USAAF B-17’s in Java – Part 5 – 7th BG to Java


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The arrival in Java of the 7th Bomb Group.

On January 11, while the 19th was under way to Tarakan, three Consolidated LB-30’s arrived at Malang’s Singosari airfield at 13.05 local time. Major Austin A, Straubel flew in AL 609,  1st Lt John E. Dougherty AL535, and 1st Lt Horace M. Wade AL612. These crews, belonging to the 11th Bomb Squadron, were the first of the 7th Bomb Group to reach the Dutch East Indies. Over the next few days, more planes trickled in via the 21.000 mile Atlantic – Africa – India Ferry Route, all flown by crews from the 9th and 22nd bomb squadrons. On January 16, the strength of the 7th Bomb Group in Java was up to four LB-30s and six B-17’s.
The B-17’s were factory-fresh ‘E’ models (as shown in the banner above). It was the long awaited type with a top-turret, tail guns and a rudimentary (and very ineffective) ball-turret underneath.
The LB-30’s, the ‘export model’ of the Consolidated B-24 ‘Liberator’, arrived in Java still bearing British side numbers instead of common USAAF serials, and with USAAF insignia painted on wings and fuselages covered with a British style camouflage pattern.

lb-30 at Malang - Robert F Graf

Consolidated LB-30 AL515 at Malang / Singosari Airfield in 1942.  (Photo Robert F. Graf collection) 

The LB-30’s had been waiting at Consolidated Aircraft’s Modification Plant in Tucson, Arizona, for delivery to the RAF. Once the hurried decision to divert them to Java had been taken, they were further modified at Wright Field, Ohio and then finally delivered to Mac Dill Field, Tampa, Florida, There the planes were to be prepared for the ‘African Route’ and the crews to be ‘thoroughly briefed’
(Authors note, ‘Thoroughly Briefed’ must be taken with several grains of salt. Edmunds and Dorr give examples of crews that had no knowledge of the route at all, of crew-members that had minimal or no experience with 4-engined bombers or had never even been near one. In a number of cases, navigators were fresh out of navigator’s school and more than one flight was saved from disaster by the captain’s navigational skills).


Starting on their 21.000 mile African Route, the crews flew south from Mac Dill Field to Waller Field in Trinidad. From there, they  went on to Belem and Natal, both in Brazil.  Natal was their starting point for the Atlantic Ocean crossing to Freetown, Sierra Leone. Next they continued to Accra (in the Gold Coast, now Ghana) and then all the way across the African continent via Kano and Khartoum. The next stop would be Cairo and from there either to Aden or Karachi where the crews would learn that their final destination would be Java and not the Philippines The bombers would then stage through Colombo heading for Bandung in Java. Despite the enormous distances to be flown and weather and mechanical problems under way, only 5 out of 58 bombers sent were lost.


Major Austin A. Straubel, CO 11th Bomb Squadron

Shortly after his arrival at Singosari, Major Straubel found out that, so far, no US ammunition had arrived in Java.
This meant that the crews of the 7th would have to make do with Dutch 300 kg bombs that only had a single lug. Straubel told 1st Lt. Horace Wade to make sure that the bombsight worked with the unfamiliar Dutch bombs in case they would draw a mission.

Wade dutifully took AL612 up for a test bombing run and the bombsight worked just fine with the Dutch bombs. But returning, he botched his landing on the unfamiliar field and sheared 6 feet off the LB-30’s left wing. The damaged part was sent by rail to be repaired at the Dutch Air Force Bandung depot but, unfortunately, never returned.
The unlucky AL612 would never fly again; she was doomed to become a ‘hangar queen’, slowly gutted as she was cannibalized for spares. Finally, she was ignominiously destroyed when the US airmen evacuated to Australia.

The few mechanics available for servicing the 7th Bomb Group’s planes at Singosari had to share one big hangar with the Dutch (who still had some of their antiquated B-10’s in there) and with crews of the 19th Bomb Group, who were trying to repair their shot up B-17’s. This crowded situation caused friction right from the start. There was a general lack of everything, especially spares, causing the crews of the 7th Bomb Group to grow extremely possessive of their supplies, tools and rations.

And as it turned out, the combat crews of the 7th would have only four days to get ‘settled in’ before they would be sent off on their first – and costly – operation.

— To Be Continued —

Posted in Aircraft, Dutch East Indies, Historical Background, Pacific War, US Army in Java 1941, USAAF Java, USAAF Pacific | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

USAAF B17’s in JAVA – Part 4 – Hitting the Philippines

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Hitting the Philippines – from Java

On January 8, 1942, the seemingly indefatigable Combs took nine of the B-17’s to Kendari II (also known as K2) at 07.15 a.m. They arrived 11.30 a.m. and took off at 17.00 p.m. the same day on a second mission against Japanese shipping in Davao Gulf.
Mechanical difficulties plagued the flight; four of the nine B17’s had to abort. The remaining five succeeded in reaching the target area and, as they had to attack in poor visibility, their bombing runs brought only uncertain results (1). The crews returned to K2 and stayed there overnight; next day, January 9, they fixed their mechanical difficulties and on January 10 at 07.00 a.m. they took off for the return flight to Singosari.

At that same January 10, the Japanese Empire officially declared war on the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Only hours later, a Dutch Navy Dornier Do-24K spotted a Japanese invasion fleet heading for Tarakan Island and Northeast Borneo. Knowing Dutch forces would not be able to prevent a Japanese landing, Dutch Army HQ immediately ordered the destruction of the Tarakan Djuata oil fields, the Royal Dutch Shell refinery and the coal mines in Borneo’s Berau Valley.


A 19th Bomb Group B-17D in Java

In response to a request for US help to attack the invasion fleet off the Tarakan coast, 7 B-17’s took off from Singosari on January 11 at 05.55 a.m. and headed north-north west in terrible weather. Four of the bombers lost formation and made it back to Singosari around noon. The three remaining B-17’s (2) attacked the fleet while fighting off Japanese fighters and bombed with uncertain results – 2 probable and 2 possible hits on transports and / or cruisers.

Combs made it back to Singosari around 16.35, Conelly diverted to Samarinda II and returned to Singosari on January 12 and Kurtz diverted to Surabaya, landing around 17.00. B-17 gunners claimed two Japanese fighters shot down during the encounter.


(1) Crews claimed a battleship set afire by on direct and one waterline hit, and several hits on a landbased AA battery. Japanese sources do not show a battleship present.
(2) 40-2062 (Conelly), 40-3067 (Kurtz) and 40- 3087(Combs)

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USAAF B17’s in Java – Part 3 – 19th BG – Next stop: Java

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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.

B-17C Flying Fortress _40-2062_James_Conally_and_Crew

Lt. James Conally and crew arriving Malang December 30, 1941 with B-17C 40-2062, the only ‘C” model to operate out of Java on bombing sorties

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.


Bombing up a 19th BG B-17D, location unknown

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’

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USAAF B-17’s in Java – Part 2 – The Clark Field Disaster

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The Clark Field Disaster and Retreat from the Philippines

Brereton’s impression that the organization of the FEAF left much to be desired was confirmed the next day, after a hurried inspection tour of his command. The November 5 entry in his diary reveals that his orders, to build up a functioning air force in no-time, were literally a mammoth task.

‘…The heavies and mediums were all based at Clark Field. Half the fighters were stationed at Nichols Field, the remainder at Clark Field. There were no anti-aircraft defenses available at either of these fields or at any other airfield in the Philippines. Additional landing fields at Iba and Del Carmen were under construction. The air depot at Nichols Field was completely inadequate and plans for expansion to care for enormous increase in the Air Forces had not been implemented. Most of the B-17s were still uncamouflaged and from the air their burnished bright metal could be seen from a distance of at least 25 miles. There were no spare parts of any kind for P-40’s, nor was there so much as an extra washer or nut for a Flying Fortress. Training flights had to be limited as there wasn’t a spare engine for either P-40’s or B-17’s. There were few tools of any kind available with which an advance depot could begin rudimentary repair and maintenance…’

What Brereton really said in his diary was that the US Army Air Force in the Philippines was in no position to fight a war…

General Marshall sent out a ‘War Warning’ to his commanders on November 28, 1941. It heralded the last days of peace in the Philippines. A sense of foreboding had descended over the islands; everybody was convinced that ‘something’ was going to happen soon; the only question was – when?

PBY_on_patrol_during_WWIIOn December 2, a PBY-4 piloted by Lt. Robinson and Ensign Burgess stumbled upon a concentration of 20 Japanese ships in Cam Ranh Bay on the Indo-China (Vietnamese) coast. On December 3, another PBY reported that their number had grown to 50 and now included cruisers and destroyers.

When PatWing 10 returned the next day, they found Cam Ranh Bay empty of Japanese shipping and neither they nor the B-17’s were able to find them again.
From then on, Japanese aircraft were over Luzon every night and as a precautionary measure against a surprise attack, the 14th and 93rd bomb squadrons flew their B-17s to Del Monte, Mindanao, on December 5. Unfortunately, re-deployment of the 28th and 30th squadrons to Mindanao was not carried out.


MacArthur and Sutherland in Corregidor

Major General Brereton received the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 8 at 04.00 a.m. He ordered all air units in the Philippines to prepare for an expected Japanese air-attack at daybreak. He hurried over to General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters at Fort Santiago, Manila and arrived around 5 a.m. but was categorically denied access to MacArthur.

Despite frequent visits and telephone calls, MacArthur’s Chief of Staff Major General Richard K. Sutherland refused the desperately needed permission to carry out a planned strike at the Formosa (Taiwan) airfields. Afraid of his units being caught on the ground – as had happened in Hawaii – Brereton ordered the B-17’s from Clark into the air without bombs. Two fighter squadrons were ordered to Cover Clark Field and the Manila area.
When MacArthur’s approval for the Formosa strikes was finally received around 11.30 a.m., the orbiting bombers and fighters were recalled. The bombers were to re-fuel and bomb-up, the fighters to refuel. They were practically all on the ground at Clark Field when the Imperial Japanese Navy’s 11th Air Fleet struck at 12.15 p.m. with a force of 54 G-3M ‘Nell’ bombers and 50 A6M Zero fighters.
They dropped a lethal pattern of 600 lb bombs that ruined the single runway, destroyed some of the parked planes and devastated buildings, hangars and workshops. But the strafing attacks by the Zeroes were fatal to the B-17’s. For what seemed an eternity – but in reality 45 minutes – the strafers went after any airplane and any person in sight. The fully fuelled and bombed-up bombers exploded in angry fireballs, the remaining fighters were shredded by machine gun and 20 mm cannon fire.


Clark Field on December 8, 141

On this first day of the war, he FEAF had suffered staggering losses. In a single stroke, 18 of its precious B-17’s had been destroyed, together with 53 P-40’s, 3 P-35’s and an additional 25 or 30 miscellaneous aircraft (B-10’s, B-18’s, and observation planes). At Clark Field alone, over 100 persons were killed and 250 military personnel were wounded. Only two or three badly damaged B-17’s could later be patched up so that they could fly out to Del Monte, but only one of them would ever fly on an operation.
The 14th and 93rd flew their B-17’s to Luzon on December 9; 7 of them went to the San Marcelino dispersal field, 6 landed at Clark where the runway had hastily been patched up. After refueling in a hurry, they took off again and stayed aloft until darkness came.
Next day, December 10, saw the first Japanese invasion of the Philippines, with 4000 troops landing at beaches near Vigan and Aparri in northern Luzon. A flight of 5 B-17’s of the 93rd Bomb Squadron hastily took off from Clark and attacked the Japanese fleet with 100lb bombs that did some damage. Their bombs dropped, they went back to Clark to refuel and were ordered to return to Del Monte

Capt. Colin P. Kelly USAAC (NYT)

Captain Colin Kelly USAAF

Major O’Donnell, Captains Kelly and Parsel, Lieutenants Schaetzel and Montgomery, all of the 14th Bomb Squadron, flew their B-17’s from San Marcelino to Clark to bomb up. Kelly and Schaetzel had orders to find a Japanese carrier, which of course they did not find.
They turned to Vigan and Aparri and harassed the shipping there with 600lb bombs. Several transports were damaged and Kelly was credited with having sunk the battleship Haruna.
It later turned out that he had damaged the cruiser Ashigari,  the Haruna being 2000 miles away at that moment.

After the attack, the B-17’s had to fight off very aggressive Zero attacks. A couple of Zeroes shadowed Captain Kelly’s B-17 and shot the bomber down within sight of Clark Field, killing Captain Kelly and his radio operator Sgt. Delehanty.
Because there were swarms of Japanese fighters over Clark by now, the returning B-17’s, together with the 3 remaining at San Marcelino, were ordered back to Del Monte. A single B-17 piloted by Lt. Pease flew the last bombing mission of that day against the Japanese ships off Aparri. He made 4 runs and dropped 19 100lb demolition bombs and all he got for his troubles was a single near-miss. After this last raid, Brereton ordered all B-17’s still in Luzon to return to Del Monte on December 11. On December 12, Major Combs took off from Del Monte for the only B-17 mission that day against the Japanese at Vigan but no results were observed.
Next day, the morning of December 13  two B-17’s, piloted by Lts. Bohnaker and Smith, were sent out to see what was cooking off Legaspi in southern Luzon where  a Japanese invasion fleet had been reported. But they had strict orders “… not to bomb or alert any enemy shipping there…”


Still from a Japanese propaganda film showing the Kimura Detachment landing at Legaspi

On December 14, the last significant B-17 operation from the Philippines was carried out, an attack on the Japanese fleet off Legaspi. Of the 6 B-17’s detailed for this mission, Lt. Conolly’s plane did not get airborne and Lts. Goates and Ford had to abort their missions because of engine trouble. The three remaining bombers, piloted by Lts Wheeless, Adams and Vandevanter, reached the target and carried out the attack but they only scored some near misses and no hits.
Vandevanter bombed from 21.000 feet and, after ducking into a bad weather front,  returned unmolested but the other two were fiercely counterattacked.
Bullets from 18 Japanese fighters tore through Wheeless’ B-17, wounding all 4 gunners and mortally hurting Pfc. Killin. Wheeless nursed his battered ship back to Mindanao but as drizzling rain shut out Del Monte field, he had to crash-land his B-17 at a small barricaded field at Cagayen where the crew counted 1200 bullet holes in their ship.
Adams was continuously attacked by Japanese fighters from the moment he entered the target area. Japanese bullets riddled his plane and wounded several crew members. They knocked out two engines and as he lost height rapidly, he knew he would not make it back to base at Del Monte. He decided to head for the island of Masbate, just across the strait from Legaspi. After crash-landing the B-17 at the beach, Adams and his crew barely had time to race for cover before the strafing Zeroes arrived and completely destroyed the bomber. Once the strafers had left, the men had to make it back to base on foot, a journey that would take them three weeks…

B17D 402073 Crash l Cagayan City Parade Field Mindanao Island 14 dec 41

Wheeless B-17D 40-2073, camouflaged after its crash-landing at Cagayen

The high mechanical failure rate of this mission made it clear that, with the facilities at Clark and Nichols fields completely destroyed, the B-17’s could no longer be maintained in the Philippines. Moreover, those in command realized that it was only a question of time before the Japanese would locate the hitherto undiscovered Del Monte Field. Therefore, on December 15, MacArthur approved Brereton’s proposal to move the remaining B-17’s from Del Monte to Darwin (Australia).
The first flight of 6 B-17’s left for Darwin on December 17 but the next flight on the 18th escaped destruction by a hairbreadth. 4 B-17’s were ready for a take-off at dusk, still dispersed and camouflaged with coconut leaves while waiting for 3 B-18’s to come in. The B-18’s – one of them carrying General Clagett – had barely landed when 12 Zeroes came roaring in over the tree-tops. They had followed the B-18’s in and as they strafed the field, their guns and cannon turned them into flaming wrecks. But the camouflaged B-17’s escaped unhurt and three of them left for Australia as soon as the coast was clear. General Clagett followed on the 19th as a passenger in a single B-17.
The final flight of 4 B-17’s departed the Philippines for Darwin in Australia on December 20, not even two weeks after the war had started. There, 1600 miles to the south, the only offensive weapon remaining in American hands could be properly maintained, safe from surprise attacks…

— To Be Continued —

Posted in Australia in WW2 and later, Dutch East Indies, Java Campaign 1942, Pacific War, USAAF in Australia, USAAF Java, USAAF Pacific, WW2 Pacific | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

USAAF B-17’s in Java – Part 1 – Bombers to the Philippines – Quick!

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Bombers to the Philippines – Quick!

Part One of  US Bomber Operations in the Dutch East Indies”. 

As the summer of 1941 drifted into fall, even the diplomatic diehards at the State Department were forced to admit that a war with Japan was inevitable. Early in August 1941 the Secretary of War approved a program which would send modern planes and equipment when available to the Philippines. Thus, after many years of neglect, the Philippines were finally receiving some attention and replacements for its obsolete aircraft started to trickle in; confiscated Swedish P-35A’s to replace the antique P-26 ‘Peashooters’ and some secondhand B-18 “Bolos’ to replace the ancient B-10’s. They were later followed by Curtiss P-40’s.
However, precious time had been lost; time that could never be re-gained.
A War Department galvanized into drastic action by the threat of war recalled retired General Douglas MacArthur to active duty on July 26, 1941. As commanding general of the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE), his orders were to reorganize the defenses of the Philippines against a Japanese invasion. Knowing he had little time and much to do, MacArthur immediately started shaking the tree in Washington. He gave top-priority to the expansion of his air capabilities. On August 4, 1941, the Philippine Department Air Force became the Air Force, USAFFE and moved its headquarters to Nielson Field. It was decided to equip this air force with at least one group of heavy bombers. The logical choice for this task was the Boeing B-17, then in full scale production. And the 19th Bomb Group, which had probably more experience in flying B-17’s than any other group at that time, was ordered to the Philippines.

Ferry-flight19th BG oct nov 1941

The urgency of the situation led to another inevitable choice: the bombers had to be flown out! Now this was easier said than done; no Army heavy bomber had so far made a flight from the United States to Hawaii – and that was not even half the air distance to the Philippines. But as the Navy had already made successful flights to Honolulu and the Philippines, the prestige of the Army was at stake. On May 13, 1941, 21 B-17’s of the 19th Bomb Group (all of the B-17C and –D models without tail guns) made the 2400 mile flight from California to Hawaii and arrived without incident.


Then the waiting began; apparently no one in Hawaii or the United States knew what facilities were available along the route across the Pacific and especially in Australia. To break this deadlock, two Army officers were dispatched from Honolulu aboard a Navy plane to survey the facilities along the route, especially at Rabaul in New Britain, Port Moresby in New Guinea, and Darwin in Australia. The effort apparently was successful because on September 5, 1941 at 08.00, Major Emmett “Rosie” O’Donnell took off from Hickam Field, Hawaii, leading nine B-17Ds of the (hastily formed) provisional 14th Bomb Squadron. O’Donnell and his men arrived six days later at Clark Field on September 12, 1941, 16.00, local time after an epic flight, designed to impress upon the Japanese that America could and would reinforce her Pacific outposts.
The 30th and 93rd Bomb Squadrons were next to ferry their 26 B-17s to the Philippines but this movement had to wait until the various staging points had been re-stocked. When sufficient 100 octane gasoline was available, the bombers took off from Hamilton Field on October 16 and 20 for the 13-hour trip to Hawaii. And after a 7-day layover, they proceeded in flights of 9 ships to Midway, Wake, Port Moresby, Darwin and Manila. All arrived at Clark between October 29 and November 4, and the bomber force in the Philippines was now up to 35 B-17’s.  It was the high-water mark for the US bomber force; further reinforcements were planned to arrive early in December 1941.


Washington was convinced that a large striking force of heavy bombers in the Philippines would make the Japanese think twice before they launched an attack. Major-General ‘Hap’ Arnold, head of the Air Forces, had therefore pledged most of the B-17 production to the Philippines. 33 would be delivered in December, 51 in January and 46 more in February; this would create a force of 165 heavy bombers, including the 35 already on site. As the total planned production of B-17s and B-24s during this period was only 220 units, Arnolds pledge shows that the defense of the Philippines had become a top priority. All bombers would be delivered via the ‘Trans Pacific Ferry Route’, pioneered by O’Donnell and the others.


Major General Lewis H. Brereton

It was clear to Major General Lewis H. Brereton – who had taken command of the re-designated Far East Air Force – that this route would become the lifeline for the Philippines. In a B-17 piloted by Lt. Col Eugene ‘Bill’ Eubank, Brereton made a hurried trip to Australia during the last weeks of November to check out airfields in Australia as well as Port Moresby and Rabaul. Unsurprisingly, there was hardly an airfield capable of handling the heavies and certainly not in the numbers envisioned. Brereton pledged large amounts of money to the Australians to have the fields extended.
And it all had to be done in a hurry as the second bomb group earmarked for the Philippines was preparing to depart.
It was the 7th Bomb Group, made up of five squadrons: Headquarters Squadron, 9th, 11th, 22nd Bomb Squadrons, and the 88th Reconnaissance Squadron. Its ground echelon sailed from San Francisco on November 13, 1941, while the first element of the air echelon, flying the new and improved B-17E (with tail guns) was to depart for Hickam Field, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. But as the 7th Bomb Group’s first flight of 12 B-17E’s landed at Hawaii right in the middle of the Pearl Harbor attack, this effort to reinforce the Philippines was cut short. The 7th Bomb Group never came to the Philippines but part of its personnel and planes made it to Java via a weird, roundabout route.

— To Be Continued —

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Christmas 1934 – First KLM Transatlantic Flight

The swan-song of Fokker airliners with KLM

The ‘Pelikaan’s very successful mail flight to the Dutch East Indies triggered the idea of enlarging the airmail network to the Dutch dominions in the West-Indies and South-America. The idea of a special mail flight to commemorate the 300 year ‘relationship’ between the Netherlands and Curacao popped up and a special mail flight was planned for Cristmas 1934.

It proved to be a real challenge. Contrary to previous flights this one had to be carried out mostly over the ocean. Range and reliability would make the difference to success or abysmal failure.

A standard Fokker FVXVIII (PH-AIS, named ‘Snipe’), was taken out of regular service and overhauled by the KLM Rotterdam ground crew at Waalhaven airfield. The plane was drastically modified; all passenger seats were removed and all windows taken out and taped over with linen. The Pratt & Whitney Wasp C1 engines were replaced by a more modern version (T1D1) with adjustable propellers, something remarkable at that time.
KLM Technical services worried about the range; the longest stretch – between the Cabo Verde Islands and the South-American coast would be over 3.500 km, way beyond the standard FXVIII range. Luck was with them; moldering away in one of the Waalhaven hangars was an old Fokker FIIIb that had belonged to a bankrupt German pilot Alexander R. Adrian who had planned to make a world tour in it. He had ordered 7 fuel tanks from KLM but, unable to pay his debts, the plane had been seized by his creditors. The tanks were installed, increasing the ‘Snipe’s range to 4.600 km.

Communications were another headache; it was long before transatlantic navigation aids such as LORAN became available. The problem was solved by installing a new, powerful radio installation aboard and by diverting a Dutch submarine (K. XVIII) and a KNSM passenger liner (S.S. Stuyvesant) from their courses to act as navigational aids during the transatlantic flight.


The crew: Van der Molen, Hondong, van Balkom, Stolk, in front of the ‘Snipe’

In the evening of December 14, a large crowd had gathered at Amsterdam Schiphol airport to wave the plane off, despite sleet, high winds, low cloud and poor visibility. Captain Jan Hondong, Co-Pilot Jan van Balkom, Flight mechanic Leen Stolk and Radioman Simon van der Molen took off at 00.10 am December 15, 1934 with a payload of 26.521 letters and packages aboard. They followed a course via Marseilles and Alicante (Spain) and touched down at Casablanca (Morocco) at 13.00 hrs that same day. The next leg, Casablanca to Porto Praya (Cabo Verde Islands) was completed at 12.00 on December 17, 1934.
Leen Stolk had a day to have a real good look at his engines and, finding nothing amiss, the crew departed from Porto Praya December 19, 1934, at 19.00 local time. Six hours later, they passed over the Dutch submarine, exactly on course. They landed at Surinam’s ‘Zanderij’ airfield on December 20 at 12.45 local time, after a flight of 15 hours and 5 minutes. After a day’s rest they continued their flight via Venezuela (now carrying two passengers, sitting on the fuel tanks) to Curacao where they landed in the afternoon of December 22, 1934.

Snip Willemstad
This extraordinary flight of 10.488 km lasted 7 days, 19 hours and 20 minutes with a total flight-time of 54 hours and 27 minutes but it never received the acclaim the ‘Pelikaan’ flight got.
First, because the record breaking Douglas DC2 ‘Uiver’ crashed near Rutbah Wells on December 20, 1934, leaving a deep sense of disaster with the Dutch population.
Second, because the airplane never flew back to Holland but stayed with KLM West Indies, preventing the public to celebrate like they had done after other great KLM flights
And last: the costs!
KLM Accounting shows that the total costs of this flight, with a drastically modified airliner that could not carry passengers on this type of route, were a stunning 32.342 Dutch guilders. The total airmail revenue was 27.398 guilders.
When KLM’s hard-nosed managing director Albert Plesman looked at these figures, he decided there and then to switch to Douglas products in order to turn KLM into a profit making enterprise…

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The 1933 Christmas Mail Flight to Java (and back)

A marketing stunt saved by a standard KLM airliner…


It all started with a contract Albert Plesman, KLM’s ambitious managing director, had negotiated with the Dutch PTT as soon as the first scheduled service to the Dutch East Indies was started on October 1, 1931. The contract stated that KLM would annually carry at least 500 kg mail to the colony on the other side of the world.

The airline would do this at a flat rate of 42.50 Dutch Guilders per kg and would undertake all reasonable efforts to cut delivery time to 2 weeks (compared to at least six weeks for sea-mail).
The reverse side of the coin was that the Dutch PTT had to undertake all necessary marketing activities to generate this annual quantity. This turned out not to be too easy (airmail, at 36 cents a letter was six times as expensive as ‘normal’ mail), so a special committee (Snelpost Indië / Express Mail Indies) was installed. This committee decided that fast, dedicated mail carriers were the way to go and announced a competition to determine which airplane would perform the shortest roundtrip, from Amsterdam to Java and back, to deliver the 1933 Christmas Mail. Two Dutch firms, Fokker and Pander entered the competition. Fokker, as a long established builder of airliners entered its newly designed F.XX.


The Postjager taking off during the 1934 Melbourne race. The ill-fated airplane crashed and burned at Allahabad

The other contender, Pander, was a well-known Dutch firm that wanted to enter the airplane market (They were best know for producing excellent furniture!)
Pander took up the challenge with their newly designed S4 Postjager (Mail Rusher), a tri-engined airplane purely designed to carry mail. It left Amsterdam on December 9, 1933, bound for Java but never got past Taranto, Italy, where it stranded with a severe engine failure.
Humiliatingly, the mail it carried was taken by car to Brindisi (Italy) and flown from there to Cairo by Imperial Airways in one of their seaplanes.

Fokker F.XX PH-AIZ Zilvermeeuw

The Fokker FXX., the first Fokker airliner with a retractable landing gear. Only one was ever built and it was sold off by KLM in 1936 to a front-organization of the Spanish Republicans. This unique aircraft served through the civil war and was destroyed in a crash in Spain in 1938

Next to leave for Java, on December 18, 1933, was Fokker’s brand-new F.XX,, It was confidently announced that the plane would be re-routed via Cairo to pick up the Postjager’s mail. But when the crew ran up its engines before departure, the center engine came to a rattling halt with a fractured crankshaft. The highly publicized mail-rush to Java was in jeopardy of becoming a tremendous fiasco.
But KLM’s Albert Plesman never batted an eyelid; he ordered the crew to grab the older (and 50 km/hr. slower) Fokker FXVIII PH-AIP named Pelikaan (“Pelican”) and be off.
And that is exactly what they did. After the 187 kg mail had been hurriedly transferred, Captain Iwan Smirnoff, co-pilot Piet Soer, flight mechanic Sjef Grosfeld and radioman Cor van Beukering left Amsterdam Schiphol Airport for what would become one of the most famous KLM flights ever.


The ‘Pelikaan’ crew in a KLM propaganda photo.  Seen from left to right: Smirnoff, Soer, Grosfeld and Van Beukering

They thrashed out some kind of flight plan during the first leg of their flight from Amsterdam to Marseilles (France). From there they continued without stopping via Athens, Cairo, Bagdad, Karachi, Bangkok and Singapore to Batavia (Jakarta) and touched down at Tjililitan airfield on December 22, 1933. The flight of nearly 15.000 km (9.923 miles) had been done in 100 hours and 44 minutes, unheard of at that time.


The arrival of the ‘Pelikaan‘ at Tjililitan, Batavia on December 22, 1933.

After a few days rest the crew left Batavia on December 27, 1933 and followed the same route back to Amsterdam where they arrived 100 hours and 33 minutes later on December 30, 1933, having shaved-off 10 minutes of their record outbound flight-time. Over 20.000 cheering spectators welcomed them at Amsterdam Schiphol airport. And the name “Pelikaan” instantly became a household word in the Netherlands.



A postcard, originally sent by the ill-fated ‘Postjager’ and later picked up by the competing ‘Pelikaan’; one of the stamps says ‘Bandoeng 22/12/33″. Directly upon arrival, the mail had been rushed by car from Batavia to the Bandung post office.




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The Other Side: The Nakajima A6M2-N

The Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero’s Bastard Brother


Nakajima A6M2-N’s lined up, probably in Tulagi Harbor

Why would a hard-nosed organization (as the Japanese Navy certainly was) bother with ordering an airplane which performance was reduced to about 20% of its land and carrier-based version?

This question seems baffling enough until one looks at the size of the Japanese ruled or dominated part of the Pacific Ocean, the largest ocean on the planet.
In the spring of 1942, the Japanese armies had conquered the Philippines, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. They were fighting their way into Burma and down to New-Guinea and its adjacent island groups. By that time, the Japanese dominated area was almost all that lay west of a line going straight north to south, from the Aleutian Islands to Rabaul. And though the Japanese Navy was equipped with no less than 12 aircraft carriers, they were not enough to secure such an immense area.

Another problem was the scarcity of suitable landing strips the Japanese forces needed during their island-hopping campaign. To solve this problem, the Japanese Navy fell back on a tradition already established in Japanese military aviation. They decided to use seaplanes in areas from which land based aircraft could not operate. They only had to look for either sheltered coastlines or lagoons and, if the water was calm enough, seaplanes could take off and land. There was no need for runways or carriers, just smooth waters and enough space to pitch tents for aircrew and ground crews.

When in 1940 the Japanese navy initiated the design of a new interceptor seaplane (the Kawanishi N1K1 Kyofu, or ‘Rex’), the need was also expressed for a stopgap aircraft and the Nakajima company was instructed in February 1941 to develop a float-equipped version of the excellent Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero naval interceptor.
Nakajima’s engineers added a large float beneath the fighter’s fuselage to allow the aircraft to operate from water while it housed a 330 liter fuel tank. Stabilizing floats had to be added beneath each wing. To counteract the negative effect of these floats on the aircraft’s aerodynamic properties, a new vertical tail plane had to be fitted to help to compensate for this. And a significant amount of strengthening and stiffening had to be added to the original lightweight design. The final result was a fighter which was not only slower and possibly less maneuverable, but also had a shorter range.

The ‘Rufe’ entered service with the Japanese Navy in 1942; in addition to the prototype another 326 examples entered service until production ceased in September 1943. From the Aleutians to the Solomans and to the Marshall Islands, the ‘Rufe’ was well known by allied aircrew in certain areas of the Pacific. It not only became a regular and unpredictable menace to allied bombers but was also used to attack light shipping and ground targets with its cannons and two 60kg bombs. ‘Rufe’s were able to break up enemy bomber formations and its pilots claimed a respectable number of kills. NA2/C Eitoku Matsunaga shot down 8 aircraft whilst flying the ‘Rufe’ and its replacement – the Kawanishi N1K1. Warrant Officer Kiyomi Katsuki claimed 16 kills during the Second World War; seven of these were scored whilst flying seaplane fighters.
However, despite some notable successes the ‘Rufe’s combat record was chequered. At a time when the more capable A6M2 was struggling against a newer breed of allied fighters, the float-hindered ‘Rufe’ was in an even worse position. On top of this, seaplanes stood little chance when violent tropical storms tore through the Pacific. An estimated 10% of all ‘Rufes’ were destroyed by storms.

A single ‘Rufe’ was discovered by the French forces when they returned to Indochina. They repaired the seaplane but it crashed on take-off for its first test flight.

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Combat over the Mediterranean

A birds-eye view, at masthead level

P&S_MED_CoverMany books and stories have been published about the fight in the North-African desert, the defense of Malta and the ultimate turning point of Alamein. Few books, however, have been dedicated to the hard slogging war over the Mediterranean and the coasts of Greece and Italy. And even fewer have given us a feeling for “how it was” by their pictures and photographs.

This book is an exception. It is based upon a veritable trove of gun camera stills and other pictures left behind by Wing Commander Dennis Ormonde Butler DFC, (“Dob”) , commanding officer of 252 Sqn. RAF. These pictures are all taken between 1942 and 1945, during the long and hard fight against Axis ports and shipping in the Mediterranean.


September 17, 1943 – 252 Sqn. attacking  a three-ship convoy carrying troops from Piraeus to Rhodes. Shown here is the 3.754 ton coaster Paula under attack by RAF Beaufighters

Chris Goss, himself an ex RAF wing-commander, has compiled an excellent set of sometimes stunning pictures and has completed them with relevant information from the squadron’s operation record book. This information and these pictures, often taken (literally) at masthead level, provide the reader with a unique insight of what that bitter fight has been.
I recommend this book to all those who want to learn kore about combat over the Mediterranean, especially from the airman’s perspective.

Combat over the Mediterranean
Chris Goss
Pen &Sword – Frontline Books
Softcover, 154 pages
ISBN 978-1-47338-943-9


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Lt. Sam Marett & the Seversky P-35

An unsung hero and a forgotten plane.

On December 10, 1941, the US Far East Air Force in the Philippines was still reeling from the disastrous Japanese attacks on Dec. 8 and 9. Two thirds of its heavy bombers had been destroyed on the ground and its remaining fighter force had been nearly halved.


A Seversky P-35A landing in bad weather at Iba Airfield, Luzon

What remained of the battered fighter and bomber squadrons had been dispersed to emergency fields, some of them lacking even the most basic items such as food, water and toilet facilities. As was the case with the pilots of the 34th Pursuit Squadron; they spent a foodless and nearly sleepless night at the primitive San Marcelino field.  They took off before dawn and flew their 16 remaining Seversky P-35’s back to Del Carmen airfield, only to find orders to attack a Japanese invasion fleet off Vigan in north Luzon with all possible speed. And speed was not their P-35’s best thing.

The hump-backed looking plane had won the fighter fly-off completion in 1936. But production and deliveries had been so slow that the USAAC decided to order 210 Curtiss P-36’s, the runner up in the 1935 /36 competition. On receiving this news, Alexander P. de Seversky became afraid of his production pipeline ‘drying up’ and started to look for lucrative foreign contracts. He was so ill-advised as to secretly close a contract in 1937 with the Imperial Japanese Navy for a two-seat version of the P-35 (designated 2PA-L and A8V1 by the Japanese).  Because of the strained relations with Japan, this sale was extremely unpopular. The State department put him in their ‘black book’ and pressured the Army not to place any further orders with his firm.


Confiscated Swedish P-35’s in 1940

De Seversky must have been rather slow on the uptake because he also sold 2 of the 2LP-A’s plus a production license to Soviet Russia. Just before he was ousted as chairman of his company, he negotiated an order with the Swedish Flygvapnet for 120 single seat EP-1’s (the export version of the P-35) with two wing-mounted .50 cal. guns. Half of this order had been delivered in 1940 when an irate US Government placed an embargo on all combat aircraft sales, except to the United Kingdom. They confiscated the remainder of the 60 EP-1’s coming off the production line, redesignated them P-35A and sent them off to the Philippines. There, they were intensively used for training and by the time war broke out, most of them were in bad shape, with worn out engines and wobbly guns.

P35s 20 PS
But it was all the 34th Pursuit Squadron had that fateful day. After refueling at Del Carmen the two fights of P-35A’s took off and pressed north. It was more than most engines could stand and fighter after fighter had to return. When the squadron arrived over Vigan, Squadron Commander Lt/1 ‘Sam’ Marett’s flight was down to five planes and his wingman Lt. ‘Bill’ Brown’s flight consisted of two. There was no sign of enemy fighter planes so they all swooped down to attack the Japanese fleet. They riddled many of the small landing barges with their .303 and .50 cal. guns and so badly damaged the transport Oigawa Maru that it had to be beached to save it.
Marett had singled out a warship and pressed home attack after attack. His final attack, carried out at masthead level and through a storm of anti-aircraft fire, proved to be fatal. His target, the “7-GO” class minesweeper “W-10” blew up under him with an enormous explosion that tore off one wing of his P-35, sending it crashing into the sea.

Sadly enough, his exploit has been eclipsed by the publicity around Captain Colin P. Kelly’s supposed bombing and sinking on that same day of  the battleship Haruna. Post-war records revealed however that his attack only slightly damaged the cruiser Natori

I therefore decided to bring one more unsung hero to a wider attention. May he rest in peace.

Lt/1 Samuel Marett was posthumously awarded the DSC.  The citation reads:
Marett, Samuel H. 1st Lt - Vigan 10dec41First Lieutenant (Air Corps) Samuel H. Marett (ASN: 0-22854), United States Army Air Forces, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (Posthumously) for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving as Pilot of a P-35 Fighter Airplane in the 34th Pursuit Squadron, 24th Pursuit Group, FAR EAST Air Force, in aerial combat against enemy forces on 10 December 1941, during an air mission against Japanese surface vessels at Vigan, Philippine Islands.
On that date, First Lieutenant Marett was Pilot of a P-35 fighter in an attack on Japanese shipping and landing parties at Vigan, Philippine Islands. Following bombing by heavy bombers, Lieutenant Marett lead his squadron through a hail of anti-aircraft fire to strafe the enemy vessels and landing parties. In the performance of this mission, one of the enemy vessels exploded, destroying Lieutenant Marett’s aircraft and killing him instantly. First Lieutenant Marett’s unquestionable valor in aerial combat, at the cost of his life, is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, the Far East Air Force, and the United States Army Air Forces.
General Orders: Headquarters, U.S. Army Forces in the Far East, General Orders No. 48 (1941)

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