Mouwembleem Far East Air Force (Sleeve patch Far East Air Force)

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The Far East Air Force (FEAF) was the military aviation organization of the United States Army in the Philippines just prior to and at the beginning of World War II. Formed on 16 November 1941, FEAF was the predecessor of the Fifth Air Force of the United States Army Air Forces and United States Air Force.

Initially FEAF also included aircraft and personnel of the Philippine Army Air Corps. It was largely destroyed during the Philippines Campaign of 1941–42. When 14 surviving B-17 Flying Fortresses and 143 personnel of the heavy bombardment force were withdrawn from Mindanao to Darwin, Australia in the third week of December 1941, Headquarters FEAF followed it within days. The B-17s were the only combat aircraft of the FEAF to escape capture or destruction.

FEAF, with only 16 P-40 Warhawks and 4 Seversky P-35 fighters remaining of its original combat force, was broken up as an air organization and moved by units into Bataan24–25 December. 49 of the original 165 pursuit pilots of FEAF's 24th Pursuit Group also evacuated during the campaign, but of non-flying personnel, only one of 27 officers and 16 wounded enlisted men were evacuated. Nearly all ground and flying personnel were employed as infantry at some point during their time on Bataan, where most surrendered on 9 April 1942.

The surviving personnel and a small number of aircraft received from the United States were re-organized in Australia in January 1942, and on 5 February 1942 redesignated as the Fifth Air Force. With most of its aircraft based in Java, the FEAF was nearly destroyed a second time trying to stem the tide of Japanese advances southward.

On 31 May 1940, Maj. Gen. George C. Grunert, a mustang officer who had entered the Army during the Spanish-American War, took command of the Philippine Department. From the first he was dissatisfied with the staffing, equipment, and level of training of the department, but in particular the air forces, and intensively lobbied the War Department for modernization and reinforcements. Of thirteen fields available for use throughout the islands, only Clark Field was considered a first rate facility, and the small number of total fields made dispersal during wartime impossible. The 4th Composite Group was a "dumping ground" for aircraft that had become obsolete or worn out, discarded by units in both the Continental United States and the Hawaiian Department. Grunert's air force in July 1940 consisted of 28 Boeing P-26A "Peashooter" fighters (out of 34 originally shipped to the Philippines in 1937), 17 Martin B-10bombers, 10 Douglas O-46 observation planes (the newest planes in the department), five 1920s-vintage Thomas-Morse ZO-19E observation craft (the "Z" modifier indicated they were unfit for front-line duty and could only be used as trainers), and three fabric-covered biplanes used for liaison, transport, and courier duties. The group had only 26 of the 51 pilots authorized it by its table of organization and equipment.

The senior Air Corps officer in the Philippines was Col. Harrison H.C. Richards, the Department Air Officer. Col. Lawrence S. Churchill, commanding the 4th Composite Group, was a year his junior in rank. Cooperation and approval by Richards, a West Pointer, was necessary to accomplish support tasks for the 4th Group, but many officers felt he withheld information from Churchill and deliberately sabotaged group operations. While both colonels were fifty-one years old in 1941, neither had the confidence of Gen. Grunert, possibly because of open animosity each displayed against the other. In March 1941, Grunert wrote Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall requesting that a general officer be transferred to Manila to command the Department's air force.

Philippine Department Air Force

The Philippine Department Air Force was formed on 6 May 1941 as the United States hurriedly attempted to expand its air defenses in the Philippines. After completing a three-week air defense course taught at Mitchel Field, New York, to familiarize him with current concepts of integrating Signal Corps radars, radio communications, and interceptor forces, Brig. Gen. Henry B. Clagett arrived on 4 May to command the PDAF and set up air defenses. Clagett also had been given a top-secret mission by Marshall to go to China in mid-May for a month of observing and assessing tactics used by the Japanese. The PDAF's one major unit, the 4th Composite Group, consisted of five squadrons (two of which had arrived in November 1940) based at two grass fields: Clark and Nichols. A third field, Nielson, lacked facilities and was used primarily as an auxiliary strip for nearby Fort McKinley. An isolated sod strip at Iba on the west coast was used for gunnery training. PDAF's materiel was centrally located in the Philippine Air Depot at Nichols Field, easily targeted from the air and highly inflammable. The only existing antiaircraft defenses were a single battery of guns and a searchlight platoon at Fort Wint at the entrance to Subic Bay.

In May 1941 its aircraft situation was only marginally better than a year before: only 22 P-26 fighters, 12 "utterly obsolete, ancient, vulnerable as pumpkins" B-10s, 56 Seversky P-35As diverted from a sale to Sweden in November 1940, 18 Douglas B-18 Bolos still in crates after disassembly and shipment from the Hawaiian Department in March, nine North American A-27s seized in January from a shipment intended for Siam and distributed to the pursuit squadrons as instrument trainers, several Douglas C-39 transports, and a small number of varied observation planes. Its only modern aircraft were 31 Curtiss P-40B fighters, assigned to the 20th Pursuit Squadron. Although assembled in mid-May, they were not operational for lack of engine coolant. PDAF Headquarters was located at Fort Santiago near Manila; the majority of the planes were at either Clark or Nichols. Except for one small commercial firm in Manila, no oxygen-producing plants existed in the Philippines, severely limiting the service ceiling of all aircraft, but particularly the fighters.

Clagett immediately undertook an administrative "shakeup" of the existing organization, marginalized Richards, relieved Churchill of command of the 4th Composite Group (he retained the position of base commander at Nichols Field), created new channels of command, and because of a lack of qualified staff officers, drew senior (but administratively untrained) officers from the squadrons to fill his staff. The last move further aggravated a problem created when experienced pilots of the two newly arrived squadrons had been shifted to fill the understrength 4th Group. A lack of cohesion and confidence in command resulted that continued into the war.[23][nb 6] Richards and Churchill both responded with "obstructionist tactics" that exacerbated the already poor command situation.

In July, the P-40s became operational, but Nichols Field was closed to replace its east-west runway with one made of concrete, and to regrade the north-south runway, both measures taken to correct drainage deficiencies that made the entire field inoperable in the wet season. On the morning of 2 July (ironically, delayed five days by a typhoon), all three fighter squadrons transferred the FEAF's 39 P-35s and 20 P-26s to Clark and Iba, where the 17th PS moved for gunnery training. Construction of two new fields intended to support heavy bomber operations, at Rosales on the Lingayen Plain and Del Carmen near Clark Field, proceeded slowly.

On 26 July 1941, Gen. Douglas MacArthur was recalled to active duty from retirement and the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) was created by the War Department to reorganize the defenses of the Philippines against a Japanese invasion. The PDAF was renamed Air Force, USAFFE on 4 August 1941, and incorporated into its ranks the newly inducted Philippine Army Air Corps on 15 August 1941. Its headquarters moved to Nielson Field, and although the move had been made to increase the urgency of expanding air capabilities, precious time had been lost that was never re-gained.


Operations in the Philippines

Japanese air operations against FEAF airfields on Luzon were scheduled to take off from their Formosan bases beginning at 1:30 am on 8 December, with attacks to commence 21 minutes after dawn (and approximately four hours after offensive operations began in Hawaii), at 6:30 am. However, reconnaissance flights dispatched to check weather conditions between Formosa and Luzon neither returned nor reported as launch time approached, and a thick fog over southern Formosa set back the timetable by 90 minutes. The commanders of Japanese units were disturbed when monitoring of American radio traffic indicated that the weather flights had been detected despite the darkness and attempts were made by Iba-based P-40s to intercept. Although all the interceptions failed, Iba Field was then substituted as a target in place of Nichols (where it was assumed that two squadrons of B-17s had dispersed) to deal with the new interceptor threat. Further radio monitoring revealed to the Japanese that the U.S. Asiatic Fleet had been alerted at 4:00 am of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and they expected attacks on their own bases by B-17s (bombing through the fog undercast) at any time after 7:00 am The air defense weaknesses of the FEAF were mirrored by those of the Japanese, who had prepared only for offensive operations, but no attack came before a final revised plan was issued at 7:50 am, ordering the main attack force of Japanese land-based aircraft to launch at 9:15 am and attack at 12:30 pm

Brereton attempted in person to obtain authorization for attacks on Formosa soon after word of events in Hawaii reached Manila, but was twice prevented from speaking with MacArthur by Sutherland. The authorization was refused, apparently a misinterpretation of standing orders not to make "the first overt act." The P-40 squadrons at Clark, Iba, and Nichols moved to alert takeoff positions at 6:00 am as news of war spread among the units. A large force of aircraft was detected flying south towards Luzon, prompting the takeoff at 8:30 am of 15 of the 19 B-17s at Clark with orders to patrol within communications range of its control tower, while the 24th Pursuit Group launched its three P-40 squadrons and the P-35 squadron at Del Carmen to patrol central Luzon for intruders. At 8:50 am and 10:00 am, telephone attempts to obtain authorization from USAFFE headquarters for a B-17 attack was also rebuffed by Sutherland. However MacArthur himself called Brereton at 10:15 am and released the bomber force to employ at his discretion. Brereton immediately ordered two bombers to conduct reconnaissance flights and recalled the rest to prepare for a late afternoon bombing mission. The B-17s and the fighters, which were low on fuel, all landed by 11:00 am to refuel and prepare for afternoon operations.

Japanese naval bombers and fighters took off according to their revised schedule and approached Luzon in two well-separated forces, both of which were detected by the Iba radar detachment just before 11:30 am. Despite an hour's warning, only the P-40 squadron at Iba took off, and it ran low on fuel in futile response to confusing instructions from the 24th PG that resulted from changing analyses of Japanese intents. The Iba P-40s were in their landing pattern when the Japanese struck. The aircraft at Clark and Iba were caught on the ground when the attack began at 12:35 pm. 107 two-engined bombers divided into two equal forces bombed the airfields first, after which 90 Zero fighters conducted strafing attacks until 1:25 pm (the fighters strafing Iba concluded at 1:05 pm, after which they flew to Clark and resumed attacks). Nearly the entire B-17 force, one-third of the U.S. fighters, and its only operational radar unit were destroyed. The Japanese lost only seven fighters and a single bomber to combat.

Follow-up attacks on Nichols, Nielson, and Del Carmen fields followed in the next two days, destroying both the offensive and defensive operational capability of the FEAF, and a decision was made late on 10 December to save the surviving fighters for reconnaissance and avoid direct combat. Fourteen surviving B-17s, after just three days of small and unsuccessful attacks on Japanese amphibious forces, were transferred to Batchelor Field, Australia, for maintenance between 17 and 20 December, bringing Clagett with them. Brereton evacuated FEAF headquarters on 24 December to Darwin, Northern Territory by way of the Netherlands East Indies, leaving the new head of the 5th Interceptor Command, Col. Harold H. George (promoted to brigadier general 25 January 1942) in command of units in the Philippines. Reduced to a single squadron-sized composite force, his pursuit fighters were carefully husbanded for reconnaissance duties and forbidden to engage in combat until forced to evacuate to fields hurriedly built on the Bataan peninsula, to which the entire USAFFE withdrew by 6 January 1942.

Combat and accidents reduced but did not eliminate the P-40 complement, and a group of pursuit pilots, called the "Bataan Field Flying Detachment," continued to fly missions until the last day of the campaign, employing mainly 30-pound fragmentation bombs and machine gun fire as ordnance. Four of the six P-40s sent to Del Monte on 8 January were recalled to Bataan two weeks later, but only three arrived, leaving the detachment still with just seven P-40Es and two P-40Bs. The small detachment, gradually attrited, had a few notable successes:

  • 26 January 1942, morning missions strafed boats attempting to reinforce Japanese landings behind the USAFFE lines on the west coast of Bataan, and shot down three Mitsubishi Ki-30 (Army Type 97) "Ann" dive bombers trying to support the landings. That night the detachment conducted a successful attack on Japanese aircraft at Nielson Field, then shot up a truck convoy on the north shore of Manila Bay.
  • 1–2 February 1942, a night attack by four P-40s flying two sorties each bombed and strafed a 13-barge convoy attempting to delivery 700 reinforcements to the Japanese beachheads, destroying nine and killing approximately half the troops aboard, confirmed later by Japanese records.
  • 2 March 1942, an all-day attack on shipping in Subic Bay and supply dumps on Grande Island resulted in 12 sorties. Claims included total destruction of an ammunition ship, but Japanese records could not be located to corroborate more than a subchaser sunk. However apparently extensive damage to at least four large ships was made. Four of the five remaining P-40s were used in the attacks, with one shot down and its pilot killed, and two others destroyed in landing accidents at Mariveles.

A single flyable P-40E remained at Bataan Field, although by 5 March mechanics had repaired the damaged P-40B at Cabcaben using P-40E parts, facetiously calling the composite a "P-40 something". Occasional individual reconnaissance flights were made in the following month by the two craft. Brig. Gen. George was evacuated by PT boat on 11 March, ending the effective usefulness of the detachment, whose pilots were severely debilitated by starvation and disease. Churchill eventually succeeded to nominal command 12 days before the surrender, but was unable to evacuate and became a prisoner of war.

Accidents put all three P-40s based on Mindanao out of commission by 9 February, leaving just two P-35s that had escaped from Bataan. Transfer of a propeller put a P-40 back in commission two days later, and shipment to Cebu by submarine of parts taken from wrecks on Bataan put another back in operation by mid-March, when a fire destroyed one of them on the ground. Three new P-40Es, still in crates, were shipped from Brisbane, Australia, by blockade runner on 22 February but ran aground on 9 March on a reef between Bohol and Leyte. Carefully hidden and moved by barge at night, the crates reached Mindanao on 26 March, where a makeshift air depot had been established in acoconut grove at Buenavista Airfield using mechanics of the 19th Bomb Group and the 440th Ordnance Company. By 2 April, all three P-40s were assembled and flight-tested, making the Mindanao P-40 force twice as large as that on Bataan.

The two P-40s on Bataan both flew out on 8 April, the P-40E to Iloilo City on Panay, where it landed wheels up, and the P-40B to Cebu. The two P-35s on Mindanao flew to Bataan Field on 4 April, and they also evacuated three pursuit pilots in their baggage compartments. A Navy Grumman J2F Duck that the 20th Pursuit Squadron raised from Mariveles Bay and placed in service again on 24 March evacuated five officers. Bataan surrendered the next morning. The P-40B reached Mindanao but crashed on 14 April trying to land at Del Monte No. 3 in a heavy rain. The three new P-40Es and the sole remaining P-35 operated out of Maramag Field in central Mindanao until 3 May. The P-35 was transferred to the Philippine Army Air Corps and two surviving P-40Es were ultimately captured intact by the Japanese army on 12 May.

Against the overall loss from all causes of 108 P-40s and 25 P-35s, FEAF pilots were credited by USAF Historical Study No. 85, USAF Credits for the Destruction of Enemy Aircraft, World War II, with 35 aerial victories between 8 December 1941 and 12 April 1942. 33 pursuit pilots were killed in the campaign and 83 surrendered to become prisoners of war, with 49 of those dying in captivity. 95% of enlisted men became POWs, and 61% of those died before they could be repatriated.

Operations in the Netherlands East Indies

On 29 December 1941, Brereton and his small staff arrived in Darwin, where his only combat forces were 14 B-17s of the 19th Bomb Group that had come south from Del Monte, and reestablished FEAF headquarters. By 1 January 1942, eleven of the bombers had been shifted northwest to Singosari Airfield on Java. The 19th BG flew its next combat mission on 4 January against Japanese shipping off Davao, utilizing Samarinda Airfield, Borneo, as a staging base, but on 11 January, when the first aircraft of the 7th Bomb Group arrived, FEAF conducted its operations solely for the defense of the Netherlands East Indies. FEAF became a part of the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command created to unify forces in the defense of the NEI.On 18 January, FEAF headquarters moved to Bandoeng.

The Pensacola convoy for the Philippines was diverted on 13 December to Brisbane, where it disembarked its Air Corps personnel on 23 December, then continued to Darwin with field artillery reinforcements on 29 December. The pursuit and partially trained pilots began training as assembly of the crated aircraft went forward at Archerfield and Amberley airdromes. 21 pilots of the 27th Bomb Group and 17 from the 24th Pursuit Group were flown to Australia in the last two weeks of December to ferry back the aircraft, but no engine coolant had been sent for the fighters and the guns of the dive bombers were missing key electrical and mounting components, hampering not only reinforcement of FEAF but limiting flight training of the new pilots. ThePresident Garfield, 500 miles at sea en route to Honolulu,[37] reversed course after receiving word that war had begun in Hawaii and returned to San Francisco. The USAT President Polk, a cargo liner impressed into service as an Army transport, embarked 55 P-40s, an equal number of pilots and ground crews gathered from four groups based in California (including 27 pilots off the President Garfield), and sailed without escort on 18 December, reaching Brisbane on 13 January 1942. There the President Polk embarked the ground echelons of two squadrons of the 7th Bomb Group (based at Jogjakarta) and continued to Java, escorted by the heavy cruiser USS Houston, arriving in Surabaya on 28 January.

By mid-January, Japanese advances southward cut the anticipated aircraft ferry routes to the Philippines and reinforcement was no longer feasible. Instead, using aircraft and personnel at hand, provisional fighter squadrons were organized in Brisbane to assist the Royal Netherlands Indies Air Force (ML-KNIL) in defending the NEI. The 17th Pursuit Squadron (Provisional) was established on 14 January, and 13 of its 17 pilots had previously been with the 24th PG. With 17 P-40s delivered by the Pensacola convoy (assembly of the 18th could not be completed because of a lack of parts), it flew across northern Australia from Brisbane to Darwin, then to Java via Penfoie Airdrome at Koepang and Den Pasar Field on Bali between 16 and 25 January. Only 12 Warhawks arrived at the designated FEAF fighter base at Ngoro Field, the others lost to accidents, combat, and pilot illness. The 20th Pursuit Squadron (Provisional), incorporating pilots of the 35th PG, took off from Darwin in 25 P-40s on 2 February, but only 17 reached Java, the remainder shot down over Bali or damaged on the ground by air raids. Likewise, 25 P-40s of the 3rd Pursuit Squadron (Provisional) departed Brisbane, but because of accidents involving novice pilots, only 18 reached Darwin on 8 February. Just nine eventually reinforced Ngoro; an entire flight of eight was lost when it exhausted its fuel after its LB-30 navigation guide aircraft became lost in a storm trying to find Koepang. Survivors of both the 3rd and 20th provisional squadrons were integrated into the 17th PS. The 33rd Pursuit Squadron (Provisional) was en route to Java at Darwin when it was nearly annihilated by a Japanese air raid on 19 February. Of 83 P-40s assembled and flown from Brisbane, only 37 arrived at Ngoro Field, and by 15 February less than 20 could be mustered for operations.

The 91st Bombardment Squadron was re-manned in Brisbane with pilots from the 27th BG, and dispatched eleven A-24s to Java on 11 February, but the Japanese threat to Timor prevented the other two squadrons of the 27th from following. Inadequate facilities at its new airfield near Malang delayed maintenance of the dive bombers and prevented their operational use until 19 February. 32 assembled P-40s were collected at Maylands Airfield near Perth, Western Australia, towed to Fremantle on the night of 19–20 February, and loaded on the flight deck of the seaplane tender USS Langley. The Langley sailed at noon 23 February in convoy for Burma but was immediately diverted for Java, as was the freighter MS Sea Witch soon after, carrying 27 unassembled and crated P-40s destined for the 51st Pursuit Group in China. All of the aircraft aboard Langley were lost when it was sunk on 27 February. 31 of the 33 pilots of the 13th and 33rd Pursuit Squadrons (Provisional) perished in the attack. The Sea Witch reached Tjilatjap harbor the next day but destroyed its cargo to keep the P-40s from being captured by the Japanese.


On 3 February the Japanese opened a series of air attacks on ABDA bases on Java, and the 19th BG was again caught on the ground, losing five of its B-17s in a raid on Singosari, four of them on the ground. On 20 February, just back from a mission to bomb the invasion force at Bali, seven B-17s of the 19th BG were caught on the ground by Zero strafers while re-arming and five more were destroyed. Although 38 of the more capable B-17E Flying Fortresses and a dozen LB-30 Liberators incrementally reinforced the FEAF, losses were severe and the slow rate of reinforcement was unable to keep pace.[115] Despite dispersal and elaborate camouflage, a lack of antiaircraft artillery and poor warning/communication systems resulted in the loss of 65 FEAF aircraft on the ground alone.

Evacuations of personnel from Java and diversion of resources to India and Australia began 20 February. By 24 February only ten heavy bombers, four A-24 dive bombers, and 13 P-40 fighters remained flyable against Japanese forces. ABDA Command was officially dissolved the next day. The ground echelons of both heavy bomb groups began evacuation by sea on 25 February, while the bombers, carrying up to 20 passengers each, made daily six-hour flights to Broome, Western Australia, an intermediate evacuation point for all aircraft fleeing Java. Malang/Singosari closed on 28 February and Jogjakarta the next night, following the final bomber sorties. 260 men, including the remnants of the 17th Pursuit Squadron, were evacuated by five B-17s and three LB-30s. 35 passengers crammed the final LB-30 that took off at 12:30 am of 2 March. On 3 March, nine Japanese fighters attacked Broome, destroying two of the evacuated B-17s.

Of 61 heavy bombers based on Java, only 23 escaped: 17 B-17Es, three LB-30s, and three of the original B-17Ds of the 19th BG. Only six had been lost in aerial combat, but at least 20 were destroyed on the ground by Japanese attacks. Every fighter (39) and dive bomber (11) that arrived on Java was destroyed. Against these losses, the provisional pursuit squadrons were credited with the destruction of 45 Japanese aircraft in aerial combat. Heavy bombers had flown over sixty missions and at least 300 bomber sorties, but 40% of the bombers turned back or otherwise failed to find their targets. Brereton's evacuation to India on 23 February 1942 effectively ended existence of the Far East Air Force, which had been re-designated "5 Air Force" on 5 February. Its headquarters was not re-manned until 18 September 1942 in Australia, when it was designated Fifth Air Force.

Fifth Air Force along with Thirteenth Air Force in the Central Pacific and Seventh Air Force in Hawaii was subsequently assigned to a higher echelon on 3 August 1944, the newly created United States Far East Air Forces also with the acronym FEAF. This FEAF was subordinate to the U.S. Army Forces Far East and served as the headquarters of Allied Air Forces Southwest Pacific Area. By 1945, three numbered U.S. air forces—5th, 7th and 13th—were supporting operations in the Pacific.

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