The 17th into the breach
On January 25, 1942, the 17th Pursuit Squadron (Provisional) under Major Charles A Sprague, arrives at Surabaya with 12 P-40’s. It is the first USAAF pursuit squadron to arrive in Java, in a frantic effort to bolster the crumbling Allied air defenses.
The ‘ground echelon’ arrives the next day, in two commandeered C-39 transports and, to my opinion, these ground crews can’t be praised enough!
Most of them had arrived in Australia on the President Polk and they all had volunteered for the job. They had picked up their toolkits and grabbed any small spares they could lay their hands on before they were flown up to Darwin and then on to Java. A hazardous flight in unarmed cargo planes with no seating and a rope down the cabin to hold on to during start and landing. These men maintained fighters under the worst possible circumstances, both in Australia and Java. They were beset by the weirdest problems (such as Dutch issue aromatic 100 Octane fuel that dissolved the linings of the self-sealing fuel tanks) and no spares available, except for parts they “cannibalized” from badly damaged P-40’s. And yet they worked on, keeping P-40’s in the air till the very last day…
The 17th flies its first mission that same afternoon, January 26, 1942.
A six ship flight led by Sprague takes off in very bad weather to protect a Dutch submarine that is limping into Surabaya. The squadron also suffers its first operational loss at the end of this mission when Lt. Neri crashes on landing on the soggy, rain drenched field. He is severely wounded.
The 17th is assigned the protection the Surabaya naval base and on the first of February, the squadron moves to Ngoro (Blimbing), an airfield newly “constructed” out of drained rice paddies, some 16 miles south of Surabaya. A Dutch fighter leads them during their short transfer to “Blimbing” (as they keep calling it) and for a very good reason. Ngoro is an extremely well camouflaged field and its T-shaped runways can only be found by using innocent checkpoints, such as bridges and buildings. The facilities are of the simplest construction possible; a square and bare bamboo hut is set aside as the operations building, and smaller huts around the field are shelters for the alert crews. Maintenance is to be done in a number of bamboo and dirt revetments and, as there are no hangars, the planes are parked in the open under the trees. Each aircraft has one pilot, one crew chief, and one armorer but other conditions are far from textbook- perfect. All administration is in the hands of one sergeant with a portable typewriter. To top it all, there is no paymaster, so for a while Major Sprague pays his men out of his own pocket.
Officers and groundcrews were quartered in houses surrounding an abandoned sugar refinery 5 miles away. Dutch ladies provide food but the meals they prepare are not always to the liking of the American crews. Breakfast was either bananas and other fruit or two slices of bread, made into a sandwich with a (cold) fried egg stuck between two slabs of ham. Rice with some curried vegetables and meat was inevitably served for lunch and dinner.
On February 3, after two more days of grace, the Japanese air raids against Java begin in earnest with a concentrated attack against the large Surabaya naval establishment. The 17th launches two flights of P-40’s from Blimbing and A-flight attacks 17 Jap bombers over Surabaya. Two P-40’s are low on fuel and have to turn back, the other two press home the attack and Lt. Hennon shoots down a Jap Bomber. B-Flight gets into a fight with Zeroes and Lt. Coss is shot down and killed. Lt Rowland claims to have shot down a Jap fighter. The 17th has lost 1 pilot and 2 P-40’s and is down to 11 operational P-40’s. A squadron of Dutch Curtiss CW-21b “Interceptors” from Perak is jumped by a large number of Zeroes and is mauled badly; it loses 6 out of its 13 fighters. The Japanese have lost two planes out of a total of 138…
Additional P-40’s are trickling in over the next few days; between Feb. 5 and 8, the 8 remaining P-40’s of the 20th PS are brought in from Bali and on Feb. 11, the second flight of the 3rd PS flies from Timor to Java, losing one P-40 in a landing accident. By Feb. 12, the 17th PS has 30 P-40’s, of which 25 operational. The survivors of the 3rd and 20th squadrons are “integrated” into the 17th, which brings the strength up to 47 officers and 81 enlisted men, the high point in the 17th’s strength.
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