Page updated on April 20,2017
Operational history updated and corrected, survivor list updated. Colour side view added.
Page updated on April 20,2017
Operational history updated and corrected, survivor list updated. Colour side view added.
It had taken the ground staff three whole days to get Major Floyd Pell’s 10 remaining P-40’s in shape for the long overwater crossing to Penfui Airfield on Timor. And during those days, the 33rd’s orders had been changed again. The squadron was to operate out of Timor until they would be relieved by other elements of the 49th Pursuit Group. They then would have to transit to Java.
Pell decided to start at 09.15 on February 19 and cross the Timor Sea in two flights, one led by himself, the other by Bob Oestricher, a 3rd PS pilot who had been stranded with mechanical problems. Shortly after take-off, the B-17 guiding them relayed a message that Timor was clouding over, ceiling already down to 600 feet and rapidly getting worse. Pell did not want to lose his whole flight of P-40’s (as had happened to the 3rd PS) and decided to return to base.
At 09.34 the 33rd was back at Darwin and Pell told Oestricher to fly a standing patrol over the field while he and his flight landed. By 10.00 the first 5 P-40’s were neatly parked. Then all hell broke loose.
Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, (who also led the first wave at Pearl Harbor) arrived over Darwin, leading 36 A6M Zero fighters, 71 D3A dive bombers, and 81 B5N torpedo bombers in a devastating attack on the crowded port that held at least 12 Australian and U.S. warships and at least 45 other ships including a hospital ship.
Bob Oestricher alerted his flight by yelling “ZERO’S” over the radio, but the inexperienced pilots were quickly overwhelmed. 2nd Lt. Jack Peres was the first casualty, killed as his P-40 crashed into the sea. Next to be shot down and killed was 2nd Lt. Elton S Perry. 2nd Lt. Max Wiecks bailed out over the sea and 2nd Lt. William Walker managed to crash-land his badly damaged P-40 at RAAF Darwin.
Meanwhile, Bob Oestreicher had somehow shot down two D3A “Vals” but had exhausted all of his ammunition To evade the Zeros he pushed the nose of his P-40 down and went to full throttle, crossing Darwin in the direction of Daly Waters at treetop level at around 350 knots.
The flight on the ground frantically tried to scramble and Major Floyd Pell was the first off the ground. He was desperately trying to gain speed and height when a flight of twelve Zeros, led by Lieutenant Shigeru Mori, swooped down on him and riddled his P-40. Pell bailed out at 80 feet and did not survive. The next Zero victim was 2nd Lt Charles Hughes; his P-40 was strafed and it crashed and burned.
2nd Lt Bob McMahon somehow got into the air and decided to stay low and fast while he tried to attack a B5N “Kate”. The target hit him with return fire and a Zero also had a go at him, causing massive damage to the P-40. Mac Mahon bailed out from 1500 ft and landed with slight injuries.
The remaining two pilots, 2nd Lt. Burt Rice and 2nd Lt. John Glover got airborne but they both became victims of the marauding Zeros. Rice bailed out after his P-40 went down in a flat spin. And John Glover somehow nursed his damaged P-40 back to the RAAF base, crash-landed and cartwheeled – but survived…
In less than 20 minutes, four pilots had been killed (one was machine gunned by Japanese fighters while descending by parachute) and three were wounded. Only Bob Oestricher’s P-40 had survived; all other P-40’s the 33rd had so laboriously ferried up north had been destroyed.
The port of Darwin had been devastated. The weary USS Peary had been sunk, an ammunition ship, an oil barge and a British freighter loaded with depth-charges had blown up in a single, terrifying explosion, five more ships had gone to the bottom and nine others had been severely damaged. A second raid, carried out a few hours later by G3M “Nell” and G4M “Betty” bombers, flattened the town, causing a panic and a stampede to get out.
There are no exact figures about the number of victims – they vary between 255 and 300. But the Japanese Navy had achieved its objective: Darwin was neutralized for the time being.
Fate of 33rd PS pilots during the raid on Darwin.
|P-40E||Darwin Airfield||Maj. Floyd Pell, KIA|
|P-40E||Gunn Point, Darwin||Lt. Jack Peres, KIA|
|P-40E||Darwin Harbour||Lt. Elton Perry, KIA|
|P-40E||Darwin Harbour||Lt. Charles Hughes, KIA|
|P-40E||Daly Waters||Lt. Bob Oestricher, sole surviving P-40|
|P-40E||Darwin Airfield||Lt. William R. Walker, crash landed|
|P-40E||Waterlily Creek||Lt. Bob Mac Mahon, bailed out|
|P-40E||Darwin Harbour||Lt. Burt Rice, bailed out|
|P-40E||Darwin Airfield||Lt. John Glover, crash landed|
|P-40E||Darwin Harbour||Lt. Max Wiecks, bailed out|
Other aircraft lost in the raids:
|PBY||Darwin Harbour||Patwing 10, #4 BUAER 1214, destroyed|
|PBY||Darwin Harbour||Patwing 10, #8 BUAER 1233, destroyed|
|PBY||Darwin Harbour||Patwing 10 #41 (ex Y-41), destroyed|
|PBY||Bathurst Island||Patwing 10, BUAER 2306, destroyed|
|Hudson||RAAF Darwin||A16-6, RAAF, destroyed|
|Hudson||RAAF Darwin||A16-33 (?), RAAF, destroyed|
|Hudson||RAAF Darwin||A16-57, RAAF, destroyed|
|Hudson||RAAF Darwin||A16-72, RAAF, destroyed|
|Hudson||RAAF Darwin||A16-78, RAAF, destroyed|
|Hudson||RAAF Darwin||A16-135, RAAF, destroyed|
|Hudson||RAAF Darwin||A16-?, RAAF, destroyed|
|Hudson||RAAF Darwin||A16-?, RAAF, destroyed in hangar|
|Wirraway||RAAF Darwin||A20-232, RAAF 12 Sqn, damaged|
|Wirraway||RAAF Darwin||A20-?, RAAF 12 Sqn, damaged|
|C-53||Bathurst Island||USAAF, ?, destroyed|
|A-24||Darwin Civil Aiport||USAAF 41-15794, destroyed|
|LB-30||RAAF Darwin||USAAF AL521, 1 KIA, 1 wounded, destr.|
USAT Monroe had docked on January 31, bringing in 70 additional P-40’s. And the SS Mariposa had delivered 4000 US servicemen, including personnel of the 49th fighter group. On paper it looked like there were 142 P-40’s available, so someone at headquarters had decided that there were more than enough P-40’s to equip four squadrons. Orders were issued on February 9 to two squadrons, the 33rd and the 13th to fly their 50 P-40’s to Fremantle, Western Australia for shipment to India.
This order was confirmed on February 12, while two additional squadrons of P-40’s were ordered to Darwin. Painfully sware of the fact that most of the P-40’s were still being assembled. Major-General Julian F. Barnes, General Commanding US Armed Forces in Australia (USAFIA), first replied to Brett that 16 P-40’s were all that was available right now in Darwin. And a little later, he had to adjust his message. The entire fighter force defending the north of Australia consisted of just 2 P40’s that had been left behind with mechanical troubles when the 3rd Pursuit Squadron departed for Timor…
Alarmed by this, USAFIA headquarters cast around and learned that a 15 ship flight of the 33rd had just reached Port Pirie in South Australia. On February 12, Major Floyd S. Pell’s flight was diverted, north to Darwin and then on to Kupang. The squadron was to provide fighter cover for a convoy to Timor that was assembling even now at Darwin
Three of the 15 P-40’s stayed behind in Port Pirie with engine trouble while the remaining 12 P-40’s took off on February 13 on their 1600 mile cross-country flight to the north coast. They followed the northern railway line to Alice Springs where Lt. R. Dores crash-landed his P-40. Lt. Dick Suehrs had a tail wheel tyre puncture while landing at Oodnadatta but it was patched. The fighters then refuelled at Daly Waters and when they took off, Lt. Robert MacMahon damaged the undercarriage of his P-40 when he struck a parked RAAF tractor. En-route for Darwin the unlucky Lt. Dick Suehrs crash-landed his P-40 60 miles south of Darwin – for reasons unknown. And Bob MacMahon (who had struck the tractor at Daly Waters) had the undercarriage on his P-40 collapse when touching down at Darwin. The 10 surviving P-40’s arrived late in the afternoon of February 15, 1942, too late to be of any practical help to the convoy led by USS Houston.
The seven ships, crammed with supplies and reinforcements for the Dutch and Australian forces on Timor, had slipped out of port a few minutes after midnight, covered by the dark of the new moon. Unfortunately they were spotted, just before noon on the 15th, by a big Kawanishi H6K4 “Mavis” flying boat. The plane shadowed the convoy for over three hours. Knowing that this could only be the precursor of an air attack, Captain Al Rooks of the USS Houston urgently requested fighter cover.
The RAAF station chief, Wing Commander Stuart de B Griffith, ordered the only available fighter at his disposal to fly out. And the only fighter available at that moment was P-40E #54 flown by Lt. Robert ‘Blackie’ Buel, a 24 year old pilot from California.
Meanwhile, the “Mavis” was running low on fuel and, after an unsuccessful bombing attack, the pilot steered a course for home. Japanese aircraft navigator Lieutenant Marekuni Takahara recalls that the crew relaxed and was about to have lunch when, “…a single-engine fighter, which looked like a Spitfire, approached us from the front on the right.”
Buel raked the “Mavis” with his .50 cal machineguns, mortally wounding the radio operator and setting the flying boat on fire. Overshooting his target, he hauled his P-40 around in a hammerhead and came back for stern attack. Inexperienced as he was, he pulled up after his run and presented Takahara with a ”sitter”. Takahara’s 20 mm cannon slugs tore into Buel’s P-40, sending it flaming and spinning down to a violent crash in the Timor Sea. The burning “Mavis” crash-landed a little later and sank; its crew drifted ashore on Bathurst Island and were later captured.
Buel’s body and the wreckage of his P-40 were never found; but in 1992 a memorial plaque to Lieutenant Robert Buel was dedicated in Darwin by the American Legion. It may still be seen next to the USS Peary memorial on the Darwin Esplanade. A year later Buel was awarded a posthumous Distinguished Flying Cross by the American government. Robert Buel was the first Allied pilot to die in aerial combat over northern Australia.
But this sensible proposal was rejected out of hand by the top command. Moreover, as the situation in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies deteriorated rapidly, the pressure to send reinforcements mounted. Less and less time was available to train the green pilots.
Captain Grant Mahoney received orders to move his 3rd Pursuit Squadron (provisional) to Java.
They departed Brisbane on February 6, 1942, and as the squadron hurried off north on that 3000 mile flight, the inexperience of the novice pilots took a heavy toll.
When they reached Darwin two days later, the squadron had lost two of their 25 P-40’s; at Daly Waters, 2nd Lt’s Bryan Brown and Ray Melikian both overran their landing area and crashed. And 5 further P-40’s were damaged while at Darwin of which two were deemed repairable.
The squadron split up in two flights and on February 9, a LB-30 bomber took off for Kupang, followed by Lt. Allison Straus’ flight of 9 P-40’s. Tagging along were 3 A-24 dive-bombers (the Army version of the Douglas SBD). One hour into the flight, a P-40 flown by a “guest” to the squadron – Major William P. Fisher – developed magneto trouble and returned to base.
The others pressed on but once they were out over the Timor Sea, the weather worsened. In order not to lose their guide, the P-40’s closed up on the LB-30 but the little A-24’s could not keep up and soon lost the flight in the storm clouds. Captain “Ed” Backus, their flight leader, decided to return to Darwin, only to be greeted on arrival by a hail of “friendly” AA fire…
The bad weather had forced the LB-30 and P-40’s down to a scant 600 feet above the waves. By the time – according to their watches – they were approaching Timor, the island was completely closed in by the clouds and no landmarks were visible. To their dismay, the LB-30 started to circle and the P-40 pilots knew their navigator was lost. The LB-30 finally turned back on a course to Darwin but the fighters were nearly out of fuel…
There was no going back, so they pressed on, in the hope to find a place to land. But none appeared and when their gas ran out, they crash-landed wherever they could or parachuted blindly through the clouds. The complete flight of 8 P-40’s was lost and one pilot, Lt. Philip Metsker, was killed.
On February 10, Captain Grant Mahoney decided to take off, whatever the weather and led the remaining 9 P-40’s to Timor. This time the bad weather actually shielded them from being intercepted by Japanese fighters. They all reached Penfui and, after refuelling, continued their flight on February 11. They landed at Pasirian, a small field on South-East Java, hastily ‘constructed’ by covering a number of rice paddies with woven bamboo mats. One P-40 nosed up at landing and another crash-landed on its belly. It was destroyed by Japanese strafers before it could be repaired.
Thus, out of a total of 25 P-40’s that left Brisbane on February 6, only eight reached their final destination in Java…
The arrival of an additional 8 (more or less) combat ready P-40’s formed the high-water mark of the US fighter strength in Java. Pilots and crew of the 20th and 3rd Pursuit Squadrons were quickly amalgamated into the 17th.
And as no further ferry flights would be attempted, it was also the start of the daily struggle to keep the P-40’s combat ready – without spares or replacements.
The President Polk had also disembarked 55 pilots, accompanied by 55 crew chiefs, and 55 armorers. This group of experienced P-40 ground personnel, the first that had come to Australia, immediately started work on the crated P-40’s. Fifty of them were earmarked to equip the still to be formed 20th and 3rd squadrons, to be commanded by Capt. William Lane Jr. and Capt. Grant Mahoney.
The assembly of the P-40’s was in competent hands but the pilots, however, were a totally different story. The four picked by Sprague to join the 17th were clearly an exception. All others were hardly out of flying training school and their flying time on P-40’s averaged about 15 hours. On top of this came the fact that they were badly out of practice after their long, slow voyage across the Pacific. The results were inevitable.
On January 23, the first fatality concerning the 20th squadron occurred when 2nd Lt. Hamilton was killed. He had mounted the wing of his P-40 to check something and the wingtip of a landing P-40 hit him in the middle of his back. He died a few hours later. The next day, January 24, 2nd Lt. Jack R. Peres crash-landed at Fort Lytton in Brisbane and severely damaged his P-40E.
“…the first three inexperienced pilots to fly P-40’s cracked them up on January 29…” Lt. Gerald Keenan reported on January 31. The Philippines veteran, in charge of the “Pursuit Centre”, urgently asked for a slower type of aircraft to ease the green pilot’s transition but this was refused.
When the Japanese captured Rabaul on January 24 and massacred the small Australian garrison, the still incomplete 20th squadron became the subject of a veritable tug of war. The Australians demanded that this P-40 squadron would be moved to Port Moresby (New-Guinea) in order to defend their north-east coast.
The Joint Allied ABDACOM (*) resolutely refused, This situation continued for several days until the situation in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies deteriorated so badly that, on January 26, the unit was ordered to fly to Java. The 20th Pursuit Squadron left Brisbane on January 29, 1942. A USAAF B-24 guided the 25 P-40’s through the abysmally bad weather. 23 of them reached Darwin two days later. Oliver damaged a wing at Charleville and Parker crashed at Cloncurry. His P-40 burned out but Parker escaped unhurt. This loss was made good the next day when Lt. Allison Strauss flew up a replacement P-40
It was the height of the storm season (the “Wet”) and when the squadron tried to take off for Timor on February 1, they hit an unpassable front and were forced to return to base. For three whole days the squadron was pinned to the ground, the pilots wet and shivering in thin walled quarters battered by hurricane force winds and rain.
Finally, late in the afternoon of February 4, Captain William Lane led his flight of 12 P-40’s to Timor. The impenetrable front was still there but this time they could get under it, going as low as 50 feet over the Timor Sea. When they finally emerged from under the front, a B-24 picked them up and guided them to Kupang where some of them landed with less than eight gallons of gas left in their tanks.
Lane decided not to stage through Sumba the next day but make directly for Den Pasar at Bali and refuel there. A B-24 guided them to Den Pasar but during that flight, Dwight Muckley noticed four planes following them at a distance until they landed at Den Pasar.
The field was well supplied with gas but there were only a few manual pumps, so refuelling took a lot of time.
While they were in the midst of it, a gaggle of 16 Zero’s swooped from the clouds and attacked the airfield. Eight of the P-40’s managed to get airborne; three were immediately shot down with one pilot (Lt. Larry D. Landry) killed. Captain Lane and Lts. Hague and Muckley managed to shake off their pursuers and flew on to Perak field in Java. The remaining two returned to base and re-joined the five that had remained on the ground.
A little later a squadron of Japanese bombers arrived over Den Pasar. Unopposed they made a number of passes and destroyed two of the 7 P-40’s and severely damaged two more. The remaining three fighters, though also damaged, made it to Java, followed three days later by two hastily patched up P-40’s.
The second flight, consisting of 10 P-40’s, crossed over from Darwin to Timor on February 5 without incident. They staged through Sumba, to avoid a hazardous stay at Den Pasar, but still lost 2 P-40’s at Waingapu where they ran out of fuel and crash landed. The remaining eight made it to Java. Out of a total of 26 fighters, the 20th managed to deliver 16 to Java; 11 of which could be considered more or less combat ready…
(*) ABDACOM: American British Dutch Australian Command, located in Bandung (Java).
They crossed the barren Australian outback in two flights. The first was led by Bud Sprague and guided by Paul “Pappy” Gunn in the less disreputable of his Beech D-18’s; the second flight was led by Walt Coss and guided by a RAAF Fairey battle.
Of the 17 P-40’s that set out, only fifteen reached Darwin; Gies ground looped after an electrical failure while landing at Rockhampton and Brown’s landing gear collapsed at Townsville. Sprague pressed on and his flight reached Darwin late at night on the 17th. Coss stayed overnight at Daly Waters and his flight came in during the morning hours of the 18th. When they arrived in Darwin the rumours they had heard were confirmed; the Japanese had landed at Tarakan on Borneo and at Menado in the northern Celebes. Their planned ferry route to the Philippines had been cut.
The squadron waited three full days for a decision on what to do next and the mechanics fitted 45 gallon drop-tanks to the P-40’s for their long overwater flight to Timor. They started training again and Kruzel’s P-40’s landing gear collapsed on landing, bringing the number of P-40’s down to 14. That same day, Trout, one of the new recruits, had to be hospitalized with Dengue fever, a close cousin to Malaria.
On January 21, 1942, Major General Lewis H. Brereton flew up from Brisbane in his private LB-30. He called the 14 remaining pilots and ground staff together and told them the plans to fly the P-40’s to the Philippines had been ditched. But as things were beginning to look pretty grim in the Dutch East Indies, they were now to fly to Java. Once they had arrived there, they might get some assistance from British Hurricanes. However, Brereton warned them, he did not expect it would not amount to much and they probably would have to rely on themselves…
Early in the morning of January the 22nd, the 14 P-40’s left for Kupang on Timor, a flight of 525 miles over the shark-infested waters of the Timor Sea. Again, “Pappy” Gunn was doing the navigation, leading them in his clapped-out Beech. The squadron landed at Penfui airfield where a stock of avgas had been delivered by the hard worked destroyer USS Peary (see my post ‘Americans on Timor’) Next day “Pappy” Gunn led Sprague’s flight on a 240 mile ‘hop’ to Waingapu airfield on Sumba. Gunn then doubled back to guide Coss and his flight across. Meanwhile, Coss had lost Irving due to Dengue fever and one P-40 blew a tyre while landing on Sumba. The 12 remaining P-40’s made the final 550 mile ‘hop’ to Surabaya, Java on January 24. They were eight days out from Brisbane and had left five planes behind…
Alarmed by the Japanese onslaught, the USAAF decided to form five provisional pursuit Squadrons to bolster the battered defences of the Philippines. These were to be the 3rd, 13th, 17th, 20th and 33rd. Pilots hardly out of flying training school were assigned postings to “PLUM” (*) and P-40’s were hurriedly rounded up, crated and shipped out as soon as cargo space became available.
The news that the Admiral Halstead had delivered a batch of brand new P-40’s to Australia triggered a lot of decisions in the Philippines. One of them was to send a group of 13 US fighter pilots to Australia. The idea was for them to pick up the P-40’s in Brisbane and hedge-hop them back to the Philippines via the Dutch East Indies. And it had to be done fast!
Fast meant air-transport. And air transport was one of the glaring weaknesses of both the US and British forces – they simply had no transport planes in this area. An exasperated Colonel Harold H. George, chief of staff of the V Interceptor Command, commandeered two Philippine Air Lines’ Beech D-18S to get his pilots over to Australia.
They all knew it would be a hazardous trip, with danger of interception for more than half the route. Moreover, the little, unarmed transport planes were in poor condition for these long over-water hops and their fuel capacity was totally insufficient. The plane had been designed to carry 7 persons (including the pilot) over short distances. And now it was to carry 8 passengers over thousands of miles. Someone solved this problem by stacking ten five-gallon tins of gasoline in the cabin. The passengers were to sit on top of them and make themselves useful during the flight by pouring the gas into a funnel, which was stuck into a length of pipe which was connected to the tanks via a hole cut in the wall. Of course the smoking lamp was out during the whole trip.
The first flight, piloted by Captain Connelly and carrying Lts. Coss, Blanton, Kruzel, Dale, Neri, Gilmore, and Gies, left at 04:00 in the morning of December 31. They reached Darwin on January 2, and the next day the pilots were taken on to Brisbane in General Brereton’s personal LB-30.
The second flight, piloted by Captain McFarland and carrying Capt. Sprague, Lts. Wagner, Kizer, Sheppard, Hennon, Rowland and Irvin, left two days later in a plane that was not really up to the task; in fact, it had actually had been declared unrepairable.
The somewhat subdued passengers counted no less than 130 bullet holes in the fuselage. They also learned this plane had been caught in a bombardment and its left wing had broken off. Looking at the restoration job, the passengers suspected it had been re-attached with baling-wire while its whole leading edge had been replaced with a piece of tin roofing.
Off they went to the south and by a series of miracles, Captain McFarland and his passengers made it as far as Bandjermasin in southern Borneo, before the right engine totally expired. For 24 hours they fruitlessly tried to repair it. Then a Dutch Navy PBY gave them a ride to Java where they left Sheppard behind in a Surabaya hospital with diphtheria, and hitched a ride to Brisbane, Australia, on a transient USAAF B-17.
Captain Bud Sprague arrived on the 4th of January and rushed to Amberley field. He had to cool his heels however, before he could get his hands on the P-40’s for the flight back to the Philippines. The line chiefs and other hands were still working flat out and fifteen P-40’s were declared combat-ready on January 12; two more would follow during the next days. Meanwhile, Sprague interviewed the new arrivals, straight off the newly docked President Polk and found four fresh pilots to fill out his squadron. He judged that 2nd Lts. Thompson, Stauter, Trout and Brown were the most promising candidates, despite the fact that each of them only had between 75 and 90 hours on the P-40.
On January 14, 1942 The 17th Pursuit Squadron (Provisional) was officially established and Bud Sprague was awarded the titular rank of Major. Urged on by Sprague, both the veteran Philippine pilots and the novices grabbed whatever P-40 they could lay their hands on and flew endless training rounds during the next two days.
(*) PLUM = Philippines – Luzon – Manilla