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On Wednesday 4 February 1942, 2nd Lieutenant Vern Head and 23 other pilots of the 3rd Pursuit Squadron Provisional received their new P-40E Kittyhawks (Warhawks) at Amberley Airfield, west of Brisbane. 1st Lt. Grant Mahony, the Commanding Officer of the squadron had just received orders to lead his newly formed squadron to Darwin for a later move to Java.

Vern Head felt comfortable that his P-40, No. 27, was in good shape, however he was concerned about many of the other P-40s which had been poorly assembled. It took them all day to get them in some sort of readiness for flying all the way to Darwin.

At 8:30am on 5 February 1942, 1st Lt. Mahony led half of his new squadron and Al Strauss led the other half of the 3rd Pursuit Squadron from Amberley on this first hop to Charleville.

At about 11 am on 5 February 1942, a USAAF P-40 Kittyhawk (Plane No. 13) piloted by 2nd Lieutenant Ralph G. Martin (0-424979) of the 3rd Pursuit Squadron (Provisional) crashed at Charleville Airfield in Queensland. The local Police Sergeant, who witnessed the crash said that the P-40 was one of a flight of fourteen P-40 aircraft (sic 24 P-40) that arrived at Charleville Airfield that morning. They had left Amberley Airfield earlier that morning on their way to Darwin. Charleville was their first refuelling stop. Another group of the remaining P-40s from the 3rd Pursuit Squadron had arrived at Charleville earlier that morning led by 1st Lt. Grant Mahony. 13 Enlisted Men from the Squadron travelled with the P-40s in a C-53 transport.

On the same day, 5 February 1942, a group of seven A-24 Banshees of the 91st Bomb Squadron of the 27th Bomb Group, left Archerfield headed for their first refuelling point at Charleville. A further 8 A-24s left Archerfield for Charleville on 8 February. The 3rd Pursuit Squadron was to escort them to Java from Darwin.

After rolling out barrels of fuel and hand pumping the fuel themselves, the remaining P-40s took off from Charleville at about 1 pm for Cloncurry arriving there at about 4 pm. One of the P-40s flown by Wade Holman turned around for some unknown reason and attempted to return to Amberley Airfield. Holman ended up making emergency landings at Bowenville about 16 miles south east of Dalby and Berrybush about 10 miles SSE of Bowenville. After being repaired it took off again on 20 February 1942 and made a belly landing near Oakey with Lt. Carle Parker Gies at the controls.

Pilot Robert Oestreicher had to hand pump his wheels and flaps down to be able to land safely at Cloncurry. The 13 E.M. who had travelled in the C-53 to Cloncurry met them to look after any servicing issues that were required.

The refuelling crew at Cloncurry were sick, so the E.M. had to hand pump the fuel into their P-40s. They then checked out the 6 A-24s that had also arrived at Cloncurry. One of the A-24s was stuck in Charleville with a sick engine. They then refuelled their C-53 and a B-17 Flying Fortress that had arrived to lead them to Daly Waters the following day. The locals in Cloncurry put on a dance that night for the men of the 3rd Pursuit Squadron and the 91st Bomb Squadron. Some of the Enlisted Men were taken kangaroo shooting that night by the hotel publican.

The next morning, 6 February 1942, the P-40s took off at 8:45 am following the B-17 to Daly Waters. The C-53 travelled with them for a while but then headed directly to Darwin. The P-40s arrived at Daly Waters after a 3 1/2 flight of over 540 miles. Oestreicher had to hand pump his wheels and flaps down again to land.

The first group of 12 P-40s led by Mahony landed at Daly Waters at about 11:30 am. Mahony landed successfully, but the next pilot bounced his P-40 and damaged his aircraft. The next pilot Bryan Brown, approached too low and short of the runway and did not see a barbed wire fence and damaged his left wing. Brown climbed out of his aircraft and waved to Ray Melikian the next pilot about to land who was also too low and landing short. Melikian also hit the barbed wire fence damaged his wing and his aircraft ended up half turned over.

Six of the A-24s of the 91st Bomb Squadron had arrived at Daly Waters without any drama before the P-40s. The next 7 P-40s landed successfully. The last P-40 made five attempts to land. Each time he got down to about 4 to 5 feet off the runway, but would then go around again. The P-40 finally landed without any issues. Brown and Melikian's aircraft were both unable to be repaired and were left behind at Daly Waters. The second pilot who landed used a hammer and a piece of 4 x 2 to bludgeon his aircraft back into a "serviceable" state.

Some short showers passed over as they were refuelling the P40s at Daly Waters. At 5:40pm the remaining 21 P-40s took off to fly the 360 miles north west to Darwin. 10 of the P-40s followed the B-17 and the other 11 followed the railway line that leads to Darwin. The engine in Oestreicher's P-40 started to cut in and out. They flew close and low through several rain squalls and arrived at the RAAF Airfield at Darwin at about 7:40 pm.

2nd Lieutenant Oscar W. A. Handy (0-425080) crashed his P-40 at Darwin Airfield leaving only 20 serviceable aircraft. 2nd Lt Handy later transferred to the 13th Pursuit Squadron.

They were greeted in Darwin by the 13 E.M. who had arrived earlier on the C-53. Ed Bachus and the pilots of the other five remaining A-24s had arrived earlier at 3:20 pm. The officers of the 3rd and 91st slept on the floor of the Officer's Lounge that night and the E.M. of the 3rd slept on the floor of the NCO's mess.

The following day, Saturday 7 February 1942, the men of the 3rd worked on their aircraft most of the day. Most of the aircraft had issues. Bob Buel's P-40 kept burning out generators. Oestreicher's P-40 "Miss Nadine" had engine problems. With the assistance of two squadron privates Oestreicher stripped down his engine and installed a rebuilt carburetor from a damaged P-40 located on the airfield. At about 4:40 pm the remaining 8 A-24s arrived at Darwin Airfield.

The 3rd Pursuit Squadron continued to work on their aircraft on Sunday 8 February 1942. A few aircraft were test flown for short flights. The air raid siren sounded later that afternoon. 40 Japanese bombers were reportedly on their way to bomb Darwin. Mahony ordered 18 of his airworthy P-40s aloft to patrol the area north of Darwin. They flew at a high altitude for three hours and spotted no enemy aircraft. The two squadrons were still awaiting their orders to proceed to Java. Apparently the unavailability of an aircraft to lead them to Koepang was the problem.


Sketch:- Peter Dunn OAM, November 2020

3rd Pursuit Squadron (Provisional) Journey from Amberley to Java


On 9 February 1942, Al Strauss was ready to fly to Koepang  leading a flight of 9 P-40s. 1st Lt. Clyde  Kelsay of the 7th Bomb Group had arrived in Darwin in his LB-30 the previous day to lead the P-40s over the Timor Sea for 540 miles on their way to Java. Three A-24s would also fly with them to Java. The other 9 A-24s would fly to Java the following day. Another Liberator had arrived to lead the C-53 to Java.

The LB-30 and Strauss's 9 P-40s took off at 3:40 pm. 30 minutes into the flight, Fisher broke radio silence to advise he was having engine problems. Fisher returned to Darwin. The three A-24s had fallen back and lost sight of the LB-30. As they approached Timor the weather turned bad. They flew into a large tropical rainstorm with clouds up to 30 to 40 thousand feet. They flew close to the LB-30 which eventually started to circle lower looking for Koepang through the clouds. Kelsay in the LB-30 eventually gave up and led the P-40s westwards looking for an alternative landing location at Atambua. Pete Childress's P-40 was down to 30 minutes of fuel left.

With only about 5 minutes of fuel left, they found what appeared to be a good level grass field to land on. Strauss buzzed the field and landed with his wingman Bruce Erwin following in behind him. Pete Childress who was very low on fuel and about to land was horrified when he observed that both Strauss and Erwin had somersaulted on landing. Childress went around and climbed to 2,000 feet assuming that the first two pilots to land had probably been killed. Childress inverted his P-40 and parachuted out of it. Childress landed badly, flat on his face. After unhooking his parachute harness he ran over to the two crashed P-40s.

Both aircraft had broken in half behind the cockpit. Both aircraft were covered in mud and debris and in about 8 inches of water. They had landed in a swamp. Childress was relieved to find both pilots still alive. Strauss had a badly bruised nose and Erwin had a cut on his forehead from when it hit the gunsight. Childress found two other pilots Lloyd Carlos and John Lewis with Strauss and Erwin. Both being very low on fuel performed successful wheels up landings with no damage to themselves and minimal damage to their P-40s.

Kelsay in the escort LB30 above, thought they had all landed successfully and his crew threw out some survival equipment for the five pilots below and then headed back to Darwin. As the five pilots started to wonder what to do next, they heard three Lockheed Hudsons flying over them. The five men headed towards the coast before it got dark.

The other three P40s flown by Vern Head, Tom Christian and Phil Metsker, after witnessing the debacle below, decided to follow the LB-30 inland towards Atambua. Vern Head had only five minutes of fuel left. After not finding the auxiliary airfield at Atambua, he turned back to the coast where he attempted a wheels down landing. It was going well until he spotted a tree which he tried to avoid. Whilst trying to miss the tree by using his rudder, his wheels dug in and flipped the P-40 on its back. Vern cut his lip badly on the gun sight. He managed to extricate himself from the wrecked P-40 and saw a young native boy nearby watching him.

Vern followed the boy to a small shack where he tried to put bandages on his bleeding lip. Tom Christian had followed Vern Head to the beach and saw the crash landing. He decided not to risk it and bailed out of his P-40 landing near the native village.

The other Pilot Phil Metsker ran out of fuel and bailed out. Unluckily he broke his neck when his head struck the tailplane whilst exiting the aircraft. His parachute did not open and he was killed instantly when he hit the ground.

The group of 13 Enlisted Men of the 3rd Pursuit Squadron led by Cecil Ingram had different problems. They had left Darwin that afternoon (9 February 1942) in their C-53 and and about one hour and two hundred miles out of Darwin their B-24A escort aircraft piloted by Captain Paul Davis, encountered three Japanese Zeros closing in on them from behind. Captain Davis performed a 45 degree dive and entered some clouds and exited the clouds about 100 feet above the sea and continued at that altitude. There were no Zeros in sight. When Davis reached East Java he was not able to locate Ngoro Airfield to disembark his 13 passengers. He then headed north east to Soerabaja and landed at Perak Airfield.

At 4:30pm on Tuesday 10 February 1942, Grant Mahony led his group of 9 P-40s out of Darwin headed for Java. Lt. Robert G. Oestreicher and Lt. Robert J. Buel were left behind in Darwin with their 2 unserviceable P-40 aircraft when the rest of the 3rd Pursuit Squadron left for Koepang, Java. Mahony's flight comprised:-

Grant Mahony
Ben Irvin
Morris "Moe" Caldwell
Gene Wahl
Frank Adkins
Bob Dockstader
Hal Lund

Their Commanding Officer, Grant Mahony was very familiar with flying in the Philippines area in 1940 and 1941 and felt he would not need a mother ship to lead his group to Koepang which he planned to find by dead reckoning. The group reached Penfui Airfield at Koepang just before sunset after a 3 hour flight in good weather. They learnt after they had landed that the other flight of nine had lost all their aircraft the previous day due to bad weather and Phil Metsker had been tragically killed.



"Every Day a Nightmare - American Pursuit Pilots in the Defense of Java, 1941 - 1942"
by William H. Bartsch



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This page first produced 10 September

This page last updated 22 November 2020