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Fighter Aces Of The 7th Fighter Squadron


Java ace Bill Hennon of the 7th FS


Part Two: Holding The Line


The 7th Fighter Squadron re-deployed to the newly constructed Batchelor field, just south of Darwin, in April 1942. Thus, they joined the 8th and 9th FS in the defense of Darwin. The 8th FS moved onto their new field, later named Strauss field, 30 miles north of Batchelor. As the 7th settled in to their new base, the 9th began moving north to Livingston field. By the beginning of May, the 49th was well disbursed on three airfields to the south and southeast of Darwin.

For the month of May, the Japanese kept a low profile and the 49th had little to do except fly patrols and train. It was during this quiet time that fighter ace Bill Hennon, the Operations Coordinator of the 7th FS, had painted the image of a mythical Java jungle demon on his P-40s vertical stabilizer. Called "Bunyap", the demon typified the fierceness of Hennon in combat and the squadron soon adopted the image and the title "Screamin' Demons".



After the stunning set-backs at the Coral Sea and at Midway, the Japanese decided to concentrate on eliminating the remaining Allied air units in the Southwest Pacific. Port Moresby and Darwin were both selected as targets.

Unsure of the exact strength of Allied forces in the area of Darwin, the Japanese launched a series of raids beginning on June 13, 1942. After almost 90 days of inaction, the Japanese sent 27 G4M bombers escorted by 45 A6M2 Zeros to pound the RAAF airstrip and the docks of Darwin. The first P-40s to get to the attackers were the from the 8th FS standing patrol. Grossly outnumbered, the 8th was badly shot up and never got near the bombers. With only one confirmed kill, the 8th lost one P-40 and three more limped home badly damaged to be written off. The 7th arrived too late to join in.

The next day, the 7th found themselves in the thick of the fight. The Japanese sent 9 Bettys and 27 A6M2 Zeros to attack the harbor and docks. This time, however, they split the bombers from the escort, thus providing an effective screen. The 8th FS never made contact with either group of aircraft. The 7th and 9th squadrons ran into the escorts over Middle Arm inlet. Captain Nate Blanton, a veteran of Java, led his 7th FS flight down from 20,000 feet, attacking the Zeros of the Japanese 3rd Ku. Within only seconds, Blanton had blasted 2 Zeros, one fatally. Now fully alerted, the remaining 25 Japanese veteran pilots responded quickly. One P-40 was clobbered by two Zeros and burst in flames. Its pilot, combat rookie Lt. Keith Brown managed to bail out over the RAAF airstrip just south of Darwin. Landing in a tree and breaking his leg, Brown was quickly rescued by RAAF personnel who were watching the air battle. A bit singed and in substantial pain, Brown was rushed to the RAAF hospital for treatment.

As the remaining three 7th FS pilots broke off the fight, a four plane flight from the 9th FS (the only 4 of twelve 9th FS P-40s to find the Japanese) arrived and weighed into the 3rd Ku. This flight, led by Andrew Landers, sent three Zeros down on fire. After 30 minutes of continuous air combat, the 3rd Ku headed for home. The pilots of the 7th and 9th squadrons, totaling only 8 aircraft, outnumbered better than 3 to 1, had managed to destroy four enemy fighters for the loss of only one of their fighters with the pilot injured, but alive.



June 16th brought yet another Japanese raid. 27 G4M bombers escorted by 27 A6M2 Zero fighters once again approached at high altitude. The 8th FS went up to attempt an interception. Climbing up to over 26,000 feet, they were met by the Japanese escorts. At this relatively high altitude, the P-40 is woefully low on power. Making matters worse, the Zeros were higher still and came down at speed, scattering the flight. Some of the 8th's pilots elected to try to maneuver with the Zeros, with the usual result. One P-40 was shot down, its pilot lost without a trace. Two others failed to return, one running out of fuel, the second suffering engine failure and ditching along the coast. Both pilots were recovered uninjured.

The 9th FS got into the scrap as well, claiming 2 Bettys and 2 Zeros as destroyed. Two of the P-40s were hit, one making a dead stick landing in a clearing. The second bellied in safely. No pilots were lost. Post war investigation reveals that while the 49th FG claimed 13 Zeros and two G4M bombers, the Japanese report losing only 2 Zeros and no bombers. The Japanese records are called into suspect as the RAAF reported finding the wreckage of 5 Zeros and 1 Betty. In contrast, the Japanese fighter pilots claimed 43 P-40s as destroyed. Group records indicate that 9 P-40s were lost to all causes over the four days. Obviously, Japanese aircraft that crashed into the sea did not leave wreckage to confirm the kill.

Back at the 7th, the Operations Officer, Capt. Hennon, was somewhat less than happy with the Groups performance. He raised hell with those pilots who tried to take on the A6M2 at high altitude alone. The tactic Hennon expounded on was "hit and run". Time and time again, the inexperienced pilots would take on the Zeros in turning fights. Worse, they were doing this at altitudes where the Allison engines of their P-40s were pitifully low on power. Hammering this lesson into the heads of the young pilots would save many of their lives and aircraft.





The Japanese did not return in strength until July 30th (they conducted some limited night raids starting on July 25th). Once again, G4M bombers escorted by Zeros arrived over Darwin at about 24,000 feet. The 7th was there to greet them. Diving in with little altitude advantage, the P-40s were met mid way by the Zero escort. In successive head-on passes the P-40s were able to tie up the escort. Lt. Melikian was able to make a nose-on attack on a G4M, the bomber last seen on fire going down. One additional P-40 was able to get a run in on the bombers. 2d Lt. Drake, having fallen behind his squadron mates, saw an opportunity to attack the second element of the bombers. Gaining airspeed in a shallow dive, Drake closed in and opened fire. The big G4M in his gunsight fell off on one wing, mortally wounded. Drake then made the rookie mistake of pulling into a steep climb to attack the first bomber element several thousand feet above. Taking a high angle deflection shot, Drake missed his target. Unfortunately the pursuing Zeros did not miss. Hammered by 2 Zeros, Drake's engine was hit, spewing out hot oil and Prestone. With his cockpit filling with smoke and fumes, the young 2nd Lt. went over the side. Landing safely in the mild surf, Drake waded ashore and was picked up by boat later that day.

Meanwhile, the fighters involved with the bulk of the escort had shot down 2 Zeros during their head-on firing runs. Both Lt.s Poston and Steere each getting credit for one apiece. A four plane flight from the 9th FS executed a picture perfect bounce on the escort's second element and dove safely away leaving four Zeros spiraling down in flames.

Upon being returned to the 7th Fighter Squadron, Drake received a thorough chewing out for trying to fight in the vertical with Zeros hot on his tail. The fact that he received a confirmed kill for the Betty, helped to offset the loss of his fighter. Drake was the only pilot who ignored the "hit and run" doctrine, and the only pilot to be shot down. Hopefully, this time, the message would sink in.

Special thanks to William Pascalis, co-author of Protect & Avenge, for his advice and
wonderful book on the 49th Fighter Group without which, this story could not be written.

The 49th Fighter Group Association may be contacted at:
49th Association
PO Box 41539
Mesa, Arizona 85275-1539


ADITIONAL RESOURCES:
U.S. National Archives: Army Air Forces in the War Against Japan 1941-1945.
The 49th Fighter Group Association.

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