The loss of the Langley and the final curtain
When USAT Monroe docked in Brisbane on January 31, 1942, she brought in 70 additional P-40’s while the SS Mariposa delivered 4000 US servicemen, including personnel of the 49th fighter group. On paper it looked like there were now 142 P-40’s available to equip four USAAF squadrons. Reeling under the Japanese onslaught on Singapore, Borneo and Celebes, ABDA Command sent out desperate appeals for more fighters. Appalled by the loss-rate during the ferry flights and aware that the Japanese could cut off the supply route at any moment, the USAAF decided to send the next P-40E reinforcements by sea.
Orders were issued on February 9 to two of the still forming provisional squadrons, the 33rd and the 13th, to fly their 50 P-40’s to Fremantle, Western Australia for shipment to Java. The seaplane tender USS Langley (AV-3), at anchor in Darwin, was ordered on February 11 to sail to Fremantle to pick up the P-40’s. ABDACOM’s repeated demands for more fighters also led to the re-routing on February 12 of USAT Seawitch, loaded with 27 crated P-40E’s, originally intended to go from Melbourne to Karachi.
On that same February 12, Major Floyd S. Pell who had just flown a 15 ship flight of the 33rd from Sydney to Port Pirie in South Australia, was ordered to turn north to Darwin and then on to Kupang, in response to a frantic demand for fighters (see Part Six of this series). Twelve P-40’s left Port Pirie for Darwin. Three stayed behind with mechanical problems.
When the remaining 10 P-40’s of the 33rd came staging through Port Pirie on February 15 on their way to Perth’s Maylands Airport, they were joined by two of the stranded P-40’s. The third, flown by Lt. Pringree, was still down. When repairs were completed on February 19, he took the fighter up for a test hop and was killed in a crash close to the airfield.
The lack of trained pilots to fly these fighters again became painfully clear during the relatively easy transit of the 13th to West Australia. When the squadron reached Maylands Airfield on February 17, it had lost two planes at Williamstown and three at Grafton. It lost a sixth fighter when 2nd Lt. J.P. (Joe) Martin upon landing at Perth managed to hit a 15 feet high windsock pole with his right wing.
During the night of February 21 – 22, a convoy of 32 flatbed trucks towing P-40’s slowly made its way along the twenty miles of main road from Maylands Airfield to the Fremantle docks. The transfer went without a hitch, especially since some very tall trees along the route had been furtively cut down, to the consternation of the owners. As soon as the P-40’s were hoisted aboard the Langley, they were followed by 33 pilots of the 13th and 33rd Pursuit Squadron.
The USS Langley and USAT Seawitch sailed on February 22, 1942 as part of convoy MS-5. But that same night Langley’s skipper, Commander Robert P. McConnell received a direct order from Vice-Admiral Helfrich (by now ABDA naval commander in chief), to leave the convoy and at her best possible speed – which was 13 knots – set a direct course for Tjilatjap, a port on Java’s south coast that was still relatively safe. As this port had no airstrip, orders were given to clear roads of trees and obstacles so that the planes could eventually take off.
The plan called for USS Langley to reach Tilatjap in the afternoon of February 27, risking a daylight arrival. The Dutch Navy had promised a minesweeper and Catalinas as escorts but Langley lost precious hours in steaming on various courses while the minesweeper never turned up. Reversing course again, she teamed up with two damaged destroyers, USS Whipple (DD-217) and USS Edsall (DD-219), and started her final run in.
Unfortunately, the time lost in searching for the minesweeper proved to be fatal. At 11:40 in the morning of February 27, at a point about 75 miles from Tjilatjap, nine Japanese Mitsubishi G4M bombers appeared over the ships. They belonged to the 1st Chutai, Takao Kokutai that had moved up to Den Pasar airfield on Bali the day before. Their commander, Lt. Jiro Adachi, immediately singled out the Langley as the important target. His bombers made two unsuccessful runs but the third one was deadly. Adachi and his bombardier PO Ozaki anticipated the ship’s next course change and lined up exactly before they released their 250 kg bombs.
The Langley took three hits that set fire to the P-40’s on deck and the drums of gasoline that were stowed between them. Then a fourth and a fifth bomb hit increased the conflagration, near misses buckled the hull and water was rushing inside. Escorting Zero fighters strafed the decks of the burning ship and soon, the Langley was a raging mass of unquenchable fires. Listing badly and out of control, Commander McConnell had no choice but to order ‘abandon ship’ . Out of a crew of 300, 16 were killed and the survivors were taken aboard the escorting destroyers. To prevent the Langley from falling into Japanese hands, they used torpedoes and 4 Inch shells to sink her.
Then one of the cruellest tragedies of the Pacific War started to unfold.
On March 1,when the destroyers sheltered behind Christmas Island to transfer the Langley survivors to the tanker Pecos (AO-6), the Dutch High-Command ordered the Edsall to land the pilots of the 13th in Java and ordered the Seawitch to set course for Tjilatjap so that pilots could be paired up with airplanes. The Edsall set course for Java and was never seen by Allied ships again.
Many years after the war, her story has slowly come to light. The Pecos, a T-3 tanker carrying 700 refugees from Java as well as the Langley survivors, was attacked late in the Morning of March 1 by waves of carrier dive-bombers and fighters. Its distress signals were heard by various ships, including the Edsall. The old destroyer turned back on its course to help rescue survivors and sailed straight into a Japanese fleet under Vice Admiral Mikawa Gunichi. For 3 hours, two battleships and two heavy cruisers bombarded the four-stacker, firing off the astonishing total of 1.335 shells and registering one or two hits that did not stop her. Angered by this failure, Admiral Gunichi finally sent three groups of Aichi D3A (‘Val’) dive bombers against the ship, leaving her dead in the water, to be sunk by gunfire. The Japanese picked up only a handful of survivors, leaving the others to perish in the waves. Those picked up by the Japanese were later summarily executed on shore and dumped in mass graves.
Only 2 of the 13th and 33rd Pursuit pilots survived; 2nd Lts William P.Ackerman and Gerald J. Dix. They were amongst the 232 survivors of the Pecos that were picked up by USS Whipple.
The USAT Seawitch did get through and arrived at Tjilatjap on February 28, 1942. The crated P-40’s were unloaded on barges in record time. After taking 40 USAAF survivors on board, she sailed on the tide of March 1, 1942 and made it safely back to Fremantle.
By that time the Japanese troops had invaded Java. The remaining P-40’s at Ngoro had flown their final mission and the surviving crew members were being evacuated to Australia. 32 crated P-40E’s were on barges and on the shore of Tjilatjap and there are conflicting reports on what happened to them. It is certain that a number of them have not been destroyed as the photograph below shows.