Curtiss P-40E Warhawk

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.

The “Bunyap” on the tail of Capt Hennon’s P-40 became the model for 7th Fighter Squadron’s “Screamin’ Demons” name and insignia.
The red centers were officially removed from US National insignia in May 1942. But that doesn’t help with dating this build, the 49th Fighter Group had already removed the red from most planes.

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.

Drop tanks were carried even on purely defensive flights because the P-40 would otherwise run itself dry trying to get to 30000 feet at full power.

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.

The A6M could outperform the P-40 in every aspect except speed, especially diving speed. The P-40 also had better firepower, pilot armor, self sealing fuel tanks and was much more solidly built.

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!

The Japanese bombed northern Australia, mainly Darwin and the surrounding area with G4M Betty bombers. This was obviously a risk to anything on the ground, but when Betty was forced to fly higher from May 1942 their accuracy dropped significantly.
7th Fighter Squadron heading out! This is the best photo I’ve seen of Capt Hennon’s plane at Darwin. You can plainly see the hooked, RAF style pitot tube. Also the top color is shockingly pretty, and slightly different color from those around it. [photo via ASPI Strategist]

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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24 Responses to Curtiss P-40E Warhawk

  1. Jeff Groves says:

    Looks great Dave, and one of my favorite aircraft!

  2. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Great research Dave. I like it.

  3. Pingback: Curtiss P-40E Warhawk — Plane Dave – My Forgotten Hobby III

  4. Pierre Lagacé says:

    I had read that part in Feux du ciel by Pierre Clostermann.

    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.)

  5. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Final comment for today…

    And I have one in my collection of unbuilt model kits.

  6. tcinla says:

    Nice work on this.

    The biggest problem the pilots had, as you point out, was getting to the fight. The route was called “The Brereton Route” and went from Brisbane around the coast to Darwin, then on to Timor and Java. It was still the route when the 49ers arrived to provide the air defense there. George Preddy, at the time a 2nd Lt who had graduated from flight school the Tuesday after Pearl Harbor, later recalled one of the veterans explaining the route to him: “You can’t miss it – just follow the crashed P-40s.”

    For modern readers, the route was the equivalent of flying from Boston to Houston, around the coast, without any navigation aids, with unreliable maps that had nearly half the map labeled “Unexplored Territory.” Each pilot was issued two sets of spark plugs and a wrench, to perform his own maintenance.

    Oh, and the average pilot had around 200 hours total time, and less than 10 in a P-40 when they made the trip.

    Herewith a personal commercial: you can read about this and the rest of the desperate fight to stop the Japanese in my recent book “I Will Run Wild: The Pacific War From Pearl Harbor To Midway.” It really was “the cornerstone of victory” as President Roosevelt put it speaking of the fall of the Philippines (the Japanese expected victory there in three weeks – that it took four months put their schedule off badly enough that defense could be organized).

    • atcDave says:

      Thanks for all that. Absolutely a fascinating and less told story. I will have to read your book!

      • atcDave says:

        Oh man, I did read your book! Sorry I didn’t recognize your screen name. I do appreciate your attention to detail and less well known aspects of the Pacific War. I look forward to “Under the Southern Cross”.

  7. Ernie Davis says:

    I admit I’ve never been a huge fan, but say what you might about it’s performance or how it stacked up against other more modern fighters like the Zero, it was a mainstay for the allies in the early years of the war and served them well while they waited for the new models to arrive at the various fronts.

    • atcDave says:

      It definitely had fewer advantages than most later, better fighters did. Although speed and durability can be put to good use! It’s loss of performance at altitude was a major handicap.

  8. michael raudenbush says:

    Hi, Dave,
    My name is Michael (Mike) Hennon Raudenbush, and I am Bill Hennon’s son. My son, also named Bill, forwarded this article to me this Memorial Day. It meant a lot to me. Thank you.
    After returning to the States, Bill Hennon married my mother, Elizabeth Handsaker, and they moved to his new assignment at an airbase on Long Island, training a squadron for eventual deployment to Europe, I believe. On March 31, 1943, he went missing on a routine flight from Farmington, NY (not Farmington, IL as some histories state) to Groton, CT, flying a BT-14 trainer. That was 7 months before my birth. My mother later remarried, to Don Raudenbush, who adopted me, whereupon my mother changed my name.

    • atcDave says:

      Wow Mike, thank you so much for commenting.
      I found so much confusing and contradictory information about your father’s last flight, even his rank seemed to vary. One source stated “1953” for the date, I pretty quickly concluded that was bogus! But thank you so much for sharing your family history, which truly is history for all of us.
      Your father is too important to the early part of the War to be so poorly served by published history. Although to be fair, that sentiment may apply to the whole Java Campaign. I think I’ve seen exactly one book that focuses on the American involvement (“Every Day a Nightmare” by William H Bartsch). Your father is mentioned several times in that book, as well as a unit history of the 49th Fighter Group I have, but he is never focused on. Perhaps he didn’t put much down on paper?

      Your comment is helpful and much appreciated. I felt a chill the moment I saw your full name.

      • mike hennon raudenbush says:

        Hi, Dave, thanks for the prompt and kind response to my email.
        I have spend considerable time researching my Father’s life, especially his service in the Philippines, Java, and Australia. Unfortunately, as is typical for me, I set the work aside and never finished in a coherent way, and all the material is packed away in a cardboard box in my attic. It’s a “one of these days” project (and there may not be that many days left: I recently underwent quadruple bypass surgery).
        I will tell you that there is perhaps more documentation than you think, but one has to dig for it. Bill Bartsch (whom I met many many years ago) wrote another book: “Doomed from the Start”. As I recall, it mainly focused on the Philippines, but my memory may be faulty. Also, there is a very thorough history of AAF operations in the Southwest Pacific, 1941-1942, written by Walter D. Edmonds. It is a very detailed account, including the campaigns (if you can call them that) in the Philippines and Java.
        The Mother Lode for me was a pocket notebook my Father kept — written in pencil — a diary of sorts — given to me by my Aunt Betty (his sister). Again, it is packed away in a cardboard box. But also in that box is a typed official account of the 17th PS. Oddly, it is almost verbatim from my Father’s notebook.
        It has been years since I did this half-assed research (shame on me: I majored in History at Berkeley but then pursued a vocation as an engineer), and my memory is fading. Perhaps, inspired by your work, I will reenergize myself.
        There is an excellent short biography of him on the website “Find a Grave”. Of course, the sea is his grave, but my aunt had a memorial marker placed at the military cemetery at Fort Sam Houston.

        One point of confusion to me is the name of the airport from which he departed on his last flight. I think it was Farmingdale, LI, not Farmington. It was definitely on Long Island.

      • atcDave says:

        I would think a lot of what you’ve gathered could be worked into a good book. If you don’t feel like tackling such a project maybe you could find a writer or journalist who would work with you to put something together. I know an Australian writer, Dr Tom Lewis, just wrote a new history of the 49th Fighter Group at Darwin so there is definitely some interest.
        I did read “Doomed At the Start”! Wow that was a while ago, I remember buying the book at a Borders shortly after we moved to Ann Arbor; so that must be over 20 years ago?
        I’ve not seen the Walter Edmonds book. Is that “They Fought With What They Had”? I see its available on Kindle so I may have to check it out. I’ve read quite a lot about 5th Air Force in general, but most of those follow from New Guinea to the Philippines and pay little attention to the earlier actions.
        Your father’s notebook does sound like a real treasure. I wonder, was he the ranking officer from the 17th to get out of Java? He may have been expected to put together a report. I know generally keeping diaries and journals was discouraged, except when it wasn’t (!).

        I’m excited if I helped give you some motivation! I’ve heard from a few visitors here who have been inspired to check out books I’ve recommended, or just generally to read more about certain things. That always feels like a win to me. For what its worth, I’ve got a few more 49th FG subjects from that very early part of the War I’ll get to eventually. Plus some planes from the first Philippines Campaign and the DEI. Obviously none of those can come close to the personal connection this one had for you! But may be of some lesser interest.

      • says:

        Yes, the Edmonds book is “They Fought With What They Had”. It has been ages since I read the book, but I have it in front of me now.  It is subtitled “The Story of the Army Air Forces in the Southwest Pacific, 1941-1942”. 445 pages plus exhaustive appendices.  It covers the The Philippines and Java in a fair amount of detail, including the desperate and heroic raid on Palembang. I’ll check out Tom Lewis’ book.  I have relatively little information about the actions at Darwin.  Bill Hennon’s diary ends in Java I think (again, I need to dig it out of storage) and I believe some of his commendations were for action around Darwin. I think the 17P.S. was absorbed into the 49th P.G.  I don’t know if he was the ranking officer from the 17th leaving Java.  I do know that he was promoted to Captain at some point. Yes, you may count my renewed interest as a win!  I had bypass surgery last December and am living on borrowed time, so it’s now or never.  Mike

      • atcDave says:

        I will definitely read “They Fought With What They Had”, looks like it covers fascinating territory.
        I think you’re right about the fate of the 17th PS, at least to say the [provisional] part of its designation was “time’s up”; so the survivors were mostly absorbed into the 49th.
        Don’t be shy about weighing in with any other thoughts, I’ve really appreciated this exchange.

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