The 17th goes north 16 – 25 January, 1942,
In the early morning of January 16, 1942, the 17th Pursuit Squadron (Provisional) left for Darwin. After a hair-raising rooftop-level buzz down Brisbane’s Queen Street, the 17 P-40’s turned north-west onto what was to be called ‘’The Brereton Route”, 1875 miles (3017 kms), to Darwin. The distance was way beyond the fuel range of the P-40’s, so stopovers were scheduled at Rockhampton, Townsville, Cloncurry and Daly Waters.
They crossed the barren Australian outback in two flights. The first was led by Bud Sprague and guided by Paul “Pappy” Gunn in the less disreputable of his Beech D-18’s; the second flight was led by Walt Coss and guided by a RAAF Fairey battle.
Of the 17 P-40’s that set out, only fifteen reached Darwin; Gies ground looped after an electrical failure while landing at Rockhampton and Brown’s landing gear collapsed at Townsville. Sprague pressed on and his flight reached Darwin late at night on the 17th. Coss stayed overnight at Daly Waters and his flight came in during the morning hours of the 18th. When they arrived in Darwin the rumours they had heard were confirmed; the Japanese had landed at Tarakan on Borneo and at Menado in the northern Celebes. Their planned ferry route to the Philippines had been cut.
The squadron waited three full days for a decision on what to do next and the mechanics fitted 45 gallon drop-tanks to the P-40’s for their long overwater flight to Timor. They started training again and Kruzel’s P-40’s landing gear collapsed on landing, bringing the number of P-40’s down to 14. That same day, Trout, one of the new recruits, had to be hospitalized with Dengue fever, a close cousin to Malaria.
On January 21, 1942, Major General Lewis H. Brereton flew up from Brisbane in his private LB-30. He called the 14 remaining pilots and ground staff together and told them the plans to fly the P-40’s to the Philippines had been ditched. But as things were beginning to look pretty grim in the Dutch East Indies, they were now to fly to Java. Once they had arrived there, they might get some assistance from British Hurricanes. However, Brereton warned them, he did not expect it would not amount to much and they probably would have to rely on themselves…
Early in the morning of January the 22nd, the 14 P-40’s left for Kupang on Timor, a flight of 525 miles over the shark-infested waters of the Timor Sea. Again, “Pappy” Gunn was doing the navigation, leading them in his clapped-out Beech. The squadron landed at Penfui airfield where a stock of avgas had been delivered by the hard worked destroyer USS Peary (see my post ‘Americans on Timor’) Next day “Pappy” Gunn led Sprague’s flight on a 240 mile ‘hop’ to Waingapu airfield on Sumba. Gunn then doubled back to guide Coss and his flight across. Meanwhile, Coss had lost Irving due to Dengue fever and one P-40 blew a tyre while landing on Sumba. The 12 remaining P-40’s made the final 550 mile ‘hop’ to Surabaya, Java on January 24. They were eight days out from Brisbane and had left five planes behind…