Lt. Sam Marett & the Seversky P-35

An unsung hero and a forgotten plane.

On December 10, 1941, the US Far East Air Force in the Philippines was still reeling from the disastrous Japanese attacks on Dec. 8 and 9. Two thirds of its heavy bombers had been destroyed on the ground and its remaining fighter force had been nearly halved.


A Seversky P-35A landing in bad weather at Iba Airfield, Luzon

What remained of the battered fighter and bomber squadrons had been dispersed to emergency fields, some of them lacking even the most basic items such as food, water and toilet facilities. As was the case with the pilots of the 34th Pursuit Squadron; they spent a foodless and nearly sleepless night at the primitive San Marcelino field.  They took off before dawn and flew their 16 remaining Seversky P-35’s back to Del Carmen airfield, only to find orders to attack a Japanese invasion fleet off Vigan in north Luzon with all possible speed. And speed was not their P-35’s best thing.

The hump-backed looking plane had won the fighter fly-off completion in 1936. But production and deliveries had been so slow that the USAAC decided to order 210 Curtiss P-36’s, the runner up in the 1935 /36 competition. On receiving this news, Alexander P. de Seversky became afraid of his production pipeline ‘drying up’ and started to look for lucrative foreign contracts. He was so ill-advised as to secretly close a contract in 1937 with the Imperial Japanese Navy for a two-seat version of the P-35 (designated 2PA-L and A8V1 by the Japanese).  Because of the strained relations with Japan, this sale was extremely unpopular. The State department put him in their ‘black book’ and pressured the Army not to place any further orders with his firm.


Confiscated Swedish P-35’s in 1940

De Seversky must have been rather slow on the uptake because he also sold 2 of the 2LP-A’s plus a production license to Soviet Russia. Just before he was ousted as chairman of his company, he negotiated an order with the Swedish Flygvapnet for 120 single seat EP-1’s (the export version of the P-35) with two wing-mounted .50 cal. guns. Half of this order had been delivered in 1940 when an irate US Government placed an embargo on all combat aircraft sales, except to the United Kingdom. They confiscated the remainder of the 60 EP-1’s coming off the production line, redesignated them P-35A and sent them off to the Philippines. There, they were intensively used for training and by the time war broke out, most of them were in bad shape, with worn out engines and wobbly guns.

P35s 20 PS
But it was all the 34th Pursuit Squadron had that fateful day. After refueling at Del Carmen the two fights of P-35A’s took off and pressed north. It was more than most engines could stand and fighter after fighter had to return. When the squadron arrived over Vigan, Squadron Commander Lt/1 ‘Sam’ Marett’s flight was down to five planes and his wingman Lt. ‘Bill’ Brown’s flight consisted of two. There was no sign of enemy fighter planes so they all swooped down to attack the Japanese fleet. They riddled many of the small landing barges with their .303 and .50 cal. guns and so badly damaged the transport Oigawa Maru that it had to be beached to save it.
Marett had singled out a warship and pressed home attack after attack. His final attack, carried out at masthead level and through a storm of anti-aircraft fire, proved to be fatal. His target, the “7-GO” class minesweeper “W-10” blew up under him with an enormous explosion that tore off one wing of his P-35, sending it crashing into the sea.

Sadly enough, his exploit has been eclipsed by the publicity around Captain Colin P. Kelly’s supposed bombing and sinking on that same day of  the battleship Haruna. Post-war records revealed however that his attack only slightly damaged the cruiser Natori

I therefore decided to bring one more unsung hero to a wider attention. May he rest in peace.

Lt/1 Samuel Marett was posthumously awarded the DSC.  The citation reads:
Marett, Samuel H. 1st Lt - Vigan 10dec41First Lieutenant (Air Corps) Samuel H. Marett (ASN: 0-22854), United States Army Air Forces, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (Posthumously) for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving as Pilot of a P-35 Fighter Airplane in the 34th Pursuit Squadron, 24th Pursuit Group, FAR EAST Air Force, in aerial combat against enemy forces on 10 December 1941, during an air mission against Japanese surface vessels at Vigan, Philippine Islands.
On that date, First Lieutenant Marett was Pilot of a P-35 fighter in an attack on Japanese shipping and landing parties at Vigan, Philippine Islands. Following bombing by heavy bombers, Lieutenant Marett lead his squadron through a hail of anti-aircraft fire to strafe the enemy vessels and landing parties. In the performance of this mission, one of the enemy vessels exploded, destroying Lieutenant Marett’s aircraft and killing him instantly. First Lieutenant Marett’s unquestionable valor in aerial combat, at the cost of his life, is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, the Far East Air Force, and the United States Army Air Forces.
General Orders: Headquarters, U.S. Army Forces in the Far East, General Orders No. 48 (1941)

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Pearl Harbor’s Legacy

1941_Pearl HarborToday, 76 years ago, the Japanese Naval Air Force delivered the opening blow in the war that would set the whole of the Pacific and Indian Ocean ablaze. In a daring attack that only lasted one hour and 15 minutes, the Japanese airmen sank or badly damaged 8 battleships and 11 other vessels, killed 2403 persons  and wounded an additional 1178. At a cost  of 29 aircraft, 5 midget submarines and 129 men.

But traumatic as this attack was, it was only the beginning of a carefully orchestrated assault on what the Japanese military rulers called the “Southern Resource Area”, the incredibly rich British and Dutch dominions of Malaya and Indonesia.  With the American Navy removed as a threat, the invasion of Malaya started that same day (the 8th of December on the other side of the dateline). Singapore was bombed during the night of December 8 while at the same time, the first Japanese troops went ashore at Kota Bharu on the Malayan east-coast.

Japanese Bicycle_Infantry_Malaya 1941

“Blitzkrieg by Bicycle”; Japanese soldiers on commandeered bicycles on their way down the Malayan peninsula

In the Philippines, news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had alerted the senior commanders. General Lewis H. Brereton had scrambled his P-40 fighters and urgently asked General MacArthur for permission to send his bombers against the Japanese airfleets in Formosa (Taiwan). Scholars are still discussing the inexplicable 4-hour delay between this request and MacArthur’s reaction. By the time he finally approved the request, the P-40’s had landed to refuel, the Philippine airfields were under Japanese air attack and the US Far East Air Force lost about two thirds of its fighters and bombers.



A burnt-out P-40 at Wheeler Field, Philippines

From then on, the whole Allied effort to halt the Japanese forces was a lost battle. They were outmaneuvered and outfought by a numerically and technologically superior enemy that also had established air superiority. It took the Japanese forces 55 days to capture Malaya and most of the Dutch East Indies and force Singapore to surrender. It took them another three weeks to capture Java and demand the capitulation of all Dutch and Allied forces. The fight for the Philippines dragged on until May 12, 1942 when the last US forces on Mindanao surrendered.



 General Sir Archibald Percival Wavell (centre) on his way to the surrender ceremony at the Ford Factory at Bukit Tima, Singapore

The real legacy of Pearl Harbor is the momentous side-effect of these staggering victories. In one stroke, the colonial powers that had reigned in South-East Asia for centuries were exposed as being too feeble to defend themselves. And what was left of ‘white’ prestige was swept away when captured westerners were locked up in camps after being ignominiously marched through the centers of major cities, ridiculed and derided by a handful of Japanese guards.
With the foreign rulers locked up behind barbed wire, the flame of independence that had been smoldering for years suddenly leapt up. Within a few years, the British, Dutch and French empires in the east were gone, swept onto history’s rubbish heap. They were replaced by a flock of new nations, trying to find their feet while coming to terms with a whole new balance of power.
Decemberarc_boxset_ebook 7, 1941, was a pivotal date in world history. To commemorate this, I and seven other authors have teamed up to commemorate this by writing an anthology of short stories that all have one thing in common: the date.
But they are located all over the world and  show the reader a wide variety of what it means living in a world at war.
My contribution is “A Rude Awakening”, a short story that plays in Singapore at the eve and the first days after the Japanese attack. The unbelievable complacent attitude of the British. A rigidly class based society throws garden parties and dines sedately, disregarding the slowly growing number of warning signals.


Suddenly, the underestimated enemy ferociously attacks and the myth of invincibility is shattered forever. This book is available from Amazon as e-Book and in softcover
Here’s the link!



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70 Years ago – The Berlin Airlift

P&S_Berlin_1Almost 70 years ago, relations between the four powers that had defeated the Germans rapidly deteriorated. Disregarding the agreements reached during the 1945 Potsdam conference, Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union’s dictatorial leader, had decided that the Russian army had beaten the Germans and therefore, Germany and whatever it still possessed, belonged to the USSR. Between 1945 and 1947, the Allied efforts to reconstruct the German economy made little headway, mainly due to this hostile and inflexible Russian attitude.

During that period, the Soviet Union brought one east-European country after another into its ‘sphere of influence’. And after the February 1948 Communist coup in Czechoslovakia, the Western powers saw a similar fate looming over Berlin and ultimately Germany. To prevent this, they went forward with the introduction of the Marshall Aid and the launch of the new German ‘Deutschmark’, two programs the Russians were fanatically opposing.  Their reaction was the Berlin blockade, which resulted in the first full-scale confrontation between the superpowers and bringing the world close to a new, global conflict.
The blockade started in earnest on June 21, 1948 and lasted until May 12, 1949. All road and rail connections between Berlin and West-Germany were severed. Three air-corridors were all that remained, through which enough supplies had to be transported to feed and warm a city of 2.6 million inhabitants.


A Royal Army soup-kitchen in devastated Berlin

The blockade lasted 323 days. During that period, the USAF, RAF, RCAF, RAAF, RNZAF and RSAAF flew a staggering 278.000 sorties. They carried 2.1 million tons of supplies (of which 1.5 million tons  was coal) into the beleaguered city, despite fierce interference by Russian fighters and ground troops. There were over 730 recorded Soviet harassment incidents and 25 fatal accidents, costing 83 lives.

Tattered group of Berliners standing in

Berliners standing on the rubble of their city watching a C47 coming into Tempelhof Airfield

Gerry van Tonder gives us a very clear and well-illustrated overview of what the blockade and the airlift really meant. He describes in detail the abysmal living conditions of the population and how they circumvented their worthless currency by creating the ‘cigarette’ economy. He provides an insight in the political situation of those days and the problems the Allied commanders had to cope with, especially the outright obstruction and harassment by the Soviets.
The airlift itself is described in considerable detail, highlighting the logistical and technical problems that had to be solved to bring off this unprecedented airborne effort.
I recommend this book to all of you interested in aviation history and the early days of the cold war

Berlin Blockade – Soviet chokehold and the great Allied airlift 1948 – 1949
Gerry van Tonder
Paperback, 128 pages
Pen & Sword Military
ISBN 978 1 52670 826 7

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USAAF Dive Bombers in Java – Part Three

The 91st Bomb Squadron in Action

February 19th sealed the fate of the Allied campaign in the Dutch East Indies. On this day, the Japanese simultaneously attacked Darwin in Australia, Kupang in Timor and Den Pasar in Bali. By landing troops in Bali and Timor, they severed in one stroke the last Australia to Java life-line and prevented any further fighter ferry operation. Java was now encircled and isolated, apart from a shaky air route to India and a single open port (Tjilatjap) at its south coast.


1st Lt. (later Captain) Harry Galusha

When news came that a strong Japanese invasion fleet was heading for Bali, the 91st Bomb Squadron was placed on alert. Its 7 A-24’s, parked in revetments on the east and west side of the field, had been bombed-up and waiting all morning. Then, at 12.45 pm, an air raid alarm sounded and the squadron was ordered to fly for an hour to the south of the field. Suddenly, someone shouted to Galusha and Summers, “Take off; you’re on your own!” and off they went, with T/Sgt. H.A. Hartmann and Pvt. Mackay riding backseat as gunners. Once airborne, the two pilots circled aimlessly for a few minutes.


According to Walter D. Edmonds in “They Fought With What They Had”, those on the ground heard the following conversation
Galusha: “Shall we go over Bali way and see what we can see?”
Summers: “You’re the man with the wife and kids – let’s go!”
For once they were in luck. The clouds thinned out over Den Pasar and revealed (what they thought) were a transport and a destroyer. They peeled off at 11.000 feet to carry out the first dive bombing attack in the history of the US Air Force.
Post-war research shows that their targets were the Sasako Maru and the Sagami Maru, both armed transport ships of resp. 7180 and 9264 grt. Sasako Maru suffered only minor damage from near misses but Sagami Maru was heavily damaged by a direct hit in her engine room, probably planted there by Captain Harry Galusha.

sagami_maru by Ueda Kihachiro

Sagami Maru in 1942, painting by Ueda Kihachiro

Before Japanese fighters could be scrambled, the A-24’s had disappeared back into the clouds. All the way back to Malang, both pilots worried over what ‘Higher Authority’ might say about this unauthorized caper. They need not have bothered. When two hours later, a Navy PBY (erroneously) reported that both ship had sunk, the whole squadron went into Malang that night and celebrated with a large (and wet) dinner at Toko Oen. And ‘Higher Authority’ said precisely nothing and later duly decorated them.
February 20th dawned on the largest integrated USAAF operation to be undertaken in Java at that time. Its principal object was to dive-bomb any Japanese ships and shore positions on Bali. The 7 tired A-24’s were sent off and 16 P-40’s of the 17th Pursuit Squadron would fly top cover. For good measure 3 LB-30 heavy bombers had been thrown in to do some high level bombing as well. The P-40’s formed a protective umbrella at 14.000 feet over the A-24’s and the LB-30’s flying slightly lower, with Backus leading and Ferguson and Launder for wingmen, Galusha had Tubb and Hambaugh on his wings and Summers was ‘Tail-End Charley. When they arrived over Den Pasar harbor, they found two ships moored at the quay while four more Japanese warships were coming in.

f11f6f8d95534b781cf3adc0d9655962Galusha peeled off and went after the moored ships. At least 30 A6M Zero’s were scrambled from the nearby airfield and a fierce dogfight developed with the escorting P-40’s. This left the bombers a relative freedom to attack; Galusha dove at the moored vessels while Backus went for the incoming ships. And Summers picked what he thought was the largest incoming warship of them all. Unlike the day before, the alerted Japanese defenses now threw up an immense amount of AA fire and two A-24’s fell victim to it.

2nd Lt. Douglas Tubb was probably hit because his A-24 never recovered from its 12.000 feet dive and went straight into the sea, taking its pilot and air-gunner Pvt. D.S. Mackay to a watery grave. 2nd Lt. Richard Launder and his gunner Cpl. L.W. Lnenicka aimed for what they thought was a cruiser. They really pressed home their attack and after scoring two hits, Launder pulled up and streaked across the harbor at 15 feet above the water. The lonely plane was raked by Japanese ground-fire that shot away an oil line. Half blinded by the spraying oil, Launder managed to escape and ditch his damaged plane in the sea, about eight miles from Den Pasar and about half a mile offshore. He and Lnenicka returned to Malang 4 days later, helped by the friendly native population to escape on foot right across Bali, and after a precarious crossing to Java in a ramshackle fishing sampan.
Five of the A-24’s made it back to Malang where Summers’ ship was found to be too badly damaged to be used again.
The next day, February 21, Captain ‘Ed’ Backus left the squadron, summoned by General Lewis H. Brereton to be his ‘aide’ on an ‘inspection trip’ to India, a sure sign that the US forces were preparing to pull out. Summers ‘inherited’ Backus’ flying wreck 41-15786.
The next three days were relatively ‘inactive’, if one did not count nine bombing raids and three strafing attacks by the Japanese. Fed up with their inactivity, Harry Galusha and Don Hambaugh decided on February 23rd to carry out a ‘moonlight raid’ on Bali and so beat the opposing Zeros (that never flew at night). The duo bombed the astonished Japs all right but getting back to Malang was quite another story, with a 400 ft. ceiling and two 8.000 ft. mountains flanking the field.
The final act of the drama came on February 27th, when word came through that a Japanese invasion fleet had been spotted 60 miles north of Java. Galusha, Summers, Ferguson and Hambaugh manned their planes, but the hydraulic system on Hambaugh’s A-24 went tits-up so he couldn’t take-off. The other three sure enough found the invasion fleet in the Java Sea, a double line of 43 troopships, protected by 15 destroyers. Despite orders to attack troopships only, Galusha flew over the whole convoy, looking for an aircraft carrier that wasn’t there.

main-qimg-4e0c21f771935824a9df8c8ee4e3afe9-cThe convoy and its escorts threw up a storm of AA fire. Even the troop ships had guns that would go up to 14,000 feet. In the end, the three pilots dived on their targets and claimed three troopships sank – a claim later revised to one.
When the three battered A-24’s safely returned to Malang, they found the field deserted except for two officers and the men of their own outfit. Evacuation orders for all USAAF personnel had come through and next morning, on February 28th, the pilots ferried their planes to Yogyakarta while all other remaining personnel was taken across the mountains in a convoy of cars.
That same night, they were all flown out to Broome, Australia, in overloaded LB-30’s and B-17’s while the three remaining A-24’s were later set afire by the Dutch ground crews.

Thus ended the operational presence of the 27th Bomb Group in Java. Of the 15 A-24’s that set out from Amberley Field, only 12 reached their destination. Here is an operational rundown.



Summary of Air Action in the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies, USAF Air Staff (declassified);
The 27th Reports, Various Authors;
They Fought With What They Had, Walter D. Edmonds;
Australia@War, Peter Dunn’s website
Allied Defense of the Malayan Barrier, Tom Womack

Posted in Aircraft, Australia in WW2 and later, Dutch East Indies, Java Campaign 1942, Pacific War, USAAF in Australia, USAAF Pacific, WW2 Pacific | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

USAAF Dive Bombers in Java – Part Two

One Way Ticket To Java

amberley10 41-15796

Douglas A-24-DE 41-15796 being assembled at Amberley Field, January 1942 (via Gordon Birkett)

January 1942 was a very hectic month for the men of the 27th. It was a tough job to get the hastily crated A-24’s back into flying condition; shipped off in a hurry, some of them were still caked in Louisiana mud.

Armaments officer Zeke Summers ran around cursing, because most of the essential components, such as trigger motors, solenoids, gun-mounts and sights, were missing. To make matters worse, most of the Wright R1820-32 radial engines badly needed a complete overhaul; on some of them, the compression was so low that one could easily turn the prop with one hand…
Somehow, most of the obstacles were overcome – albeit with incredible improvisations and a lot of help from the RAAF. In January 1942, three squadrons were formed; the 91st at Archerfield under Captain Ed Backus, the 16th and 17th at Amberley under Captains “Buck” Rogers, and Herman “Snake” Lowery.
As news from the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies became worse and worse, all airworthy planes were pressed into a relentless training cycle to give the crews at least some practice in dive-bombing and strafing before going into action. They also were given ‘classroom’ lectures and Lt. Lee Alverson liked Harry Galusha’s daily lectures on low flying or ‘buzzing’ so much that he decided to give the summer resort of Southport a proper first class buzz on January 29. He put on a truly impressive show but as he skimmed the sea, his prop unfortunately hit a wave and he had to crash land his A-24 (41-15809) on the beach in front of a crowd of astonished spectators.

Archerfield-2 41-15802

Douglas A-24-DE 41-15802 at Amberley, prior to departure

Then the 91st received its movement orders and on February 5th, Captain ‘Ed’ Backus and the first flight of A-24’s took off in the pouring rain. They turned north-west on the first leg of the 1975 mile trip to Darwin, duplicating the track of the P-40 squadrons via Charleville, Cloncurry, and Daly Waters. On February 6th, Lt. Harry Galusha followed with the rest of the squadron and by February 8th, fourteen of the fifteen A-24’s had arrived at Darwin.
This long flight in bad weather had been rough on the worn engines of the A-24’s. 41-15809, flown by the unfortunate Lt. Alverson and his gunner Sgt. Gaydes, had been left behind with severe engine trouble at the end of the first 425 mile leg to Charleville. Salvatore’s plane (41-15806) was grounded with an oil leak and Jacob’s A-24 (41-15794) had an engine with three bad cylinders. It was decided that Salvatore and Jacobs would stay at Darwin to repair their planes while the rest of the squadron pressed on to Java.
On February 9th a flight of 9 Curtiss P-40E fighters of the 3rd Pursuit Squadron (provisional), led by a LB-30 ‘Liberator’, took off for Kupang on Timor. Three A-24’S, flown by Captain Ed Backus, Lt. Abel and Lt. Criswell followed in their wake. The A-24’s with their worn-out engines could not keep up with the fighters and they were soon left behind. The LB30 however got lost over Timor, the fighters ran out of gas and 8 P-40’s had to crash-land wherever they could, killing one pilot.
(See: USAAF P-40’s in Java – Part Five).


Captain ‘Ed’ Backus, seen here as a Brigadier General. He retired from the USAF on August 1, 1961 as Major General.

Of course, Backus, who had flown the PanAm Portugal Clipper route for seven years, had no problem to find his destination, despite the very bad weather. But when the three A-24’s suddenly arrived over Kupang, without any announcement, the Australian AA guns put up a fierce barrage. They punctured the gasoline tank on Backus’s plane, neatly removed the stabilizer on his right elevator and did extensive damage to the other planes. The Aussies apologized to the pilots with lots of beer and patched up Backus’ plane so he could fly on to Pasirian in Java the next day. But Abel and Criswell had to return to Darwin to have their badly shot-up planes repaired.
The repairs were done quickly and they were able to join the remaining 9 A-24’s of the 91st on February 11th taking off for Timor.

Guided by a LB-30 they flew straight into a stationary storm front and for large parts of the 530 mile flight they were forced to fly as low as 50 feet above the shark-infested waters of the Timor Sea. Everybody sighed with relief when they reached Kupang. The squadron took off again at dawn on February 12th. Six pilots (Summer, Launder, Smith, Ferguson, Abel and Criswell) headed for Den Pasar on Bali, five others (Galusha, Larronde, Tubb, Hambaugh, and Haines) decided to stage through Maingapore on Sumba where Haines cracked a couple of ribs when he hit a couple of mudholes and ground-looped his A-24. The plane was put back on its wheels with the help of the local population and three hours later Haines followed the others to Java. The planes staging through Bali made the trip without incident, apart from the fact that they directly passed over four Japanese destroyers that fortunately had no fighter cover. As the A-24’s did not carry bombs at that time, they decided to move on in a hurry. By three o’clock in the afternoon of the 12th all A-24’s had reached Pasirian.


The ‘Brereton Route’ – now also followed by the A-24’s

The squadron transferred to Modjokerto (near Surabaya) that same afternoon. Modjokerto was an ‘emergency field’, hastily converted from rice paddies and some planes got stuck in its mud from which they could only be hauled by main force.
For four whole days, the squadron was able to carry out badly needed maintenance, for which only two qualified mechanics were available, while the crews luxuriated in their billets, usually with Dutch households. Two A-24’s were lost during this ‘rest’ period. Larrondes’s A-24 was cannibalized for parts to repair another A-24 that Abel had nosed over and bent its propeller. After it had been repaired, he made a test flight and discovered his wheels were stuck in the ‘up’ position. Nothing would dislodge them so he ditched his A-24 near the Surabaya Naval Dockyard and was rescued by the Dutch Navy. The squadron was now down to 9 A-24’s.
In the meantime ABDA Command scratched its head about what to do with a squadron of dive bombers that had suddenly been tossed in its lap. Neither the Dutch nor the British (nor the Americans by the way) had a battlefield doctrine in which dive-bombers fitted. The result was a rather senseless shuttling across Java of the whole squadron.
This started when Captain Ed Backus was summoned to ABDA Headquarters in Bandung (West-Java). He flew there on February 15th and on February 16th he summoned the whole squadron to join him at Tjililitan Airfield near Batavia (nowadays Jakarta). He greeted them wearing Major’s bars and handing a pair of Captains bars to Lt. Harry Galusha. After spending the night in Batavia – to which purpose is not clear but the crews did not mind – the squadron was sent back to East-Java. Galusha and four other pilots were told to make for the Pursuit Headquarters at Jombang (near Surabaya), while Backus was told to take the others to Malang, 50 miles to the south of Jombang. For once, the ex PanAm captain failed to reach his destination, due to a 30 foot ceiling over mountainous terrain and he diverted into the coastal strip at Pasirian.
February 18th saw all remaining planes assembled at Malang, HQ of the bomber force commanded by Col. Bill Eubank. Eubank ordered all planes gassed and bombed up, but by now, the spares and maintenance situation was so bad that two more A-24’s had to be cannibalized to keep the other 7 flying.

Coming up Next:
The 91st in Action!


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The story of the ill-fated 27th Bomb Group

a-24-banshee“…Simply because our A-24’s have truck tires on the wheels, hand triggers on the guns, control sticks that can only move a few inches because of the armored seats, no self-sealing tanks, oil burning engines and unreliable guns, it still doesn’t mean we can’t do a dirty job…”

This phrase, uttered by a disgruntled commanding officer, accurately sums up how the first (and only) US Army Air Corps dive bomber group went into action in February 1942.

Impressed by the successful deployment of dive-bombers by the German Wehrmacht, the US Army decided to take a leaf from their book. They decided to order an Army version of the Douglas SBD-3 “Dauntless” dive bomber, then in full scale production at the Douglas El Segundo factory. The 27th Bomb Group (L), was earmarked to be equipped with A-24’s and was created in February, 1940 at Barksdale Field, La. After working up, the group moved to Savannah in October 1940 for training in dive-bombing and ground strafing, with Maj. John H. Davies of Oakland, Calif., as its operations officer.


Douglas A-24 production lot at the El Segundo factory

By the time the squadron participated in the 1941 maneuvers in the East Texas-Louisiana area, the tension in South-East Asia mounted rapidly. Concerned about a possible Japanese attack, the US Government belatedly decided to send reinforcements. The 27th sailed for the Philippines by the end of October 1941 with Davies in command. The men arrived in Manila aboard USS Coolidge on November 20, 194, but without their planes. Those had been left behind on the San Francisco docks and still had not arrived when the Japanese attacked the Philippines, December 8. Unknown to the group, the ship with its planes was a part of the Pensacola convoy that had been diverted to Australia.

Except for operating a couple of tired B-18s, the men of the 27th would not fly a mission in the Philippines. A complete air corps unit was left high and dry with no airplanes with which it could fight. The “Powers that be” decided to turn the ground echelon of the Group into an infantry outfit. It became the 2nd Battalion (27th Bombardment Group) Provisional Infantry Regiment (Air Corps), fighting for almost 100 days as an infantry regiment, the only Air Force regiment in history to do so. The approx. 900 strong unit was captured in its entirety by the Japanese and forced to endure the brutal and savage Bataan Death March and ensuing enslaved captivity. Fewer than half survived the war

On December 18, 1941 Davies received the message that USAT Meigs had delivered his 52 Douglas A-24’s … but to Brisbane, Australia. After a hurried consultation with the ‘higher-ups’, Davies decided to take 20 pilots to Australia to fetch the planes and ferry them back to the Philippines. He managed to get hold of a C-39 (an impressed civilian DC2) and a clapped out Douglas B-18 ‘Bolo’ bomber.

Douglas B-18

A Douglas B-18 Bolo in pre-war livery

The group of pilots assembled at Nichols Field under the strictest secrecy, aware of the sprawling Japanese espionage network in the Philippines. They climbed aboard the C-39, that was to be flown by Fred Hoffman, with “Salvi” Salvatore as his co-pilot. They barely made it off the bomb-holed 2500 foot runway and set a course for Mindanao. When Salvatore, who never before had been in a C-39, let alone as a co-pilot, tried to shut off a cold air vent, he found that it was a gaping hole, caused by a Japanese shell. When daylight came they counted 30 such gashes in the hull. Hoffman and Salvatore battled their way through tropical storms, first to Del Monte field in Mindanao, then onwards to Tarakan in Dutch Borneo. The weather over Borneo was so bad that they had to divert to Balikpapan, much further south. They made it, with only 28 gallons of gas left in the tanks. And on they went, via Macassar and Kupang until, four days out of Nichols Field, they reached their final destination Darwin.

After a day of ‘kitting out’ (which meant getting into Australian uniforms of shorts and short sleeved shirts), and fighting the heat and mosquitos of Darwin, they got permission to board  a  Short “C Class” flying boat (A18-10 – ex Qantas ‘Centaurus’), that would take them down to Brisbane. The cabin had been stripped bare of all seats and amenities so the Americans had to make themselves comfortable on the hard wooden floor. They took off in the early morning hours and travelled for two whole days in sweltering heat until they finally landed in the Brisbane River on the evening of December 24, 1941.
A convoy of six taxi cabs delivered them to Lennon’s Hotel  and as they heaped bags, gasmasks, tin helmets and pistols in untidy piles onto the sidewalk, one G.I. Colonel, Johnson by name and C.O. of the Brisbane area, happened along. His expression at seeing U.S. insignia’s on what had once been clean Aussie uniforms and now mere greasy filthy rags (after two days of rough living on the floor) was indescribable. He immediately demanded of Major Davies an explanation of this “non-regulation” attire and was promptly set right by a “diplomatic” explanation.


An A-24 ‘Under Construction’ at Amberley Field, January 1942

Next day, after a rather “wet” party on Christmas Eve, the squadron went out to hunt for their planes. They had been unloaded at the Brisbane docks and when inspected, the A-24’s were found to be in rather a bad way. Instruments were bad, engines using oil, tires defective, and numerous other things were wrong. Packed carelessly, or in a hurry, the control cables were not anchored, making the job tougher still. And the armament was a total mess. Here is a fragment from Major Davies official report:

“…The parties responsible for providing armament supplies and equipment for the A-24 airplane should be charged with criminal negligence. Without delicate machine shop work, neither the front guns nor the rear guns will fire. No bombs will fit the racks without adding another lug. No sights were sent and no solenoids. By using improvised methods one airplane has been rigged to fire the forward guns…”

Despite all this, ‘Bob’ Ruegg took off from Amberley on December 29 in 41-15816, the first A-24 and probably the first American warplane assembled on foreign shores by American crews. Soon, a sizeable number were flying, waiting only for armament before they were ready for combat. The 7th Bomb Group was the assembling force and though they had been working on Flying Fortresses for a year, they soon had the A-24’s mastered.
As with the P-40’s, the pilots were the major headache. Most of them had few, if any, flying hours on the A-24. A pilot training program was hastily improvised, covering such items as basic flying practice, dive bombing, gunnery, navigation and enemy aircraft recognition. Unfortunately, only a few hours could be spent on each topic.
Time had already ran out for a ferry to the Philippines and Java was chosen as the next destination that needed help badly. It was decided to form three A-24 Squadrons, Nrs. 91, 16 and 17, all under command of Major John Davies.


Bombing up an A-24

Movement orders for No. 91 Squadron came on February 3, 1942;

SUBJECT: Movement Orders and Instructions.
TO : Commanding Officer, 91st Bomb Sq., Archer Field, Qld.

  1. The 91st Squadron with 15 A-24’s, fifteen Officer pilots and fifteen enlisted men will move to Surabaya, Java, Feb. 4, 1942 or as soon as possible thereafter.
  2. Route out: Archerfield – Charleville – Cloncurry – Daly Waters – Darwin RAAF Field. At Darwin you will contact the C.O. American Air Unit (Captain Connelly) and request a signal be sent to the commanding General American Air Forces in Java announcing your presence and request information as to your exact destination in the NEI and the route thereto. You will send departure and arrival messages commencing at Archerfield to include number of airplanes and personnel.
  3. You will take advantage of the pursuit squadron due to depart Amberley Field, Feb. 5, 1942, for the purpose of fighter protection en-route north from Darwin. Their destination is the same as yours and use of this unit for this purpose has been granted.
  4. You and the C.O. of the pursuit squadron will arrange for the type of protection best suited for this purpose at Darwin. Do not leave Darwin without this fighter protection unless so directed by the Commanding General American Air Forces in Java. Notify this department at Amberly field upon departure from Darwin.
  5. Air Force Melbourne states sufficient Navy type bombs for A-24 bomb racks available at your destination.

Major, Air Corps, Commanding.

And so the 91st went to war.


Coming up next:
The 91st in Java


Posted in Aircraft, Australia in WW2 and later, Java Campaign 1942, Pacific War, Uncategorized, USAAF in Australia, USAAF Pacific | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Lancaster Mk.X – A Flying WW2 Icon

One of Ontario’s best kept secrets is its magnificent Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum.
Located just outside Hamilton, it houses a glittering collection of warbirds. And its crown jewel is the beautifully maintained Lancaster Mk. X, one of the worlds two Lancaster’s still flying!

The museum’s documentation gives the following information:
The Avro Lancaster is probably the best known British bomber of the Second World War. Thousands of Canadian airmen and ground crew served with RCAF and RAF Lancaster squadrons in England, during the war. By late 1944, the Canadian No. 6 Group of Bomber Command operated thirteen squadrons of Lancasters in the war against Germany. At home, thousands more Canadians worked at Victory Aircraft in Malton (Toronto) to produce 430 Lancaster Mk. Xs, between 1943 and 1945.


The Lancaster X in its pristine glory. Because of her squadron code, volunteers have started to nickname her ‘Vera’ , but the flight crew frowns upon this…

After WW II, about 230 Lancasters served with the RCAF in several roles including, Arctic reconnaissance, maritime patrol and as a bomber. The Lancaster was ceremonially retired from the RCAF at Downsview (Toronto) in April 1964. In total 7,377 Lancasters rolled off the production lines in Britain and Canada, during WW II. Today, 17 Lancasters survive around the world, but only two are in flying condition.


January 1952 at Trenton; a collapsing landing gear caused extensive damage

The Museum’s Lancaster Mk. X was built at Victory Aircraft, Malton in July 1945 and was later converted to a RCAF 10MR configuration. In 1952, it suffered a serious accident and received a replacement wing centre section from a Lancaster that had flown in combat over Germany. It served as a maritime patrol aircraft, with No. 405 Squadron, Greenwood, NS and No. 107 Rescue Unit, Torbay, Newfoundland for many years and was retired from the RCAF in late 1963.
With help from the Sulley Foundation in 1977, it was acquired from the Royal Canadian Legion in Goderich, Ontario, where it had been on outside display. Eleven years passed before it was completely restored and flew again on September 24, 1988. The Lancaster is dedicated to the memory of P/O Andrew Mynarski and is referred to as the “Mynarski Memorial Lancaster”. It is painted in the colours of his aircraft KB726 – VR-A, which flew with RCAF No. 419 “Moose” Squadron. Andrew Mynarski won the Victoria Cross, the Commonwealth’s highest award for gallantry, on June 13, 1944, when his Lancaster was shot down in flames, by a German night fighter. As the bomber fell, he attempted to free the tail gunner trapped in the rear turret of the blazing and out of control aircraft. The tail gunner miraculously survived the crash and lived to tell the story, but sadly Andrew Mynarski died from his severe burns

The museum’s Lancaster flies during the summer months. Those of you who wonder what it’s like to fly in a real WW2 vintage bomber can book a ride. You’ll be airborne for an hour but you’ll probably have to raid your piggy bank; flights are priced at Can $ 3.500 per seat.

Whenever you are in the greater Toronto Area, do yourself a favor and visit the museum. It is opened all year round (except on X-mas) and easily accessible via highways 403 and 6.

171017_Lanc_3Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum
9280 Airport Road
Mount Hope, ON
L0R 1W0


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