USAAF P-40’s in Java – Part One


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.


Clark Field, Luzon, after the Japanese Attack on December 8, 1942

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.


Pilots of the 24th Pursuit Group at Clark Field, 1941

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.


SS “Admiral Halstead” (3248 BRT) in Australian waters

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.

P-40-amberley erarly-1942-AWM

An ‘uncrated’ P-40E at Amerley Field, January 1942

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” 

About Kingsleyr

Thank you for visiting my blog! The posts you find here are a direct result of my research into aviation and military history. I use the information I gather as a foundation and background for my books. You may call the genre historical fiction, a story woven into a background of solid and verifiable historical facts. However, the period and region I have chosen to write about (late 1930's - 1950's in South-East Asia) are jam-packed with interesting information and anecdotes. If I'd used them all I would swamp the stories. So this blog is the next best thing. It is an "overflow area" in which I can publish whatever I think will interest you. And from the reactions I get, I deduce I am on the right track. A lot will be about aviation in the former Dutch East Indies. This, because my series of books ("The Java Gold") follows a young Dutch pilot in his struggle to survive the Pacific War and its aftermath. But there's more in the world and you'll find descriptions of cities, naval operations and what not published on this blog. Something about myself; I am a Dutch-Canadian author, living in, and working out of the magical city of Amsterdam. My lifelong interest in history and aviation, especially WW2, has led me to write articles and books on these subjects. I hope you'll enjoy them!
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11 Responses to USAAF P-40’s in Java – Part One

  1. Pierre Lagacé says:

    The early days of the war is so much more interesting to learn about.
    I had read in the 60s a similar story. I will try to find it. It’s in the book Les feux du ciel written by Pierre Clostermann.


  2. Pierre Lagacé says:
  3. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Le Grand cirque was the first book I read when I was 12 years-old. I read it at least a dozen times. In a sense that book jumped start my passion for aviation. Now back to Bataan with pilots Woolery and Hall.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pierre Lagacé says:


      All this was not accomplished without loss to men and planes: Anderson was machine-gunned in his chute; Lts. Woolery and Hall disappeared on another flight. By the end of January, the Bataan Flying Detachment was down to just seven P-40s and two P-35s.

                General George (he had been promoted in January) was a realist. He knew that he had to carefully conserve his remaining planes. He also knew when to take risks, as in the Nichols bombing. Most important to his pilots, he was also very concerned about their welfare. He developed guerrilla tactics that constantly let the Japanese know that the Army Air Corps was still alive. He literally fought down to the last plane.


    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Feux du ciel on Wikipedia (French only)

    9 stories well-documented.


  6. fosterus46 says:

    I am currently completing a research on the USAAF in and around Australia in 1941-42. It’s an amazing yarn and certainly turns a few myths upside down.


    • Kingsleyr says:

      It sure is; if you look at the wider perspective you can’t escape the feeling that people were sent out without preparations, knowledge or logistics. To their deaths in fact.
      That is why I am publishing this series of posts – there will be more to come.


  7. Pingback: Down on the Downs, twice. – Australian Aeronautical Heritage

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