For nearly three weeks, the 312th called the S.S. Nieuw Amsterdam home. This ship was originally a Holland-America luxury liner that carried 800 passengers from Southampton to New York in six days. When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, the Nieuw Amsterdam was sent to Nova Scotia and turned into a troop ship.
The S.S. Nieuw Amsterdam would take the 312th to Australia.
The 312th was crammed aboard this ship with a Dutch crew of 600 and over 7000 other men. Officers slept in staterooms, and the enlisted men slept wherever they could– on deck, below in hammocks, or on mattresses. Life on the ship consisted of two meals a day, a news broadcast, playing poker, reading, and whatever other activities the men could think of. There were occasional life boat drills and heated discussions as well. On November 19th, 1943, after a two month journey, the Nieuw Amsterdam docked in Sydney, Australia.
Once the 312th reached Sydney, they were taken to the tent camp Warwick Farms Racetrack, where they stayed for two days. On the 21st, half of the Group traveled to Brisbane, 600 miles to the north. There they waited for a couple of days before the other half of the Group joined them at Camp Moorooka. The men had to get used to spring weather (since they left autumn behind in the norther hemisphere), driving on the opposite side of the road in the right side of a vehicle, beer being served at room temperature, and the conversion between the American dollar and Australian pound.
About the same time the 312th made it to Australia, the unassembled P-40Ns made it to Archerfield, the main airport in Brisbane.
Richard A. Wilson of the 386th Squadron in his P-40N at Gusap.
The 312th relocated to Archerfield because they would be flying these planes to New Guinea. The N model was a lighter, faster version of the P-40 that was good to fly for fun as well as for combat. It also had smaller, lighter undercarriage wheels, head armor, four wing-mounted guns and aluminum radiators and oil coolers. The 386th Squadron was the first of the Group to receive this plane, and they wasted no time becoming proficient in flying the P-40s. On December 10th, the Squadron set off for Gusap. They reached their destination on the 13th without incident.
Meanwhile, the 389th had arranged to share P-40s with the 49th Fighter Group. They left Brisbane by rail to Townsville, where they climbed aboard a C-47 bound for Port Moresby and arrived there on the 13th. While flying with the 49th, the men learned patrol and escort mission procedures, practiced their dive-bombing skills and experienced antiaircraft fire on fighter sweeps to Finschhafen.
By the end of 1943, the Group was reassigned from dive-bombing to light bombardment. This became official on December 21st, but the Squadrons got these orders over several weeks. The 386th transferred on the 21st, the 387th on the 27th, followed by the 388th and 389th on January 8, 1944. During this change, the Group would keep flying the P-40s until they got new planes.
The ground echelon was still at Camp Moorooka in November, and they prepared for the journey to Port Moresby. After arriving on December 21st, the men realized they were in a war zone with the half-submerged S.S. Macdhui (bombed by the Japanese in June 1942) as a constant reminder. The men got settled at Seventeen Mile, also called Durand, Airdrome, a drier section of New Guinea, located away from the rain belt of the Owen Stanley Mountains.
Even though they were in a drier area, the men still had to take precautions against malaria by taking Atabrine tablets on a regular basis. Living conditions were fairly rustic and the men would bathe by pouring water into their helmets and then washing and rinsing with the same water. The ground echelon wouldn’t join the air echelon at Gusap until the very end of December 1943.