USAAF bombers in action on Java
Prior to the Japanese attacks on December 7/8 1941, there were few, if any, plans for allied defense cooperation in the Western Pacific and South-East Asia. The Dutch relied on some sort of unwritten agreement under which the US and Britain would ferry sufficient forces and equipment to the threatened area.
It proved to be a singularly optimistic and simplistic view as it took the allies weeks to transport the (scarcely available) troops and their equipment to the far East. Only a few units, already afloat, belatedly did reach the war zone and joined the uneven fight.
Thus, the British, Dutch and Australians had to fight with what they had. And that was far from enough.
The real problem was the sudden demand for a large number of aircraft. As it would take too long to send them by ship, it was decided to ferry them. It meant a flight halfway around the world, something that had never been done before on this scale. To complicate matters, there was no single organization charged with the ferry flights. There were no surveyed routes or navigational aids, no maintenance crews, no stockpiled fuel or lubricants …
Painfully aware of the lack of airpower in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, the US decided by the end of 1941 to help their ally in distress by sending three USAAF bomb groups (7th, 19th and 27th) to Java. One of them came from the Philippines with only 10 bombers, the other arrived without aircraft and had to wait until mid January until their first bombers were delivered. Over the next month and a half, the heavy bombers attacked targets on the Malay Peninsula, the Philippines, and the NEI.
It was the monsoon season so they were often sent off in bad weather, usually in small numbers and without fighter escort, against an overwhelming Japanese air superiority. Aircraft and crews were lost, missions frequently aborted, and increasingly frequent Japanese air raids made life miserable on the ground. No wonder morale steadily sank.
On February 17, 1942, Major General Lewis H Brereton, commanding the 5th Air Force, visited what remained of the USAAF bomber units in Java. He later wrote:
…Combat replacement crews did not exist…. Fatigue and combat weariness had worn men to their last ounce of resistance. Pilots returned from attacks crying with rage and frustration when a crew member was killed or when weather or mechanical failure prevent successful completion of the mission. A flight commander, a fine leader, committed suicide. Boys were on the verge of mental and physical collapse…
But still they flew their missions, reinforced piecemeal by a trickle of replacement aircraft coming in from the west until late February 1942, when the Japanese had completed their encirclement of Java. All supply lines had been cut off, apart from a precarious route to and from India. Seeing the writing on the wall, Brereton halted any further delivery of bombers to the NEI. And on February 23, 1942, just before his departure to India, he ordered all remaining USAAF units to evacuate to Australia while there was still time.
The survivors reached Australia during the first week of March 1942…
Was the American sacrifice worth it? Looking at the meagre results of the bombing raids, one is tempted to say “no”. But during those horrifying weeks, the USAAF had been taught many valuable lessons on the strong and weak points of their adversary.
And the survivors of the battle were tough, “bloodied” veterans that would form the nucleus of new, better organized and equipped squadrons and bomb-groups. And finally, the gesture of helping a friend in need, in this case the Dutch, will never be forgotten.
Look at the page “Military Background – Allied Air Forces – USAAF Bomber operations from Java” for more detailed information.