The 91st Bomb Squadron in Action
February 19th sealed the fate of the Allied campaign in the Dutch East Indies. On this day, the Japanese simultaneously attacked Darwin in Australia, Kupang in Timor and Den Pasar in Bali. By landing troops in Bali and Timor, they severed in one stroke the last Australia to Java life-line and prevented any further fighter ferry operation. Java was now encircled and isolated, apart from a shaky air route to India and a single open port (Tjilatjap) at its south coast.
When news came that a strong Japanese invasion fleet was heading for Bali, the 91st Bomb Squadron was placed on alert. Its 7 A-24’s, parked in revetments on the east and west side of the field, had been bombed-up and waiting all morning. Then, at 12.45 pm, an air raid alarm sounded and the squadron was ordered to fly for an hour to the south of the field. Suddenly, someone shouted to Galusha and Summers, “Take off; you’re on your own!” and off they went, with T/Sgt. H.A. Hartmann and Pvt. Mackay riding backseat as gunners. Once airborne, the two pilots circled aimlessly for a few minutes.
According to Walter D. Edmonds in “They Fought With What They Had”, those on the ground heard the following conversation
Galusha: “Shall we go over Bali way and see what we can see?”
Summers: “You’re the man with the wife and kids – let’s go!”
For once they were in luck. The clouds thinned out over Den Pasar and revealed (what they thought) were a transport and a destroyer. They peeled off at 11.000 feet to carry out the first dive bombing attack in the history of the US Air Force.
Post-war research shows that their targets were the Sasako Maru and the Sagami Maru, both armed transport ships of resp. 7180 and 9264 grt. Sasako Maru suffered only minor damage from near misses but Sagami Maru was heavily damaged by a direct hit in her engine room, probably planted there by Captain Harry Galusha.
Before Japanese fighters could be scrambled, the A-24’s had disappeared back into the clouds. All the way back to Malang, both pilots worried over what ‘Higher Authority’ might say about this unauthorized caper. They need not have bothered. When two hours later, a Navy PBY (erroneously) reported that both ship had sunk, the whole squadron went into Malang that night and celebrated with a large (and wet) dinner at Toko Oen. And ‘Higher Authority’ said precisely nothing and later duly decorated them.
February 20th dawned on the largest integrated USAAF operation to be undertaken in Java at that time. Its principal object was to dive-bomb any Japanese ships and shore positions on Bali. The 7 tired A-24’s were sent off and 16 P-40’s of the 17th Pursuit Squadron would fly top cover. For good measure 3 LB-30 heavy bombers had been thrown in to do some high level bombing as well. The P-40’s formed a protective umbrella at 14.000 feet over the A-24’s and the LB-30’s flying slightly lower, with Backus leading and Ferguson and Launder for wingmen, Galusha had Tubb and Hambaugh on his wings and Summers was ‘Tail-End Charley. When they arrived over Den Pasar harbor, they found two ships moored at the quay while four more Japanese warships were coming in.
Galusha peeled off and went after the moored ships. At least 30 A6M Zero’s were scrambled from the nearby airfield and a fierce dogfight developed with the escorting P-40’s. This left the bombers a relative freedom to attack; Galusha dove at the moored vessels while Backus went for the incoming ships. And Summers picked what he thought was the largest incoming warship of them all. Unlike the day before, the alerted Japanese defenses now threw up an immense amount of AA fire and two A-24’s fell victim to it.
2nd Lt. Douglas Tubb was probably hit because his A-24 never recovered from its 12.000 feet dive and went straight into the sea, taking its pilot and air-gunner Pvt. D.S. Mackay to a watery grave. 2nd Lt. Richard Launder and his gunner Cpl. L.W. Lnenicka aimed for what they thought was a cruiser. They really pressed home their attack and after scoring two hits, Launder pulled up and streaked across the harbor at 15 feet above the water. The lonely plane was raked by Japanese ground-fire that shot away an oil line. Half blinded by the spraying oil, Launder managed to escape and ditch his damaged plane in the sea, about eight miles from Den Pasar and about half a mile offshore. He and Lnenicka returned to Malang 4 days later, helped by the friendly native population to escape on foot right across Bali, and after a precarious crossing to Java in a ramshackle fishing sampan.
Five of the A-24’s made it back to Malang where Summers’ ship was found to be too badly damaged to be used again.
The next day, February 21, Captain ‘Ed’ Backus left the squadron, summoned by General Lewis H. Brereton to be his ‘aide’ on an ‘inspection trip’ to India, a sure sign that the US forces were preparing to pull out. Summers ‘inherited’ Backus’ flying wreck 41-15786.
The next three days were relatively ‘inactive’, if one did not count nine bombing raids and three strafing attacks by the Japanese. Fed up with their inactivity, Harry Galusha and Don Hambaugh decided on February 23rd to carry out a ‘moonlight raid’ on Bali and so beat the opposing Zeros (that never flew at night). The duo bombed the astonished Japs all right but getting back to Malang was quite another story, with a 400 ft. ceiling and two 8.000 ft. mountains flanking the field.
The final act of the drama came on February 27th, when word came through that a Japanese invasion fleet had been spotted 60 miles north of Java. Galusha, Summers, Ferguson and Hambaugh manned their planes, but the hydraulic system on Hambaugh’s A-24 went tits-up so he couldn’t take-off. The other three sure enough found the invasion fleet in the Java Sea, a double line of 43 troopships, protected by 15 destroyers. Despite orders to attack troopships only, Galusha flew over the whole convoy, looking for an aircraft carrier that wasn’t there.
The convoy and its escorts threw up a storm of AA fire. Even the troop ships had guns that would go up to 14,000 feet. In the end, the three pilots dived on their targets and claimed three troopships sank – a claim later revised to one.
When the three battered A-24’s safely returned to Malang, they found the field deserted except for two officers and the men of their own outfit. Evacuation orders for all USAAF personnel had come through and next morning, on February 28th, the pilots ferried their planes to Yogyakarta while all other remaining personnel was taken across the mountains in a convoy of cars.
That same night, they were all flown out to Broome, Australia, in overloaded LB-30’s and B-17’s while the three remaining A-24’s were later set afire by the Dutch ground crews.
Thus ended the operational presence of the 27th Bomb Group in Java. Of the 15 A-24’s that set out from Amberley Field, only 12 reached their destination. Here is an operational rundown.
Summary of Air Action in the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies, USAF Air Staff (declassified);
The 27th Reports, Various Authors;
They Fought With What They Had, Walter D. Edmonds;
Australia@War, Peter Dunn’s website
Allied Defense of the Malayan Barrier, Tom Womack