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.
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.
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 —