Darwin – Next stop: Java
On December 24, four days after the last B-17 had left for the safety of Darwin, the Japanese launched their heaviest air raid on the Manila area. They concentrated on the waterfront, destroying the area so completely that whole streets became impassable, even on foot. This carnage and the rapid advance of the Japanese invasion forces on Luzon prompted MacArthur to order Major General Lewis H. Brereton to shift the headquarters of what remained of his Far East Air Force (FEAF) to where his bombers were: in Darwin, Australia.
Brereton would have liked to hitch a ride in one of his own B-17’s, but that was impossible so Admiral Hart surrendered his place aboard a PatWing10 PBY and off he went. First to a false start – their ‘boat’, overloaded with 21 passengers, hit a patrol vessel during their take-off run in the dark. Brereton and the others then made a dangerous car trip down to Lake Lanao where they transferred to another PBY.
This ‘boat’ arrived safely in Surabaya on Christmas Day 1941 and Brereton hurriedly went into discussion with the Dutch on the topic of ‘shuttle bombing’ targets in the Philippines. He intended to shift the entire B-17 operation to Java and as Del Monte was becoming more and more vulnerable to Japanese attacks after the invasion of Davao and Jolo, he wanted to stage his bombers through various NEI airfields.
After obtaining Dutch permission, he left Lt. Col. Eubank behind in Surabaya “to direct bomber activities from there” and departed for Darwin late on 28 December 1941 in a B-17 sent over to fetch him. (*) He arrived in Darwin the next day, where Maj. Cecil E. Combs told him that:
“There are 14 complete combat crews available. Of the 14 B-17’s, 9 can be sent to the N.E.I. directly and three of the remaining five can probably be placed in commission a few days later; the others require complete depot overhauls in Melbourne.”
Brereton left then for a round of conferences in Brisbane and Melbourne but Combs wasted no time. On December 30, 1941, he took a flight of 7 available B-17’s from Darwin to Malang where they arrived at 16.00 p.m. Next day, 3 more B-17’s would arrive and another one on January 1, bringing the total available in Java up to 11. (**)
Needless to say that those early Fortresses had no tail guns, no top turrets, or ball turrets, and only the Ds were equipped with self-sealing fuel tanks. They arrived in Java with one crew and two mechanics per plane and virtually no spare parts.
The 19th Bomb Group was to be a ‘guest’ at Singosari airfield, located 6 miles north-east of Malang. It was home to one of the Dutch Glenn Martin B-10 squadrons and the positive side was that it was well camouflaged and had a hard-packed sod-strip of 5000 ft. The facilities were a great improvement over what the ground crews had been used to at Del Monte. Billeting was fair and there were lighted hangars to work in, so that the servicing could be carried on after dark.
The negative side was that the field lacked radar and had no AA guns at all. And flying conditions were much the same as in the Philippines, with tropical weather fronts that were often too severe for the planes to penetrate.
A major drawback was that the field was located about 1000 miles south of Mindanao; for offensive operations the planes would have to stage through Dutch fields to the north. They also would have to carry bomb bay fuel tanks that reduced the bomb load and were a fire hazard when attacked by fighters.
Bad weather prevented operations on January 2 but the next day, Major Combs led a flight of 9 B-17’s to Samarinda II (***). While they stayed overnight, each bomber was serviced, refueled with 2000 gal of gas and loaded with four 600lb bombs.
Next day, January 4, Maj. Combs led eight B-17’s from Samarinda II 7 to Davao Gulf, 730 miles to the north, where approximately twelve enemy transports and perhaps as many as twenty-four warships were anchored. After a five hour flight, they climbed to 25,000 feet and bombed from this altitude. They scored hits which possibly sank a destroyer and, according to Japanese accounts, severely damaged a cruiser. Japanese opposition was slight, and four hours later the B-17’s landed unharmed at Samarinda II.
Next day, January 5, the planes returned to Malang where the crews learned that this one mission had exhausted the supply of 100-octane gasoline at Samarinda II. Moreover, the field’s unpaved runway had suffered badly as it was unsuitable for heavily loaded aircraft in monsoon weather. The next raid would have to stage through another field.
This raid is a typical example of bombing operations during the early phase of the Netherlands East Indies campaign. The flights were made from unfamiliar and inadequately equipped fields, over areas that were imperfectly charted, and under circumstances which imposed at all times a maximum strain upon personnel. Three days of flying were required to drop less than ten tons of bombs and the results were questionable.
It was not an encouraging start.
— To Be Continued —
(*) 40-3070, flown by Lt. Parsel and crew
(**) 1 B-17C, 10 B-17D’s
(***) One of the secret airfields in the Dutch East Indies ; see ‘Military Background’