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Chapter 12

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Navy's Air War

by
the Aviation History Unit OP‑519B, DCNO (Air)

Harper & Brothers Publishers
New York and London
1946

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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Chapter 14
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p113  Chapter 13

Toward the End of Tragedy

From the standpoint of men and planes involved, the retreat of naval aviation forces from the Philippines through the Netherlands East Indies to Australia was but an episode, a campaign replete with the heroism of men and ships and planes struggling against great odds to hold off, to delay an enemy who appeared all‑powerful. There seem, however, to be some good reasons for giving more than a cursory glance at this phase of the war. In the first place, it provides a fruitful study in contrasts. Our final victory cannot be thoroughly appreciated unless we are aware of the problems and difficulties that were originally confronted. Our power was built at phenomenal speed, but no one should think that it was built overnight or that it was a simple task. In the early stages of the war, we were attempting to stave off the persistent advances of a formidable foe. Every day that this foe could be stalled, every foot of ground or sea mile that could be contested meant just that much more time for our own war machine to get under way and that much less space to recover on the road back. Then, too, this early period should be noted more than casually and with considerable pride, for our men were never to fight more valiantly, even in the days to come when the results were more satisfying than they were in the first disheartening months of war in the Pacific.

Air Attack in the Philippines
— 8 December

Shortly after 0300 local time on 8 December, CinCAF received the news of Pearl Harbor, and at 0315 the Asiatic Fleet was notified, "Govern yourselves accordingly." Fifteen minutes later the order was received from Washington to put the War Plan against Japan into effect. At 0710, just five minutes before a second dispatch from Washington confirmed the Pearl Harbor raid, formally declaring the existence of a state of war, the William B. Preston, lying at anchor far to  p114 the south at Malalag on Davao Gulf, reported by radio, "I am being attacked!" Ten minutes later it reported that two of its PBY's had been sunk by Jap strafing, one officer (Ensign R. G. Tills) killed, and one enlisted man (A. E. Layton RM3c) wounded. On the other hand, the Preston's antiaircraft chalked up one Jap dive bomber as a "probable." The Navy's war in the Philippines had begun.

A little later four Jap destroyers entered the Gulf. The Preston at Malalag remained silent until they were well out of range, then slipped out. Had our planes been entirely land-based, where the Japs could have swooped down and obliterated all facilities, we would have lost control of the air far sooner than we did. As it was, the planes and tenders of PatWing 10 now began to lead a hunted existence, trying to keep one step ahead of a numerically superior enemy.

At midday the Japs made powerful and well-executed attacks on the army airfields in north and central Luzon, destroying the planes there and severely damaging ground installations. Fortunately, half the army bombers had been sent, two days earlier, to Mindanao in anticipation of an attack on the Manila area. The seaplanes of PatWing 10 were shifted for dispersal and concealment before 0600 of 8 December, and dawn patrols had been sent to the northwest and northeast, the Army having taken over the two Formosa patrol sectors. Two PBY's were at Sangley Point, 5 were based with the Childs in Manila Bay; 9 were stationed at Olongapo, and 9 were at Los Banos. The four J2F's, one OS2U, and one SOC based at Sangley Point continued their patrol of the area.

The cruiser air units were on their ships: the Houston was off Iloilo, Panay, awaiting Admiral Glassford (ComTaskForce 5) who left Manila by plane on the morning of 8 December; the Marblehead was at the Tarakan oil field; and the Boise, having brought an army convoy into Manila on the fourth and departed quickly southward, was ordered to join from Cebu. The Langley and the two oilers, Trinity and Pecos, accompanied by two destroyers slipped from Manila Bay under cover of darkness to join the task force and head for Makassar Strait and fuel at the Dutch East Indies oil centers.

Loss of Air Control

The mission of the naval forces in or near the Philippines remained as before, to support the Army's defense while damaging the enemy as much as possible. PatWing 10's planes were few and not expendable.  p115 First and foremost they were to be scattered in lakes, swamps, coves, or any other place where dispersal facilities were available, taking advantage of all the hideout areas and gasoline supplies which had been established throughout the Philippine Islands. They were to search and attack from advance bases whenever possible, and also to search and scout for the Asiatic Fleet as it retired southward in accordance with the War Plan.

No information on enemy movements was obtained on 8 or 9 December, but from this time onward an extraordinary crop of misinformation flowed over the warning net. The intensive study of aircraft and ship recognition, which was to become fundamental in naval training, both on shipboard and in the air, had not yet begun. A normal jittery reaction in the Philippines sighted enemy ships when no ships were there, and when a vessel was really seen she was reported in one of two categories — irrespective of size, she was either a transport or a battleship!

On 9 December, however, an enemy freighter was bombed after a PBY had politely drawn within range before the ship identified itself by firing and running up the Jap flag. On the other hand, the friendly Norwegian who did not respond when challenged had only himself to blame if he got shaken up by some near hits. Two planes were damaged on 9 December, one by Jap aircraft and one by a nervous Filipino ground battery. At noon that day a search plane was shot down with the loss of all hands.

At 0625 on 10 December, plane #17 of the northwest patrol sighted a float biplane headed toward Luzon and at 0645 reported sighting 2 battleships, 1 light cruiser, and 2 destroyers headed south at 10 knots. Thinking the force a British one, the patrol continued on its way. Half an hour later the plane was ordered back to the contact, and at 0735 reported that it was under antiaircraft fire, having closed at 7,000 yards and cut across the stem of the formation at 15 feet off the water.

Meanwhile, at 0731, the attack group had been ordered out and the northeast patrol recalled to load with torpedoes. Five planes under Lieutenant Commander J. V. Peterson took off from Los Banos at 0910 and attacked the Jap ships at 1205. Five PBY's from Manila failed to join and so missed contact. The attack group dropped twenty bombs, one salvo hitting the stern of a Kongo class battleship, certainly disabling its steering gear and possibly causing damage to its propellers. This was the last body of enemy combat ships found at sea by our air patrols before their withdrawal from the Philippines.

Meanwhile, the northeast scouts were being loaded with torpedoes  p116 at Olongapo. But by this time the Jap morning raid was on its way toward Cavite, and two of the PBY's which had been loaded with torpedoes were attacked on take‑off and forced down, although one managed to shoot down a Jap fighter and the other damaged a second.

At 1255, presaged by the appearance of Jap fighters, Cavite Navy Yard and Cavite City were heavily bombed from above the range of the guns especially installed for their protection. The enemy attack was not interfered with at all by our fighters — the Japs had seen to the army fields earlier that day — and the bombing was very accurate. Power facilities at Cavite were destroyed and ComAirAF, Captain (later Rear Admiral) F. D. Wagner, who was also ComPatWing 10, was forced to move aboard the Childs to re‑establish communications. This attack made it entirely clear that, as far as the security of Manila Bay was concerned, the enemy had control of the air.

On 11 December, another PBY was damaged by a Jap bomber but managed to get in to Los Banos. More cheerful was the report that at the Cavite shop, the maintenance force had managed to get one of the two PBY's there in commission. The following morning (12 December) a half squadron took off from Olongapo for Lingayen Bay to attack a "Japanese fleet" on typically bad information. They had returned, fueled, and were awaiting orders when Zeros came in low at the entrance of Subic Bay, climbed over a little hill and came in close to the water. At 1140 it was reported that seven PBY's had been burned at their moorings, two Jap planes being shot down in their attack.

Even so, the Navy turned its thoughts to attack as well as to defense. On 12 December, Captain Wagner proposed a joint Army-Navy attack on Palau, but on 14 December it was obvious that it stood little chance of fitting in with General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.MacArthur's plans. On 13 December a bombing raid forced the evacuation of Olongapo except for an emergency ground crew. It was now obvious that PatWing 10, having less than one squadron of planes operable, would have to move south. By this time army planes were no longer keeping the air, except for one or two fighters at a time flying for reconnaissance purposes.

No Plane for the Admiral

With Task Force 5 now well on its way toward the Netherlands East Indies, and all merchant shipping sent out of Manila on three successive nights, the mission of PatWing 10 was first to cover the fleet and, second, to transport key personnel. Consequently, seven planes, with reserve  p117 crews, were ordered to proceed to Lake Lanao, Mindanao. They departed at dawn on 14 December, leaving Lieutenant Commander Guinn in charge at Los Banos. Since one plane had already been detached on 10 December to reinforce the southern detachment, this left 7 planes in the Luzon area — 5 flyable (4 of which were in fair shape) and 3 being worked on to get them in condition to fly out.

Of the planes at Manila and Los Banos, one was directed to report to CinCAF on 16 December. This plane flew the Chief of Staff (Vice Admiral Purnell) and a communication officer to Task Force 5, other key officers going by destroyer or submarine. On the same day another struck a reef near Los Banos while taxiing, and three flyable PBY's were now available.

On 19 December, just a few days after the commandant of the 16th Naval District (Rear Admiral Rockwell) had established his operational command post on Sangley Point, that area in turn received a high-altitude bombing attack which burned most of the gasoline that remained there in drums and also ruined radio installations. Cavite and Sangley were thereafter virtually abandoned, and Com 16 moved his post to the prepared underground position on Corregidor. The Japanese landings on Luzon went on in spite of the efforts of submarines and army bombers against waves of amphibious forces. On 23 December an army dispatch predicted an early retirement to Bataan and Corregidor, and on the following morning CinCAF was informed that the retirement had already been put into operation — that army forces and government headquarters would be moved to Corregidor during the day and that Manila was to be proclaimed an open city. Although foreseen, this eventually had never been officially or unofficially discussed since the beginning of the war. After a full conference it was decided that the submarines should continue to operate from Manila Bay as long as possible, but that CinCAF should shift base to the Netherlands East Indies where he would be in closer touch with the fleet and with the British and Dutch naval commands.

Before dusk on 24 December, one of the flyable PBY's took off from the base at Sangley Point with eleven passengers aboard. At the last minute half the places were given to top‑ranking army officers. At take‑off the pilot spied a blacked‑out "680" boat on patrol cutting across the course, fortunately just in time to avoid serious collision but not in time to avoid tearing off the port wing‑tip float on the bow of the boat as the plane water-looped to starboard. The passengers were transported by land to Los Banos, where departure was safely made at about 2400.

 p118  The damaged plane, repaired that night, spent the next day hidden with the others among the mangroves at Los Banos. Orders were given for the two flyable planes to evacuate CinCAF and his staff from Cavite at 1800 on 25 December. Unfortunately, in the late afternoon, the Japs discovered them. One was burned, and the other, under repair, was sunk at its mooring. The third was shot full of holes but was patched up and managed to fly to Sangley Point that evening with one engine out. However, since all of the Cavite area was to be evacuated or destroyed within the next few hours, orders were given to leave the plane on the beach and let the demolition squad destroy it. As for the two remaining planes, one was in the Cavite shop undergoing overhaul and was believed destroyed; the other not yet made entirely safe after its encounter of 10 December 1941, was flown southward at dusk. Admiral Hart and his staff left Manila Bay on the submarine Shark at 0200, 26 December.

PatWing 10 at Bataan and Corregidor

The story of naval air action in the Philippines would not be complete if it did not tell of the valor of those naval air personnel who were left to fight it out on foot. These were mainly drawn from the ground operating crews from Sangley Point, Olongapo, and Los Banos, including the 65 men of the utility unit. All told, it was estimated that there were 8 officers and 175 men of PatWing 10 on Bataan.

On 10 December, when Cavite was first attacked, the utility planes which had been patrolling the Manila and Subic bays departed successfully, evaded Jap strafing and pursuit, and scattered to the dispersal area at Laguna de Bai. Two J2F utility planes departed for Lake Lanao on 14 December. This left five scout or utility planes in the Luzon area, which were flown on 25 December to the air base being constructed at Marivales Harbor at the tip of Bataan.

By 2000, 25 December, all PatWing 10 personnel were assembled at the Pan‑American Airways base at Cavite. The greater part of them went by land route, but about fifty men under Lieutenant Commander (soon to become Commander) Francis J. Bridget went aboard the minesweeper Quail and the ferryboat San Felipe which had been loaded with gear and supplies. At about 0300, 26 December, they landed at Marivales, and the land caravan arrived at 0900. Two hazardous night trips into the Manila area were later made for guns, ammunition and supplies. On the last of these Lieutenant McGowan — formerly of Admiral Hart's  p119 staff — and Lieutenant (jg) Pollock found that the road and bridges to Bataan had been blown ahead of the scheduled hour. They finally commandeered a barge and a badly frightened Filipino with a boat to tow it down the bay. That afternoon, as they left Manila, they saw the Jap motorcycle patrols entering.

Various missions for the five aircraft at Marivales were suggested during the first week of January but none materialized. Then, at daybreak on 10 January, a Zero raid sank all five in shallow water. From that time on PatWing 10 personnel fought on foot.

The same day, Commander Bridget was ordered to form Naval Battalion Marivales, to consist of all the miscellaneous naval units then on Bataan and two companies of the 4th Marines. While the history of their defense properly belongs to the history of that battalion, PatWing 10's record included at least two skirmishes with the enemy between 22 and 27 January when the battalion was relieved by a detachment of Filipino Scouts. On one of these forays a naval pilot, meeting a band of Japs face to face at only a few paces, was badly wounded. On 29 January all but two of the naval aviators of noncommissioned aviation pilots were taken out by submarine. One of these, Commander Bridget, was later evacuated to Corregidor, but nearly 175 men of PatWing 10 were believed to have been on Bataan on 1 March.

There is one more heroic story of PatWing 10 activity on Luzon. Before Corregidor surrendered, two PBY's, piloted from Darwin, Australia, by Lieutenant Commander E. T. Neale and Lieutenant Deede, landed in the open sea off Corregidor at midnight of 29 March. At this time, Corregidor was being shelled from both Bataan and the Cavite side. The planes had been stripped to the bare essentials, carrying no bombs and no ammunition, but they were landed with medical supplies and the type of fuses and ammunition badly needed on Corregidor. As soon as they landed they were met by small boats from the island, unloaded their supplies and immediately thereafter loaded aboard some fifty persons: twenty army nurses, several army generals, one navy captain and other navy personnel. They refueled and hid at Lake Lanao the next day, and that night, with the Japs only ten miles away, one plane took off for Darwin and hence to Perth. The other, on take‑off, ripped a hole in its bottom on a rock that no one could see. To that plane had been assigned Commander Bridget and some of the army nurses; they went to the Army's outpost at Del Monte in the hope of getting another plane. Commander Bridget, for one, was captured there by the Japs.

Though it had at first looked as if it could not be saved, the PBY  p120 was patched up by the crew, with the assistance of the army and navy personnel there. They managed to get it aloft the next night and flew it to Darwin where it promptly sank on arrival, but was once again resurrected and eventually returned to Perth. The plane had left Lake Mindanao barely in time, for two days after the last PBY left, the Japs captured our Lake Lanao base.

Withdrawal to the Netherlands East Indies
 10 to 23 December

Meanwhile, PatWing 10 had gathered its forces in the southern Philippine area, and sent them farther southward. Task Force 5, including the tender Langley, and all types of merchant shipping, were en route to the next line of defense, the Netherlands East Indies. This withdrawal, in accordance with the War Plan, brought 10 PBY's, 4 OS2U's and 2 J2F's together with the Childs and Heron at Balikpapan on 19 December. As the Childs arrived at Menado in the Celebes, where the Dutch had a patrol base on Lake Tandano, a Dutch three-engined Dornier exchanged greetings, flew alongside, hauled off, came back, waved again, and then disappeared. At the tender moved slowly toward its anchorage, a petty officer casually remarked, "Here comes that four-engined Dutchman again."

"Four engines!" yelled Captain Wagner. "Commence firing!"

Fortunately, the Jap plane's bombs dropped some distance away and none detonated, and although recognition came to late for the Childs to deliver effective fire, it was believed that the Kawanisi suffered some damage. The lesson in recognition was effective; it was the last time that gunners on the Childs trusted an airplane.

Two days later the case of mistaken identity was reversed. On 21 December, when the wing moved to Soerabaja, Java, its planes were fired upon before the Dutch realized that visitors were American PBY's.

Thus PatWing 10 gathered with the Dutch and Australians for the air defense of the East Indies barrier. The Childs, William B. Preston, and Heron were at Soerabaja; the Langley was dispatched with the other auxiliaries to 5 Darwin, Australia, to act as a receiving ship for aviation supplies and as a minor air station for seaplanes. A successful withdrawal from the Philippines, to unprepared positions, had been accomplished.

Judging correctly that the East Indies barrier might not remain secure, the Army and Navy chose Port Darwin in northwest Australia for development as a major military and naval base, but, of course, it was too far away to serve as a base for immediate operations north of the Soemba chain. The Commander-in‑Chief of the Asiatic Fleet, therefore, arriving in the Shark on 1 January 1942, set up his post at Soerabaja in space already occupied by the Dutch and where Admiral Purnell, as Chief of Staff, was already exercising a de facto command. There is no point in going into the intricacies of command in this area. It should be noted, however, that there were many complexities. Four different governments were involved: the American, British, Australian, and Dutch, and the commanding officer of all the forces had under his control four navy and six air organizations. In the face of an advancing enemy, the actual solution was that each nation retained control of its own forces. Desperate necessity made the system work — but it could not work smoothly.

PatWing 10 at Ambon
— 26 December 1941 to 16 January 1942

One of the missions assigned PatWing 10 was to operate long-range searches from Ambon, in the Ceram group about eleven hundred miles to the northeast of Soerabaja. The Dutch already had a fairly good seaplane base at this spot, with considerable gasoline stores and a ramp for hauling out planes for necessary repairs. The task of the wing at this base was, in co‑operation with Dutch and Australian groups, to patrol the surrounding area, especially the Straits of Molucca.

Until late in January, the wing ran almost continuous patrols over its assigned area, frequently meeting Japanese opposition. Both sides were equally unsuccessful in efforts to shoot down the other. Co‑operation between the Americans and the Australians was excellent; a common radio frequency was used, and each made use of the other's codes and ciphers. Through this joint effort, Jap patrols that had been working out of Davao Gulf were scared off.

Though not yet famous as a fat and happy "Dumbo," the PBY, even this early in the war, proved itself to be adept at air‑sea rescue. On 1 January, when a Hudson on fire made a forced landing, a PBY  p122 pilot heard the report, left his patrol track to land in a rough sea, picked up the surviving member of the Australian crew, administered first aid, and brought him back, more dead than alive, to the medico at Ambon. PBY's also rescued the crews of several army B‑17's that had landed in isolated areas. In addition, particularly in the later phases of the Japanese advance into Borneo, our patrol craft were told to pick up parties of Dutchmen who had been left behind as demolition squads to destroy important objectives before the Japs could land. On two occasions, PBY's made rescues which the Dutch themselves had attempted but could not effect.

On 26 December 1941, the commandant at Ambon received what would have been a large order under any circumstances. He was told to send his PBY's in an attack on a Japanese force of 2 cruisers, 2 destroyers, and 13 transports at Jolo, one of the southernmost islands of the Philippines. These were attractive, if difficult, targets, and it was also important to delay the Japanese consolidation of a position that would control the egress of our few remaining ships from the Sulu Sea and would be a steppingstone to the oil wells of Borneo. Since the Dutch did not have enough planes at Ambon and the Australians' Hudsons could not reach the target, six PBY's of PatWing 10 took off in two sections at about 2300 that night. Word had been received that there were no Jap fighters in the vicinity, but such was no more true at Jolo than at most other Jap landings.

The second section — getting in ahead of time — arrived over Jolo just before dawn on 27 December, and at 0625 started its approach. At 0645, when just past Dong Dong Island, enemy ships off Jolo Town opened fire. Having lost the element of surprise, the PBY's withdrew to gain altitude for a bombing run, but no sooner had they done this than Jap fighters appeared. One of our planes, shot down about sixty miles to the south, was full of holes but stayed afloat; the other the managed to escape. The first section, after circling about thirty miles from the target at 0600 awaiting the others, went in to attack while dawn light was still favorable. As soon as they got over Jolo Island, but still too far away from the ships to start a bombing run, the three PBY's were in turn attacked by Japs.

A feature of the PBY which contributed as much as any other factor to its helplessness in combat was the pilot's inability to learn what was going on behind him. He was dependent entirely on the waist gunners for information on enemy tactics, but the waist gunners were exposed and were generally the first casualties. In any case they could not properly  p123 man both their guns and the voice telephone at the same time. Such was the case at Jolo; the PBY pilots saw tracers going past their heads before they knew that the Japs were on their tail.

Besides the Jap fighters, the three PBY's braved intense antiaircraft fire from both ship and shore batteries. The PBY's which were all that the Asiatic Fleet had at the time, were entirely too slow for successful bombing attacks against any target which had antiaircraft protection. At Jolo the planes were hit by antiaircraft well before they were in a position to release their bombs. Nevertheless, amid almost continuous AA fire and fighter attack, and in violation of all the laws of probability, bomb they did.

From Filipino leaders who had been on Jolo resisting the landings it was later learned that one Japanese transport had been sunk and that a light cruiser was beached and burning. One plane had been shot down, with the loss of all hands, before it could reach its bombing point, but the other two hit their targets. Two Zeros were counted splashed.

Only two planes of the six returned to Ambon. It had been an expensive foray, both in planes and in men lost. Yet the wonder of it was that the crews of three of the downed planes got back to base alive. Most of that night at Ambon the base picked up radio signals, and the next morning a PBY patrol found one plane, a sieve of holes plugged with life preservers and mattresses, but still afloat. Its crew was taken aboard, the plugs removed, and the plane allowed to sink. The other two planes, however, had been burned. Aboard another plane the two waist gunners had been killed, but the others landed just off the village of Lapa on the opposite side of Jolo. Of another PBY's crew only four survived after being in the water twenty-seven to thirty hours before reaching the beach of another island. How these men were cared for by friendly natives and managed to avoid others; how they were feasted by Chinese storekeepers, doctored and helped by local authorities and priests; and how they wangled their way from island to island down the long Sulu chain by native outrigger canoes and boats and a decrepit motor launch is an adventure story in itself. On 7 January they reached Tarakan, and on the tenth, fifteen days after having left Ambon, they reported to headquarters at Soerabaja.

Adventures of the Heron
— 31 December 1941.

The experience of the overage tenders in the first months of the war form sagas concerning which much could be written. Like the planes  p124 they serviced, they fought with continued courage an enemy that far outmatched them in size and equipment. Their activities consisted of supplying and repairing the planes and housing and feeding the crews. They had to be on the alert continually for Japanese scouts.

While the William B. Preston remained at Soerabaja for repairs, the Childs and Heron had proceeded to Ambon, arriving on 28 and 29 December respectively. The Childs moored alongside a coral ledge near the shore line, covered masts and stacks with palm trees and did her best to appear as part of the scenery. The Heron, however, was sent, on the afternoon of her arrival, to the rescue of the destroyer Peary, that had been bombed on its way down from Manila.

On the way back (31 December) the Heron was just south of the equator off Halmahera when it contacted two of our own patrols. At 0931 another plane was sighted coming in on approximately the same bearing as the patrol planes that had been seen. Inasmuch as that was the correct approach bearing, the plane was not identified immediately as Japanese, but fast action at the ship's guns forced it off its bombing run. On two subsequent runs at 1015 and 1034 the bombs fell well clear, and Heron ran for the cover of an approaching rain squall. At 1120 the squall passed, but the Jap was found sitting on the water out of range and waiting. At 1520 reinforcements to the enemy appeared in the form of six Kawanisi‑97's. It was a saying in the Asiatic Fleet then that any time more than one plane appeared they were sure to be enemy, so there was no question as to identity. By some fancy maneuvering during the next twenty minutes, Heron avoided the Kawanisis' bombs and damaged one plane.

At 1600, five twin-engined Jap land bombers appeared. These were well peppered on their runs by the Heron's .50 caliber machine guns, but this time it was impossible to escape all the bombs. One hit directly on the top of the mainmast and three others were near misses that damaged the port 3‑inch guns and injured all the gun crews on that side.

At 1645, three more Kawanisis appeared and launched a torpedo attack — one on the starboard bow, one on the port bow, and one on the port quarter. It looked as if the little ex‑minesweeper Heron could not escape. But this time the Japs' timing was bad, and the ship was turned to meet each torpedo as it was released. On the other hand, strafing by two planes did considerable damage, although one plane made a water landing and was immediately sunk by the 3‑inch guns.

Two of the Heron's crew were dead and twenty-five, almost half  p125 its complement, had been wounded. That night the paint-locker fire was finally extinguished, the forward hold pumped out, and the ship made ready again to carry on. For the next three days, despite the terrific drubbing it had taken, the Heron engaged in its regular duties tending the seaplanes at Ambon, and on 4 January was sent to Darwin for repair. Eager to get in some return shots at the enemy, it was a very unwilling Heron that left the scene of action for the quiet of Australia.

Retreat from the Moluccas

The bombing of Menado and Ternate at the end of December portended the Japanese invasion of the Celebes and Halmahera. On 7 January it was reported that there were Japanese aircraft carriers off Zamboanga at the southwestern tip of Mindanao. On 10 January a PatWing 10 patrol in the Sangi Island sector sighted two large task forces in the Celebes Sea seventy miles south of Mindanao and attacked the large transports, but missed. These were the forces from Davao and Jolo which took Tarakan and Menado the next day.

Four PBY's attempted to attack the cruisers and transports effecting a landing at Kema, northwest of Menado, on 11 January but were driven off by a number of single-engined single-float fighters. One PBY was lost after making a water landing some sixty miles south of Menado. Drifting for five days in Molucca Passage, its crew of seven escaped detection by the foe — and unfortunately by our searchers also — by camouflaging their rubber boat with blue dungarees, which blended with the water very effectively. On the night of the fifteenth they rode out two cyclonic storms, one of which they said raised waves of twenty feet or more, but on the seventeenth they managed to paddle ashore on Mangoli, one of the Soela Islands south of the Molucca Sea. Weak as they were, they contrived shoes out of life jackets and the next day climbed a five-thousand foot range of mountains to reach the south shore — only ten miles away but twenty miles by native trail. On the nineteenth they crossed by sailboat to the Dutch settlement on Sanana Island. A PBY was then sent and delivered the entire crew of the lost plane safely aboard the William B. Preston. Such fortitude as this saved more than one of PatWing 10's crews during their fight against odds of nature and enemy in the East Indies. As time went on, planes were lost — and sometimes crews with them — but not one of PatWing 10's men was ever counted out as expendable.

An 8‑plane Australian raid on Menado on 12 January was made at a  p126 cost of four of the Hudsons, but little damage to the Japs. They continued to come on. After Menado was captured, our base at Ambon received almost a daily working over by Jap land-based planes. In the first raid, between 0330 and 0500 on 7 January, the Laha airfield on Ceram was bombed by five to seven seaplanes, without opposition. Although it was not until 15 January that the heavy raids developed, from then on Ambon became untenable as an Allied base.

Meanwhile, CinCAF had taken steps to use the dwindling resources of PatWing 10 to best advantage and to bring reinforcements. On 11 January ComPatWing 10's headquarters was moved back to Soerabaja for consolidation with the Allied command. On that same day the first reinforcements appeared when six PBY‑5's of Patrol Squadron 22 arrived at Ambon from Pearl Harbor via Darwin. More came on the fifteenth, but three were damaged, two of them beyond repair, as they landed just as the Japs were coming in for the first of their big raids on Ambon. In addition, five Dutch PBY's for which they had no pilots were also obtained to bolster the resources of PatWing 10 in the Java area.

In these first days — war had broken out barely a month earlier — the Navy had no reserve of aircraft or fleets of carriers nor a well-developed system of advanced bases and supply. The exploits of every plane and every person were individually important in holding the line. Operating from Baoebaoe at the southeast of the Celebes, one PBY of VP‑22 was lost when attacked by twelve twin-engined Japs in the Gulf of Tomini, but managed to make a water landing. Some of the crew had parachuted to safety, and all reached a near‑by island and ultimately worked their way back to Java. Two days later another PBY‑5, patrolling near the end to the Gulf of Tomini, was set upon by a lone Zero. Highly skillful maneuvering got the Zero in the port waist gunner's sights and the PBY shot the Zero down in flames. The PBY, unblessed with self-sealing tanks or armor, was lucky to receive only half a dozen bullet holes.

But the loss of even one plane was critical — it limited the available eyes of our ships. By this time, even though the Dutch were desirous of standing fast at Kendari and at Ambon, it seemed to navy headquarters at Soerabaja that retirement was again the wise course. On 16 January, Ambon was ordered evacuated, but it was not until 28 January that all U. S. Navy personnel at Ambon were evacuated by plane to Darwin. A few days later Ambon was taken by the enemy, and the Allies lost a battalion of Australians and a crack NEI outfit.

 p127  From the time Ambon was abandoned as a base, PatWing 10 started a mobile operation basing two or three planes at a time with the Preston, Childs, and Heron at various places along the Netherlands East Indies chain of islands, and at Darwin in Australia. At the same time, stocks of fuel were laid down along the Soemba chain for the ferry flights of army P‑40's from Australia via Timor — a plan which later had to be given up on account of the loss of too many of these light planes which were being pushed to the limit of their fuel capacity. The tenders usually stayed in one area for two or three days, moving on as soon as a Jap scout was sighted. They fueled the PBY's at night and stood out to sea during the day so that they might have maneuvering room in case of attack. By this strenuous technique, PatWing 10 managed to keep alive as the Japs swept southward.

During this tenuous existence, the seaplane tender Childs had a narrow escape from destruction. In order to help the Dutch and British continue their fight to hold the Netherlands East Indies barrier, it was decided to use the tender as a tanker. Loaded with 25,000 gallons of aviation gasoline and with an extra 5,000 gallons on deck, the vessel made a quick dash from Soerabaja to Kendari in the Celebes. Ready ground forces unloaded her, and at daybreak on 24 January 1943, the Childs was again under way for her return trip. Less than a half hour later she sighted a force of three Japanese transports and two destroyers entering Staring Bay. The leading destroyer challenged, but the Childs was saved momentarily by a rain squall that obscured the area for twenty minutes. When visibility cleared, the vessel was running eastward, with the Jap force ten miles abeam, but with four more destroyers visible ahead. These vessels deployed in line and headed for the Childs, and then, to the relief of the Americans, they turned away. Possibly the large green awning that the Childs had draped across both stacks made identification sufficiently difficult that the Japanese preferred to take no chances in protecting their transports. At any rate, a valuable seaplane tender had stuck its neck into a noose to deliver a sizable amount of gasoline to the Japanese, though it was hoped that the Dutch ground party might have had time to destroy it. The Childs subsequently fought off two air attacks while en route to base.

The diversion of a destroyer seaplane tender to make a run as a tanker was quite in accordance with a practice that expediency dictated not only in these first months of war, but throughout the next four years. It illustrates the inseparability of the naval aviation establishment  p128 as a whole with the problem of general logistics and support which is often unthought of among more spectacular reconnaissance and combat.

Air Power at Makassar Strait
— 23‑24 January

The Navy's air patrols, now backed up to the wall in the long chain of islands, which stretch out eastward from Java, had the hottest sector of the whole area. The Preston operated from 1 Alor, keeping patrols over the eastern area, while other PBY patrols were run from Childs out of 2 Soerabaja up into Makassar Strait as far north as 3 Samarinda, Borneo, over to the Celebes, down the coast to 4 Makassar Town (Celebes) and back to the Java area.

[and if you need it, here's help in using the map,
including my own symbols & added information.]

As the Japanese forces gathered impetus for their continued pincers movement in the East Indies there was need for more than a patrol, and the Allies began to pull together their sea strength. The navy pilots of PatWing 10 knew by experience how to fly through all kinds of weather, day and night; they were used to working with sea forces and consequently knew what they were looking for, and having found it they knew how to report it. In planes without protected gas tanks or armor, they went to the places where the enemy was bound to be. They reported his strength, disposition, course and speed, and then hung around whenever possible trying to guide the surface forces sent to attack. This work could not have been accomplished without the seaplane tenders, which could move our bases quickly and, wherever they were, relay the radio reports from our planes to fleet headquarters in Java.

On 22 January, when the Japanese started to come down Makassar Strait, there were good submarine and air reports of enemy activity; PatWing 10 PBY's reported contact with ten Jap planes thought to be carrier-based.

At 0700 on 23 January, coastal lookouts at Samarinda, Borneo, reported a fleet of thirty‑one ships offshore in Makassar Strait. Two of PatWing 10 PBY's had been stationed at Makassar at the southwest of Celebes, and every half hour from 1050 that morning they reported the location and strength of various parts of the Japanese force as it moved toward Balikpapan. That afternoon the Dutch bombers attacked and claimed 2 cruisers, 4 transports and a destroyer. At the same time the 4 destroyers of DesDiv 50 speeded to the fray, supported by Marblehead coming up as fast as her damaged shaft would allow. Their action that night has gone down in naval history as an almost incredible  p129 feat against a superior enemy force: five or six ships were known to be sunk and others damaged. The following morning a Dutch submarine torpedoed a cruiser and USAAF bombers also sank two transports and shot down 5 of the 12 Jap planes which had finally come up to provide air cover. For a short time the Japanese were turned back, and that turning back was accomplished by old PBY's, old Martins, old Hudsons, and old destroyers.

The Makassar Strait action off Balikpapan was successful primarily because the enemy did not have air coverage to deny PatWing 10's PBY's the opportunity of providing reconnaissance for our surface and bomber commands. For some reason — perhaps the damage to a carrier by the submarine Sturgeon — normal Jap tactics had failed to materialize; it was the only time in this period of swift enemy advance that they did not depend heavily on building up both air and sea superiority at the point of their next landing. Nevertheless, even though the Japs were temporarily checked at Balikpapan, the Allies did not have enough air or sea power to hold them as they kept driving the British back into Singapore, and sprawled into the Moluccas and New Guinea.

The Japanese expedition in Makassar Strait had been stalled for a short time, but the temporary loss of the Netherlands East Indies was inevitable. The opposition was simply too powerful. During the next month, PatWing 10 continued its operations under increasing difficulty but with continued vigor and bravery. PBY's continued to patrol the Makassar Strait. It was now known as "Colf Turkey Lane," because there was virtually no protection for the patrols. Almost daily our planes were attacked, but by taking advantage of cloud cover, getting near the water, or using evasive tactics, the PBY's supplied the surface forces with daily, often hourly, reports on the southward movements of the Japanese naval vessels and transports.

Bombardment of our remaining bases, however, became increasingly heavy and toward the end of February our air forces at Soerabaja were compelled to remove to Australia. PBY's extended their patrols. PatWing 10 was still flying, but the going was getting tougher.

The Japanese realized the menace that a base at Darwin held for them and made serious efforts to reduce its potency, and their efforts were largely successful. A major air attack on 19 February gutted most of the port. The planes there were destroyed, and the seaplane tender William B. Preston was badly damaged.

 p130  Loss of the Langley

Desperate as the situation was in Java under Japanese attack, it was felt that the island might be held if sufficient fighter planes could be obtained. It was decided to take a long chance and attempt to deliver fighter craft to the island. On 22 February, a convoy had sailed from Freemantle, Australia, bound for Ceylon. In the group were the tender Langley with thirty‑two assembled P‑40E's on deck and with pilots and flight personnel also on board, and the Seawitch, with twenty-seven crated P‑40's in her hold. On the day of departure it was decided to divert these two vessels to Java. There was much discussion as to the port of entry of these two ships. Both Soerabaja and Batavia, where the planes could have been taken to an airfield, were being bombed daily. Consequently Tjilatjap was decided upon, and preparations at that port were hurriedly made. The planes were to be unloaded on the dock, towed along the streets to a comparatively open field and flown out to various flying fields for operations against the enemy. Native laborers fled to the jungles, but streets had to be cleared, walls and shacks knocked down. Somehow it was done, and hopes ran high. Both Langley and Seawitch were to unload, fuel, take aboard as many refugees from Java as possible — for which a list had been prepared — and depart forthwith.

As the Langley approached Tjilatjap, she was met on the afternoon of the twenty-sixth by a Dutch mine layer and two Dutch Catalina flying boats. A large Japanese invasion force was even then off the north coast of Java. Time was the important factor. Vice Admiral Helfrich said repeatedly that the planes must be got in and at the enemy, and every minute counted. Rear Admiral Glassford shared the view that the risk of bringing Langley in ahead of the slower Seawitch without benefit of an approach to the coast under cover of darkness would simply have to be taken. Accordingly, on the morning of 27 February, Langley was met by the destroyers Whipple and Edsall and proceeded directly towards Tjilatjap.

It was a fair morning with only a few high, scattered clouds and a light northeast wind. The Langley was less than a hundred miles south of Tjilatjap when, at 0900, an unidentified plane was sighted. Realizing that the enemy had found the Langley, her captain sent a report to Admiral Glassford and requested a fighter escort. There were not fifteen fighter planes in all Java, and none could be sent. When the Langley had been converted to a tender, she had lost half  p131 her original flight deck and the remainder was too short to launch the fighters she carried. At 1140 the Edsall gave the emergency signal "aircraft sighted." The Langley was zigzagging on a northerly course as nine twin-engined bombers approached at fifteen thousand feet. Probably they came from Bali.

As the planes approached the bomb release point, the rudder was put full right, and the bombs fell a hundred feet or more off the port bow. The ship shook violently and was sprayed with splinters and shrapnel, but sustained no serious damage. On the second run the planes dropped no bombs, perhaps studying the ship's evasion tactics. As they made their third run she made her turn just an instant too soon. The planes turned, too, before releasing their bombs. The Langley shuddered under the impact of five direct hits and three near misses. One hit was forward, two hits were on the flight deck near the elevator, a fourth was on the port stack sponson, and a fifth bomb penetrated the flight deck aft, starting stubborn fires. After the bombs landed, six Japanese fighters which accompanied the bombers attempted to strafe the ship, but only one made a very determined attack.

Seldom has a ship been hit more severely by one salvo. Aircraft on deck were burning; there were fires below deck, fire mains were broken, and the ship was taking water and was listing 10 degrees to port. But she could still be steered and her engines were still running in spite of the water rising in the engine room. The ship was maneuvered to obtain a zero wind, and the fires were somehow put out. The shattered planes on the port side were pushed overboard and counter-flooding was carried out in an attempt to correct the list. It was useless; water continued to rise in the engine room, and the list was increasing.

At 1332 the order was given to abandon ship. The Edsall and Whipple maneuvered skillfully to pick up survivors with the gratifying result that out of the entire crew there were only six killed and five missing. Whipple fired nine four‑inch shells and two torpedoes into the Langley to insure her sinking. The position was about seventy-four miles south of Tjilatjap. Whipple and Edsall with the survivors cleared the area at high speed, going off to the west.

The next day weather permitted transfer of Langley's crew to the tanker Pecos in the vicinity of Christmas Island, two hundred miles south of Java. Within four hours after this transfer, the Pecos was attacked by three carrier-based planes and sunk. Again the Whipple, which picked up the call, rescued the survivors, but by this time a number  p132 of the crew of the gallant Langley, the largest of the Asiatic Fleet seaplane tenders, had perished.

With the sinking of the Langley perished also whatever hopes the Dutch had of saving Java. The twenty-seven crated P‑40's did arrive at Tjilatjap on 28 February, and were destroyed, still in their crates, to prevent their falling into the Japanese hands.

Retirement to Australia

The bombing of Darwin cut off the direct route of supply from the Pacific which until this time had been in the hands of the Allies. Landings had been made by the enemy on Bali and Sumatra, and new Japanese forces were known to be forming to the north. Thus, even before the loss of the Langley, it had been apparent that there was no way of overcoming Japanese superiority. On 25 February, General Wavell departed for Ceylon, and the defense of Java rested on the Dutch, with both the British and American fleet units remaining under the direction of Vice Admiral Helfrich until the Allied command was dissolved. The story from this point is mainly one of surface engagements, but the handful of PatWing 10 planes still remaining in the area continued their work. The best tribute to their effort is found in the statement of Vice Admiral Glassford who said of their patrol that no information that reached the forces "was as valuable, complete and reliable as that from the PBY's. At the end they became practically the exclusive source of systematic combat information. Planes flew at night in moonlight after the daylight phase of the final battle in the Java Sea, (27‑28 February), for the purpose of shadowing the enemy, especially the true objective — the transports — in order that (Admiral) Doorman's force might attack. No praises could be too high for the work of PatWing 10."

In the Battle of the Java Sea, the enemy successfully prevented the Allied striking force from reaching the convoys. The Jap invasion was successfully accomplished, and since no port in Java was tenable any longer, it was obvious that the time had come to withdraw. On the morning of 1 March 1942, the Joint Allied Command in Java was dissolved and the American ships were ordered to Australia. American planes and personnel, such as remained, likewise withdrew from the area.

From the Philippines to the Java Sea, naval aviation had scored a courageous record, in the deeds of PatWing 10, against overwhelming  p133 odds. Two light cruisers and 2 large transports had been damaged, 1 large transport definitely sunk, and 8, possibly 12, Japanese aircraft had been shot down. Something in the neighborhood of three hundred bombing, reconnaissance, rescue, and utility missions had been flown, to say nothing of the many flights of all types of planes for administrative and supply purposes. Yet during all this time there were only three operational, as distinguished from combat, losses — a remarkable record. The losses in PBY's were 15 shot down and 17 destroyed or damaged beyond repair while they were based at various places in the Philippines and in the East Indies. Five officer pilots were known to have been killed, and twelve more were listed as missing on patrol. From the perspective of the war as a whole, these first bitter months may be viewed as the beginning of the end of tragedy. Farther over the Pacific, American task forces were already successfully testing their strength, giving a portent of the power that was to sweep back across lost territory to the shores of Japan itself.


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Page updated: 17 Aug 14