Chapter 11: The Defense of Australia
In the rapid southward thrust which by the opening days of March 1942. had placed Japanese forces in control of the Malay Peninsula, of the Netherlands East Indies, and of the Bismarck Archipelago, and which had brought them to the very doors of Australia, the enemy had given effective demonstration of the type amphibious warfare that until the B-29’s began full-scale operations would dominate the struggle in the Pacific. Operating under a plan to throw overwhelming force against strategic points, Japanese landing parties had moved forward in leaps of several hundred miles at a time, preceded by submarine and flying boat reconnaissance and by light air raids mounted from the nearest land bases, and then by heavier bombing attacks with escort provided as the occasion required by carrier-borne or land-based fighters. An immediate objective of landing parties, while overcoming such local opposition as might be met, was seizure of an airfield on which a prompt basing of fighters for defense of the invading forces was merely preliminary to the bringing in of bombers in preparation for the next move forward. Within a week of the landing, the Japanese usually had repaired or extended the facilities with the aid of local labor to permit their use by two-engine bombers.1
The enemy’s tactics, which included the device of passing by certain points of resistance in accordance with a plan to reduce them at leisure or merely to leave them to the ultimate penalties of isolation and blockade resembled those that were to be employed later by Admiral Nimitz and General MacArthur in their offensives of 1943 and 1944. Indeed, General MacArthur had been the war’s first victim of a type of warfare he subsequently would make peculiarly his own.
His air force having been defeated at the very outset, his army thereafter was besieged on Bataan and Corregidor while the Japanese swept on to effect the virtually complete isolation of all the Philippines. Except for the occupation of Davao, Mindanao was left for over three months to American troops who labored heroically to extend and improve the facilities about Del Monte in anticipation of hoped for reinforcements. But their fate, like that of the men on Bataan, was sealed hundreds of miles to the south – at Singapore, on Java, and in the Bismarcks.
Final Efforts in the Philippines
When General Brereton’s headquarters had been moved to Australia late in December, it was hoped that the partial withdrawal of our air units would be only temporary, and that provision could be made for an increasing flow of materials from the Australian base to the Philippines. Indeed, the prompt decision to send bombers to the Netherlands East Indies had been dictated in large part by the necessity to provide all possible protection for the reinforcements on which the Philippines depended. But the enemy had moved too fast, and soon there was left only the hope that blockade runners might prolong the resistance on Bataan. Vigorous attempts to provide aid by such means – attempts which included requesting Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek to assist in a plan to run small boats from the China coast to Luzon – were made by American civilian and military authorities. Again, however, hopes were to be replaced by disappointment. Inevitably there were delays in effecting the necessary arrangements in Australia, where alone circumstances proved in any way favorable, and of the ships dispatched only three got through to the Philippines. At least fifteen others which hazarded the dangerous run were either sunk or captured. Submarines got through and heavy bombers flew in needed supplies and ammunition to Del Monte for subsequent transfer to Bataan, but the numbers available were as limited as was their capacity to carry freight.2
The prompt severance of the projected ferry route by way of Koepang, Kendari, and Tarakan left our pursuit forces on Luzon wholly dependent upon water shipment for reinforcement, with the result that only three P-40’s reached the Philippines through the long weeks preceding the fall of Corregidor in May. These had been shipped in crates from Australia to Mindanao, where early in March they were
immediately assembled and put into operation.3 For all practical purposes, therefore, the American air forces on Luzon continued to be the remnant of the 24th Pursuit Group, which had survived the enemy’s initial assault – a handful of planes and fifteen pilots, who all too aptly came to be described as the Bataan Field Flying Detachment. Brig. Gen. Harold H. George of the interceptor command directed its varied operations, supervised the maintenance of its dwindling number of planes, and attended to the training of personnel in the elementary problems existent in the field; and as the planes one by one were shot down or worn out, he selected the air and ground personnel that would be reassigned to infantry units whose rosters already included many representatives of the 27th, 24th, and 19th groups. There were problems of adjustment to unfamiliar assignments as the pilot led his ground crew against some enemy strongpoint or rallied soldiers trained primarily as mechanics to defend a bit of land that for the moment was American, but there was nothing unfamiliar about the odds to be faced.4
The missions undertaken by the American pilots from Bataan fields were described by General George as “the hardest and the most dangerous.”5 The primary task was that of reconnaissance, and of occasional patrol of the forward areas. Important, too, was the attempted defense of our own area against enemy attack. Now and again it proved possible to strafe enemy communications, and on one occasion in February even to mount a mission against Nichols and Nielson fields by seven P-40’s, which in addition to strafing dropped fragmentation bombs. Filipino agents later reported loss to the enemy of fourteen planes destroyed on the ground and the killing of many Japanese. Once again, on 2 March, four P-40’s, equipped with an attachment for a 500-lb. bomb designed by Warrant Officer Jack E. Bay, were led by Capt. William E. Dyess, Jr., in an attack on shipping in Subic Bay. Although one P-40 was shot down and the remaining three crashed on landing, apparently two transports had been sunk and other small boats damaged.6 As the Japanese blockade tightened, even P-40’s were pressed into service as transport planes. In addition to an occasional mission for the transportation of medical supplies from Mindanao to Bataan, they dropped supplies to isolated units on the ground and sometimes carried passengers crowded into the baggage compartment. As malnutrition, dysentery, and malaria wore down the American soldiers, a few aircraft that were useless for combat
were cherished for transport purposes. For inter-island air transport, principal reliance was placed on two Navy PBY’s and a motley collection of craft – “a Duck, a Bellanca, and a Fairchild,” two Beechcraft, a Waco, and two decrepit P-35’s – which had been dubbed the “Bamboo Fleet.” But one by one these transports, like the combat planes, were lost to enemy action, to accident, or simply to wear and tear and the necessity of using for purposes of evacuation any plane that could fly to Australia. The Waco was shot down with loss of all its passengers near Del Monte; the Duck was forced down and destroyed by the enemy, as also were both of the P-35’s; by the time of Bataan’s fall in April, only the Bellanca was left. Flown by Maj. William R. Bradford, it made its last flight from Mindanao with a cargo of quinine for relief of the garrison on Corregidor, where it crashed in attempting a take-off for yet another mission of relief.7
If the Americans on Bataan and Corregidor symbolized a will to resist the Japanese aggression at all cost, those on Mindanao represented a lingering hope that reinforcements could be gotten through. Early in January, General MacArthur, who clung to the belief that even with defeat on Luzon it might be possible to build up strong forces in Mindanao preparatory to a reconquest of all the Philippines, had directed that airfields be constructed with all haste throughout the Philippine Islands. Available air base personnel were sent out to enlist the aid of local leaders and to provide supervision for construction undertaken. As a result, by 1 March the Americans had at least seven all-weather-type fields capable of receiving any kind of aircraft on Mindanao, four on Negros, three on Cebu, and one each on Panay and Bohol. In addition, there were nine fields on Mindanao, two on Negros, and one each on Panay and Leyte suitable for use by pursuit aircraft, not to mention others recommended for use only in dry weather or for an emergency landing.8 The most extensive effort, as the above-given figures indicate, had been made on Mindanao, where Maj. Ray T. Elsmore subsequently reported a total of forty-two fields that had been completed between the opening of hostilities and 1 April 1942. Del Monte itself had been expanded into a complex incorporating eight outlying fields, one of which had its operations control in a tunnel driven sixty-five feet into a neighboring mountain side. Another of the Del Monte satellites provided a 3,000-foot runway leading into a tunnel capacious enough to receive and park five P-40’s at a time. Other bases on the island offered facilities for distribution
of both the planes and their maintenance, and a seaplane base at Lake Lanao permitted operations from Mindanao by PBY’s almost to the end at Corregidor.9 In what must be regarded under the circumstances as considerably more than a creditable effort, the 5th Air Base Group and other personnel participating had benefited greatly by prewar plans for an early expansion of air facilities in the Philippines.
Slow and untrustworthy communications between the War Department and General MacArthur made it difficult for either to comprehend fully the other’s position. The latter late in January requested of General Wavell two or three pursuit squadrons, and appeared surprised on learning that only sixteen P-40’s were currently in operation within the ABDA area.* In early February, he still hoped that a carrier might bring air reinforcements within flying distance of the Philippines, or that A-24’s, P-39’s, and A-20’s could be ferried from Australia. With the passage of time, he advanced arguments against the strategy of a build-up of forces on the enemy front, and pointed to the Japanese lines of communication as the enemy’s principal weakness.10 Whatever real hope MacArthur may have held for effective resistance in the Philippines, President Roosevelt had decided early in February that the general would be evacuated to Australia. Objections based on a desire to remain with his troops were overruled, and General Brett received directions to provide three B-17’s for evacuation of General MacArthur and his staff. The planes took off on 11 March, but immediately ran into bad luck. One of them promptly turned back because of engine trouble; a second crashed into the sea off Mindanao, with loss of two members of the crew; the third landed safely at Del Monte, but in poor mechanical condition. Accordingly, Maj. Richard H. Carmichael, commanding officer of the recently arrived 40th Reconnaissance Squadron, at Townsville, received instructions to prepare four other planes for this special mission. Three of the four, carrying medical supplies for our troops in the Philippines, succeeded in taking off from Australia and reached Del Monte safely. General MacArthur, his family, and key members of his staff, among them General George of the interceptor command, had escaped from Corregidor by PT boat and at Del Monte boarded the planes for the 1,500-mile flight to Australia.11 The return flight was executed without mishap, though at the time of MacArthur’s landing on Batchelor Field, near-by Darwin was under attack by Japanese
* It should be remembered that ABDA did not include Australia, except for Darwin.
planes. From Darwin the party was flown inland to entrain for Melbourne.
Air Order of Battle in Australia
The prospect General MacArthur faced in Australia was none too heartening. Japanese conquest of the Netherlands East Indies had placed enemy bombers within easy range of northwestern Australia, where Darwin had been under recurrent attack for almost a month. The occupation of Rabaul in January had been followed by air attacks on Australian posts along the upper coast of eastern New Guinea, and there on the night of 7/8 March Japanese landing parties had moved ashore to occupy Lae and Salamaua on the Huon Gulf. This move brought the enemy within 200 miles by air of Port Moresby, chief Australian outpost in New Guinea, which had experienced its first air attack early in February and would soon be the victim of repeated raids staged through Lae and Salamaua. Fortunately, the land approaches to Port Moresby were guarded by well nigh impenetrable jungles and the alpine reaches of the Owen Stanley Mountains. Even so, when the enemy infantry pushed inland toward the Australian mining center of Wan, 150 miles above Port Moresby, some saw in the move a step toward Port Moresby itself. Allied intelligence dismissed the idea, but no one discounted the serious threat of an amphibious assault designed to give the Japanese complete control of New Guinea.
A conquest of New Guinea would have removed the last land barrier guarding the northern approaches to Australia. Though the Japanese plan of war had not included an invasion of Australia,12 Allied planners now were forced to accept such an eventuality as not only possible but even perhaps probable. Early in March, the Australian chiefs of staff concluded that an attempt on Port Moresby might be expected before the end of the month and an effort to occupy Darwin early in April.13 In Washington one, though not all, of the advisory committees of the Combined Chiefs of Staff felt that the enemy might attempt at least the occupation of such points on the mainland as Darwin, Wyndham, and perhaps Townsville.14 And so once again, as so frequently during that winter and spring, the question of a reallocation of forces had come under consideration. As stated by the joint planners, there were three choices: (1) to send strong reinforcements to the Pacific at the cost of sacrificing the hope
of an early and vigorous offensive against Germany; (2) to concentrate forces against Germany with acceptance of the possibility of losing all the Southwest Pacific; (3) to reinforce the Southwest Pacific and related areas to a point sufficient to maintain a defensive position while building up in the United Kingdom the forces required for assumption of the offensive at the earliest possible date.15
It was a difficult decision. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had been prompt to recognize Germany as the most potent of our enemies and to shape their strategy accordingly. At the same time, the key importance of Australia to plans for containing the Japanese had been recognized, and its loss, or even the loss of any considerable part of it, obviously might call into question the whole of the defensive strategy agreed upon for the Pacific. Australia herself was unequal to the task of providing her own defense. The best equipped and trained of her troops had not yet returned from the battlefields of the Middle East, and her air force in Australia on the outbreak of hostilities in the Pacific possessed hardly more strength than did the Dutch in the Netherlands East Indies. In the air especially, the burden of defending Australia would have to fall upon the Americans. At Darwin the RAAF could muster two understrength squadrons of Hudsons, one squadron of Wirraways, and two squadrons equipped with American A-24’s. Even less well defended was Port Moresby with two reduced squadrons of Catalinas, one reduced squadron of Hudsons, and one squadron of Wirraways.16 Small in population and lacking adequate industrial facilities, Australia would be dependent largely on British and American production for the immediate equipment of her units with modern planes. Upon the Americans, too, would fall the main responsibility for defense of the island chain running back from Australia to provide and shield a line of communication with the United States. The Japanese at Rabaul were in position to move down the Solomons toward the New Hebrides and the Fijis with as much ease as now they advanced down the coast of New Guinea toward Port Moresby, and it was evident that air reinforcements would be required in addition to those already taking position along the South Pacific route.* Once again the decision favored maintenance of a defensive position in the Pacific in the hope that an early offensive might be mounted against Germany.
Of assistance in reaching this decision, no doubt, was the belief
* For discussion of the problem, see Chapter 12.
that to maintain a defensive position in Australia called not so much for a new allocation of air strength as rather for the building up and preparation of air forces already allocated to the area. Earlier plans for the reinforcement of the Philippines and the desperate hope of halting the Japanese advance through the Netherlands East Indies had given Australia, as the base in support of both operations, a high priority in the allocation of available men and planes. The South Pacific route would have to be strengthened, but no addition was made to an earlier commitment to the Southwest Pacific of one light, two medium, and two heavy bombardment groups and of four pursuit groups. Indeed, the forces assigned to Australia would receive additional responsibilities for the security of the South Pacific route; and in March, General Brett received word that instead of four pursuit groups he might expect a total of only three.17 In command once more of United States Army Forces in Australia, General Brett had stated his needs at no less than six pursuit groups and three light, three medium, and three heavy bombardment groups, to which he added three transport groups.18 But like other field commanders at this time, he would have to do with less than he felt the situation required.
At the time MacArthur arrived from the Philippines, General Brett, with a staff headed by General Barnes as deputy commander, was engaged in an effort to prepare and deploy his forces for defense of Australia. It was Brett’s feeling that air units must be stationed in each of seven widely separated areas having their centers at Darwin, Townsville, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, and Sydney.19 The position of chief of the air staff was held by Brig. Gen. Ralph Royce, who had reached Java during the closing phase of operations there.20 American strength in the air was composed chiefly of pursuit planes. Although organized units considered ready for combat were as yet few, there had arrived in Australia between 23 December 1941 and 18 March 1942 a total of 337 P-40’s, more than 100 P-400’s,* and 90 P-39’s. Of these planes, approximately 125 had been lost to enemy action during the Java campaign, others had been lost by accident, 75 had been turned over to the RAAF, 74 were under repair or awaiting repair, and approximately 100 awaited complete assembly. On 18 March there were 33 P-39’s, 92 P-40’s, and 52 P-400’s in commission.21 The last of the three pursuit groups assigned to Australia,
* An early export model of the P-39 with inferior characteristics, including a 20-mm. gun in the nose instead of the 37-mm.
which was the 8th, had disembarked at Brisbane on 10 March, but only the 49th Group, which had come in early in February, was considered ready for combat. The explanation for this and similar delays in preparing other units is readily revealed by a glance at the level of experience of the 49th’s 102 pilots at the time of their arrival in the theater. Lt. Col. Paul B. Wurtsmith, its commanding officer, and his executive, Maj. Donald R. Hutchinson, were veteran pilots with 4,800 and 2,600 hours of pursuit time, respectively. Five other pilots had more than 600 hours, and nine were credited with about 15 hours, but the remaining eighty-nine pilots had no pursuit time at all.22 As for the 35th, its more experienced pilots had been drafted for service with the provisional squadrons hurriedly organized for operation in the Netherlands East Indies, and such of them as had survived had been assigned to rest and recuperation in the hope that their battle experience might soon be put to use in the training of other pilots.
Once again men struggled against the disadvantages that had beset their efforts in the Philippines and then in the Netherlands East Indies. They worked against time, enjoyed few of the benefits of previous preparation, and improvised as they went, in an attempt to meet the changing requirements of a highly fluid tactical situation. An organization geared to the requirements of service and supply for operations in Java had to be readjusted to the tactical demands of a defense of Australia. Once more it was necessary to integrate activities with those of an ally; the Americans were dependent upon the Australians for communications and were forced to rely heavily upon them in all matters of administration; and once more good will on both sides was in itself insufficient to overcome all of the difficulties. The penalties of haste proved to be none the less because the haste was unavoidable. Although General Brett early in January had urged upon the authorities in Washington a policy of shipping the unit and its essential equipment together, some organizations continued to arrive without their equipment, with the result that days, and on occasion even weeks, might pass before it could be located.23 Yet, within two weeks of the final collapse of Allied resistance on Java, American pursuit units were making their presence felt in the defense of Australia’s outposts.
Especially depressing was the bomber situation. With twenty-six B-17’s, forty-three A-24’s, and one or two each of the A-20’s and B-25’s on hand, only twelve heavy and twenty-seven dive bombers were in commission on 18 March.24 Neither the 7th nor the 19th
Group was in any condition for immediate employment. The experience in Java had shattered the morale of their battle-wearied crews, and the fourteen B-17’s rescued from the disaster there were all in depot for repair. Indeed, the twelve B-17’s available for operations were for the moment in the anomalous position of not being even under American command. Both the planes and the crews, some of which had flown into Oahu during the Japanese attack on 7 December, belonged to the 22nd Bombardment Squadron and the 88th Reconnaissance Squadron of the 7th Group, but after flying search missions out of Hawaii for two months, they had been attached to Naval Task Force ANZAC early in February for assistance in protection of the South Pacific line of supply. Under the command of Maj. Richard H. Carmichael, the flight had flown twelve missions from the Fiji Islands prior to its arrival at Townsville in Australia on 18 and 19 February. In the absence of official notification of their coming, USAFIA had made no arrangements for maintenance, supply, or administration. For a few days they had remained under naval control, during which time six of the planes flew the first American bomber mission against Rabaul on 23 February, and then they were transferred to control of the RAAF.25
By the end of March the heavy bomber situation had been somewhat clarified. Planes and crews of the 7th Group had been assigned to the 19th, which, near Townsville, was in process of reorganization and preparation for combat under the command of Lt. Col. Kenneth B. Hobson. For the second heavy bombardment group committed to Australia the choice had fallen on the 43rd Group, and its ground echelon had now arrived. But it would be months before the 43rd entered operations. AAF plans had called for dispatch of two B-17’s a day to Australia after 20 March, with the purpose of building up and maintaining a minimum of forty heavy bombers for each of the two groups. The War Department subsequently decided, however, to reconsider allocations to all theaters, and by the end of March only nine of the bombers had reached Australia. A new decision on the combined staff level did not appreciably alter the earlier commitment to the Southwest Pacific. There would be eighty operational aircraft with the addition of forty in reserve, but plans for their movement to the theater called for the dispatch of only thirty in April and the remainder as soon thereafter as was possible.26
Light bombardment units were also undergoing regrouping and
reorganization. Col. John Davies and the few members of the 27th Group who had escaped from the Philippines were flying some twenty-nine A-24’s on patrol of the Darwin area. The 3rd Bombardment Group (L) having arrived both with crews and ground echelon, it had been decided that this unit would absorb the personnel of the 27th Group. The experienced flyers of the latter organization, accordingly, were assigned to key positions in the other unit, and all available A-24’s were used to equip its 8th Squadron. The 13th and 90th squadrons of the 3rd Group began to receive at about the same time B-25’s, medium bombers originally intended for use by the Dutch. The 89th Squadron, whose personnel was engaged in the performance of service and maintenance for the 19th Group at Charters Towers, still awaited its allotted A-20’s.27 Thus, the 3rd Group had one light bombardment squadron, two squadrons partially equipped with medium bombers, and a fourth squadron whose knowledge of the structure of a heavy bomber probably exceeded that of any other light bombardment unit in the Army. The two medium bombardment groups assigned were the 38th and the 22nd. The ground echelon of the former having arrived on 25 February, it had since then been engaged in a study of infantry tactics and in the erecting of planes for other organizations. It would be many months before its own planes were received. On the other hand, several B-26’s belonging to the 22nd Group flew the Pacific to land at Archerfield on 25 March, and within a month a total of forty-eight of the Marauders had come in from the United States.28
While the American flyers were being regrouped and prepared, the RAAF continued its efforts to gain intelligence of the enemy’s movements and wherever possible to harass him. During March, for example, Darwin-based Hudsons, in addition to maintaining a regular patrol of the Arafura Sea, flew more than twenty sorties against Dili and Koepang in Timor. Other Hudsons and similarly slow and inadequately armed Catalinas wore themselves out on reconnaissance flights and approximately thirty combat sorties against Rabaul, Gasmata, and Salamaua. Total RAAF losses from combat during March were only three Hudsons; more serious was the steady wear and tear on men and machines.29 Though the first Japanese attack of 19 February on Darwin had been its most destructive, the port since then had been under repeated attack, as also had been Port Moresby after its first air raid on the night of 2/3 February.30
It was the latter part of March before these raids could be seriously opposed. But on 14 March a flight of the 49th Pursuit Group recently on Horn Island off the northern tip of Cape York, under command of Capt. Robert L. Morrisey, surprised and shot down five enemy planes. Two days later an advance echelon of the 49th moved with its P-40’s to Darwin, and this was followed on 19 March by the 9th Squadron, which recorded its first four kills before the month was out. By this time, too, P-40’s were rising to the defense of Port Moresby. Flown by the RAAF’s 75 Squadron, their presence proved a tonic to the Australian garrison which already had dubbed the American pursuit planes “Tomorrowhawks” in token of their long anticipated arrival.31
Though limited in number and forced to operate under other serious difficulties, the heavy bombers also made their contribution to a growing defensive effort. The logical target for the B-17 was Rabaul. Possessed of well-nigh unlimited possibilities for expansion as an air base and of a harbor capable of sheltering the largest warships, it stood as a major threat to the Allied position both in Australia and along the South Pacific route. Missions against this target, therefore, were flown in fulfillment of a double responsibility imposed upon our air forces in Australia – to assist in the immediate protection of that continent and of the life line which joined it to Hawaii and the United States. Such missions, however, could be flown only with the greatest expenditure of time and effort. Until sufficient Allied air power could be moved forward to assert control of the air over lower New Guinea, it was necessary to base the big bombers back at Townsville. To strike at Rabaul, they were forced to fly the 600 miles to Port Moresby late in the afternoon preceding the mission; during the night there they would be bombed up and refueled for an early morning take-off. Neither the Townsville nor the Port Moresby areas possessed maintenance equipment and service personnel adequate to keep modern aircraft in fighting trim. At Port Moresby, where there was only one field adequate for bombardment operations, base facilities were particularly primitive. But the hazards of operating off such landing fields were slight in comparison with those of flying across the Owen Stanley range, whose peaks rose up to 13,000 feet and whose passes were rarely below 7,000. Over these mountains weather played hob with bombardment schedules. Frequent storms, down drafts, and almost impenetrable mists which rose daily from the jungle terrain
below in fact prohibited flights except at certain hours of the day.32
It is not surprising, then, that with no more than a dozen B-17’s in commission, the effort that could be made served principally to provide reconnaissance for the Allies and an occasional harassment of the enemy. Between 23 February and 1 April, the B-17’s flew approximately twelve missions, of which number six were directed against Rabaul, one against Koepang in Timor, and four against targets in the Lae-Salamaua area. The small scale of the effort receives additional emphasis from the fact that the six Rabaul missions actually put a total of only fifteen B-17’s over the target, or an average of less than three planes per mission. The weather was frequently unfavorable, mechanical difficulties at times interfered, and enemy reaction was likely to be vigorous. Claims of two hits on heavy cruisers were unsubstantiated. In short, the value of these missions lay chiefly in the intelligence acquired.33
Attacks directed against Lae and Salamaua sought to neutralize these points as staging bases for air raids on Port Moresby. Air units in Australia were as yet in no condition to undertake more than a few sorties, but the Navy had two carriers within reach and on 10 March, just two days after the enemy’s landings in the Huon Gulf, 104 planes took off from the Lexington and Yorktown in the Gulf of Papua. Flying through a pass in the Owen Stanley range, they swarmed over the Japanese landing craft at Lae and Salamaua. With the loss of only one plane, they returned to enter claims for the sinking of five transports and a number of war vessels, though later reports indicate that a cruiser and three destroyers had been damaged rather than sunk. Eight B-17’s, following hard upon the Navy planes, damaged one transport and reported that at the conclusion of this joint undertaking four ships were left burning, two sinking, and another beached.34 All told, it was a successful effort, but it did not dislodge the enemy and thereafter Lae and Salamaua became principal objectives of land-based air attack.
The most ambitious single effort of these early days in Australia was directed once more against the Philippines rather than New Guinea or the Bismarcks. Late in March, General Wainwright had requested that a squadron of bombers be sent, in the hope that they Might break the Japanese blockade long enough to permit the movement of supplies from Cebu to Corregidor.35 General MacArthur himself was reluctant to abandon all hope of assistance to the beleaguered
garrisons,36 and plans for a special mission were completed at a conference attended by General George, Col. John H. Davies, and others in Melbourne on 7 April. Accordingly, in the early morning of 11 April, ten B-25’s equipped with auxiliary fuel tanks and three B-17’s took off from Darwin for the 1,500-mile flight to Mindanao. General Royce was in command; Colonel Davies led the B-25’s and Capt. Frank Bostrom the B-17’s. All planes having arrived safely at Del Monte, the B-25’s were then dispersed to neighboring auxiliary fields. During the next two days attacks were made against shipping and docks at Cebu, air and harbor facilities at Davao, and Nichols Field on Luzon. The six badly worn and battered pursuit planes available on Mindanao were used in attempts to pin down enemy fighters at nearby Davao airfield, and for protection of the bombers in landing and taking off. They were unequal to the task, although during the period they flew more sorties than the bombers. Enemy bombings of Del Monte destroyed one of the B-17’s and seriously damaged the other two. Indeed, only two heavy bomber sorties were completed, one against Nichols Field and the other against shipping targets in Cebu harbor. The B-25’s operated from better-concealed strips, and in over twenty sorties sank one and possibly two other transports and shot down three enemy aircraft.37
The American flyers returned to Australia with the loss of only one B-17 and no casualties. The scope of the mission had been indeed record-breaking; Captain Bostrum, for example, recorded thirty-eight hours in the air and in all had flown approximately 6,000 nautical miles to drop a load of bombs on Nichols Field. But one load of bombs could count for little in the final checkup, and some of the participants questioned whether the results justified the extraordinary effort required. Others returned with a memory chiefly of gallant men who had serviced their planes on Mindanao – men who already knew their doom. For this was the last major attempt to fly across the far-flung battle lines to their aid.38
The Allied Air Forces
Meanwhile, in Australia and in Washington consultations proceeded on urgent questions of command and organization. The dissolution of the ABDA Command had left no provision for an over-all command of Allied resistance to the southward thrust of the Japanese. Their conquest of the Netherlands East Indies had created distinctly separate
problems of defense at either extremity of the so-called Malay barrier. Moreover, in the organization of defensive efforts in the Pacific, as with those to be mounted in the China-Burma-India area, the double threat of a Japanese advance from Rabaul by way of New Guinea to Australia and from the same point by way of the Solomons against the South Pacific line of communications presented its own peculiar problems of organization and coordination. The Combined Chiefs of Staff were in agreement that the Pacific should be primarily an area of American responsibility, but among the joint Chiefs the question of Army and Navy responsibilities within this theater occasioned some debate. A workable agreement was soon reached, however, on the basis of a proposal by President Roosevelt: there would be a separate Southwest Pacific Area under the command of General MacArthur; the remainder of the Pacific would be divided into the Southeast Pacific and the Pacific Ocean areas, the latter to be subdivided under naval command into the North, Central, and South Pacific. Forces in the adjoining South Pacific Area, which included New Zealand and New Caledonia, thus would operate under the command of Adm. Chester W. Nimitz as commander in chief of the Pacific Ocean Area, whose responsibilities included the maintenance of a line of communications between the United States and the Southwest Pacific, the support of operations in that area, and preparation for offensive action that might be separately or jointly undertaken.39
By the end of March, a directive for General MacArthur had been drafted and submitted to the Allied governments concerned. Under its provisions, the responsibilities of the new command were to check the enemy’s advance toward Australia; to exert all possible pressure on the enemy; to protect land, sea, and air communications within the theater; to support friendly forces of the Pacific Ocean Area; and to make suitable preparations for a later assumption of the offensive.40 In accordance with this directive, which meantime had undergone only slight modification, General MacArthur assumed command of the Southwest Pacific Area on 18 April 1942. The immediate problem in the direction of operations was to provide for a coordination of effort between Australian and American forces and the few Dutch units which had escaped from the Netherlands East Indies. Accordingly, the staff of the new command was announced as follows: Gen. Sir Thomas Blarney, Commander of Allied Land Forces; Lt. Gen. George H. Brett, Commander of Allied Air Forces; Vice Adm.
Herbert F. Leary, Commander of Allied Naval Forces; Lt. Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright, Commander of Forces in the Philippines; and Maj. Gen. Julian F. Barnes, Commander of U.S. Army Forces in Australia.41
General Brett assumed command of the Allied Air Forces on 20 April, with assignment to his command of the control of all AAF tactical units and associated service elements of the U.S. Army then in Australia, and operational control, except for training, of the RAAF and the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army Air Force.42 The necessity of adapting his plans to the existing defensive organization of Australia, a shortage of American staff personnel, an unavoidable dependence upon the RAAF for communications and administrative facilities, and a purpose to merge the several components into a truly unified force were reflected in a balance between Australian and American officers in the air staff announced on 2 May as follows: Air Vice Marshal William D. Bostock, RAAF, chief of staff; Col. Edwin S. Perrin, deputy chief of staff; Brig. Gen. Ralph Royce, senior air staff officer; Col. Eugene L. Eubank, director of plans; Col. Ross G. Hoyt, director of operations; Air Commodore Joseph C. Hewitt, RAAF, director of intelligence; Group Capt. F. R. W. Scherger, RAAF, director of defense; and Group Capt. Cam S. Wiggins, RAAF, director of communications.43
Actually, the extent of Australian influence was considerably greater than at first glance would appear. General Brett at no time held administrative control of RAAF units, and AAF dependence on the Australians gave to them a substantial degree of administrative and even operational control of the American units. Australian administrative forms, unfamiliar and frequently confusing to the Americans, were used; Australian officers by virtue of rank filled a majority of the key command positions at the bases from which the Americans operated; operational control, moreover, would be implemented through the five military areas into which Australia was divided, each of which was commanded by an Australian officer.44 Indeed, one official report went so far as to describe Australian control as extending to “every echelon of American Air Forces and every airfield at which they are stationed.”45 Personal and official relations remained good, but it was natural that General Brett should seek the assignment to his command of American staff officers of sufficient experience and rank to provide a better balance.
He showed greater concern, however, for modification of certain features in both American and Australian organization that would provide a higher degree of flexibility in the employment of air units. Though for a time an attempt was made to hold the American groups intact, they were soon divided to provide individual squadrons for defense of the more exposed areas, and General Brett came to feel that the squadron rather than the group would prove the basic tactical unit in later offensive operations. He proposed the establishment of air headquarters in each defensive area, prepared to accept and operate any number of squadrons assigned under a general plan to concentrate tactical units in accordance with a changing tactical situation, and with a view to providing a command structure that in itself would be flexible enough to move forward in offensive operations as the occasion required. Such a headquarters would remain in the original area only for so long as it was necessary and then, in General Brett’s words, “would leap-frog to take up a command at some newly acquired point.”46 Inadequate personnel and other considerations made it impossible to follow this proposal, but General Brett sought greater flexibility of control by the establishment on 4 May 1942 of U.S. Air Commands No. 1 and No. 2, located respectively in the northwest and northeast defensive areas. Commanded by Col. Albert L. Sneed at Darwin and Brig. Gen. Martin F. Scanlon at Townsville, the two headquarters were supposed to be prepared for direction of all types of air operations. Actually, the American planes remained subject to the control of the area commanders, and before the month was out the two commands had been dissolved and their planes had been assigned for operations, in the one instance, to the commanding general of the land forces of the Northern Territory and, in the other, to the commander of the New Guinea Force. Though it was understood that these officers, who were themselves directly responsible to the commander of the Allied Land Forces, would not interfere with a control of air operations by air officers except in the event of an imminent attack, there was a feeling among AAF personnel that an effective organization remained yet to be attained.47
On the other hand, there was cause for satisfaction with decisions reached regarding the organization of air service. On 27 April a new command, the United States Army Air Services under Maj. Gen. Rush B. Lincoln, took over the responsibility for air service from USAFIA. At first there was some confusion as to the extent and exact
nature of General Lincoln’s responsibility, but by the end of May clarification had been provided by official definition of the Air Services as an administrative, supply, maintenance, and engineering command operating under the commander of the Allied Air Forces.48 Its internal organization reflected the current effort to achieve a requisite mobility within the Allied Air Forces. Instead of attaching service elements to tactical units, the plan was to make each air base group responsible for all air service within a specified area. Thus the 35th Air Base Group, stationed in the Townsville area, was forced with the passage of time to acquire the versatility necessary to service and maintain A-20’s, A-24’s, B-17’s, B-25’s, B-26’s, P-39’s, P-400’s, and an assortment of transport planes. Four other groups, stationed at Archerfield near Brisbane, Ballarat near Melbourne, Mascot in the Sydney area, and Daly Waters below Darwin, developed a similar versatility, while a sixth air base group located at Charters Towers sharpened its mechanical and related skills by servicing all planes ferried in from the United States.49
In addition, the air base groups were forced to provide the services of supply depots, for the Army Air Services had only one air depot group at its disposal. This, the 4th Air Depot Group, by dividing its units among three widely separated points, was attempting in April to perform functions which normally would require three such groups. At Footscray in Victoria it operated a central supply depot, at Brisbane a branch supply depot, and at Wagga Wagga in New South Wales a major repair depot, not to mention the supervision it provided over aircraft erection facilities at Amberley and Geelong.50 Obviously, there was need for additional air depot groups, and on 1 May Brett received authorization for activation of another group, the 81st; but personnel and equipment were to be taken from that already available in Australia. Activated on 11 May under command of Col. R. L. Fry, the new unit received responsibility for the assembly and maintenance of aircraft and the supply of air units in the Brisbane area. The shortage of trained and experienced personnel proved a serious handicap; but as in other service units, improvisation and hard work made up for some of the inadequacies. Help came, too, from civilian sources. With the cooperation of the Australian Department of Aircraft Production, Australians were employed for maintenance work; such local concerns as the Ford Motor Company and the National Airways also assisted in the provision of facilities and experienced personnel. At the
same time, civilian factory representatives of the several American aircraft producers became well-nigh indispensable in the training of service personnel, particularly by guiding them to an understanding of the peculiar features of the several types of aircraft.51
Work on a permanent supply and maintenance depot at Tocumwal in New South Wales, between Melbourne and Canberra, was in progress by May. In selection of the site, the authorities had been influenced by previous RAAF plans for a similar use of the place, by its convenient situation with reference to Melbourne and Sydney, and by the fact that it lay at a terminal point for different-gauge rail lines; but the decision also reflected the great current concern for security from enemy attacks on Australia. With plans for four all-weather runways, for satellite fields, for the garrisoning there of 4,600 military personnel, and for depot facilities requiring a staff of 2,000 workers, the project was indeed an ambitious undertaking.52 Yet, with an early improvement in the tactical situation, it became necessary before the Tocumwal depot had even reached its operational capacity to transfer the main center of such activity northward to Townsville, which was considerably nearer the area of combat in New Guinea.53
On the eve of the Battle of the Coral Sea, which would determine the immediate fate of Australia, many problems remained unsolved. Of these, logistical problems were among the most difficult. Distances in Australia were comparable to those of the United States, but transportation and communication facilities were much less adequate. Railway lines, like the population, were centered in the southeastern part of the country, and there was no railroad connection with such northern outposts as Darwin. Moreover, where connections existed for any great distance there were special difficulties arising from the fact that the Australian railways were not of uniform gauge. Particularly serious was the problem of storing and transporting high-octane gasoline. Stocks at the outset were relatively small and were not strategically located. Most of the storage capacity being in the southern part of the continent, it was necessary to unload there bulk shipments from the United States. Rail shipment thence to operating units in the north was almost out of question, for every change in railroad gauge required the pumping of fuel from one tank car to another. Transshipment, therefore, had to be made largely by water routes exposed to enemy attack, and this arrangement called for a large supply of fuel drums to be sent from the United States. The relatively
small population and industrial capacity of Australia forced the Allies into a heavy dependence upon seaborne supplies at the very time when a shortage of shipping stood among the most acute problems confronting the associated powers.
Air transport was as yet insufficiently developed to provide substantial relief. The Air Corps Ferrying Command assigned two LB-30’s to a South Pacific run in April, but the principal purpose was the return of bomber ferry crews to the United States.54 Under Harold Gatty, as director of Air Transport in Australia, progress was being made in the organization of intra-theater transport services, but as yet he lacked the planes, equipment, and trained personnel required. In the development of inter-theater air transport, moreover, there were administrative and jurisdictional problems yet to be solved. The ferrying service across the Pacific, which increasingly came to be joined with an air transport service, depended upon facilities at Williamstown and Amberley which came under the control of the Directorate of Air Transport; and not until September would anything like a satisfactory understanding be reached regarding the prerogatives of a field command as against the autonomy considered essential to the efficient operation of world-wide transport and ferry services.55 New forms of logistical support no less than new weapons of warfare present their peculiar problems of command, and time is usually required to resolve them.
Considering the brief interval that had elapsed since the debacle in the Netherlands East Indies, however, the emphasis must be placed upon the progress made. During April and May, significant steps were taken by the Australian government to adjust the economic capacities of the country to the needs of the Allied military forces. In close coordination with General MacArthur’s staff, the administrative machinery was provided to relieve congestion in the harbors, for a more efficient direction of the production and distribution of food, and for the supply of labor and equipment required in the construction of military installations. Through these and other actions, Australia’s productive capacity would substantially reduce the burden imposed on Allied shipping.56
At the same time, AAF units, as yet the only American forces available for combat duty, were moving forward to assist the Australians in the defense of their continent. P-40’s of the 49th Group having already taken position in defense of Darwin, the P-39’s of the 8th
Group had moved into Port Moresby by 30 April and that afternoon thirteen of the twenty-six Cobras which had come in carried out their first mission. Under the leadership of Lt. Col. Boyd D. Wagner, they accomplished a thorough strafing of grounded planes and fuel dumps at Lae and Salamaua, an action which was followed by a brisk engagement with enemy fighters.57 Six A-24’s of the 8th Bombardment Squadron had led a movement of AAF dive bombers into Port Moresby a month earlier on 31 March. The B-25’s of the 3rd Group had begun operations against New Guinea targets early in April, as also had the B-26’s of the 22nd Group.58 Important patrol and reconnaissance duties assumed both by mediums and heavies cut down substantially the scale of bombing operations, for the AAF planes had become a principal reliance for intelligence of the enemy’s movements and intentions. All bomber units equipped with planes shared in the effort, but special notice is due the 8th Photographic Squadron and the 435th Bombardment Squadron. AAF Headquarters had been prompt to recognize the need for properly equipped photographic squadrons, and shortly after the outbreak of war 100 P-38’s had been set aside for necessary modification. A training program had been inaugurated at Colorado Springs, and the first unit ready for operation was assigned to Australia. Flight “A” of the 8th Photographic Squadron arrived there on 7 April, and nine days later had gone into operation with its four F-4’s (P-38E’s modified by the installation of cameras and two additional 75-gallon tanks) under command of Capt. Karl Polifka.59 The most conspicuous services were provided, however, by the 435th, which formerly had been the 40th Reconnaissance Squadron of the 19th Bombardment Group. Anticipating the assignment of photographic groups to all theaters, the AAF on 9 April directed the redesignation of all existing reconnaissance squadrons as bombardment units, and under this provision the 40th became the 435th Bombardment Squadron.60 But it continued to serve, with assistance from other units, for reconnaissance of the New Guinea, New Britain, and Solomons areas. And when the Japanese moved out in early May for an attack by sea on Port Moresby, AAF units contributed to the frustration of their purpose perhaps chiefly through the reconnaissance they provided.
By that time, the final entry had been made in the long record of AAF flights from Australia to the Philippines. The last successful fight for the evacuation of personnel had been made in a B-24 piloted
by Capt. Alvin J. Mueller on 29 April. Just before midnight, and only three hours after its arrival from Australia, the plane took off from Del Monte to land its passengers at Batchelor Field, south of Darwin, the following day. On 5 May, Captain Mueller returned to Mindanao with a heavy cargo of mail, ammunition, and other supplies, but after circling Del Monte and its satellites for three hours in the darkness without receiving a friendly signal, he turned back. Running out of gas, he was forced down near an island, from which the crew was subsequently rescued by submarine.61 This last attempt had been made only a day before the surrender of General Wainwright’s exhausted forces brought an end to formal resistance in the Philippines. The AAF would return with MacArthur to the Philippines, but the way back would be long and difficult.