USAAF P-40’s in Java – Part Nine

USAAF_P40's_Banner_9The fate of Malaya and Singapore was sealed between February 8 and February 18, and during that time, there were no Japanese raids on Java. But it was far from a restful time for the USAAF. It was the period in which the 3rd Pursuit Squadron lost an entire flight over Timor. The second flight made it – minus one – and the 17th was strengthened by 8 much-needed P-40’s.
To the north-west, General Tamashita decided to launch the attack on one of his most important targets – the Palembang oil fields in south-east Sumatra. Covered by swarms of fighters, Japanese transport planes dropped paratroopers at and around the Palembang P1 airfield. At the same time they sent a fleet of invasion barges up the Musi River toward Palembang and the crucial refineries, the only ones in the area that produced aviation grade gasoline.

Major Bud Sprague flew on February 15 to ABDACOM in Bandung, a flight of nearly 400 miles, to the other end of Java. The news from Singapore and Sumatra was so bad that an eight-ship flight of P-40’s was ordered to attack the Japanese invasion barges near Palembang ASAP. The flight first went to Madiun, was armed with Dutch 20 kg bombs and flew on to Batavia where Muckley cracked up his P-40 on landing in very bad weather. There was no-one to service their planes so they had to do that themselves, after a long and tiring flight.


Early production Mitsubishi “Type 96” (A5M “Claude”)

They took off early in the morning of February 17. When they reached Palembang, they found the Japanese fighter cover consisted of just 6 Type-96’s (Mitsubishi A5M), and for once the pilots of the 17th were dogfighting Japanese fighters without being outnumbered. After shooting down four of the Japanese fighters, they bombed and strafed the barges on the Musi River.
February 18, saw the curtain rise on the final act of the drama. The Japanese sent massive air raids to East-Java, especially against the magnificent naval base of Surabaya. Sprague and his men were still on their way back from Bandung, so the remaining 12 P-40’s from Ngoro intercepted 9 Japanese “Betty” bombers over Surabaya. The pilots claimed 4 “Betty’s” shot down, for the loss of one P-40 from which Lt. Morris Caldwell bailed out and came back safely.


A Curtiss P-40E on a jungle strip similar to Ngoro

February 19th was the day the Japanese carried out simultaneous air raids against Darwin, Kupang, Denpasar (Bali) and Surabaya, covering the invasions of Timor and Bali. A large Allied convoy with reinforcements for Timor was driven off by Japanese air attacks.
The Allied fleet units sent to Bali came too late to prevent the Japanese from landing and in the battle of Badung strait that followed, a Dutch destroyer was lost. The Japanese invasion troops seized Denpasar airfield and now had a fighter and bomber base within striking distance of Surabaya and the East-Java airfields. The results were immediate and disastrous.


A flight of Douglas A-24’s, the Army version of the SBD “Dauntless”

The next day, February 20, 7 A-24’s and 3 LB-30’s (Liberators) took off at 06.15 am in a last-ditch effort to attack the Japanese invasion beachhead and ships at Bali. In the clear skies over Malang, 16 P-40’s of the 17th “formed up” over them and the formation headed for Bali and the Badung Strait.
It was to be a black day for the squadron.


30 Zero fighters scrambled from Denpasar airfield and broke up the P-40 flights. In the individual combats that followed, Bud Sprague (newly promoted to Lt. Colonel that day), and Lt. Galiene were killed. Lieutenants William Stauter and Robert Johnson ran out of fuel and crash-landed on the rough South Java coast. Lt. Thomas Hayes made it back to Ngoro but he crashed his badly damaged plane on landing.

Major Charles Bud Sprague

Major Charles “Bud” Sprague

The squadron claimed three Japanese planes shot down and one shot up at Den Pasar field. Two of the A-24’s were shot down and one crew killed. Five returned, all of them damaged and one so badly shot up that it never flew again. The LB-30’s all survived, thanks to the pilots of the 17th that drew off the Japanese fighters. But despite all their efforts, the bombing was ineffectual; the A-24’s scored hits on transports and a cruiser but they were all towed away and the invasion of Bali had taken place, cutting off the ferry route to Australia.


Despite the grievous loss of their beloved commanding officer, the 17th went into action again on February 21. Led by Lt Grant Mahony, 16 P-40’s took off in four flights. They were tasked with the protection of Surabaya. A and B flights were almost immediately jumped by a large number of Zero fighters and Lts. George Hynes and Wallace Hoskyn were shot down and killed.
On February 22, the 17th saw no action but the next day, February 23, amid the alarms and the fruitless searches for the enemy, Grant Mahoney officially became the new CO of the 17th. At that moment, the USAAF presence in Java was down to 10 heavy bombers, three operational A-24 dive bombers, and 18 P-40 fighters of which 12 were operational.


Maintenance in wartime jungle conditions…

All of them were more or less damaged and some of them had flown 400 hours without overhaul. Essential components such as engines and guns were giving more and more problems.
On February 24 came another blow and the sign that the end was near. Without previous warning, 20 officers and 36 enlisted men were withdrawn under orders to an unspecified destination. The stunned Mahoney was immediately afterward ordered to go on an “inspection trip” with General Brereton, destination (again) unknown. In a hectic and muddled way, command of the 17th PS passed to Lt. Gerald “Bo” McCallum, the squadron engineering officer.
On February 25, the 17th PS was ordered to intercept incoming Japanese Bombers over Surabaya. The 54 bombers were flying too high, at 27 – 30.000 feet, and the warning came too late. While the 12 patched up P-40’s were still clawing for altitude, they were jumped by 36 escorting Zero fighters that shot-up McCallum’s engine. He bailed out and while he was descending by parachute, the Japanese fighters machine-gunned and killed him. Kizer’s flight arrived too late to save him but he, Dale and Irving each shot down a Zero in a tail chase.
Despite the dissolution of ABDACOM, the war went on for the stripped down 17th. On February 26, command of the battered squadron passed on to Lt. Joseph J. Kizer.


A line-up of Dutch Brewster B-339D Buffalo fighters

Late in the afternoon, 7 Dutch Hurricanes and 5 Brewster Buffaloes arrived at Ngoro. The fighters were fugitives from the badly raided airfields around Batavia and Bandung in West-Java.


The Hurricanes, hastily assembled and handed over to the Dutch, lacked radios and oxygen gear and were not operational.
9 P-40’s took to the air at 0930 on February 27, escorted by three Buffaloes, though by now it was well known that the Buffaloes were no match for Japanese fighters. They were to intercept a formation of Japanese bombers, escorted by fighters, over the Java Sea. This mission, providing air cover for Rear-Admiral Doorman’s ‘Combined Striking Force’, yielded an unexpected result for the 17th. Lt. William J. Hennon surprised two Japanese fighters and claimed one of them as shot down.
Later that day, ten P-40’s escorted 3 A-24’s from Malang, in an attempt to attack a Japanese invasion fleet in the Java Sea. Despite Rear-Admiral Doorman’s request, the 17th received no orders to go after the Japanese spotting planes that were directing and correcting the Japanese ships’ gunfire. His ‘Combined Striking Force’ would be wiped out that night in the battle of the Java Sea.
On February 28, 10 P-40’s, joined by three Buffaloes, flew three protective missions over Surabaya and one Buffalo was lost in a crash landing. By the end of the day, Japanese fighters finally located Ngoro by shadowing a small Dutch transport that was bringing in the badly needed radio crystals and oxygen gear for the Dutch Hurricanes. Fortunately, a violent rainstorm prevented the Zero’s from strafing the field.
By now, most of the P-40’s were in bad shape, due to lack of spares and no time for maintenance. One pilot noted in his diary: “…two of them are completely unable to take off; tyres with huge blisters, no brakes, no generator and hydraulic fluid leaking into the cockpit…”

P-40C_6th_Air_Force_in_camouflaged_revetment_December_1942On March 1, 1942, the Japanese forces landed at several points on the North-Java coast and the 17th flew its last mission. Three flights of 3 P-40’s took off at 5.30 am, followed by all available Dutch fighters, seven Hurricanes and four Buffaloes.  A-Flight consisted of Lts. Kizer, Adkins and Johnson, B-flight consisted of Lts. Dale, Caldwell and McWerther and C-flight consisted of Lts. Kruzel, Reagan and Fuchs).
When they arrived over the beach and attacked the crowded barges, the invasion fleet lashed out in a storm of AA fire. Caught in a crossfire, Lt. Morris Caldwell’s P-40 was the first to be hit and he crashed into the sea. Lt. Cornelius Reagan’s plane was set on fire and crashed, killing the pilot. Lt. Frank Adkins’ P-40 was hit, but he managed to bail out, although behind enemy lines, and amazingly made it back to Ngoro in time to be evacuated. Lt. R.S. Johnson’s P-40 was hit in the oil tank but he managed to nurse it back to base, he and his fighter covered all over with black oil and with two inches of it sloshing around the cockpit.
Hard on their heels came the Dutch Hurricanes and Buffaloes and they were able to wreak a lot of havoc amongst the invasion barges as the P-40’s of the 17th had silenced quite a few AA guns.
Six terribly shot up P-40’s returned to Ngoro at 7.30 am. and the crew chiefs scratched their heads, wondering how to repair them. Right then, the evacuation order arrived, telling them to hand everything over to the Dutch and go to Yogyakarta . When they were packing their scant belongings at 0900, two Zeroes came streaking down and strafed the field. Two well camouflaged Dutch Hurricane escaped destruction, the rest of the fighters went up in flames.
Later that day, the surviving crew members of the 17th clambered aboard some trucks and left Ngoro for a harrowing, all-night drive across the mountains. They reached Yogyakarta at 04.00 am. and, after an anxious wait, all piled aboard a clapped out and badly overloaded B-17 that took off on three engines. It touched down at Broome 71/2 hours later.

It was the end of the 17th PS operations in Java.

Coming up next: The loss of the Langley and the final curtain.


I am indebted to the following authors and sources of information that enabled me to write this series of articles:

“Army Air Action in the Philippines and Netherlands East Indies, 1941-1942”- United States. Army Air Forces,
“Summary of Air Actions in the Philippines and Netherlands East Indies – 7 Dec 1941 – 26 March 1942” – Asst. Chief of Air Staff Intelligence Division (declassified)
Allied air campaign across Australia, Sumatra, Java, the Philippines, Burma and CeylonBrian Cull.
“Darwin 1942 – The Japanese attack on Australia” – Bob Alford.
“Australia’s Pearl Harbor – the Japanese air raid on Darwin” – Tom Womack,
“5th Air Force in Australia 1942 – 1945” –
“P-40E/E-1 Operations in Australia Part 1 – 5”, ADF Serials, Gordon R. Birkett
USAAF Worldwide Operations Chronology, December ’41 – March ’42″, Aircrew Remembered
“The Army Air Forces in World War II” V1-5 – Wesley Frank Craven,
“Joint Actions by Allied Air and Naval Forces at Java on 26-27 February 1942″ – Peter C. Boer
17th Pursuit Sqn in Java” Col Lester J Johnson, USAF (ret), Air Force Magazine, Sept 1980,
“From Bali to Berlin”, Brigadier General Thomas L. Hayes, interviewed by Tom Guttman
“The 27th Reports” – extracts from diaries, copies of official orders, stories Jan 1,’40 – May 27, 1942; various authors
A Pretty Damn Able Commander – Lewis Hyde Brereton” – Air Force Historical Foundation 2001, Roger G. Miller,
“General Kenney reports: a personal history of the Pacific War” – George Churchill Kenney,
“In my sights: the memoir of a P-40 Ace”- James Bruce Morehead,
“They Fought With What They Had ” – Walter Dumaux Edmonds
“Bloody Shambles: The defence of Sumatra to the fall of Burma” – Christopher F. Shores,
Doomed at the start: American pursuit pilots in the Philippines,1941-1942” – William H. Bartsch
“Every Day a Nightmare: American Pursuit Pilots in the Defense of Java”, 1941-1942″ – William H. Bartsch,
“Weller’s War: A Legendary Foreign Correspondent’s Saga of World War II ” – George Weller
“Hurricane Aces 1941-45” – Andrew Thomas,
“Samurai!” – Saburo Sakai,
“The Saga of Pappy Gunn” – George C. Kenney,

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It’s nice to be appreciated

Z_Boxcet_Softcover_2The Historical Novel Society just published a very nice review of our joint effort “Pearl Harbor and More…”  I’m proud to be one of the contributing authors! Have a look at

Here are the Stories:
Deadly Liberty by R.V. Doon: Connie Collins, a navy nurse on the hospital ship, USS Solace, takes liberty the day before Pearl Harbor. Her budding romance wilts, an AWOL nurse insists she find a missing baby, and she’s in the harbor when WWII erupts. Under fire, she boards the ship–and witnesses a murder during the red alert chaos. When liberty turns deadly, shipmates become suspects.
The List by Vanessa Couchman: A high-ranking German officer is assassinated in Western France and 50 hostages are shot. Fifty more will be executed if the killers are not handed over. Jewish communist Joseph Mazelier is on the list. Will Countess Ida agree to help him escape?
Christmas Eve in the City of Dreams by Alexa Kang: On his last night in New York, a young grifter sets out to turn the table on those who shorted him before he leaves for the draft. Will he win or lose?
Allies After All by Dianne Ascroft: Although their nations are allies, from their first meeting American civilian contractor Art Miller and Local Defence Volunteer, Robbie Hetherington loathe each other. But Northern Ireland is too small a place for such animosity. What will it take to make the two men put aside their enmity and work together?
Time to Go by Margaret Tanner: A young sailor, who died at Pearl Harbor, finally meets his soulmate on the 75th Anniversary of the battle. Will she be prepared to leave the 21st century with him? Or will they forever remain apart?
Turning Point by Marion Kummerow: Eighteen-year-old German Jew Margarete Rosenbaum is about to be sent to a labor camp, when a bomb hits the building she lives in. Emerging from the rubble she’s presented with an unexpected opportunity. But how far is she willing to go to save her life?
I am an American by Robyn Hobusch Echols: Ellen Okita and Flo Kaufmann are high school seniors in Livingston, California. Ellen is a first generation American who lives in the Yamato Colony, composed of about 100 families of Japanese descent. Flo’s father is a first generation American. After Pearl Harbor, the war hits home fast and brings unforeseen changes to them and their families.
A Rude Awakening by Robert A. Kingsley: Singapore, December 1941; the fortress sleeps, believing its own tales of strength and invulnerability. A rigidly class based society throws garden parties and dines sedately, disregarding the slowly growing number of warning signals. Suddenly, the underestimated enemy ferociously attacks and the myth of invincibility is shattered forever

You can buy it from Amazon – either in e-Book or softcover version!
Here’s the link:



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USAAF P-40’s in Java – Part Eight

USAAF_P40's_Banner_8The 17th into the breach

On January 25, 1942, the 17th Pursuit Squadron (Provisional) under Major Charles A Sprague, arrives at Surabaya with 12 P-40’s. It is the first USAAF pursuit squadron to arrive in Java, in a frantic effort to bolster the crumbling Allied air defenses.

The ‘ground echelon’ arrives the next day, in two commandeered C-39 transports and, to my opinion, these ground crews can’t be praised enough!
Most of them had arrived in Australia on the President Polk and they all had volunteered for the job. They had picked up their toolkits and grabbed any small spares they could lay their hands on before they were flown up to Darwin and then on to Java. A hazardous flight in unarmed cargo planes with no seating and a rope down the cabin to hold on to during start and landing. These men maintained fighters under the worst possible circumstances, both in Australia and Java. They were beset by the weirdest problems (such as Dutch issue aromatic 100 Octane fuel that dissolved the linings of the self-sealing fuel tanks) and no spares available, except for parts they “cannibalized” from badly damaged P-40’s. And yet they worked on, keeping P-40’s in the air till the very last day…

00 7th FS P-40 at 30 Mile strip RaronaThe 17th flies its first mission that same afternoon, January 26, 1942.
A six ship flight led by Sprague takes off in very bad weather to protect a Dutch submarine that is limping into Surabaya. The squadron also suffers its first operational loss at the end of this mission when Lt. Neri crashes on landing on the soggy, rain drenched field. He is severely wounded.

The 17th is assigned the protection the Surabaya naval base and on the first of February, the squadron moves to Ngoro (Blimbing), an airfield newly “constructed” out of drained rice paddies, some 16 miles south of Surabaya. A Dutch fighter leads them during their short transfer to “Blimbing” (as they keep calling it) and for a very good reason. Ngoro is an extremely well camouflaged field and its T-shaped runways can only be found by using innocent checkpoints, such as bridges and buildings. The facilities are of the simplest construction possible; a square and bare bamboo hut is set aside as the operations building, and smaller huts around the field are shelters for the alert crews. Maintenance is to be done in a number of bamboo and dirt revetments and, as there are no hangars, the planes are parked in the open under the trees. Each aircraft has one pilot, one crew chief, and one armorer but other conditions are far from textbook- perfect. All administration is in the hands of one sergeant with a portable typewriter. To top it all, there is no paymaster, so for a while Major Sprague pays his men out of his own pocket.

US_5thAF_Bases _Java

Map showing USAAF fields in Java – 1942


Officers and groundcrews were quartered in houses surrounding an abandoned sugar refinery 5 miles away. Dutch ladies provide food but the meals they prepare are not always to the liking of the American crews. Breakfast was either bananas and other fruit or two slices of bread, made into a sandwich with a (cold) fried egg stuck between two slabs of ham. Rice with some curried vegetables and meat was inevitably served for lunch and dinner.

On February 3, after two more days of grace, the Japanese air raids against Java begin in earnest with a concentrated attack against the large Surabaya naval establishment. The 17th launches two flights of P-40’s from Blimbing and A-flight attacks 17 Jap bombers over Surabaya. Two P-40’s are low on fuel and have to turn back, the other two press home the attack and Lt. Hennon shoots down a Jap Bomber. B-Flight gets into a fight with Zeroes and Lt. Coss is shot down and killed. Lt Rowland claims to have shot down a Jap fighter. The 17th has lost 1 pilot and 2 P-40’s and is down to 11 operational P-40’s. A squadron of Dutch Curtiss CW-21b “Interceptors” from Perak is jumped by a large number of Zeroes and is mauled badly; it loses 6 out of its 13 fighters. The Japanese have lost two planes out of a total of 138…



Map published in “The New York Times” February 4, 1942

Additional P-40’s are trickling in over the next few days; between Feb. 5 and 8, the 8 remaining P-40’s of the 20th PS are brought in from Bali and on Feb. 11, the second flight of the 3rd PS flies from Timor to Java, losing one P-40 in a landing accident. By Feb. 12, the 17th PS has 30 P-40’s, of which 25 operational. The survivors of the 3rd and 20th squadrons are “integrated” into the 17th, which brings the strength up to 47 officers and 81 enlisted men, the high point in the 17th’s strength.


Coming up next:

Going down fighting – the last two weeks of the 17th Pursuit Squadron

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Glenn Martin WH-139 / B10 update

139 Side ViewPage updated on April 20,2017

Operational history updated and corrected, survivor list updated. Colour side view added.

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USAAF P-40’s in Java – Part Seven

Darwin Feb 19, 1942 – Australia’s Pearl Harbor


Before the Japanese could launch their final assault on Java, they had to capture Bali as an airbase and to cut off the Allied air supply route from Australia. To accomplish this, a two pronged attack was planned. To the east, an air raid to destroy Darwin as an operational base and the invasion of Timor; and to the west the invasion of Bali. A task force, consisting of four carriers, two battleships and three heavy cruisers was directed toward Australia. The four carriers, from the 1st Carrier Air Fleet, were the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryū, and Sōryū, the very same ships that launched the assault on Pearl Harbor.


Curtiss P-40E’s in Darwin – early 1942

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.


Mitsubishi G3M “Nell” bombers

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.


The one that got away – Oestrichers P-40E at Daly Waters

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.


Walkers P-40 after crash-landing it

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.

Darwin Ships

Burning vessels in Darwin Harbour, Februart 19, 1942

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.

Type Location Remarks
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:

Type Location Remarks
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.

Coming up next: Part Eight – The Fighting 17th in Java

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USAAF P-40’s in Java – Part Six

Confusion, chaos – and Bob Buel


“…Essential you have squadron P-40’s at Darwin for operations and convoy by 13-14 February…” said a message from General Brett on February 12, 1942, confirming the confusion and chaos that now had the Allied command in its grip.

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…
P40E's_Feb42Alarmed 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.

Houston_2The 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.

Bob_BuehlThe 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_MemorialBuel’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.

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USAAF P-40’s in Java – Part Five

USAAF_P40's_Banner_5The Other Enemy – The Weather…

USAAF officers Wagner, Mahoney, Strauss and Keenan were handling the P-40 flight training in Brisbane. On February 1, 1942, they put their commissions at risk by sending this message directly to Washington:

“… have had eight accidents and 1 (one) death all due to pilot inexperience; estimate three months and fifteen wrecked planes to fully train these pilots for combat operations. Request we be allowed two airplanes type C-53 for purpose bringing Colonel George and two squadrons of experienced pilots over from Bataan…”

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.

usaaf p40warhawk-WRG-0020978Captain 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.


Storm over the Timor Sea, as seen from Darwin

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.

Coming up: Part Six – Confusion and Chaos…

Posted in Aircraft, Australia in WW2 and later, Dutch East Indies, Pacific War, USAAF Pacific, WW2 Pacific | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments