellow soldiers who threw grenades from the slope below him. He left his position, where grenades from both sides were passing over his head and bursting on either slope, to attack the main enemy trench as confusion and panic seized the defenders.”

“Straddling the excavation, he pumped rifle fire into the Japanese at pointblank range, killing many and causing the others to flee down the trench. Pursuing them, he came upon a heavy machinegun which was still creating in the American ranks. With rifle fire and a grenade he wiped out this position. By this time the Japanese were in complete rout and American forces were swarming over the hill.”

“Pfc. Craft continued down the central trench to the mouth of a cave where many of the enemy had taken cover. A satchel charge was brought to him, and he tossed it into the cave. It failed to explode. With great daring, the intrepid fighter retrieved the charge from the cave, relighted the fuse and threw it back, sealing up the Japanese in a tomb.”

“In the local action, against tremendously superior forces heavily armed with rifles, machineguns, mortars, and grenades, Pfc. Craft killed at least 25 of the enemy; but his contribution to the campaign on Okinawa was of much more far-reaching consequence for Hen Hill was the key to the entire defense line, which rapidly crumbled after his utterly fearless and heroic attack.”

Happily, this was not a posthumous award.

A photograph of Charles A. Lindbergh in the cockpit of a Vought , taken on the Green Islands in New Guinea, May 1944.

British troops anxiously wait for their ship to leave the port at Dunkirk, May 31st, 1940.

Reader reactions:
15  Awesome

10 responses

  1. yep - had to suppress a few tears when I saw it wasn't a posthumous award...

  2. It WAS nice to do one of these stories where a man who has put everything on the line lives to an old age.

  3. Another OTD in high pitch...great stories, both the Okinawa MoH and the Midgets subs in Australian waters.
    Now, a Q for the Spitfire experts out there regarding the photo showing WASP deck with a few Spits on it, the central Spit (code 3M) has a wavering demarcation line between upper and lower colours. Is this usual? And any guess just what likely colours were those?

  4. Hi Pedro. I picked up on that, too. What interested me also was the writing by the canopy; spent ages looking it up and found it says ‘guns loaded’.

    The wavy demarcation line, as far as I can see, was very unusual. Others in the same squadron didn’t have it.

    • Thanks David, for the additional information and pointing out the chalked warning below the cockpit. The temperate scheme looks more plausible than the MTO brown scheme

  5. that was a hard looking bunch of boys at dunkirk...loved the defiant blind siding the uncle was an army squad leader sgt. on okinawa...those camo helmets are marines...another great effort

  6. What an amazing story behind the Medal of Honor citation... But aren't they all ? I too was very happy to hear this old soldier "lived long and prospered...". I was fortunate enough to serve with a surviving MOH recipient. He was my old 1st Sergeant at the time, and his name is Robert M Patterson. He continued to serve in the US Army and eventually attained the rank of Sergeant Major. He was a no nonsense leader and led by example. The perfect soldier...

    Thanks for posting a picture of my completed TBM-1 in todays segment. I feel honored to be included "On this Day"

    I enjoyed the photos Spitfires headed to Malta, and basically the entire posting... You always have a little something for everyone.


    You have hit your stride.


  7. Well done, David!

  8. David,

    I am Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Daniel C. Williamson, grandson of 2LT William Mertens Williamson. Thank you for honor my Grandfather. I have done my best to keep his, and his crew's memory alive. I find it odd that you selected him out of everyone possible to honor. My sister Kelly believes you are related to us. Is this possible?

    As proof I am 2LT William Mertens Williamson's grandson see photo which has death notice telegram, his discharge as a Aviation Cadet to take his Commission as a 2LT Bombardier, and the letter of my Grandfather's death benefits to his wife Virginia.

    Dan Williamson

    1 attached image. Click to enlarge.

  9. David,
    I also have many other articles to include his burial flag and his Bombardier wings. (Also in picture)
    I am the third son of William Mertens Williamson first born James William Williamson.
    Dan Williamson

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