Chapter 10: Loss of the Netherlands East Indies
By the end of December 1941 the Japanese, in addition to striking the United States Navy a crippling blow at Pearl Harbor, had destroyed for all practical purposes the Far East Air Force, had driven the American Asiatic Fleet, together with the remnants of Patwing 10, from its Philippine base to the Netherlands East Indies, had accomplished the virtual isolation of General MacArthur’s troops on Bataan and Corregidor, and were well on the way to complete encirclement of the Philippines. Already they had landed in Borneo as a part of the encircling movement and as the initial encroachment on the fabulously wealthy Netherlands East Indies. Simultaneously, they had forced the capitulation of the British garrison at Hong Kong and had penetrated Thailand, where, meeting only a token resistance, they promptly began to assemble the forces for drives into Burma and the Malay States that would end in the fall of Rangoon and Singapore. As much as the Americans would have liked to put the issue to a test in the Philippines, the battle now was for Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies.
Hope of barring the way to further advances in the skillfully directed and sensationally successful Japanese drive depended upon an effective coordination of effort by hastily assembled and ill-prepared American, British, Dutch, and Australian forces. Unhappily, prewar consultation among the interested staffs had not been advanced to a point comparable to that reached in the American-British conversations regarding common problems in the Atlantic. Through the months immediately preceding Pearl Harbor, however, significant steps toward effective collaboration had been taken. Agreements had been reached for the use of Australian bases in the ferrying of heavy
bombers to the Philippines and for the development of installations essential to the South Pacific air route; an exchange of visits between American, British, Dutch, and Australian officers had occurred; and commitments had been made for a sharing of intelligence and of the responsibility for reconnaissance to facilitate close cooperation. Indeed, by November 1941 the threatening crisis in relations with Japan had brought a general agreement extending somewhat beyond a policy merely of cooperation: the commanders of the British Far Eastern Fleet and the American Asiatic Fleet were to draft a joint plan of naval operations with a view to its expansion by consultation with the Dutch into a three-power plan of action; air and ground commanders – American, British, and Dutch – similarly were to prepare joint plans for operations to be coordinated where necessary with those of the naval forces; close liaison was to be maintained between all major headquarters, logistical facilities would be shared, and local commanders might agree upon unity of command for particular task forces.1 The march of events allowed little time for the perfection of these plans. But a beginning had been made; and under the impact of an emergency far more serious than any that had been anticipated, the principle of unity of command already agreed upon as a basic feature of Anglo-American collaboration was accepted by the associated powers in the Pacific.
The ABDA Command
Responding to General Marshall’s argument that “a man with good judgment and unity of command has a distinct advantage over a man with brilliant judgment who must rely on cooperation,2 the ARCADIA conference of the British and American chiefs of staff on 29 December considered a draft directive for a supreme commander of the so-called ABDA (American, British, Dutch, Australian) area.* On the same day, Prime Minister Churchill informed Gen. Sir Archibald Wavell of his selection as supreme commander, and by 2 January a directive for the new command had been approved tentatively by the President and the Prime Minister.3 The newly established theater included Burma, Malaya, the Netherlands East Indies, and the Philippines. As supreme commander, General Wavell was to hold Burma and the Malay barrier – a line presumably well anchored at Singapore
* For a discussion of this and other action of the ARCADIA conference with reference to the over-all strategy of the war, see above, Chapter 7.
on the west and extending through the Netherlands East Indies to Australia on the east – to achieve over this area a “general air superiority” by concentration as occasion required of available air forces, to re-establish communications with Luzon through the Netherlands East Indies, to provide support for the beleaguered garrison under MacArthur in the Philippines, and at the earliest possible opportunity to launch offensive operations designed to roll back the advancing Japanese tide.
General Wavell’s responsibility in the new command, which he formally assumed on 15 January, was primarily operational.* He was to coordinate on the theater level the operations of all forces assigned to the area by the ABDA governments, to arrange for the formation of task forces to undertake specific missions, and for their command he was to designate officers of his choice “irrespective of seniority or nationality.” He also was “to direct and coordinate the creation and development of administrative facilities and the broad allocation of war materials; to dispose reinforcements, to require reports from the commanders of armed forces assigned to the ABDA Area, and to control the issue of all communiqués.” Orders issued by Wavell were to be considered as emanating from the respective ABDA governments, but the supreme commander was not to interfere with the “administrative processes” of the several forces under his command, nor was he to divide any “national component of a task force” for attachment to other components “except in the case of urgent necessity.” Moreover, he was instructed that commanders under him would enjoy freedom of communication with their respective governments. “In the unlikely event,” so reads his directive, “that any of your immediate subordinates, after making due representations to you, still considers that obedience to your orders would jeopardize the national interests of his country to an extent unjustified by the general situation in the ABDA area, he has the right, subject to your being immediately notified of such intention, to appeal direct to his own government before carrying out the orders.” The problem of assuring due consideration for national interest and sensitivity is further reflected in a provision for representation of each of the ABDA governments on Sir Archibald’s staff, and in the recognition given to the possibility that selection
* On 18 January, he located his headquarters at Lembang, ten miles north of Bandoeng in Java.
of commanders for the combined naval and air forces might require a decision by the governments concerned.4
Actually, the major problems confronted in establishing the command proceeded chiefly from the novelty of the undertaking, the extreme demand for haste, the vastness of the area involved, the absence of adequate communications facilities, and the lack of other aids which could have been provided only through long and careful planning. Inevitably, the early days were marked by confusion and uncertainty as to procedural and other channels. Chief among the American officers identified with the command were Adm. Thomas C. Hart, commanding the U.S. Asiatic Fleet; Maj. Gen. George H. Brett, who on 31 December had arrived in Australia to assume command of United States Army Forces in Australia (USAFIA); his chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Julian F. Barnes; and Maj. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton, in command of the remnants of the U.S. Far East Air Force.* General Brett apparently had already been selected as Wavell’s deputy when in the second week of January he flew to Java for a conference with the supreme commander. By 12 January, General Brereton had been directed by the War Department to assume vice Brett the command of USAFIA, but at approximately the same time Brereton also received appointment as deputy chief of air staff for ABDA.5 Though the burden of this latter assignment would be lessened upon the arrival of Air Marshal Sir Richard E. C. Peirse, who had been selected as air commander (ABDAIR) for ABDA,† Wavell insisted that two such assignments, one in Australia and the other in Java, were too much for one man to carry.6 General Marshall already had suggested that Brett might “volunteer” to assume some of Brereton’s duties pending Peirse’s arrival, but Wavell pointed out that in addition to a considerable responsibility for the operational direction of the air forces, General Brett would be responsible for lines of supply both from Australia and from India. Indeed, it was Wavell’s feeling that Brett should have the additional assistance of some air officer of high rank in Australia who would take charge of that section of the supply route supporting the ABDA operations.7
Accordingly, on 17 January Brereton was designated by the War Department as commanding general of American tactical forces in the ABDA area, which of course would be largely air forces, and General
* See above, pp. 226–31.
† Peirse assumed command on 28 January.
Barnes was placed in command of base facilities in Australia, a command formally assumed by him on 27 January.8 Meanwhile, Brett had taken up the duties of deputy commander and intendant general to Wavell; in the former capacity, he informed the War Department on 20 January, he would supervise all air activities in the theater, and in the latter capacity he would be responsible for coordination of all administrative, supply, and maintenance activities for both air and ground forces.9 When, late in January, Admiral Hart sought relief from the combined command of naval forces and agreement was reached on Dutch Vice Adm. Conrad E. L. Helfrich as his successor, it was suggested by the President that Brett might replace Peirse in the air command, thus assuring continuance of a representative of the United States in one of the major operational commands. But Brett himself, who recently had been promoted to lieutenant general and whose position as deputy to Wavell gave him wide influence, objected to the unsettling effect of a “drastic change” at that time, and when Helfrich replaced Hart on 14 February, Peirse remained in the air command.10 There had been an understandable confusion at the outset; and equally understandable, there were times when in the heat of battle national jealousies found momentary expression.11 But the American officers were left with no uncertainty regarding the extent of their obligation to this new type of combined effort. As General Marshall informed Brereton by radio in January, it was the War Department’s fixed policy to seek the enemy’s defeat by a unified effort under the leadership of General Wavell. Brereton’s mission, as Marshall succinctly added, was to execute the orders issued by Wavell.12
A natural division of effort gave to the British a primary responsibility for defense of Burma and the Malay States and to the Americans the major responsibility for the air defenses of the Netherlands East Indies. The Netherlands government had at hand a regular army of some 40,000 men and, in addition, perhaps 100,000 native troops; of necessity these forces would constitute for the time being the main resistance on the ground. The Dutch command, recognizing its inability to defend all of the islands, had posted small garrisons at strategic points throughout the Indies, principally to carry out necessary demolitions before withdrawal, and had concentrated its main strength on Java. Here numerous airdromes had been prepared: military fields at Kalidjati, Bandoeng, Magelang, Madioen, Malang, Batavia, and Soerabaja;
commercial airports at Cheribon, Semarang, and Jogjakarta; and a considerable number of emergency landing fields well distributed across the countryside. The Dutch had also constructed modern airfields on Sumatra, Borneo, Celebes, and Amboina, and suitable at least for use by pursuit planes were the fields on Timor, Soemba, and Bali.13 But the government of the Netherlands East Indies lacked a modern air force. In January 1942 its approximately 150 planes were all of ancient make: the pursuits were either Curtiss or Brewster models, and the bombers were principally Martin B-10’s. Attempts had been made to replace these obsolete craft by purchase from the United States, but the demands on American production at the time were altogether too great to permit a meeting of the Dutch request either as to the models desired or the time of delivery.14 Decidedly limited, too, was the aid that could be expected from the Royal Australian Air Force.15 Much of its strength in Australasia consisted of obsolescent planes, and the demands for a defense of Australian territory were immediately pressing. The Japanese would land at Rabaul in New Britain on 23 January and before the month had run its course would bring under air attack New Ireland and Lae, Madang, and Salamaua in New Guinea.
The hope of an effective air defense of the Netherlands East Indies depended chiefly therefore upon plans for reinforcement of the AAF in the Southwest Pacific. The eighteen P-40’s and fifty-two A-24’s which had reached Brisbane on 22 December, even when joined with the fourteen B-17’s brought down from Del Monte to Darwin, constituted hardly so much as a token force. But as the British and American staffs assembled in their ARCADIA conference at Washington, it was proposed to build up AAF strength in the western Pacific to a total of two heavy and two medium bombardment groups and six pursuit groups. Plans called for an early transfer from the United States of 80 heavy bombers, 114 medium bombers, and 480 pursuit planes.16 The heavy bombers would go by air, under a schedule calling for 3 B-17’s to leave the United States on or about 24 December, the same number on the following day, and thereafter at the rate of 6 bombers per day.* 17 It was anticipated that 55 pursuit planes, with crews, would reach Australia by 8 January and an additional 125 within ten days thereafter; a complete pursuit group with 80 planes was scheduled to leave San Diego on or about 10 January. The extreme
* See above, pp. 332–36.
shortage of shipping made it uncertain as to when ground crews and maintenance facilities could be sent, but it was hoped that the resources of Australia and personnel evacuated from the Philippines would make it possible to operate the planes “pending the arrival of necessary maintenance units.”18
By early January the plan had been revised to provide only four pursuit groups in addition to one light, two medium, and two heavy bombardment groups.19 But such a revision in the over-all objective was by no means so significant as a general policy of throwing into the battle for the Netherlands East Indies every available tactical plane and crew in the hope that, despite the obvious disadvantages under which they would be required to operate, they would serve to slow up if not to stop the main Japanese drive. The British and American staffs in Washington remained unshaken in their decision to regard Germany as the first and most dangerous enemy, but as the U.S. chiefs pointed out, the continuing advance of the Japanese argued “for subordinating everything in the immediate future to the necessity for getting reinforcements into the ABDA Area.”20 It proved impossible to keep the schedule for the ferrying of bombers; but by 6 January, 20 B-17’s and 6 LB-30’s were en route, an additional 45 B-17’s and 9 LB-30’s were making ready for the take-off, and arrangements were being made to forward a total of 160 B-17’s and LB-30’s as rapidly as they came off the production line.21 Hopes for expediting their movement were raised when 3 B-17’s piloted by Maj. Kenneth B. Hobson and Lts. Jack W. Hughes and Clarence E. McPherson completed the first flight from Hawaii to Australia by way of the as yet unfinished South Pacific route by 12 January, though until the fall of Java the Atlantic and African air routes would remain the chief reliance for reinforcement of the Far East.22 The total number of P-40’s reaching Australia from the United States had been raised by 25 January to 112, and 160 more arrived within the next ten days.23
Meanwhile, the staffs in Washington struggled with the problem of shipping. The heavy bomber could be flown to its battle station halfway around the world, even though the air routes it followed were imperfectly charted and prepared and losses in transit up to 25 per cent were at times sustained, but other planes must be carried by water. Water transport was required, too, for the ground crews and other maintenance personnel, for the men and materials required to construct and maintain bases, for antiaircraft and other ground forces
for defense of the bases, and for the varied machinery and equipment upon which an air force depends. As already noted,* a review of shipping priorities brought a decision to reduce the size of a convoy scheduled to sail on 15 January for Northern Ireland and Iceland with the result that room was provided for 10,000 ground troops for New Caledonia, a key point in the defense of sea and air routes through the South Pacific, and for more than 11,000 troops to serve as “ground staffs” for AAF units in Australia. Shipping difficulties were further eased by arrangements made with the British for use of the Queen Mary and the newly built Queen Elizabeth as troop transports, their service from New York and San Francisco, respectively, to begin early in February.24 But such measures could be effective in a defense of the Netherlands East Indies only if the interim expedients resorted to proved sufficient to hold the enemy for a while.
Among the efforts to strengthen Allied defenses immediately was an attempt, in addition to the ferrying operation, to provide air transport from the United States of urgently needed equipment and supplies. A contract on 31 December with Pan American Airways sought an extension of its transport services from Khartoum to Darwin. To accomplish this, it was necessary for Pan American to negotiate contracts with foreign airlines, particularly with Knilm, a Dutch company, and with Qantas of Australia; and the organization of an effective service required time – more time than events allowed. The effort proved to be more important for its contribution to an extension of air transport from Africa to India, from where this modern aid to logistical mobility would play a major role in the later operations of the China-Burma-India theater, than for the assistance now provided for the ABDA forces. Within the theater itself an important step toward overcoming some of the more difficult problems of transportation and communication was marked by activation on 28 January of the first American air transport unit in Australia. None of its original complement of fourteen officers and nineteen enlisted men had been trained for transport operations – they were just the men who happened to be most readily available. Equally miscellaneous were the aircraft assigned to the unit: two old B-18’s and one C-39 which had been flown down from the Philippines and five new C-53’s recently arrived from the United States. On 4 February, Capt. Paul I. Gunn, formerly manager of the Philippine Airlines and as “Pappy” Gunn
* See above, p. 243.
already a legendary figure in the Southwest Pacific, was placed in command. Four days later the organization, now based at Archerfield near Brisbane, was strengthened by the addition of ten officers and ten enlisted men, all of whom had been trained for transport operations.25 To Gunn’s command there were also added three B-24’s sent from the United States for service as transports.26
Brisbane continued to be the focal point of military activity based on Australia. It was the port of entry for shipments from the United States and it was the headquarters of USAFIA, whose responsibility in January became chiefly that of preparing air units for combat. In addition to unloading and assembling the planes as they arrived from America, providing for such repair and maintenance facilities as proved possible, and improvising training programs suited to the peculiar requirements of the theater, the command at the same time was forced to give its attention to plans for future development and organization. The facilities made available by the Australians at Amberley and Archerfield, both outside Brisbane, were seriously inadequate in view of the expected reinforcements; accordingly, an Allied administrative planning committee early in January authorized the establishment of a depot for the erection of planes at nearby Eagle Farm. Construction of a runway and hangar facilities there was soon under way, as were also preliminary surveys for extensive construction at Darwin and Townsville.27 But these preparations, like the dispatch of reinforcements from the United States, would require time for completion and would be delayed by the necessity of fighting while preparing to fight.
Bomber Operations from Java
Meanwhile, the Japanese were moving their forces into position for penetration of the Indies. The Second and Third fleets of the Japanese navy, supported by land-based naval air elements, carried the main burden. Most of the Third Fleet, after its success in the Philippine landings, had returned for repair and refueling to Formosa, whence the main body promptly proceeded to Davao in Mindanao for a rendezvous with other units from Palau, then moved on to Jolo, an island lying between Mindanao and Borneo, which was reached on or about 6 January. The 23rd Air Flotilla of the 11th Air Fleet had already moved into Jolo before the end of December. The 22nd Air Flotilla,
which had participated in the attacks on Britain’s ill-fated Repulse and Prince of Wales, was standing by at Saigon with 100 or more planes. According to one postwar Japanese account, the remainder of the 11th Air Fleet – presumably the 21st Air Flotilla and headquarters detachments – moved to Davao during the first week in January. The major portion of the Second Fleet, having participated in early operations off both Malaya and the Philippines, was at Formosa from 25 December to 15 January. The enemy’s strategy called for the simultaneous advance of two task forces: an eastern invasion force would move down through the Molucca Sea to occupy Manado, Kendari, and Makassar in Celebes and points on Amboina and Timor; a western force supported by the 23rd Air Flotilla would advance through Makassar Strait to effect, initially, the occupation of Tarakan, Balikpapan, and Bandjermasin on the eastern coast of Borneo.28 While land and air forces based on Thailand moved forward to the conquest of Singapore, a third amphibious task force, supported by carrier-borne aviation, would establish a strategic outpost to the east at Rabaul in New Britain.
To get within closer striking distance of the enemy’s ominous concentrations, ten of the fourteen B-17’s which had been withdrawn to Australia – all that were then in commission – had by 1 January moved their base of operations to Java. It had been contemplated at the time of their withdrawal from the Philippines that they might eventually operate from Java, and General Brereton on his way to Darwin had consulted with Dutch officials on this and other questions. The choice of an American bomber base in Java had fallen on the Singosari airfield, located approximately five miles northwest of Malang. The field lacked paved runways, radar defenses, and antiaircraft equipment, but its sod, which extended some 5,000 feet in length, apparently was firm enough and quarters were adequate.29 Headquarters of the Far East Air Force remained in Darwin under Col. Francis M. Brady during days devoted by General Brereton chiefly to consultation with Australian, British, and Dutch officials; not until 14 January would Brady move the headquarters to Java, and another week would elapse before the final selection of Bandoeng as its location.30 But throughout the NEI operations, and indeed for many months thereafter in the Southwest Pacific, it would not be uncommon for the tactical commander at the lower echelon to operate his planes with an extraordinary degree of independence of higher headquarters; problems of distance and
inadequate communications frequently left no choice but to send him out with a general directive and leave him on his own.
In immediate charge of the bombers at Malang was Col. Eugene L. Eubank of the V Bomber Command. From Malang it was 1,500 miles to Davao, the first target chosen. To operate at this distance it would be necessary to stage through an intermediate base, and of possibilities at Kendari in Celebes and Samarinda in Borneo, the latter was selected. Storms and low visibility forced postponement of the initial mission, but on 3 January nine B-17’s reached Samarinda from Malang. Maintenance personnel, who had flown up with the aircrews, then serviced the planes, loaded each with 2,000 gallons of 100-octane gasoline and four 600-lb. bombs, and in the early morning of the following day Maj. Cecil E. Combs led eight of the big planes off the field. He headed for Davao Gulf, 730 miles away, which harbored at the time approximately twelve enemy transports and perhaps twenty-four warships. As the bombers approached the objective after five hours of flight, they climbed to 25,000 feet and from this altitude scored hits which possibly sank a destroyer and, according to enemy accounts, severely damaged a cruiser. Opposition was slight, and four hours later the B-17’s landed unharmed at Samarinda. The planes returned to Malang on 5 January.31
Such were bombing operations during the early phase of the Netherlands East Indies campaign. Three days of flying had been required to drop less than ten tons of bombs. The flights were made from unfamiliar and inadequately equipped bases, over areas that were imperfectly charted, and under circumstances which imposed at all times a maximum strain upon personnel.
In selecting an advanced staging point for missions, attention had to be given not only to the location and condition of the field but also to the availability there of adequate stores of fuel and ammunition. The one mission through Samarinda had exhausted the supply of 100-octane gasoline at that base; moreover, the field’s unpaved runway could be used by the heavily loaded aircraft only in dry weather. Accordingly, for a second mission to Davao it was decided to stage through Kendari, where a store of fuel and generally more satisfactory facilities existed. Nine of the B-17’s having left Malang on 8 January, Major Combs led them from Kendari on the following day in a second mission against enemy shipping in Davao Gulf. But mechanical difficulties plagued the flight; of the nine planes, only five succeeded in
reaching the target area; and with visibility poor, their bombing runs brought only uncertain results.32
By this time the Japanese had begun their southward move. Tarakan fell on 11 January, and on the same day enemy forces, including paratroopers, landed at Manado in upper Celebes. Small Dutch garrisons resisted as best they could, but naval units which might otherwise have helped to provide some semblance of a striking force were on convoy duty to the west, and available air forces were equal only to a token defense. Australian Hudsons, based on Boeroe and Amboina, American PBY’s, and Dutch planes struck at the enemy in Celebes, but such hits as were scored left the enemy force uncrippled, and in the face of stiff resistance serious losses were sustained by the Allies.33 Against Tarakan on the day of its occupation, Major Combs led a mission of seven B-17’s; but in heavy wind and rain four of the seven were forced to turn back before reaching the target, and the remaining three, after a fight with enemy pursuits in which two Japanese planes were shot down, found the visibility too poor for accurate bombing.34
The Japanese were now halfway down the Malay Peninsula on their advance to Singapore, and the next mission of the B-17’s was flown on orders from the newly established ABDA Command against the recently captured Sungei Patani airfield on the west coast of the peninsula, a thousand miles west of their latest target at Tarakan. The distance from Malang again was 1,500 miles, a factor which required the use of an intermediate field at Palembang in Sumatra. Seven B-17’s, once more led by Combs, flew from Malang to Palembang on 14 January. Equipment for service of the planes there proved to be seriously inadequate, and experienced maintenance personnel were lacking. The take-off of the planes on 15 January was delayed by difficulty in refueling and in fuzing unfamiliar Dutch bombs, which alone were available.35 Storms buffeted the planes on the 750-mile flight from Palmbang to Sungei Patani, and two were forced to turn back. The other five proceeded, relatively free of enemy pursuit and antiaircraft interference, to make several bomb runs over the target during which more than twenty hits and several resulting fires were observed. The bombers returned that night to the Lhoknga emergency field in northern Sumatra, from which they flew to Malang the following morning. On this 3,000-mile mission, the only loss was one B-17 damaged beyond repair when landing on rain-soaked Singosari.36
In the absence of Combs and the B-17’s, four LB-30’s and six B-17’s
flown by crews of the 7th Bombardment Group had arrived at Malang. This was the group that was originally scheduled, and which in fact had actually begun its movement at the time of Pearl Harbor, for reinforcement of the Philippines. Its ground echelon had reached Brisbane in the convoy arriving there on 22 December. The advance element of its air echelon had flown into Hawaii in the midst of the Japanese attack of 7 December. Caught thus in movement, its personnel and planes were put to work as the occasion demanded on the western coast of the United States, in Hawaii, in Australia, and in Java, and the unit itself with some of its original personnel finally wound up in India and China. Two of the B-17’s arriving at Malang, piloted by Maj. Kenneth B. Hobson and Lt. Jack W. Hughes, had participated in the first flight from Hawaii to Australia over the newly opened South Pacific air route. The other planes had come from the United States by way of the South Atlantic, Africa, the Middle East, and India.
Five of the newly arrived planes – three LB-30’s and two B-17’s – were put immediately into operation. American commanders were especially concerned over the enemy’s progress north of Java. With the capture of Manado and Tarakan, Japanese land-based aviation could operate from fields lying within 350 miles of both Kendari and Samarinda and thus, not to mention other obvious dangers, could impose still further limitations on our own air operations. And so on the morning of 16 January, the day of Combs’ return from Sumatra, the five recently arrived planes took off from Malang for a mission against shipping in Manado Bay and against the Langoan airfield, twenty miles south. Having staged through Kendari, the LB-30’s were led by Maj. Austin A. Straubel in an attack on the airfield, while the B-17’s made their runs over the bay. Enemy pursuits reacted vigorously, and subjected the inexperienced American crews to continuing attacks. Lt. John E. Dougherty crash-landed his badly damaged LB-30 on a tiny island off southern Borneo where the crew, three of whom had been wounded, was stranded until rescued eight days later by a Navy PBY. Another LB-30, piloted by Lt. W. E. Bayes, had also received serious hits and was damaged beyond repair in a forced landing at Makassar in southern Celebes.37 Only one LB-30 and one B-17 returned to Malang. The other B-17 had managed to reach Kendari on the way back, but Japanese pursuits repeatedly attacked the field and the American crew, unable to effect necessary repairs, finally destroyed the plane.38
It was now evident that the Japanese were in a position to deny the Americans the use of Kendari as a staging base. Accordingly, the bomber command determined to try next a shuttle mission from Malang to Del Monte and return. Although this would require a 1,500-mile flight in each direction through an unpredictable equatorial front and over strongly held Japanese areas, it would permit a two-way bombing of targets between Java and the Philippines; and an additional argument for the attempt lay in the opportunity it would afford to carry ammunition into Mindanao and to evacuate some of the experienced personnel of the 19th Group waiting at Del Monte. On 19 January, Lt. John B. Connally, a veteran pilot of the 19th, led nine B-17’s off the field at Malang. Three of the less experienced crews turned back, but the remaining six fought their way through severe thunderstorms to bomb shipping targets near Jolo and arrived safely at Del Monte. The weather shut out Jolo and hindered the bombing of other targets on the return trip, but all six planes had returned to Malang by noon of the 20th, bringing 23 officers of the 19th Group as evacuees from Mindanao.39
Punishing as were these long flights over unfamiliar seas and through generally unfavorable weather, the crews between missions were forced to turn their hands to exasperatingly difficult tasks of maintenance. There were only a few trained mechanics to help and almost no spare parts, and men had to work with tools both inadequate for the job and insufficient in number. The older planes were rapidly wearing out; some of the newer ones arrived, after a 12,000-mile ferry flight, badly in need of overhaul; and to the mechanics, the unfamiliar LB-30 presented its own peculiar problems. Spare parts with which the planes left the United States had all too often been used up along the way.40 Especially welcome, therefore, was the evacuation from Del Monte on 22 January, of thirty-nine enlisted men together with two officers, and news that on the 19th the ground echelon of two squadrons of the 7th Bombardment Group had left Australia for Java. Encouraging, too, was the assignment of approximately 100 men of the 2nd Battalion of the 131st Field Artillery on temporary duty with the bomber command, and the promise that at least some of them would soon display the American’s vaunted aptitude for things mechanical.41
The arrival of new planes – fifteen more B-17E’s and four LB-30’s, three of the latter by the Pacific air route, would reach Java by 1
February – made it possible to send some of the B-17D’s of the 19th Group down to Australia for a depot overhaul. The imminent arrival of ground crews of the 7th Group also helped to make possible the occupation of a new base at Jogjakarta, 150 miles west of Malang. Preparations at the field, occupation of which would eliminate a dangerous concentration of all American bombers at one base, were near enough completion to permit reception of the first of the 7th’s ground crews there on 21 January.42 Thereafter, the 7th Group officially was based at Jogjakarta while the 19th remained at Malang.
But as the Japanese pressed forward the Americans were given no opportunity to get set. The main body of the enemy’s Second Fleet had moved out from Formosa en route to Palau, where it joined elements of the carrier force which struck Pearl Harbor on 7 December. The 21st Air Flotilla was moving forward to bases in Celebes, and the increasing tempo of enemy air attack carried its warning of an intended advance through Makassar Strait and the Moluccas.43
At the same time, the Japanese sought an eastern anchor for their advancing lines at Rabaul in New Britain. On 20 January more than 100 carrier-based planes struck at Rabaul, and others promptly hit Kavieng in New Ireland. The attacks were repeated the following day. To oppose these assaults the Australians had scarcely a half-dozen virtually unarmed Wirraways, an observation plane of slow speed and thin armor. In actions which testified chiefly to the valor of the Australian airman, these Wirraways were quickly destroyed. A few Hudson bombers escaped from the Vunakanau airfield, at Rabaul, in advance of a Japanese landing on 23 January which promptly overran the weak defenses of the town. Most of the Australians standing guard there were captured or killed, and those who escaped did so by taking to the jungle. Simultaneously, Kavieng was also occupied. By the end of the month, enemy land-based bombers and fighters, along with a unit of float planes, had taken up their base in the Bismarck Archipelago.44
Above Java the Japanese met stronger, though hardly effective, resistance. On 24 January four American destroyers created momentary havoc among transports landing enemy troops off Balikpapan. sinking at least four of them, but the Japanese had won the place by 25 January.45 AAF bombers struck at enemy shipping, too, and at widely separated points. Between 22 January and 3 February, excluding reconnaissance flights, at least fifteen missions representing eighty-
four heavy bomber sorties were dispatched. But of these, four missions involving a total of seventeen bombers were abortive because of unfavorable weather, and twenty-nine sorties in six other efforts resulted only in negative reports. On the remaining five missions, claims were entered for the sinking of two transports and two other vessels, but bomber losses were high. On 22 January, one B-17 was destroyed when it overshot the field at Palembang; two days later, three B-17’s were badly shot up by enemy aircraft; on 24 January, two B-17’s of an eight-plane mission were lost in crash landings, and only three of the eight returned safely to Malang. On 27 January, Maj. Stanley K. Robinson, commander of the 7th Group, while leading his fifth mission within a week was shot down and with his entire crew was killed when thirty Japanese pursuits attacked the formation of four B-17’s.46 Among the missions flown were those of 28 and 29 January against Kuala Lumpur and the Kuantan airfield in the Malay States by four B-17’s which staged out of Palembang. Though their absence of two and a half days from Malang still further weakened the defense against the enemy above Java, the planes apparently succeeded in scoring numerous hits on runways and hangars at Kuantan.47
The enemy on 26 January had captured Kendari, and to that point he promptly transferred the forces of the 21st Air Flotilla which on 3 February opened the attack on Java itself by savage strikes at Soerabaja, Madioen, and Malang.48 On that day near Malang the Japanese caught American bombers standing on the Singosari field loaded for take-off, and while enemy bombs tore the runway, strafers concentrated their fire on the planes. Four B-17’s exploded or burned, and a fifth was shot down ten miles south of Malang. At Soerabaja another Japanese formation damaged Dutch naval installations; destroyed three Catalinas on the water; and in shooting down a B-18, killed in addition to its entire crew several sorely needed radar experts and Major Straubel, who had recently succeeded to the command of the 7th Group.49 The damage at Madioen was less serious, but the outlook for a defense of Java against similar and continuing attacks was dismal indeed.
In the absence of radar equipment, the Dutch air warning service depended upon ground observation stations connected by wire with a control room at Soerabaja. It had been well organized, but of course there could be no substitute for modern equipment. There was a great shortage also of antiaircraft guns, which for the most part were concentrated
in and around Soerabaja.50 As for the interception of enemy planes, preparations again had fallen short. The Dutch pursuits were obsolete, and half of them were destroyed or put out of action by the close of another day. Only a handful of the American P-40’s had reached Java from Australia, the first having come in on 24 January. Based at Blimbing below Djombang, the American pilots received a warning twenty to twenty-five minutes in advance of the enemy’s approach to Soerabaja, but by the time their P-40’s had taken off and climbed to 21,000 feet the damage had been done. Although two Japanese planes were shot down at the cost of one American plane, the enemy had come, done his work, and departed with little injury to himself.51
The Problem of Pursuit Reinforcement
Plans for the organization and deployment of American pursuit forces in the Netherlands East Indies had engaged much of the time and attention of U.S. officers at Brisbane and of headquarters in Washington throughout January. Australian and Dutch forces were weak; British units were committed in the western part of the ABDA area. There were problems of reconciling the urgent claims of NEI operations with the no less urgent concern of Australian authorities for the immediate defense of their own territories.52 As the crucial battle for Java opened, the hope was to deploy a total of nine squadrons in the ABDA area in addition to providing three other squadrons which would operate under Australian control for a strengthening of the defenses of northeastern Australia and of Port Moresby in New Guinea.53
Allied plans had contemplated deployment of pursuit units at Koepang, Amboina, Kendari, Samarinda, Soerabaja, and Batavia, but those were days when staffs frequently completed a plan only to find that the latest report of enemy action had already outdated it. They were days, too, of only the earliest beginnings of the American effort in Australia, where no well-established base was ready and organized for the purpose of pushing through reinforcements for the battle line but, instead, hastily assembled staffs and forces improvised an organization as they went. The emphasis in Washington naturally had been placed on speed in getting out to the Southwest Pacific all assistance that could be provided, and the need for speed often led to confusion. Inventories and manifests for shipments made were at times imperfectly
drawn; a unit and its equipment might arrive separately and with a considerable time interval to add a further complication. Vital parts and tools might be missing or else it would require time to locate them, and once found, they might prove defective or damaged in transit with no nearer source of resupply than America.54 To assemble the planes, reliance perforce was placed in large part upon inexperienced and untrained personnel; ground crews of the 7th Group, a heavy bomber unit, erected 138 P-40’s between 23 December and 4 February.55 A shortage of Prestone continued to be a delaying factor, for the Australian supply was limited and it took time to transport an adequate supply from the United States.56 The pilots sent out, moreover, were considered insufficiently trained for the operations they would be required to undertake, and veteran pilots evacuated from the Philippines took over the task of whipping them into shape through an improvised training program that was marked by a high rate of accident.57 Under the War Department’s policy of shipping out men and planes as they became available, it was necessary to provide for them a provisional organization in the theater. Five provisional pursuit squadrons – the 17th, 20th, 3rd, 33rd, and 13th, respectively commanded by Maj. Charles A. Sprague, Capt. William Lane, Jr., Capt. Grant Mahoney, Maj. Floyd Pell, and Lt. Boyd D. Wagner – were organized and manned by casual pilots.58
Activation of the 17th Squadron (Prov.) was authorized on 10 January, when Major Sprague received directions to select in addition to the pilots three radio men and one mechanic, one armorer, and one crew chief for each plane from those available in Brisbane. On 16 January, the flying echelon of the newly organized unit, headed by Major Sprague and composed of twelve other pilots who had fought in the Philippines and four second lieutenants recently arrived from the United States, left Brisbane for Darwin on the way to Java. Guided by two Australian planes, they flew the 2,000-mile route overland by way of Rockhampton, Townsville, Cloncurry, and Daly Waters. Accidents delayed three planes en route, and one of the P-40’s was completely “washed out” in a landing, but all save this one had come in at Darwin by the 18th.59 From Darwin they took off on the 22nd for the 540-mile hop across the Timor Sea to Koepang, escorted by an Australian two-engine Beechcraft. The next leg carried them to Waingapoe on Soemba Island, whence, no longer united in one flight and some of them without escort, they flew the 500 miles across
water and land to Soerabaja, where thirteen of the original seventeen planes had arrived by 25 January. For five days thereafter the squadron remained at Soerabaja, engaging in flights and other activities designed to acquaint the pilots with the peculiar problems of local air defense. Two days before the Japanese opened the attack on Java the 17th had occupied its permanent base at Blimbing. The field, sometimes known as Ngoro, had two 4,000-foot runways surfaced with smooth sod. Taxiways, offering natural advantages for camouflage, were cut into the surrounding jungle.60
When the Japanese attacked Soerabaja on 3 February, no other American pursuit planes were nearer than Darwin. The second provisional pursuit squadron to be activated in Australia, the 20th, had received orders on 24 January to move with eighteen P-40’s to Port Moresby, a key point in defense of the approaches to northeastern Australia. This order undoubtedly reflected the concern of Allied officials over the Japanese occupation of Rabaul, which had been effected the preceding day and which gave a new urgency to the problem of providing for the security of sea and air routes joining Australia to the United States. Within another three days, however, the fall of Kendari had emphasized the immediate urgency of the need in Java, and in accordance with representations from General Brett the orders were changed. The 20th would move up to Darwin and thence would proceed to Java.61 But it was 4 February before thirteen of its pilots, most of whom had reached Australia during January as personnel of the 35th Pursuit Group, lifted their P-40’s from a field at Darwin and under the escort of a B-24 headed for Timor. This leg of the flight, difficult enough for the short-range P-40 even under the best of conditions, on that day presented the additional hazard of tropical thunderstorms. The planes got through to Koepang, however, and on the following day twelve of them were able to proceed to Bali.62
Fearing a Japanese attack on the field there, Captain Lane ordered his planes into the air as soon as they had been refueled. When seven of them had taken off, approximately twenty enemy planes were spotted overhead; three other P-40’s then hastily took off; and all were immediately engaged by the enemy. Lt. Gene L. Bound destroyed an enemy plane, but his own was so badly shot up that he had to bail out. Lts. William L. Turner and C. L. Reagan were forced into crash landings, the former having previously shot down one of the enemy. Lt. Larry D. Landry was killed early in the flight, and Lt. Paul B.
Gambonini, who had taken off with a partially filled fuel tank, landed back at the field in the midst of a bombing attack. Together with several other aircraft on the ground, his plane was destroyed. Captain Lane, having accounted for one of the enemy, succeeded in reaching Java, where three others of the flight joined him. Within two days, an additional eight P-40’s of the same squadron had negotiated the ferry route with better luck, but two had crashed on the way.63
On 11 February nine more P-40’s, belonging this time to the 3rd Pursuit Squadron, came into Java. The first attempt by the 3rd Squadron to move some of its planes through had ended in disaster. An initial flight of nine P-40’s, accompanied by three A-24’s of the 91st Bombardment Squadron (L), had flown out from Darwin on 9 February under the escort of an LB-30 only to find Timor closed in by storm clouds. The LB-30, having the necessary range, turned back to Darwin, but the P-40’s had no choice but to go on to forced landings in which they all crashed. The luck of the A-24’s proved only slightly better; they succeeded in landing at Koepang but were mistaken for enemy aircraft, and all were badly damaged by antiaircraft fire. One of them, the first A-24 to reach Java, was able to fly on the next day, but the other two returned to Darwin for repair. With favorable weather, Captain Mahoney, squadron commander, left Darwin on the 10th with the second flight of P-40’s, which reached Soerabaja on the following day without mishaps.64
Like the survivors of earlier flights, the new planes were immediately incorporated into the 17th Pursuit Squadron under command of Major Sprague. Little or no difficulty was experienced in achieving an effective squadron organization, but coordination between its own headquarters and the Dutch interceptor control remained imperfect. Two Dutch officers and a radio detail had been attached to the squadron to facilitate a proper liaison, but the inadequacy of aircraft warning and communications facilities created obstacles which could hardly be overcome by even the most cordial of personal relations. In an attempt to improve the situation, Maj. W. P. Fisher, former squadron commander in the 19th Bombardment Group, on 16 February was placed in command of interceptor control.65 Though attrition had taken its persistent toll, the 17th Pursuit now stood at the peak of its strength. Even so, it was far from equal to the task confronting it, and there seemed to be no prospect that an adequate interceptor force could be built up in Java. Indeed, it had not been anticipated that the
planned deployment of American pursuit units could be completed before late March, and every indication was that by then the fate of Java already would have been sealed.
Japanese Encirclement of Java
On 15 February Singapore fell. Already the enemy held virtually all areas of strategic importance in Borneo and Celebes. He was slowly but surely eliminating a courageous Australian garrison on Amboina, where the Japanese had landed on 31 January. After an Allied naval force of four cruisers and seven destroyers had been driven back in Makassar Strait on 4 February, the enemy’s strength in the air had restricted efforts by naval units of the ABDA Command almost entirely to night operations. The invasion of Sumatra began on 14 February with a paratroop drop at Palembang, where on the following day a reinforced enemy controlled both the town and its airfield. The enemy was closing in on Java, and there was little if any prospect of wresting from him that air superiority which on all sides prepared the way for his advance.
Indeed, General Brett already had suggested to the War Department the necessity for prompt attention to the probability that only through Burma and China and along a line extending northward from Australia would the Allies be given an opportunity to strike back. Fitting his actions to his words, he had sent Brady to Burma for a survey of facilities, supplies, and munitions, and had called on General Barnes in Australia for pertinent study and report.66
Reinforcements for the bomber command continued to come in; five B-17E’s reached Java by way of the Atlantic route during the first week of February and two LB-30’s by the Pacific. In two LB-30’s, twenty more officers and men were evacuated from Mindanao, and by submarine four officers reached Java from Corregidor.67 But foul weather and enemy interception thwarted all attempts to bomb targets of importance for ten days after 2 February. The major effort was made on the morning of 8 February, when Capt. J. L. Dufrane led out nine B-17’s in an attempt to strike back at Kendari. The weather provided a cloud cover that appeared inviting but actually contained so much turbulence as to make flying in formation almost impossible, and about halfway across the Java Sea the Americans were set upon by nine to twelve enemy fighters. In what the survivors agreed was the best-executed attack yet encountered, the Japanese concentrated first
on Dufrane’s plane, which almost immediately burst into flame. Only six of the crew succeeded in bailing out. Capt. Donald R. Strother having moved into the lead, the enemy’s fire in a second attack knocked out one engine, damaged another, and blew out the hydraulic system of his plane. Again the Japanese made a frontal attack, and this time the plane piloted by Lt. William J. Prichard, who had arrived from the United States just two days before, burst into flames and exploded. Three other planes sustained serious damage as the fight continued. Finally, what was left of the flight turned back; only three of the original nine planes returned to their base. Though five of the Japanese had been shot down, the enemy planes had shown superior qualities. Moreover, the top turret of the B-17 had been unable to cope with head-on attacks, the .30-cal. machine gun in the nose had lacked sufficient range, and the bottom turret had failed to prevent attacks
from below on vulnerable bomb bay tanks.68 Such lessons of experience would prove of great value to the AAF in later days of the war, but there was little comfort for those who provided the experience.
The weather continued bad, the fields were muddy, and mechanics worked for twenty-four hours at a time to keep the big planes in repair. From 9 February to the 18th, not counting reconnaissance, ferry, or courier flights, the bombers attempted a total of sixteen missions involving seventy-two B-17 and fifteen LB-30 sorties. On fifty-one of these sorties, the planes turned back, a few of them for mechanical reasons but most of them because of impenetrable weather. Of those which got through to the target areas, only a few could claim success. All too typical was the report of a flight of three bombers on 12 February that they “believed they hit a boat.” Perhaps the best day came on 15 February, when five B-17’s claimed one hit on an auxiliary vessel and another on a cruiser. The following day claims also were made for hits on two transports.69 The weather was bad for the Japanese, too, but the enemy had the advantage of numbers and somehow the weather seemed to break clear over his targets more frequently than over those selected by the Americans. Lacking any advantage of numbers or of fighter escort, the bombers usually made their runs at high altitude, as standard procedure directed. The inadequate air defenses of the fields in Java frequently made it necessary between missions and during daylight hours to put the bombers into the air to prevent their destruction on the ground, a necessity which added greatly to the mounting strain on all personnel.
For low-level attack on the lucrative targets provided by the Japanese as they closed in on Java, the A-24’s of the 27th Bombardment Group (L) had started a movement up from Australia on 9 February when three of the dive bombers took off in company with a flight of the 3rd Pursuit Squadron. As already recorded, only one of these three, that flown by Capt. Edward N. Backus who commanded the 91st Squadron, reached Java, but eleven others headed out over the Timor Sea from Darwin on 11 February in what was destined to be the last ferry flight by short-range planes from Australia to Java. The flight, having lost one plane by crack-up at Waingapoe on Soemba, arrived late in the afternoon of 12 February at Modjokerto in Java where, approximately 100 miles west of Malang, a new airfield was under construction.70 On land formerly given over to rice fields, some 1,200 natives had laid a base of bamboo matting which then was covered
with a four-inch layer of soil to provide a usable though sometimes boggy runway. Local Dutch residents opened their homes to the Americans, who had not enjoyed such “good baths, good food, good whiskey, good beds” since leaving the United States. But there were only two mechanics available for upkeep of the planes, and for four days the crews worked from dawn to late at night getting their planes into shape. For parts, they cannibalized one of the aircraft, and they lost still another when it came down in Soerabaja Bay. Then after a week of preparation at Modjokerto, the remaining seven planes flew to Malang to secure adjustment of shackles and adapters for use of the Dutch bombs.71 There on the fateful 19th of February they were ready for operations.
The honor of carrying out the initial low-level bombing attack had already gone to the pursuit planes of the 17th Squadron. Two days earlier, on 17 February, eight of the P-40’s had flown seventy-five miles to Madioen to pick up a bomb load of four 20-kilogram bombs per plane. Another hop, this time of 325 miles, brought them to Batavia, whence they flew 275 miles across the Java Sea for a bombing and strafing attack on Japanese shipping and aircraft in the region of recently captured Palembang. Though the weather favored the attack, Japanese fighters intercepted so spiritedly that only three of the American planes were successful in breaking through to the targets. Bombs were dropped among enemy landing barges, and the Americans accounted for four of the Japanese fighters with no loss to themselves. All of the P-40’s returned safely to Ngoro the next day.72
That was the day the Japanese landed on Bali in an action that would effectively cut the ferry route from Australia. The prospect of this interference with plans for reinforcement of Java naturally had been a source of great concern to Allied commanders, and as early as 17 January, General Wavell had decided to attempt a reinforcement of Timor. By 4 February arrangements had been completed for strengthening the defenses of this key point along the way by sending from Australia an antiaircraft battery, most of an American field artillery regiment, and an additional infantry battalion.73 But the problem of protecting from air attack the ships on which they were to be transported and other factors delayed their departure from Darwin until 15 February, when four transports escorted by the U.S. cruiser Houston and the destroyer Peary – Wavell and Brett had hoped to provide air cover – sailed for Timor.74 Unhappily, the convoy was
soon sighted by Japanese reconnaissance planes, and the next day it was subjected to severe attack by several waves of enemy planes bombing from high altitude. All four transports having sprung leaks from near misses, ABDACOM directed that the convoy return to Darwin until measures could be taken to provide local air superiority.75
Whatever hope may have existed of achieving this superiority ended with the Japanese landing at Bali two days later, after a series of air sweeps extending westward into Java. The Allies had little with which to resist. An unescorted formation of nine enemy bombers was intercepted on its westward sweep by pilots of the 17th Pursuit who shot down at least four of the bombers, the other five being listed as probables, at the cost of one P-40. The B-17’s, having completed eleven sorties over the invasion fleet on the 19th, claimed three hits on cruisers, one on a destroyer, another on a transport, and two enemy fighters shot down. All of the American bombers returned to base. From Malang, also, two of the A-24’s joined in the fight. The pilots of the 91st Squadron had completed the loading of Dutch bombs on their planes, five of which stood in revetments and two on the open field awaiting orders to attack Bali, when awhile after noon an air raid warning was received. The two exposed A-24’s were ordered off the ground, and on their own initiative the pilots proceeded to Bali. Setting their makeshift sights on a cruiser and a transport, they scored hits on both targets. Indeed, reconnaissance by PBY’s later indicated that both vessels had been sunk, but it has been impossible to find confirmation in enemy sources.76 Despite these and other efforts the enemy made good his landing, speedily overran the airfield, and thus completed the encirclement of Java.
The 19th had been marked by heavy blows directed against Java from the west as well as the east. Thirty enemy fighters roared over the Buitenzorg airdrome to destroy two transport planes and three Hudsons caught on the ground. Another formation of thirty planes hit Bandoeng, where five of the few remaining Dutch pursuits were shot down and two B-17’s just in from the United States were destroyed on the field. The American P-40’s met with some success in breaking up a bomber formation headed for Malang. They counted no bombers shot down, but in a furiously fought engagement they destroyed four enemy fighters and lost three of their own.77 Here and there the Allies could take pride in an individual victory, but the day clearly belonged to the Japanese.
On that same day the enemy imposed on the Allies a crushing defeat at Darwin, at the other end of the ferry route. Four of his carriers, after moving south from Palau, had waited several days near Amboina for the hour to strike.78 Allied intelligence was not without some warning,79 and since 15 February the newly activated 33rd Pursuit Squadron had been flying patrol over the waters northwest of Darwin. On 19 February, however, its planes had been scheduled for an attempt to get through to Java. In fact, ten of the P-40’s had taken off for Koepang at approximately 0900, but when they were about half an hour out of Darwin a weather report from Timor proved so unpromising that the planes turned back. On their return, Major Pell led one flight of five planes in for a landing at the RAAF field, having left the other five for patrol above.80 Just at this point, warning came through of Japanese aircraft approaching Bathurst Island, some fifty miles away to the northwest, and before further details could be secured the radio frequency was jammed. Major Pell immediately led his flight back into the air, and at approximately 1000 an enemy force of more than fifty bombers escorted by fighters struck in an unexpected approach from the south.81
To oppose this overwhelming force there were only the 33rd’s pathetically few P-40’s, which one after another were shot down. Major Pell was killed when forced to bail out of his plane at approximately seventy feet. Lts. Charles W. Hughes, Jack R. Peres, and Elton S. Perry also lost their lives, while Lts. John G. Glover, Max R. Wiecks, Robert F. McMahon, Burt H. Rice, and William R. Walker safely parachuted from riddled planes. Only Lt. Robert G. Oestreicher managed to bring in his bullet-punctured P-40 to a normal landing.82 Having thus destroyed the American interceptors in the first strike, the enemy returned two hours later with another and equally large formation which carried through its bombing runs virtually without opposition. The total cost to the enemy could not have exceeded ten planes shot down, and may have been considerably less.
On the other hand, the Allies had lost, in addition to the nine P-40’s destroyed in the air, two more P-40’s, six Hudsons, and one LB-30 on the ground. RAAF facilities and the commercial airport had been badly hit. Even more serious was the damage done to shipping and harbor facilities. Three American ships – the destroyer Peary, the transport Meigs, and the merchantman Mauna Loa – and as many other Allied vessels had been sunk. Eight more vessels sustained serious
damage. Wharves and jetties were a jumble of wreckage, the harbor was filled with debris; months would be required to restore what it had taken only a few hours to destroy. Fearful that this assault by air might be only the prelude to an invasion of Australia, the authorities ordered a partial evacuation of the town and preparations for demolition of facilities which had survived the enemy’s attack.83
As events proved, the blow had been struck primarily for another purpose. Possessed now of Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula, Borneo, Celebes, Amboina, and Bali, the Japanese by the neutralization of Darwin had completed the isolation of Java.
The Evacuation of Java
The Allies still disputed the enemy’s landing on Bali, but the resistance there quickly came to an end. A naval force of cruisers and destroyers failed in its attempt on the night of 19/20 February to disrupt the Japanese operation, as did also the bomber command in three heavy bomber strikes executed within a few hours thereafter, though serious damage to a cruiser and the sinking of a transport were claimed by the airmen.84 Also joining in the attack were the seven A-24’s of the 27th Group, which with an escort of sixteen P-40’s arrived over the Strait of Lombok at 12,000 feet and dived upon six naval vessels, releasing their bombs at from 2,000 to 4,000 feet. Captain Backus reported three hits amidships on a cruiser, and three other pilots claimed two hits apiece. Two of the A-24’s were lost, apparently to antiaircraft fire. One of them, having failed to come out of its dive, carried Lt. D. B. Tubb and his gunner to their death; the other crashed in Java, but the crew after an exciting three days made their way back to Singosari. Two of the P-40’s, carrying Major Sprague and Lt. Wilfred H. Galliene, were shot down; two others ran out of fuel and crashed on a Java beach; and a fifth cracked up on landing at Ngoro. Against this toll of five planes stood a claim of four enemy fighters destroyed, three in the air and one on the ground.85
That the enemy was not only able to stand up under these attacks but in a position to strike back with telling effect was quickly demonstrated. Within five hours after the return of the A-24’s, nine Japanese fighters (unfortunately identified by Allied interceptor control as friendly) swept over Singosari to pick out in a strafing attack five B-17’s which stood on the field ready for take-off in the event of an alarm. Three of them were destroyed, and the other two were
severely damaged. Two days later, one LB-30 was burned on the ground at Jogjakarta and four B-17’s at Pasirian, a dispersal point some thirty miles south of Soerabaja. On 24 February, in a severe attack on the depot at Bandoeng, three more B-17’s were destroyed.86 It was still possible for heavy bomber reinforcements to reach Java, but unless something could be done to strengthen local air defenses, obviously there was little point in further attempts to build up the bomber command.
Indeed, it had been apparent to the Allied command since the fall of Singapore that, barring some unexpected development, the Indies were lost, and by this date the evacuation of Java was already under way. To local commanders the best opportunity to continue the fight against the Japanese seemed to lie in Burma, where pilots of the already famous AVG had joined the RAF in resisting the enemy’s push toward Rangoon, an advance which carried the threat of cutting off China from all outside aid. With Australian pickets above New Guinea already driven in, and with the sea and air routes to the Philippines effectively closed except to an occasional blockade-runner, submarine, or long-range bomber flight, an effort to hold open a line of communications with China appeared to offer the only hope of bringing Allied offensive power to bear on the inner defenses of Japan’s now swollen empire at a relatively early date. On 18 February, General Brett advised the War Department that from his point of view the one chance of overcoming the odds against the Allies was to launch an offensive through Burma and China. At the same time, he advised that we should build up strength in Australia.87 Already he had sent Colonel Brady to Burma, and upon receiving his report, Brett determined to “send the mass of all troops” and 160 pursuit planes to India.88 Thinking in terms of the establishment of an American command there, on his own initiative he directed Brereton to proceed to India and made tentative plans to follow after a brief return to Australia.89 Accordingly, in the early morning of 23 February, General Brett flew to Melbourne, and on the following day Brereton and a small staff of officers left Java in two heavy bombers for India.90
On 23 February, General Wavell also received orders to leave Java. Three days earlier the Combined Chiefs in Washington had favored a last-ditch defense with all forces then on the island and advised that there should be no withdrawal of the forces of any nationality but,
except for aircraft, there would be no further reinforcement of Java. General Wavell was informed that he might draw on U.S. aircraft in Australia and available naval units at his discretion, but that ground forces would be held for defense of Burma, Ceylon, and Australia.91 As the situation rapidly worsened, it became evident that the limits of resistance in Java would soon be reached, that the hope even of reinforcement by air would have to be surrendered, and that decisions were required on the question of withdrawing key personnel for the direction of operations outside Java, which alone now offered promise of weakening the enemy. Attention already had been given in Washington to establishment of an American air force in India, and Brett’s assignment of Brereton to that area was accordingly accepted.92 But General Brett himself was ordered to Australia, where, rather than in India, the Americans were to develop a major base for their forces.93 In Java, General Wavell closed his personal headquarters on 25 February, at which time the ABDA Command passed to the Dutch. The decision not to dissolve the command itself was in keeping with a purpose that Allied units in Java should continue to operate as long as it was possible.94 American aircrews for whom there were planes, together with minimum maintenance personnel, were to remain, as also would Colonel Eubank, now the ranking American air officer on the island.
The chief remaining hope of reinforcements rode with a shipment of P-40’s which had left Australia on 22 February. As early as the 7th of the month, when the difficulties of the ferry route through Timor and the risk of its being cut at an early date were apparent, General Barnes had been instructed to prepare for shipment of pursuit planes by water.95 Within two days it had been decided to send from Melbourne on 12 February four vessels carrying the headquarters and ground personnel of a bombardment and two pursuit groups and numerous service units in addition to planes. On 11 February the 13th Pursuit Squadron (Prov.), together with personnel of the 33rd Squadron which had not yet joined Major Pell at Darwin, received orders to fly thirty-six P-40’s across the continent to Perth in accordance with a plan to load them at near-by Fremantle on the seaplane tender Langley for shipment to Java in company with the four vessels on their way from Melbourne.96
When the five ships weighed anchor and moved out from Fremantle
on 22 February, however, three of them, carrying most of the Army personnel, ten P-40’s, and many motor vehicles, had been directed to Burma rather than to Java in keeping with a decision which had been reached by 17 February.97 The decision had been dictated by considerations which apparently also brought into question the destination of the Langley, with its deckload of thirty-two fully assembled P-40’s, and of another vessel, the Sea Witch, in whose hold twenty-seven crated P-40’s had been stored. But on the day of its sailing General Wavell ordered the Langley to Java, and a similar order was subsequently issued for the Sea Witch; for shortly after sailing, the Langley and, sometime later, the Sea Witch parted company with the other ships to set a course for Tjilatjap on southern Java.98 The Sea Witch got through five days later, but the Langley went down on 27 February – and none of the P-40’s they carried survived to fight the Japanese.*
Meanwhile, the 17th Pursuit Squadron (Prov.) approached the end of its brief and tragic history. Between 21 and 26 February, its pilots claimed ten enemy planes shot down, but the unit at the same time had lost Lts. George W. Hynes, Wallace J. Hoskyn, and Gerald McCallum. On 26 February it had only thirteen P-40’s in reasonable readiness to fight an enemy who, as he closed in on Java, counted his planes by the hundreds.99 The American bombers knocked out a number of grounded aircraft at the Denpasar airfield on 22 February, “definitely sank” two transports at Makassar two days later, and on the 28th claimed the sinking of one transport and probably another off the northern coast of Java. But under conditions of increasing insecurity on the ground between missions, which added to the wear and tear on both men and machines, the bomber command sent out a total of eleven missions, or thirty-one sorties, between 21 and 28 February which could only be recorded as failures.100
The last missions were flown against Japanese forces gathering for the invasion of Java. By 27 February a large enemy convoy had come down from Jolo through Makassar Strait to join the main elements of the enemy’s Third Fleet, while a second amphibious force moved into position off Batavia in the west. Reports reaching the bomber command were confusing and incomplete; one transport claimed by a flight of three A-24’s seems to have been the extent of the damage
* See below, pp. 398–99.
accomplished by bomber effort.101 Beginning that night, Allied naval forces made their bid to break up the invasion effort only to suffer one of the more serious defeats of the war.102 Enemy landings on the northern coast of Java were under way by the night of 28 February, and early on the following morning, 1 March, the last air mission of any importance from Java bases was carried out when all available pursuit planes – nine P-40’s, six Hurricanes, and four Brewsters – were thrown against one of the landings. In the face of heavy antiaircraft fire, the planes attacked at low level to sink several small boats and to strafe AA batteries on shore, but the enemy took his toll. Lt. Morris C. Caldwell crashed into the sea; Lt. Cornelius Reagan was last seen in an apparently vain attempt to land his blazing P-40; another P-40 went down after its pilot had succeeded in bailing out; and of the surviving planes, all sustained varying degrees of damage.103 Then, before any of the American planes could be made ready for a return to the air, Japanese fighters swept over the Ngoro field, which heretofore had escaped the enemy’s attention, and riddled with machinegun fire all the remaining P-40’s. Thus ended on 1 March the operations of the 17th Pursuit, whose surviving personnel now joined the hurried and confused effort to evacuate Java while there was yet time.104
All of the American pursuit planes which reached Java, except those aboard the Sea Witch, literally had been used up or had been destroyed by the enemy. The twenty-seven crated P-40’s brought in by the Sea Witch had reached Java at the height of the confusion immediately preceding the invasion, but time did not permit their being assembled. They were finally shoved into the water to prevent their capture by the enemy.105 The P-40’s aboard the Langley had gone down with that gallant ship on 27 February. As it approached Java, two American destroyers, the Edsall and Whipple, had joined it to serve as escort early in the morning of the 27th. At approximately 0900 an enemy aircraft came over, and before noon nine twin-engine bombers with fighter escort attacked the three vessels. On the third bombing run the Langley received five direct hits and three near misses, and soon sank. Though two of the P-40 pilots were injured, none were killed. The survivors having been picked up by the destroyers, the wounded pilots were subsequently transferred to the tanker Pecos, which then headed for Fremantle with a total of approximately 670 men. It was hardly under way, however, when
enemy planes appeared overhead, and in the middle of the afternoon the Pecos also went down. Meanwhile the Edsall with the remaining pilots had headed for Java, never to be heard from again.106
The evacuation of Java was already in full swing. Since 25 February all aircraft which possessed the necessary range had been pressed into service for the evacuation of military personnel not required for the operation of remaining aircraft. At Broome, on the northwestern coast of Australia, an evacuation center was hastily organized under the direction of Col. E. S. Perrin.107 One by one the air bases in Java were abandoned for demolition by Dutch authorities until on the evening of 1 March Jogjakarta alone remained in Allied hands. To it had come the surviving personnel of the 17th Pursuit to be flown out that night to Broome. On the following night, 260 officers and men still awaited evacuation and only five B-17’s and three LB-30’s were available, but each LB-30 took off with thirty-five passengers and each B-17 carried out thirty-one. As the last plane took off just before midnight, the Japanese were only eighteen miles away, and Dutch troops stood ready to explode their demolition charges.108
The eight American bombers reached Broome early in the morning of 3 March. Broome had been a major port of entry for evacuees from Java; and transport pilots were straining their endurance in an attempt to ferry one load of refugees after another down the coast of western Australia to Perth. In anticipation of an enemy attack (a Japanese reconnaissance plane had been sighted during the night), all aircraft had been warned to leave before 1000 that morning. At just that hour a crowded B-24 transport cleared the field. When it had climbed to only three or four hundred feet, approximately a dozen Japanese fighters swept in over the harbor. Their fire punctured the gas tanks of the helpless B-24, which crashed into the sea, broke in two, and all of its passengers except one enlisted man were drowned. Waiting for take-off in the harbor were several Dutch flying boats already loaded with evacuees, mostly Dutch women and children. Other ships on the airfield stood ready for take-off or were the objects of hurried preparations by their crews. The personnel on the field who reached the cover of near-by scrub bush watched every plane on the field explode or burn to the ground, and from the harbor came sounds of the destruction wrought among the helpless seaplanes. The enemy had destroyed twelve flying boats, two B-17’s, two B-24’s, and two
Hudsons, and had killed at least forty-five Dutch civilians and twenty American airmen.109
So ended, in still another terrifying demonstration of the cost to those who allow control of the air to pass to their enemies, the air phase of the Java campaign.
For the American airmen, it had been a bitter and frustrating experience. The pursuit unit, which carried a major share of the responsibility for defense of the island, rarely had more than twenty P-40’s in commission at a time. Of some 120 pursuit aircraft forwarded from Australia during January and February, only thirty-six reached their destination. Against a numerically superior and skillful enemy, the pursuit pilots shot down Japanese planes in excess perhaps of their own total numbers – claims were made for thirty-eight kills – but the battle ended with the American unit having lost literally all of its planes. Creditable as was the effort, pilots not previously seasoned in the Philippines at times showed their inexperience and a lack of adequate training.110
The initial trial of American heavy bombardment had proved disappointing, though it was difficult to argue that the test had been a fair one. The planes had been built for operation from fixed and well equipped installations, and while emphasis had been laid on precision bombardment in the training of crews, standard practice called for pattern bombing by relatively large formations against targets of the sort most frequently bombed in the Netherlands East Indies. The bombers originally withdrawn from the Philippines had been reinforced by at least thirty-seven B-17’s and twelve LB-30’s, but some of these came late and rarely had there been more than fifteen of the big planes in commission at a time. Targets had been plentiful, in fact too plentiful, and the bomber command had been forced repeatedly to divide its attention, not always in accordance with its own choice, between varied and scattered objectives. Unfavorable weather, mechanical failures attributable to inadequate maintenance, the surprising effectiveness of enemy air defenses, the ineffectiveness of Allied air defenses, and sheer weariness – all took their toll. During January and February the bomber command dispatched approximately sixty heavy bomber missions, for a total of over 300 sorties. the great majority of them against shipping targets. Of the bombers participating, more than 40 per cent failed to reach their targets. Those getting through claimed the sinking of one destroyer, eight
transports, and two unidentified ships. The crews claimed twenty-three enemy aircraft shot down, but at the same time at least thirty-eight of our own bombers were lost – six in combat, six by accident, and twenty-six destroyed on the ground.111
Valuable lessons had been learned or re-emphasized. Perhaps the chief of these was the necessity to provide, particularly for heavy bombers, adequate air defense of bases. The importance of camouflage, of revetments, and of the use of such devices of deception and cover as the dummy plane had received new emphasis. It was evident, however, that none of these would be enough in the absence of provision for adequate aircraft warning, antiaircraft defenses, and strong interceptor forces. It also had been found that the LB-30 was vulnerable to pursuit attack and that its performance above 20,000 feet was unsatisfactory; that the B-17 needed more range and armament, that its oxygen system possessed faults, and that it required a self-sealing bomb bay tank.112 Generally, however, the B-17 crews praised their plane, particularly for its ruggedness in carrying them through and getting them back, and few of them perhaps would have denied that there was a certain aptness in a description broadcast from Tokyo which identified the big bomber as a “four engine pursuit ship, used for all purposes.”113
Though the A-24 had been inadequately tested, it gave promise of effective use against shipping targets. Its principal weaknesses, a short range and insufficient armament, would require the establishment of good advance bases and provision of strong pursuit escort.114 The P-40 had given a good account of itself – it could outdive the Japanese fighters, was faster in level flight, and was better armored. But the enemy plane seemed to have more range, could outclimb the P-40, and was more maneuverable. For the American pilot to risk a dogfight was to flirt with suicide.115 Indeed, by no means least among the lessons learned was a new respect for the foe.
It could be argued perhaps that it would have been a wiser course to avoid the piecemeal commitment of our aircraft in the Netherlands East Indies, and to have held them in Australia until a respectable striking force had been built up and made ready for operation from reasonably well-established bases there. But such an argument would ignore important considerations of morale which had a bearing, among other things, on the Allied hope of rallying within Asia itself resistance to Japanese aggression. The Australians, British, and Dutch
threw their available aircraft unsparingly into the fray. Allied ground forces fought against tremendous odds, and Allied naval forces moved resolutely to their destruction in the Java Sea. Even the token use of land-based air power undoubtedly helped to sustain the morale of one and all.