After its initial success in Southeast Asia, the Japanese military turned their attention to Australia and the port city of Darwin located in Australia’s Northern Territory. The first two raids were very successful for the Japanese. A hospital, airfield, docks, and ships all took damage, and the loss of life was substantial.
The day was not going well for the Curtiss P-40 Warhawks based in the city, with several being caught on the ground and there was little success in the air. A flight of five were bounced by Japanese Zero’s and four were shot down.
The remaining P-40 flown by Robert Oestreicher had escaped into cloud cover. When he emerged, he came across two Japanese Val’s and succeeded in shooting one down and damaging the other.
The Japanese also attacked the town of Broome and considering the vast territory the Japanese had been amassing across the Pacific, it is little wonder that a state of panic was sweeping Australia. The upshot was that aircrew and aircraft were being brought up to a much higher state of readiness.
The fighting that took place around Darwin was often hard fought. Capt. Robert Morrissey shot down a Zero, as did his wingman Lt. House. House, whose guns had jammed, saw that his leader was in trouble with a Zero and proceeded to ram the enemy plane. The Zero crashed and the P-40, even though damaged, managed to return to base, albeit with difficulty and a hair-raising landing.
The battle on the 14th of March had ended with five enemy planes shot down with the loss of only one P-40, but several others had been heavily damaged and this effectively removed the 7th PS from service until repairs could be made.
On the 22nd of March, a Japanese Ki-15 Recon plane was sighted and four P-40’s were sent to deal with it. Two pilots engaged the aircraft and it was sent down. They decided to flip a coin to see who would get the kill. It went to Lt. Steven “Polly” Poleschuk. This ended up being his only kill of the war. A large battle on the 31st of March saw P-40s engaging Betty bombers and Zeroes.
Final kill figures for the battle have been debated. At the time, nine kills were credited, but now it’s believed to be only four or five. Either way, it was a good day for the P-40 pilots, with Andrew Reynolds being credited with two kills.
This was enough to make him an Ace with five and a half kills. The day was marred, however, by another friendly fire incident; J Livingstone and Grover Gardner were hit returning to base. Gardner bailed safely from his fighter, but Livingstone was killed.
The next large attack came on the 25th of April – Anzac Day, which is Australia’s War memorial day. On that day, fifty P-40s would take to the air to meet the attackers. Jim Morehead, who had flown in the Java campaign, was credited with three kills – added to his current two this was enough to make him an Ace. The 8th PS was credited with eleven kills from the engagement and the 7th PS with a single Zero shot down by Bill Hennon.
Between this raid and one soon after, the P-40 losses were four with two pilots killed and two wounded. The Japanese attacked from the 13th-16th June and lost fifteen aircraft, while the Allies lost nine P-40s, but only one pilot killed.
During July, the Japanese started to bomb at night and with the fighting in New Guinea drawing more resources from the Japanese military, the focus on Darwin started to lessen. Andy Reynolds would add another to his tally, giving him 9.3, and Jack Donalson, who had flown in the Philippines, shot down a Zero to give him five kills and Ace status. By the end of the Darwin campaign, seventy-eight enemy aircraft had gone down to P-40 pilots.
The P-40 New Guinea Campaign
The 11th of March saw the invasion of New Guinea by Japanese forces. Its location was vital. If the Japanese could take it, then they were in a strong position for launching an invasion of Australia.
Allied ground troops were making a strong fight of it though and the Japanese advance was anything but easy. No 75 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) was fighting tooth and nail over the skies of Port Moresby.
For forty-four days the Australians made the skies very unfriendly for the Japanese pilots. On the 25th of April, the Aussies got some reinforcements in the form of US P-39s and P-40s.
Bill Hennon of the 7th Fighter Squadron also arrived on the 14th of September and started to fly operations almost immediately. The 1st of November saw P-40s clashing with Zeros. After an initial attack, which sent one P-40 down, the rest made a fight of it. Dick Dennis was credited with a Zero kill, as was Bill Day. Day would get Ace status before being lost in action.
On the 22 November, the 7th FS scored two kills while also losing two P-40s, with one of the pilots killed. They again engaged the enemy on November 30th while providing escort. The Zeros got in a good initial attack which destroyed two P-40’s and killed both pilots, but in the fight that followed, the Japanese lost several of their number with no more Allied losses.
The 7th December 1942 was a good day for the P-40 pilots and the land battle was not going well for the Japanese. They sent a large bomber force to attack allied ground forces. This force was met by the 7th FS and Frank Nichols scored a kill with a head-on pass.
A second bomber was lost and the remaining aircraft ditched their bombs and turned for home. Unfortunately for them, they were met by eight fighters of the 9th FS, led by Bob Vaught, a veteran of both the Java and Darwin campaigns. He pressed the attack in his fighter, nicknamed “Bobs Robin,” and got two kills (his 2nd and 3rd).
More bombers fell to the P-40s before the bomber escorts were in a position to engage. The P-40s then disengaged from the fight and were more than happy with the outcome. On the 26th December, the Japanese attacked Dobodura and engaged some RAAF Hudsons that were trying to land.
Luckily the 9th FS was already airborne and could attack the Ki-43 Oscars. Five P-40s claimed single kills during the battle. During the battle, John Landers found himself in the unpleasant position of being alone with six Oscars. He managed to down two of them before his P-40 was fatally hit and he was forced to bail out. He was met on the ground by natives. With the two kills, it took his tally to six and Ace status.
Re-equipping Fighter Squadrons
As 1943 came, the pressure was being applied to the Japanese forces, who had now taken on a defensive position. The 9th FS would trade in their P-40s for the remarkable twin-engine P-38 Lightning. One unusual mission required the P-40s to bomb a Japanese convoy, not something the pilots had any experience doing, and only one ship, the Myoko Maru was hit. While damaged, it still managed to reach the safety of port.
The 49th FG moved closer to the front line, which gave them more time on target, but also aroused the interest of Japanese bombers. A large battle erupted on the 11th of April which resulted in two Val dive bombers being destroyed by the 7th FS and 7 by the 8th FS. Ernie Harries got three kills which took him to seven kills and Ace.
A further five enemy aircraft were shot down on the 12th of April. On the 14th of May, a large force of enemy aircraft targeted the airbase at Dobodura and the nearby docks. Around fifty aircraft took part in the attack; a mix of Betty Bombers and Zero fighters. The P-38s of the 9th FS were already harassing the Japanese formations as the P-40s arrived. When it was over, the 7th FS had destroyed five and the 8th an amazing thirteen.
Considering the P-40 was inferior to many of its opponents, the pilots and support crews had done an amazing job. The 7th and 8th FS had destroyed eighty-seven enemy aircraft at a loss of just five pilots killed in action. They were really hoping for P-38s when news came down that they were going to be re-equipped. In the end, they got the latest mark of P-40 and while it was an improvement it didn’t make many pilots happy.
Only the 35th FS/8th FG was excited about it. They had been flying P-39 Airacobras and they disliked them immensely. They had a total of twenty-three kills from April 1942 and had only managed one kill during the first six months of 1943. With their new mounts, they destroyed three Betty bombers and a single Ki-61 Tony fighter on the 6th of September.
On the 22nd they would get seven kills. When the 2nd of January 1944 came, the 35th got involved in a battle with forty enemy aircraft. They shot down nineteen; Bill Gardner and Lynn Witt Jr had three kills apiece; Bud Pool had two kills and Lee Everhart’s two kills gave him a total of five and Ace. In February 1944, the 35th re-equipped with P-38s.
For their time in P-40s, they had a total of sixty-five confirmed kills. The 7th and 8th FS had continued to fight on with several pilots reaching the status of Ace. Jim Hagerstrom with six kills, Arland Stanton with five kills, and Bob DeHaven and Ernie Harris both had ten kills.
Warhawk becomes a Legend
The P-40 wasn’t the best fighter in the Pacific and it wasn’t the sexiest, but it was in harm’s way when nothing else was available and stayed in service longer than it should have.
Yet in the hands of a skilled and determined pilot and a great ground crew, the P-40 could beat anything that the Japanese sent against it.