Hard Men, Desperate Times: the 19th Bomb Group in the SW Pacific
By Tom Burkhalter
In Alis Vincimus – “On Wings We Conquer”
Motto of the 19th Bomb Group
During the early morning hours of December 8, 1941, an Army cook just coming off duty at Clark Field on the Philippine island of Luzon tuned in his Zenith Transoceanic radio to the Honolulu radio station. He heard the announcer broadcasting that Japanese aircraft were attacking Pearl Harbor. At more or less the same time, the radio operator on duty at the Cavite Navy Yard on Manila Bay overheard a message transmitted in clear from Pearl Harbor: AIR RAID PEARL HARBOR THIS IS NO DRILL.
By 0600 Philippines time all units of the Asiatic Fleet, the Far Eastern Air Force, and US Army ground units were on full alert. P-40 pursuits at Clark, Iba and Nichols Field were prepared to take the air to intercept the long-anticipated Japanese air attack. B-17s of the 19th Bomb Group at Clark Field went aloft to avoid being caught on the ground. General Lew Brereton, commander of the FEAF, requested permission from his commanding officer, General Douglas MacArthur, to bomb Japanese airfields on Formosa; the refusal of permission by MacArthur is a decision that remains shrouded in mystery and is controversial to this day. By 1100 hours, no attack had materialized. P-40 pursuits had to land to refuel. The B-17s, finally given permission to attack Formosa, landed at Clark Field to refuel and bomb up.
What no one knew at FEAF HQ was that the Japanese airfields on Formosa were fogged in during the morning. As soon as the fog cleared, the Japanese launched their
attack, striking Clark Field at 1240 while most of the American airplanes were on the ground. An airman outside one of the hangars looked up and saw the incoming bombers. The reality of war had not yet sunk in; the airman called everyone’s attention to the “pretty Navy formation.” Fifty-four Japanese bombers unloaded on the field, but the worst damage was caused by strafing. Mitsubishi A6M2 “Zero” fighters, mostly unopposed in the air and facing ineffectual ground fire, subject Clark Field to intensive ground strafing attack for nearly an hour. When the Japanese left, they had destroyed half the bomber and pursuit strength of the FEAF and achieved air superiority over the Philippines. By the end of December the 19th Bomb Group evacuated to Darwin, Australia, leaving only a remnant of P-40 and P-35 pursuits of the 24th Pursuit Group to continue the fight against the invading Japanese.
Before the Japanese attack on December 8, the 19th had 35 B-17s available. By the time the group completed its evacuation to Australia at the end of December, the 19th had eleven B-17s remaining.
These eleven B-17s were not the heavily-armed Fortresses that took on the Luftwaffe over Germany. The B-17s flown by the 19th at this time were earlier “D” models, or even “C” models converted to D standards. They were armed with six .50-cal. machine guns in unpowered turrets, with a further .30-cal. machine gun mounted in the nose. There were no powered turrets or computing gunsights. Those, like the tail gun position, would first appear on the “E” model B-17. The first B-17E was not rolled out of the Boeing factory in Seattle until the 19th’s B-17D airplanes were already serving in the Philippines.
America did not have extensive resources to commit to fighting the Japanese in the early part of the war. The 19th Bomb Group, at the time it arrived in the Philippines in late 1941, was the only heavy-bomber group deemed combat-ready in what had only recently changed from the Army Air Corps to the US Army Air Forces. Further, the 35 B-17Ds of the 19th Bomb Group represented over a third of the total production of B-17 bombers to date, including prototypes like the original Boeing Model 299 and the Y1B-17, as well as the “B” and “C” versions. The B-17E would not reach the Pacific until January 1942. The early-model B-17E had tail guns, a major improvement, but the bottom turret was remotely operated and largely ineffective; gunners complained its mirror-based periscopic gunsight gave them vertigo. This early-model “E” only saw combat in the Pacific. By the time the 8th AF in Europe incorporated bomb groups equipped with the B-17E, the bombers had the manned ball turret in the belly.
The 19th Bomb Group was temporarily joined by the 7th Bomb Group in January of 1942, in time to operate with the 19th from Java against the Japanese coming south to seize the oil fields in Borneo, Sumatra and Java. Parts, especially engines, were in short supply. New aircraft were in even shorter supply. The original air route to the Philippines took the B-17s over or near Japanese territory. This route closed with the start of the war. A South Pacific route, via Palmyra Island, Canton Island, Fiji and New Caledonia, was used instead. US heavy bombers had to fly about 8000 miles from California to Australia to reach the SW Pacific war zone. Reaching the Philippines along this route was originally considered such a feat of airmanship that when the first squadrons of the 19th Bomb Group flew across the Pacific to the Philippines in October 1941, the pilots received the Distinguished Flying Cross for the feat. Only a year later, the flight would be considered routine.
The remnants of the Philippine veterans from both pursuit and heavy bomber outfits had to contend with bad weather, lack of intelligence (including inaccurate or nonexistent navigation charts), wet and soggy airfields, lack of spare parts, bad food, malaria and other less appetizing tropical diseases, all before they could even fight the Japanese. A formation of 6 B-17s of varying types often represented a maximum effort mission.
To prosecute the war against the Japanese the 19th and 7th Bomb Groups operated from Singosari, located south of Surabaya on the eastern end of Java, and from Batchelor Field, 50 miles south of Darwin. Missions to attack the Japanese fighting American and Philippine Army units on the Bataan Peninsula had to stage out of Del Monte field on Mindanao. Fifteen hundred miles separates Darwin from Del Monte, and at least another 500 miles from Del Monte to targets on Bataan, meaning a two-thousand-mile round trip for one bombing raid. In contrast, from 8th Air Force bases in East Anglia to Berlin is also about 500 miles. Imagine operating from bases on the east coast of Greenland, flying to a forward base in East Anglia to attack Berlin, then returning to Greenland via East Anglia. At the end of these two-thousand-mile round trips, the bombers need repairs for combat damage as well as routine maintenance. The crews themselves provided the repair work. The reason for this is simple and brutal: the ground support echelon of the 19th Bomb Group was either trapped on the Bataan Peninsula or had come south to Del Monte Field on the island of Mindanao before the war started. A few crew chiefs and mechanics were ferried out of Del Monte, or were smuggled out on submarines from the island of Corregidor in the mouth of Manila Bay, but many of them died fighting on Bataan, or in the infamous Death March, or became POWs when the Philippines surrendered to the Japanese in May 1942.
The 7th Bomb Group was reassigned to the China-Burma-India Theater in March 1942 The 43rd Bomb Group was in Australia, but wasn’t yet operational. Through the summer of 1942, then, the 19th Bomb Group remained the only operational heavy-bomber unit in the SW Pacific. Always under strength in personnel and aircraft, suffering from losses and combat damage, operating from makeshift forward airfields with limited repair facilities, the 19th fought a desperate war until it was relieved and sent home late in 1942. The 19th would be re-equipped with B-29 Superfortresses and sent to the Pacific once again, to participate in the final defeat of Japan, there at the beginning and at the end.
(An earlier version of this article appeared in The Fury, Quarterly Newsletter of the Hickory Aviation Museum.)
For Further Reading:
Salecker, Gene E.: Fortress Against the Rising Sun: The B-17 Flying Fortress in the Pacific
White, W.L.: Queens Die Proudly
By Tom Burkhalter for, http//20thCenturyAviationMagazine.com/