On the morning of 5 January 1943, a flight of six B-17 and six B-24 bombers sat ready for takeoff at the hastily improved airfield at Port Moresby, New Guinea. Their target was the Japanese base at Rabaul, 500 miles to the northeast. That base was a heavily armed staging area for Japanese reinforcements in the South Pacific including arms and men to Guadalcanal. In the lead bomber sat an officer who was not part of the crew — Brigadier General Kenneth Walker. General Walker was the commander of the 5th Bomber Command. This raid was taking off at 0800; it would be a daylight raid which would allow him direct observation of the effectiveness of his bombers, as well as the tactics of the defending Japanese fighters.
This would be important to Walker and his team as they continued to hone their tactics for bombing difficult targets, including ships. This wasn’t the first time Walker has flown along. He’d done it multiple times before, continuing to build on his knowledge of the enemy’s practices and developing the best responses for his bombers — formations, time of day, altitude, response. In fact, Walker’s boss, General George Kenney became so concerned about Walker’s habit of exposing himself to danger that he forbade Walker from these ride-alongs. This promised to be a perilous trip. The bombers would take almost 3 hours to reach Rabaul and be attacking at mid-day, guaranteeing significant opportunity for Japanese fighters and anti-aircraft defenders to be ready. Yet, contrary to orders and at great risk to himself, General Walker was there, sitting in that lead plane, on his way to Rabaul.
The attack that day was a success for the United States. One ship was sunk and several others damaged, but 2 aircraft were lost, including the plane carrying General Walker. The information General Walker gained was critical in bomber effectiveness and winning the war in the Pacific against Japan. For his actions he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
What I wonder about is why he left his command post and got into that airplane. He wasn’t ordered to do it, in fact he was ordered not to do it. It seems that Walker had a spark of greatness within, compelling him. Now, on the 70th anniversary of that day, I reflect that acts of greatness such as those of BGen Kenneth Walker have two characteristics. First, they are never ordered. They are never compulsory. Greatness like this cannot be ordered. It must come from thinking, acting individuals. Secondly, these acts of greatness are never about ourselves. They are always about something beyond ourselves.
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