A journey to Australia
Alarmed by the Japanese onslaught, the USAAF decided to form five provisional pursuit Squadrons to bolster the battered defences of the Philippines. These were to be the 3rd, 13th, 17th, 20th and 33rd. Pilots hardly out of flying training school were assigned postings to “PLUM” (*) and P-40’s were hurriedly rounded up, crated and shipped out as soon as cargo space became available.
The news that the Admiral Halstead had delivered a batch of brand new P-40’s to Australia triggered a lot of decisions in the Philippines. One of them was to send a group of 13 US fighter pilots to Australia. The idea was for them to pick up the P-40’s in Brisbane and hedge-hop them back to the Philippines via the Dutch East Indies. And it had to be done fast!
Fast meant air-transport. And air transport was one of the glaring weaknesses of both the US and British forces – they simply had no transport planes in this area. An exasperated Colonel Harold H. George, chief of staff of the V Interceptor Command, commandeered two Philippine Air Lines’ Beech D-18S to get his pilots over to Australia.
They all knew it would be a hazardous trip, with danger of interception for more than half the route. Moreover, the little, unarmed transport planes were in poor condition for these long over-water hops and their fuel capacity was totally insufficient. The plane had been designed to carry 7 persons (including the pilot) over short distances. And now it was to carry 8 passengers over thousands of miles. Someone solved this problem by stacking ten five-gallon tins of gasoline in the cabin. The passengers were to sit on top of them and make themselves useful during the flight by pouring the gas into a funnel, which was stuck into a length of pipe which was connected to the tanks via a hole cut in the wall. Of course the smoking lamp was out during the whole trip.
The first flight, piloted by Captain Connelly and carrying Lts. Coss, Blanton, Kruzel, Dale, Neri, Gilmore, and Gies, left at 04:00 in the morning of December 31. They reached Darwin on January 2, and the next day the pilots were taken on to Brisbane in General Brereton’s personal LB-30.
The second flight, piloted by Captain McFarland and carrying Capt. Sprague, Lts. Wagner, Kizer, Sheppard, Hennon, Rowland and Irvin, left two days later in a plane that was not really up to the task; in fact, it had actually had been declared unrepairable.
The somewhat subdued passengers counted no less than 130 bullet holes in the fuselage. They also learned this plane had been caught in a bombardment and its left wing had broken off. Looking at the restoration job, the passengers suspected it had been re-attached with baling-wire while its whole leading edge had been replaced with a piece of tin roofing.
Off they went to the south and by a series of miracles, Captain McFarland and his passengers made it as far as Bandjermasin in southern Borneo, before the right engine totally expired. For 24 hours they fruitlessly tried to repair it. Then a Dutch Navy PBY gave them a ride to Java where they left Sheppard behind in a Surabaya hospital with diphtheria, and hitched a ride to Brisbane, Australia, on a transient USAAF B-17.
Captain Bud Sprague arrived on the 4th of January and rushed to Amberley field. He had to cool his heels however, before he could get his hands on the P-40’s for the flight back to the Philippines. The line chiefs and other hands were still working flat out and fifteen P-40’s were declared combat-ready on January 12; two more would follow during the next days. Meanwhile, Sprague interviewed the new arrivals, straight off the newly docked President Polk and found four fresh pilots to fill out his squadron. He judged that 2nd Lts. Thompson, Stauter, Trout and Brown were the most promising candidates, despite the fact that each of them only had between 75 and 90 hours on the P-40.
On January 14, 1942 The 17th Pursuit Squadron (Provisional) was officially established and Bud Sprague was awarded the titular rank of Major. Urged on by Sprague, both the veteran Philippine pilots and the novices grabbed whatever P-40 they could lay their hands on and flew endless training rounds during the next two days.
(*) PLUM = Philippines – Luzon – Manilla