Archive for May 29th, 2016

Part 2: Why Was Morale So Low When the 19th Reached Australia? 1941-42

May 29th, 2016 by Ken & Phyl Bledsoe

The 19th BG relocated to Australia in February, 1942, to ‘Regroup, Reload, and Retaliate.’  After fierce fighting and great loss of men and equipment, they were forced out of the Philippines and Java by the advancing Japanese.  This defeat resulted in extreme stress, fatigue, and frustration among these proud, fighting men.

Meanwhile, General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the SW Pacific, tried to defend the Philippines against the Japanese assault.  But by March 11, 1942, the general was evacuated to Broome, Australia, leaving behind his forces to hold out as long as they could.

By April 9th, however, 78,000 American – predominantly men from the 19th BG – and Filipino troops surrendered at Bataan.  The Japanese weren’t prepared to handle large numbers of prisoners, so this resulted in the Bataan ‘Death March,’ during which over 10,000 Allied soldiers were murdered – one of the most infamous atrocities of WWII.

The war in Europe, made it impossible for Great Britain to protect their territories/allies in the Pacific.  This was especially a concern for Australia and made them a vulnerable target for the Japanese.  So the Australians gratefully welcomed the surviving members of the 19th BG to their country.  The American men and equipment became pivotal in the defense of Australia.

Many of the airmen evacuated from Java were transported across Australia by train.

Many of the airmen evacuated from Java were transported across Australia by train.

The SW Pacific was a particularly grueling place to fight a war.  Weather, bad airfields, lack of navigation aids, inexperienced crews (both air and ground), and a constant shortage of spare parts resulted in more damage than did Japanese fighter pilots.  The B-17 crews were asked to fly many long-range flights, which increased wear and tear on both aircraft and crews.  On their missions, the airmen had to confront the possibility of dying themselves, as well as, seeing their friends die.  Flight crews in the 19th with over ten months of combat experience often developed severe operational fatigue and underwent extreme changes in their attitude toward flying.  Maybe they felt that their luck was running out and that they would never return home.

Between October and November of 1942, General George Kenney, 5th USAAF Commander, sent the exhausted 19th BG home and reassigned them to Pyote ‘Rattlesnake’ Bomber Base in West Texas.  Of the thousands of men who left their homes to fight in the Philippines and/or Java and who later flew missions out of Australia over New Guinea and Rabaul, only 161 arrived at Pyote.  For two years these war-weary men trained a new generation of pilots, navigators, and bombardiers to fly the improved version of the B-17, the new ‘Super Fortress’ B-29.

In September of 1945 my father, Vernon Elder, was honorably discharged from the Air Corps.  However, his traumatic year in the SW Pacific left him a ‘wounded warrior;’ and as far as I know, he rarely – if ever – talked about his war experiences and chose to never fly again after leaving the service.