The fate of Malaya and Singapore was sealed between February 8 and February 18, and during that time, there were no Japanese raids on Java. But it was far from a restful time for the USAAF. It was the period in which the 3rd Pursuit Squadron lost an entire flight over Timor. The second flight made it – minus one – and the 17th was strengthened by 8 much-needed P-40’s.
To the north-west, General Tamashita decided to launch the attack on one of his most important targets – the Palembang oil fields in south-east Sumatra. Covered by swarms of fighters, Japanese transport planes dropped paratroopers at and around the Palembang P1 airfield. At the same time they sent a fleet of invasion barges up the Musi River toward Palembang and the crucial refineries, the only ones in the area that produced aviation grade gasoline.
Major Bud Sprague flew on February 15 to ABDACOM in Bandung, a flight of nearly 400 miles, to the other end of Java. The news from Singapore and Sumatra was so bad that an eight-ship flight of P-40’s was ordered to attack the Japanese invasion barges near Palembang ASAP. The flight first went to Madiun, was armed with Dutch 20 kg bombs and flew on to Batavia where Muckley cracked up his P-40 on landing in very bad weather. There was no-one to service their planes so they had to do that themselves, after a long and tiring flight.
They took off early in the morning of February 17. When they reached Palembang, they found the Japanese fighter cover consisted of just 6 Type-96’s (Mitsubishi A5M), and for once the pilots of the 17th were dogfighting Japanese fighters without being outnumbered. After shooting down four of the Japanese fighters, they bombed and strafed the barges on the Musi River.
February 18, saw the curtain rise on the final act of the drama. The Japanese sent massive air raids to East-Java, especially against the magnificent naval base of Surabaya. Sprague and his men were still on their way back from Bandung, so the remaining 12 P-40’s from Ngoro intercepted 9 Japanese “Betty” bombers over Surabaya. The pilots claimed 4 “Betty’s” shot down, for the loss of one P-40 from which Lt. Morris Caldwell bailed out and came back safely.
February 19th was the day the Japanese carried out simultaneous air raids against Darwin, Kupang, Denpasar (Bali) and Surabaya, covering the invasions of Timor and Bali. A large Allied convoy with reinforcements for Timor was driven off by Japanese air attacks.
The Allied fleet units sent to Bali came too late to prevent the Japanese from landing and in the battle of Badung strait that followed, a Dutch destroyer was lost. The Japanese invasion troops seized Denpasar airfield and now had a fighter and bomber base within striking distance of Surabaya and the East-Java airfields. The results were immediate and disastrous.
The next day, February 20, 7 A-24’s and 3 LB-30’s (Liberators) took off at 06.15 am in a last-ditch effort to attack the Japanese invasion beachhead and ships at Bali. In the clear skies over Malang, 16 P-40’s of the 17th “formed up” over them and the formation headed for Bali and the Badung Strait.
It was to be a black day for the squadron.
30 Zero fighters scrambled from Denpasar airfield and broke up the P-40 flights. In the individual combats that followed, Bud Sprague (newly promoted to Lt. Colonel that day), and Lt. Galiene were killed. Lieutenants William Stauter and Robert Johnson ran out of fuel and crash-landed on the rough South Java coast. Lt. Thomas Hayes made it back to Ngoro but he crashed his badly damaged plane on landing.
The squadron claimed three Japanese planes shot down and one shot up at Den Pasar field. Two of the A-24’s were shot down and one crew killed. Five returned, all of them damaged and one so badly shot up that it never flew again. The LB-30’s all survived, thanks to the pilots of the 17th that drew off the Japanese fighters. But despite all their efforts, the bombing was ineffectual; the A-24’s scored hits on transports and a cruiser but they were all towed away and the invasion of Bali had taken place, cutting off the ferry route to Australia.
Despite the grievous loss of their beloved commanding officer, the 17th went into action again on February 21. Led by Lt Grant Mahony, 16 P-40’s took off in four flights. They were tasked with the protection of Surabaya. A and B flights were almost immediately jumped by a large number of Zero fighters and Lts. George Hynes and Wallace Hoskyn were shot down and killed.
On February 22, the 17th saw no action but the next day, February 23, amid the alarms and the fruitless searches for the enemy, Grant Mahoney officially became the new CO of the 17th. At that moment, the USAAF presence in Java was down to 10 heavy bombers, three operational A-24 dive bombers, and 18 P-40 fighters of which 12 were operational.
All of them were more or less damaged and some of them had flown 400 hours without overhaul. Essential components such as engines and guns were giving more and more problems.
On February 24 came another blow and the sign that the end was near. Without previous warning, 20 officers and 36 enlisted men were withdrawn under orders to an unspecified destination. The stunned Mahoney was immediately afterward ordered to go on an “inspection trip” with General Brereton, destination (again) unknown. In a hectic and muddled way, command of the 17th PS passed to Lt. Gerald “Bo” McCallum, the squadron engineering officer.
On February 25, the 17th PS was ordered to intercept incoming Japanese Bombers over Surabaya. The 54 bombers were flying too high, at 27 – 30.000 feet, and the warning came too late. While the 12 patched up P-40’s were still clawing for altitude, they were jumped by 36 escorting Zero fighters that shot-up McCallum’s engine. He bailed out and while he was descending by parachute, the Japanese fighters machine-gunned and killed him. Kizer’s flight arrived too late to save him but he, Dale and Irving each shot down a Zero in a tail chase.
Despite the dissolution of ABDACOM, the war went on for the stripped down 17th. On February 26, command of the battered squadron passed on to Lt. Joseph J. Kizer.
Late in the afternoon, 7 Dutch Hurricanes and 5 Brewster Buffaloes arrived at Ngoro. The fighters were fugitives from the badly raided airfields around Batavia and Bandung in West-Java.
The Hurricanes, hastily assembled and handed over to the Dutch, lacked radios and oxygen gear and were not operational.
9 P-40’s took to the air at 0930 on February 27, escorted by three Buffaloes, though by now it was well known that the Buffaloes were no match for Japanese fighters. They were to intercept a formation of Japanese bombers, escorted by fighters, over the Java Sea. This mission, providing air cover for Rear-Admiral Doorman’s ‘Combined Striking Force’, yielded an unexpected result for the 17th. Lt. William J. Hennon surprised two Japanese fighters and claimed one of them as shot down.
Later that day, ten P-40’s escorted 3 A-24’s from Malang, in an attempt to attack a Japanese invasion fleet in the Java Sea. Despite Rear-Admiral Doorman’s request, the 17th received no orders to go after the Japanese spotting planes that were directing and correcting the Japanese ships’ gunfire. His ‘Combined Striking Force’ would be wiped out that night in the battle of the Java Sea.
On February 28, 10 P-40’s, joined by three Buffaloes, flew three protective missions over Surabaya and one Buffalo was lost in a crash landing. By the end of the day, Japanese fighters finally located Ngoro by shadowing a small Dutch transport that was bringing in the badly needed radio crystals and oxygen gear for the Dutch Hurricanes. Fortunately, a violent rainstorm prevented the Zero’s from strafing the field.
By now, most of the P-40’s were in bad shape, due to lack of spares and no time for maintenance. One pilot noted in his diary: “…two of them are completely unable to take off; tyres with huge blisters, no brakes, no generator and hydraulic fluid leaking into the cockpit…”
On March 1, 1942, the Japanese forces landed at several points on the North-Java coast and the 17th flew its last mission. Three flights of 3 P-40’s took off at 5.30 am, followed by all available Dutch fighters, seven Hurricanes and four Buffaloes. A-Flight consisted of Lts. Kizer, Adkins and Johnson, B-flight consisted of Lts. Dale, Caldwell and McWerther and C-flight consisted of Lts. Kruzel, Reagan and Fuchs).
When they arrived over the beach and attacked the crowded barges, the invasion fleet lashed out in a storm of AA fire. Caught in a crossfire, Lt. Morris Caldwell’s P-40 was the first to be hit and he crashed into the sea. Lt. Cornelius Reagan’s plane was set on fire and crashed, killing the pilot. Lt. Frank Adkins’ P-40 was hit, but he managed to bail out, although behind enemy lines, and amazingly made it back to Ngoro in time to be evacuated. Lt. R.S. Johnson’s P-40 was hit in the oil tank but he managed to nurse it back to base, he and his fighter covered all over with black oil and with two inches of it sloshing around the cockpit.
Hard on their heels came the Dutch Hurricanes and Buffaloes and they were able to wreak a lot of havoc amongst the invasion barges as the P-40’s of the 17th had silenced quite a few AA guns.
Six terribly shot up P-40’s returned to Ngoro at 7.30 am. and the crew chiefs scratched their heads, wondering how to repair them. Right then, the evacuation order arrived, telling them to hand everything over to the Dutch and go to Yogyakarta . When they were packing their scant belongings at 0900, two Zeroes came streaking down and strafed the field. Two well camouflaged Dutch Hurricane escaped destruction, the rest of the fighters went up in flames.
Later that day, the surviving crew members of the 17th clambered aboard some trucks and left Ngoro for a harrowing, all-night drive across the mountains. They reached Yogyakarta at 04.00 am. and, after an anxious wait, all piled aboard a clapped out and badly overloaded B-17 that took off on three engines. It touched down at Broome 71/2 hours later.
It was the end of the 17th PS operations in Java.
Coming up next: The loss of the Langley and the final curtain.
I am indebted to the following authors and sources of information that enabled me to write this series of articles:
“Army Air Action in the Philippines and Netherlands East Indies, 1941-1942”- United States. Army Air Forces,
“Summary of Air Actions in the Philippines and Netherlands East Indies – 7 Dec 1941 – 26 March 1942” – Asst. Chief of Air Staff Intelligence Division (declassified)
“Allied air campaign across Australia, Sumatra, Java, the Philippines, Burma and Ceylon” Brian Cull.
“Darwin 1942 – The Japanese attack on Australia” – Bob Alford.
“Australia’s Pearl Harbor – the Japanese air raid on Darwin” – Tom Womack,
“5th Air Force in Australia 1942 – 1945” – www.ozatwar.com
“P-40E/E-1 Operations in Australia Part 1 – 5”, ADF Serials, Gordon R. Birkett
“USAAF Worldwide Operations Chronology, December ’41 – March ’42″, Aircrew Remembered
“The Army Air Forces in World War II” V1-5 – Wesley Frank Craven,
“Joint Actions by Allied Air and Naval Forces at Java on 26-27 February 1942″ – Peter C. Boer
“17th Pursuit Sqn in Java” – Col Lester J Johnson, USAF (ret), Air Force Magazine, Sept 1980,
“From Bali to Berlin”, Brigadier General Thomas L. Hayes, interviewed by Tom Guttman
“The 27th Reports” – extracts from diaries, copies of official orders, stories Jan 1,’40 – May 27, 1942; various authors
“A Pretty Damn Able Commander – Lewis Hyde Brereton” – Air Force Historical Foundation 2001, Roger G. Miller,
“General Kenney reports: a personal history of the Pacific War” – George Churchill Kenney,
“In my sights: the memoir of a P-40 Ace”- James Bruce Morehead,
“They Fought With What They Had ” – Walter Dumaux Edmonds
“Bloody Shambles: The defence of Sumatra to the fall of Burma” – Christopher F. Shores,
“Doomed at the start: American pursuit pilots in the Philippines,1941-1942” – William H. Bartsch
“Every Day a Nightmare: American Pursuit Pilots in the Defense of Java”, 1941-1942″ – William H. Bartsch,
“Weller’s War: A Legendary Foreign Correspondent’s Saga of World War II ” – George Weller
“Hurricane Aces 1941-45” – Andrew Thomas,
“Samurai!” – Saburo Sakai,
“The Saga of Pappy Gunn” – George C. Kenney,