USAAF P-40’s in Java – Part Seven

Darwin Feb 19, 1942 – Australia’s Pearl Harbor


Before the Japanese could launch their final assault on Java, they had to capture Bali as an airbase and to cut off the Allied air supply route from Australia. To accomplish this, a two pronged attack was planned. To the east, an air raid to destroy Darwin as an operational base and the invasion of Timor; and to the west the invasion of Bali. A task force, consisting of four carriers, two battleships and three heavy cruisers was directed toward Australia. The four carriers, from the 1st Carrier Air Fleet, were the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryū, and Sōryū, the very same ships that launched the assault on Pearl Harbor.


Curtiss P-40E’s in Darwin – early 1942

It had taken the ground staff three whole days to get Major Floyd Pell’s 10 remaining P-40’s in shape for the long overwater crossing to Penfui Airfield on Timor. And during those days, the 33rd’s orders had been changed again. The squadron was to operate out of Timor until they would be relieved by other elements of the 49th Pursuit Group. They then would have to transit to Java.


Pell decided to start at 09.15 on February 19 and cross the Timor Sea in two flights, one led by himself, the other by Bob Oestricher, a 3rd PS pilot who had been stranded with mechanical problems. Shortly after take-off, the B-17 guiding them relayed a message that Timor was clouding over, ceiling already down to 600 feet and rapidly getting worse. Pell did not want to lose his whole flight of P-40’s (as had happened to the 3rd PS) and decided to return to base.
At 09.34 the 33rd was back at Darwin and Pell told Oestricher to fly a standing patrol over the field while he and his flight landed. By 10.00 the first 5 P-40’s were neatly parked. Then all hell broke loose.


Mitsubishi G3M “Nell” bombers

Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, (who also led the first wave at Pearl Harbor) arrived over Darwin, leading 36 A6M Zero fighters, 71 D3A dive bombers, and 81 B5N torpedo bombers in a devastating attack on the crowded port that held at least 12 Australian and U.S. warships and at least 45 other ships including a hospital ship.


Bob Oestricher alerted his flight by yelling “ZERO’S” over the radio, but the inexperienced pilots were quickly overwhelmed. 2nd Lt. Jack Peres was the first casualty, killed as his P-40 crashed into the sea. Next to be shot down and killed was 2nd Lt. Elton S Perry. 2nd Lt. Max Wiecks bailed out over the sea and 2nd Lt. William Walker managed to crash-land his badly damaged P-40 at RAAF Darwin.


The one that got away – Oestrichers P-40E at Daly Waters

Meanwhile, Bob Oestreicher had somehow shot down two D3A “Vals” but had exhausted all of his ammunition To evade the Zeros he pushed the nose of his P-40 down and went to full throttle, crossing Darwin in the direction of Daly Waters at treetop level at around 350 knots.


The flight on the ground frantically tried to scramble and Major Floyd Pell was the first off the ground. He was desperately trying to gain speed and height when a flight of twelve Zeros, led by Lieutenant Shigeru Mori, swooped down on him and riddled his P-40. Pell bailed out at 80 feet and did not survive. The next Zero victim was 2nd Lt Charles Hughes; his P-40 was strafed and it crashed and burned.
2nd Lt Bob McMahon somehow got into the air and decided to stay low and fast while he tried to attack a B5N “Kate”. The target hit him with return fire and a Zero also had a go at him, causing massive damage to the P-40. Mac Mahon bailed out from 1500 ft and landed with slight injuries.


Walkers P-40 after crash-landing it

The remaining two pilots, 2nd Lt. Burt Rice and 2nd Lt. John Glover got airborne but they both became victims of the marauding Zeros. Rice bailed out after his P-40 went down in a flat spin. And John Glover somehow nursed his damaged P-40 back to the RAAF base, crash-landed and cartwheeled – but survived…


In less than 20 minutes, four pilots had been killed (one was machine gunned by Japanese fighters while descending by parachute) and three were wounded. Only Bob Oestricher’s P-40 had survived; all other P-40’s the 33rd had so laboriously ferried up north had been destroyed.

Darwin Ships

Burning vessels in Darwin Harbour, Februart 19, 1942

The port of Darwin had been devastated. The weary USS Peary had been sunk, an ammunition ship, an oil barge and a British freighter loaded with depth-charges had blown up in a single, terrifying explosion, five more ships had gone to the bottom and nine others had been severely damaged. A second raid, carried out a few hours later by G3M “Nell” and G4M “Betty” bombers, flattened the town, causing a panic and a stampede to get out.
There are no exact figures about the number of victims – they vary between 255 and 300. But the Japanese Navy had achieved its objective: Darwin was neutralized for the time being.


Fate of 33rd PS pilots during the raid on Darwin.

Type Location Remarks
P-40E Darwin Airfield Maj. Floyd Pell, KIA
P-40E Gunn Point, Darwin Lt. Jack Peres, KIA
P-40E Darwin Harbour Lt. Elton Perry, KIA
P-40E Darwin Harbour Lt. Charles Hughes, KIA
 P-40E  Daly Waters  Lt. Bob Oestricher, sole surviving P-40
P-40E Darwin Airfield Lt. William R. Walker, crash landed
P-40E Waterlily Creek Lt. Bob Mac Mahon, bailed out
P-40E Darwin Harbour Lt. Burt Rice, bailed out
P-40E Darwin Airfield Lt. John Glover, crash landed
P-40E Darwin Harbour Lt. Max Wiecks, bailed out

Other aircraft lost in the raids:

Type Location Remarks
PBY Darwin Harbour Patwing 10, #4 BUAER 1214, destroyed
PBY Darwin Harbour Patwing 10, #8 BUAER 1233, destroyed
PBY Darwin Harbour Patwing 10 #41 (ex Y-41), destroyed
PBY Bathurst Island Patwing 10, BUAER 2306, destroyed
Hudson RAAF Darwin A16-6, RAAF, destroyed
Hudson RAAF Darwin A16-33 (?), RAAF, destroyed
Hudson RAAF Darwin A16-57, RAAF, destroyed
Hudson RAAF Darwin A16-72, RAAF, destroyed
Hudson RAAF Darwin A16-78, RAAF, destroyed
Hudson RAAF Darwin A16-135, RAAF, destroyed
Hudson RAAF Darwin A16-?, RAAF, destroyed
Hudson RAAF Darwin A16-?, RAAF, destroyed in hangar
Wirraway RAAF Darwin A20-232, RAAF 12 Sqn, damaged
Wirraway RAAF Darwin A20-?, RAAF 12 Sqn, damaged
C-53 Bathurst Island USAAF, ?, destroyed
A-24 Darwin Civil Aiport USAAF 41-15794, destroyed
LB-30 RAAF Darwin USAAF AL521, 1 KIA, 1 wounded, destr.

Coming up next: Part Eight – The Fighting 17th in Java


About Kingsleyr

Thank you for visiting my blog! The posts you find here are a direct result of my research into aviation and military history. I use the information I gather as a foundation and background for my books. You may call the genre historical fiction, a story woven into a background of solid and verifiable historical facts. However, the period and region I have chosen to write about (late 1930's - 1950's in South-East Asia) are jam-packed with interesting information and anecdotes. If I'd used them all I would swamp the stories. So this blog is the next best thing. It is an "overflow area" in which I can publish whatever I think will interest you. And from the reactions I get, I deduce I am on the right track. A lot will be about aviation in the former Dutch East Indies. This, because my series of books ("The Java Gold") follows a young Dutch pilot in his struggle to survive the Pacific War and its aftermath. But there's more in the world and you'll find descriptions of cities, naval operations and what not published on this blog. Something about myself; I am a Dutch-Canadian author, living in, and working out of the magical city of Amsterdam. My lifelong interest in history and aviation, especially WW2, has led me to write articles and books on these subjects. I hope you'll enjoy them!
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6 Responses to USAAF P-40’s in Java – Part Seven

  1. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Reblogged this on Lest We Forget II and commented:
    Part 7

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Lots of reading to do.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Just finished reading. I am impressed by your research.
    The past has to be forever preserved.


  4. Pierre Lagacé says:

    This is an extremely sad ending.


    • Kingsleyr says:

      I know Pierre; the whole effort to re-supply the NEI was an abysmal failure. It somehow reminds me of an ancient Greek tragedy. But do not despair – the next chapter – nr eight – will have some more positive tales.


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