Historical obscurity still attends some of the details of these flights, largely because the Wake Island to Port Moresby sector of 14 hours took the B-17D bombers (illegally) over the Japanese mandated territory of the Caroline Islands.
Given the other imperatives faced by Australia and New Zealand in the war against Germany, the limited defence resources allocated to the region were considered appropriate. However, this attitude underwent a fundamental change in the months leading up to the Pacific War. As explained by Michael Claringbould and Peter Ingman in their book South Pacific Air War Volume 1, in 1941 the US changed its defence policy in respect to the Philippines, believing the territory was defendable by its new Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers.
Whilst it was apparent that these bombers had sufficient range to fly across the Pacific to the Philippines, between Hawaii and Australia virtually no airfield infrastructure had been developed since Kingsford-Smith’s pioneering flight in 1928. In fact, the first aircraft to fly the entire US—Australia route since then were the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Catalinas on their 1941 delivery flights.
While the US scrambled to develop airfields on various Pacific islands, the RAAF had already begun developing strips at several locations — including Port Moresby, Rabaul and New Caledonia — for its newly acquired Lockheed Hudsons. With New Zealand construction efforts also underway in Fiji, US engineers were pleased to discover much work had already been done in the South Pacific towards a transpacific air route.
In September 1941 nine B-17D Flying Fortresses became the first heavy bombers to arrive in the Philippines via the “Pacific Route.” This inaugural Pacific delivery flight was remarkable, incorporating similar navigational challenges as had cost the life of aviatrix Amelia Earhart some five years previously (Earhart had disappeared while on an easterly transpacific flight, after leaving Lae in New Guinea). The B-17 crews were inexperienced, and none had attempted such long-distance flights before.
Historical obscurity still attends some of the details of these flights, largely because the Wake Island to Port Moresby sector of 14 hours took the bombers (illegally) over the Japanese mandated territory of the Caroline Islands. For this reason, the sector was flown at night, with no running lights and at 25,000 feet. Maintaining radio silence, crews nervously manned their 0.50 calibre guns. However, all aircraft made it past Japanese territory safely to land at Port Moresby’s Seven-Mile Drome around midday on Sep. 8, 1941.
The Seven-Mile field was rough, recently graded by RAAF engineers, and the Fortresses’ undercarriage hydraulic suppressors were tested to the limit when the bombers landed and taxied in. The first people to greet each bomber as it shut down were “fuzzy-wuzzy” refuellers, with red lotus blossoms stuck in their hair behind each ear. Their only clothing was a “lava-lava” long skirt waist cloth, however, and at least one diarist wrote that he found them “huge and terrifying.”
These locals proceeded to hand-pump 3,200 gallons of fuel into each aircraft from 55-gallon (US) drums — a task that took over four hours per bomber. After a day’s rest, courtesy of RAAF hospitality, the nine departed for Darwin on Sep. 10. The bombers eventually reached Clark Field in the Philippines without major incident, thus proving the Pacific Route. The Washington establishment was clearly pleased with the outcome, for every crew member was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for the achievement. In November another 26 B-17s made the same flight.
South Pacific Air War Volume 1 is published by Casemate Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force