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Opening Rounds

At the outbreak of the Pacific war on 7 December 1941, the United States Army Air Force had four organizations that would be directly involved with the war against the Japanese; two, the Far Fast Air Force, based in the Philippine Islands, and the Hawaiian Air Force, were committed to the lighting from the first day. Much of the strength of the FEAF was lost when Japanese aircraft attacked airfields in the Philippines, and a large number of aircraft were destroyed when Hawaiian airfields were attacked by Japanese carrier aircraft during the Pearl Harbor operation. Small units in Alaska and the Aleutian Islands were soon formed into an Alaskan Air Force, while the 4th Air Force was an the West Oust of the USA. All four of these organizations had bomber aircraft assigned to them. The activities of the Alaskan and West Coast USA-based air forces were, at this stage, limited to patrolwork, seeking Japanese submarines, and guarding against a possible Japanese naval assault anywhere in their respective areas

Because of the heavy losses suffered by the Philippines- based 19th Group. FEAF's original bomber unit, only small-scale operations could be mounted against the Japanese - mostly attacks by small numbers of surviving B-17 Fortresses against Japanese invasion shipping off the coast of Luzon. Such operations were the result of information received from reconnaissance or other reports, or as a part of search missions, where a suitable target would be seen and attacked. The Fortresses, mostly B-17C and D models, suffered several losses from Japanese fighters, both carrier-borne and land based. As soon as Japanese airfields had been established in the northern Philippines, no US airfield was safe from attack. This situation led, in late December 1941, to the withdrawal of the surviving Fortresses of the 19th BG to Australia. For the moment, the US airfields in the Philippines were used as staging fields for operations against the Japanese. Rarely were more than ten Fortresses in serviceable condition and their operations against shipping from comparatively high altitudes did not produce significant results. A quick manoeuvre by the target while the attacking aircraft were on the bomb run threw the sights off, and few hits were obtained.

B-17E Fortress 41-2489 'Suzy-Q' was flown out 10 Java to join the 19th BG in February 1942 and assigned to the 93rd Sqn, as one of the replacements for the B-17Ds lost in the Philippines. An early E model, it was fitted with a remotely controlled ventral turret, which proved unsuitable for combat and was removed (note the metal plate on the fuselage underside). The aircraft was named after pilot Felix Hardison's wife and this photograph was taken after the machine returned to the US late in 1942.

The general operational area of the six main US air forces opposing Japan

Eventually the Japanese obtained a foothold in Java and the 19th Group continued its desperate struggle against the onrushing and seemingly invincible invader. Even the arrival of the 7th and 43rd Groups, both equipped with B-175 and a smaller number of the export version of the Liberator, the LB-30, did not make a great deal of difference. Losses, unserviceable aircraft, scattered bases, the vast distances involved and shortage of skilled ground personnel, all played their part in reducing the number of aircraft available for operations. Eventually the Japanese occupied Java and Borneo and invaded New Guinea. A small number of aircraft of the 7th Group were stranded in India, where they had been on the flight out to Australia. The 7th had mainly B-17E Fortresses with power- operated turrets and a tail gun position, which were a great improvement on the earlier B-17C and D models.

On the break-up of the A BCD command - the American, British, Chinese, Dutch alliance, the remnants of the 7th BG were transferred to India. The 19th and 43rd groups went to Australia, to rebuild and recoup.

The Japanese meanwhile had, by April 1942, consolidated their gains, and landed forces at successive points along the northern coast of New Guinea.

The Allies possessed an airfield at Port Moresby on the southern New Guinea coast, and bombers from bases in Australia staged through Port Moresby to attack targets in New Guinea, Rabaul in New Britain, and naval targets in these areas.

In the Hawaiian Islands, two bomber groups, the 5th and 11th, each had a mixture of B-17s and B-18A Bolos. A number of each of these types were destroyed at Hickam Field during the attacks on 7 December and the survivors were used on ocean reconnaissance work, searching for Japanese shipping and submarines. After Pearl Harbor there was a real fear that the Japanese would follow up with another carrier-borne strike or, worse still, an invasion fleet. Twelve Fortresses had arrived over Pearl Harbor at the height of the Japanese attack, staging through Hawaii en route from the USA to the Philippines. They were attacked whilst attempting to land; most got down safely, some landing away from Hickam Field, but at least one was destroyed on the ground by strafing fighters.

Showing the beefed-up nose armament typical of early Mitchells in the CBI and Pacific theatre, this B-25C-NA, 42-32263, was part of the 490th BS, 341st BG. Flying with the 10th AF, the 341st became highly adept at knocking out bridges and came to use the nickname 'Burma Bridge Busters'. (Via R. L. Ward)

For the first few confused months of the Pacific war. aircraft were sent into battle in piecemeal fashion, often with the sketchiest of crew briefings, and results hardly justified even the modest effort involved. The situation improved in February 1942, when some reorganization and redesignation of the air forces operating against the Japanese was carried out: the Far East Air Forces became the 5th Air Force and the Hawaiian Air Force was designated the 7th Air Force. The tiny Alaskan Air Force became the 11th Air Force and the embryonic air force in India became the 10th Air Force, when that headquarters moved to India to take command in March 1942.

In April 1942, a US naval task force moved into Japanese home waters, and on the 18th of the month launched sixteen B-25B Mitchell bombers, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Doolittle, against Japan Most of the bombers attacked targets in Tokyo itself. All aircraft were lost - they were intended to fly on to bases in China, but an carlier-than-planned take-off put these bases just beyond their range. One Mitchell landed in Russia, where it - and its crew was interned and two of the crews were captured by the Japanese, but the rest, including several seriously injured men, were assisted to safety by Chinese guerillas.

This raid did not cause great damage in Tokyo, but profoundly affected Japanese planning. Their strategy consisted of setting up a defensive screen of islands deep in the Pacific, from whence patrolling aircraft or ships could give warning of any US naval forces approaching the home islands. One of these patrolling ships had caused the early take-off of Doolittle's aircraft.

A 380th Group B-24D Liberator 'She Asia', with an impressive row of mission markers. It appears that an earlier insignia on the nose of the aircraft has been painted out.

In accordance with this 'defensive screen' policy, the Japanese determined in June 1942 to seize Midway Island. The US, forewarned by the interception of Japanese radio messages, for which the codes had been broken, inflicted a severe defeat on the Imperial Navy, which lost four aircraft carriers, several other ships and many aircraft and crews.

USAAF operations during the Battle of Midway consisted of attacks on the Japanese fleet by Fortresses, and torpedo attacks at low level by four B-26 Marauders. Two Marauders were lost and the other two were severely damaged. No torpedo hits were claimed, and the high-level attacks by the Fortresses caused little damage to the Japanese ships. In the days after the battle, searches were made for damaged Japanese vessels.

Among the aircraft rushed out to Hawaii as the Japanese threat developed were four LB-30 Liberators from the 4th AF. General Clarence Tinker, Commanding General of the 7th AF, had a high regard for the Liberator, and he saw an opportunity to use its great range to attack Wake Island, captured by the Japanese in December 1941. Such an attack, beyond the reach of B-17s, would be a demonstration of the capabilities of the Liberator and provide up-to-date information on what the Japanese had done at Wake Island since its capture. The raid was launched from Midway, which even then necessitated a 2,500-mile trip. During the Hawaii to Midway leg, three of the pilots became concerned at the way the fourth LB-30 was being flown. This aircraft was carrying General Tinker, with an ex-fighter pilot. Tinker's aide, at the controls. The three experienced bomber pilots considered the fourth machine was flying too slowly for its heavy load, and was almost stalling as a result. At Midway, these points were discussed and Tinker's pilot agreed to use higher power settings. The mission to Wake was to be flown on 7 June, and it was hoped to catch crippled Japanese shipping at anchor off the island. In the event, the mission ended in tragedy. General Tinker's aircraft, again flying slowly, mushed slowly through the undercast and neither aircraft nor crew was ever seen again. The other three crews did not attack the target and returned to Midway.

The mission to Wake was flown three weeks later, on 26 June 1942. All three LB-30s attacked, dumped their loads on runways and installations, and returned safely to Midway. This raid was typical of early operations in the Pacific, being flown at extreme range with small numbers of aircraft, and suffering a loss due to a non-operational cause.

In the northern Pacific area, several islands in the Aleutians were seized by the Japanese as part of the far- flung Midway operation. Among US forces sent to this theatre were B-17s and a few B-26 Marauders, which attacked Japanese shipping and military camps in the area.

Four Mitchells of the 11th AF over the northern Pacific in 1943. Sea search radar is fitted, as evidenced by the aerials under the nose of 41-30474/74 named 'My Buddy' the quartet being part of the 77th Sqn., 28th BG.

The scene after a one-wheel landing of a 7th Al Liberator on 18 December 1943 on Makin Island in the Gilberts. No. 952 was shot up over Milt in the Marshalls and was scrapped after all usable parts had been stripped to keep other B-24s in the air.

Following their reverse at Midway, Japanese policy was to consolidate their gains all over the Pacific, from the Aleutians to New Guinea. In New Guinea, further landings were made at points on the northern coast. A number of air attacks were also launched against towns such as Darwin and Allied airfields in northern Australia. A further effort was made by the Japanese to cut the supply line from the USA to Australia, by occupying the main islands in the Solomons group.

Combat operations: 5th and 13th Air Forces

For most of the war, the largest air force opposing the Japanese was the 5th, organized from the remnants of the FEAF during 1942. By April 1942 the greatly depleted 19th Group was joined by some aircraft of the 3rd BG a few A-24s, which were the US Army version of the Navy Dauntless the B-17E Fortresses of the 43rd Group, and the B-26 Marauders of the 22nd Group. Although on paper this was a sizeable increase in the force, in practice the number of aircraft available at any one time was quite small.

The Japanese had meanwhile established a naval base at Rabaul at the northern tip of New Britain, where the fine natural Simpson Harbour soon became busy with the activity of a large naval base and its attendant facilities, warehouses and shore installations. Two airfields were quickly built, followed later by a further three, on which the Japanese based considerable numbers of fighters and bombers. From Rabaul, Japanese forces could strike south-west at the New Guinea coast and south-cast towards the Solomon Islands.

In August 1942 command of the 5th AF was taken over by Gen. George C. Kenney, who replaced Gen. Brett. Brett flew home in 'The Smoose', a venerable B-17D of the 19th Group, and the only example of that Fortress model flown by the 19th to return to the USA.

Under Kenney's energetic command, and with more aircraft and units coming to the theatre, attacks were made on targets in Japanese-held territory, and on shipping. One of the earliest strikes sent out by Kenney was to the Rabaul airfields on the eve of the Allied landing on Guadalcanal in the Solomons. Reconnaissance by B-17s had shown that the Japanese were also building an airfield on Guadalcanal, from which they could threaten Allied bases in Fiji and New Caledonia, both locations forming part of the island chain of communications from the USA to Australia. The Allies determined to act first, and occupied the airfield by a landing on 7 August 1942. The landing phase was virtually unopposed, and the airfield was quickly taken. However, the Japanese reacted violently to the US Marines holding the airfield, and for many weeks the issue hung in the balance. Several naval battles were fought in the waters around the Solomons, and bitter fighting raged around the airfield perimeter. Japanese aircraft from Rabaul attacked US shipping daily after the Guadalcanal landing. However, the eighteen bombers sent over Vanakanau airfield at Rabaul before the Guadalcanal landing had wrecked many Japanese aircraft and burned a fuel dump.

The area for which Kenney was responsible was vast: Darwin and Townsville, the two major bomber bases in Australia, were over 1,000 miles apart. New Caledonia was 1,000 miles from Guadalcanal. Aircraft attacking Rabaul staged up through the Port Moresby airfields on the south coast of New Guinea to make their attacks. Several airfields were built around Port Moresby, and each was known by the number of miles from that town. Seven Mile 'Drome being one.

Apart from the difficulties imposed by the vast distances practically all targets were at extreme range - most units were handicapped by shortage of aircraft or having to operate more than one type. For example, the 3rd BG operated A-20s and B-25 Mitchells together for a time. For several months after its arrival the 38th BG (Mitchells) had only two squadrons. The 22nd BG arrived in the theatre with Marauders, and was due to eventually re-equip with Mitchells. However, one squadron, the 19th, retained reconditioned Marauders until February 1944, when the whole of the 22nd re-equipped with B-24 Liberators to become a heavy bomber group.

The B-24 was considered more suitable than the B-17 in the Pacific, where its great range could be more effectively used. In November 1942, the 90th BG, equipped with Liberators, arrived in Australia. The remaining crews of the 19th were sent home, and eventually the group was transferred back to the USA.

Men at work: armoires load .50in calibre machine-gun ammunition into the nose turret of a 7th AF Liberator named 'Ready Teddy'. Built as a B-24D, this aircraft (in common with many early model Liberators in the Pacific) has had a spare tail turret fitted into the nose in place of the original 'greenhouse', with the armoured glass front panel removed to allow access. The dress of the ground crew is noteworthy, the side-arm of the man on the left probably indicating the presence of Japanese troops in the jungle surrounding the island airstrip.

One of the most remarkable picture frequencies of the war was taken at Kokas, New Guinea, on 21 July 1944, when A-20s of the 312th Bomb Group were briefed to Kit Japanese installations. Coming off the target A-20G 43-9432/V of the 387th BS took a direct hit in the belly, flipped over and plunged into the sea. (T. Jones)

The 5th AF pioneered several techniques that became widely used in the Pacific war: the B-17s of the 43rd Group experimented in the technique of low-level skip bombing against shipping, and the high-altitude approach, very necessary in Europe, was dropped. Mitchells of the 3rd Group had the bombardier's position deleted and replaced by fixed nose guns - usually four - for low-level strafing of ships, tactical targets, airfields and similar objectives. Extra forward-firing guns were also fitted to the fuselage sides. Although both the G and H models of the Mitchell were fitted with a 75mm cannon, the weapon did not find much favour with the 5th AF. It was found that in attacking some targets, particularly ships, the steady run in necessary to aim the cannon made the aircraft too vulnerable to AA fire; the blast from so large a gun also caused structural problems.

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