Hard Men, Desperate Times: the 19th Bomb Group in the SW Pacific


 During the early morning hours of December 8, an Army cook just coming off duty at Clark Field on the island of Luzon tuned in his Zenith Transoceanic radio to the Honolulu radio station. He heard the announcer broadcasting that Japanese aircraft were attacking Pearl Harbor. At more or less the same time, the radio operator on duty at the Cavite Navy Yard on Manila Bay overheard a message transmitted in clear from Pearl Harbor: AIR RAID PEARL HARBOR THIS IS NO DRILL.

By 0600 Philippines time all units of the Asiatic Fleet, the Far Eastern Air Force, and US Army ground units were on full alert. P-40 pursuits at Clark, Iba and Nichols Field were prepared to take the air to intercept the long-anticipated Japanese air attack. B-17s of the 19th Bomb Group at Clark Field went aloft to avoid being caught on the ground. General Brereton, commander of the FEAF, requested permission to bomb Japanese airfields on Formosa; the refusal of permission by MacArthur is a decision that remains shrouded in mystery and controversial to this day. By 1100 hours no attack had materialized. P-40 pursuits had to land to refuel. The B-17s, finally given permission to attack Formosa, landed at Clark Field to refuel and bomb up.

The Japanese struck Clark Field at 1240 while most of these airplanes were on the ground. An airman outside one of the hangars looked up and saw the incoming bombers. The reality of war had not yet sunk in; the airman called everyone’s attention to the “pretty Navy formation.” Fifty-four Japanese bombers unloaded on the field, but the worst damage was caused by strafing A6M2 “Zero” fighters. When the Japanese left, they had destroyed half the bomber and pursuit strength of the FEAF and achieved air superiority over the Philippines. By the end of December the 19th Bomb Group evacuated to Darwin, Australia, leaving only a remnant of P-40 and P-35 pursuits of the 24th Pursuit Group to continue the fight against the invading Japanese.

America did not have extensive resources to commit to fighting the Japanese in the early part of the war. The 19th Bomb Group, at the time it arrived in the Philippines in late 1941, was the only heavy-bomber group deemed combat-ready in what had only recently changed from the Army Air Corps to the US Army Air Forces. The 19th Bomb Group was equipped with B-17D bombers, which had neither powered turrets nor tail guns. The 35 B-17Ds of the 19th Bomb Group represented over a third of the total production of B-17 bombers to date, including prototypes and the “B” and “C” versions. The B-17E was starting to come off the production line at Boeing’s Seattle, Washington plant by the fall of 1941 but would not reach the Pacific until January 1942. The early-model B-17E had tail guns but the bottom turret was remotely operated and largely ineffective; gunners complained its mirror-based periscopic gunsight gave them vertigo. This model only saw combat in the Pacific. By the time the 8th AF in Europe incorporated bomb groups equipped with the B-17E, the bombers had the manned ball turret in the belly.

The 19th Bomb Group was temporarily joined by the 7th Bomb Group in January of 1942, in time to operate from Java against the Japanese coming south to seize the oil fields in Borneo, Sumatra and Java. Parts, especially engines, were in short supply. New aircraft were in even shorter supply. The original air route to the Philippines took the B-17s over or near Japanese territory. This route closed with the start of the war. A South Pacific route, via Palmyra Island, Canton Island, Fiji and New Caledonia, was used instead. US heavy bombers had to fly about 8000 miles from California to Australia to reach the SW Pacific war zone. This was originally considered such a feat of airmanship that when the first squadrons of the 19th Bomb Group flew across the Pacific to the Philippines in October 1941, the pilots received the Distinguished Flying Cross for the feat. Only a year later, the flight would be considered routine.

The remnants of the Philippine veterans from both pursuit and heavy bomber outfits had to contend with bad weather, lack of intelligence (including inaccurate or nonexistent navigation charts), wet and soggy airfields, lack of spare parts, bad food, malaria and other less appetizing tropical diseases, all before they could even fight the Japanese. A formation of 6 B-17s of varying types too often represented a maximum effort on a mission.

To prosecute the war against the Japanese the 19th and 7th Bomb Groups operated from Singosari in Java and from Batchelor Field, 50 miles south of Darwin. Missions to attack the Japanese fighting American and Philippine Army units on the Bataan Peninsula had to stage out of Del Monte field on Mindanao. Fifteen hundred miles separates Darwin from Del Monte, and at least another 500 miles from Del Monte to targets on Bataan, meaning a two-thousand-mile round trip for one bombing raid. In contrast, from 8th Air Force bases in East Anglia to Berlin is also about 500 miles. Imagine operating from bases on the east coast of Greenland, flying to a forward base in East Anglia to attack Berlin, then returning to Greenland via East Anglia. At the end of these two-thousand-mile round trips, the bombers need repairs for combat damage as well as routine maintenance. The crews themselves provided the repair work. The reason for this is simple, if brutal: the ground support echelon of the 19th Bomb Group was either trapped on the Bataan Peninsula or had come south to Del Monte Field on the island of Mindanao before the war started. A few crew chiefs and mechanics were ferried out of Del Monte, or were smuggled out on submarines from the island of Corregidor in the mouth of Manila Bay, but many of them died fighting on Bataan, or in the infamous Death March, or became POWs when the Philippines surrendered to the Japanese in May 1942.

The 7th Bomb Group was reassigned to the China-Burma-India Theater in March 1942. The 43rd Bomb Group was on the way, but wasn’t yet operational. Through the summer of 1942, the 19th Bomb Group remained the only operational heavy-bomber unit in the SW Pacific. Always under strength in personnel and aircraft, suffering from losses and combat damage, operating from makeshift forward airfields with limited repair facilities, the 19th fought a desperate war until it was relieved and sent home late in 1942. It would later be re-equipped with B-29 Superfortresses and sent to the Pacific once again, to participate in the final defeat of Japan, there at the beginning and at the end.

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In the category of shameless self-promotion I dedicate this blog.

Two days ago I published an anthology of short stories on Amazon, titled The Struggles. Even self-publishing of this sort is an odd experience. In an instant, you go from writing for yourself and perhaps a small group of friends/writers to writing for the entire world. In theory or in potential, at least. That’s the power of the Internet, the ability to deliver content to anyone anywhere anytime, worldwide.

Maybe I’ll get used to it, but for now it still feels strange.

I’m working hard to achieve even greater notoriety, so this post is also an advertisement. (I did use the phrase “shameless self-promotion,” right?) I have a series of novels I’m working on. The first one, Everything We Had, is in final draft form, circulating among my faithful beta readers. I’ve also entered it in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition, and we’ll see how that goes.

Everything We Had deals with the experiences of two brothers, Jack and Charlie Davis, who are pilots in the US Army Air Forces. They are sent to the Philippines on the eve of the US entering World War II. Jack, a 2nd Lieutenant not long out of flight school, is a pursuit pilot. But the 24th Pursuit Group, assigned to the air defense of the Philippines, is only combat-ready on paper. Charlie, a captain flying B-17s in the 19th Bomb Group, has to weld together an inexperienced crew during the long solo flight across the Pacific from California to Clark Field on the island of Luzon. North of them, on the Japanese-held island of Formosa, are hundreds of well-trained, battle-tested Japanese pilots who outnumber the Americans pilots by greater than ten-to-one. The war is coming. The only question is when, and what will happen to Charlie, Jack and their fellow pilots when it does.

The second novel in the series is A Snowball’s Chance. The survivors of the Philippine air battles are withdrawn to Australia, then thrown into the fighting to prevent the Japanese from taking Java. A handful of B-17s and a squadron of P-40s are all we have to stop the Japanese.

The third novel is Boxcar Red Leader. On the island of New Guinea on obscure outpost named Port Moresby becomes the strategic key to preventing the Japanese invasion of Australia. On the eve of the Battle of the Coral Sea, Army pilots are sent to reinforce USAAF units already engaged in the fight to defend Port Moresby from Japanese air attacks. Novice pilot Jimmy Ardana must learn to fight and survive in the unloved, obsolescent Bell P-39 Airacobra, against the Japanese Zero and the masterful pilots of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Look for Everything We Had in late spring, unless I win the ABNA, in which case we’ll have to see what Penguin/Amazon has to say about a future publication date. I’m working on the first draft of A Snowball’s Chance now. I intend to have a final draft done no later than the end of summer 2014. Boxcar Red Leader is already in final draft form since I wrote it first. I’ll have to go back and revise it again in light of what happened in the first two novels before I release it, though.

Why did I do it that way? Well, Boxcar was the idea that came to my mind first. Then I realized I could and should write at least two other novels, given the hints in Boxcar. Maybe I could have gone ahead and released Boxcar Red Leader but that gave away a lot of what happened in the first two novels, so it seemed better to hold onto it. I think, ultimately, it will work out for the best, but you’ll have to judge that for yourself.

Watch this spot, I’ll update progress from time to time. Feel free to comment!


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All These Dreams for Nothing?

            In 1903, when the Wright Brothers flew the first airplane, no one cared.  Thereafter the Wright Brothers flew outside of Dayton, OH, for years without attracting any more attention than the occasional newspaper reporter, who probably hoped to see a spectacular and fatal crash.

            Yet the myth of Icarus, the dream of flight, is at least as old as recorded history.  We are told of myths from nearly every culture that record the dream of flight.

            In 1960 the Soviets put a man into orbit around the Earth.  It was a stunt, intended more to demonstrate the superiority of their system than to push scientific and technological boundaries.

            In 1969 NASA put men on the Moon.  Flying to the Moon had also been a dream of Mankind, if not in the sorts of myth the dream of flight enjoyed, then in literary fantasies.  It didn’t seem like a lot of people cared about that, either.  At the time something like 40% or less of the American public thought we should be spending money going into space.  One newspaper at the time published a headline reading “So What?” over a photo of Neil Armstrong – possibly the single most dramatic picture ever taken by any human – standing on the plain of the Sea of Tranquility.  A few years after the last Moon landing Senator William Proxmire killed the entire Apollo program.

            At the present time we have three space probes that have escaped the pull of our Sun’s gravity.  Constructs of humanity are thus headed to the stars, however many thousands or millions of years it may take them to get to even the nearer ones.  We have had probes on Mars, sending back pictures of the Martian surface, since 1977.  We have probes on Venus, Titan and of course the Moon.  Other probes orbit the Sun, Mars, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.   Other countries have their own probes; Japan even has a prototype ion drive satellite wandering around the inner solar system.

            Ion drive.  A spacecraft with ion drive.  I remember reading science fiction stories about that when I was a kid, and now it’s becoming real.

            Each and every one of these achievements are something out of a heroic myth.  They give our civilization identity and meaning.  They give us hope that we can be something more than the murderers and thieves that our histories tend to celebrate as kings and nobles and CEOs.  That we can, we really, truly can, dream that impossible dream – and find it no so impossible after all.  That we can, we really truly can, reach for that unreachable star, and find it in our grasp.

But outside of a few science types nobody cares.  We are – or at least we could be – on the verge of achieving a true space-based civilization.  The point to that is we can think new thoughts.  We can expand the possibilities, the potential, of humanity to something approaching the infinite.

            That’s the truth we could have, and that we ignore; the dream we could make real, but deny.  What does that say about us?  That we don’t even ask why we aren’t willing to dream, and then try to make those dreams come true?

            So the question I ask is this: are all these dreams for nothing?

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Manned Space Exploration Is Worth the Risk

(Note:  I wrote this essay three years ago as my entry into the Moon Society’s Apollo 13 Commemorative Essay Contest.  It took 3rd place — which I shared with two other writers who also wrote fine essays.  I stumbled across it while looking through my computer files for material relevant to my NaNoWriMo entry this year.)


Since 1960, 101 people, mostly Russians and Americans, have died either during the course of space flight or in accidents related to preparations for space flight.  According to NTSB statistics, almost that many people in America alone will die, in a single day, in automobile accidents.  In a single week in this country, based on U.S. Labor Department statistics, more people will die in workplace-related accidents than have ever died in space flight related accidents.  In a single year in this country, based on U.S. NTSB statistics, more people will die in airplane accidents than have died in space flight related accidents.  Any argument that manned space exploration is physically “too risky” would therefore require us to ban, by the same argument, driving to the supermarket to shop for eggs, to work for a living or flying a Piper Cub.

Manned space exploration is without doubt expensive.  Economists would ask, what is the benefit we obtain at the risk of the money spent?  As for that risk, one spends money to make money.  The technological spinoffs of the Apollo program alone created more jobs and economic opportunity – in short, made more money – than has ever been publicly acknowledged.  Input the term “Apollo program spinoffs” on any Internet search engine and consider the ways in which our economy benefitted from that one program.  As an humble example, today’s athletic shoes are based on materials derived for use in the space suits NASA astronauts wore on the Moon; at the other end of the spectrum, magnetic resonance imaging depends on digital signal processing techniques developed for Apollo.  What is the economic value of early diagnosis of a brain tumor?

Arguing the technological benefits of manned space exploration, however, might be beside the point in assessing the relevant economic risks.  Adjusted for inflation, the Apollo Program would have cost about 300 billion dollars in 2008.  Congress, just before Christmas of 2008, gave over three times that amount to bail out a banking industry that made bad business decisions.  The decision to undertake the risk and bail out the banking industry was made after only the most minimal debate of the risks and consequences.  What benefit will we, as taxpaying Americans, receive for that economic risk?

There is risk and expense involved in manned space exploration but the risk appears to be no more than that present in those everyday activities described as “business as usual.”  Perhaps, though, since it seems evident that even this level of risk is considered unacceptable by many people, one should identify what manned space exploration actually does for us as human beings.

Manned space exploration, by definition, takes us where no one has gone before.  Perhaps it isn’t so obvious that it increases not only the store of human knowledge and experience, but the level of human potential.  “Human potential” in this context means the scope of what we dare to dream of accomplishing, for ourselves and for our children.  Manned space exploration is not only the stuff of dreams, but in a very literal and much more important sense, the stuff from which dreams originate.

Before Apollo “going to the Moon” was only a dream, an idea belonging to science fiction.  But on July 20, 1969, we knew that human beings were on the Moon.  “Going to the Moon” passed forever from the nebulous realm of science fiction into the factual realm of human history and experience.  To look at the Moon during the Apollo landings was to know, and not merely to have faith, that anything is possible to human beings.  What Apollo did for us then is what all manned space exploration does for us: When dreams are made real previously unknown dreams become possible.  The human potential increases.

To explore, redefine and expand our full potential as human beings, to restore and maintain that spark of the heroic within not just some of us but each of us, is therefore the benefit conferred by manned space exploration, and that is worth the risk.  Manned space exploration proves to us that whatever our problems, we can find a solution. Manned space exploration is the living, dynamic symbol of hope for the future, of that better tomorrow that is the fundamental promise of America.  To acknowledge anything less is to deny our full potential – and what that potential might become in the future where no dreams have yet reached.


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A brief explanation of why I’ve been absent for three months…or is it four?  

Summer.  Yup, that’s it in a nutshell.  Having to deal with heat saps my creativity and my energy.  Something about the approach of winter for whatever reason peps me up.  Don’t ask me why.  My fingers and my toes get cold and my body is starting to display a progressively more interesting variety of aches and pains as the years progress.

But that doesn’t matter.  I can think in the cold; I don’t think nearly as well in the heat.

So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

As I write this I ought to be working on A Snowball’s Chance, the second volume of my Southwest Pacific Air War trilogy.  The other two?  Oh, glad you asked: Volume 1, Everything We Had, begins just before the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent attack on Clark Field in the Phillipines.  Volume 2, A Snowball’s Chance, takes place in Java and Australia early in 1942 as the Japanese continue their southward advance.  Volume 3, Boxcar Red Leader, takes place in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, as the tide of the Pacific war turns in May 1942.  I hope to publish all of these some time next year.

I’m pushing 17,000 words right now so it’s time to get back to work.  Why is 17,000 words significant?  Well, I’m writing this for my ninth consecutive year as a participant in National Novel Writers Month.  I need to write 50,000 words by November 30 to be a finalist.  It’s a great way to get a first draft done!

Maybe with the election over it’ll be easier to concentrate!  Good luck to all the WriMos out there!

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Job Creation

I remember thinking that when Ronald Reagan first proposed the idea of “trickle down economics” aka “supply side economics” back in the early ‘80s that it sounded like a good idea.  The rich invest in new businesses which create jobs which means a good deal all around, right?

Since then we’ve seen a lot of rhetoric about economics, and precious little of it seems supported by anything other than propaganda.  So I’d like to add a few anecdotes from my own life on this subject.  Now, any statistician will tell you that a sample of one is inherently biased.  So perhaps those of you reading this would like to consider your own experiences and weigh in on the subject.

The first full-time job I had after college was an extension of a part-time job I had during my last year in school.  I worked for several years as night manager of a fast food restaurant.  The interesting thing about this is that my boss, the guy that signed my paycheck, wasn’t rich.  At least he wasn’t borne rich.  He’d come over from Cuba at 15, in 1960, with the shirt on his back.  He worked 60 hours a week for $60 washing dishes when he landed in New York City, became a waiter, saved his money, then he and his wife bought the restaurant franchise where I worked.  Jesse, the last I heard of him, owned two restaurants and a half-interest in a jewelry store.  I always thought of Jesse as a great American and a true success story.  In the time I knew him, he kept a payroll of three full time and anywhere from six to twelve part-time employees going, mostly college students.

The second full-time job I had was working in a small flying school as a dispatcher.  Look, no one who hasn’t been in that business will appreciate it when I say that Norman, the owner, who probably didn’t make a hell of a lot out the school, kept it going for at least ten years that I know of.  Any business in aviation is chancy; look how many major airlines have failed in the last twenty years.  Business in general aviation is almost like asking to fail.  Somehow, though, Norman kept going.  While I worked for Norman I saw dozens of instructor pilots come and go, student pilots get their ratings and hire on as instructors, then leave for charter jobs.  Pilots, most of whom don’t know much about anything other than flying, were always criticizing Norman for the way he ran the business.  I don’t recall ever seeing any of them bring in a single new student pilot, which, somehow, is what Norman managed to do fairly regularly.  Even in the lean times Norman kept the school going and paid his employees regularly.  I have a lot of respect for Norman.  I hope he managed to sell out for something decent and live comfortably.  He sure as hell earned every penny the hard way.

I worked for a firm of lawyers for about six years.  Most law firms are relatively small businesses, a couple of partners, some associates, maybe a paralegal or two, a secretary, perhaps a receptionist if it’s a well-to-do firm.  This too was a family-owned business, and I worked for the family.  No one invested in us.  If people needed the service we provided, they came through the door, and we helped them when we could, and they paid us accordingly.

Most recently I’ve worked for an engineering firm.  I won’t say much about that except this: it’s a small business, family owned, and except recently, with the down-turn of the economy, the only investment that business has had is in the hard work and devotion of its owners, people for whom I have the utmost respect.

So out of a career spanning nearly forty years and I truthfully don’t know how many jobs, almost all of them have been for small businesses that usually were family owned.  One thing I’m sure of: the only investment made in those businesses was by the owners and operators.  I don’t want to get into any discussion of whether they did it themselves; that’s true up to a point, certainly.

My point is this: my experience, this sample of one, is that jobs come more from entrepreneurs and small businesses, people with a dream, if you will, than large businesses.  Does this refute trickle-down economics?  That isn’t my intent.  I think one should consider, however, that the American Dream isn’t about the little guy going to work for the big guy which is the essence of “trickle-down economics” however you look at it.  I’ve worked for people who lived the American Dream, and I sure as hell know the difference.

How about you?

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