Aerial warfare in the South Pacific from December 1941 until early March 1942 saw air operations by both sides became a daily occurrence. As Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) flying boats and land-based bombers penetrated over vast distances, a few under-strength squadrons of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) put up a spirited fight.
However, it was the supreme power of aircraft carriers that had the biggest impact.
In February 1942, US Navy (USN) ships were en route to the Fiji area, including a carrier task force. As told by Michael Claringbould and Peter Ingman in their book South Pacific Air War Volume 1, to watch over them, the USN was assigned 12 US Army Air Corps (USAAC) B-17E Flying Fortresses for the task. With their long range, these heavy bombers would be ideal for Pacific service. The aircraft allocated comprised an eclectic collection purloined from Hawaii’s 7th Air Force; six from rom the 88th Reconnaissance Squadron (RS), one from the 38’s RS and five from the Bombardment Squadron (BS). The redrawn composite squadron was designated the 14th RS, their fundamental objective being the protection of shipping supply lines to Australia.
About half of these bombers wore the most unusual B-17 livery of the war — known as the Hawaiian Air Depot scheme. Subsequent to the Pearl Harbor attack, it was decided that all Fortresses based in Hawaii needed more effective camouflage than the factory-applied USAAC olive drab scheme. This resulted in the rushed implementation of an unofficial camouflage scheme to all Fortresses then stationed at Hickam Field, and others that passed through the Hawaiian Air Depot (HAD) throughout December 1941. Due to its ad hoc nature, neither official orders nor technical specifications exist for the scheme that consisted of five topside colours: olive drab, dark sand, rust brown, light sand and blue grey.
The colours were chosen on the simple basis of the availability of paint stocks at the depot at the time. Unusually, all HAD aircraft also carried the distinctive USAAC red and white striped rudder, without the prewar dark blue leading edge, and with “US ARMY” painted in large letters in dark blue on wing under-surfaces. On all 14’s RS Fortresses this distinctive rudder marking would be painted over in olive drab a few weeks after arrival in Australia, as it was judged the marking made the aircraft stand out too much.
The fledgling colourful squadron was led by 28-year-old Major Richard “Dick” Carmichael, a graduate of the University of Texas and a “ring knocker” — a Westpointer. Carmichael carried a sobering memory — when previously deputy commander of the 11’s BS, he and his commanding officer had suffered a boating misfortune in Lake Yellowstone, which drowned his superior. Carmichael had barely lived to tell the tale by gripping the hull for hours before being rescued. He was later appointed into the top job.
Launching from Hickam Field, the multicoloured Fortresses staged their way to Nadi airfield on Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu. There an expansive runway enjoyed the distant backdrop of picturesque, rising, green karst escarpment and a distinct colonial ambiance. From this New Zealand-managed field, the Fortresses would fly a series of extended search and reconnaissance to 700-miles range.
In mid-February, the B-17s flew 16 missions in five days.
South Pacific Air War Volume 1 is published by Casemate Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Casemate and War Thunder
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