The true fate of Captain Harl Pease Jr.AURORE EATON
February 04. 2015 9:20PM
On Aug. 7, 1942, 25-year-old pilot Captain Harl Pease, Jr. of Plymouth, was believed to have died in the ocean off the island of New Britain in the Southwest Pacific.
Fellow airmen on the bombing mission against a Japanese airstrip at Rabaul on New Britain saw his B-17 Boeing Flying Fortress plummet toward the water, consumed by flames. It was presumed that he and his seven crewmen were killed in the crash.
But Harl Pease did not die on that day. His true fate would be known to American authorities by 1949, but it wasn’t until 1987 that the tragic details would be revealed to the public through an article in Yankee magazine written by John H. Mitchell. By that time Harl’s parents, Bessie and Harl Pease, Sr., and his sister, Charlotte had died.
Mitchell, a veteran airman who served in World War II, uncovered Harl Pease’s story while conducting research for his 1990 book “On Wings We Conquer.” What Mitchell learned was that Harl Pease’s plane had crashed on land, about 40 miles south of Rabaul. After the war, American search teams uncovered important physical evidence at the crash site. Officials pieced together the forensic findings with what they learned from local eyewitness accounts and from Japanese sources.
In 1949, the American Graves Registration Service concluded that six of the eight men aboard Captain Pease’s B-17 died in the crash, but that Harl and crewman Sergeant Chester Czechowski had parachuted and survived. The two men had been taken to a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp at Rabaul.
In Australian files Mitchell found the testimony of a Roman Catholic missionary who had been imprisoned at the camp. Father O’Connell reported that Harl Pease and Czechowski, along with two other American airmen, and two Australian officers, were led out of camp on the morning of Oct. 8, 1942. They had been told they would be working on a new airfield, and were seen carrying shovels. When the Japanese guards returned without the six men, their fellow prisoners concluded that they had been executed after being forced to dig their own graves. This type of atrocity was a common occurrence at the camp.
In the late 1980s, Mitchell interviewed another missionary who had been at the camp, Father George W. Lepping. Father Lepping’s account tracked closely with Father O’Connell’s. He told of how a bullet from a Japanese machine gun passed through Harl Pease’s leg as he was descending in his parachute. His wound was treated by a kind civilian captive in the camp who happened to have a few medical supplies.
In his 1990 book, Mitchell quoted Father Lepping, “I have never been able to keep Harl Pease out of my mind. Everyone respected him, including the Japanese guards. He was a leader without trying to be one. Conversations between prisoners was forbidden but we found ways around that. A question would be put to Captain Pease and he would respond by long monologues. We all listened to his stories…The Japanese looked up to Pease because they were in awe of the B-17. The Fortresses were semi-gods to them, 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 would express their astonishment and admiration for him in their own way. And Harl would stand up straight and say, ’Me, me, Captain Boeing’ and the guards would express more admiration.”
On Sept. 7, 1957, the Portsmouth Air Force Base was renamed Pease Air Force Base. The base was closed in 1991 and part of the site became the current Pease Air National Guard Base. Captain Pease’s name also lives on in the Portsmouth International Airport at Pease and the Pease International Tradeport. He is remembered in Plymouth through the Harl Pease Memorial Monument and the Pease Public Library and, because it was originally believed he died at sea, his name is inscribed on the honor roll of the New Hampshire Marine Memorial monument at Hampton Beach.
Next week: The New Hampshire Marine Memorial – The story of Dr. Ben Richard Bronstein of Manchester.
Special thanks to the staff of the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire for providing research assistance for this article. Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, e-mail her at email@example.com.