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By Jack McKillop
THE B-24 SPY FLIGHT
During a trip to the Library of Congress several years ago, I found a copy of the PROCEEDINGS OF ROBERTS COMMISSION, the first commission to investigate the Pearl Harbor disaster. Exhibit T on page 1833 lists the Hawaiian Air Force aircraft available at the three major fields on Oahu. One of the aircraft that sticks out like a sore thumb is a Consolidated B-24A Liberator, USAAF serial number 40-2371, at Hickam Field. I could not fathom what this aircraft was doing there since the heavy bomber units of the USAAF were being equipped with B-17 Flying Fortresses. A little digging provided the answer that this aircraft was one of two spy planes that were to photograph Japanese installations in the Pacific.
The following is from THE ARMY AIR FORCES IN WORLD WAR II, Volume I, pages 189-190.
"During the final days of November (1941), preparations in the Philippines had been hastened by the knowledge of increased Japanese activity in the western Pacific. Intelligence from British sources late in October 1941 had warned of the presence of two Japanese aircraft carriers in the mandated islands. Within a few weeks American commanders learned from another warning that Japanese planes had been detected flying over British territory, perhaps photographing some of the Gilbert Islands. British officials in Singapore suggested that the associated powers send their own aircraft to photograph all the Japanese-mandated islands, the coast line of French Indochina, and other areas occupied by Japan. The War Department promptly approving the idea, notified General Douglas MacArthur, Commanding General U.S. Army Forces in the Far East with headquarters in the Philippines, on 26 November 1941 that two Consolidated B-24 Liberators equipped for high-altitude photography would depart for the Philippines within 48 hours. The crews were to fly at altitude and to avoid Japanese planes, but they were to use every possible means of self-preservation if attacked by any aircraft. The specific mission of the B-24s was to photograph Jaluit in the Marshall Islands and Truk in the Caroline Islands, and to obtain as much information as possible on the location and strength of military and naval installations. Major General Lewis H. Brereton, Commanding General Far East Air Force in the Philippines, notified officials of the Royal Australian Air Force at Port Moresby (New Guinea) to expect the arrival of the B-24s while Lieutenant General Walter C. Short, Commanding General Hawaiian Department, U.S. Army in Hawaii, was given details of the mission by the War Department. For a while it appeared that American forces in the Pacific would soon have firsthand information and photographs of Japanese naval concentrations, but the B-24s were delayed in arriving in the Territory of Hawaii. Within a few days the War Department expressed fear that the mission was impracticable because of the distance to be flown. The mission was not canceled, however, and one of the B-24s on 5 December reached Hawaii, where it was decided to hold it until satisfactorily armed. From the first there had been difficulty in securing and equipping the planes for the mission, and at the outbreak of hostilities the second plane had not yet left the United States."
The B-24A that arrived at Hickam Field on 5 December was part of the 44th Bombardment Group (Heavy) based at MacDill Field, Tampa, Florida. The aircraft was assigned to the 1st Photographic Group based at Bolling Field, Washington, D.C., and was attached to the Air Corps Ferrying Command. It had flown to Hawaii from the Soviet Union through the Middle East, Singapore, Australia, New Guinea and Wake Island. Problems were encountered in installing the machine guns and the aircraft was still there on the morning of 7 December.
According to Prange in AT DAWN WE SLEPT, when the B-24A arrived at Hickam Field it only had three machine guns, one .30 calibre (7.62 mm) and two .50 calibre (12.7 mm) in the tail and no ammunition. It certainly was not prepared to defend itself against any enemy action. Since 5 December was a Friday, the aircraft had to remain at least over the weekend before it could be made ready for its mission. It never made it; the single B-24 at Hickam Field was destroyed by the Japanese during the attack on Sunday, 7 December. The forward three-quarters of the aircraft were completely burned out leaving the aft one-quarter and the wings and engines intact.
Edward S. Miller added the following.
RE: Jack McKillop's account of the aborted B-24 reconnaissance mission over the Japanese Mandated Islands, here's how the mission originated.
A reconnaissance of the Mandated Islands was suggested by General George Marshall, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, in the fall of 1941 because he was worried about the safety of B-17 bombers that had been ferrying out to the Philippine Islands beginning in September. The B-17s fueled at Hawaii, Midway and Wake Islands, and then flew overnight to the Australian field at Rabaul, New Ireland Island, Bismarck Archipelago, and then on to Darwin, Australia and the Philippines. On the overnight Wake-Rabaul leg they passed over the Japanese-held Ponape Island in the dark. Ponape Island was in the Senyavin Island group in the eastern part of the Caroline Islands at 06.58N, 158.31E.
The US Navy liked the reconnaissance idea but considered its Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boats too slow and vulnerable; they might be shot down and precipitate a war crisis. Hence B-24s were assigned because they could fly high and fast. Pacific Fleet Intelligence Officer Edwin Layton proposed an inspection of eleven islands. The Joint Army and Navy Board reduced the mission to single passes of B-24s over Truk and Jaluit while flying in daylight along the Wake-Rabaul track. Truk was a major Japanese naval base on Dublon Island, Truk Islands about 800 miles (1,287 kilometres) north of Rabaul at 07.10N, 151.50E; Jaluit Atoll was in the Marshall Islands at 06.00N, 169.37E.
Mr. Millers source citations are in his book, WAR PLAN ORANGE, pp 299-302.
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