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Every Day a Nightmare

American Pursuit Pilots in the Defense of Java, 1941-1942

William H. Bartsch; Foreword by Anthony Weller

Publication Year: 2010

In December 1941, the War Department sent two transports and a freighter carrying 103 P-40 fighters and their pilots to the Philipines to bolster Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s Far East Air Force. They were then diverted to Australia, with new orders to ferry the P-40s to the Philippines from Australia through the Dutch East Indies. But on the same day as the second transport reached its destination on January 12, 1942, the first of the key refueling stops in the East Indies fell to rapidly advancing Japanese forces, resulting in a break in their ferry route and another change in their orders.   This time the pilots would fly their aircraft to Java to participate in the desperate Allied defense of that ultimate Japanese objective. Except for the pilots from the Philippines, almost all of the other pilots eventually assigned to the five provisional pursuit squadrons ordered to Java were recent graduates of flying school with just a few hours on the P-40. Only forty-three of them made it to their assigned destination; the rest suffered accidents in Australia, were shot down over Bali and Darwin, or were lost in the sinking of the USS Langley as it carried thirty-two of them to Java. Even those who did reach the secret field on Java wondered if they had been sacrificed for no purpose. As the Japanese air assault intensified daily, the Allied defense collapsed. Only eleven Japanese aircraft fell to the P-40s.   Author William H. Bartsch has pored through personal diaries and memoirs of the participants, cross-checking these primary sources against Japanese aerial combat records of the period and supplementing them with official records and other American, Dutch, and Australian accounts. Bartsch’s thorough and meticulous research yields a narrative that situates the Java pursuit pilots’ experiences within the context of the overall strategic situation in the early days of the Pacific theater.  

Published by: Texas A&M University Press


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiii

My father, the american war correspondent George Weller—who would soon win a Pulitzer Prize in foreign reporting for the Chicago Daily News—spent most of February 1942 on Java. He had arrived, through great luck, from besieged Singapore on a freighter under attack by the Japanese. Through an even greater stroke of luck he would leave Java on March 3 from the southern port of Tjilatjap aboard an island steamer, the final boat to make...

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pp. xv-xvi

When i wrote DOOMED AT THE START almost twenty years ago, I left the story untold of the seventeen Philippines pursuit veterans who in late December 1941 and the beginning of January 1942 were flown out of the beleaguered islands, for they never returned to the Philippines as planned by MacArthur. They had been sent to Australia to ferry back P-40s that had just arrived...


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pp. xvii-xx


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pp. xxi-xxii

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pp. 1-5

It was 1000 on the morning of Saturday, July 27, 1940, in Tokyo when Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe and eleven other formally attired men faced the emperor’s empty chair, bowed deeply, and took their assigned seats in Room One-East of Japan’s Imperial Palace. In their full uniforms, eight of the participants represented the military, including the war and navy ministers...

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PART ONE: “Plans for Reaching You Quickly with Pursuit Are Jeopardized”

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pp. 7-17

With the army and navy high commands now wielding the effective power in his government, and having apparently lost the support of Emperor Hirohito, who believed that war was now unavoidable, Premier Fumimaro Konoe submitted his resignation on October 16, 1941. He was replaced the following day by his cabinet’s most ardent advocate for war, Army Minister Hideki Tojo.1...

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CHAPTER ONE: “We Are Virtually a Floating Ammunition Dump”

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pp. 19-35

In the wooden bachelor officers’ barracks of the 35th Pursuit Group at Hamilton Field, California, 2nd Lt. Bryan Brown was meeting with six of his 41-E flying school classmates in early October 1941. All but one were fellow Texans assigned from Stockton Field, California, in July 1941 following their graduation. They were going to cut cards to determine which two...

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CHAPTER TWO: “We Came 4,700 Miles and Are Pigeon-holed!”

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pp. 36-52

It was Christmas Day in Brisbane, and Bryce Wilhite and his buddy Mel Price had an invitation to dinner from an American businessman and his wife they had met the day before. The pilots’ taxi chugged to the front gate of Mr. and Mrs. Cleveland’s house, arriving at “the earliest polite hour” by Australian standards. During the course of the day Wilhite and Price enjoyed...

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PART TWO: “The News from Wavell Is All Bad”

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pp. 53-59

Shortly after 1000 on Saturday, January 10, 1942, a Dutch army twin-engine Lockheed Lodestar touched down at Batavia’s Kemajoran Airport and disembarked three high-ranking British officers. There to greet them at the capital of the Netherlands East Indies were U.S. Army Lt. Gen. George H. Brett, Maj. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton, and Adm. Thomas C. Hart, along with...

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CHAPTER THREE: “There Goes Our Ferry Route”

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pp. 61-78

When Parker Gies reported in at Amberley Field on Monday, January 12, he found that he was being assigned to the first of the three squadrons planned for Sprague’s new group, the squadron to be led by Allison Strauss and designated the 17th Pursuit Squadron (Provisional). It would be flying seventeen P-40Es of the Pensacola convoy that were now assembled and flight-tested. One other P-40E of the convoy’s shipment had been sent...

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CHAPTER FOUR: “Second Lieutenants Are Expendable”

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pp. 79-98

At Amberley Field, George Parker and fourteen fellow pilots of the Polk group received some welcome news on the morning of Tuesday, January 20. They were being ordered to Lowood Field, some fifteen miles northwest of Amberley, for a few days of extensive combat and tactical training. Afterwards they would be going north to the combat zone.1 That afternoon Parker...

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PART THREE: “You Are Not Forgotten Men”

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pp. 99-104

In early February 1942 the news coming out of ABDACOM at Lembang was still all bad. To Eisenhower in Washington, it appeared that “ABDA is desperate.” Wavell was having to deal with five separate Japanese lines of attack: three against the Dutch East Indies (Amboina/ Timor, Kendari/ Makassar, and Balikpapan/ Bandjermasin) plus Johore/ Singapore in Malaya and Moulmein/...

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CHAPTER FIVE: “A Collection of the Worst LandingsI Have Ever Seen”

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pp. 105-124

At 0600 on Thursday, January 29, a drowsy Jim Morehead climbed into his P-40E at Amberley Field. There had been a big party the night before, and Morehead and the others of the 20th Pursuit (Provisional) had gone to bed late. Soon afterward, Morehead and his squadron mates took off, destination Charleville, and lined up behind a B-24A mother ship. Soon they ran into a...

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CHAPTER SIX: “I’m All Shot to Hell!”

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pp. 125-144

Although it had been noisily raining all night, the 20th Pursuit pilots at Koepang woke up refreshed at 0430 on February 5 after their Timor Sea ordeal of the day before. Following breakfast at 0530 and a short briefing from Lieutenant Lane, they went down to the field and preflighted their ships, then were off for their next stop, Denpasar, Bali, at 0600. Again they...

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CHAPTER SEVEN: “These Guys Are Really Inexperienced”

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pp. 145-169

At Amberley Field on the morning of Wednesday, February 4, 2nd Lt. Vern Head and twenty-three other pilots assigned to the 3rd Pursuit Squadon (Provisional) were assigned P-40Es and told to get ready for the flight north. Their CO, 1st Lt. Grant Mahony, had just received his orders to lead his newly formed squadron to Darwin “by first available transport” for onward...

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CHAPTER EIGHT: “Someone Is Crazy—This Is Murder”

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pp. 170-194

At Amberley Field the twenty-four pilots assigned to the 33rd Pursuit Squadron (Provisional) had just finished lunch on Wednesday, February 11, when they were called together by their commanding officer, Maj. Floyd Pell. He told them to get ready to leave for Port Pirie, South Australia, in two hours on the first leg of their transfer trip to Java. Their first stop would be...

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PART FOUR: “I Deeply Regret Failure to Hold ABDA Area”

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pp. 195-203

Following the Japanese landing on Sumatra on February 14, the Dutch defense forces had counterattacked and appeared in a position to defeat the Japanese paratroops tenuously holding the Palembang No. 1 airstrip. However, additional paratroopers were dropped in the area, and another Japanese force in barges succeeded in moving up the Moesi River to join the fray. Allied air strikes on the Japanese landing forces could not slow...

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CHAPTER NINE: “I Was Thoroughly Enjoying Myself”

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pp. 205-223

Early Monday morning, February 16 the commander of the 33rd Pursuit Squadron (Provisional) called a meeting of his nine pilots plus the 3rd Pursuiter Bob Oestreicher at RAAF operations at Darwin Field. Slugger Pell wanted to assign four of them to fly two two-plane patrols out over the Timor Sea to search for Bob Buel and to check on the convoy’s progress to Timor. Pell...

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CHAPTER TEN: “Nothing Will Ever Happen to Me”

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pp. 224-245

It was 0730 on February 19 when the RAAF Hudsons carrying Vern Head and the other six crashed Timor pilots reached the RAAF field at Darwin after a four-hour night flight from Koepang, uneventful except for the lead Hudson’s being fired on by Darwin’s antiaircraft guns as it was coming in. Relieved to be back in peaceful Australia, the Americans washed up, shaved, ...

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CHAPTER ELEVEN: “He Was Wholly Unrecognizable”

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pp. 246-257

On the road between Maylands civil airdrome and Perth’s port of Fremantle, 1st Lt. Robert Morrissey was supervising a strange procession during the wee hours of Friday, February 20. Flatbed trucks were slowly towing thirty-two P-40Es by their tail wheels over the twenty miles that separated the airfield from the port. Lt. Gerry Dix and the other intended pilots of the...

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CHAPTER TWELVE: “How Can We Operate against Such Odds?”

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pp. 258-268

From 0500 on Saturday, February 21, sixteen pilots were standing alert at Ngoro Field for a possible interception order from the Dutch Air Defense Command. At 0930 the order came through: a Japanese bomber force had been picked up heading for Soerabaja. With their commander lost the day before, Capt. Grant Mahony—the highest ranking of the remaining...

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CHAPTER THIRTEEN: “Every Day a Nightmare!”

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pp. 269-282

It was 0430 when Paul Gambonini climbed out of bed in his house at Blimbing and with fifteen other pilots and their mechanics headed out in the dark for the field at Ngoro on this Tuesday, February 24, for yet another day of alert duty. This time he was assigned as an element leader in Jack Dale’s C fl ight. Ed Kiser was to head up B flight, and Joe Kruzel D flight, while their...

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PART FIVE: “Nothing Less than Desertion”

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pp. 283-290

After breaking off at 2315 on February 22 and heading for Java, the Langley was only seventy-five nautical miles southeast of its Tjilatjap destination at 1140 on the morning of February 27 when two formations of Mitsubishi G4M1 “Betty” bombers that had taken off from newly occupied Denpasar Field on Bali approached it at fifteen thousand feet. Zigzagging to avoid the...

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CHAPTER FOURTEEN: “Thousands of Men Gone Completely Mad”

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pp. 291-306

Up on the signal bridge of the USS Langley in the early morning of Friday, February 27, 2nd Lt. Bill Ackerman was beginning the sixth day of his self-styled “joy ride” on the old seaplane tender since leaving Fremantle for Java. The 13th Pursuit Squadron (Provisional) pilot was standing next to 33rd Pursuiter Gerry Dix, sharing lookout duties on this the Sydney, Nebraska, ...

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CHAPTER FIFTEEN: “Senseless in All Senses”

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pp. 307-321

Just before sunrise on the morning of Sunday, March 1, Jan Bruinier was arguing with his squadron commander, Lieutenant Anemaet, at the 17th Pursuit’s operations shack on the fi eld at Ngoro. Over the opposition of Anemaet, the Dutch RAF veteran was maintaining that he should lead their squadron’s seven serviceable Hawker Hurricanes in the Dutch-American...

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CHAPTER SIXTEEN: “Give Us Twenty-four Hours to Get Out of This God-damned Place”

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pp. 322-331

Looking down from the high-flying B-17E, Frank Kurtz could make out the northwestern coastline of Australia in the brilliant moonlight. It was 0200 on Monday, March 2, some seven hours after Lieutenant Vandevanter had taken his ship out of Jogjakarta loaded down with evacuees. To Kurtz the coast looked like flat desert only, bathed in “a ghostly hue.1 Continuing...

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pp. 332-345

About 2100 on the evening of March 4, 1942, a stark naked, badly sunburned man staggered up to the hangar at Broome’s airfield. Entering through the door, he surprised the men congregated in the hangar, whom he saw were fellow FEAF evacuees from Java. One of the men shouted, “There’s Mo!” recognizing Sgt. Melvin Donoho, reported as missing after the crash of...


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pp. 347-366


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pp. 367-436


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pp. 437-458


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pp. 459-506

E-ISBN-13: 9781603442466
E-ISBN-10: 1603442464
Print-ISBN-13: 9781603441766
Print-ISBN-10: 160344176X

Page Count: 504
Illustrations: 45 b&w photos. 15 tables. 7 Maps. Appendix.
Publication Year: 2010

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Subject Headings

  • Fighter pilots -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Aerial operations, American.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Regimental histories -- United States.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Campaigns -- Indonesia -- Java.
  • United States. Army -- History -- World War, 1939-1945.
  • United States. Army. Air Corps -- History.
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