The US Army Air Force carried out many notable bombing attacks in World War II. In the European theater of operations, they included the infamous Schweinfurt-Regensburg missions; Operation Tidal Wave, the raid on the Ploesti oilfields in Rumania; Operation Frantic Joe, the first of the so-called ‘shuttle bombing’ raids, where US bombers flew from English and Italian bases to airfields in the Ukraine, bombing the Debreczen marshalling yards en route, then were refuelled and rearmed to bomb more targets on their return flights; and its participation in the controversial destruction of Dresden in 1945.
In the Pacific theater, the incendiary raids on Japan by B-29 Superfortresses during 1945 produced a holocaust of destruction. During a single incendiary raid on Tokyo on 10th March 1945, Operation Meetinghouse, the resulting firestorm destroyed sixteen square miles of the city, killing between 80,000 and 100,000 people (more than were killed in either Hiroshima or Nagasaki by the initial explosions of the atomic bombs dropped on those cities), and rendering over one million residents homeless.
Such major raids are well-known. What isn’t so well known are the countless missions flown against lesser targets, particularly in the Pacific war. The B-29 raids on Japan from the Marianas seem to have garnered most of the post-war attention of authors and film-makers. The vast number of raids by other types of aircraft, on other targets, appear to have been largely forgotten.
This Weekend Wings seeks to remedy that by examining one particularly daring, dangerous and difficult air raid during the Pacific war. It was launched on September 30th, 1944, against the oil refineries at Balikpapan, in what was then the Dutch East Indies and is today Indonesia. These refineries were estimated to be supplying Japan with up to 35% of her refined petroleum products, and well over half those used by her forces in the Philippines. Their destruction would be a body blow to the Japanese war machine, and (hopefully) make the invasion of the Philippines (which began twenty days after the raid) much easier.
However, there were immense difficulties to be overcome before they could be attacked. For a start, the distances in the Pacific war were of monumental proportions, far longer than in the European theater of operations. Balikpapan only came within extreme range of the B-24 Liberator bombers of the 13th and 5th US Air Forces when the island of Noemfoor (part of what are today the Biak Islands of Indonesia, near the northern tip of Papua New Guinea) was captured in Operation Table Tennis. (Click the map, and all images, for a larger view.)
The island is so tiny that on a large-scale map of the Pacific theater of operations, it’s too small to be visible. Task Force Cyclone landed there on July 2nd, 1944, and combat operations continued until the end of August.
The fighting on Noemfoor was vicious, with incidents of cannibalism recorded among the Japanese defenders when their supplies ran out. Also notable was a parachute assault by the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regimental Combat Team, which resulted in high jump casualties.
According to the US Army’s official history of the Noemfoor operation: “By 31 August … the CYCLONE Task Force had lost 63 men killed, 343 wounded, and 3 missing. Approximately 1,730 Japanese had been killed and 186 were captured … In addition to the Japanese losses, 1 Korean, 1 Chinese, and 552 Formosan prisoners of war were taken. Finally, 403 Javanese slave laborers were recovered on the island.” Most of about 4,000 laborers, brought by the Japanese from Java and Taiwan, had apparently died under Japanese maltreatment before the invasion. The indigenous people of Noemfoor had hidden from the Japanese in the interior of the island, and emerged from the jungle to greet the US forces as liberators.
There were three airfields on Noemfoor, all built by the Japanese. Australian engineers of 62 Works Wing began a frantic, all-out effort to upgrade them, and particularly to prepare the airstrip at Kornasoren to support fighter and B-24 bomber operations, even before the fighting had ended. An account of their experiences may be found here. By September 2nd, two parallel 7,000-foot runways had been completed, and the bombers moved in. This put them within extreme – very extreme! – range of the refineries at Balikpapan.
The return flight between Noemfoor Island and Balikpapan would be just over 2,500 miles – comparable to flying from New York City, NY to Key West, FL and back, or, in Europe, from London, England to Saint Petersburg in Russia and back (three times as far as a typical England-to-Germany-and-back bombing mission in the European theater of operations). This meant that no fighter escort would be possible, as no escort aircraft had the necessary range.
Almost every one of those 2,500 miles would be over enemy-controlled territory or ocean. The B-24’s would thus have to carry a full load of ammunition, weighing 1½ tons, for their ten defensive .50-caliber machine-guns. They also needed to carry 1½ tons of bombs (six 500-pound or twelve 250-pound), in order to do sufficient damage to the refineries. Together with crew, guns and other equipment, this came to over 5 tons of weight, even before beginning to consider how much fuel would be required.
The original B-24A model, which entered service in 1941, was rated for a maximum takeoff weight of 53,600 pounds. This was improved in subsequent models: the B-24J, used on the Balikpapan raids, was rated for 65,000 pounds. The B-24’s maximum range using standard fuel tanks was 2,850 miles, but that was in ferry configuration, without bombs or other heavy material. To carry their bombs, guns, ammunition, and enough fuel to get to Balikpapan and back (which would require the use of a reserve fuel tank mounted in the bomb bay), they’d be dangerously overloaded.
The squadron engineers sat down, figured out the fuel load, and used language described by an interested (and admiring) Australian observer as “rather unfortunate, really!” The total aircraft weight worked out to almost 70,000 pounds – 2½ tons over the B-24J’s maximum rated takeoff weight! In addition, the aircraft’s center of gravity would be grossly distorted by so heavy a load – so much so that it might be unflyable. Clearly, something had to be done.
First, the crews went over their bombers, looking for any equipment that was not absolutely necessary for the mission. They found a lot. Bomb hoists, extra bomb shackles, radio tuning meters, toolkits, personal possessions – all of it came out. After removing everything they thought they could spare, the total aircraft weight had come down to 68,500 pounds. They’d saved over half a ton in weight.
Next, the crews called in the civilian representatives of Consolidated Aircraft, makers of the B-24. The US Army Air Force had expanded so fast that it wasn’t able to train all of the mechanics and technical experts it needed to service its warplanes. As a result, every US aircraft manufacturer assigned their own technical specialists to the war zones, to work with uniformed personnel and teach them how to maintain their aircraft. Fortunately, some B-24 specialists were available.
They did some intricate calculations, and determined that the aircraft’s center of gravity would be so drastically affected by such an overload that the normal methods of trimming it in flight would be unworkable. Instead, they drew up a special series of instructions, taking into account the aircraft’s weight during each hour of the flight and the changing conditions en route. Each member of the crew was given a special place in the aircraft where his gear – parachute, emergency ration belt, medical kit, flak suit, helmet – would be stowed. Even the men themselves were given new positions for the first few hours, redistributing their weight to help the pilot maintain stability. They would not go to their normal stations until the time for action approached.
(This caused much muttering among the gunners, who didn’t fancy allowing Japanese fighters an unopposed run at their aircraft. They were informed during briefing that they needn’t worry, because their aircraft would depart at night, when Japanese fighter pilots would be asleep. The aforementioned Australian observer reports that one gunner stood up and retorted, “Yeah, and it’ll be just my lousy luck to meet the only ******* fighter pilot in the whole ******* Japanese air force with ******* insomnia!” This reportedly brought the house down.)
These drastic measures enabled the specialists to establish a center of gravity that would allow the aircraft to take off safely. However, their weight would diminish greatly over the course of the mission, so the center of gravity would shift during the flight. Therefore, the crew were given instructions to move certain items of heavy equipment, and take up new positions themselves, at regular intervals, to keep the aircraft as stable and controllable as possible. By the time they approached Balikpapan, enough weight would have been burned off (in the form of fuel) to restore the aircraft to normal flying condition.
Next, the specialists worked out the most economical power settings for the engines, to minimize fuel consumption. They conducted several experimental flights, trying various alternatives, and to their surprise found that a heavily overloaded B-24 could fly slightly faster with five degrees of flap down than with the flaps retracted, as would normally be the case. They settled on a speed of 150 mph for the outward trip, and recommended power settings for takeoff, climb, cruising, approaching the target, breakaway, descent and the homeward journey. Each setting allowed for the changing weight and center of gravity of the aircraft.
The specialists ensured that all the bombers which would fly on the mission were thoroughly serviced beforehand, with particular attention to their undercarriages and wheels. These would have to take the strain of a massive overload during takeoff. Any failure would be disastrous.
Finally, six B-24’s were loaded to 68,500 pounds, and sent off on a route that roughly approximated the distance to Balikpapan and back (although flying over friendly or neutral territory). When they returned, their fuel consumption was carefully measured. To everyone’s relief, they all made it back safely, with adequate fuel reserves.
Astonishingly, all this work was accomplished in a matter of seven or eight days. While the specialists were busy, the airfield operations staff made their own preparations. Some of the B-24’s would fly to Noemfoor Island from other bases, land at Kornasoren, and refuel, to join those already there on the strike. Crash trucks, cranes and bulldozers were assembled at Kornasoren, to clear the runways of any crashed aircraft as quickly as possible. Palm trees at either end of the runway were chopped down or trimmed, to give the heavily laden aircraft more room to get airborne. Pilots were warned that if they encountered mechanical problems immediately after takeoff, they were to jump from their aircraft over the sea and let it crash, rather than try to land again, as this would disrupt the departure of other aircraft.
The navigators sat down to plan the route. The aircraft would have to arrive over Balikpapan during daylight in order to bomb accurately, so their departure was fixed for just after midnight. A route was planned that avoided Japanese-held territory, and skirted known enemy air bases and anti-aircraft defenses as far as possible.
The bombers were too heavily laden at the outset to gain enough altitude to cross the mountains of northern New Guinea. They would therefore fly South-West to a low point on the coast of New Guinea, then turn West, crossing the Ceram Sea. Shortly before reaching the Soela Islands they would turn North-West, flying up into the Molucca Sea, before turning slightly North of West and heading for the assembly point in the Celebes (today called Sulawesi). From there, they would turn West-South-West to Mangar, and then South-West to Balikpapan. The return route would be in reverse.
Trying to fly in formation at night would be very difficult with such overloaded, unstable aircraft, and would increase fuel consumption. The bombers would therefore take off at 60-second intervals, and fly alone to the assembly point. Having rendezvoused there, they would form a series of six groups, each of twelve aircraft. Each group would then head for a Japanese airfield at Mangar. This was about thirty miles North-East of Balikpapan, and would serve as the Initial Point (IP) for their bomb runs. Of course, it had the disadvantage that Japanese fighters based there would be perfectly positioned to intercept the bombers: but there was no other easily-identifiable landmark near Balikpapan, so the airport it had to be.
Pilots were warned that they had to adhere rigorously to the 60-second takeoff separation. Any delay would cause further problems at the assembly point, which would waste precious gasoline. They were informed that even a 30-second delay per plane, over the 72 bombers taking part in the raid, would add up to a delay of more than half an hour over the assembly point – and that would waste so much fuel that some of the aircraft wouldn’t have enough to get home. Therefore, even if Japanese bombers raided the airfield during the takeoff process, the lights would remain on and the aircraft were to continue taking off at their prescribed intervals.
The crews were fully briefed for the first time on September 29th, 1944. Take-off was set for 00.30 on September 30th. There was much muttering when those who hadn’t yet been told, learned their take-off weight. All knew that getting off from an uneven perforated steel plating runway, laid over dirt, with such grossly overloaded aircraft, would be far from easy.
The Australian observer reports that the crews were further disgruntled by the sight of the tents of a field hospital hurriedly being moved from one end of the runway, in case crashing overloaded B-24’s might prove hazardous to the patients’ health. One crewman (perhaps the gunner quoted earlier?) reportedly asked acidly, “And what happens if I need a ******* hospital in a hurry?”
It’s reported that hundreds of onlookers turned up at Kornasoren airfield to watch the planes depart. The word had spread that this raid was ‘something special’. Improvised lighting (including dozens of vehicles with their headlights trained along the runways) was switched on, and at half an hour past midnight the first waddling, straining, overloaded B-24 lumbered down the runway, lifting off at the last possible moment and disappearing into the darkness, only a few feet above the ground. Plane after plane followed, some lurching alarmingly as they hit an uneven patch on the runway, but all made it safely into the air. Two had to return within an hour or two, having experienced mechanical difficulties, but 70 bombers set off on their individual paths over nine hundred miles of hostile ocean to the assembly point.
The planes took six hours to cover the distance. Every hour, as detailed on their schedules, the crews moved equipment around and took up new positions, to keep the overburdened aircraft balanced as well as possible. Navigators took star sights through their astrodomes, and tried to take bearings on the few islands they sighted. Most of these were invisible against the black Pacific, as few of them had any electricity to power lights. Most were detectable only by the massive cumulus clouds that built up over them, showing their approximate location. The navigators gulped, crossed their fingers, and pressed on.
In a remarkable display of individual precision navigation, far better than usually achieved in the Pacific war, all of the aircraft found the assembly point almost exactly on time. The first 12 aircraft, forming the first bombing group, assembled within 13 minutes after the first’s scheduled arrival time. The leader of the first group, Colonel Thomas C. Musgrave Jr., circled the assembly point, firing a red flare and flashing an Aldis lamp. The other aircraft of his group joined up with him as he circled. As soon as his group had been formed, he led it off towards the Initial Point at Mangar, while the leader of the second group began forming his flock.
As the first group approached Mangar, Musgrave noticed two twin-engined Japanese aircraft approaching. They didn’t attack, but took up station parallel with his formation, just outside machine-gun range. It was obvious that they were continuously reporting his position, course, speed and altitude to the waiting defenders at Mangar and Balikpapan. There was nothing that could be done to stop them, in the absence of escorting fighters. Musgrave’s crews could only grit their teeth and keep going.
The group arrived over Mangar to find, to their dismay, that thick cloud completely covered the land. They couldn’t know whether it would extend as far as Balikpapan. Again, they had no choice, so they took up their heading for Balikpapan and hoped for the best. Strangely, no enemy fighters or anti-aircraft gunfire were encountered . . . but they needn’t have worried. Halfway between Mangar and Balikpapan, the Japanese fighters boiled up out of the cloud cover, and the fight was on.
As one observer reported:
The Nips were eager beyond anything that anyone had ever experienced. They came to within 25 feet of the bombers, blazing away with all their guns. They flew into and through the formation. They got above the bombers and went into almost vertical dives, every gun shooting as they came down. It all seemed as though they had been sent up with orders to stop the raid, to turn it away at all costs. Balikpapan was vital to the Jap war and the Jap knew it.
The planes plodded on. The gunners were shooting away. A Jap plane here and there went down. Finally the planes came to the target area itself, and to the bullets and cannon shells of the enemy airplanes now were added the shells from the anti-aircraft on the ground. The flak was thick and heavy and the Jap fighters ignored it and kept attacking through it. That in itself was unusual. It’s more normal for fighters to break away when their flak takes over, but the Nips disregarded their own ground fire and pressed in.
Musgrave saw part of the refinery through a hole in the clouds. However, before he could lead his group into position, the hole closed. Rather than bomb blind through the clouds, he decided to circle and wait until his bomb-aimers could see what they were aiming at. They had all been briefed about the importance of this target, and didn’t want to throw their bombs away on empty countryside. For 45 minutes the group circled, being joined meanwhile by succeeding groups, until they could see their targets clearly: then they headed in and dropped their bombs.
The bombing was accurate, although there weren’t enough planes and bombs to do the job on a single raid. Four more would be needed before production at Balikpapan was sufficiently disrupted to render it useless to the Japanese war effort. Nevertheless, the B-24’s hit part of the refinery, including some of the most important machinery, and seriously impacted its production. Regrettably, their success came at a very high cost. Forced to circle and wait for the cloud to clear, the bombers gave the Japanese fighters a field day. Almost every B-24 was severely damaged. Two of Musgrave’s group went down, and many others had casualties among their crews from the hail of enemy fire.
One of the more dramatic reminiscences of the raid comes from the crew of First Lt. Oliver L. Adair. His aircraft was hit in an engine, as well as the wings, tail and fuselage. Oil from the damaged engine caught fire, sending a 50-foot streamer of flame out behind the wing. Adair ignored the flames, figuring (rightly) that they’d go out as soon as the oil was consumed, rammed his three remaining engines to full power, and pressed on.
His right-hand waist gunner, Staff Sergeant Charles F. Held, had his .50-caliber machine-gun shot out of his hands. The Japanese fire destroyed its mounting and shot off its sight, and damaged the rear of the gun. Undaunted, Held made his parachute pack into a chest cushion, picked up the damaged gun, braced it against the parachute pack and opened fire once more, holding the barrel with his gloved hand to steady the heavy weapon. He didn’t hit anything (not surprising without sights), but his fire, indicated by the line of tracer bullets reaching out from his weapon, caused more than one Japanese fighter to flinch and sheer off, rather than press home an attack.
Held could fire only a few rounds at a time. The heavy recoil of the .50-caliber weapon would drive him right across the fuselage to slam into the other side. He’d force himself upright, walk back to the waist gun window, and fire again, to repeat the process over and over and over again. By the end of the mission his chest was black-and-blue with bruising from the recoil, and his hand had been severely burned by the heat of the barrel, even through the glove that he wore.
The upper turret gunner, Staff Sergeant Wilbur L. Bowen, recalled later:
“Half the time I was praying hard enough to save half the people in the United States. And half the time I was cursing hard enough to put a good bishop in hell. When I saw three planes coming in at once with their wing edges sparkling I just prayed they wouldn’t hit us. And then when one of my guns jammed I would pound on the magazine and cuss in the worst way I knew how.”
When they finally pulled away from the target, leaving the Japanese fighters behind, the crew assessed the damage. The fuel tanks in the wings and fuselage were shot full of holes. The crew tried to plug the leaks with bits of candle, a pencil, a screwdriver and some rags, but it was soon clear that they didn’t have enough fuel left to get home. Furthermore, on only three engines, the bomber was slowly but steadily losing altitude. The B-24 was not an overpowered plane at the best of times, and after long service in the Pacific, many of them were old, tired and worn. Something had to be done.
Lt. Adair decided to head for the island of Morotai, almost four hundred miles closer than Noemfoor. Morotai had been invaded by US forces on September 15th, 1944, and fighting was still going on there. Construction on a bomber airfield, Wama Drome, had begun on September 18th, but was not yet complete, and he didn’t know whether a runway would be available for him to land. However, there were friendly troops on Morotai. That was all that mattered. All knew the grim fate of those unlucky enough to be taken prisoner by the Japanese.
While the pilots struggled to keep the laboring aircraft in the air, the rest of the crew turned to throwing out anything and everything that could save weight. As soon as they were clear of the Japanese fighters, they threw out the machine-guns and remaining ammunition, then turned to with fire-axes and chopped the ball turret and upper turret to pieces, throwing them out. It took them three hours hard work to get rid of most of the ball turret (an interior view of which is shown below), but their axes couldn’t cut some braces and armor plate. Finally one of the crew took his .45 automatic pistol and shot away the rivets holding the metal together. The pieces plummeted out of the ball-turret’s hole in the floor of the aircraft, and fell into the Pacific.
The loss of weight proved just sufficient to stabilize the bomber, and Lt. Adair made a perfect landfall at Morotai. To his immense relief, one runway at Wama Drome was almost complete. The PSP plating wasn’t all installed, but there was a 6,000-foot strip cleared and smoothed. That was good enough for him, and he headed in, ordering seven of the crew onto the flight deck, in case the landing gear collapsed and dumped the bomber onto its belly.
The landing gear and brakes held just long enough to slow the B-24 to 85 mph – then the left brake line sheared, and the right brake locked. The bomber jerked to one side towards an earthen bank, bounced over it, and careered through a grove of palm trees. One palm stump flew into the bomb bay and hit Staff Sergeant Held in the right leg. The nose wheel buckled, came off, and bounced back into the bomb bay to hit his other leg. His language is reported to have been “spectacular!”, including accusing the palm stump, nose-wheel and everything and everyone else in the airplane’s path, of Japanese sympathies: but he wasn’t seriously hurt. A propeller cut through a parked truck as the driver leapt for his life. Finally, the bomber buried its nose in a sandbank, ten feet from a line of latrines, from which a sergeant fled, trousers round his ankles (which did little to slow him, according to admiring reports). They had made it.
Back at Noemfoor, the long, long wait for the returning aircraft continued. Finally, the first of them appeared, riddled with bullets, parts of the planes missing, but in perfect formation. One by one they landed, many firing flares that sent ambulances hurrying towards them at the end of the runway to evacuate seriously wounded crew members. Some aircraft had damaged landing-gear, and had to belly-land their bombers in clouds of dust and smoke, fire engines roaring down the runways after them, sirens screaming and bells clanging.
Some ground crews could only stand and stare at the empty sky. Seven aircraft did not return. One of them, of course, was Lt. Adair’s plane. Six others were lost over Balikpapan, their sixty crew members killed. They represented an almost 9% loss rate among the 70 aircraft that took part in the raid.
There would be another raid on Balikpapan three days later. A good account of this raid, including a lengthy description of the ordeal of one crashed aircrew, may be found here. Between them, the two initial raids cost 37 B-24’s shot down, crash-landed, or so severely damaged that they never flew again. This was an overall loss rate of almost 26%, more than one aircraft in four. This was completely unsustainable in the long term, and would have been unthinkable if it hadn’t been for the importance of the target.
Fortunately, matters were to improve. Three more raids later in October were escorted by P-38 Lightning and P-47 Thunderbolt fighters, fitted with newly-arrived long-range drop tanks, and flying from new bases at Morotai and Sansapor, closer to Balikpapan, so that even with their shorter range, they could rendezvous with the bombers at the assembly point and give them protection. The escorting fighters and bomber gunners claimed to have destroyed over 60 Japanese aircraft during the three raids. Overall, 24 B-24’s and seven fighters were lost near or over the target during the five Balikpapan raids, plus many more damaged beyond repair.
The five raids stopped production at Balikpapan’s two refineries and paraffin plant for almost six months. When it finally resumed, in early 1945, another series of air raids destroyed the plants completely. Balikpapan never again contributed to the Japanese war effort.
The Balikpapan raids were relatively minor by European standards, where up to 1,000 bombers at a time (and sometimes many more) would head for their targets. However, in terms of their losses, the Pacific airmen were subject to even greater hazards than their comrades in Europe, with loss ratios consistently higher on such long-distance ventures. Damaged aircraft in the European theater had to cover only a few hundred miles to reach the safety of England, or a few score to reach neutral territory in Switzerland or Sweden. Damaged aircraft in the Pacific might have to fly a thousand miles or more to get home or reach safety . . . and often their damage was so severe that they didn’t make it. Many ditched in the vast, trackless wastes of the Pacific, and their crews were never heard from again.
To this day, there are islands in the Pacific where the remains of crashed US bombers and fighters bear grim testimony to the cost of the war. Some are flanked by neat graves, where searchers came across their dead crews and buried them (most of the bodies later being recovered and transferred to official US war cemeteries). Others have nothing to record what happened to those who flew them.
Let’s remember the price the Pacific airmen paid for victory.
I’ve not been able to find any video footage of the Balikpapan raids, or of air operations from Noemfoor Island. However, there’s a remarkable clip shot by Lt-Col. Oscar Fitzhenry, USAF (Ret.). It shows B-24’s and their fighter escort attacking the Japanese-held atoll of Truk in 1943 or 1944. It shows their tight formation heading into the target, gives an idea of what the bomb run was like, and at the end, shows the bombers returning to base, and the conditions typical of a Pacific airstrip. It’s one of the earliest color films of war, shot in 16mm. with a handheld camera. It gives a good idea of what things must have been like for the Balikpapan airmen – except for the losses.
The video below is a compilation of World War II newsreels, showing B-24 operations in Europe and the Pacific. From 3 minutes 20 seconds into the video, operations in the Pacific and Far East theaters are shown.
EDITED TO ADD: In March 2009 the son of one of the pilots who flew on the Balikpapan Raid contacted me, to share his father’s memories of the raid and a photograph taken over Balikpapan. You’ll find them here. They add a very human touch to this piece of aviation history.