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For the rest of the year, the training continued and, bit by bit, the full complement of aircrews were transferred to the squadron. None of the New Zealand pilots had any experience of flying dive-bombers. The first batch of pilots had come from Army Cooperation squadrons or from second-line units and later they were joined by pilots fresh from flying school. As for the air gunners, most had arrived from Canada where they had been sent under the Empire Training Scheme; others were assigned from bomber and coastal patrol squadrons for a new operational tour.
After an intensive ground course, flight training commenced. To convert to the Dauntless pilots had to rack up a minimum of 60 hours. The programme included dive-bombing practice - a hair-raising experience for the crews, especially the rear-gunner who had to sit with his back to the engine in a dive at 75 degrees from the horizontal. Alternative modes of attack were the ‘semi-vertical’ dive at 45 degrees without the perforated underwing air-brakes extended, and the low-level bombing run between 500/1500ft (150/500m).
In addition there was live firing practice for both pilot and air gunner, formation flying and day/night navigation exercises. To mark the completion of their training, a formation of 18 aircraft flew over Auckland on the morning of January 6th, 1944. At this time, this was the largest formation of aircraft ever seen over the city.
All squadron personnel were then dispatched to Swanson for infantry weapons training and a course in jungle warfare/survival.
There was more to come - operational training under tropical conditions at Pallikulo airbase on the island of Esperitu Santo in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). The ground echelon (Number 25 Servicing Unit) had been sent ahead to prepare for their reception. On January 30th, 1944, the aircrews of No 25 Sqn left New Zealand aboard a Lockheed Lodestar and Douglas Dakota of No 40 Sqn RNZAF, arriving at Pallikulo nine hours later where they found a line-up of twenty seven newer, but still well worn ex-USMC, SBD-4s (RNZAF serials NZ5019 - NZ5045) to replace the worn out -3s they had abandoned in NZ.
Mossong says - NZ5028 - NZ5045, were also ex-USMC and were in poor condition.
They were in the then current U.S.Navy 4 tone scheme of Semi-Gloss Sea Blue wing and tailplane upper surfaces, N.s.Sea Blue upper fuselage, Intermediate Blue fuselage sides and fin, and Insignia White lower wings, tailplanes and fuselage. RNZAF Blue/White/Blue roundels (with Yellow outer rings on the fuselage roundels only) were painted over the 'Stars and Bars' in six positions.
More Operational Training
The next day, operational training resumed - more dive-bombing practice and live gunnery exercises, formation and instrument flying. On February 11th, 1944, during an instrument flying session, the squadrn lost their first aircraft. SBD-4 NZ5037 (ex-BuAer 06953) flown by Fl.Off A.Moore and Flt.Sgt J.K. Munro went missing.
Despite widespread searches over the following days, neither the aircraft or crew were found. More than forty years later, in 1987, the wreck of the missing SBD was discovered 50km from Santo. There was no trace of the crew. The aircraft was subsequently salvaged and restored as a museum exhibit.
Training continued throughout February, culminating in mock sorties with US Marine Corps units (MAG-11, MAG-12 and MAG-21) where the New Zealanders were only a small part of formations that, at times, numbered over one hundred aircraft.
Towards the end of the months, No 25 Sqn began to receive brand new Douglas SBD-5s to replace their second-hand SBD-4s. These were from the Marine Corps stocks (NZ5046-NZ5063) and were operated from February 19th in the Marine markings. By 25th February had been repainted with RNZAF roundels in four positions, and RNZAF serial numbers. All appeared to have the large pneumatic tailwheel fitted to land based USMC aircraft.
The old machines were handed back to the Americans at the beginning of March.
From that moment on, the training was over and No 25 Sqn was now considered combat-ready. Their first mission had been scheduled for the end of February but this was postponed until March 22nd because the squadron’s forward base at Piva on Bougainville was under repeated bombardment from Japanese artillery. Apart from a few familiarisation flights, there was very little activity at Pallikulo while the squadron waited for the ground situation to be resolved.
On the morning of 22 March, the order came through to pack up and head for Piva via Henerson Field on Guadalcanal - a long detour south across open sea. No 25 Sqn flew the first leg in two echelons of nine aircraft - each led by a Lockheed PV-1 from No. 9 Sqn RNZAF.
After a flight lasting five hours, all the New Zealand pilots reached Henderson Field but, on landing, Fl.Off. B.N.Graham swerved off the runway and collided with a petrol bowser, writing off his SBD-5 NZ5055 (ex-BuAer 36923). On the following day, the first echelon, led by Sqn.Ldr. McLean de Lange, reached Piva without incident, the second half of No 25 Sqn arriving on March 24th.
Soon after landing, McLean de Lange set about organising an operational sortie. This was a fairly timid, one-plane affair - an artillery spotting exercise conducted by the squadron commander himself and his rear gunner. Take-off was schedule for 06:15hrs - before the second echelon flew in from Henderson Field.
The next day the Squadron set off for Piva on Bougainville, where the next morning their first operational sorties were carried out on the perimeter, due to the massive Japanese attacks on the Marine defenders in the area.
The objective shared by the RNZAF and USMC SBDs was Rabaul and, more specifically, the dive bombing and strafing of the harbour installations, gun emplacements and surrounding air bases to clear the way for RNZAF and US Navy Grumman TBF Avengers to bomb the runways which were the primary targets.
(The RNZAF had two squadrons of TBF-1C Avengers, No 30 and No 31 which fought alongside the Americans. They flew with the SBDs, on the same missions. Both NZ Avenger units were rotated through Guadalcanal and served until mid-44. Eight RNZAF Avengers were lost and eighteen crewmen were killed during their tour of operations.).
The squadron was tasked with providing 12 aircraft and crews on a daily basis to carry out operations to help achive the 'neutralisation' of the large Japanese bases around Rabaul on the northern tip of New Britain. This was a tall order when the average operational strength of the squadron was 15 aircraft. This was achieved on all days except one.
The type of mission given to the New Zealanders involved a flying time of three and a half to four hours. Because cloud tended to build up during the day, the missions were usually launched in the morning. The classic bomb load for a Dauntless consisted of one 1,000lb (450kg) bomb carried in a launching cradle under the fuselage.
When required, 100lb(45kg) bombs could be carried under the wings.
As the squadron was operating under the control of the Strike Command of COMAIRSOLS (Commander Air Solomons), they were for all practical reasons a U.S. squadron. A normal operational tour for an American unit was six weeks; No 25 Sqn served on Bougainville for eight, averaging 95 hours per crew. The squadron set out 32 strikes, completing 29.
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