The Battle for Balikpapan – Things heating up
The Japanese pincer operation against Java continued, and the invasion of Balikpapan went according to plan, despite the losses suffered by the Balikpapan landing force during the night attack of January 24.
At 04.30 a.m. that same morning, a Japanese assault force landed on the beaches near Kendari II (Celebes) and the Dutch defenses were no match for them. By the end of the day the airfield was in Japanese hands
“Once captured, a secret airfield will become a fearful liability”, the Royal Dutch Navy had predicted not so long ago.
And the capture of Kendari II proved the truth of their dire prediction. The field had been captured completely intact and operational and the 21st Air Flotilla (that had supported the landing operation from distant Menado), lost no time to send in a force of 30 Mitsubishi A6M Zeroes. The presence of these formidable fighters would further aggravate the already critical air situation around Balikpapan.
In the meantime, ABDACOM had been desperately groping around for a follow up of the successful raid by US destroyers that night and had ordered a flight of 9 B-17’s to bomb the invasion fleet. They took off at 06.15 a.m. but when they reached the target area things were very different in the air. Once they were over Balikpapan, the flight was jumped by aggressive Japanese fighters. In the scrap that followed, three of the B-17’s were badly damaged. All planes dropped their bombs and scattered, hiding in the thick weather while they set individual courses back to Singosari, This is why Major Robinson, flying low over the Java Sea, was able to spot Dougherty’s marooned crew and their wrecked LB-30 on Greater Mesalembo Island.
Various claims were made of damage done and planes shot down as a result of this raid. Unfortunately, Japanese sources, meticulously listing the time of the attacks and number of planes observed, show no evidence of any damage done during these attacks (1)
On January 25, a land battle quickly developed near Balikpapan. After landing the day before, some 5.500 men of the 56th ‘Sakaguchi’ brigade and elements of the 2nd Kure Special Naval Landing Force had been guided around the Dutch defenses by two ‘indigenous police officers’. And when these troops unexpectedly attacked, it was only a matter of time before they defeated the Dutch garrison force.
To support the defenders, a flight of 8 B-17E’s left Malang at 07.00 a.m. (2). Arriving over Balikpapan they ran into very heavy fighter opposition and five out of the eight bombers were so badly damaged that they had to retreat and land wherever they could. Hobson and Northcutt made wheels-up landings in Madura, the island opposite Surabaya, Crimmins crash landed near Arosbaya on the Madura coast. Bohnnaker made an emergency landing at Surabaya Airfield and Hillhouse had to crash-land his badly shot-up plane at Banjermasin (west of Balikpapan). When the three remaining B-17’s returned to Singosari, one more was damaged at landing.
Bombing results were again minimal and about the only positive news that day was the return of part of Dougherty’s crew after having been marooned for nine days at Mesalembo. However, 4 injured crew members had remained behind in the Surabaya Naval Hospital.
(1) From Senshi Sōsho, Part 3, Chapter VII, pp. 360:
On the 24th after the allied destroyers had gone, one [allied] heavy bomber came for an attack at 0812, which was followed by one [allied] flying boat at 0925, ten [allied] heavy bombers at 0950, seven [allied] heavy bombers at 1040, one [allied] flying boat at 1205, and eleven [allied] heavy bombers at 1710. On the next day, the 25th, ten [allied] heavy bombers came for an attack at 1000, which was [again] followed by seven [allied] heavy bombers at 1305, but they caused little damage.
(2) From: Summary of [USAAF] Air Operations in the Philippines and NEI
Bombers piloted by Hobson (41-2406), Hillhouse (41-2460), Northcutt (41-2468), Crimmins (42-2469), Bohnaker (41-2472), Teats (40-3070), Tash (30-3072), Parsel (40-3074).