Disaster in the Philippines
When the alarm finally went off in 1939, the hasty scramble to re-arm could not undo the effects of decades of politically expedient budget cuts, short-sighted complacency and deliberate neglect that had eroded the Allies’ defensive capabilities in South-East Asia. As a result, the Allied forces in that area were woefully unprepared for the veritable “Blitzkrieg” the Japanese unleashed with their surprise attacks of December 7/8, 1941.
The US Army Air Force in the Philippines was hit extremely hard. A Japanese airfleet consisting of 107 twin engined bombers and 90 Mitsubishi ‘Zero’ fighters attacked Iba and Clark fields at 11.30 am. and 12.15 pm respectively. After the attack, which lasted until 1.25 pm, half of the available B-17 bombers and roughly two-thirds of the 54 operational P-40’s had been wiped out.
Recurrent attacks by the Japanese forces during the next days ended the FEAF’s offensive and defensive capability. Facing complete annihilation by the overwhelming Japanese air superiority, the remaining US fighters were sent on reconnaissance missions only.
Some of the fighter pilots ignored this order; Lt/1 Boyd D Wagner became the first US ‘Ace’ in WW2 by shooting down five Japanese fighters between Dec. 13 and 16. But the attrition went on and by December 24, only 16 serviceable P-40’s and 4 Seversky P-35’s were left of the original fighter force.
On Christmas Day, Major General Lewis H. Brereton ordered all remaining fighters to move to fields on Bataan and his remaining 14 B-17 bombers to move to Java in the Dutch East Indies. He also decided to move his FEAF headquarters to Darwin, Australia.
Facing continuous Japanese attacks, MacArthur and Brereton desperately needed more bombers and fighters from the U.S. to re-equip their air force. And it looked like some help was on its way. One of the ships in the ‘Pensacola’ convoy (named after the escorting cruiser, USS Pensacola) was the Admiral Halstead carrying 18 crated Curtiss P-40E’s. The convoy had left San Francisco for Mindanao on November 24, was rerouted to Brisbane, Australia, on December 13 and arrived in Brisbane’s Newstead Wharves on the December 22, 1941.
The P-40’s were hurriedly unloaded and trucked to the new Amberley Airfield outside Ipswich, some 60 kilometres (38 miles) from the port. There the fighters were unpacked from their crates by disembarked USAAF personnel along with volunteers from the AVG contingent on route to China.
Working two shifts, 24 hours a day, line chiefs of the USAAF 7th Bomb Group, together with RAAF personnel from No 3 S.F.T.S (Service Flying Training School) and a number of AVG volunteers, somehow put these P40E aircraft together – though initially no one knew how to assemble them.
Engine testing proved to be a problem, as no Prestone coolant had been shipped. The problem was solved by literally going around all garages in Brisbane. In this way, enough Prestone was scooped up to test two engines. A DC3 hastily flew all the way to Adelaide (South Australia) to collect a 44 gallon drum that had been located in a garage. Now there was coolant for six more engines. Then an alarmed Australian government stepped in and requisitioned all Prestone in the country, barely enough to provide the desperately needed coolant for the single P40 squadron.
Despite all this, the first P-40E Warhawk ever to fly in Australia (serial 41-5332) took to the air on January 2, 1942 and by January 12, 1942, fifteen were ready to be test-flown. A week later, 17 P-40E’s were ready; the 18th was doomed to become a ‘hangar queen’ as it had been crated without a rudder and minus one wingtip.
Coming up: Part Two – “A Journey to Australia”