A patched-up P-40B soldiered on at Bataan.
Both before and during World War II, the Curtiss-Wright Airplane Company manufactured three versions of its P-40. The first, the B-model, called the Tomahawk by the British who flew it in North Africa and the Middle East, was flown until April 1942 by the American Volunteer Group in China, and was responsible for most of the 286 victories credited to the “Flying Tigers.” Additionally, along with the nine squadrons in Hawaii that were partially outfitted with Tomahawks, 31 were shipped to the Philippines in May 1941. This is the story of what was by all accounts the last P-40B Tomahawk fighter to see action in the Pacific in World War II.
When the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, nine of the 18 sorties flown by American fighters that day were made in P-40Bs, which accounted for seven enemy planes shot down. In the Philippines, of the four 24th Pursuit Group squadrons in the islands, three flew later-version P-40E Kittyhawks. The fourth and only unit still equipped with P-40Bs was the 20th Pursuit Squadron at Clark Field. Sadly, of the 23 Tomahawks warming up on the ground when the Japanese struck at noon on December 8, only three got into the air. The rest, along with five that were unmanned, were destroyed on the ground.
By the end of the day, only three P-40Bs were left in the islands, and when what was left of the 24th Pursuit Group was ordered to Bataan in late December, they were down to two. Between then and February 12, 1942, those two fighters, along with at most seven P-40Es—representing the entire 24th Group—were involved in all the reconnaissance and combat missions flown.
On one of the more memorable missions, a Tomahawk flown by Lieutenant Lloyd Stinson was part of a surprise night raid on Nichols and Nielson fields outside of Manila. On January 24, two days before that attack, intelligence reports gathered from agents working near the city indicated that the Japanese had concentrated a large number of fighters at the two airfields. Assuming this meant that they had moved there to take advantage of the 30-mile hop across Manila Bay to Bataan instead of the 120-mile round trip from Clark Field, the Americans decided something had to be done. Six planes were to fly 12 sorties. To do the job, along with the firepower of the six .50-caliber machine guns of the P-40Es and the Tomahawks’ two .50s and four .30s, each plane was equipped with bomb racks capable of carrying six 30-pound fragmentation bombs.
Stinson, along with two other pilots, was assigned to attack Nielson. Although the specific results of their attack were not known, intelligence reports claimed that between 14 and 17 Japanese planes were destroyed in the raids on the two fields, with more than 30 more damaged by bombs and machine gun fire. More important, it was reported that the enemy had ordered a general dispersal of all planes in the Manila area following the raids.
On the night of January 22, the Japanese invaded the west coast of Bataan, some 900 men coming ashore on a beach below a headland identified as Quinauan Point. Eleven days later, early on the morning of February 2, a 13-barge Japanese force was spotted attempting to reinforce their position on Quinauan. In response, two fourplane attacks involving both Tomahawks and two P-40Es strafed and bombed the enemy force, leading the pilots to believe their efforts had led to the repulse of the entire invasion. They were only half right. Of the 700 enemy troops involved, the Japanese conceded that some 350 never reached the shore.
On February 12, Brig. Gen. Harold George, commander of what was then called the Bataan Flying Field Detachment, turned over operational control of the field to Captain Edwin Dyess. It wasn’t much of a promotion, as Dyess’ entire operational force consisted of four P-40Es and just one flyable Tomahawk.
For the next 20 days the tiny Bataan air force saw no combat. But on March 3, a large number of Japanese ships were spotted in Subic Bay, 20 miles north of the southern tip of the Bataan Peninsula. At that time, the five-plane air force had been spread out over three fields: two at Bataan; one—the lone remaining Tomahawk—at Cabcaben, two miles south of Bataan Field; and two at Mariveles, southernmost of the three airfields.
George decided to “shoot the works,” ordering four of the planes loaded with 30- pounders. The fifth, Dyess’ Kittyhawk, was rigged with a single 500-pound bomb on a homemade bomb rack.
Flying wingman for Dyess was Lieutenant Donald “Shorty” Crosland in the Tomahawk. Together they bombed and strafed enemy ships and shore installations before returning to Bataan, then repeated their efforts, returning around 5:30 p.m. after a second run.
Although shadows were covering both Bataan and Cabcaben runways by then, Dyess, with Crosland’s replacement, Lieutenant John Burns, in the Tomahawk, took off at 6 p.m. for what would be Dyess’ third sortie that day. At the same time, the two Mariveles fighters left to take another crack at the big bay.
After the last attack, only four fighters headed for home (the fifth, a P-40E piloted by Lieutenant Erwin Crellin, had been shot down in the first attack). Unknown to the four pilots as they lined up for the approach to their respective fields, a strong tail wind had picked up off the bay. Of the four, only Dyess was able to land safely. As for Stinson and Lieutenant Jim Fossey at Mariveles and John Burns at Cabcaben, all three overshot their respective fields, crashing at the end of the runways. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
“Just as I hit the ground I saw a stream of tracers going up from beyond the hill that separated Bataan Field from Cabcaben,” Dyess later wrote. “I realized the direction of the fire meant it was coming from Burns’ plane. I guessed he had pressed the firing button accidentally after landing. At George’s headquarters I got the bad news. The tail wind had brought Burns in too fast. To avoid overshooting the field he ground-looped the plane, damaging it severely. It was during the loop that his guns had fired.
So after sinking an estimated 26,000 tons of enemy shipping and killing several hundred Japanese in the process, by the end of that day the Bataan Flying Field Detachment was down to only one plane—Dyess’ P-40E, appropriately named Kibosh.
Over at Cabcaben crewmen surveyed the damage to the ground-looped P-40B. The main damage, outside of one wing, was a bent propeller and a torn out landing gear—both reparable. Under the supervision of engineer officer Lieutenant Leo Boelens, mechanics of the 21st Pursuit Squadron went to work on salvaging the last of the Tomahawks. Only two days later, using parts from three wrecked P-40Es and a rebuilt engine, that plane was ready to rejoin the Bataan air force.
Only one thing was missing: a name for this hybrid warbird. Without parts from the Kittyhawks, it could never have been pieced together. Yet its main frame was still that of a P-40B. After discussion, someone said they had to call it something. It was dubbed just that—P-40 Something.
First to flight-test Something was the experienced Lieutenant Bill Rowe. On March 14, headquarters on Corregidor ordered a reconnaissance of four Japanese airfields on Luzon to determine whether a rumored buildup of planes was actually taking place there. Although he had never flown a P-40B, let alone the hybrid Something, Rowe had no trouble with the plane. Ordered to avoid contact with the enemy, he first headed north to Del Carmen and Clark airields, then south across the bay to Nielson and Nichols. His presence over all four fields was totally ignored. On his return to Cabcaben he reported no unusual buildup at any of the fields.
For the remainder of the month there was no reconnaissance or combat for the two-plane Bataan air force. On April 2, Dyess sent Lieutenant Jack Donaldson to Cebu in Something for some special supplies to help boost his pilots’ sagging morale. The island of Cebu had become the main quartermaster supply depot for Bataan and Corregidor. Although its warehouses were loaded with supplies of all kinds, because of the tight enemy blockade of Manila Bay, few ships had gotten through. Some of the supplies were flown in by military and civilian planes from Bataan. P-40 Something became part of the resupply operation that had been going on for two months at that point.
Among the aircraft flown to Bataan Field when the withdrawal to Bataan had been ordered in late December were three civilian planes—an eight-year old Bellanca, a 1934 four-place Waco and a Beechcraft Staggerwing that had somehow come through the ensuing months intact. On February 3, Lieutenant David Obert was ordered to fly to Mindanao to deliver a code book to Brig. Gen. William F. Sharp, southern islands commander. On his return the next day he stopped at Cebu, where Colonel John Cook, commander of the Army’s quartermaster depot at Cebu City, loaded the cockpit of his Kittyhawk with goodies to take back to Bataan. Stuffed into his plane when he took off were quantities of candy, as well as several bottles of cognac and tobacco.
Obert recalled: “Upon arrival at Bataan the liquor, tobacco and candy was turned over to General George, who in following days passed it out to the pilots as sort of a reward for successfully completed missions. This was the first resupply flight from southern islands to Bataan. Probably could be classed as the maiden voyage of much famed ‘Bamboo Fleet.’”
Obert was right. Because of his mission the brass decided to use the three civilian planes and an occasional P-40 to fly in treats for the pilots as well as food and medical supplies for the Army. The Bamboo Fleet, so-called because of the prominent use of bamboo to keep the old planes flying, operated from that day on until the fall of Bataan, often ferrying VIPs south, then returning with as much food, quinine and other supplies as could be stuffed into the cabins and cockpits. Captain Roland Barnick recalled that he and the other pilots “made about 35 round trips in all, evacuating 100 to 120 personnel and bringing in tons of supplies.”
Donaldson’s 700-mile round-trip flight to Cebu in Something was uneventful. But among the candy, cigarettes and liquor he brought back were a couple of less desirable souvenirs—friendly-fire bullet holes he acquired as he crossed over the southern tip of Bataan en route to Cabcaben.
The situation on Bataan had reached its critical stage by that time. On April 3, the Japanese launched what would be the final offensive against the starved American and Filipino garrison.
John McCown made a reconnaissance flight on April 6, during which he was forced to abort due to mechanical problems. The next time P-40 Something left dusty Cabcaben Field would be its last flight from Bataan.
On the afternoon of April 8, former 20th Pursuit Squadron commander Lieutenant Joe Moore was ordered to fly a P-40 to Cebu that night. Once there, his assignment was, along with two or three other P-40s, to escort a small convoy of supply ships through the Japanese blockade to Bataan and Corregidor. When Moore arrived at Cabcaben that night, outside of identifying the plane he was to fly as originally his by its number 41, he barely recognized the aircraft he had picked up when it was brand new back in May 1941. He thought it was only fitting that he should be the one to fly it out of harm’s way. Unknown to Moore, as he lifted Something off Cabcaben at 8:30 that night, Bataan was less than four hours away from surrendering.
Although the mechanical problems that had plagued his old fighter may have been evident during that flight, in Moore’s familiar hands old number 41 gave no problems. That was not to say that the flight was uneventful. Magnifying the difficulty of flying at night, Moore ran into a large thunderstorm that forced him to divert west over the South China Sea. When he finally touched down at Cebu with his fuel tank indicator leaning on the empty peg, what was usually a l l⁄2-hour flight had taken him an exhausting four hours.
The next day when Moore, who had slept late, walked into the headquarters building, he was surprised to see nine of his fellow 24th Pursuit Group pilots. They had all escaped from Bataan the previous night, but Moore noticed that they looked depressed. When he asked what was wrong, he was told they’d just heard over the radio that Bataan had fallen. Thus ended the mission of escorting supply ships through the enemy blockade.
That same afternoon Moore was ordered to report to the 24th Pursuit Group’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Orrin Grover at Mindanao, using the new P-40E that Obert had flown in. Rightly irked by Grover’s order to have Moore fly his Kittyhawk, Obert was told to follow in the P-40B—a model he, like several before him, had never flown.
Later that afternoon a reconnaissance flight over Cebu’s southeastern coast located a convoy of Japanese ships heading toward Cebu City. With the airfield just a mile outside the city, the handful of Bataan pilots who were still there were told to sleep near their planes in case the Japanese landed that night. “A report was received shortly after dark saying that the Japanese transports were moving toward the city,” Obert later wrote in his diary. “At about 4 o’clock the report came that the landings were being made, and shortly thereafter demolition of stores and army supplies in Cebu started. The pilots of the planes at the airfield took off for Del Monte shortly before dawn just as the Japanese were reported entering the city.”
Last off was Obert in Something—the fifth pilot to fly the hybrid plane. As he settled into the cockpit, any apprehension he might have felt about flying a P-40B for the first time was suddenly forgotten when demolition crews set off the huge gasoline storage tank near the edge of the airfield. As he felt the plane clear the runway, he suddenly realized that he’d forgotten about the hangar on the far end of the field. Saved by the surprisingly quick response of Something, which barely cleared the building, Obert reflected that the heavier P-40E that he was used to flying would not have made it.
After Obert arrived safely at Del Monte on the morning of April 10, other than transferring it to a nearby fighter strip known as Dalirig, the fighter was not flown again until the 13th. That morning Lieutenants John Brownewell and Gus Williams were ordered to attack the Japanese airfield at Davao, 100 miles southwest of Del Monte. Just as Williams in Something and Brownewell in a Kittyhawk cleared the field, however, they spotted two Japanese floatplanes, apparently on their way back from attacking the main field at Del Monte.
As the two planes started a steep climb toward the Japanese, Williams found old Something couldn’t keep up with the faster P-40E. While still climbing to get himself into position, Brownewell shot down one of the enemy planes. A thousand or so feet below the action, seeing the Japanese plane start to fall, Williams banked Something in a relatively tight turn to watch the enemy plane on its way to the ground. Without warning, the Tomahawk snapped violently to the outside—its engine still running wide open. The force ripped off the slidback canopy and Williams’ helmet and goggles as well. (Ironically, the P-40B flight manual actually warned of this happening if such a maneuver was attempted with the canopy open.)
Then, as Williams fought the centrifugal pull from the spin, the engine suddenly quit, allowing the terrified pilot to slip back into his seat and pull the aircraft out of a 2,000-foot drop.
Williams, who guessed his altitude was barely over 1,000 feet when he recovered, decided to try for a dead-stick, wheelsdown landing on Dalirig. But concentrating on the problem at hand, he had forgotten to pull the throttle back from its wide-open position. Suddenly, as he approached the field, the engine kicked over again at full speed. Easing back on the throttle and making a wide, gentle circle over the field to avoid another snap roll, Williams managed to bring Something down safely. Unknown to him and those who witnessed it, the incident was the death knell for the old P-40.
The next day, April 14, it was raining. With enemy interference unlikely, headquarters decided to transfer all the fighters from Dalirig and the main field at Del Monte to the nearby strip at Maramag.
Lieutenant Larry McDaniel, a Seversky P-35 pilot with virtually no time in a P-40 who had not flown anything in weeks, volunteered to make the flight (it was later rumored that the veteran P-40 pilot originally selected for the mission didn’t want to fly in the heavy rain). Williams later said that the plane should never have been allowed off the ground because of the incident of the day before. Something stalled and crashed on approach to Maramag, killing McDaniel. Thus the Tomahawk’s hybrid offspring came to a tragic end.
Originally published in the July 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.