- - Tuesday, January 15, 2019



By Bruce Gamble

Da Capo Press, $28, 415 pages

During the first frightening months of 1942, a powerful Japanese military machine seemed poised to seize a broad chunk of Southeast Asia, conquering not only Australia but also India.

The Japanese had already seized the Philippines, Singapore and numerous small islands; further control of the Pacific could have prevented a shattered American Navy from defending the Western United States from invasion.

It is no exaggeration to state that America’s fate in the post-Pearl Harbor months rested in the hands of a small group of American aviators based on the underside of the globe, far-away Australia. Author Bruce Gamble’s uncle was among the brave airmen belonging to what became known as the “Kangaroo Squadron.” His account is one of incessant bravery conducted chiefly beyond the range of media attention.

Mr. Gamble begins with the development in the 1930s of the squadron’s most valuable asset: the Boeing B-17 bomber, a heavily armed four-engine craft with speeds rivaling those of the Army Air Force’s fastest pursuit planes. An awe-struck Seattle reporter termed the plane the “Flying Fortress.” (The Boeing Aircraft Corp. made an enormous financial gamble in developing the B-17 during peacetime, with no guarantee of significant sales.)

Crew training was strenuous. Aspiring pilots had to log a minimum of 65 flight hours (at least 50 percent solo), along with 175 touch-and-go or full-stop landings. Attrition averaged about 40 percent. Training casualties were tragic, from 51 aviation deaths in 1939 to 199 in 1941. And, as Mr. Gamble writes, “the statistics would get much worse in the years to come.”

The squadron was dispatched to the Pacific immediately after Pearl Harbor, to face an enemy so emboldened by initial success that pilots were said to be infused with “senshobyo,” or “victory disease.” The great fear of the United States and Allies was that Australia and New Zealand would be cut off from support and be forced to sue for peace to avoid invasion.

Once the squadron established quarters on the far-eastern coast of Australia, its mission was two-fold: To fend off aerial area raids and to bomb Japanese positions on occupied islands to the north. The long-range goal, which seemed remote at the time, was to clear a route for Allied forces to strike north against the Japanese homeland.

Mr. Gamble’s account brims with heroism in the face of seemingly impossible odds. Despite the B-17’s heavy armament, the planes suffered from swarm attacks by enemy fighter planes.

As navigator Maurice Horgan reported after an attack on Japanese shipping, “Just as we closed the bomb bay doors, the ship [plane] began to shake like a leaf in a cyclone and the #4 engine burst into flames, showering the fuselage with molten aluminum.” But gunners managed to beat off the attacks and the B-17 crept back to safety.

Time and again, crews risked their lives for long-range bombing missions. And they were pressed into service for another important task: aerial reconnaissance of Japanese positions that offered guidance to ground forces that were attempting to evict the Japanese.

Such flights were extraordinarily dangerous. To obtain good photographs, “a pilot might have to descend below an overcast or storm,” coming into range of Japanese ground fire.

Crew members enjoyed what comforts they could on the demanding missions. At 30,000 feet, cold was a threat. So solace was found in “Aussie flight boots” and wool and leather caps.

There were flashes of humor. A crew member smiled at the memory of the tail gunner, whose “station was miles away from anyone else happy as a hound dog licking a bean pot because he was able to sneak an occasional snort of Scotch from a vial he had smuggled aboard Everyone knew, of course, but he was a good gunner and did his job.”

The squadron’s isolation posed problems. Spare parts were scarce, even non-existent at times. So mechanics learned to cannibalize damaged craft to keep other planes flying. Innovations made the bombing raids even more deadly. Gen. George Kenney, the theater air commander late in the war, came up with the “parafrag,” a fragmentation bomb dropped by parachute, which “proved effective in destroying enemy aircraft on the ground.” In due course, air power turned the course of battle. One raid over Rabaul saw 30 B-17 drones over the town for two hours while dropping dozens of general-purpose bombs and incendiary clusters. Another raid on Rabaul ignited fires that could been seen for 80 miles away.

The closing sentiment was voiced by an airman who returned to the United States by ship once war ended: “That Golden Gate Bridge looked real good when we passed under it.”

A well-written and informative examination of the air war by an author who is both a historian and a former naval flight officer.

• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military affairs.

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