Archive for May 22nd, 2016

Part 1: Why Was Morale So Low When the 19th Bomb Group Reached Australia? 1941-42

May 22nd, 2016 by Ken & Phyl Bledsoe

When war broke out in Europe, the United States adopted the Europe-first strategy causing substantial equipment and resources to be shifted from the Pacific to the Atlantic Theater.  This action was taken, in large part, because our leaders underestimated the power of the Japanese and overestimated our own power in the SW Pacific.

Therefore, the 19th Bomb Group was forced to fight a predominantly defensive holding action throughout the Philippines and Java.  Their B-17 bombers in the Philippines were expected to serve as a threat and deterrent to any aggressive behavior on the part of the Japanese.  However, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, they concurrently attacked Clark Field on Luzon Island in the Philippines.  The 19th Bomb Group had seventeen B-17s at Clark Field that day – twelve were completely destroyed and five more were damaged.  There were also heavy casualties among the 19th BG’s ground and air crews.

Vernon's friend from the 19th BG shares with native children upon landing in Java, from Ken Bledsoe collection.

Vernon's friend from the 19th BG shares with native children upon landing in Java.

Sixteen of the bomb group’s B-17s had been sent to Del Monte, Mindanao, the large southern island of the Philippines, and thus escaped destruction.  Within a month after the attack on Clark Field, however, the United States commanders in the South Pacific realized that the Philippines could not be held.  On January 1, 1942, the remaining air-worthy B-17s were sent to Java.

My dad, Vernon Elder, arrived in Malang, Java on January 23, 1942.  He was a tail gunner on a new B-17E which had been redesigned to add a belly gun and tail gun, allowing the crew to better protect themselves from Japanese fighter pilots.  Vernon and other members of the 19th almost immediately went into fierce, aerial combat hoping to slow down the advancement of the Japanese in the South Pacific.

However, the 19th and their Dutch and Australian allies couldn’t prevent the Japanese takeover of the Philippines and Java.  So on February 26, 1942 the Allies began evacuating their crews and equipment to western Australia.  Only a few Air Corps personnel got out – of 210 officers, 70 were left behind; and of 1300 men, 1060 were either killed or captured and imprisoned in the Philippines.  Later, many 19th BG men became part of the Bataan ‘Death March.’

Once again the proud men of the 19th had suffered defeat at the hands of the Japanese.  But this time they were forced to leave their fellow servicemen behind knowing that the chance of their surviving was almost non-existent.  Vernon and his best friends – T.J. Rice, Paul Lindsey, and Houston Rice – were all safe.  But how could they and others relocated to Australia reconcile the loss of so many friends with their own survival?

Watch for Part 2 next week … for the rest of the story.