We’ve looked at the story of how the Japanese exploded across the Pacific at the start of the Pacific War a few times. Now let’s take a look at where the line finally held, and one of the most successful early pilots.
At the start of World War II in the Pacific there were virtually no defensive forces in Australia. In particular, not a single fighter plane. On December 7, the “Pensacola Convoy” (named for the heavy cruiser providing escort) was at sea en route to the Philippines. Among the convoy’s load were 54 fighter pilots and 18 crated P-40Es. Five days behind was another convoy with 55 more P-40E, plus a pilot and crew chief for each plane.
The Pensacola Convoy was diverted to Brisbane and arrived on December 23. Actually, in the confusion after Pearl Harbor it was rerouted several times and some time was wasted with back tracking and routing to odd locations until Brisbane finally stuck. That first convoy did not include any mechanics to assemble the crated fighters, those unfortunate men had already arrived in the Philippines (and would mostly serve as infantry in the coming campaign). Before the convoy could even be unloaded a seaplane flew in with 24 more pilots who had just left the Philippines, expecting to grab new planes and fly right back.
The RAAF provided a base, RAAF Amberley, about 35 miles by truck from the harbor, to begin assembly of the much coveted fighter planes. With no mechanics work was slowly started by pilots and administrative personnel. The second convoy arrived a few days later and work could start in earnest. Amberley also quickly became a training facility when it was realized the pilots coming from the states had very few hours on fighters, many had none in P-40s, and none of them had flown in two months. Higher time pilots, including those from the Philippines, were tasked with familiarizing the pilots with pursuit flying in the P-40 and forming the pilots into combat units.
One of these new instructor pilots was 1st Lt William Hennon. He had fought in the first big air battles in the Philippines, and was among those pilots sent south in a Twin Beech for more planes. Forming up new units was difficult, not only were there too few mechanics for the job, but many essential parts were missing (including coolant and machine gun firing solenoids.) And many pilots were so green that planes were often wrecked after only a couple flights.
It was early January before anything like a combat unit was formed. Capt. Charles Sprague was made commander of the new 17th Pursuit Squadron (Provisional). Lt Hennon was named Engineering Officer and a flight leader.
Several more pilots had escaped the Philippines, including Boyd “Buzz” Wagner, the first USAAC/USAAF ace of the War. But by this time the air route was not usable for fighters, the air route to the Philippines was cut off. There were arguments among USAAC and RAAF officers about how to use these newly created squadrons. The Australians wanted them in Port Moresby, New Guinea. But it was finally decided to reinforce the Dutch East Indies, mostly this meant Java.
The 17th PS (Provisional) made the flight in stages across Australia, through Darwin and Timor up to Java. The squadron was a mix of veteran pilots and the most capable of the new ones; but of the 18 planes that departed Amberley only 11 arrived in Java.
Several more Provisional Squadrons were assembled as well as some smaller reinforcement flights. But attrition getting there remained terrible. The 33rd PS (Provisional) had half their number on the ground at Darwin when the Japanese attacked on February 19th and destroyed all but one plane. Several other flights were hit on the ground at Timor or Bali. One flight ran into a weather system that wiped them out. The 13th PS (Provisional) was sent to Perth, and loaded on a convoy with the old seaplane tender Langley for delivery to Java. The convoy was attacked; the Langley, the P-40s and the pilots were all lost. (one freighter, the Sea Witch, succeeded in delivering its load of crated P-40s. But it was too late in the campaign and the planes were dumped, still crated, into the harbor).
All told, the 17th PS (Provisional) was the only US squadron to serve in Java. All other arrivals were merged into that single unit. They acquitted themselves well until the end of February, officially credited with 25 kills for nine lost in combat. Bill Hennon became the only American Ace of that campaign. Charles Sprague had shown particular talent as a leader and at the age of 28, had been promoted to Lt Col by the time he was killed in action over Bali on February 20. With the Japanese occupying Timor and Bali to cut off Java that brought an end to meaningful resistance.
At dusk on March 1, a single B-17 with 23 passengers on board including Bill Hennon took off from Java for Australia.
Meanwhile, back in Australia the whole process of building P-40s and training pilots continued. The biggest event in February had been the arrival of the 49th Fighter Group. This was the first full fighter group (3 squadrons; pilots, mechanics, support and administration) to be assigned to a War zone. And Paul Wurtsmith would prove to be an outstanding commanding officer. As their planes were assembled and pilots received appropriate training, Philippine and Java veterans were mixed into the unit. In late March they were assigned to the air defense of Darwin. They would remain through September. In early battles they did better than expected, no doubt helped by the addition of many veterans including both USAAF aces at this time; Buzz Wagner and Bill Hennon. Surprise may have been part of their edge, the Japanese in April of ’42 had become over-confident and sloppy. Plus the leavening of experienced pilots in the group meant they knew diving attacks would be the most effective. Radar also went on-line in the area as the 49th was setting up shop.
After several successful combats in April the Japanese adjusted their tactics by coming in higher, closer to 30000 feet, than 20000 as they had earlier. Although neither the Zero nor Betty performed well at this altitude, and accuracy was poor; the P-40 was worse and struggled to even reach that height. It made battles for the rest of the deployment more closely matched (the 49th could only score when they had surprise and altitude advantage).
Total numbers are hard to arrive at, but my best source claims in five months of combat at Darwin the 49th Fighter Group lost four pilots in combat, and suffered another eight dead through all sorts of accidents. They lost 19 aircraft, but they also shot down 19 aircraft. That’s a 1:1 kill ratio, but with enough “buts” added on to make it an impressive accomplishment. I think their effectiveness is a testament to good leadership and using the Warhawk’s strengths wisely. The accident rate may be a reflection of inexperience and a newness to the whole sort of operation for the Army Air Force. Also between the Warhawk’s solid construction and fighting over friendly territory many pilots survived the loss of their aircraft.
During this time Bill Hennon scored two more kills and was promoted to Captain. He was also made Commanding Officer of the 7th Fighter Squadron. The symbol he carried on his plane was called a “Bunyap”, an aboriginal forest demon. After he took command of the squadron they adopted his emblem and the name “Screamin’ Demons”; which remains the squadron name and symbol to this day (with F-22 Raptors).
Bill Hennon returned to the US at the end of 1942, tour expired. In March, 1943 he disappeared on a cross country flight.
The 49th Fighter Group remained in theater and with the 5th Air Force to the end of the War. The 9th Fighter Squadron was converted to P-38s in January 1943 and were none too happy to switch to Thunderbolts in February 1944. But then the whole group got P-38s in November 1944, the 7th and 8th squadrons being among the last US units still flying P-40s.
This is the Hasegawa kit, it was the first issue of the kit which also included photo-etched seatbelts by Dragon. This is my favorite P-40 kit, really no problems. I used Aeromaster decals.
One curiosity about this aircraft, it is almost surely a Kittyhawk Mk Ia. In early 1942 the Australian government started taking lend lease deliveries of Kittyhawks, and the assembly crews at Amberley apparently payed little regard to which was which. This plane has a British style forked pitot tube, which could have just been a stray part. But it also has a fresh coat of something other than standard Olive Drab on its upper surfaces. It might have been USAAF Medium Green, RAAF Foliage Green, or something greenish from Bob’s Body Shop next to the airport…
I chose Medium Green. But this fresh coat of paint makes me think they were maybe covering over the RAF style camouflage. Not proof, but a good circumstantial case for this being a Kittyhawk; which truly matters not all…
Also notice the red spinner, middle of 1942 the 49th Fighter Group was only allowing that for pilots who had flown in the Philippines or Java. I’m sure that was worn with pride!