The story of the ill-fated 27th Bomb Group
“…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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Air Force Melbourne states sufficient Navy type bombs for A-24 bomb racks available at your destination.
JOHN R. DAVIES
Major, Air Corps, Commanding.
And so the 91st went to war.
Coming up next:
The 91st in Java