Remembering the Airmen of Bataan

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired)
  • USAF (Retired)
Sometimes war comes suddenly, unexpectedly. So it was in the Pacific in December, 1941. In the Philippine Islands, the greatest concentration of burgeoning American airpower outside the United States was caught in the middle of a force buildup in hopeful plans of deterring Imperial Japan in the Far East. The war began roughly for the Far East Air Forces (FEAF) - on the first day alone, the FEAF lost half of its B-17 bombers and P-40 fighters to enemy air attacks. As the remaining American air forces were steadily ground down, they lost control of the skies and soon afterward Japanese troops landed ashore and began a drive on Manila.

With a remnant of an air force, an ill-equipped and partially-trained army, and a handful of vessels remaining from the departed Asiatic Fleet, General MacArthur was unable to defeat or contain the Japanese landings. Shortly before Christmas, 1941, he ordered the Filipino-American forces to withdrawal to the Bataan peninsula on the island of Luzon, there to hold out according to war plans until a relief force could be sent from the US.

The battered FEAF sent its remaining men and airplanes to join the others on Bataan, where they participated in a difficult campaign that lasted from early January into April, 1942. But the hoped-for relief force from the US never arrived and on April 9, 1942, the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines known as the "Battling Bastards of Bataan" were forced by starvation, disease and dearth of combat power to surrender to the reinforced forces of Imperial Japan.

Although this bitter defeat was a tough chapter in our military history, we can be proud of the accomplishments of the valiant Filipino-American forces on Bataan during the hard-fought campaign. It was the only significant delay to the enemy's timetable for conquest in the early days of the war in the Pacific. We gleaned invaluable lessons from that difficult experience which helped our armed forces successfully return to the Philippines some two and a half years later. The 'Bataan Air Force,' comprised of a variety of Airmen and units of the depleted FEAF, operated a small number of aircraft and provided army commanders with infantry and engineer units of Airmen which established a record of sacrifice and achievement we should all remember and honor.

The flying portion of the Bataan Air Force, the Fifth Interceptor Command, began the campaign with 18 Curtiss P-40 fighters and a small assortment of other non-combat aircraft, although that number was quickly halved when nine fighters were ordered from Bataan south to the island of Mindanao. Some aircraft later returned to Bataan as attrition replacements.

At the start of the campaign, the fliers operated from rough fields carved from dry rice paddies at Orani and Pilar. As the enemy ground forces approached, the aircraft were repositioned to new fields prepared and/or improved at Bataan, Cabcaben and Mariveles. At these gritty airstrips the unsung ground crews worked hard to service aircraft with few parts and supplies, in the tropic heat, humidity and dust. Their miracles abounded, keeping most of the available aircraft in service, repeatedly repairing their battle and accident damage, and thus ensured their planes and pilots were never long on the ground.

With the small number of fighters on Bataan, sustained combat operations were not possible. Instead, many visual reconnaissance missions were flown by P-40 pilots who scouted over the seas around Luzon and far beyond friendly lines on land to locate enemy ships, troop movements and concentrations, as well as activity at enemy-occupied airfields.

Some defensive patrols were flown as well, as when the P-40s sortied to try and catch pesky enemy observation aircraft or small formations of enemy planes unawares, which they sometimes succeeded in. They periodically covered the ground forces on and/or reinforcing the first main line of resistance, the Abucay Line, in the fighting of late January. On the nights of February 1 and 7, P-40s flew bombing and strafing sorties against enemy barges attempting to land troops behind friendly lines on the west coast of Bataan. On February 9, 1942, Philippine Army Air Corps Captain Jesus Villamor volunteered to pilot a Stearman 76D3 biplane trainer with co-volunteer and photographer MSgt Juan Albanes on a hazardous but vital photo reconnaissance mission. Of the one P-40B and five P-40E in commission that day, five were committed to this ultimately successful mission to locate newly-emplaced enemy artillery on the south side of Manila Bay, despite enemy aerial opposition.

The Bataan Air Force conducted some aggressive offensive flights, however. On the night of January 26, six P-40s bombed and strafed Japanese aircraft on the ground at Nielson and Nichols fields in Manila, catching the enemy by surprise. On March 2, starting the day with one P-40B and four P-40E in commission, the fighters made a maximum effort to smash a concentration of enemy shipping in Subic Bay. Pilots flew a dozen afternoon sorties, strafing and bombing hapless enemy warships, transports and barges. Captain William "Ed" Dyess, Commander of the 21st Pursuit Squadron, personally flew three missions that day, flying into nautical twilight, in his modified P-40E nicknamed "Kibosh." The fighter had just been rigged with a homemade device to carry a 500-lb bomb under its belly by the creative Warrant Officer Jack Day and his team of five ordnance men from the 17th Pursuit Squadron. The double spring device, improvised from valve rods and springs with salvaged auto and aircraft parts, was successfully tested on the Subic missions. It gave "Kibosh" an extra punch as compared to the other P-40s on Bataan, which were only equipped to drop six 30-lb bombs from beneath their wings.

An improvised air transport service called the "Bamboo Fleet" was established with a Bellanca, Waco, Beech and a 'resurrected' J2F Duck amphibian to help overcome the effects of the blockaded supply lines. Pilots flying these aircraft dodged enemy air patrols in nighttime flights to reach southern islands and gather what food and medicines they could carry back to Bataan to help stave off defeat.

And on the ground the plane-less squadrons did their part as well. Pursuit squadrons that lost their planes provided beach defense on the west coast of Bataan, and along with the Provisional Philippine Army Air Corps Battalion and Company A of the 803rd Engineer Aviation Battalion played parts as infantry in the ferocious Battle of the Points against sea-borne invaders. The Provisional Air Corps Regiment was composed of a variety of air units, including elements of the 20th Air Base Group and the 27th Bombardment Group, whose flying squadrons' A-24 dive-bombers never arrived in the Philippines. It helped cover the withdrawal of friendly troops from the Abucay Line in late January and was then assigned to positions directly on the new main line of resistance. There the regiment established a mile-long subsector on the eastern portion of this new Orani Line. The Airmen meticulously built their emplacements, which were inspected by Brigadier General Casey, MacArthur's chief engineer, who reported the positions to be "uniformally excellent." The regiment stood fast on the Orani Line until April 7, when enemy tanks, for which they had no anti-tank weapons, broke through an adjacent subsector and outflanked their posts. These Bataan engagements were perhaps the hardest ground battles that Airmen in World War II directly participated in.

Alas, after an arduous campaign, the weary Filipino-American defenders of Bataan, malnourished, diseased, exhausted, dejected and neglected, surrendered to the enemy, who had sent additional forces from across Asia to the Philippines to defeat them. On this solemn 70th anniversary of the fall of Bataan, we remember those who fought under such trying circumstances, and those who perished in the battles or the brutal Death March afterward. We remember the Bataan veterans lost in the prison camps, the mines and other forced labors and those lost aboard the "Hell Ships." To you brave defenders of Bataan, to those yet with us and to those departed, we salute you for your valor in the brave stand that you made. We thank you for your forlorn sacrifice which bought us precious time, and ultimately helped ensure the liberty and freedom we enjoy today.