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The First Class at RAF No. 31 Radio School
Operation Dragoon and Invasion of Southern France
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The Silent Service and the Turkey Shoot
Published works on WWII OOB for land forces
Flying Tiger, Hidden Eagle
SAARF – Special Allied Airborne Recon Force
Force at la Difensa
Sabotaging Hitler’s Heavy Water
Soviet Offensive in the Arctic
The Failure of Strategic Bombing
Dutch Harbor: Unraveling of Japan’s Pacific Strategy
Ed Ramsey, 26th Cav Reg (Philippine Scouts)
US Army in Czechoslovakia '45: An Operational Overview
Strategic Culture of the IJN
Battles of Luneville: September 1944
Visual Guide to US Fleet Subs Pt 1
Lodge Act Soldier
The Fate of the Kido Butai
Air Recon in WWII
Turning East: Hitler's only option
Resupply Operations to Malta, 1942
WWII Veteran Interview
Why Arnhem?
Hell Ship - From the Philippines to Japan
The Battleship USS Oregon
US Army in Czechoslovakia '45 to '48
Jewish Resistance in WWII
Battle for Seaports
Banzai Attack on Attu
End of the Battle of the Java Sea
Texas National Guard in WWII
How Arnhem was Lost
Saga of Ormoc Bay
Silent Service of the Pacific
USS Wahoo
Polish Cavalry: A Military Myth Dispelled
Confucian Martial Culture
Operation Market Garden
Legacy of WWII Sub Veterans
Lausdell Crossroads
Kasserine Pass
Arnhem Startline
Bushido: Valor of Deceit
British Offensive Operations
Sir Winston Churchill
American Stubbornness at Rimling
The OSS in Greece
Strategy of Blitzkrieg
Breaking Seelow Heights
The Rape of Nanking
Small Battle: Big Implications
Harris Class APA's
Aerial Defense of East Indies
Why the Bulge Didn't Break
American Forces in WWII
Shadow Warriors
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Panzer Brigades
Adolf Eichmann
Interview of a WWII Veteran
Failure and Destruction
Winter Warfare
Operation Rusty: The Gehlen-U.S. Army Connection
Was Hitler right to invade Russia?
Hitler, Germany's Worst General
Surface Actions of World War II
MacArthur's Failures in the Philippines
Japan's Monster Sub
Popski's Private Army
The Soviet Formula for Success
Japan's TA Operation
Hitler Youth: An Effective Organization
After Midway: The Fates of the Warships
Barbarossa: Strategic Miscalculation
The Story of a "Go Devil"
Long Range Desert Group
Island of Death
The Failure of Operation Barbarossa
The Liberation of Czechoslovakia 1945
Only the Admirals were Happy
Bicycle Blitzkrieg - Singapore
Good Grief Sir, We're in Trier!
Thermopylae, Balaklava and Kokoda
How Hitler Could Have Won
The Battle of Midway
Waffen SS - Birth of the Elite
Nomonhan and Okinawa
Der Bund Deutscher Mädel
Rulers of the World: Hitler Youth
Breakout From the Hedgerows
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Motivation of the Einsatzgruppen
Pearl Harbor and Midway
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Anzio: The Allies' Greatest Blunder
US Army in WWII
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Hitler's Ultra-Secret Adlerhorst
The Wilhelm Gustloff Disaster
The 88th Infantry in Italy

Michael Gough Articles
Aerial Defense of East Indies
Failure and Destruction

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The Aerial Defense of the Netherlands East Indies and the United States Army Air Force in the Defense of Java, 1942
The Aerial Defense of the Netherlands East Indies and the United States Army Air Force in the Defense of Java, 1942
by Michael Gough

Japan and the United States emerged as world powers at the beginning of the 20th Century, and soon challenged European Powers' dominance in Asia and the Pacific. Japan's challenge was aimed at displacing European powers and inserting itself as a colonial master. The United States was content to check further European and Japanese expansion and to solidify its control of the Philippines and other Pacific possessions. Forty years later, Japan captured the oil-rich Netherlands East Indies, and Great Britain, the Netherlands, Australia, the United States and those four powers combined could do little to interfere.

Japan and the United States Step onto the World Stage

In 1895, after victories over the Chinese navy and army, Japan made Korea "independent" and took possession of Formosa (now Taiwan), some other islands, and Manchuria's Liaotung Peninsula. Additionally, Japan forced China to open treaty ports under the generous terms previously reserved to Western powers, and secured indemnities for the costs it incurred during the war. Bowing to Western pressures, Japan did not occupy the Liaotung Peninsula in Southern Manchuria.[1]

Three years later in 1898, Russia prevailed upon China to grant it a lease to Port Arthur at the south end of the peninsula and quickly expanded its control to the entire peninsula. Japan responded with a surprise attack on Port Arthur in 1904, followed with a siege. Elsewhere, Japan occupied Korea, fought bloody land battles against the Russians in Manchuria, and finally triumphed over the Russian Navy at the Battle of Tsushima. In the ensuring Treaty of Portsmouth, mediated by President Theodore Roosevelt, Japanese control over Korea was recognized, Japan took possession of Port Arthur and a railroad on the Liaotung Peninsula, and the Russians agreed to leave Manchuria.[2]

In a five-month span, April to August 1898, the United States defeated the Spanish fleet in the Battle of Manila Bay and the Spanish colonial army in Cuba. In the resulting treaty of Paris, the United States took possession of the former Spanish colonies of Cuba, Porto Rico, Guam, and the Carolina and Philippine Islands.

The world was a different place. Japan, an Asian country that had emerged from feudalism a half century earlier, had defeated mighty Russia. Huge and rich, the United States had bested a long-time European power and taken possession of islands in the Caribbean and the far-off Pacific.

Two years after the Treaty of Portsmouth, in December 1907, President Roosevelt sent 16 battleships – "The Great White Fleet" – on a round-the-world tour. Although the ships carried friendly greetings and tightly disciplined sailors, some U.S. citizens worried that the voyage might provoke a war with Japan because of tensions associated with Japan's displeasure with American mistreatment of Japanese immigrants. Years after the event, Roosevelt wrote that Japan had been the target of the demonstration of might. He had become "uncomfortably conscious of a very, very slight undertone of veiled truculence. [I]t was time for a showdown."[3] The voyage worked. When the fleet steamed into Tokyo Bay in October 1908, thousands of school children greeted it singing the "Star Spangled Banner."[4] Tensions between the United States and Japan evaporated (for a while).

Both countries grew stronger during World War I. The U.S. raised a huge army, which, by numbers and abundance of weapons and supplies, sealed the defeat of the Central Powers of Germany, Austria, and Turkey. It sold a lot of war supplies, ending the war with the Allies deeply in its debt.

Japan earned money from the sale of war material, and, siding with the Allies, occupied and took control of island territories in the Pacific that had belonged to Germany. World War I increased Japan's gold reserves, but it did nothing to increase its supply of food and raw materials that were increasingly inadequate for its growing population and burgeoning industries.

In 1917, T. Takekoshi wrote about a possible solution to those problems, "It is therefore necessary for Japan to look to such places as Java and Sumatra as sources of rice supply," and "she has to look to the islands of the South Pacific for her supplies of rubber."[5] Mr. Takekoshi did not mention oil in his article. He did, however, reassure his readers that conquest was not the only way for Japan to obtain the desirable islands. Japan was in position to buy the lands from their colonial masters with the money it had acquired during World War I. I do not know how seriously Japan pursued the purchase of the islands, but the islands were clearly desirable real estate.

The Netherlands East Indies

Java, Bali, and Sumatra, islands with romantic-sounding names, were part of the Dutch or Netherlands East Indies (NEI), a string of islands stretching from Malaysia to Australia. Following overthrow of Netherlands' control in 1949, those islands became the nation of Indonesia (see map 1).

Map 1 Modern-day Indonesia


In the 1930s, the NEI was "one of the richest colonies in the world"[6] because of oil reserves. By then, Japan, fighting wars in Manchuria and China, saw the U.S. reneging on its role as a reliable provider of oil because of its opposition to Japanese expansion. Capturing the NEI was an alternative to depending on the United States for oil.[7]

In 1941, the NEI, islands far away from the home country, were the major land area controlled by Holland. The home country had been lost to the Germans in 1940, and Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch government had fled to England. Except for the skeleton government in England, the NEI was the Netherlands after that date.

In 1940, NEI leaders, expecting a Japanese attack, entered into negotiations with Great Britain and the United States to work out defense plans and to try to buy weapons. Plans were developed, but Britain, pressed in Europe by Germany and worried about Japanese designs on Singapore and the Malay Peninsula, had no weapons to sell; neither did the United States only beginning to manufacture arms.[8]

In 1940, the NEI population was composed of 70,000,000 indigenous people, about 3,000,000 non-indigenous, non-Dutch people (mostly Chinese), and 300,000 Dutch. The name of the best known of the islands, Java, was sometimes applied to the whole island chain, and the capital, on the island of Java, was Batavia (now Jakarta). The bulk of the NEI Army, totaling 40,000 Dutch troops and 100,000 native troops (or "levies," in some commentaries) was located on Java.[9]

The NEI was the plum for Japan's advances into the South Pacific.

Without regular shipments from the Netherlands East Indies the Japanese military would quickly exhaust the nation's limited stocks of petroleum products, and the war effort, as well as the domestic economy, would grind to a halt. From the Japanese perspective access to these fields was essential if Japan was to continue its policy of nationalistic expansion. Without Dutch oil, Japan would have little option but to halt its aggressive plans, accept defeat in China and accede to Western demands.[10]

The author of the chapter "Loss of the Netherlands East Indies" in  Army Air Forces in World War II described the NEI as "the fabulously wealthy Netherlands East Indies."[11]


Shortly after Japanese attacks on U.S. and British territories on December 7, 1941, the United States (America), Great Britain (Britain), the NEI (Dutch), and Australia – the ABDA Command countries – planned for the joint defense of the "Malay Barrier" or "East Indies Barrier." The Barrier, a barrier because of Singapore's "impregnable" defenses and the difficulties presented by the succession of sea-borne landings necessary to seize the NEI, stretched from Burma (now called "Myanmar" by its rulers), along the Malay Peninsula and through Singapore, across the NEI (Sumatra, Java, Timor, and other islands) to Northern Australia (see map 2). British General Sir Archibald Wavell, who had held the bag for the defeat of British forces in North Africa in 1940, was taken from his position as Commander in Chief of British Forces in India, and appointed Commander of ABDACOM on December 29, 1941. U.S. General George H. Brett was appointed Deputy Commander, and U.S. General Lewis Brereton was placed in command of the air forces.

Map 2
The ABDA Area

From Watson, p. 369

The distances in ABDACOM region are immense – about 3400 miles in the more important north to south axis and 3100 east to west. Primitive conditions were the norm. The Malay Barrier region, and especially the NEI, had few towns of any consequence, a handful of cities, and few airfields.

(The Philippines, while formally part of ABDA, were practically under the one-man command of General Douglas MacArthur. By the end of 1941, U.S. military planners had abandoned hope of reinforcing U.S. forces in the Philippines, leaving them to certain defeat.)

In many people's minds, the war in the Pacific was fought along east to west axes as first the Japanese advanced eastward and later, as U.S. forces began to wrest control of the war, battles moved from east to west. In reality, much of the war was fought along north-south axes. The Japanese invaded the Philippines from Formosa and moved southward from Indochina and Formosa to attack the NEI (see map 3). For the U.S., the long slog back to the Philippines was a south to north movement originating in Australia.

Map 3
Japanese Attacks on ABDACOM

Source: Wikipedia, available at

The Short, Unhappy Life of ABDACOM

The future of ABDACOM and the Malay Barrier was short and bleak. The Japanese required six months and a day – from the initial Japanese landings on the Malaya Peninsula on December 8, 1941, to the surrender of the last American forces in the Philippines on June 9, 1942 – to conquer the ABDACOM area, except Australia (see table 1).

Table 1. The Short, Unhappy Life of ABDACOM

-Dec. 8, 1941 Initial Japanese attacks on airfields in the Philippines and Singapore. Initial Japanese landings on Malay Peninsula.
-Dec. 10, 1941 Japanese aircraft sink HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse. Initial landing of Japanese forces on the north coast of the island of Luzon.
-Dec. 12, 1941 Japanese forces drive British defenders onto Hong Kong Island. Japanese landing on southern Luzon.
-Dec. 16, 1941 Japanese forces land on Sarawak (the northern part of island shared with Borneo).
-Dec. 19, 1941 Japanese forces land on Hong Kong Island.
-Dec. 20, 1941 Japanese forces land at Davao, on the south coast of the Island of Mindanao, the Philippines.
-Dec. 22, 1941 Japanese forces land at Lingayen Gulf, western Luzon, with a straight shot to Manila, the capital.
-Dec. 23, 1941 Dutch flying boats attack Davao.
-Dec. 25, 1941 Hong Kong surrenders to Japanese. Japanese land on southern Sarawak. Japanese occupy Jolo, a small island between Mindanao and Sarawak.
-Dec. 27, 1941 General MacArthur makes Manila an open city.
-Dec. 29, 1941 ABDACOM established, with British General Archibald Wavell, commander.
-Jan. 1, 1942 US withdraws from rest of Luzon to the Bataan Peninsula.
-Jan. 4, 1942 Japanese airforces attack Rabaul, New Britain.
-Jan. 7, 1942 Japanese air raid on Ceram, an island off the west coast of New Guinea and north of Timor.
-Jan. 8, 1942 Japanese invade northern Borneo.
-Jan. 10, 1942 Japanese invade north-east Borneo.
-Jan. 11, 1942 Japanese invade north-east tip of Celebes at Menado.
-Jan. 12, 1942 Major Japanese daylight airraid on Singapore.
-Jan. 20, 1942 Japanese carrier airplanes attack Rabaul.
-Jan. 22, 1942 Japanese carrier airplanes attack Port Moresby, southern New Guinea. Japanese land forces invade Rabaul.
-Jan. 23, 1942 Japanese land on southeastern Celebes.
-Jan. 24, 1942 Japanese invade Balifpapan, Borneo. First U.S. pursuits, P-40s, arrive in Java.
-Jan. 26, 1942 Japanese aircraft attack Timor and Amboina, a small island to the south of Timor. U.S. retreats on Bataan Peninsula.
-Jan. 27, 1942 RAF Hurricanes fly from HMS Indomitable to Java.
-Jan. 29, 1942 Japanese invade Pontianak, Borneo, on west coast, just south of the current border with Malaysia.
-Jan. 30, 1942 Japan invades Ceram.
-Jan. 31, 1942 British abandon Malaya and retreat to Singapore.
-Feb. 3, 1942 Japanese aircraft inflict heavy losses on Dutch fighters stationed in eastern Java.
-Feb. 4, 1942 British fighters reach Java in crates on surface vessels. Japanese aircraft attack Allied Navy force and damage two U.S. cruisers.
-Feb. 5, 1942 Major Japanese air attack on eastern Java.
-Feb. 6, 1942 Major Japanese air attack on southern Sumatra.
-Feb. 7, 1942 Another major attack on southern Sumatra.
-Feb. 8, 1942 Japanese forces invade Singapore Island. Japanese forces invade at Macassar on southwestern Celebes. Japanese forces invade southern New Britain.
-Feb. 9, 1942 Japanese occupy Celebes. Japanese aircraft raid western Java.
-Feb. 10, 1942 Japanese complete occupation of Borneo.
-Feb. 13, 1942 Singapore evacuation begins. Invasion fleet off shores of Sumatra.
-Feb. 14, 1942 Japanese paratroopers land near British airfield P.1 near Palembang, Sumatra.
-Feb. 15, 1942 Singapore surrenders.
-Feb. 16, 1942 Evacuation of Sumatra begins. Relief convoy from Darwin, headed for Timor, turned back when all transport ships damaged by Japanese bombers.
-Feb. 18, 1942 Japanese air attacks on eastern Java.
-Feb. 19, 1942 Japanese air attacks on western Java. Japanese carrier planes devastate port at Darwin. Employing paratroopers and landings across beaches, Japanese invade Bali and Timor.
-Feb. 20, 1942 U.S. aircraft carrier Lexington, in route to attack Rabaul, repulses Japanese airraids but turns away from attack on Rabaul. Japanese land on Timor, sever ferry route of P-40s from Australia to NEI.
-Feb. 23, 1942 In Washington, Combined Chiefs make decision for last-ditch defense of Java, with no withdrawal of forces from the island. [This decision was not final.]
-Feb. 25, 1942 General Wavell leaves command post in Java, cedes command to Dutch who are now the principle obstacle to Japanese.
-Feb. 27, 1942 Allied naval force attempts to turn back Japanese invasion fleet headed for Java. Allies suffer devastating losses of five cruisers and six destroyers in Battle of Java Sea. USS Langley, a seaplane tender made from the first obsolete U.S. carrier sunk by Japanese planes while ferrying 32 P-40s to Java. Many P-40 pilots and groundcrew lost when rescue vessels sunk.
-Feb. 28, 1942 In night-time Battle of Sunda Straight, an Australian and a U.S. cruiser – Perth and Houston – are sunk. Japanese lose 4 transports, probably to torpedoes fired by Japanese destroyers at Allied cruisers.
-Mar. 1, 1942 Japanese launch two-pronged invasion of Java from Borneo and Indo-China. USAAF, RAF, and Dutch Air Force make last operational flight from Java to attack invasion fleets. Japanese locate so-far hidden U.S. fighter airfield, strafe all surviving P-40s.
-Mar. 2, 1942 Surviving USAAF personnel are flown from Jogjarkata to Broome, Australia, on overloaded B-17s and LB-30s.
-Mar. 3, 1942 Japanese air attack on Dutch, Australian, and American flying boats at Broome, Australia, destroys most of those planes and kills scores of civilians in process of being evacuated. Japanese shoot down LB-30 loaded with survivors from Java, killing 20 USAAF personnel.
-Mar. 8, 1942 Java surrenders.
-Mar. 12, 1942 Japanese from Singapore capture Medan in northern Sumatra.
-Apr. 9, 1942 U.S. and Philippine Army forces surrender on Bataan Peninsula, Luzon, the Philippines.
-Jun. 9, 1942 Last U.S.-Phillipino force in Philippines, at Samar, surrenders.

Source: Edited and abridged from Shores, C. and B. Cull with Y Izawa. 1993. Bloody Shambles. Volume 2. The Defense of Sumatra to the Fall of Burma. [London: Grub Street, 1993] @ pp. 13-16. With additional material from Watson and other sources.  Actions over and at New Britain and New Guinea are not discussed in this article.

Engagements that were exclusively sea battles or air-sea battles are shown in italic.

Encircling Java

Japanese forces landed on the Malay Peninsula on the first day of the war, and, eight days later, on December 16, invaded the northern part of Borneo (now a part of Malaysia, see map 1). Outflanking the American and Philippino defenders on the Island of Luzon, Japan landed at the important port of Davao on the southern coast of Mindanao, the major southern Philippine island on December 20. Five days later, the Japanese captured and occupied Jolo, a small island between Mindanao and Borneo. Although the Japanese had not captured the Philippines' most important island and its capital, possession of Davao and Jolo gave it bases for air and naval advances against the NEI to the south.

Japanese forces that had sailed from Cam Rahn Bay in French-Indo China (present day Vietnam), joined Japanese units already of Borneo on January 1, and more Japanese troops landed during January and early February. Japan controlled Borneo on February 10.[16]. 

Japanese forces landed on the northeast corner of Celebes, an island of four peninsulas and three bays, on January 11. About two weeks later, on the 24th, they landed at the important port of Makassar on the southeast peninsula, completing their conquest of the island.

The 228th Infantry Regiment, sailing from Davao, captured the island of Ceran on January 31. Almost a month after completing its conquest of Celebes, Japan sent a seaborne invasion fleet to Timor, cutting the P-40 ferry route from Austalia on February 20. A day earlier, on February 19, Bali fell to the Japanese.

Dutch troops, primarily "native levies," and British troops, primarily RAF and RAAF ground and air crews, fought tenaciously at some places, but the Japanese – employing paratroops and armor – pushed them aside. Although small, Japanese forces often outnumbered the defenders. And, if known to the other defenders, the fate of "native levies" who had defended a bridge near Makassar on Celebes, would have sapped their moral. The Borneo defenders killed and wounded a few Japanese before they were captured. The Japanese forced the captured troops to remove the puttees wound around their legs, separated the captured troops into groups of three or four, tied the groups together with the puttees, and threw them from the bridge to drown.[17].  Similarly, RAF personnel who had escaped capture on Sumatra reported that Japanese troops did not extend the conventions of European warfare to their enemies. Japanese soldiers sometimes killed captured British soldiers, whether wounded or unwounded.

Borneo, Celebes, Ceram, Timor, and Bali fell with little opposition. The defenses of Sumatra and Java were more determined, relying on the allied airpower stationed on and moved to those islands.

Sumatra Falls

Two airfields, known as P.1 and P.2 to the British, were the critical points in the defense of Sumatra.[18]  Sited at a civilian airfield, north of the refinery town of Palembang, P. 1 was to become the base for Allied fighters on Sumatra. Most Sumatra-based bombers flew from P.2, located south of Palembang. In addition to these two airfields in Sumatra's oil refinery region, other, smaller, less developed fields were located in the inhospitable northern parts of the island.

By December 28, Japanese forces had moved sufficiently south along the Malay Peninsula to come abreast of Sumatra's major targets. From then on, Japanese bombers, generally escorted by fighters, made frequent attacks on P.1 and P.2.

In December and January, reinforcements – Lockheed Hudsons from England and Bristol Blenheims from North Africa – flew into Sumatra.[19] The England-based flights flew to Egypt and from there both Blenheims and Hudsons followed the same general course across Africa, down the Indian subcontinent, across Burma, and along the Malay Peninsula to P.2. Pioneer airmen had "proved" these routes only a few years earlier in the early and mid-1930s, and flying the routes required skill and patience and surely tested the mettle of service pilots and navigators hastily trained at the beginning of the war. RAF Squadrons Numbers 84 and 221 took off with 24 Blenheims each destined for Singapore. Only 18 of 84 Squadron and 17 of 221 reached Sumatra, some reaching Sumatra only in late January. Seven of 18 Hudsons of No.59 Squadron that left England in early January arrived in Sumatra. Some of the missing bombers crashed in the Mediterranean, some in Africa, some in Burma, and some on landing in Sumatra.

Before the war, U.S. planners had counted on reinforcing the NEI and Australia by ferry flights that crossed the South Atlantic from South America to Africa, then followed a route similar to the RAF's.[20] During January, at least 5 LB-30s[21] and 16 B-17Es made the flight. The fall of the Malay Barrier, of course, ended those ferry flights.

On January 27 and 28, 48 Hurricanes flew from HMS Indomitable and, guided by Blenheims, made 200-mile flights to P.1. The Hurricanes lacked the latest radio and navigation equipment, serious deficiencies for aircraft to be operated over oceans and jungles by pilots fresh out of advanced flight school. Over the next week, additional, even less-experienced, Hurricane pilots arrived by sea. The British fighters were the only fighters in Sumatra by the end of January, after the Dutch withdrew all their serviceable airplanes to Java to participate in the defense of that island.

On February 5, Number 232 and 258 Squadrons had 33 Hurricanes, a dozen more than at the end of January, and a few unserviceable Buffalos.[22] Heavy Japanese attacks on February 6, 7, and 8, reduced the number of Hurricanes to 20. Fifteen were serviceable and ready to take to the air, on February 14, as the Japanese invasion fleet approached Sumatra.

The situation with bombers was better, at least in numbers. On February 14, there were 35 Blenheims, many unserviceable, and 20 Hudsons at P.2.

The airmen on Sumatra were by-standers to the horrific losses suffered in the evacuation of Singapore that began on February 13. Japanese aircraft, ships, and submarines sank over 70 steamers and smaller ships, and somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 civilians and military personnel perished.

The Loss of P.1.

RAF and RAAF bombers and fighters took off from P.1 and P.2 on the morning of February 14 to attack the Japanese fleet, including a reported aircraft carrier, off the coast of Sumatra. While Hurricanes waited for a flight of Blenheims to arrive, unescorted Hudsons attacked the fleet. Mitsubishi Zeros[23] mauled the Hudsons – five Hudsons in one flight of six were shot down, and others met the same fate. When they arrived, the Hurricane-escorted Blenheims dropped their bombs from 8,000 feet and sank at least one transport.

While the RAF and RAAF aircraft were returning to their bases, a formation of 18 Mitsubishi Ki 21 (Sally)[24]bombers dropped anti-personnel fragmentation bombs on P.1. Immediately behind them, Ki 56 transports (Topsy), license-built Lockheed 14s, dropped 180 paratroopers between P.1 and the town of Pelembang and 90 more near some oil refineries. The license built Ki 56s, easily mistaken for RAF and RAAF's Lockheed Hudsons, added to the confusion of aircraft identification.

The only British Army troops on Sumatra were antiaircraft gunners who manned Befors positions around P.1 and P.2. The ones at P.1 fired at the descending Japanese paratroopers as did some of the Hurricanes and bombers that returned to P.1 while the attack was underway, but the decision was soon made to abandon P.1. British airmen and groundcrew avoided or fought through roadblocks thrown up by the Japanese between P.1 and Palembang, and escaped by road or rail to the port of Oesthaven on the south coast of Sumatra.

On the next day, Japanese barges departed from the invasion fleet to take soldiers upriver to Palembang. Hudsons, Blenheims, and Hurricanes from P.2 and Java attacked the barges, causing heavy causalities, and delaying the link-up between the Japanese paratroopers and the seaborne troops by 36 hours.

The Loss of P.2.

A violent electric storm during the night of February 14/15 disrupted communications with P.2, and on the 15th, commanders made the decision to evacuate all the aircraft to Java. That decision was subsequently criticized because P.2 was not under an immediate threat, but the flights to Java began on the 14th and continued the next day. Also on the 15th, Hudsons that had earlier flown to Java were stripped of operational equipment and returned to P.2 to evacuate RAF and RAAF personnel.

The End in Sumatra.

Three days of concentrated air attacks – February 6, 7, and 8 – and a two-day invasion – February 14 and 15 – chased the Allies from Sumatra, underlining lessons already learned over Great Britain, France, and North Africa. Unescorted bombers were easy meat for fighters. Adequate warning of approaching enemy aircraft was necessary to get defending fighters high enough and in position to attack. Inadequate antiaircraft defenses had to be strengthened.

Less obvious at the time, despite claims of many ships destroyed or damaged by medium and high-altitude level bombers, such attacks were largely futile, and almost certain to fail against ships that were underway. Perhaps the most convincing demonstration of the impotence of level bombers against moving ships were the 93 Japanese level-bomber attacks on HMS Exeter and her escorts. Near misses caused light damage to two destroyers, and Exeter had some splinter holes. Nothing more.

The fighting over and on Sumatra confirmed the brutality of the Japanese way of war. Japanese after-action reports from Sumatra made reference to shooting parachuting British pilots and aircrew.[25] The brutal, no quarter asked, no quarter given nature of the war in the Pacific had been established.

The End in Java, the End of ABDACOM.

Japan's aerial assault on Java kicked into high gear at the first of February 1942. A month later, Japanese troops landed on the island; a week after that, the island surrendered. With that victory, Japan completed its conquest of the NEI.

Aerial Defense Forces in Java

The RAF and the Dutch Air Force (DAF) that had fought the Japanese from the first day of war in Singapore, continued their fight from Java. The USAAF joined the defense of the NEI in Java.

Dutch Air Force. On November 30, 1941, the Dutch Air Force (DAF) in the NEI had 120 fighters.[26] There were 72 Brewster B-339s (essentially export versions of Brewster "Buffalos"), 24 Curtiss Hawk 75As (export versions of the USAAF P-36), and 24 Curtiss-Wright CW-21B ("Demons," single seat, single-engine, low-wing monoplanes with no armor, little armament and very fast climb[27]).[28] The DAF's 116 bombers were export versions of Martin B-9s[29] (called "Glenn Martins"). The NEI Air Force had more fighters (120 compared to 97) and more bombers (116 compared to 50) than the United States Far East Air Force (FEAF) in the Philippines in December 1941[30], but its equipment was more obsolete. The USAFF history summed it up, "In January 1942 its [the Dutch Air Force's] approximately 150 planes were all of ancient make."[31]

In early February, when surviving Allied aircraft were being concentrated in Java, the DAF had 34 Brewster B-339s for the defense of Western Java and 22 Glenn Martins for attack missions. In the eastern Java, the DAF had eight Curtiss Hawks and 13 Curtiss-Wright 21Bs.[32]

In addition, some 20 Consolidated PBYs, "Catalinas" of the DAF, RAF, and USN were in Java. They and a miscellany of European flying boats were under DAF command.

William Green[33] provides some detail of losses during the Japanese onslaught. A squadron of NEI-based Buffalos was sent to aid the British in Malaya on January 12, 1942, and five survived to be evacuated to Sumatra, where they joined 20 other Buffalos. Four of these fighters survived the ensuing battles with the Japanese in Sumatra and Java. Of the 17 Curtiss Wright CW-21s that were operational when Japan opened attacks on their bases on February 3, 1942, five remained two days later. Whatever the exact numbers and the bravery of their pilots, the Dutch Air Force fighters and bombers were no match for the Japanese.

RAF. The RAF based its forces in Western Java, which was not heavily attacked until the Japanese had completed converting bases on Sumatra to their use. It consolidated badly shot up units that had been evacuated from Singapore and the fighting in Sumatra and knit together two fighter squadrons, Numbers 242 and 605, from remnants of the RAF evacuated from Singapore and Sumatra. The squadrons were equipped with Hurricanes that had survived earlier fighting and new ones that arrived in crates at Jakarta on February 4 and 5, but there were only enough Hurricanes to equip one squadron. Plans were made to equip Number 605 Squadron with P-40Es. Most of the handful of RAF Buffalos that had escaped from Singapore were destroyed on the ground in Japanese attacks. Importantly, the RAF had rescued two radar sets from Singapore that were sited at Batavia (Jakarta) that provided sufficiently early warning of approaching Japanese aircraft to allow fighters to climb to interception altitude and bombers to get off the ground. The airfields had few defenses although wooden dummy guns were erected on at least one field in an attempt to fool the Japanese. (I found no reference in Bloody Shambles about any success in that effort).

For attack aircraft, the RAF had about two dozen Bristol Blenheims (few operational) and about the same number of Lockheed Hudsons (about eight serviceable). There were also some nearly useless aircraft, two Ablacores and 13 Vildebeests, near Jakarta. These aircraft, along with DAF Glenn Martins, continued offensive operations. For instance, on February 16, 17, and 19, RAF and DAF bombers attacked targets on Sumatra.

Fifty volunteers from Number 605 RAF squadron undertook an unusual mission for airmen on February 18. They boarded a corvette, sailed to Oosthaven, Sumatra, landed and spent 12 hours loading ammunition and other badly needed material on the corvette for transport to Java.

USAAF. The USAAF committed four types of aircraft to the defense of the NEI: Boeing B-17s, Consolidated LB-30s, Curtiss P-40Es, and Douglas A-24s (near equivalentes to the USN's Douglas SBDs). Some of the B-17s (Cs and Ds) were veterans of the Philippine debacle, flown to Java from Australia. Others (all Es) and the LB-30s were factory-fresh, ferried across the Atlantic and flown along the course used by British aircraft to reach the NEI. When that route was closed because of the Japanese conquest of Burma and Singapore, others were ferried across the Pacific to Australia and then to Java.[34] The P-40s and A-24s were shipped by sea to Australia, erected there, and then flown to the NEI

USAAF Bombers in Java

Three groups of USAAF bombers fought in the NEI: (1) The 27st Bombardment Group (Light), consisting of some pilots and aircrew who had reached the Philippines before the Japanese attack and had been evacuated to Australia plus other pilots, aircrew, and groundcrew and 55 dive bombers that reached Australia on December 22, (2) the remnants of the 19th Bomb Group (Heavy) from the Philippines, and (3) the 7th Bomb Group (Heavy) from the United States. To a major extent these aircraft would be employed on anti-shipping strikes as the Japanese moved toward the conquest of Java.

Dive Bombers

In the hands of USN pilots, the Douglas SBD is reputed to have sunk more ships than any other airplane. The Army had less success with its version of the plane, the A-24. To the extent that different standards of training contributed to the relative success rates of USN and USAAF dive-bombers, the comments of Sheppard and Gilmore may be informative:

Quite a few of the Naval pilots [it's impossible to tell from the context what Navy pilots are referred to, but it may have been those stationed at the Port of Sourabaya in northeast Java and near the USAAF airfields on Java] were very experienced dive bombing pilots and eager to aid the Army Air Forces in the use and instruction concerning the A-24 dive bombers which were being assembled in Australia at the time. These highly skilled personnel offered their services to the Army through Naval authorities, but were turned down by high authorities in both services.[35]

On February 9, three A-24s took off with from Darwin with a flight of P-40Es of the 3rd PS (Prov). Only one A-24 reached Java. In what was probably the last ferry flight by single-engined planes, 11 A-24s left Darwin on February 11. One crashed on the way to Java. The others were based at a new airfield at Modjokerto, about 100 miles west of Malang (see map 4).

Civilians near Modjokerto provided the U.S. airmen with "good baths, good food, good whiskey, good beds."[36] The aircrews and the two mechanics at the airfield cannibalized one A-24 for spare parts, and a week later, the seven remaining planes were flown to Malang to be equipped with Dutch bomb shackles and bombs. On February 19, the planes were ready for attacks on the Japanese fleets covering the invasion of Bali.

Those plans were interrupted by heavy Japanese attacks, and only two A-24s made attacks. Their crews reported hits on a cruiser and a transport ship at Bali, and reports from subsequent PBY reconnaissance flights indicated that the ships had been sunk. (Japanese records, examined after the war, failed to confirm the sinkings.)

Map 4
Java and Its Airfields, January – February, 1942
from Watson, p. 373

On February 20, escorted by 16 P-40s, seven A-24s joined B-17s in attacks on the Japanese fleet. Diving from 12,000 feet to 2,000 to 4,000 feet to release their bombs, the divebomber crews reported hits on a cruiser and other ships. Two A-24s were lost.

Watson wrote that the USAAF evaluated the A-24 as a promising weapon:

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.[37]
In reality, the AAF did not pursue the development or employment of dive bombers, and they essentially disappeared from its inventory.

Heavy Bombers

In the 1930s, the U.S. Army had argued that anti-shipping attacks by B-17s would protect the mainland United States from enemy ships. In an unexpected test of that contention, Boeing B-17s and Consolidated B-24s (in the LB-30 version) attacked Japanese shipping during the defense of the NEI. Few hits were scored. Extenuating circumstances contributed to the failures. The number of bombers was smaller than pre-war doctrine wanted. Without dozens of bombers flying in close formation and bombing together, a ship's captain could maneuver his ship to evade the bombs dropped by a single aircraft (or a few). Even stationary ships proved to be difficult targets; "precision bombing" wasn't so precise as advertised in the 1930s. In addition, many bombs were too light to cause significant damage, especially to warships.

Fourteen B-17Cs and Ds of the 19th Bomb Group (BG) escaped from the Philippines to Australia, many evacuating high-ranking officers and/or groundcrew. By January 1, 10 of the 14 – all that were operational – had moved to Java, where they were based at an airfield five miles from Malang (map 4). Colonel Eugene Eubank, who had commanded the group at Clark Field, remained in command.

The advanced flying group the 7th BG arrived in Hawaii during the Japanese attack on December 7. While those aircraft and crews were given various assignments in Hawaii, on the West Coast, in Australia, and Java, the group's groundcrew arrived on transport ships in Australia on December 22. Eventually the group was based in India, but some of its aircraft and crews flew in the defense of the NEI.

Four LB-30s and six B-17s of the 7th BG arrived in Java on January 15; all the LB-30s and four of the B-17s had come by the South Atlantic ferry route; the other two B-17s had flown across the Pacific. Two weeks later 15 B-17Es and four LB-30s arrived in Java, all but three coming by the South Atlantic route, and the 7th BG was stationed at a new base at Jogjakarta, 150 miles west of Malang.

The U.S. Air Force Association Magazine characterized the bomb groups:
The 19th Bomb Group [in B-17Cs and Ds] had seen combat in the Philippines. Not so the crews of 7th Bomb Group's B-17Es and LB-30s (a lightly armed version of the B-24, built for the RAF) that began arriving from the States on Jan. 10. One LB-30 pilot had only a 20-minute briefing on the plane. before taking off from MacDill Field in Florida, and many crewmen of both B-17s and LB-30s had never before flown in a four-engine bomber.[38]

Over the next month and a half, the heavy bombers attacked targets on the Malay Peninsula, the Philippines, and the NEI. Bad weather and enemy opposition caused losses of aircraft and crew, aborted missions, and sinking morale. On February 17, General Brereton visited USAAF bomber operations in Java. Writing about it later, he wrote:

Combat replacement crews did not exist…. Fatigue and combat weariness had worn men to their last ounce of resistance. Pilots returned from attacks crying with rage and frustration when a crew member was killed or when weather or mechanical failure prevent successful completion of the mission. A flight commander, a fine leader, committed suicide. Boys were on the verge of mental and physical collapse.[39]

Even allowing for what may be some hyperbole, the general's quote reflects a fighting force at the end of its tether.

Some bombing missions ended in disaster for the USAAF. On February 8, nine B-17s took off to attack Kendari on the Celebes, where the JNAF based most of its medium bombers. Nine Japanese Zeros chanced upon the bomber formation when it was halfway to the target, attacked head-on, and shot down six of the bombers. The bomber crews claimed they shot down five of the attacking fighters, but only two Zeros were hit, and both returned to their bases.[40] Watson comments on the mission:

... 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. 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.[41]

As shown for the entries of February 9 to 18 and for the 12th and 13th on Table 2, some missions that did not turn back had little to report. In addition to the frustration of bad-weather flying, mechanical problems, and determined defenses, the U.S. bomber crews were often exhausted from being ordered to take off and cruise in circles to avoid expected Japanese attacks on their bases.

Most U.S. bomber operations were flown with about a half dozen aircraft, some with only a single aircraft able to reach and bomb the target, mostly against shipping. Watson summarizes the bombers' actions as 60 missions consisting of over 300 sorties, in which bomber crews claimed to have sunk one destroyer, eight transports, and two unidentified ships and to have shot down 23 Japanese aircraft. Their own losses were six bombers in combat, six in accidents, and 26 destroyed on the ground. The losses on the ground underlined the necessity of providing airfield defense for bomber operations.

Table 2 lists several missions that Watson does not mention in his writing; I found information about those missions in Shores, Cull and Izawa. In a footnote, Watson states

Early reports of claims were quite unreliable, particularly as they concerned shipping. It should be pointed out that from December 1941 through 5 March 1942, in both the Philippines and the NEI, JANAC [a post-war joint USA-USN committee to ascertain combat results] credits all army aircraft (U.S., British, Dutch, Australian) with no more than three minesweepers, four passenger or cargo vessels, and one "converted salvage" vessel sunk, and a part in sinking two other cargo vessels.[42]

To my mind, there is little difference between the number of claims mentioned by Watson – one destroyer, eight transports, and two unidentified ships – and the number post-war analysis credited to "all army aircraft." I realize that the numbers are not directly comparable, Watson discusses claims by USAAF personnel, and the post-war analysis includes ships credited to the DAF, RAAF, and RAF, but the discrepancy is small. He apparently ignored some truly "unreliable claims," such as those shown in the last two entries on table 2 that are reported in Shores, Cull, and Izawa discuss.[43] In the absence of more information, I assume that Watson made some decisions of his own about which claims were reliable enough to be included in the history he wrote.

Click here for Table 2

USAAF Pursuits

The section about pursuit operations in the chapter "Loss of the Netherlands East Indies" in the Air Force History is titled "The Problem of Pursuit Reinforcement."[52] Unavoidable problems accompanied the shipping of crated pursuits across the Pacific to Southern Australia, having them erected there by untrained and inexperienced men, flying them to Northern Australia and then up the island chain from Darwin to Java.

Inventories and manifests for shipments made were at times imperfectly drawn; a unit and its equipment might arrive separately… 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…[53]

Prestone, necessary for P-40 cooling systems, was in short supply and had to be shipped from the US; pursuit pilots from the US were woefully trained, 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."[54]

The veteran pursuit pilots estimated that the newly arrived pilots needed at least three months' additional training. Those who flew up to Java received a few days' training.

There was no expectation that the meager forces in the NEI, including the USAAF contingent, could hold the islands against Japan. On January 21, General Louis Brereton, commander of the USAAF in Australia, told his assembled pursuit pilots:

You are a task force and are going to Java to delay the Japanese in their offensive movement. Do your best and when the time comes we'll see that you get out.[56]

Evacuation of USAAF Pursuit Pilots from the Philippines

The Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA) at Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, AL, has a collection of "personal papers" and "personal narratives," some written by officers who served in the Pacific during the opening stages of World War II. Among them are recollections of pursuit pilots who flew in the Philippines, were evacuated to Australia, and, subsequently, flew in defense of the NEI. Those who survived to write or dictate their "narratives" were the lucky ones. Many pursuit pilots in the Philippines and essentially all USAAF groundcrew were organized into infantry units and would participate in the doomed defense of Bataan.[57][58]

Evacuation from the Philippine Islands was hit and miss. In their narrative history, W.A. Sheppard and E.B. Gilmore,[59] both lieutenants in December 1941, relate that six pilots reported for evacuation as ordered on December 28, only to learn that higher ranking officers had taken their airplane. Three days later, seven pilots boarded a twin-engined Philippine Airlines Beechcraft 18 to begin the island-hopping flight to Australia. Leaving Bataan at 3:00 PM, the Beechraft "hedge-hopped" to Del Monte Field on Mindanao. At 4:00 AM on New Year's Day, the Philippine Airline pilot, Captain Louis J. Connelly, took off from Del Monte, and he and Lt. Gilmore traded off flying on instruments, in "very poor" weather, aided by "very poor" maps, and headed for Tarakan on the Island of Borneo. Arriving over the Borneo coast in "light rain and haze" under a 1,000-foot ceiling, "…just by chance … a clearing was spotted by one of the pilots …. that was the airfield." Barricades were strewn across the airfield, and the men on the Beechcraft were unsure about the nationality of the soldiers on it. The barricades were pulled aside, and "Dutch native troops" greeted the plane when it landed.

The half dozen or so DAF Buffalos that had been stationed at Tarakan had been shot down, the Japanese were bombing the field daily, and the field was muddy and in very poor condition. On takeoff from Tarakan, Captain Connelly

gave the airplane full throttle…. The airplane accelerated very slowly, and it looked as if it would not get off the ground. A fence loomed in front of the aircraft, but the experience of an old airlines pilot saved the day. In one operation, he pulled up the wheels and put down full flaps. The airplane leaped over the fence and almost settled to the ground, but finally caught and eventually was safely air-borne.[60]

Stopping for fuel at Balikpapan, also on Boreno, the pilots had lunch, then took off, headed for Macassar on the Island of Celebes. At Macassar, the Beechcraft skidded on the mud and ended up in a hole without damage. Next morning, Captain Connelly piloted the surprisingly undamaged Beechcraft to Koepang, on the Island of Timor. That afternoon, he completed the trip, landing at Darwin, on the north coast of Australia. "Too much credit cannot be given Captain Connelly for his excellent navigation." The Army pilots were flown to Brisbane, on the south coast of Australia, in a B-24 on the next day. The flight of the seven pilots and Captain Connelly involved the risks of long over-water flights in bad weather, with poor maps, the limited instruments available in 1941, and the dangers of operating from mud-slick airfields. Still, they began with an undamaged aircraft.

Three days after Captain Connolly's flight, another evacuation began with an airplane that under usual conditions would have been considered unsafe. The Beechcraft that was to evacuate eight USAAF pilots from Bataan to Australia had been bombed and strafed and had over 130 bullet holes in it. The damaged leading edge of the left wing had been replaced by "a piece of sheet tin roofing material." Later in the war, then-Lt. George E. Kiser described the damage to the Beechcraft more dramatically. "We wired a wing back on the plane with baling wire."[61]

On landing at Del Monte, Mindanao, the first stop on the flight, the right wheel brake barely worked, the left didn't work at all, and the tailwheel could not be locked. The officers on the Beechcraft and enlisted men from the 7th Bomb Group, stationed at Del Monte, worked throughout the night, but barely improved the brakes. They successfully rigged a hose and funnel arrangement from inside the cabin to a wing gas tank and loaded ten five-gallon cans of gas into the cabin to assure enough fuel to reach Taraken, Borneo.

With "nothing by which to navigate except a small map of the entire Pacific Ocean,"[62] they took off before dawn to avoid Japanese strafers, climbed into an overcast at 400 feet, and flew on instruments for an hour before breaking into clear skies over the ocean. The weather turned bad – ceiling 200 feet and visibility one-half mile – but they found the airport as the last five-gallon can of gas was poured into the funnel.

Despite having only one magneto[63] on one engine, they took off in the afternoon for Balikpapan. Poor visibility forced them to fly at about 100 feet above the shore, and about half way to Balikpapan, oil pressure fell to zero on one engine. The engine survived and adding oil at Balikpapan restored it to normal operation.

Next morning, January 5, 1942, they took off for Banjermasin, on New Guinea, where they landed and re-fueled. There, the battered Beechcraft gave out. One engine would not start, and attempts to repair it failed. Through Dutch channels, they contacted the U.S. Navy at Sourabaya, and the Navy dispatched a PBY to pick up the pilots. From Sourabaya, a B-17 flew seven of the eight pilots to Darwin.[65][66]

The 17th Pursuit Squadron (Provisional)

The 49 veteran pilots that arrived in Australia from the Philippines were joined by pilots newly arrived from the United States, most of them "just out of flying school."[67] Crated P-40Es had begun to arrive in Brisbane, and Captain Frederick Hoffman, who had been evacuated from the Philippines, was placed in charge of assembling the pursuits, which he accomplished with officers and men from a bomb group who had never worked on pursuits before.[68]

Neither personnel nor equipment was organized into squadrons when arriving in Australia. To provide that organization, the Army authorized five provisional squadrons, the 3d, 13th, 17th, 20th, and 33d. The 17th, which played the major role in defending the NEI, was activated on January 10, 1942, under the command of Captain (soon to be Major) Charles A. "Bud" Sprague.

Major Sprague led the 17th Pursuit on the first flight to reinforce Java on January 16. They made five intermediate stops on the 2,000-mile overland flight from Brisbane, in south Australia to Darwin in the north, and waited for the expected orders to send them back to the Philippines. Because "the Japanese had taken a couple of little islands on which the party was supposed to have landed in order to return to the Philippines," the squadron was ordered to Java. [69][70]

Thirteen pilots who had fought in the Philippines and four fresh from flight school in the States set off for Java. The trip was largely over water: 540 miles across the Timor Sea to Koepang, 250 miles to Waingapoe on Soemba Island, and finally 500 miles to Soerabaja on Java (see map 1). Thirteen of the seventeen pursuits completed the 3300-mile journey, and on January 30, the squadron moved to its permanent base at Blimbing (sometimes called "Ngoro" and see map 4).

The field had two 4,000-foot smooth sod runways, and sod taxiways led into jungle around the field where the pursuits could be camouflaged and hidden from aerial observation. Sheppard and Gilmore describe them as forming a "T." "For fast take-off eight aircraft were stationed at the bottom of the "T", with the remaining aircraft on the left side of the cross piece."[71]

The airfield was so carefully camouflaged that an experienced Dutch pilot had to guide the P-40s to their new base. To keep its location secret, upon takeoff, the pursuit pilots hedge-hopped to a town about 15 miles away before forming up and climbing to altitude. Landings were accomplished in the same way; approaches were made at low altitude, and the pilots "popped up" only long enough to lower their wheels before landing.

Sheppard and Gilmore comment, "The Dutch [in nearby areas] were very courteous and there was nothing that they wouldn't do for their allies. Meals, for instance cost nothing."[72] Kiser, another 17 PS (Prov.) pilot, reported:

The Dutch assisted us in every way possible, furnishing guards on the field, food and medicine. Living conditions were not too bad. We had nice quarters, the food was not good but sufficient and altogether everything was as good as could be expected considering the supply situation at this stage of the war.[73]

Perhaps because of less than optimal nutrition, many pilots had boils.

By February 11th, at least five flights of P-40s had set out to fly to Java. P-40s had not been designed for over-water operations, had limited navigation equipment, and were flown, for the most part, by inexperienced pilots. Australian airlines aircraft or USAAF LB-30s, which sometimes carried mechanics to service the pursuits at intermediate stops, usually accompanied the pursuits to provide navigational assistance. Some P-40s made uneventful flights, but only four of 22 pursuits of the 20th PS (Prov.) made it to Java. The squadron set off for Java in two flights. Nine of 13 P-40s of the first flight were lost to weather or enemy action, and all nine of the second flight crashed at Timor when attempting to land in a rainstorm. Upon arrival in Java, the survivors, as all pursuits that reached Java, were incorporated into the 17th PS.

The largest loss of P-40s and pilots occurred in a sea-borne reinforcement effort. On February 22, the USS Langley, the USN's first aircraft carrier now converted to a seaplane tender and the SS Sea Witch hauled anchor at Fremantle, Australia.

Japanese bombers sank the Langley, with its deckload of 32 assembled P-40s on February 27. Most of the airmen on board the Langley survived the attack uninjured, but they were lost when the tanker USS Pecos and a destroyer carrying survivors were sunk. Four pilots, on another destroyer, survived.

The Sea Witch delivered 27 crated P-40s and seven Douglas DB-7As (near equivalents of the USAAF A-20s) intended for the DAF to Tjilatjap on southern Java. Although Dutch Navy personnel, working feverishly, assembled the bombers, no progress was made on the pursuits. Still-crated pursuits, they were pushed into the harbor to prevent their capture.

At one point, Watson[74] estimates that 34 of 58 P-40s successfully made the flight to Java. His other summary estimate, "Of some 120 pursuit aircraft forwarded from Australia during January and February, only thirty-six reached their destination" must have included the P-40s lost from the Langley and Sea Witch. It agrees better with Sheppard and Gilmore's[76] estimate that over 100 P-40s set out for Java and that the maximum number ready for operations was about 30. Whatever the number, there were too few P-40s (and other Allied fighters) to stop or seriously hinder the Japanese.

Sheppard and Gilmore's comments on the training status of P-40s pilots makes it no surprise that losses were heavy:

By the first of February 1942 there were about 30 airplanes [P-40s] and about 45 pilots in Java. Three-fourths of the pilots were just graduated from flying school and had never flown a pursuit ship until they landed in Australia. About three hours of transition were given them and they started up toward Java. The first time they ever fired a machine gun was at a Japanese aircraft. In 30 or 40 hours of combat flying, however, they grew very proficient in flying ability. A few of them were killed. Almost every time it was a case of not looking around.[77]

Sheppard and Gilmore do not comment on what proportion of the new pilots survived "30 or 40 hours of combat flying."

Lessons were learned, however. Sheppard and Gilmore, reporting on combat over Java, said that two lessons were learned in the first fight of the 17th PS (Prov.):

First, it is very foolish to attack Jap fighters without superior altitude unless it is necessary. Second, when Jap fighters are operating in pairs, if you attack the leader, always be on the watch for his wing man. The wing man will try and get on your tail after he has broken from formation.[78]

Watson writes that the combats in the NEI had provided important information about the P-40 and its principal opponent, the Zero and the Zero pilot:

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. Indeed, by no means least among the lessons learned was a new respect for the foe.[79]

How successful were U.S. pursuit pilots? There are several estimates of the number of U.S. victories. Sheppard and Gilmore state, "during our stay in Java the United States Navy and the Dutch authorities gave us credit for shooting down 71 Japanese aircraft, at a loss of 11 pilots."[80] Kiser summarizes, "At all times we were out-numbered at the least 10 to 1, but still we managed to get official credit for an excess of sixty-five victories with only a loss of about nine (9) pilots."[81] Another member of the 17th wrote that there is no reliable source for the number of victories. "There was no means set up for confirmations of our kills."[82] Shores, Cull, and Izawa provide what appears to be an official number. "This was … the unit's 47th – and last – victory claim in the East Indies."[83] They do not, however, identify the organization to which the claim was made. Watson cites still another number:

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.[84]

The 17th Pursuit Squadron (Provisional) was disbanded on its arrival in Australia on March 5, 1942. Its pilots were assigned to new pursuit groups arriving from the United States. Kiser wrote:

I am convinced that each man, though he may serve in numerous other squadrons in tis war, will always feel that the 17th Pursuit Squadron (Provisional) came closer to up-holding the true traditions of the AAF than any other group of fighting men.[85]

The Aerial Defense of Java

The RAF and DAF, based in western Java, defended the port and shipping at Tjilatjap on the south coast. The USAAF – the 17th PS (Prov.) based at Blimbing – defended the port at Soerbaja on the northeast coast. The Japanese began serious attacks on Java on February 3.

On that date, 17 Zeros from Borne, escorted by a two-seat, single-engine Mitsubishi C5M (Babs)[86][87] to provide navigation assistance and observation of results, attacked an airfield near Sourabaya, destroying an airborne B-18, strafing aircraft on the ground, and claiming a Buffalo shot down. The next day marked the beginning of significant attacks on Allied airfields on Java. Three flights of Mitsubishi G3M (Nells) totaling 72 bombers and 44 Zeros (along with 3 C5Ms) attacked various airfields on Java. At the end of the day, 16 Allied fighters had been shot down or crash landed as a result of combat damage; three flying boats and two B-17s had been shot down, 10 (or 13) flying boats and floatplanes had been destroyed on the water, and at least four B-17s had been destroyed on the ground.

The next day, February 4, a mixed force of Japanese bombers – Mitsubishi G3Ms (Nells) and G4Ms (Betties) – attacked the cruisers USS Houston and Marblehead. Both ships were hit but remained afloat and escaped to Tjilatjap on Java.

Only four CW-21Bs and two Curtiss Hawks were in the air when 48 Zeros and three C5Ms appeared over Java on February 5. Two of the CW-21Bs and both Hawks were shot down, without inflicting a loss on the Japanese. None of six B-17s attacked as they formed up for a mission to Balikpapan on Borneo was shot down, but one was damaged. Malfunctioning top turrets caused the B-17s to turn back from their mission.

Japanese attacks continued through February, destroying DAF and USAAF aircraft on the ground and in the air. Remarkably perhaps, the Japanese did not locate the USAAF's main pursuit field at Blimberg.

The NEI branch of KLM had been the only airline to purchase Douglas DC-5 transport planes (two-engine, high-wing, 16-22-passenger, short-haul aircraft). Of the four it purchased, one was strafed and destroyed on February 9. (The other three DC-5s survived. The Japanese captured one, camouflaged it and flew it in Japanese markings; two were flown to Australia where they were used during the war; one, evidently, was smuggled to Israel in 1948, where it may have served in the Israeli Air Force.)[88] As Japanese bombing intensified and more planes were destroyed, KLM officials decided to evacuate all their aircraft capable of making the flight to Australia. In all, 14 Lockheed 14w, DC-3s and 5s left. Other commercial aircraft were put to the torch to prevent their use capture.

Bad weather and the time necessary for the Japanese to consolidate their positions on Sumatra resulted in a partial lull in air action over Java in early February. On the 17th, P-40Es carried out an offensive operation. Armed with Dutch 20-kilogram bombs, eight pursuits attacked shipping in the Moesi Delta near Palembang on Sumatra. Eight Nakajima Ki 27 fighters (Nates) engaged the P-40s over the target. All the pursuits returned to their base, and their pilots claimed four Japanese aircraft destroyed and three as probables.[89] According to Japanese records, one Ki 27 was shot down, its pilot parachuting to safety. Japanese pilots claimed three P-40s shot down.

Eight DAF Buffalos engaged 19 Nakajima Ki 43s (Oscars) and 5 Kawasaki Ki 48 (Lily) light bombers attacking RAF and DAF installations in western Java on the 19th. The Dutch pilots claimed two "Zeros" shot down; four of the Brewsters were destroyed, another damaged. The Japanese destroyed four Hudsons on the ground. Later the same day, Ki 43s and Ki 48s attacked other fields in western Java destroying a Hudson and B-17 on the ground and a B-17 in the air. The Japanese lost one aircraft.

February 19th represented the beginning of the end for the Allied forces in Java. On that day, a bad day for Allied air forces the Japanese invaded Bali. Zeros shot down 7 P-40s, for the loss of one Japanese fighter, and, over all of Java, the Allies lost 15 pursuits and fighters. Strafing Zeros destroyed three B-17s and badly damaged two more. The invasion of Bali shut down the ferry route from Australia, confirming decisions already made:

it had been apparent to the Allied command since the fall of Singapore that, barring some unexpected development, the Indies were lost…. 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.[90]

General Wavell predicted that his command, ABDACOM, would survive only for two more weeks. Two days later, on the 20th, he revised the estimate downward to one week. And five days later, on February 25, he shut down his headquarters, passing command of the British forces in Java to the Dutch.

From the 19th on, Japanese aircraft shot Allied aircraft out of the sky and strafed them to destruction. At times, outnumbered RAF Hurricanes, USAAF P-40s, and even DAF Buffalos were flown to victory over Japanese aircraft, but they were from the beginning, and their capacity to resist the Japanese decreased daily. The confusion of combat resulted in spurious victory claims on both sides. For instance, on the 23rd, P-40 pilots claimed six Japanese bombers and fighters shot down. Japanese records do not mention any loss. Zero pilots claimed shooting down three P-40s; none was lost.[91]

On February 20, A-24s escorted by P-40s, attacked the Bali invasion fleet. The dive-bomber crews reported hits on three ships, including a cruiser. From post-war records, Shores, Cull, and Izawa confirm that a transport was badly damaged. The 17th PS (Prov.) suffered the loss of its commanding office, Major Sprague, in fighting above the invasion fleet, and two other P-40s were destroyed. The death of Major Sprague was a major loss:

The morale of the squadron was very high…. in no small part due to the fine leadership of Major Sprague. Major Sprague was one of the most eager pilots we have ever know [sic]. He would always listen to suggestions by the pilots. His experience in fighter type aircraft was somewhat limited, because he had held a staff job from the time he was graduated from flying school. However, his outstanding personality was a driving force in the 17th Pursuit Squadron. … with enlisted men, whether they were staff sergeants or buck privates … the man who worked the hardest would get the promotion and the man who wouldn't would get busted… the 17th Pursuit Squadron was the hardest working outfit we have ever seen.[92]

It was all the USAAF could do to send a half-dozen A-24s and a dozen P-40s to fight off the huge Japanese fleet; the Japanese had far more resources. Following the aerial combat, Zeros strafed the U.S. airfield at Singosari, destroying three B-17s and seriously damaging two more. Each loss of an aircraft was a blow to the USAAF, impossible to replace. The Japanese attacked the NEI with adequate reserves; their losses were easily replaced.

And so it went. Every day saw the DAF, the RAF, and the USAAF launch aircraft against the Japanese, who, in turn, hit Allied air fields on almost a daily basis. Each day the Allies grew weaker in comparison to their enemy.

Allied commands and command structures began to change. On February 21,

Major General George H Brett, Deputy Commanding General American-British-Dutch-Australian Forces Command (ABDACOM) informs the War Department of his decision to evacuate the 5th Air Force and other US troops from Java.[93]

On February 23, General Brereton left his post as Deputy Air Commander, ABDACOM, to devote full time to his duties in the USAAF. In recounting the decision that led up to his departure, he wrote:

I felt it necessary to request General Wavell to relieve me of my duties. The morale of my own air force was low and my presence was required with it. I was criticized by General Wavell and General Brett for what appeared to them to be a somewhat unwarranted and pessimistic attitude.[94]

He also acknowledged differences between Air Marshall Sir Richard Peirse, the ranking RAF officer, and himself. In Brereton's mind, discussions of those differences embarrassed Peirse, and Brereton did not want that to continue. With Brereton's departure, Lt. Col. Eugene Eubank was made commander of the USAAF in Java, and the next day, "heavy bomber units began departing Java."[95]

In western Java, the RAF disbanded its last Hudson squadron and passed its aircraft to Number 1 Squadron, RAAF. Two days later, on the 22nd, Zeros from Bali strafed the RAAF airfields, destroying six Hudsons and seriously damaging three more. The same day, Zeros destroyed two B-17s and seriously damaged two more on the ground.

When, on the 23rd, Brereton flew to Ceylon on his way to his new post in India, he took Captain Grant Mahoney, who had taken command of the 17th PS (Prov.) with him. Lt. Gerry McCallum was made commander of the squadron.[96]

In the air, RAF Hurricane units had learned to combat Zeros by securing an altitude advantage, diving down, zooming away or back to altitude, and never dogfighting. On February 25, five Hurricanes at 33,000 feet[97] dived on 24 Ki 43s (Oscars) below them. Three Hurricanes took shots at the Oscars, dived down and away to safety. Two "mixed-it up" with the Japanese; both were shot down.[98]

On February 25th, Wavell left the NEI, essentially ending the ABDACOM. The defeat on the Allied side was mirrored by victory on the Japanese. The JAAF released its estimate of the damage it had done to the Allied air forces: 33 aircraft shot down, 53 destroyed on the ground; 150 damaged on the ground; JAAF losses, 3 aircraft. The JNAF claims were smaller: 32 aircraft shot down, 11 probables, 48 burned on the ground.[99] Whatever the exact numbers, the Japanese had eliminated their opponents' air forces, which had been inadequate in the first place.

On the last day of February, the 28th, six ancient Vilderbeests and one Albacore flew from bases in western Java to an airfield on eastern Java in order to attack the Japanese invasion fleet. Because there were no torpedoes, the RAF biplanes were loaded up with bombs, and about 5 PM set off to find the Japanese fleet. They bombed from low altitude with surprising results. Based on photographic evidence, they were credited with sinking nine ships(!). Japanese records indicate that at least two transports were seriously damaged and a cruiser was damaged. Whether nine ships sunk or three damaged, the pilots and crews of the "-beests" and the Albacore had done well.

Allied disasters continued on the night of February 27/28. Units of the Japanese Imperial Navy sank two Allied cruisers – USS Houston and HMS Perth – and three destroyers while suffering the loss of one destroyer. By nighttime, February 28, Japanese troops had landed on Java.

...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…. the planes attacked at low level to sink several small boats and to strafe AA batteries on shore, but the enemy took his toll….[Three P-40s were shot down and all were damaged; the survivors returned to Blimbng.]. Then, before any of the American planes could be made ready for a return to the air, Japanese fighters swept over the Ngoro field [the pursuit field at Blimbing], 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.[100]

17th PS (Prov.) personnel left Blimbing and traveled in trucks to Jocjacarta "although the road by which they had to travel was almost in Japanese hands." The airfield at Jocjacarta had been strafed, but the men of the pursuit squadron were told that airplanes of the 19th BG would pick them up. The first B-17 arrived at about 9:00 PM, and by 11:30 PM on March 2, the last of the pursuit personnel were on their way to Australia.[101][102] The bomb groups had already flown their own personnel to Australia, and with the departure of the men of the 17th PS (Prov.), the USAAF had quit Java.

Shores, Cull, and Izawa summarized the situation on Java at the end of February:

Japanese preparations could not have been more complete, thorough or effective. Virtually defenceless, Java now hung like a ripe plum, ready to fall into the invader's outstretched hand.[103]

Fighting continued on Java for a until March 8, 1942. Then units of the British and Dutch armies and navies and the DAF and RAF surrendered.


Watson ends his chapter about the defense of the NEI with some thoughts about whether the commitment of US air and naval forces to the defense of the NEI was worthwhile when compared to an alternative course of action in early 1942. The alternative was to husband US forces in Australia, build up air and naval fleets, and strike targets that were most vital to the Japanese.

Watson makes no claim that the USAAF made significant contributions to blunting or slowing Japanese conquest of the NEI. He points to no US victory that made a difference. He writes of the USAAF commitment as being part of a heroic, costly, and losing campaign that united the allies against Japan. "Even the token use of land-based air power undoubtedly helped to sustain the morale of one and all."[104]

In contrast to Watson's argument that the NEI campaign benefited morale, there are indications that it battered the morale of USAAF units fighting in the NEI. General Brereton, in passages quoted above, said that men in his command were on the verge of physical and mental collapse and that morale was low. There's evidence, too, that the general's reading of the situation was incorrect. In 1945, pursuit pilots who had flown with the 17th PS (Prov.) were unstinting in their praise of the unit, including its enlisted men, and such praise is usually reserved for units with good morale.

Further investigation of morale in bomber units is necessary before concluding that Brereton's evaluation was really at variance with the pursuit pilots'. Brereton is closely associated with bomber operations, and he may have been commenting on bomber units, where morale might have differed from pursuit units'.

Did the USAAF make a difference in the willingness of our allies to fight? Probably not. Our allies had little choice. The Dutch were defending their own territory. The British, retreating from Singapore and Malaya, moved to the south to the NEI and probably wanted to hold on there as bases for the recapture of Singapore. The Australians, who committed their Navy and RAAF bomber units, were trying to hold the Japanese at a distance from their country.[105] Most likely the Australians, British, and Dutch were so consumed with their own struggles that they little noticed the USAAF's contributions.

Leaving the question of morale aside, it's possible to ask if the defense of the NEI benefited the strategic position of the Allies. At best, the answer to that is mixed.

Japanese objectives in the Pacific were limited.[106] They wanted to conquer and occupy the territory of the Malay Barrier, the Philippines, and a few other island chains – "Malaya, the Netherlands Indies, the Philippines, Wake Island, Guam, the Gilbert Islands, Thailand, and Burma." To hold the newly acquired territory, they would erect strong defenses (see map 5 on the following page: source: Matloff, p. 500) from

the Kurile Islands south through Wake, the Marianas, the Carolines, and the Marshalls and Gilberts to Rabaul on New Britain. From Rabaul the perimeter would extend westward to northwestern New Guinea and would encompass the Indies, Malaya, Thailand, and Burma.[107]

Map 5
(The dark lines on Map 5 indicate the division of US Theaters of War in World War II and are not of any significance to this discussion.)

The Japanese expected the US to fight a limited war, try to push through the defensive perimeter, wear themselves out in those attacks, tire of fighting, and negotiate a settlement that would allow the Japanese to hold onto their conquests. They were not fighting to win a clear-cut victory.

The Japanese were being guided by their history. They had not achieved victories over China or Russia in the early years of the century. They had fought them to standstills and negotiated ends to the fighting that preserved their gains.

The reasoning went astray because the Japanese

believed it necessary to destroy or neutralize American striking power in the Pacific--the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and the U.S. Far East Air Force in the Philippines--before moving southward and eastward to occupy Malaya, the Netherlands Indies, the Philippines, Wake Island, Guam, the Gilbert Islands, Thailand, and Burma.[108]

The attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines inflamed the United States and led its leaders to embark on an unconditional war – supported by all elements of the population – against Japan. The Japanese soon recognized that the US was not going to batter itself against the defensive frontier and was going to build up overwhelming forces in Australia to drive the Japanese back to their homeland. To thwart that buildup, the Japanese decided to capture islands from where their navy and land-based airpower could threaten and damage US and allied shipments to Australia. Japan launched attacks at Guadalcanal and Tulagi in the Solomons, seized Attu and Kiska in the Aleutians, and tried and failed to take Midway Island.[109]

The Japanese had largely achieved their territorial ambitions by March 1942 and intended to defend their gains and defeat limited efforts by the US and its allies to drive them back. Their plans went awry when the US decided on unconditional war.

The costs and benefits to the United States of the defense of the NEI – like the costs and benefits of all wars – are difficult to assess. The US lost soldiers, sailors, aircraft and ships. And being chased from the NEI so soon after being chased from the Philippines must have imposed psychological costs. On the benefits side, Watson suggests that US efforts contributed to allied morale. Moreover, the USAAF units committed to the NEI were bloodied, their personnel learned the capabilities of their equipment, and the quality of their enemy and his weapons, and began formulating the tactics necessary to fight him efficiently.

The USAAF might have reaped the same operational gains from remaining on the defensive in Australia. The woeful aerial defense of Australia would have benefited. If the few combat-hardened pursuit pilots had been committed to the defense of Australia, the horror of the Darwin attack might have been lessened.[110]

Everyone weighs military campaigns differently. Watson considers the defense of the NEI as valuable to morale. There are reasons to question that evaluation, and it's possible that holding the meager American forces in Australia to present a better defense against Japanese attacks there would have done more for morale. From the standpoint of strategy, the Japanese were most interested in the oil resources of the NEI, and they obtained those. They miscalculated the US response to their aggression, but the defense of the NEI certainly played no part in that miscalculation. Their reassessment of US intentions that led them to try to interdict supply lines to Australia and to venture outside of their projected defensive perimeter almost certainly was not influenced by actions in the NEI.

The defense of the NEI was in keeping with the ideal of being a good ally. The USAAF entered the battle and did what it could. There's no question of that. I think the question remains about whether keeping with the ideal advanced U.S. aims in the war.

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Copyright © 2008 Michael Gough 

Written by Michael Gough. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Michael Gough at:

About the author:
Michael Gough, trained in molecular biology, taught in medical schools and carried out basic research in genetics of microorganisms. After moving to Washington, he was a program manager at the Office of Technology Assessment, U.S. Congress, did research and wrote at a number of think tanks, and worked as an expert witness before retiring in 1999. His uncle, Sgt Clifford Noel, USAAF, was wounded in the initial Japanese attack at Clark Field, December 8, 1941.

Published online: 04/06/2008.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.

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