This is about a small group of very brave men who made the supreme sacrifice for their country. Even after this long time, we pray for them to have eternal peace. We also hope that someone who reads this may be able to help solve the mystery that surrounds the disappearance of Sexy Sue and her crew.
Like most of us who engaged in aerial warfare, we felt such an attachment to our planes that almost inevitably, we gave them names that meant something special to us. Army 1st Lt. Charles (Hoppy) Hopkins was no exception, and he suggested the name “Sexy Sue, Mother of Ten” when he and his crew were assigned to Army Air Corps B-24 S/N 41-23938. Sue was for his baby daughter, Penny Sue, and of course “Mother of Ten” gave her an honorary relationship with the crew.
From personal experience I can assure you that the name carried a lot of significance for those young men. The task of voluntarily climbing into an airplane and deliberately entering an area where we knew that someone would be trying to kill us was not something that was taken lightly. Our aircraft was part of us, and an intriguing name along with a picture of a beautiful young lady was a constant reminder of why we were there. We willingly risked our lives in defense of our families, and our country. Everything depended on that machine to get us to the target, accomplish a difficult task, and bring us home. Knowing that a real Sue waited at home made that name much more significant for these young men.
Hoppy and his crew were attached to the 98th Bombardment Squadron, 11th Bomb Group, 7th Air Force, based in the Ellice Islands, in the Central Pacific. The last flight of Sexy Sue began at Tarawa, staging from there on the night of January 20, 1944 for a bombing mission to Wotje Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The crew consisted of the following:
First Lieutenant Charles E. Hopkins, Pilot First Lieutenant John K. Munch, Co-pilot Second Lieutenant William P. Rowe, Jr., Navigator Second Lieutenant Frank J. Washburn, Bombardier Technical Sergeant Lorian A. Llewelllyn, Engineer/Gunner Staff Sergeant Alan Hibbert, Assistant Engineer/Gunner Technical Sergeant Eugene S. Gurzenda, Radioman Staff Sergeant Orvel E. Estes, Radioman/Gunner Staff Sergeant Sam A. Belfiore, Armorer/Gunner The Pacific Ocean is a vast area of deep water, with a few isolated coral atolls scattered here and there. The Marshall Islands, of which Wotje is part, were the first stepping stone on the very long Road to Tokyo. The overall plan was for U. S. forces to neutralize most of the island bases such as Wotje and then bypass them rather than expend American lives to invade each in turn. Wotje was one of several important Japanese bases with airfields that constituted a threat to the planned invasion of Kwajalein Atoll, a major goal in the Pacific Campaign. The invasion of Kwajalein was already planned and in order to ensure the safety of the U. S. forces committed to the attack on Kwajalein, it was necessary to eliminate Wotje as a factor in the battle.
Hoppy Hopkins and the crew of Sexy Sue were part of a flight of eight Army Air Corps B-24's from the 98th Bombardment Squadron that attacked Wotje on the night of January 20, 1944. The leader of that bombing mission was Captain Richard Dwyer, flying Army Air Corps B-24 #009. Their mission was to continue the suppression of Japanese forces on the island and prevent them from launching an attack against U. S. forces deployed for the invasion of Kwajalein.
It isn’t unusual to find heavy clouds over an isolated atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. On this night those clouds may have helped Captain Dwyer and his group to locate Wotje after their long flight over water from Tarawa. Unfortunately, on this night it was another factor that made the mission even more difficult. The plan called for the bombers to accomplish their attack from 12,000 feet but when the force arrived in the vicinity of Wotje, they found heavy cumulus clouds, estimated at about 80% coverage over the atoll. The height of the clouds varied from about 6,000 feet to 12,000 feet making it impossible to accomplish their approach to the target in close formation.
As the aircraft approached the atoll, they had to spread their formation so that they did not collide with one another in the clouds. Hoppy Hopkins was left to his own resources to find the target so that Frank Washburn could identify his aim point and deliver his bombs on target. Although the danger of attack by enemy aircraft was much less under those conditions the task of simply locating their target was extremely difficult and they began their run alone. Captain Dwyer reported seeing the big Liberator turning toward the target, but at night and in heavy clouds, that was the last time anyone saw Sexy Sue.
From that point, much of what follows is conjecture. We do know that within 15 minutes of Sexy Sue’s turning on the bomb run at 3:01 A.M. there was a radio message indicating trouble on board - “one engine out, one bad.” Shortly after that message there was a series of SOS calls. Then the radio operator, probably T/Sgt Gurzenda, locked the key down, abandoning his position on the flight deck as Hopkins began preparing to ditch the plane. This was normal procedure because the radio operator must leave his station and position himself in the waist area where the prospect of surviving the water landing was a little greater. He locked the key down to send a continuous signal in the hope that someone might be able to take a radio bearing on this last transmission. It was their last hope for someone to find them and somehow affect a rescue.
It is logical to expect that Hopkins would try to ditch Sexy Sue, even though that was always a very dangerous operation in a B-24, and even more difficult at night. Bringing that big bomber down on the water in darkness, and with limited control due to the loss of two engines was a monumental task. The alternative, to parachute from the plane into the Pacific Ocean was probably not even considered by this brave pilot and his crew. An individual crewman, who managed to leave the plane, open a parachute and make a successful landing in the vast Pacific Ocean at night, was almost sure to die of drowning or exposure to the elements. These valiant men would stay together as a crew to the end, and from that decision springs a remarkable mystery, still unsolved.
A few weeks later, United States forces took possession of Kwajalein. In Japanese files found there, they discovered classified material that had been carried aboard Sexy Sue. Procedures called for all such material to be destroyed before leaving the aircraft, but in the chaos of a ditching at night, it is certainly understandable that destruction of this material was not accomplished. Fighting for control of the damaged plane, the first consideration would have been to try to save the plane. We can never know just how much damage the plane suffered, but we can conclude from loss of the radio signals a few minutes later, that the damage was considerable.
After a crash landing on the water, the most immediate concern of all on board, including Hoppy’s concern for his crew, would have been survival. If anyone actually considered the possibility of taking action to destroy classified material, it is logical to conclude that they believed it would be irretrievably lost when the airplane sank to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The fact that this material fell into Japanese hands becomes the first of several curious factors in the mysterious story of Sexy Sue.
The second mysterious factor developed a little later after the 98th had moved their base to Kwajalein. Major Allan Wood, Commanding Officer of the 98th received a letter from the mother of one of the enlisted crewmen aboard Sexy Sue, who had been reported as Missing in Action. (This is believed to be Staff Sergeant Allen Hibbert.) She told of a dream in which her son made known to her that he was alive, on an island called Lae. At first, no one was able to locate such an island but then the Navy confirmed the existence of a very small island by that name about 225 miles west of Wotje.
As a consequence of this letter, the 98th decided to do their own reconnaissance of Lae and on June 10th, two B-24 Liberators made a photo reconnaissance of the island. These two planes were piloted by Lt. Leland A. Bates and Lt. Arthur H. Peterson. They came back with exciting news; they reported spotting a structure of palm fronds that appeared to be a “lean-to.”
It is worth noting here that almost all of these sites are actually “atolls”, coral formations that usually consist of a number of islands in close proximity. In most cases, the atoll is known by the name of the largest island, e.g., Wotje is the largest island in the atoll of Wotje, and there are several islands in the atoll of Lae, with the largest island known as Lae. There were only 77 natives inhabiting this island but they reported that the Japanese had used the island as a stopover point for trips between Kwajalein and the Japanese Home Islands. They said that two small Japanese motor vessels had visited the island and remained overnight as recently as February 10th. Since we know that the Japanese typically transported prisoners-of-war to Japan, this provides an answer as to how Lt.Washburn and S/Sgt. Hibbert might have arrived at the island.
Further investigation disclosed that a company of U. S. Marines had made a landing on Lae on 13 March 1944 and concluded that there was nothing of importance on the island. Unfortunately, this visit was accomplished late in the day and was a bit hurried. The United States forces did not make the usual preliminary contact with the natives before landing, and contact was brief. Although cooperative, the natives were frightened and confused. They said that there was no enemy activity on other islands of this atoll and so the United States forces did not investigate any of the smaller islands in the atoll of Lae.
To this point, almost everything reported here is documented and factual. The recovery of the POF (Pilot's Operating/Operational Folder) from Kwajalein has not yet been confirmed but the fact that United States Intelligence Officers recovered material from Japanese occupants of Kwajalein is certain. Although some argue that “the Japanese destroyed everything before the capture of Kwajalein,” we know now that this was not the case, and the POF could have been found on Kwajalein. (The author is still attempting to obtain specific Intelligence reports that were generated as a result of material found on Kwajalein that might confirm that the POF was recovered.)
For what follows, the author has not always been able to find specific documentation and each reader must make their own judgment as to the veracity of the reports. According to some who were closely associated with the situation, the Navy revisited the island in response to the findings of the B-24's, and the results of this visit were astounding, if true. In this account, the Navy confirmed the existence of the lean-to and also described a shallow grave site, marked with a wooden cross. Inscribed on the cross was the name: “F. Washburn”, the man who served as bombardier on the last flight of Sexy Sue.
We do know that when United States Forces visited Lae and the other minor islands of the Marshalls, they recommended return visits by the Navy for humanitarian purposes. Navy ships were proposed to visit these islands to provide health care and to help reinforce the presence of the United States in the area. In addition, a United States Marine died as a result of an accident while near the island of Wotho, and was buried on that island. It has been established that his remains were returned to the United States, so there is no doubt that the area was revisited. We are still searching for the reports that would have been generated as a result of these return visits.
According to the Report of Investigation of AGRS Case #314, dated 25 January 1948, Wotje Island was thoroughly searched on 24 January 1948. This report continues: “Although paragraph 6, AGRS Case #314 states that “there is one known burial on Wotje Island whose last name is Estes, and who might be S/Sgt Estes, 18011510”, no clearly marked grave or burial site could be found. Two unknown remains which may be either American or Japanese were recovered from the island. . . One of these two remains may prove to be the burial referred to in AGRS Case #314.”
What really happened to Sexy Sue and her crew? I believe that classified material from the plane fell into Japanese hands and there is evidence that S/Sgt Estes may have survived to reach Wotje. If classified material from the plane was eventually found in Japanese files on Kwajalein that makes it almost certain that Hopkins crash-landed his plane in shallow water near Wotje. Sgt. Estes may have survived to reach the island or his body may have been washed ashore. If Lt. Washburn actually survived the ditching, it seems possible that he (and possibly other crewmen) could have floated to Lae in a life raft. Matt Holly, who lives on Wotje, and Alfred Capelle, currently representing the Marshall Islands as Ambassador to the United Nations have assisted in the search for additional information about Sexy Sue. They have suggested that the prevailing winds could have accomplished this in a week or less. From personal experience, the author can testify to the power of the wind to transport a rubber raft across miles of ocean in a matter of hours.
If credibility is given to the dream, and I for one believe that it is possible for such a psychic link to exist between a mother and her son, then the original scenario can be expanded. It could be that S/Sgt. Hibbert (and Lt. Washburn) made their way to Lae in a raft. If the report of a grave on Lae is true, then someone would have had to be there to bury Lt. Washburn and mark his grave since it is almost certain that the Japanese would not have performed that humanitarian function. Finally it is possible that Lt. Washburn and S/Sgt. Hibbert were captured, transported to Lae by the Japanese and Lt. Washburn died there.
As noted above, we know that the remains of two men were returned to the United States and are interred at the Punchbowl National Cemetery, Honolulu, Hawaii. We are presently attempting to identify the specific grave site so that an effort might be made to retrieve samples from these remains and compare DNA with surviving family members of the crew of Sexy Sue. If it is possible to locate and identify these two specific “unknowns” an attempt will be made to contact relatives of each of the crewmen on Sexy Sue. If they were willing, they could provide DNA samples that might make it possible to identify those remains by scientific means. That by itself would not solve the mystery but it could provide more insight into the end of that fateful mission. If part of the crew was buried on Wotje, then the probability of a crash-landing or ditching is increased since it seems very unlikely that anyone might have parachuted from the plane and actually reached land.
We know that we can never know everything that happened that night, but we still hope that we can learn more about the fate of the brave men who went to war in Sexy Sue, Mother of Ten.
The author, Tom McCarthy, was in the Navy in WWII and flew on PB4Y’s in 1944. The PB4Y was derived from the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. The Sexy Sue in this story is not the same plane as pictured on our crew page. Webmaster