Supplying the B-17 Flying Fortress squadrons in South Pacific added a whole dimension of challenge.
Cactus Air Force refers to the ensemble of Allied air power assigned to the island of Guadalcanal from August 1942 to December 1942 during the early stages of the Guadalcanal Campaign, particularly those operating from Henderson Field. The term “Cactus” comes from the Allied code name for the island.
As told by Eric Hammel and Thomas McKelvey Cleaver in their book The Cactus Air Force, the first component of the future Cactus Air Force to reach Aircraft South Pacific (AirSoPac) was the Seventh Air Force’s 11th Heavy Bombardment Group, equipped with the Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress. Its members were trained and initially deployed to undertake search-reconnaissance flights and/or maritime long-range bombing missions. On Jun. 20, 1942, the day Brigadier General Willis Hale assumed command of the Seventh Air Force, the count of operational, relatively modern B-17Es was 63: 47 on Oahu and 16 on Midway.
On Jul. 4, 1942, Colonel LaVerne G. “Blondie” Saunders’ 11th Bomb Group was selected to supply an advance force of 107 carefully selected ground crew for duty in Fiji and the New Hebrides. The group’s flight echelon, 35 B-17Es equipped with the new “ball” turret in their belly as replacement for the useless remote-control turret, was to follow after the ground echelon had reached the new stations, with 27 B-17s based on New Caledonia and eight at Nandi, on Viti Levu, Fiji’s main island and administrative center.
On Jul. 21, the 11th Bomb Group’s 98th Heavy Bombardment Squadron arrived at New Caledonia’s new Plaines des Gaiacs airdrome, followed by the 42nd Bomb Squadron. Completing the group’s redeployment to SoPac, the 431st Bomb Squadron arrived in Fiji on Jul. 24, and the 26th Bomb Squadron arrived at Plaines des Gaiacs on Jul. 25.
Supplying the B-17 squadrons in SoPac added a whole dimension of challenge. The Navy took on the responsibility to provide aviation gasoline and ammunition. The first shipment was 300,000 gallons of fuel, which was estimated to be enough for two weeks of flying plus a 100-percent coverage for emergency use. The entire load lasted just ten days. Realizing that they were vulnerable to the vagaries of shipping schedules, the supply sections anticipated a long wait for more fuel, but 3,000 drums miraculously arrived aboard the cargo ship Nira Luckenbach in time to prevent the patrol schedule from going awry. When Nira Luckenbach arrived, the steel drums were dumped over the ship’s side and floated ashore in nets, where they were hand-rolled up under the trees, then dispersed in dumps of 20–30 drums. They were then loaded on trucks, rolled up on stands, and emptied into the tank wagons which serviced aircraft. There were no gas trucks or trailers.
Loading fuel aboard the bombers was a practical improbability that was nonetheless accomplished, somehow. For the 26th Squadron’s Aug. 7 search missions from Efate, all hands – including Blondie Saunders, the group’s commanding officer, and Brigadier General William C. Rose, commander of Army troops on Efate and Espiritu Santo – turned out in a heavy rainstorm on Aug. 6 to man a literal bucket brigade that required 20 hours of backbreaking struggle to hand-fill the fuel tanks of the B-17s with 25,000 gallons of avgas.
Working and living conditions throughout SoPac’s front-line holdings were horrific, nothing short of appalling. Nine maintenance men accompanied the nine 26th Squadron B-17s, and they doubled as ground crew. The 26th owed a debt of gratitude to the African-American enlisted men of the 24th Infantry Regiment, who helped service the planes and even improvised spare parts in their machine shop. The airmen on Efate messed with artillerymen, while on Espiritu Santo the entire 98th Squadron, including Colonel Saunders, slept under trees or the wings of their bombers, or in the Forts themselves. In addition to their full flying schedule, the combat aircrewmen undertook a large share of maintenance and servicing of their airplanes.
The aircraft revetments were hacked out of the jungle and were barely deep enough to keep a B-17’s nose off the runway. They were so narrow a crewman had to stand at each wing tip to guide the pilots out to the short taxiway, then stay on the wing to keep the bomber from hitting the trees that bordered the taxiway while moving toward the runway. The runway had no lights; for pre-dawn takeoffs, bottles of oil with paper wicks were placed along the runway so their flickering light could mark the runway boundary, while parked jeeps with their headlights on marked the runway’s end.
The machine shop on Admiral McCain’s flagship Curtiss was enlisted to build an array of replacement parts and devices for the bombers, but complicated tools such as navigation aids had to come from sources outside the combat region, often with long delays and scheduling headaches. Engine changes and other heavy maintenance had to be handled at Nandi (most rearward of the 11th Group’s bases), where the port and airfield facilities were reasonably modern and mud free. But there was no way to build new spare engines in-theater, and resupply of new engines from outside SoPac was difficult to contemplate, much less schedule. Improvisation only got the 11th so far; more and more of its B-17s had to be sidelined to await critical replacement parts or cannibalized to keep others flying.
The Cactus Air Force is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force