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Chapter 11

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

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

Harper & Brothers Publishers
New York and London

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 13
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p109  Chapter 12

Readiness in the Philippines

Most people think of the Neutrality Patrol as a purely Atlantic Ocean venture. It was there that the submarine war was being waged, and it was through these danger-infested waters that the bulk of our shipping was passing. Our primary concern, therefore, was directed toward the protection of this Atlantic shipping. On the other hand, there was always the potentially explosive situation in the Pacific to be considered. While Japan's overt action against the United States did not come until December, 1941, tension in the Far East had existed long before this time. The exposed situation of the Philippines made it inevitable that if war should come with Japan, these islands would be an early objective of the enemy. With these factors in mind, what might be termed a neutrality patrol was set up in Philippine waters in the fall of 1939, and in 1940 its size was increased.

From the outset, the role assigned naval aviation was one of patrol and limited defense. In view of the nature of our planes in this area and their small number, the Commander-in‑Chief of the Asiatic Fleet, Admiral Thomas C. Hart, wisely insisted upon a policy of dispersal and concealment within his own command. In September, 1939, a squadron of twelve PBY's had joined the Asiatic Fleet. Twelve more Catalinas arrived in October, 1940, and were followed by four more in the summer of 1941. To service these planes, the Asiatic Fleet had three seaplane tenders, Langley, Wm. B. Preston, and Heron. Instead of making his operating plans in accordance with long-range projects for the defense of the area, Admiral Hart constantly revised his plans on an "as is" basis, never counting on what was expected or projected or promised until the forces or materials were actually at hand.

 p110  In connection with this policy, the Commander-in‑Chief, Asiatic Fleet (CinCAF) favored the erection of dispersed temporary bases rather than a strategy equivalent to putting all his eggs in one basket such as the construction of a large base at Sangley Point, near Manila, that might not be completed in time for use. Accordingly, an auxiliary air base was begun, in the fall of 1940, at Olongapo on Subic Bay, and was in full use many months before the war began. Preparations were also made for operations from Los Banos, where the concealment of planes was practicable with extemporized facilities at hardly any expense. Each seaplane tender and each squadron made scheduled trips to advance bases in the southern Philippines for the purpose of learning the geography and weather of the area, so that wartime flights could be carried out under severe conditions of tropical storms with the possibility of basing at many places in the Philippine group. When war came, these preparations paid off in affording a large measure of security and dispersal for navy planes.

During 1941 there were two developments that lessened the role that naval aviation was to play in the early phases of the war in the Philippine area. By April it was decided that the United States Asiatic Fleet was not to be reinforced. The bulk of the burden of naval defense, on the other hand, was to rest on the British Far Eastern Fleet, which, it was expected, was to be reinforced by battle­ships and carriers. (As it turned out, the carriers did not arrive in the Far East.) The second development was that the Army began to take more and more planes into the Philippines and assume the task of air defense of the area. Thus it was that before war came, naval aviation's course was charted — patrol and spotting, with participation in delaying action as the Japanese actually made their sweep into the region.

Keeping these factors in mind, let us see what naval air squadrons, organized under Patrol Wing 10, accomplished in the months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Late in October, 1941, when a shift in Japanese high officials put the militarists on top, an offshore air patrol was established about a hundred miles off the west coast of Luzon. On special patrols, planes investigated some of the islands in the South China Sea, bringing back photographs showing that considerable development had been taking place on Ita Aba and some on Spratly Island — straws in a foreboding wind. Meanwhile naval aviation stores were being scattered throughout the Philippines, and training exercises were carried out with the fleet.

Early in November, the Japanese Envoy, Saburo Kurusu, passed  p111 through Manila on his way to Washington and infamy. The usual courtesies were observed, and a reception was held in his honor. Admiral Hart held a brief conversion with the Envoy, at which time Kurusu remarked that his mission was "to keep your Asiatic Fleet idle."

By late November, 1941, it was realized that the situation was becoming increasingly serious. In an effort to discover what the Japanese were doing, a considerable number of long-range reconnaissance flights were carried out to Formosa, Hainan, and Indo-China during the first week in December. The flights to the coast of Indo-China were not routine, but were directed on a day-to‑day basis by CinCAF with orders to avoid being sighted from the coast and if possible from Japanese shipping. The PBY's, however, could not avoid being sighted by Japanese planes. These did not attack, but some of our pilots reported that on occasions Japanese aircraft did make practice runs on them. On these flights, two sizable Japanese convoys were sighted off the Indo-China coast.

As has been indicated, the Japanese were also conducting special patrols. On 5, 6, and 7 December, PBY's on patrol from Manila encountered Japanese planes in the vicinity of the Luzon coast. Each side had machine guns manned and warily avoided each other like stiff-legged dogs.

As war approached, naval aviation forces had been but slightly increased in size. Like Admiral Bellinger in the Hawaiian Islands, Admiral Hart had requested more planes, especially the fast and heavily armed, four-engined patrol bombers that could make sweeps to Formosa. For reasons already noted, these reinforcements were not forthcoming. Consequently, the air elements of the Asiatic Fleet consisted of the following: Patrol Wing 10 with 2 squadrons of 14 PBY's each, and a utility unit with 5 OS2U's, 1 SOC, and 4 J2F's. The wing also had 3 seaplane tenders — two of them converted World War I destroyers, William B. Preston and Childs, and a converted minesweeper, Heron. The ex‑aircraft carrier Langley — nominally a seaplane tender — was transporting aviation supplies to the outpost bases. The three cruisers then in the Asiatic Fleet also had air units for scouting and anti‑sub patrol duty.

CinCAF had well deployed his small air strength. The Heron, with four OS2U's, covered the western approaches to the Celebes Sea. The William B. Preston, with a detachment of three PBY's was in Davao Gulf. These patrols were linked in an informal arrangement with Dutch patrols long maintained on the boundary of the Netherlands East  p112 Indies. Late in November, the Langley arrived in Manila from the north to receive another cargo of aviation spares and equipment. The Childs was also in Manila Bay. Except for their southern detachments, one of the patrol squadrons, VP‑101, and the utility unit were based at Sangley Point. The other squadron, VP‑102, was at Olongapo, and the extemporized base at Los Banos was ready for operations.

On 1 December, Admiral Tom Phillips, the new Commander-in‑Chief of the British Far Eastern Fleet, arrived in Singapore with the Repulse and Prince of Wales. At noon on 5 December he reached Manila by plane. A joint operating plan was worked out expeditiously on 6 December with General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.MacArthur present; yet even as the smooth copies of a joint dispatch to be sent to London and Washington were being made that evening, news came from British patrols that Japanese forces which had left Camranh Bay on 4 December were heading westward in the Gulf of Siam toward the neck of the Malay Peninsula. Since PatWing 10 patrols had not gone in close to the Indo-China coast on 6 December, they had not seen these moves. Upon receipt of this news, Admiral Phillips left for Singapore by plane. The next day, 7 December in Philippines, but still 6 December in Hawaii, all was tense. Planes were bombed up, full crews and ammunition were aboard. Patrol Wing 10 was ready.

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