The Other Enemy – The Weather…
USAAF officers Wagner, Mahoney, Strauss and Keenan were handling the P-40 flight training in Brisbane. On February 1, 1942, they put their commissions at risk by sending this message directly to Washington:
“… have had eight accidents and 1 (one) death all due to pilot inexperience; estimate three months and fifteen wrecked planes to fully train these pilots for combat operations. Request we be allowed two airplanes type C-53 for purpose bringing Colonel George and two squadrons of experienced pilots over from Bataan…”
But this sensible proposal was rejected out of hand by the top command. Moreover, as the situation in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies deteriorated rapidly, the pressure to send reinforcements mounted. Less and less time was available to train the green pilots.
Captain Grant Mahoney received orders to move his 3rd Pursuit Squadron (provisional) to Java.
They departed Brisbane on February 6, 1942, and as the squadron hurried off north on that 3000 mile flight, the inexperience of the novice pilots took a heavy toll.
When they arrived at Darwin two days later, the squadron had lost two of their 25 P-40’s; at Daly Waters, 2nd Lt’s Bryan Brown and Ray Melikian both overran their landing area and crashed. And 5 further P-40’s were damaged while at Darwin of which two were deemed repairable.
The squadron split up in two flights and on February 9, a LB-30 bomber took off for Kupang, followed by Lt. Allison Straus’ flight of 9 P-40’s. Tagging along were 3 A-24 dive-bombers (the Army version of the Douglas SBD). One hour into the flight, a P-40 flown by a “guest” to the squadron – Major William P. Fisher – developed magneto trouble and returned to base.
The rest of the P-40’s pressed on but once they were out over the Timor Sea, the weather worsened rapidly and in order not to lose their guide, the P-40’s closed up on the LB-30 bomber.
However, the little A-24’s with their less than perfect engines could not keep up and soon lost the flight in the storm clouds.
Their flight leader, ex Pan-American Clipper pilot Captain “Ed” Backus, decided to press on and the three dive bombers reached Kupang safely, only to be greeted on arrival by a hail of “friendly” (Australian) AA fire. Backus’ A-24 was hit in the fuel tank but could be patched up to continue his way to Java. The other two A-24’s were so badly damaged that they had to return to Darwin…
The bad weather had forced the LB-30 and P-40’s down to a scant 600 feet above the waves. By the time – according to their watches – they were approaching Timor, the island was completely closed in by the clouds and no landmarks were visible. To their dismay, the LB-30 started to circle and the P-40 pilots knew their navigator was lost. The LB-30 finally turned back on a course to Darwin but the fighters were nearly out of fuel…
There was no going back, so they pressed on, in the hope to find a place to land. But none appeared and when their gas ran out, they crash-landed wherever they could or parachuted blindly through the clouds. The complete flight of 8 P-40’s was lost and one pilot, Lt. Philip Metsker, was killed.
On February 10, Captain Grant Mahoney decided to take off, whatever the weather and led the remaining 9 P-40’s to Timor. This time the bad weather actually shielded them from being intercepted by Japanese fighters. They all reached Penfui and, after refuelling, continued their flight on February 11. They landed at Pasirian, a small field on South-East Java, hastily ‘constructed’ by covering a number of rice paddies with woven bamboo mats. One P-40 nosed up at landing and another crash-landed on its belly. It was destroyed by Japanese strafers before it could be repaired.
Thus, out of a total of 25 P-40’s that left Brisbane on February 6, only eight reached their final destination in Java…
The arrival of an additional 8 (more or less) combat ready P-40’s formed the high-water mark of the US fighter strength in Java. Pilots and crew of the 20th and 3rd Pursuit Squadrons were quickly amalgamated into the 17th.
And as no further ferry flights would be attempted, it was also the start of the daily struggle to keep the P-40’s combat ready – without spares or replacements.