B-17 in Pacific Theatre

Last revised September 1, 1999






The following is an account of the B-17's service in the Pacific theatre of operations.

In early December of 1941 immediately prior to Pearl Harbor, there were 13 USAAC heavy bomber groups, but most of them were far below the 32-plane strength that had been authorized. Many of the groups were equipped with Douglas B-18s, a military version of the DC-2 commercial transport which even before the war had been recognized as being thoroughly obsolescent. Only some 150 B-17s were on hand, most of them being small-tailed B-17C and D versions, although a very few B-17Es were available as well.

In response to the growing crisis in the Pacific, most B-17s had been deployed overseas. The 6th Bombardment Group based in the Canal Zone had eight B-17Bs and received eight new B-17Es in the first week in December. The 42nd Reconnaissance Squadron based in Newfoundland had six B-17Bs. The 7th Bombardment Group based at Salt Lake City, Utah had 35 new-model B-17Es, but preparations were under way for this outfit to be shipped out to the Far East. Six B-17Cs and 29 B-17Ds were serving with the 19th Bombardment Group based in the Philippines. The 14th Squadron of the 19th Bombardment Group had been transferred to the Philippines in September of 1941 in a spectacular trans-Pacific flight to Clark Field, and two more squadrons had flown to the Philippines in October. The 5th Bombardment Group based at Hickam Field, Hawaii had 12 B-17Ds. The other six heavy bomber groups in the USAAC were equipped with a total of 12 YB-17s, 22 B-17Bs, and five B-17Cs.

The B-17 was to achieve its first taste of combat in American hands at Pearl Harbor. On December 7, The 38th Reconnaissance Squadron with four B-17Cs and two new B-17Es was inbound from Hamilton Field, California to Pearl Harbor on their way to the Philippines to reinforce the American force there. None were armed. They arrived at Pearl Harbor at the height of the attack (radar operators mistakenly thought that the Japanese attack force was this flight arriving from California). Some of the planes managed to land at a short fighter strip at Haleiwa, one set down on a golf course, and the remainder landed at Hickam under the strafing of Japanese planes.

Twelve B-17Ds of the 5th Bombardment Group were parked on the ground at Hickam Field during the attack. Five of these B-17s were destroyed, and eight were damaged.

The B-17Es of the 7th Bombardment Group based at Salt Lake City, Utah left Utah on December 5 for deployment to the Far East. Six of them arrived in Hawaii just after the Pearl Harbor attack, but the rest of them were ordered to remain in the USA to defend California against the Japanese threat, since in the hysteria of the moment the Japanese fleet was expected to show up off Santa Barbara at any time. Only 19 B-17Bs could be spared to be sent to Spokane to help defend the Northwest, and two B-17Bs were sent to Alaska.

News of the Pearl Harbor attack was received at about 3 AM on Dec 8 in the Philippines. According to the previously-agreed upon plan, if hostilities were to break out, an attack on Japanese bases in Formosa was to be immediately carried out by the 19th Bombardment Group's Fortresses. On Dec 8, there were 35 USAAC B-17s in the Philippines, with two squadrons at Clark Field on Luzon with a total of 19 planes, and two squadrons at Del Monte on Mindanao 500 miles to the south with the other 16 B-17s.

For reasons which are still unclear even today, the planned raid on Formosa was delayed. Instead, in order to prevent them from being destroyed on the ground by a Japanese air attack, all flyable B-17s based at Clark Field had been ordered into the air and to patrol the waters around Luzon. In the meantime, General Lewis H. Brereton, General MacArthur's air commander, finally got approval to carry out the strike against Japanese bases on Formosa, and the B-17s were recalled to Clark. When the Fortresses returned to Clark, three of them were equipped with cameras for reconnaissance and the remainder were loaded up with 100-lb and 300-lb bombs in preparation for the planned mission to Formosa.

The three reconnaissance B-17s were taxiing out for the initial photographic mission to Formosa when about 200 Japanese aircraft struck. Unfortunately, all the P-40 fighters had been recalled for refuelling and were on the ground. The attack was devastating. All except one of the B-17s were destroyed or damaged on the ground. The sole survivor had not taken off on the morning alert, and had been taken up in the air while the rest were being prepared for the Formosa raid. The Fortresses at Del Monte 500 miles to the south were out of range of the Zeros from Formosa and were left untouched.

At Clark Field, three or four of the damaged B-17s were put back into service. They were joined by the B-17s from Del Monte. By December 9, reconnaissance missions were being undertaken by the 19th Bombardment Group in search of the Japanese fleet.

On December 10, a Japanese convoy was spotted, and five B-17s were dispatched. This was the first American bombardment mission of World War II. No fighter opposition was encountered, and some hits were recorded on the transports.

That same day, a B-17C piloted by Captain Colin P. Kelly dropped bombs from high altitude on what the crew thought to be a Japanese battleship. Hits were recorded, and a tremendous explosion was observed. Kelly's plane was immediately pounced upon by Zeros, one of which was flown by Saburo Sakai, who was later to become a famous ace. Kelly guided his heavily-damaged plane back towards Clark Field. He ordered the crew to parachute to safety, but before Kelly himself could leave, the aircraft exploded and Kelly was killed.

When the surviving crew was questioned, the report was flashed out that they had sunk the battleship Haruna, and the mission was hailed as a great victory. Captain Kelly was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by President Franklin Roosevelt for his heroism, and was written up in glowing press reports. However, information revealed in the immediate postwar years revealed that the Haruna was nowhere near the area at that time and that the ship most likely struck was the cruiser Ashigari, and it was only fairly lightly damaged by the attack.

By December 14, out of the original 35 B-17s in the Philippines, only 14 remained. They were all stationed at Del Monte, hopefully out of range of Japanese aircraft. Beginning on December 17, the surviving B-17s based there began to be evacuated to Batchelor Field near Darwin, Australia.

The first mission out of Australia took place on December 22, with 9 B-17s taking part. It was an attack on Japanese shipping at Davao. They landed at Del Monte on Mindanao, which was still in American hands.

On that same day, Japanese forces landed on Luzon, and quickly advanced on Manila, driving MacArthur's forces onto Bataan and then to Corregidor.

It seemed at the time that the Japanese were advancing just about everywhere. The 19th Bombardment Group based in Australia moved up to Java in an attempt to stop the Japanese advance. They were joined in January by the B-17Es and LB-30s of the 7th Bombardment Group. The small force of B-17s could do very little to stem the tide of the Japanese advance, launching valiant but futile attacks against the masses of Japanese shipping. The 7th Bombardment Group was withdrawn to India in March of 1942, leaving the 19th to carry on as the only Fortress-equipped group in the South Pacific.

The Japanese regarded the B-17 as a tough and well-armed opponent, one that was particularly difficult to shoot down. It could absorb an incredible amount of battle damage and still remain flying. It was the most feared and respected American aircraft during the early stage of the war in the Pacific. However, the early B-17s were insufficiently protected against attacks from the immediate rear, a deficiency that the Japanese were quickly to learn to exploit. Fortress pilots were able to compensate somewhat for this weakness by jinking their planes back and forth when attacked from the rear, giving the left and right waist gunners alternatively a shot at the approaching aircraft.

The newer large-tailed B-17Es began to join the depleted force of earlier-model B-17s in the Pacific. The tail gunner of the B-17E was an unpleasant surprise for the Japanese, who had become accustomed to attacking the Fortress from the rear. The crews of pre-B-17E Fortresses often adopted the expediency of rigging sticks in the rear of their planes, hoping to convince the Japanese attackers that tail guns were actually fitted to these planes as well. However, it soon became clear that the remotely-controlled belly turret of the B-17E did not work very well, the complicated system of mirrors being so confusing to the gunner that he could not see anything at all. It was soon replaced on the production line by the famous ball turret.

In March of 1942, A B-17E flew General MacArthur out of Del Monte airfield in the Philippines and evacuated him to Australia. The Philippines fell to the Japanese shortly thereafter.

In Hawaii, the B-17E-equipped 5th and 11th Bombardment Groups were used in the Battle of Midway to attack Japanese surface fleets. High-altitude bombing attacks against moving ships capable of evasive action proved to be completely unsuccessful at Midway. Although several attacks were made by the B-17s, none of their bombs actually hit a single Japanese ship. An attack against naval vessels at sea was found to be a job best done by low-altitude medium bombers or by dive bombers.

By August of 1942, the 43rd Bombardment Group in Australia had become the fifth B-17E group to be deployed against Japan. The 5th Bombardment Group carried out air search duties from bases in Hawaii, and was transferred to the South West Pacific in time to participate in the drive from the Solomons back to the Philippines. The 11th and 43rd Bombardment group retrained on B-24s early in 1943.

By mid-1943, most Fortresses had been withdrawn from the Pacific in favor of the longer-ranged B-24 Liberator. The B-24 was better suited for operations in the Pacific, having a higher speed and a larger bombload at medium altitudes. In addition, the losses in Europe were reaching such magnitudes that the entire B-17 production was urgently needed for replacements and training in that theatre. Shortly after the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, it was decided that no more B-17s would be sent to the Pacific. It was to be in the European theatre of operations that the B-17 was to gain its reputation. In fact, the B-17 flew 98 percent of its combat sorties in Europe.

The only Clark Field B-17 to survive the war was *Swoose* (40-3097). It was basically a B-17D but was equipped with parts scavenged from several other B-17s, hence its name, which stood for a cross between a swan and a goose. As newer, more capable B-17s became available, 40-3097 was used as a personal transport by LtGen George H. Brett, the deputy commander of Allied forces in Australia. During its career, it ferried around a lot of VIPs, including a young Congressman from Texas named Lyndon Johnson, who was then on active duty as a Navy lieutenant commander. *Swoose* is now with the Smithsonian Institution and is in storage somewhere at the Paul Garber restoration facility in Suitland, Maryland awaiting restoration.

Sources:

  1. Flying Fortress, Edward Jablonski, Doubleday, 1965.

  2. Famous Bombers of the Second World War, Volume One, William Green, Doubleday, 1959.

  3. Boeing Aircraft Since 1916, Peter M. Bowers, Naval Institute Press, 1989.

  4. United States Military Aircraft Since 1909, Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers, Smithsonian, 1989.

  5. Boeing B-17E and F Flying Fortress, Charles D. Thompson, Profile Publications, 1966.

  6. American Combat Planes, Ray Wagner, Third Edition, Doubleday, 1982.

  7. Jane's Fighting Aircraft of World War II, Military Press, 1989.

  8. American Caesar--Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964, William Manchester, Little, Brown, 1978.

  9. Final Cut: The Postwar B-17 Flying Fortress: The Survivors, Scott A. Thompson, Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1993.

  10. E-mail from Brent Theobald on Colin Kelly.