When the Empire of Japan swept across the western Pacific with re-imagined mobility, the nearest safe territory was literally an ocean away from America’s arsenal of democracy. And getting from the US West Coast to Northern Australia by air would be a 12,446-kilometre-long life-or-death game of join-the-dots across the Pacific.
In December 1941 only four men had ever made the flight in a land plane – and they’d done it together. Now, with a fraction of the experience accumulated by Charles Kingsford-Smith, Charles Ulm, Harry Lyon and James Warner, crews of the USAAF would need to rediscover the course that Fokker F.VIIb/3M Southern Cross had pioneered almost 14 long years before.
It was far, it was dangerous, and it had to be done: Australia may have been a safe place to land, but it was only safe for now…
Originally written by Major Charles E. Shelton, 7th Air Force,
for Air Force, official service journal of the US Army Air Forces, July 1943
One blacked-out Hawaiian midnight in January of 1942, three B-17s were wheeled out of bomb-scarred hangars at Hickam Field and rolled to the edge of the mat. Flight crews, guided by dimmed flashlights , approached the ships. The feeble rays of their lights played on engine nacelles, ran up and down landing struts and across all movable parts of the huge planes.
No item of inspection was slighted. It was a thorough, last-minute check, for the planes were about to take off on a trip that would require top-flight performance. Theirs was to be the inaugural flight of a new trans-Pacific war-time ferry route for the Army Air Forces.
One by one the Fortresses taxied to the end of the mile and a quarter strip. For a minute or two they sat there, the roar of their engines rising and falling as the pilots – captains Hobson, Hughes, and MacPherson – warmed up the motors and checked their instrument panels. Then they turned into the wind.
The long road to Tokyo
The first plane started its run, gathering speed. In a score of seconds the control tower clicked past the wingtip. As it reached the last hangar the Fortress lifted and moments later passed low over the ghost town of housing units that cluster alongside the Kamehameha Highway leading to nearby Pearl Harbor.
Planes number two and three followed in quick succession.
They were on their way to the battlefront in Java, hopping southward over a string of Pacific islands and atolls most of which had never before seen a land plane. Only Kingsford-Smith, fourteen years earlier, had ever made a similar trip. Actually, the two flight lines would differ by hundreds of miles of latitude most of the way.
A few Army men saw the Fortresses take off. A handful of officers – the late Major General Clarence L Tinker, Commanding General of the Hawaiian Air Force; Colonels Albert K B Lyman, B I Robinson and Bob Fleming of the Corps of Engineers; and Colonel Gordon Blake of the Air Forces watched as the blue exhaust flames of the B-17s moved out over the cane fields, turned across a darkened, sleeping Honolulu, then out to sea over Diamond Head. After the sound of the motors died away into the night one of the men said ‘Well, there go the first planes on the long road to Tokyo.’
Someone mentioned that ‘The Road To Tokyo’ would be a good name for the war baby.
General Tinker had his own thought on the subject, and since the name he offered was a good one and since he was a General, his suggestion stuck.
‘I believe we ought to call it The Southern Cross Airway’, he said.
And thus, without fanfare, was born the arial sky-lane that today rivals the North Atlantic’s Newfoundland – British Isles run and the South Atlantic’s Natal – Africa routes in strategic importance.
The Pacific line has been opened more than a year now, yet most of its operating details are strict military secrets. Most of the bases the planes use have never been mentioned in public print in connection with the route; many of the alternate fields – some of them nothing more than clearings in a coconut grove, others dredged coral strips – are names that would send even a veteran beachcomber to an atlas. Most of the bases, both primary and secondary, are far out on the Pacific combat frontier. Some of the airports have been bombed, some shot at from Japanese subs.
Shooting deer from a B-17
At Fiji the biggest menace seems to be mosquitoes. At one of the New Caledonia fields the native deer are so numerous they became a hazard. There’s no record of a plane hitting one of them while taxiing, but the deer used to graze right at the edge of the runway. Sometimes this proved too much of a temptation for a homesick nimrod who would unlimber his .30 caliber and blaze away.
It was good sport, shooting deer from the side window of a B-17 or from a parked jeep, and it made good reading in the letters back home, but it was unfortunately dangerous to the welfare of the encampment a few eucalyptus trees to the rear of the hunting grounds. One of the squadrons, as a result, had to establish game laws prohibiting deer hunting in the camp.
‘Anyone wishing to shoot deer will check in with the sergeant before going out,’ reads the order.
Some of the South Seas airfields, except for their cane-field and coconut settings, could be a ferry station somewhere in England. P-38s sit next to ancient tow-target Vincents. RNZAF Hudsons bunk next to C-47s, De Havillands and Beaufighters mix with B-26s, and even Gypsy Moths and L-5 Grasshoppers get together.
PBY, steamship and fishing boat
The South Pacific route was in the planning and construction stage long before we entered the war. Early in 1941 we had one ‘aerial life-line’ open to the Far East. It was the above-the-equator Hawaii – Midway – Wake – Guam run. This route had been successfully tested by a couple of flights of B-17s that were sent to the Philippines, but it was admittedly of dubious value in case we got in a scrap with Japan.
The run was highly vulnerable, cutting across Nipponese lines of communication and surrounded by Jap-mandated bases.
It didn’t have much of a chance. That’s why Major Roger Ramey and Captain Brooke Allen of the Hawaiian Air Force were sent below the equator and across the date line early in 1941 to find a better lane for land planes. They travelled by PBY, steamship and fishing boat, and with Dutch and Australian airmen, over much of the South Seas – gathering information, maps and photos for Colonel Lyman’s construction crews.
Later another party headed by Major Gordon Blake went out from Hawaii to survey mid-Pacific islands.
To get the job done
After the Southern Cross Airway got under operation General Tinker put Gordon Blake, now a Colonel, in operational control as his trouble-shooter, passenger agent, freight manager and communications chief. Today Colonel Blake probably knows more about Allied territory in the Pacific than any other man in uniform.
In constructing some of the bases, Colonel Lyman used British equipment and men to get the job done. The work was not scheduled for completion until mid-1942, but when war broke out the task was rushed threefold. The pony-express air line gained operational status in record time.
When the first planes went through, they refuelled from 55 gallon drums and the crews slept in cots under the planes’ wings. The islands were practically defenceless. The whole thing was run on a day-to-day, plane-to-plane bases in its first months.
The constant threat of the advancing Japanese, the rudimentary nature of radio and technical aids for long cross-water hops, the bumpy runways, and the intermittent flow of supplies to the island dots all made constant personal supervision a necessity.
No Army manual covered the problems that arose each time a plane took off. Yet surprisingly few planes were lost in those first days of the war.
Since its rugged birth the ferry route has grown to a transport line of major importance in our successful maintenance of the long Pacific battlefront. Compared with those early trips from California to Australia, in the days when ferry pilots didn’t know for sure whether the Japanese would beat them to the next stop, the present traffic is doing an enormous job. Dozens of planes daily are winging over the Pacific.
General Henry H Arnold’s plane holds the flight record – 35 hours and 10 minutes from Brisbane to San Francisco. The best elapsed time during the Southern Cross Airway days was made by Consolidated Aircraft’s Captain Ted Howe, who flew from Amberley Field (Brisbane) to Hamilton Field (Marin County) in 42 hours and 34 minutes. Captain McMacon, another combat veteran, has made the round trip form the States to Australia and back in five and a half days.
Types of planes that have made the Australia run include B-17s, B-24s, C-47s, C-53s, B-25s and B-26s. P-38s have made it from Hawaii to Australia. The planes are flown not only by ferry pilots, veterans of the Atlantic route, but also by Army pilots, some of whom have never flown over a body of water larger than San Francisco Bay.
A second kangaroo
In its year and a half of operations the Southern Cross Airway, now the Pacific Wing of the Air Transport Command, has carried thousands of military and government passengers. Hundreds of tons of priority war cargo have been sent ‘down under’ to the Solomons and New Guinea fronts via this route.
Not all the space, however, has gone over to G.I.
Early cargo records, for instance, list one kangaroo, transported to California from Australia by Captain Haigains. A General, needing uniform material, had some wool yardage delivered to him via LB-30. One urgent request from a wind-blown stenographer at Hickam Field for a card of bobby pins (Honolulu’s five-and-dime store had sold out) was filled from Hamilton Field.
Colonel (now Brigadier-General) ‘Blondy’ Saunders’ cigars always received a high priority on the Solomons run. Dogs, rat poison and flit guns were all on the early freight lists. A bathing suit for an Australian Colonel’s wife was sent from San Francisco. Some coffee percolators made a rush trip to Australia shortly after the Americans moved in ‘…because the Aussie coffee just isn’t made right.’
Then a second kangaroo was sent up to California to provide heart interest for the first.
One lonesome palm tree
Travellers who have made the long trip recall many famous landmarks including Hawaii’s Diamond Head (which, incidentally, doesn’t look like much from the air). Fiji’s ‘Handle-bars’ Carriker, an Air Forces Captain and general major domo in the land of the Bula Boys, belongs in the Aussie Baedeker Guide because of his startling waxed moustache.
There is the flat coral island that has its monotony broken by one lonesome palm tree. Then there are the sunsets, some of the Pacific’s best, viewed from the sagging canvas chairs on the veranda of the Fiji Officers’ Club.
Captain Enrest W Gray
Much of the credit for pioneering the Southern Cross Airway should go to civilian pilots flying under contract to the United States Government and to RAAF Ferry Command flyers.
Captain Ernest W Gray of San Diego, California, is typical of the commercial skippers who are keeping Australia closely linked to the United States. Gray was a veteran of the Pacific even before we got into the war, having twice delivered British-purchased PBYs to the Philippines.
He was on his way to Wake Island the morning the Japs took their stab at us. He was delivering a plane destined for Singapore and was between Midway and Wake when he got word to turn back. He spent the night on Midway, sitting in a dugout while Jap cruisers and destroyers shelled the place.
Captain Gray returned to Honolulu and the mainland, but the following March found him on his way again, this time delivering a B-25 to Dutch flyers in Australia. Today, Captain Gray is taking C-87s back and forth to Australia.
Captain Stan Young, another commercial pilot who was on the South Pacific run in its early days, illustrated the type of flying that was sometimes needed to get planes through from one island to another when he flew a four engine bomber for five hours with number one and two motors out.
He had a new crew on board, but his experience brought them through, despite the fact that to keep his altitude he had to heave all loose gear and baggage into the Pacific.
So many planes
The record made by the Southern Cross Airway in its day and the record the ATC is making today in moving cargo and personnel foreshadow a tremendous Pacific air transport system in post-war days.
A veteran flyer of the Pacific air route pointed out what it may be like when he said:
‘Even under the inconvenience and uncertainties of a war we have airfields out here in the middle of the ocean that compare favourably with many metropolitan airports in size and ability to handle traffic.
‘After the war – after we beat the Japs – there will be so many planes flying across the Pacific that it will look like the vicinity of a training field. From the States to Australia in thirty hours or less, and to the Philippines or China in a day and a half. As for Japan, she probably won’t be worth flying to.’
A piece of history
For such a pivotal moment in the Pacific war, information on that first three-ship odyssey across the Pacific is incredibly hard to find.
Hailing from the 22nd Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 7th Bombardment Group, the pilots (Shelton’s term ‘captains’ seems to refer to their role on the plane rather than rank) were were Major Ken Hobson (CO of the 22nd), 1st Lieutenant Clarence MacPherson and 1st Lieutenant Jack Hughes; all three of whom had flown their B-17Es into Hickam Field on December 18th, 1941 as part of an eight-ship echelon.
Their ground crews were already approaching Fiji, having departed San Francisco for Del Monte Field, Philippines aboard the USS Republic on November 21st. In light of the rapid Japanese advances, they were diverted to Camp Amberley near Brisbane, landing there on December 22nd.
1,776 km of open ocean away
Facilities along the new trans-Pacific were hardly ready when the aircraft departed just after midnight on January 6th, 1942. Hobson led the way in B-17E #41-2406 (msn 2217), with MacPherson flying #41-2417 (msn 2228) and Hughes in #41-2419 (msn 2230).
Their first stop, 1,776 kilometres of open ocean away on Palmyra Atoll, had only been finished five days before.
From Honolulu and Palmyra, the route took them via remote Canton Island to Nandi (Fiji), Tontouta Airfield at Noumea (New Caledonia), Garbutt Field near Townsville (Queensland, Australia) and Darwin (NT, Australia) to Singosari Field on the north coast of Java.
They were soon joined by other elements following them across the Pacific, as well as units that flew the westbound ‘Africa route’.
A hell of a war
Two of those first three B-17s didn’t last much longer. Jack Hughes belly-landed -2419 into a field near Palembang, Sumatra shortly after take-off on January 23rd.
Then just two days later on February 25th, 1942, Ken Hobson crash landed -2406 at Madura Island and that aircraft was written off.
So only -2417 lasted any length of time. In fact, she had a hell of a war. Delayed at Darwin for repairs, MacPherson finally got his big bomber away on February 19th, escorting a flight of P-40s to Java. Bad weather forced the fighters back but MacPherson proceeded alone to Denpasar, Bali, and landed.
However, unknown to the crew, Denpasar had just been overrun by the Japanese, who began blazing away at -2419 with machine guns. Thinking quickly, MacPherson opened up the throttles and got away again – flying on to Singosari where all four engines quit for lack of fuel just as he taxied off the runway.
The bomber fought on over Java and New Guinea into 1943, before becoming the personal transport of by General Clements McMullen, 5th Air Force Service Command, who named it ‘Nancy’ after his wife.
Like so many others, this very significant B-17was unceremoniously scrapped (at Manila) after the war.
With over 100 World War 2 bombing missions to his credit, Kenneth Hobson (Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal and the Air Force Commendation Medal) rose to the rank of General and ended his career as commander of the Air Force Logistics Command, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. He died on July 20th, 1979.
Clarence MacPherson, by then a Major, was killed on July 16th, 1942 in another B-17E, #41-2421 Tojo’s Jinx, which crashed at Horn Island after attempting a go-around from low-level at night.
Details about Jack Hughes continue to evade me.
These brave men and their crews responded to the threat facing their home and ours by flying towards the danger. They faced the unknown from the moment they left Hickam Field, on a vast and trackless route every bit as deadly as the enemy waiting at its end.
If the first months of 1942 hadn’t been so desperate and chaotic, they might have got the Medal of Honor they assuredly deserve.
Information (finally!) sourced from Robert F Dorr’s 7th Bombardment Group/Wing, 1918-1995, Turner Publishing, 1996. (ISBN 1-56311-278-7) as well as Joe Baugher’s Military Serials, Pacific Wrecks, and Peter Dunn’s encyclopaedic Oz At War.