“When the United States entered the war, the European Theater was deemed priority one — only a small number of B-17s were allocated to the Pacific.”
MOST KNOW ABOUT the swarms of B-17s the U.S. Army Air Force flew against the Third Reich in World War Two. But Flying Fortresses also fought in the Pacific in the opening years of the war, albeit in limited numbers.
Pre-war American forces in the Philippines maintained 35 B-17s; 12 more were ordered there just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. In fact, those same dozen bombers were trying to land on Honolulu to refuel just as Japanese planes struck the island on Dec. 7, 1941.
When the United States entered World War Two, the European Theater was deemed priority one – most equipment, including the Flying Fortress, was sent there. Only a small number of B-17s were allocated to the Pacific.
The 43rd Bomb Group, which had been trained as a unit, was sent to Australia without any aircraft at all. They spent five months idling there before more aircraft arrived, and even then there were only bombers enough for two of the group’s four squadrons, the 63rd and 403rd. The others, the 64th and 65th, wouldn’t receive aircraft until the 19th Bomb Group, which had been fighting since the war began, rotated back to the U.S. in November 1942, leaving their aircraft and aircrews behind for the 43rd.
Eventually, stateside factories produced enough heavy bombers to equip units in the southwest Pacific — mostly with Consolidated B-24 Liberators. All the new Flying Fortresses were being requisitioned by Eighth Air Force in Europe as fast as they could be built. As such, the 43rd would have to transition from its early model B-17s to newer Liberators — not a popular prospect among the aircrews. The process lasted from April to October of 1943.
The following excerpt is from Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Volume I: The B-17 Era. The book is a comprehensive history of the 43rd Bomb Group from its inception until the outfit gave up the last of its Flying Fortresses. The passage describes some of the difficulties encountered during this transition as the 43rd was taking off for a strike against Rabaul, New Britain. Flying in the formation were a number of B-24s, including one headed by Capt. William R. Gowdy:
A 403rd Squadron bird nicknamed “The Champ” experienced a critical malfunction just after takeoff when its landing gear failed to fully retract. The plane bounced slightly on the airstrip as it went airborne, damaging the retraction cylinders on the landing gear, from which the hydraulic fluid poured out. One of the wheels was jammed in extended position, while the other was tucked into the plane. The crew attempted to lower the retracted gear with the backup system, but had no success. The protruding tire and strut created too much drag to fly the mission, and without both wheels down, attempting to land the plane with a full load of fuel would be exceedingly dangerous. After the crew manually opened the bomb bay doors to salvo the bomb load, Capt. William Gowdy, the pilot, radioed the control tower for instructions. He was told to circle Port Moresby to burn fuel and await further orders.
The official order from the tower, after a couple of hours of circling, directed Gowdy to order his crew to bail out, set the autopilot on a straight course to the open sea and then bail out himself. Gowdy brought the plane around for two passes over the runway at 8,000 to 10,000 feet while his crew jumped and deployed their parachutes. Gunner S/Sgt. Henry W. Atchue had been nervously adjusting and readjusting the straps of his parachute while waiting for daylight. After sunrise he was sitting near the edge of the bomb bay anxiously awaiting the order. When his turn finally arrived and he hesitated, another crewman asked him if he was going or not and Atchue became very angry, leaped up and knocked the guy down, telling him he’d jump when “he was damn good and ready.” When he did take that fateful step he had waited a bit too long and his parachute caught in a tree 50 feet above the ground. Fortunately, several Australian soldiers came to his aid and he was reunited with the crew. Atchue salvaged enough parachute silk to make a set of souvenir pajamas.
With his plane now empty and set to crash safely into the Coral Sea, Gowdy himself bailed out. Upon landing he was surprised to see his Liberator still circling the base. One of the engines had gone dead, likely from fuel starvation, putting the unmanned aircraft into a tight spiral over Seven Mile instead of on its intended course. As the morning progressed, men gathered around the revetments and runway to watch the unmanned plane droning menacingly above the base. The crowd made bets on where the plane would crash—and which way to run—as it steadily lost altitude with every cycle. After a short time, “The Champ” went into a dive toward Seven Mile Strip and appeared as though it would barrel directly into the runway. Luckily, the bomber nosed down and crashed into a ridge about five miles away, closer to an Aussie camp, where the Liberator’s wake reportedly blew over several tents. The aircraft exploded when it hit the ground in a deserted area.
For more about Flying Fortresses in the Pacific, check out Ken’s Men Against the Empire: The Illustrated History of the 43rd Bombardment Group During World War II Volume I: Prewar to October 1943 — The B-17 Era. The book comes out on on March 22. It was written by Lawrence J. Hickey with Steve Birdsall, Madison D. Jonas, Edward M. Rogers and Osamu Tagaya. Click here to order a copy.