Dozens of Tekamah residents joined the students of Tekamah-Herman High School to enjoy a grand chorus, a remarkable documentary and a motivating speaker as part of Tekamah’s Veterans Day celebration on Nov 11 in the school’s auditorium.
The event started with the posting of the colors by members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3304 Color Guard. The THHS choir, dressed in flowing purple robes, sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the veterans stood at attention and hands were placed on hearts.
The choir followed this with a moving rendition of “We Hold These Truths” written by Phil Mehrens and Steve Marshall. They were directed by music teacher Shelly Niewohner with piano accompaniment by Julie Morrow.
After dimming the lights, Principal Tom Borders set up a computer projector that showed a short film by Donnie Dodge depicting the World War II exploits of Tekamah native Robert D. Chatt. The film, “Chatterbox,” focused on Chatt’s participation in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea in March of 1943.
A newly-minted captain, Chatt flew his North American B-25D Mitchell bomber, nicknamed “Chatter Box,” out of Durand Airfield near Port Moresby on Papua New Guinea. He and his crew operated as part of the 90th Attack Squadron of the 3rd Attack Group. Their main mission involved highly-dangerous skip bombings.
In skip bombing, the bombing aircraft flew at very low altitudes at speeds of around 200 to 250 miles per hour. The pilot would release a “stick” of two to four 500-pound bombs equipped with five-second time delay fuses. The bombs would skip over the surface of the water, in a manner similar to stone skipping, and either bounce into the side of the ship and detonate or submerge and explode next to the ship.
The pilot controlled the bomb release because the B-25D was specially modified. The alterations included removing the bombardier position and the glass nose of the aircraft. Instead, a solid metal nose with four forward-firing .50 caliber machine guns, supplemented with two twin .50 caliber guns side-mounted on the fuselage was installed.
On March 3, a troop convoy was making a move towards New Guinea in an effort to reinforce Japanese positions. According to Chatt’s after-action report, the 3rd Attack Group intercepted the six troop transports and its escort of four destroyers just east and a little south of Salamaua near Lae, New Guinea.
Chatt detailed his attack run on a Japanese destroyer. Flying at 250 to 300 mph, Chatt came directly at the ship from the front just 10 feet above the water. He said he did so because he believed the Japanese front guns could not depress low enough to engage him.
While zeroing in on the destroyer, Chatt let loose with the eight heavy machine guns in the nose of the plane. He reported that he fired 1,600 rounds and that his shells were striking the deck, superstructure and bridge.
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“Explosive shells were hitting all over the front of the ship,” wrote the 26-year-old. Chatt released two of his bombs early and they skipped once before striking the destroyer in the bow below the waterline. The other two, he said, landed on the deck – “leveling everything.”
The carnage of the attack caused the ship – later identified as the IJN Arashio – to veer out of control and ram a troop transport – the Oigawa Maru – severely damaging that vessel as well. Both ships would eventually be sunk.
In total, the Japanese lost all but one of the ships in the convoy. They also lost more than 5,000 troops destined for the front lines. The Battle of the Bismarck Sea is considered by some as the turning point in the Pacific Theater.
After the video, Thomas G. Tobin spoke to the gathering, recognizing and thanking the members of the Chatt family who were present. Tobin is a retired brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force. He knew Chatt personally and professionally.
Commissioned through the Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps in June 1955, he received his wings in March 1957 at Greenville Air Force Base, Mississippi. Tobin is a command pilot with more than 5,500 flying hours, including 545 combat hours flying B-52 Arc Light missions in Vietnam.
He has also flown B-47s, FB-111s and KC-135s. His awards include the Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal with two oak leaf clusters, Joint Service Commendation Medal and Air Force Commendation Medal with oak leaf cluster. He retired in 1985.
“I would have worn my uniform,” he told the audience. “But, it shrank.”
Tobin also recognized another member of the audience. He introduced 99-year-old Henry Earl Doncheski, a World War II veteran. Corporal Doncheski also served in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He was in the 499th Air Service Group of the 9th Army Air Force from 1941 to 1945.
He took part in the D-Day landings. Later, he got attached to the famous Red Ball Express truck convoys shuttling supplies to the troops spearheading the American drive across France.
Tobin used the two heroes to emphasize life lessons. He asked the students in the audience to remember these men. He urged them to manage time wisely and to be serious but humble. Finally, he tasked them to strive to be worthy of the gifts veterans have provided.
“Your citizenship and freedom aren’t something you should take lightly,” Tobin said. “Because others have had to earn it for you.”