Australia's Air War over New Guinea in WWII
"44 Days: 75 Squadron and the Fight for Australia" by Michael Veitch
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour”
— William Blake
“Victory in the entire air war against Japan can be traced back to the actions which took place from that dusty strip at Port Moresby in early 1942”
— American General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold
I was surprised at this little gem of Australian military history. I read it as a complement to my broader Australian reading, knowing nothing about Australia’s air war in New Guinea during WWII.
It is a finely written ode to a few dozen Australian warriors who took to the skies over New Guinea over 44 days in April and May 1942. A duel between Australia-controlled Port Moresby in the south and the Japanese encampment in Lae in the North, they fended off Japanese Zeros and bombers in American Kittyhawks ahead of a planned invasion of Australia.
It is the book’s second half and ending that elevate the entire story, reveal the glory at the heart of these modest Australian heroes, and launch them into the pantheon of warriors from across the ages. Shocking tales of survival of downed airmen, duels and near-misses in the skies, and ultimately a few good men who volunteered to stay and fly the three remaining barely flyable Kittyhawks into the maw of an overwhelming Japanese attack.
That invasion fleet came, but never landed. It was caught in an American trap that became the Battle of the Coral Sea. There Japanese and American aircraft carriers battled over four days without ever sighting one another, ending in Japanese defeat.
Then the Japanese tried an overland route, across the Owen Stanley Ranges. And there they were stopped, and the Australians who turned them back on the Kokoda trail were immortalised forever in the Australian imagination.
But it began with the largely unrecognised feats of 75 Squadron. Due to the miserly judgement of local command, these men went largely undecorated. This is the tale author Michael Veitch admirably seeks to reveal. (Occasional vaunts of hubris are charming if mistaken: I’m afraid the stakes during those 44 days of air battle were not in fact as high as those in the Battle of Britain!)
75 Squadron’s claims against the enemy between 21 March and 3 May were eighteen aircraft destroyed in the air and seventeen on the ground, with a further 50 or so damaged or claimed as ‘probables’. On the Australian side, fifteen aircraft were lost in air combat and two to ground attack, with another five Kittyhawks written off in accidents. During the period, 37 Australian pilots served with the squadron, of whom eleven were killed, as well as Squadron Leader Barney Cresswell, lost on attachment from 76 Squadron.
These few weeks, in the stand of these few men, contained all the frontiers of mortality. This fight probably meant almost nothing in the scheme of the war. But that does not diminish an iota of these men’s glory. There may even be an added poetry in their futility. What is more poignant than standing on the fringes of an oncoming empire, its fists clenched and ready to fall, your family and your people at your back? However futile, to raise your sword against the oncoming threat? No, this battle, a speck in the storm of a world war, may not have moved its outcome. But in these few men we see something of the Greatness of all Great Men.
They were a mixed lot, among them a Queensland country teacher, a carpet salesman from Melbourne, an aspiring Sydney radio announcer and a quiet accountant from Launceston, who would blossom into one of the most fearless of them all.
The enemy were, as in every war, but one front. Guns jammed. Planes failed. Tropical disease a constant companion. Incontinent pilots relieved themselves midflight, their sick trickling into their boots. Friendly fire. Misbegotten orders from high above and far away.
When the Seven Mile strip at Port Moresby was first greeted by the vanguard of its much awaited Kittyhawks, defensive machine guns sprayed them on landing. No one was hurt but one of the four planes would never fly again. A portend of the inevitable own-goals that accompany war.
Nevertheless, the newly arrived force dealt its first blow quickly. Two of the Kittyhawks chased down the lone Mitsubishi reconnaissance bomber that flew over daily, lazily picking a place to drop its load. Then a full contingent of fighters attacked the Japanese base at Lae, finding their planes lined up for them. They destroyed nine Japanese aircraft and damaged others.
In one thrilling episode, two days after crash landing his Kittyhawk in kunai grass, Mick Butler was chased by five Zeros — including the infamous Devil pilot himself — across 125 miles of the Gulf of Papua.
Here is how one dogfight with a Zero went for Australian fighter pilot Bob Crawford:
Observing from a rare position of height, Les descended with Bob Crawford to attack, but their advantage was wasted as both pilots missed their targets and the Japanese pulled up to meet them head-on in a climbing attack. The initial aim of getting them away from the B-26 was, however, successful. Soon Bob Crawford was in the extremely unhealthy situation of dogfighting with a Zero. From behind, bullets tore into his aircraft, severing his left rudder cable and puncturing his fuel tank, which caused petrol to enter the cockpit and begin sloshing alarmingly at his feet. In the nearest of misses, one bullet even carried away his throat microphone, grazing his neck. Having found the range, bullets were followed by cannon shells, which exploded around him, wounding his unprotected arms and legs with shrapnel.
With his aircraft barely controllable, Crawford had no option but to exit the battle. In the hope that his superior diving speed would save him before being incinerated in his mortally wounded aeroplane, he threw his stick forward in a bunt. A Zero tenaciously followed him down to sea level, but its shooting was inaccurate. At perilously high speed, bracing himself against the gunsight, Crawford hit the water of Moresby Harbour in a spectacle of white spray. Caught by his radiator scoop, his nose went down and his tail went up, but Crawford was protected by his harness, and he managed to scramble out of his submerging cockpit, shaken but not hurt. Discovering he was in just six feet of water, he even managed a wave to Les Jackson as he zoomed by overhead. Crawford was soon collected in a launch.
The denouement of the 44 days is the death of John Jackson, the rugged and beloved leader of the airmen.
He did not die after being intercepted by Zeros during a reconnaissance mission and crash landing in water. Swimming through crocodile infested water and hiking for days through jungles and villages,1 it took two weeks for Jackson to make it back to base. As he was flown back to base from the town he made it to, his arrival was announced over radio, alerting nearby Japanese fighters who came swooping in as Jackson was landing back at the strip. Jackson’s plane was hit and he lost the top of his finger. But Jackson survived to the jubilation of his men.
Leadership pressures from an inept central command demanded the Kittyhawk pilots change tack. The Australians’ strategy to date was to dive and shoot from above. They could not outgun the Zero in a dogfight. But this is what command now ordered, something that sounded like a suicide order for the pilots.
How? Jackson’s men cried. How can we fight like this when you told us yourself it could not be done?… ‘Tomorrow,’ he said, ‘I’m going to show you how.’
Tomorrow he died.
The only thing left to identify him was one of his flying boots, with a foot still inside, size 12. John Jackson was a big man.
There is a villain too in this story, beyond the faceless Japanese enemy and beyond the ineptitude of higher command. Les Jackson, John’s brother, assumed control after his brother’s death. A strong fighter pilot but a mean drunk and divisive leader, he engendered contempt from his men. Les once growled at a new recruit for questioning him, telling him he’d be “pushing up daisies” the next day. That recruit did go up the next day and was killed. Later in the war at an American base, as Butler walked passed a drunken Les at the card table, Les said “I hate you,” picked up a nearby machine gun and cocked it. As everyone scrambled and Butler got away, Les shot out into the dark.
‘Les Jackson should never have been let out of his cage,’ [Arthur Tucker] said bluntly in his extensive [Australian War Memorial] interview. ‘He was – well – a nasty bastard, in the kindest words I could say about him.’ The quiet vehemence heard in Tucker’s voice – expressed so long after the events in question – is surprisingly shocking. Tucker went on to describe Les as ‘a divisive, degenerate, drunken lout, without any sense of responsibility whatsoever. He should never have been allowed to lead the squadron.’
Yet in the final moments of 75 Squadron’s defense of Port Moresby on 8 May, it was Les Jackson who addressed the 200 assembled men of his squadron to tell them they would be going home. The Japanese would be there by dawn and would overwhelm them. They were to evacuate — except for 3 airmen who would man the last remaining fighter aircraft. Les needed two volunteers — he would fly the third. They would take off at dawn and should not expect to return.
He asked nine pilots and nine men stepped forward.
The men drew straws and Michael Butler and Peter Masters were the lucky two.
Bill Deane-Butcher, the base’s doctor, was slated to join the evacuation but at the last minute wrote a brief letter to his wife, tore it into four pieces so it couldn’t easily be read, and handed it to a man to deliver. And he went back to join the last stand.
Deane-Butcher and Les Jackson, the last officers on the base, took a few beers, went out to the beach and sat on the sand, waiting for the Japanese to arrive with the dawn.
War correspondent Osmar White wrote:
The men who lived an hour or a night or a week removed from death were in tent camps near the field. They conformed to no physical type, only to a standard of courage. Some were big fellows with stubble beards on their cheeks; others were small, delicately made boys with pimples and hardly any beard at all.
There is a film to be made about this period (honestly, instead of this post, I considered sketching out a screenplay). Hans Zimmer soundtrack, the one from The Thin Red Line would do. Young, unlikely heroes, yet somehow typical of countless others like them during those dark years of mankind, who over six weeks in desolate remoteness hardened into men. They did not flinch from death’s stare, and stepped forward for their country in its time of need, come what may.
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His diary also noted his intrigue at the people and the cultural life he witnessed. Every place he travelled through it seemed ‘sing-sings’ would start around him. He assumed, from the endless beat of the kundu drums and the male dancers dressed in nothing more than painted ochre and head dresses fashioned from bird of paradise feathers, that it must be some kind of festival season. Despite the war, and the trials of his physical condition, one senses the fascination of this uncomplicated man from rural Queensland with the villagers, assuaging, perhaps just a little, the harshness of his circumstances. ‘All the girls wear nothing from the waist up and look most alluring.’