The Bali Ambush – 20th Squadron to Java
The USAT President Polk, a cargo liner pressed into service as an Army transport, sailed from San Francisco on December 18, 1941 without escort, en-route for Mindanao. As the situation in the Philippines rapidly grew worse, the ship was re-routed when it was half-way across the pacific. It docked in Brisbane on January 13, 1942 and its cargo of 55 crated P-40’s was rapidly unloaded. Four days later another transport, the SS Mormacon, came into Brisbane, loaded with 67 crated P-40E’s, thus bringing the total delivered that week up to 122.
The President Polk had also disembarked 55 pilots, accompanied by 55 crew chiefs, and 55 armorers. This group of experienced P-40 ground personnel, the first that had come to Australia, immediately started work on the crated P-40’s. Fifty of them were earmarked to equip the still to be formed 20th and 3rd squadrons, to be commanded by Capt. William Lane Jr. and Capt. Grant Mahoney.
The assembly of the P-40’s was in competent hands but the pilots, however, were a totally different story. The four picked by Sprague to join the 17th were clearly an exception. All others were hardly out of flying training school and their flying time on P-40’s averaged about 15 hours. On top of this came the fact that they were badly out of practice after their long, slow voyage across the Pacific. The results were inevitable.
On January 23, the first fatality concerning the 20th squadron occurred when 2nd Lt. Hamilton was killed. He had mounted the wing of his P-40 to check something and the wingtip of a landing P-40 hit him in the middle of his back. He died a few hours later. The next day, January 24, 2nd Lt. Jack R. Peres crash-landed at Fort Lytton in Brisbane and severely damaged his P-40E.
“…the first three inexperienced pilots to fly P-40’s cracked them up on January 29…” Lt. Gerald Keenan reported on January 31. The Philippines veteran, in charge of the “Pursuit Centre”, urgently asked for a slower type of aircraft to ease the green pilot’s transition but this was refused.
When the Japanese captured Rabaul on January 24 and massacred the small Australian garrison, the still incomplete 20th squadron became the subject of a veritable tug of war. The Australians demanded that this P-40 squadron would be moved to Port Moresby (New-Guinea) in order to defend their north-east coast.
The Joint Allied ABDACOM (*) resolutely refused, This situation continued for several days until the situation in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies deteriorated so badly that, on January 26, the unit was ordered to fly to Java. The 20th Pursuit Squadron left Brisbane on January 29, 1942. A USAAF B-24 guided the 25 P-40’s through the abysmally bad weather. 23 of them reached Darwin two days later. Oliver damaged a wing at Charleville and Parker crashed at Cloncurry. His P-40 burned out but Parker escaped unhurt. This loss was made good the next day when Lt. Allison Strauss flew up a replacement P-40
It was the height of the storm season (the “Wet”) and when the squadron tried to take off for Timor on February 1, they hit an unpassable front and were forced to return to base. For three whole days the squadron was pinned to the ground, the pilots wet and shivering in thin walled quarters battered by hurricane force winds and rain.
Finally, late in the afternoon of February 4, Captain William Lane led his flight of 12 P-40’s to Timor. The impenetrable front was still there but this time they could get under it, going as low as 50 feet over the Timor Sea. When they finally emerged from under the front, a B-24 picked them up and guided them to Kupang where some of them landed with less than eight gallons of gas left in their tanks.
Lane decided not to stage through Sumba the next day but make directly for Den Pasar at Bali and refuel there. A B-24 guided them to Den Pasar but during that flight, Dwight Muckley noticed four planes following them at a distance until they landed at Den Pasar.
The field was well supplied with gas but there were only a few manual pumps, so refuelling took a lot of time.
While they were in the midst of it, a gaggle of 16 Zero’s swooped from the clouds and attacked the airfield. Eight of the P-40’s managed to get airborne; three were immediately shot down with one pilot (Lt. Larry D. Landry) killed. Captain Lane and Lts. Hague and Muckley managed to shake off their pursuers and flew on to Perak field in Java. The remaining two returned to base and re-joined the five that had remained on the ground.
A little later a squadron of Japanese bombers arrived over Den Pasar. Unopposed they made a number of passes and destroyed two of the 7 P-40’s and severely damaged two more. The remaining three fighters, though also damaged, made it to Java, followed three days later by two hastily patched up P-40’s.
The second flight, consisting of 10 P-40’s, crossed over from Darwin to Timor on February 5 without incident. They staged through Sumba, to avoid a hazardous stay at Den Pasar, but still lost 2 P-40’s at Waingapu where they ran out of fuel and crash landed. The remaining eight made it to Java. Out of a total of 26 fighters, the 20th managed to deliver 16 to Java; 11 of which could be considered more or less combat ready…
(*) ABDACOM: American British Dutch Australian Command, located in Bandung (Java).