ARTHUR MURRAY PRESTON
By July 1944, Allied forces reached the western tip of New Guinea. The next step was the invasion of the Philippines, which General Douglas MacArthur deemed crucial to the defeat of Japan. Before the invasion could commence, however, a new base, situated north of New Guinea, had to be acquired in order to provide land-based air support for the Philippine assault force. Two options were considered: Halmahera Island and Morotai Island. Although Halmahera had eight airfields, it was also heavily defended by 37,000 Japanese troops. Therefore the decision was made to attack lightly defended Morotai Island instead and build the necessary airstrips there.
On September 15, 1944, the VII Amphibious Force landed the 31st Infantry Division on Morotai. There was virtually no opposition to the landing and the Royal Australian Air Force had the first airfield ready by October 4, 1944. The next morning, four squadrons of PT-boats, 41 boats altogether, arrived at Morotai and began defensive operations. Among the squadrons assigned to Morotai was Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 33 commanded by Lieutenant A. Murray Preston.
On the afternoon of September 16, Lieutenant Preston set out with two of his boats, PT-363 and PT-489, on a dangerout rescue mission. Preston and his men volunteered to rescue a Navy pilot who had been shot down over Halmahera Island that morning. That pilot, Ensign Howard A. Thompson, USNR, was wounded and in deep trouble. When he bailed out, he landed in a bay on Halmahera Island, not 200 yards from the shore. Although a rescue aircraft dropped him a life raft, it was unable to pick him up because of the enemy anti-aircraft fire. Thompson managed to paddle his life raft over to a small, unmanned cargo ship, located about 200 yards offshore, and tie his life raft onto its anchor chain. Meanwhile, his squadron mates continued to circle the island, strafing any Japanese forces that tried to move onto the beach to kill or capture Ensign Thompson.
Preston and the men of PT-363 and PT-489 arrived at the mouth of the bay early and decided to go in without the air cover. They quickly came under heavy artillery fire and were forced to turn back. Soon thereafter, the fighters showed up and the PT-boats tried once again. Although they were under heavy gunfire the entire time, this time the PT-boats were able to pass the narrows and enter the bay. As the fighters laid down smoke along the shore, the PT-boats streaked toward Thompson. When they got to his raft, two crewmen dove over the side, swam over to the life raft, and towed it back to PT-489. They had him onboard within minutes and were headed back out. Meanwhile, they lost their air cover as, one by one, the fighters ran low on fuel and headed back to the carrier. Now under fire from everything the Japanese could bring to bear, the PT-boats raced out of the bay, zigzagging through a suspected minefield to provide more separation between themselves and the Japanese guns. After almost two and one-half hours under constant gunfire, the PT-boats finally emerged from Wasile Bay. Miraculously, there were no casualties.
- taken from Honor, Courage and Commitment: United States Naval Reserve Medal of Honor Recipients, Naval Historical Center