March 13, 2023, marks the 81st anniversary of the arrival of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, his family and general staff at the Macabalan Wharf in Cagayan de Oro (formerly Cagayan de Misamis, Misamis Oriental) after a harrowing two-day trip from Corregidor aboard four (eventually three) PT Boats of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3 (MTB Ron 3).
The commander of the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) was met at the wharf by USAFFE Mindanao Force Commander Maj. Gen. William Sharp, and later motored to Del Monte in Tankulan (now Manolo Fortich) Bukidnon where they were billeted at the Del Monte Lodge until March 17, 1942, when three B-17E bombers from Australia picked them up and ferried them safely to Batchelor Field in the Northern Territory.
Perhaps due to the Top Secret nature of this clandestine operation, details of those flights which ultimately saved the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in the Pacific from certain capture by the Imperial Japanese Forces remain hard to find even to this day.
Extant records indicate that no less than six B-17E Flying Fortresses, then the longest range heavy bombers available to the US Army Forces in Australia (USAFIA) were involved in two separate operations to rescue MacArthur and his party from Del Monte airfield.
The first flight of three B-17Es took off from Batchelor Airfield in Northern Territory on 11 March 1942 but was plagued by mechanical issues, with one eventually turning back to Australia. and two proceeding to Del Monte, but one unfortunately failed to make it and crashed in Iligan Bay.
B-17 Flying Fortress #41-2452, piloted by 1st Lt. Harl Pease was loaded with emergency supplies for the US Army Forces in the Philippine Islands. But just as he took off from Batchelor airfield, a failure of the hydraulic system rendered the supercharger and wheel brakes inoperative, which meant a low altitude flight over 1,500 miles and a landing without brakes. The aircraft had to be ground looped to stop it in time.
There has been a story that suggests that MacArthur was not impressed by the nature of Pease’s arrival, and was even less impressed when he saw the young pilot of the B-17 slide out of the forward hatch of the aircraft.
MacArthur reportedly muttered “He’s only a boy”. Pease unloaded the emergency supplies, had his aircraft serviced and took off at night with 16 Air Corps passengers. He had to perform another ground loop when the aircraft landed back in Australia.
However, MacArthur only arrived at Del Monte in the morning of 13 March 1942, and could not have seen Pease’s B-17 which flew back to Australia on the evening of 11 March. An account from Australia at War says MacArthur found only one crippled B-17 at the airfield.
A few weeks earlier, several mechanics had arrived at Del Monte to repair the war weary B-18’s and B-17’s that scattered the “graveyard” at Del Monte airfield. Once repaired they were flown back to Australia with as many of the spare parts that were possible.
The second B-17 Flying Fortress, #41-2507, piloted by Capt. Henry Godman, was even less fortunate. In total darkness and low clouds Godman was forced to fly on instruments. With the altimeter reading 1,200 feet and the air speed on 170 mph, the B-17 struck the waters of Illigan Bay. Two crew went down with the plane. Five crew members swam ashore in the Philippines after four hours in the water. S/Sgt Wallie J. Hewston, the engineer was captured by the Japanese on 10 May 1942 and spent 40 months in Kawasaki (the “Mitsui Madhouse”) and then some time at Hitachi in the mountains north of Tokyo.
MacArthur was reportedly furious, and would not allow anyone to board these “dangerously decrepit” aircraft which had been sent to rescue him. He then demanded the “three best planes in the US or Hawaii,” manned by “completely adequate, experienced” airmen.
Even if true, these reported allegations were not an accurate description of the first flight of three B-17Es sent to Del Monte to ferry MacArthur’s party to Australia. They were part of the 19th Bombardment Group which had been constantly in action against the Japanese in the Philippines since the first day of hostilities on 8 December 1941. Sustaining heavy losses, the group ceased action after about two weeks, and late in Dec 1941 the air echelon moved to Australia to transport medical and other supplies to the Philippine Islands and evacuate personnel from that area.
The men in Australia moved to Java in the Netherlands East Indies (present day Indonesia) at the end of 1941 and, flying B-17, LB-30, and B-24 aircraft, earned a Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC) for the group by attacking enemy aircraft, ground installations, warships, and transports during the Japanese drive through the Philippines and Netherlands Indies early in 1942.
The first B-17 Flying Fortresses to be based in Australia were 14 early model Flying Fortresses of the 19th Bomb Group which had been evacuated from Del Monte airfield in the Philippines. They began arriving at Batchelor airfield in the Northern Territory on 17 December 1941.
Some of the more war-weary B-17’s were sent south to Laverton in Victoria for major overhauls. These B-17’s started to fly bombing missions against Tulagi and other targets in the Solomons from their new base in Townsville. They would also drop supplies to allied forces in the Celebes. They would either stage through Port Moresby or Batchelor for these missions.
By New Year’s Day 1942, eleven B-17’s flew to a new base at Malang in Java. Their main target then was Japanese shipping. These B-17’s were reinforced in January 1942 by some LB-30 Liberators and some new B-17Es of the 7th Bomb Group. These aircraft were later withdrawn to Batchelor at the end of February 1942.
The men returned to Australia from Java early in Mar 1942, so they were not exactly “inadequate, inexperienced airmen” flying “dangerously decrepit aircraft,” but were war-tested veterans fighting against overwhelming odds.
Major General George Brett, the commanding general of US Forces in Australia, was then responsible for the rescue plans for MacArthur. He had more B-17’s that he could send for the rescue, but they were US Navy aircraft based in Townsville. Apparently MacArthur had made it very clear that he did not want to be “rescued” by US Navy aircraft.
Fortunately, on 14 March 1942, the B-17E Flying Fortresses of the Naval Task Force, Southern Bomber Command (ex-88th Reconnaissance Squadron, 7th Bomb Group) based in Townsville were transferred to the 19th Bombardment Group, USAAF. He dispatched three B-17’s (of the 40th Reconnaissance Squadron – later to become the 435th Squadron), but one of the B-17s ditched off Mindanao.
The three B-17’s left Townsville loaded full of sulphur drugs, quinine and cigarettes for the military forces in the Philippines. Lewis’s aircraft (#41-2429) was fitted out with 25 parachutes, 25 life vests and 25 oxygen masks. Mechanics had to fit special tee pieces in the aircraft to cater for a larger number of oxygen masks. Each of the crews had their regular co-pilots replaced with pilots who were familiar with the airfield at Del Monte.
When they arrived at Batchelor airfield they were advised for the first time of the details of their mission. They were to evacuate MacArthur and his party from a small airfield on a plantation on Mindanao Island in the Philippines owned by the Del Monte Company. Bomb bay fuel tanks were installed while they were at Batchelor airfield for the 1,425 nautical mile flight. During this time there was a false alarm air raid warning at Batchelor airfield and they took off for a short period until the “all clear” was given. They landed again to finish their preparations for the long flight to Del Monte.
Two of these B-17’s took off from Batchelor airfield on 17 March 1942, piloted by Lt. Frank Bostrom and Captain William Lewis, Jr. The flight path to Del Monte took them between two large Japanese airbases which were only 30 miles apart.
The two B-17’s arrived at Del Monte at approximately midnight. The runway was lit with two flares (one at each end) to help them to land. The B-17 flown by Bostrom, #41-2447, landed first followed by the B-17, #41-2429, flown by Lewis, Jr. Later that night Gen. Sharp arrived at the airfield with General MacArthur and his family and a large group of senior officers.
The senior pilot, 1st Lt. Frank P. Bostrom drunk eight cups of coffee to ready himself for the return flight to Australia. Dick Graf from Lewis’s crew had a midnight lunch of pineapple and coffee. In the mean time, mechanics worked feverishly to repair Bostrom’s defective supercharger.
Bostrom told MacArthur that his party must leave their luggage behind. Lewis also told his passengers that they could only bring one bag each. Jean MacArthur boarded Bostrom’s B-17 carrying only a silk scarf and a coat with a fur collar.
Not long after midnight on 17 March 1942, St Patrick’s Day, two B-17’s taxied out onto Del Monte airfield, which was again lit by two flares. MacArthur sat in the radio operator’s seat in Bostrom’s aircraft. MacArthur’s chief of staff, General Richard Sutherland, was squeezed into the bomb bay. Bostrom’s overloaded B-17 Flying Fortress staggered into the air from Del Monte airfield with one engine sputtering. A large number of General MacArthur’s staff returned to Australia in Capt. Lewis’s aircraft.
MacArthur’s four year old son, Arthur MacArthur, was initially excited about his first air flight, but after some turbulence he soon became air sick. Arthur’s Chinese amah, Au Cheu also traveled with MacArthur to Australia. Their five hour flight took them over the captured enemy islands of the Celebes, Timor, and the northern part of New Guinea. Somehow they managed to avoid enemy Zero fighters.
When they reached Darwin, they found that it was under Japanese attack, so they diverted to Batchelor airfield, about 50 miles away. They eventually disembarked from the aircraft at Batchelor airfield at about 9 a.m. They are all very weary after their last few days of adventure. MacArthur told Sutherland “It was close, but that’s the way it is in war. You win or lose, live or die — and the difference is just an eyelash.”
On 18 March 1942, another B-17 Flying Fortress, #41-2408, piloted by 1st Lt. Harold N. Chaffin, took off from Batchelor airfield loaded with more emergency supplies. They landed at Del Monte and took on board the remainder of General MacArthur’s staff along with a number of valuable records and safely ferried them to Australia.
All crew members of the five B-17 bombers were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by the President of the United States, including the two fatalities on #41-2507 piloted by Capt. Godman which crashed in Iligan Bay.
This great escape has been immortalized in World War II history as MacArthur’s Breakout, and enabled him to keep his promise to the Filipinos made a few days later after his arrival in Australia: “I Shall Return.”