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Bartsch, William H. Every Day a Nightmare: American Pursuit Pilots in the Defense of Java, 1941-1942. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2010

ISBN 978-1-60344-176-6
xxii + 506 pages

Foreword; Preface; Acknowledgments; Abbreviations and Acronyms; Prologue; photos; maps; Epilogue; Notes; Sources; Index

Appendices: Fifteen appendices of pilots, personnel, and Japanese aircraft shot down or badly damaged

   Bartsch opens Every Day a Nightmare with introductory material about the path to war in the Pacific in 1941, noting in passing how Secretary of State Cordell Hull's maladroit diplomacy on 26 November 1941 upset the timetable of General George Marshall's carefully orchestrated buildup of forces in the Philippine Islands. Japanese Premier Tojo incorrectly interpreted Hull's note as an ultimatum, setting in motion the December attacks that struck before American reinforcements had deployed in the Philippines. Bartsch doesn't address the issue of whether that was a curse or a blessing. All those troops, planes, and equipment might have been enough to stave off defeat in the islands, or they might simply have been destroyed there and thus become unavailable for subsequent operations.
   What Bartsch really cares about is not the adroitness of anyone's plans, but the accelerated shipment of "pursuit" (fighter) aircraft and pilots to the Far East in the last quarter of 1941. Those pilots, and not the machinations of Tojo, Marshall, Hull, or anyone else, remain the focal point throughout the book.
   Following material about outbreak of the war, Bartsch moves his narrative quickly to Hamilton Field north of San Francisco where young USAAF pilots in October 1941 cut cards to see who would be chosen to fill the limited slots for transport to the Far East. These are some of the men who will play leading roles in the book. One who didn't make the cut, because he was hospitalized at the time, was Jim "Wildman" Morehead. Like most of the others, Morehead reappears later in this book (and the so-called wildman also wrote his own story, In My Sights).
   Those who shipped out on 21 November joined the Pensacola convoy, heading for the Philippines—although they didn't know it at the time—via Hawaii. En route to Fiji after a stop in Honolulu, the troops and airmen at sea learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At that point, with Marshall's plans upset—although, again, they didn't know it at the time—the fates of the young pilots took a turn. As did the Pensacola convoy.
   In a flurry of names and squadrons, Bartsch introduces in his first chapters the men who will play important roles in the defense of the East Indies. In a mad scramble to assemble aircraft, pilots, and groundcrew in December, the Pensacola convoy was diverted to Brisbane, California-based air units were robbed of trained flying officers, and more transports put to sea as quickly as possible. Brisbane temporarily became the center of action—or inaction—as planes were slowly assembled and a program of training for the green pilots got underway. Meanwhile, a handful of veteran pilots from the Philippines arrived in Brisbane with orders to begin ferrying fighters back to the front. Bartsch describes all the comings and goings and shenanigans of pilots in much detail, inventorying, for example, the precise personal liquor consignment taken to sea by one of the pilots and noting the rapid amorous successes of another in Australia.
   While the Yanks were taking advantage of the lodging, liquor, and ladies Down Under, before all the fighters were uncrated and assembled, and before the air training program was fully underway, Japanese landing forces captured Tarakan and Manado in the East Indies. This move severed the air ferry route between Australia and the beleaguered Philippines for short-range planes. American airpower accumulating from Brisbane to Darwin in preparation for movement to Luzon suddenly received a new mission: Move to Java and defend the Dutch East Indies.
   After a few pages sorting out the overall situation, Bartsch returns to the stories of individual USAAF airmen, his main concern throughout the book.

   After breakfast on Wednesday morning the Polk pilots and enlisted men were ordered to fall in and march up the road from the camp to hear a talk by a U.S. Army colonel. Thinking they were not going far, Hague came out of his tent with moccasins and no socks for what turned out to be about a mile long walk in very dusty sand. When they were assembled before the cavalry colonel, they were given a lecture about the dangers of the "spy system" set up in Australia concerning movements of U.S. troops into Australia. The colonel informed them that the coast guard had found a packet on the beach of all the messages from the Republic back and forth to other ships of the Pensacola convoy while it was at sea. He also told them that a few nights earlier a Tokyo broadcast had given the number of men, name of their outfits, and other pertinent information on all the men in Australia and the theater of war at the time. In conclusion, the colonel warned them "to keep our mouths shut." George Parker was displeased that they were having to take orders from a cavalry colonel. To him there seemed to be "no definite Air Corps organization" there. Parker and the others were angry about the "inefficient" setup. They were hoping that a ranking Air Corps officer would show up soon to take command of them.
   Later that day the crew chiefs and armorers of the combat team left Camp Ascot for Amberley Field in order to begin assembling their fifty-five P-40Es. It was beginning to look like the pilots would soon be taking to the air again. "We all want to see some action," George Parker wrote in his diary that evening. Rumor had it that they would only be remaining at Ascot a few more days. Head had met some of the fellows evacuated from the Philippines who had come down to the camp. He also talked to an old friend from Hamilton Field days, Robert "Blackie" Buel, who was paying a visit from Amberley Field. He and the other Republic pilots were only doing "odd jobs" at Amberley, Buel complained. But the P-40s of the Polk team were already being "rapidly assembled" at Amberley, he told his buddy.
   The following afternoon, the monotony at the Ascot camp—a result of nothing to do—was broken for George Parker when three of the 35th Group Hamilton Field contingent off the Republic showed up from Amberley. Parker was glad to see fellow 41-F flying school classmates Phil Metsker, Ralph Martin, and Hal Lund. Metsker told Parker that contrary to the original plan, he would not be going north with the newly formed 17th Pursuit (Provisional) after all. That night the close friends went into town for a lively get-together party and didn't get back to Ascot until the early morning hours. Vern Head was in Brisbane that evening, too. He had arranged to go to the movies with his 41-E classmate off the Republic, Bill Stauter. He told Head that he and their flying school classmates Bryan Brown and Ray Thompson would be leaving Amberley tomorrow with the newly formed 17th pursuit on the ferry route north.

   The deluge of pilots and their daily activities on page after page sometimes proves daunting at this stage, especially when Bartsch practically relates the menu for each meal consumed by each man. On the other hand, these pages allow the author to methodically set the stage for following each airman through the combat soon to erupt in the sky over Java.
   With training of pilots and assembly of crated machines delayed by myriad problems—including failure to ship Prestone engine coolant from the States and a dockworker strike in Sydney—the first few P-40 fighters and their pilots eventually departed Australia for the Indies on 23 January, led across the Timor Sea by the legendary Pappy Gunn in a pathfinder. On 25 January, the 17th Pursuit Squadron arrived near Surabaya on Java. On 26 January, a recalcitrant P-40, left behind at Koepang on Timor Island due to mechanical problems, was damaged beyond repair by "strafing aircraft." Bartsch doesn't provide any other information about the air raid, but this seems to have been the first USAAF fighter hit by Japanese fire in the Indies. Meanwhile, the remainder of the squadron, setting up housekeeping on Java, gradually began to familiarize itself with the new theater and flew a few recon missions and wild goose chases.
   For the P-40 pilots on Java, their first action in the Indies came on 3 February when, belatedly alerted by the Dutch air warning system, they attempted to intercept Japanese aircraft following an attack on the B-17 field near Surabaya.
   Here's part of the aerial engagement as related by Bartsch:

   In the meantime, Coss, Gilmore, and Rowland had spotted nineteen Mitsubishi G3M Type 96 "Nell" bombers about ten miles south of Soerabaja and heading north from the direction of Malang. Gilmore was weaving above Coss and Rowland, who had reached seventeen thousand feet, with the Japanese a good four thousand to five thousand feet above them. The three pursuiters figured that the bombers were returning from an attack on the B-17 base at Singosari six miles north of the city. The ADC hadn't given them adequate warning notice. Gilmore signaled to Coss that the Japanese were coming from the right. Coss and Rowland began climbing towards the bombers.
   As they followed below and behind the twin-engine bombers, they spotted trouble: six Zeros about four thousand feet directly above them. The Japanese fighters split into two Vs of three ships each and broke away from the bombers they appeared to be escorting, diving down on the Americans. One of the three-ship elements turned head-on into Coss and Rowland, while the other took up a position to attack Gilmore from the rear. Coss and Rowland pulled into the three-ship shotai (air section) attacking them and fired head-on at them with their six .50s, then dove away. When Gilmore saw tracers going by his tail, he put his ship into a tight left-hand spiral and also dove away.
   Leveling out after their dive, Coss and Rowland began to climb back up, as did Gilmore outside their view. After reaching twenty thousand feet, Gilmore looked around but could not find any Japanese aircraft. But Coss and Rowland at sixteen thousand spotted six more Zeros several thousand feet above them and in the sun. Two of the Zeros dove down on them in a string formation. Coss pulled up and fired at the lead Japanese head-on. The Zero pilot passed by him and turned, continuing to dive but now trailing a slight streamer of smoke. Then Coss spotted another Zero, also diving on him from out of the sun. He fired a burst from his .50s at the Japanese head-on, but with no apparent effect.
   Coss had lost contact with Rowland after firing at the first Zero, but now as he tried to maneuver with the second Japanese, he caught a glimpse of Rowland going straight down, trailing white smoke and a Zero directly behind him. When his own opponent managed to get on his tail, Coss eluded him by diving into the clouds. Now running low on gas, Coss decided to head back to Ngoro. As he turned in a southwesterly direction at about ten thousand feet just before 1130, he sighted a formation of six Zeros below him, heading north in the direction of Soerabaja. Diving on them from out of the sun, he fired on the last plane in the group. Immediately it exploded in midair. Overshooting the second Zero in the formation, Coss found himself under attack from the lead Zero, which had turned sharply into him. Again, Coss managed to elude the Japanese by diving into the clouds, then he continued on his return flight to Ngoro.

   By way of comparison, Chris Shores describes the same engagement in Bloody Shambles, volume 2: The Defence of Sumatra to the Fall of Burma, including considerably more information on the Japanese air units and pilots. (Bartsch tends to credit Shores in his endnotes for information about Japanese and Dutch air units and pilots.) Here's what Shores says about the P-40s as part of his larger account of Japanese, British, Dutch, and American operations on 3 February:

    The six P-40s of the 17th Pursuit Squadron's standby flight had been late receiving the order to scramble, and were without their commanding officer, Maj Charles A. Sprague, who was away at ABDA Headquarters on the matter of the unit's incomplete equipment. As the P-40s clawed into the sky they could see the bombers approaching in formations of nine aircraft each, in line astern at 21,000 feet. The fighters were still 4,000 feet below as 17 of the bombers released their loads, which crashed into the stricken naval base, before they turned for home.
   The Americans gave chase, two of them finally catching the rear formation of G3Ms 85 miles out to sea, near Bawean Island. Lt William J. Hennon attacked the rear aircraft of one line, sending it smoking into the sea. No interference was experienced from escorting fighters during the pursuit, since these were still involved in their fight with the Dutch Hawks and CW-21Bs at this time.
   Following this engagement, two other P-40 pilots spotted the A6Ms of the Tainan Ku on their way out from Malang and flying at about 8,000 feet. Lts Walter L. Coss and James M. Rowland dived to attack, the former shooting down the No 2 aircraft of the first Chutai. The A6M, flown by NA 1/C Kyoji Kobayashi, was seen to fall in flames, and the pilot was killed, The Americans were then 'jumped' from above by other A6Ms and Rowland was shot down, his P-40 falling out of control to crash. Coss then claimed a second fighter shot down, identified as a 'Seversky-type', before he evaded others and returned to base. There seems little doubt that Rowland was a victim of 3rd Ku fighters, which made several claims for P-40s, whilst the Tainan pilots were unable to engage their attackers.

   With this engagement, the battle was on for USAAF pilots, and Every Day a Nightmare meticulously chronicles all the action. Unlike Shores—who writes a straightforward day-by-day chronology extending to all the air forces in the Indies—Bartsch focuses almost entirely on the Yanks, and his narrative flows more like a novel, jumping around from locale to locale and keeping an eye on each pilot both in the air and on the ground. Jim "Wildman" Morehead, for example, shows up repeatedly, and the author mines his memoir—along with many other sources—for personal details and local flavor. Despite the constant danger of Japanese air attacks while en route to Java, for example, Morehead apparently wasn't the only pilot to take notice of the topless women on the island of Bali.
   Although Bartsch expends most of his text on the American fighter boys, he includes some information about the Dutch pilots with whom the Yanks interacted and flew some missions. Interestingly, Bartsch, working from letters, diaries, memoirs, and personal conversations, seems to indicate the Yank pilots got along swimmingly with their Dutch counterparts. This is at odds with some of the material in The Dutch Naval Air Force against Japan: The Defense of the Netherlands East Indies, 1941-1942 by Tom Womack and In the Hands of Fate by Dwight Messimer, both of which report notable friction between Dutch pilots and their Allies.
   Whatever the precise nature of those personal relationships, it will come as no great surprise to most readers to learn that the campaign did not go well for the Allies. Bartsch doesn't dwell on the course of the war outside the range of the American fighter squadrons, providing just enough framework on which to hang the stories of the pursuit pilots. The pilots and their aircraft were inexorably whittled away, the Japanese moved constantly closer to Java, and it proved impossible to prevent landings on the island. What began as a battle against the Japanese turned into a struggle for escape and survival for the remaining American airmen.
   The doomed but gallant defense descended into chaos as the Yanks attempted to evacuate Java. At the command level, it was necessary to do everything possible to support the collapsing Dutch defenses, but at the same time salvage pilots and groundcrew to help hold Australia. In a tense period of uncertain loyalties and conflicting orders, the Dutch made accusations of desertion when USAAF aircraft withdrew from airfields that might or might not have been too exposed to Japanese attack. With most fighters destroyed or damaged beyond repair, and the air ferry route mostly in Japanese hands, for some airmen the only means of escape to Australia would be by ship. However, just reaching port through raging pandemonium to find sea transport proved an adventurous odyssey for some of the pilots. The evacuation threatened to break down into an every-man-for-himself shambles. At Tjilatjap, two pilots—not sure when they would depart, how long the voyage would take, or if they would be fed—hired local porters to lug cases of beer and canned fruit to their ship.
   Wildman Morehead, after fending off a Japanese recon aircraft with his sidearm at Ngoro field, managed to pack himself aboard an overloaded B-17 for the long flight back to Australia. Some evacuations produced more dramatic stories. Gerry Dix and Bill Ackerman were aboard Langley when it was sunk by Japanese aircraft off Java. They were rescued and bound for Australia aboard Pecos when it was sunk. Nevertheless, they were rescued at sea a second time and finally made it to Fremantle. The other pursuit pilots aboard Langley weren't so lucky, captured and apparently executed by the Japanese. Of those evacuated by air—including Dutch women and children—many arrived in Broome just in time to be hit by a Japanese raid that destroyed Allied planes on the ground and killed large numbers of civilians.

   Near the operations building, Capt. Paul Davis was still waiting for the passenger list for his B-24A Arabian Knight when he spotted the three Zeros heading towards the runway. Along with his navigator, 2nd Lt. Edward Yerington, he hurriedly got out of the bomber, parked near the operations building, and began running, looking for "something to get into or under." They settled for some low scrub brush. From their shelter they watched the three Zeros diving and rolling over the field. There were three others, too, over Roebuck Harbor, methodically shooting up the flying boats on the water. Suddenly, one of the Japanese picked out Arabian Knight and streaked down to within fifty feet of the bomber, right in line with where Davis and Yerington were sheltering in the bush. In one pass, the incendiaries from its 7.7 mm guns set the fully fueled B-24A ablaze, and then it exploded. Nearby, a Lockheed Hudson blew up in a blinding flash, too, and one of its motors hurtled through the air and crashed to the ground only fifty feet away.
   An evacuee scheduled to go out on Hal Smelser's 41-2449, Sgt. John Kunkel stayed by the B-17E on the first pass of the three Zeros over the field that had ignited Skiles's ship, but as soon as they went by he ran and jumped into a gun pit out in the middle of the field, landing among the crews operating two of the .30-caliber machine guns set up in it. As the Zeros came in at treetop level in their strafing runs, shooting up both ends of the runway, the gunners fired at them, but without evident effect. And Kunkel's means of transport out of Broome was now burning fiercely after exploding into several pieces.
   Another machine gunner was having results in firing at the Japanese over the field, but he was not American. Flying Officer Gus Winckel had spotted the nine Zeros on their approach to Broome, had hurried over to his Lockheed Lodestar parked on the runway, and had pulled the flexible .30-caliber Browning M1919 waist gun from its mounting. With a box of four hundred rounds of ammunition that his wireless operator, Bill Maks, had picked up from the plane, Winckel took up a position in the open near his ship, ready for the Zeros. After three of the Japanese had finished their work on the B-17Es and the B-24A, one of them headed straight for Winckel's Lodestar, so low that the Dutchman could see his face. With the twenty-three-pound machine gun against his shoulder, the barrel in his hand, and "angry as hell," Winckel gave the Zero pilot a "good blast." The recoil almost knocked him to his feet, but he had hit the Zero, which went smoking off to sea.
   In twenty minutes it was all over as the Japanese headed back north, leaving behind a scene of death and destruction. Dick Legg could see Dutch flying boats out in Roebuck Bay at low tide exploding and burning. He knew they were loaded with women and children refugees from Java and that there would be many dead and injured. There were reports that fourteen of the flying boats had been destroyed as they were about to take off. Legg and his staff spent the next hours mobilizing every able-bodied person to help in efforts to bring as many of the Dutch civilians as they could find on the shore back up to the airfield. There was only one Aussie medic among the rescuers, plus a few American medical officers who had been in transit, to administer to the wounded. The Broome police buried many of the twenty-one Dutch dead they found in a mass grave; to Legg they seemed to number seventy.

   Bartsch, dealing mostly with the lives of the young flyboys, writes little in the way of interpretation or analysis until his Epilogue. In the last pages of the book he demolishes the wartime myth that American pursuit pilots accomplished a great deal at small cost to themselves. His numbers demonstrate quite the opposite, with very few Japanese planes actually downed, and a sizable proportion of Yank flyers—especially when counting the contingent lost aboard Langley—killed in the Indies and around Darwin and Broome during the campaign. Despite the gallantry displayed by the pilots and regardless of General Douglas MacArthur's grandiose communiques, USAAF fighters accomplished very little in terms of slowing or stopping the Japanese advance. MacArthur, apparently cognizant how reality varied from his news dispatches, imposed strict censorship to prevent any word of actual losses and disarray from reaching the American public. Bartsch also questions why Marshall and General Hap Arnold chose to send such green pilots to Australia and the Indies when plenty of experienced pursuit pilots were available in the States.
   Compared to Bartsch's previous book, December 8, 1941: MacArthur's Pearl Harbor, this one, even taking the Epilogue into consideration, contains less in the way of high level planning, strategy, and broader operational material, but more on the individual airmen. Similarly, Bartsch doesn't pontificate about tactical errors or flaws in the generals and admirals who ran the campaign, except for a few pages in the Epilogue. He's much more interested in what the guys in the cockpit felt and experienced. In that sense, Every Day a Nightmare is closer to Bartsch's 1992 book, Doomed at the Start: American Pursuit Pilots in the Philippines, 1941-1942.
   Given the relative obscurity of the topic, wartime censorship, and the many years that have elapsed since the Japanese invasion, the author has performed a miracle of tenacious research in order to bring together all this long-lost material. All the diaries, letters, and other primary sources he's uncovered—along with interviews—allow Bartsch to recreate the experience of American airmen in Australia and the Indies, almost to the extent that he must have maintained a spreadsheet tracking for each day where each pilot was, what he was doing, and what he ate for breakfast. Every Day a Nightmare deftly reconstructs the stories of the pilots with amazing detail. Readers can practically inhabit the lives of young men who desperately fought against superior numbers, superior aircraft, superior training, and superior experience.
   Highly recommended.
   Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Texas A & M University Press.
   Thanks to TAMU for providing this review copy.

Reviewed 17 October 2010
Copyright © 2010 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone
 

 

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