Making History: Flying B-25s from California to Australia

Within the first year of the United States entering World War II, the country faced the task of moving airplanes and their crews to their destination of the far-off Pacific Theater. While most of the men spent about three weeks aboard a ship, some arrived in Australia by plane in August 1942. A few months earlier, the air force had decided it wasn’t practical to ship B-25s and B-26s to the Pacific Theater, and flight crews from the 71st and 405th Squadrons had to ferry their own newly built B-25s on an island-hopping route from California to Australia. This had never been done with any other unit that arrived in Australia prior to the 38th Bomb Group. It would be a nail biting experience, as the crews had little room for navigational error or mechanical trouble.

Before making the first and longest flight from Hamilton Field, California to Hickam Field, Hawaii, the B-25s had to be outfitted with two large fuel tanks installed in the top and bottom of the bomb bay, a third tank in the bombardier’s spot, and, in case those weren’t enough, a 25 gallon fuel tank was also installed on the wings of some of the B-25s. To increase fuel efficiency, each plane was also stripped of guns and armor. Bombardiers and gunners, whose spots were occupied by fuel tanks, were sent to Hawaii by a transport plane along with the guns and armor from the B-25s. After plenty of tinkering and testing, engineering crews were ready to send the B-25 crews on their way to Hawaii.

Sharp and Thompson

Pilots 1/Lt. Richard T. Sharp and Capt. Alden G. Thompson were part of the flight which departed New Caledonia for Australia during the afternoon of August 14, 1942. Strong headwinds delayed the flight’s arrival in Australia until after dark, and Sharp and Thompson had to crash land their airplanes. (Alden G. Thompson Collection)

Flights began on August 2nd, with four 71st Squadron crews taking off before 0600. Fourteen hours later, they successfully touched down at Hickam Field with little fuel to spare. The rest of the 71st was cleared to join the four crews in Hawaii the next morning. Among them was Capt. Alden G. “Bud” Thompson, flying his B-25 nicknamed BUD AND HIS POGMASTERS. His plane had been modified differently from some of the other B-25s. The fuel tanks in the bomb bay were half the size, with the rest of the fuel to come from tanks on the wings. Unfortunately, the crew had not been told how to transfer fuel from the wing tanks, instead relying on a “tech order” that turned out to be indecipherable. Thompson and his crew turned back for California and landed safely. The small fuel tank was exchanged for a larger one and the crew took off the next morning. They saw a B-17 formation heading in the same direction and joined up with them. Hickam Field was not expecting a B-25 with the B-17s and set off a red alert until the situation was resolved and Thompson and his crew were allowed to land.

The next leg of the trip would be to Christmas Island, followed by Canton Island, then Fiji and New Caledonia, the last stop before Australia. For Thompson, unlike some of the other pilots, the flights between each of these islands had remained relatively uneventful. Still, after two weeks of island hopping, he was eager to get to Australia and refused to spend the night in New Caledonia. Thompson would take the lead position in a flight of five B-25s from New Caledonia to Amberley Field. Crews estimated a five hour flight time, which ended up being far too optimistic. Instead of arriving over Australia before sunset, pilots spent more time battling with strong headwinds over the Coral Sea. WE’REWOLF, flown by 1/Lt. William G. Woods, disappeared. Fortunately, the lost B-25 made it to the RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) strip at Evans Head with the help of a Fairey Battle escort.

Finally, they saw the Australian coastline illuminated by the moon and the navigator aboard Thompson’s plane tuned into Brisbane’s radio station, which would help them stay on course. Ideally, they would hit the eastern edge of Brisbane, then turn inland for Ipswich and land at Amberley. The problem was, they had arrived south of Brisbane and the coastline they were looking at was not at all what they had expected. Australia had also not expected to see the B-25s until the next day and was completely blacked out. And unbeknownst to the aircrews, the radio signal they were following was not coming from Brisbane, but Grafton, a small town well to the south of their destination.

Bud and His Pogmasters

Pictured here is Capt. Bud Thompson’s B-25, BUD AND HIS POGMASTERS, after a forced landing near Grafton, Australia. Leading a four-plane ferry flight from New Caledonia to Amberley Field, Brisbane, Thompson became lost and approached a blacked-out Australian coast from an uncertain location. After hours of searching for Amberley, Thompson and his wingmen were running dangerously low on fuel, and he decided to take his chances with a blind landing at Grafton. The plane came down on an auxiliary training field, then tipped forward after the nose wheel collapsed into the soft ground of an adjacent cow pasture. (Alden G. Thompson Collection)

Low on fuel, the flight of B-25s needed to land quickly. A corporal at the Australian Signal Station at Grafton’s airport identified the B-25s and tried to contact them in Morse code using the lights surrounding the base’s tennis courts. Private James T. Berry, the radio operator, was given a signal lamp to send a message that the planes needed to land immediately. With the help of the local radio station, the corporal gathered Grafton’s residents to light the airstrip with their cars. BUD AND HIS POGMASTERS made a hard landing and tore through a fence as the plane ran out of room on the short runway. After the B-25 stopped, the nose wheel collapsed in the mud. First Lieutenant Richard T. Sharp, who was very anxious to land, brought his plane down next. Dangerously low on fuel, his plane followed the same path into the mud, with the nose gear snapping off and the plane spinning to a stop.

Circling above them, the two remaining B-25s were sent 50 miles away to Evans Head. As they flew north, the pilots of both planes realized they were also very low on fuel and would not make it. Instead, they decided to bail out. One man was killed and the rest made it safely to the ground. By August 22nd, all of the 38th’s air crews were reunited and the men turned their attention to the war.


Cow Wrangling at Charters Towers

To the newly-arrived American airmen, Australia was a completely different world. Sailing across the Pacific on the USAT Ancon, the 3rd Bomb Group went up the Brisbane River in February 1942 and disembarked at Hamilton Wharf. When the men were allowed to explore their new surroundings, they were warmly greeted by the Australians. Still, changes in climate, currency, popular sports, and general culture were a lot to get used to in a short time. Some of the men tried to learn about cricket and rugby but neither sport really caught on with the Group. Twelve days after the 3rd reached Australia, it was ordered to head north to the small town of Charters Towers by March 7th.

On March 8th, the 3rd got on trains and began a slow journey northward. Two days later, the 89th Squadron got off at Townsville to fulfill an assignment of servicing 40th Reconnaissance Squadron B-17s. The rest of the Group rode the remaining 70 miles to Charters Towers. Upon arrival, the men were taken to their campsite, which was nothing more than tall grass and a few trees. They spent their first night in Charters Towers under the stars. The next day, they began to put their camp area together. Not long after the camp was set up, the men pitched in to work on the new airstrips.

Soon, they were given permission to go into the town itself and have a look around. For them, it was like stepping into an old Western film, complete with wooden sidewalks and bars with swinging doors. Charters Towers was certainly small, but it thrived due to its proximity to gold mines. With plans to set up a major air base, though, Charters Towers wouldn’t remain a small town for much longer.

Main Street, Charters Towers

A photograph of the Main Street in Charters Towers during the summer of 1942. Although only a small town, Charters Towers had prospered from a gold mining boom and was well-appointed for a frontier outpost. The town underwent a rapid expansion as it became a major airbase and thoroughfare for the Allied war effort. (Harry Mangan Collection)

By June 1942, the 3rd Bomb Group was well-established in Australia. The men were flying more bombing and gunnery training missions, and their current space at the RAAF bombing range in Townsville was quickly becoming insufficient for their needs. The men searched for a new space that they could use for a range. Harold Chapman, a Charters Towers rancher, gave permission to the Group to use part of his cattle station for their practice. Chapman requested a day’s notice from the men whenever they needed to use the range. In turn, Chapman would round up his cattle so that they wouldn’t get shot.

The Group would always send a few men to help Chapman round up his cattle. Private Charles Valade of the 13th Squadron soon developed a reputation as quite a cowhand. During one unfortunate training mission, “Pappy” Gunn reportedly shot and killed a cow by accident with .50-caliber ammo. He had to paid Chapman five pounds as a reimbursement. For the most part, using Chapman’s range for training proved to be extremely valuable for the combat crews.

The 312th in Australia and Beyond

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

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. Durand Airdrome

Durand Airdrome.

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.