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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|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:
|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.|