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…

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USAAF P-40’s in Java – Part Four


The Bali Ambush – 20th Squadron to Java

The USAT President Polk, a cargo liner pressed into service as an Army transport, sailed from San Francisco on December 18, 1941 without escort, en-route for Mindanao. As the situation in the Philippines rapidly grew worse, the ship was re-routed when it was half-way across the pacific. It docked in Brisbane on January 13, 1942 and its cargo of 55 crated P-40’s was rapidly unloaded. Four days later another transport, the SS Mormacon, came into Brisbane, loaded with 67 crated P-40E’s, thus bringing the total delivered that week up to 122.

USAT President Polk

USAT President Polk in Australian waters


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.


A rather alarmist Australian poster from 1942; even Prime Minister Curtin found its message “…too disturbing…”

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.



Map fragment, showing the islands separating Timor from Java


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).

Coming up: Part Five – The weather, the other enemy …

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USAAF P-40’s in Java – Part Three

USAAF_P40's_Banner_3The 17th goes north 16 – 25 January, 1942,

USAAF p40-with-blades-4-feet-off-groundIn the early morning of January 16, 1942, the 17th Pursuit Squadron (Provisional) left for Darwin. After a hair-raising rooftop-level buzz down Brisbane’s Queen Street, the 17 P-40’s turned north-west onto what was to be called ‘’The Brereton Route”, 1875 miles (3017 kms), to Darwin. The distance was way beyond the fuel range of the P-40’s, so stopovers were scheduled at Rockhampton, Townsville, Cloncurry and Daly Waters.


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…

Coming up: Part Four – The Bali Ambush…

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USAAF P-40’s in Java – Part Two

USAAF_P40's_Banner_2A journey to Australia

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.

PAL Hnagar 1941 D18

One of the Beech D-18S’ used to fly the USAAF pilots to Darwin, here seen in a damaged hangar at Mindanao, Philippines, just before the flight 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.


B-17E taking off from a field in Java

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

Coming up: Part Three – The 17th goes north.

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USAAF P-40’s in Java – Part One


Disaster in the Philippines

When the alarm finally went off in 1939, the hasty scramble to re-arm could not undo the effects of decades of politically expedient budget cuts, short-sighted complacency and deliberate neglect that had eroded the Allies’ defensive capabilities in South-East Asia. As a result, the Allied forces in that area were woefully unprepared for the veritable “Blitzkrieg” the Japanese unleashed with their surprise attacks of December 7/8, 1941.
The US Army Air Force in the Philippines was hit extremely hard. A Japanese airfleet consisting of 107 twin engined bombers and 90 Mitsubishi ‘Zero’ fighters attacked Clark and Iba fields at 11.30 am. After the attack, which lasted until 1.25 pm, nearly all available B-17 bombers and roughly two-thirds of the 54 operational P-40’s had been wiped out.


Clark Field, Luzon, after the Japanese Attack on December 8, 1942


Recurrent attacks by the Japanese forces during the next days ended the FEAF’s offensive and defensive capability. Facing complete annihilation by the overwhelming Japanese air superiority, the remaining US fighters were sent on reconnaissance missions only.


Pilots of the 24th Pursuit Group at Clark Field, 1941

Some of the fighter pilots ignored this order; Lt/1 Boyd D Wagner became the first US ‘Ace’ in WW2 by shooting down five Japanese fighters between Dec. 13 and 16. But the attrition went on and by December 24, only 16 serviceable P-40’s and 4 Seversky P-35’s were left of the original fighter force.


On Christmas Day, Major General Lewis H. Brereton ordered all remaining fighters to move to fields on Bataan and his remaining 10 B-17 bombers to move to Java in the Dutch East Indies. He also decided to move his FEAF headquarters to Darwin, Australia.
Facing continuous Japanese attacks, MacArthur and Brereton desperately needed more bombers and fighters from the U.S. to re-equip their air force. And it looked like some help was on its way. One of the ships in the ‘Pensacola’ convoy (named after the escorting cruiser, USS Pensacola) was the Admiral Halstead carrying 18 crated Curtiss P-40E’s. The convoy had left San Francisco for Mindanao on November 24, was rerouted to Brisbane, Australia, on December 13 and arrived in Brisbane’s Newstead Wharves on the December 22, 1941.


SS “Admiral Halstead” (3248 BRT) in Australian waters


The P-40’s were hurriedly unloaded and trucked to the new Amberley Airfield outside Ipswich, some 60 kilometres (38 miles) from the port. There the fighters were unpacked from their crates by disembarked USAAF personnel along with volunteers from the AVG contingent on route to China.

P-40-amberley erarly-1942-AWM

An ‘uncrated’ P-40E at Amerley Field, January 1942

Working two shifts, 24 hours a day, line chiefs of the USAAF 7th Bomb Group, together with RAAF personnel from No 3 S.F.T.S (Service Flying Training School) and a number of AVG volunteers, somehow put these P40E aircraft together – though initially no one knew how to assemble them.


Engine testing proved to be a problem, as no Prestone coolant had been shipped. The problem was solved by literally going around all garages in Brisbane. In this way, enough Prestone was scooped up to test two engines. A DC3 hastily flew all the way to Adelaide (South Australia) to collect a 44 gallon drum that had been located in a garage. Now there was coolant for six more engines. Then an alarmed Australian government stepped in and requisitioned all Prestone in the country, barely enough to provide the desperately needed coolant for the single P40 squadron.

Despite all this, the first P-40E Warhawk ever to fly in Australia (serial 41-5332) took to the air on January 2, 1942 and by January 12, 1942, fifteen were ready to be test-flown. A week later, 17 P-40E’s were ready; the 18th was doomed to become a ‘hangar queen’ as it had been crated without a rudder and minus one wingtip.

Coming up: Part Two – “A Journey to Australia” 

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Fighting the Bombers!

The Luftwaffe’s struggle against the Allied bomber offensive
A book review.

Fighting_Bombers_1This book dismisses any possible doubt one might have about the German habit of “gründlichkeit” (thoroughness). A series of 18 interrogations / interviews with Luftwaffe top-commanders, like Adolf Galland (Luftwaffe fighter-ace with 103 victories), Josef Kammhuber (architect of the “Kammhuber-line”), Wolfgang Martini (architect of the Luftwaffe radar and communications network), as well as Willy Messershmitt (designer of the lethal Me-262, the world’s first operational jet fighter) give the reader an extraordinary detailed view of the German air defences during the 1940 – 1945 timeframe and the development of equipment, strategy and tactics. It also provides a rare insight in the German struggle to stay abreast of the rapid Allied technological advances.

The book is structured into five chapters: 1: “The defence of the Reich”, deals with the organization of the air defences; 2: “A battle of increasing numbers and technology”, gives a very detailed overview of the applied procedures and techniques to cope with the growing Allied bomber threat; 3: “Developing technology to defend the Reich”, deals with radar as well as aircraft development, notably the Me-262; 4: “Applying the technology”, describes the problems of command and control in a rapidly changing environment.

The final chapter, 5, is more like an epilogue; in 16 short paragraphs, General Major Hans-Detlef Herhuth von Roden (Chief, Historical Section Luftwaffe High-Command), sums up the reasons why the air defences of the Reich failed. The first of his conclusions “… the German armed forces thought only in an offensive vein (…) of the overall conduct of the war…” sums up the basic strategic flaw in German military thinking at that time.

A wealth of statistical information and diagrams lifts this collection of interviews almost into the “Textbook” category. I recommend this book to all of you who are seriously interested in German WW2 (night) fighter operations and looking for hard, factual data combined with operational experiences.
 Pages: 256
ISBN: 9781848328457
Published: 26th September 2016

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A Tiger and Headhunters: Flying Across the Hump… Part 3 of 3

Wandering through Time and Place

The plane John Dallen was flying across the Hump in World War II crashed in Manipur and John walked out. This photo was taken of John immediately after he walked out of the jungle when his plane crashed while he was flying the Hump in World War II. He is holding the boots he wore. His parachute pack is in front.

This is my final post on Peggy’s dad, John Dallen, when he was forced to bail out into Burma jungle when returning from a flight into China across the Himalayan Mountains. 

“The conditions were at their worst—raining, pitch black and over territory regarded as plenty rugged. I landed in a jungle so dense that I couldn’t even move. The only sensible thing to do was to pull part of the parachute over me and try to catch some sleep.”

John Dallen in a letter to his wife Helen on February 18, 1945— eight days after he had parachuted out of his damaged C-109 over an Indian jungle when…

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