Richard and Jack O’Brien
RICHARD AND JACK O’BRIEN
SUBMITTED BY JACK’S DAUGHTER, BARBARA O’BRIEN SOMMONS
Richard John O’Brien was born on May 19, 1924, in Philadelphia, PA. He and my Dad, Jack O’Brien Jr. were first cousins. They spent a lot of time together, as they were born in the same year and lived in neighborhoods close to one another. They enjoyed doing things young boys did growing up in Philly in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s: trips to Shibe Park for baseball games, catching a new movie at the local theater, or listening to favorite radio programs. Jack was the oldest of 10 children and Richard was one of four. Being part of a large, Irish Catholic family that settled in Philadelphia, parties with cousins, grandparents, aunts, and uncles were plentiful. Holidays, baptisms, and graduations afforded many celebrations that involved extended family. Their homes were regularly filled with laughter, abundant dishes of food and plenty of boisterous singing – no doubt attributed in part to the endless bottles of beer and generous “drops” of Irish whiskey consumed!
Though Jack was born only 3 months earlier than Richard, he graduated from high school a year ahead of him: Jack in June, 1941, six months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Richard in June, 1942, six months after Pearl Harbor. The cut-off date for school registration back then was March 1st, so Jack was able to start school a year ahead of Richard.
Like most young men of the day, once the US entered the war, they were eager to sign up and join the fight. But at the time they were only 17 and to enlist, both parents had to sign permission forms and neither mother felt inclined to do so. The cousins turned 18 in 1942 and, as required, registered for the draft. In February 1943, they reported for induction together at the Customs House, 200 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. They were standing in line, one behind the other, as they were jostled forward through the induction process, no doubt engaging in some nervous chatter but happy to be going through it together.
The Army chose Jack for the infantry, but Richard headed in a different direction. During high school, he had shown a bit of enthusiasm for aviation and was a member of the school’s Aviation Club, so it was the Army Air Corps for him. It was at this point that the cousins’ Army lives went their separate ways.
Richard and Jack reported for basic training and more specialized training followed over the next year. Both remained stateside throughout that period, and in 1944, Richard received orders for the Pacific. His journey began on a B-24 that left California, with stops in Guadalcanal, the Solomon Islands via Canton Island, Nandi and Fiji. On 06 Apr 44, Richard arrived in the Pacific Theater to serve with his unit, the 371st Bomber Squadron, 307th Bomber Group, Heavy, 13th Air Force, and was stationed at Mokerang Airfield on Los Negros Island, (Admiralty Islands), northeast of Papua New Guinea. This is the same Bomber Group that Louis Zamperini of the book “Unbroken” was a part of, as a bombardier on a B-24.
Richard attained the rank of TSgt and worked as a radio operator on the B-24J “Frenisi” (pronounced Free N Easy), which was piloted by 1st Lt. Don Anthony. The Frenisi had a great reputation as a B-24 Liberator, having successfully flown over 100 missions.
Between 0553 and 0619 on the morning of 10 Aug 44, 24 Liberators, 6 each from the 370th, 371st, 372nd and 424th squadrons, took off from Mokerang Airfield, the Frenisi and her crew of 11 among them. The pre-flight brief outlined that their mission was to bomb enemy installations on Yap Island, a destination of about 1,000 miles. Located between Guam and the Philippines, Yap Island had been under Japanese occupation since 1914. During WWII, 4,000 Japanese troops were stationed there with thousands more transitioning through on planes and ships. Between June 1944 and August 1945, AAF, Marines and Navy aviators fought the Japanese almost daily in the skies over the island.
The 424th was to bomb first, the 372nd alone, with the 371st in trail. Weather was good from base but about 30 minutes from Yap Island, a front was encountered with numerous rain squalls. Attack altitude was 12,500 feet for the 371st “A” flight and 13,000 feet for the “B” flight. Bombing airspeed was 160mph.
The Fresni crew completed their bombing mission at approximately 1225 but the Japanese anti-aircraft response to the raid was relentless. Numerous air attacks had previously targeted the island, but Japanese troops had prepared by dragging their large guns up the hills and digging bunkers, trenches, and caves to hide their gun positions. The last transmission from the Frenisi to the head squadron was garbled and it is believed that the plane was hit by either anti-aircraft fire or possibly had its rudder rammed by a Kamikaze pilot named Kanno (reference: The Rise of the Kamikaze Spirit). A gunner from another squadron reported hearing the following message: “Am going down in flames over the target.” Attempts to spot any survivors or plane wreckage were unsuccessful, according to reports from pilots that had returned to the area on 11 Aug.
Two crew members bailed out of the flaming aircraft, which went down near the mouth of Yap Harbor. Jack believed for the rest of his life that Richard was one of those two crew members, but recent research has identified them as SSgt. Hilary Gilbert (photographer) and SSgt. Reynold Mooney (gunner). Both were captured by the Japanese Army on Yap Island and subsequently put on board a Japanese sub chaser on 11 Aug and transported to Palau, arriving two days later. Then on 19 Aug, along with other American POWs, Gilbert and Mooney were taken on board the Japanese cruiser “Kinu” at Palau, to be transferred to Manila via Cebu. Adding further anguish to the Frenisi’s fate, the Kinu was sunk on its approach to Manila by an American submarine. There were no survivors.
On 05 Sep 45, the Japanese surrendered aboard the USS Tillman in Yap Harbor, one month after the bombing of Hiroshima. Today on the island, there are more than a dozen memorials dedicated to the men who fought in that battle and the wreckage of more than a dozen downed planes are on display.
Richard’s story was cut short at 20 years of age, having given his life for his country. His name is memorialized on the Wall of the Missing, at the Manila American Cemetery, Taguig City, Phillippines. Recent information shared with me by the wife of Richard’s nephew indicates that the DPAA (Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency) has the status of the Frenisi crew in “active pursuit” – meaning this is a “case with sufficient information to compel research, investigation, disinterment, or recovery operations in the field”. These cases are given the highest priority for operational planning and allocation of resources. A case manager has been assigned and the tedious process is moving forward, with the goal to locate and return any remains to the families. Hopefully, that goal will be realized soon.
Jack went on to serve as a TSgt and spent the remainder of the war attached to a Chemical Mortar Battalion on Okinawa and arrived safely back in the US in February 1946. He often spoke to me of the sadness he felt and the lasting survivor’s guilt he experienced when he learned of Richard’s death. On his discharge from the Army after the war, Jack went to visit his Richard’s parents, Uncle Joe and Aunt Margaret, to express his condolences. His Aunt Margaret held both of his hands, looked at him directly through her tear-filled eyes and said, “At least one of you came back.”
Jack settled in Philadelphia, married, and had 3 children and 6 grandchildren. He was a dedicated railroader and enjoyed a lengthy 49-year career on the Pennsylvania Railroad. He passed away in 2008 at age 84.
A family should be proud of but, most importantly, remember those in our past that have made the ultimate sacrifice. My Dad made it a point to tell me Richard’s story so his memory would not be forgotten. I never knew Richard personally, but I know of him…. and that is more than enough to remember and honor his story.
In fond memory and gratitude,
Barbara O’Brien Sommons