Confusion, chaos – and Bob Buel
“…Essential you have squadron P-40’s at Darwin for operations and convoy by 13-14 February…” said a message from General Brett on February 12, 1942, confirming the confusion and chaos that now had the Allied command in its grip.
USAT Monroe had docked on January 31, bringing in 70 additional P-40’s. And the SS Mariposa had delivered 4000 US servicemen, including personnel of the 49th fighter group. On paper it looked like there were 142 P-40’s available, so someone at headquarters had decided that there were more than enough P-40’s to equip four squadrons. Orders were issued on February 9 to two squadrons, the 33rd and the 13th to fly their 50 P-40’s to Fremantle, Western Australia for shipment to India.
This order was confirmed on February 12, while two additional squadrons of P-40’s were ordered to Darwin. Painfully sware of the fact that most of the P-40’s were still being assembled. Major-General Julian F. Barnes, General Commanding US Armed Forces in Australia (USAFIA), first replied to Brett that 16 P-40’s were all that was available right now in Darwin. And a little later, he had to adjust his message. The entire fighter force defending the north of Australia consisted of just 2 P40’s that had been left behind with mechanical troubles when the 3rd Pursuit Squadron departed for Timor…
Alarmed by this, USAFIA headquarters cast around and learned that a 15 ship flight of the 33rd had just reached Port Pirie in South Australia. On February 12, Major Floyd S. Pell’s flight was diverted, north to Darwin and then on to Kupang. The squadron was to provide fighter cover for a convoy to Timor that was assembling even now at Darwin
Three of the 15 P-40’s stayed behind in Port Pirie with engine trouble while the remaining 12 P-40’s took off on February 13 on their 1600 mile cross-country flight to the north coast. They followed the northern railway line to Alice Springs where Lt. R. Dores crash-landed his P-40. Lt. Dick Suehrs had a tail wheel tyre puncture while landing at Oodnadatta but it was patched. The fighters then refuelled at Daly Waters and when they took off, Lt. Robert MacMahon damaged the undercarriage of his P-40 when he struck a parked RAAF tractor. En-route for Darwin the unlucky Lt. Dick Suehrs crash-landed his P-40 60 miles south of Darwin – for reasons unknown. And Bob MacMahon (who had struck the tractor at Daly Waters) had the undercarriage on his P-40 collapse when touching down at Darwin. The 10 surviving P-40’s arrived late in the afternoon of February 15, 1942, too late to be of any practical help to the convoy led by USS Houston.
The seven ships, crammed with supplies and reinforcements for the Dutch and Australian forces on Timor, had slipped out of port a few minutes after midnight, covered by the dark of the new moon. Unfortunately they were spotted, just before noon on the 15th, by a big Kawanishi H6K4 “Mavis” flying boat. The plane shadowed the convoy for over three hours. Knowing that this could only be the precursor of an air attack, Captain Al Rooks of the USS Houston urgently requested fighter cover.
The RAAF station chief, Wing Commander Stuart de B Griffith, ordered the only available fighter at his disposal to fly out. And the only fighter available at that moment was P-40E #54 flown by Lt. Robert ‘Blackie’ Buel, a 24 year old pilot from California.
Meanwhile, the “Mavis” was running low on fuel and, after an unsuccessful bombing attack, the pilot steered a course for home. Japanese aircraft navigator Lieutenant Marekuni Takahara recalls that the crew relaxed and was about to have lunch when, “…a single-engine fighter, which looked like a Spitfire, approached us from the front on the right.”
Buel raked the “Mavis” with his .50 cal machineguns, mortally wounding the radio operator and setting the flying boat on fire. Overshooting his target, he hauled his P-40 around in a hammerhead and came back for stern attack. Inexperienced as he was, he pulled up after his run and presented Takahara with a ”sitter”. Takahara’s 20 mm cannon slugs tore into Buel’s P-40, sending it flaming and spinning down to a violent crash in the Timor Sea. The burning “Mavis” crash-landed a little later and sank; its crew drifted ashore on Bathurst Island and were later captured.
Buel’s body and the wreckage of his P-40 were never found; but in 1992 a memorial plaque to Lieutenant Robert Buel was dedicated in Darwin by the American Legion. It may still be seen next to the USS Peary memorial on the Darwin Esplanade. A year later Buel was awarded a posthumous Distinguished Flying Cross by the American government. Robert Buel was the first Allied pilot to die in aerial combat over northern Australia.