“Pacific Flight”

An abbreviated rewrite taken from “They Fought With What They Had” by Walter D. Edmonds, Center for Air Force History (US)

In mid-September 1941, 9 B-17Ds of the 14th Bombardment Squadron, led by Major Emmett C. O’Donnell, pioneered an air route from Hickam Field, Hawaii to Clark Field, Philippines.

This is not a story of that flight, momentous as it was; but the follow-on flight by the 19th Bombardment Group, who, in 26 B-17Ds departed from Hamilton Field just north of San Francisco to Clark Field, Philippines in late October 1941; led by Lieutenant Colonel Eugene L. Eubank.

Both flights were TOP SECRET.

This was the first ever deployment of B-17Ds outside the United States on a Group level.

The ground echelon was composed of the Headquarters Squadron, 30th and 93rd Combat Squadrons totaling 234 officers and men. The remaining 32nd Combat Squadron was left in Albuquerque, NM along with the 38th Reconnaissance Squadron with 9 B-17Ds.

The ground echelon of the group departed San Francisco on 4 October aboard the USAT Willard H. Holbrook and another transport, the Tasker H. Bliss, with the cruiser USS Manchester as escort. They reached the Philippines on October 23, and by 9:00PM that evening were driven by bus through Manila to Clark Field arriving about midnight.

The pilots, officers and crew of the 19th Bombardment Group were highly trained and equipped for such a flight as they were one of the original B-17 heavy bomber groups. For years, its essential function had been the training of pilots and navigators in preparation for receipt of the newest bomber in the USAAC.

The over-water flight was not new to the members of the 30th and 93rd Squadrons. In May 1941, they had ferried 21 B-17Ds to Hickam Field, remaining there for 3 weeks to check off pilots of the 11th Bombardment Group in the new planes. Then air crews returned to the US aboard the Washington, which coincidentally, was carrying evacuated family members of Army and Navy personnel from the Philippines back to the US. In fact, 9 of those very same 21 aircraft delivered were assembled as the 14th Bombardment Squadron, and as noted, flew the pioneering route to Clark.

Through the windows of the Operations Room, Hamilton Field, the pilots and navigators could see their aircraft lined up on the concrete parking apron outside. The big ships, sleek in their silver finishes, dwarfed their crews. Their silhouette was not the same as that of the Flying Fortresses that only a little later were to become almost a symbol of the war in the air. The aircraft had just been delivered to Hamilton, fresh with newly reinforced .50 cal mountings from the Sacramento Air Depot. These ships lacked the dorsal fin, upper and belly turrets, and the cylindrical extension of the fuselage through the tail assembly to provide room for the rear gunner and his guns.

At this Mission Briefing, the Commander the 4th Air Force, Major General Jacob E. Fickel, had come to Hamilton Field to see the crews of the 19th off on their journey. At the end of the briefing, he spoke to the roomful of pilots and navigators, describing the increasing international pressures in the Pacific and telling them that they and their planes would serve as the United States’ “big stick” in future negotiations with Japan. In closing, soberly, he stated “Gentlemen, I wish you straight shooting”.

The 30th Squadron was the first element of the flight to take off in the late evening of October 16th with 9 planes. Four evenings later, again at 10:30PM, the others followed.

They took off at 1 minutes intervals, but each plane flew individually. This avoided the strain of maintaining formation on a night flight of such long range and allowed pilots to hold each plane to its maximum cruise performance.

Towards morning they drew in upon the islands (Hawaii) and then in the full light of day picked up Diamond Head and came down one by one on Hickam Field.

The two squadrons would spend 5 days working over the aircraft to ensure everything was working perfectly, as this would be the last opportunity to service everything before departing for areas know to have little or no support – until they reached their ground crews at Clark anyhow.

Colonel Andrew Smith, Surgeon of the Hawaiian Air Force decided to join the group as medical officer at Hickam. Major Luther C Heidger had already preceded the Colonel in mid-Sept with the 14th Bombardment Squadron.

In the briefing for flight from Hickam to Manila, orders were issued to combat load all aircraft – “In the event of contact in the air with planes of a possibly belligerent nation, do not hesitate to bring them under immediate and accurate fire.”

They now had the course to fly. The first two legs would follow the route of the Clippers to Midway and Wake. But from Wake Island, instead of keeping on to Guam, they would head southwest to Port Moresby in Papuan New Guinea; then westward to Darwin; and, finally, north to Manila.

The purpose of this great southwestward loop was to avoid having to land on Guam, which the Japanese would be able pinch off whenever they felt like it. But, the hop from Wake to Port Moresby crossed the eastern end of the Carolines in the Japanese Mandate and, specifically, passed close to the island of Ponape, which was believed to be one of the strongest Japanese bases. For the first time, aircrews felt the 25-50 rounds of .50 cal ammunition per gun was inadequate for the mission.

The flight proceeded smoothly. Once more the 30th Squadron led off, to be followed by the rear element on October 27th. Both of these next two hops, to Midway and then to Wake, were made in formation with the exception of two planes which were held up at Hickam for repairs and maintenance.

The squadrons flew in wide-spaced right angles to their course to make sure of picking up their objective.

Four hours out of Hickam, the 93rd ran into a severe rain squall and dropped down to 500’. When it cleared they regained their lost altitude and two hours later, they picked out Midway.

Two days were spent on Midway and then, on the morning of the 30th the rear element took off for Wake Island. At 7:15AM that morning they crossed the International Date Line, so that October 30 became October 31. It was a clear day with shining seas and broken, white, and sun-filled clouds through which the planes made their approach to Wake in early afternoon.

Takeoff from Wake to Port Moresby was delayed until 10:00PM that night, because of bad weather across the route to New Guinea; and again led by the 30th. The PAN-AM Clipper taking Major General Lewis H. Brereton to Manila, to become the Senior Air Commander in the Philippines, was also at Wake this night when these B-17Ds were there.

This leg was at flown at 22000’ and aircraft flew in single-ship formation. There was heavy overcast, and for the aircrews, their first taste of a tropical front was encountered. Navigators had to make several course changes along the route over the Carolines. Radio silence was maintained on this leg of the journey.

Well after daylight they started letting down. A little before eight, they crossed the Tabar Islands and the spindle shank of New Ireland with Kavieng 50 miles to the west. Then they were over the Bismarck Sea, themselves now west of Rabaul, except for three planes that had to go in for gas. Forced to land were Maj Birrel Walsh (Operations Officer), Lt Walter R. Ford and Lt Sam Maddux, Jr..

The others continued on to Port Moresby via the Huon Gulf. Reaching Papua New Guinea, their course took them toward the Stanley Owens Mountains, with Buna on their left and Salamau on their right. The air crews were at 12000’ at this point. There was a haze that day over the seacoast, like the haze that covers Los Angeles sometimes, and some of the planes had difficult locating the field. A few landed with less than 40 minutes of gas in their tanks.

The field at Port Moresby was known as 7-Mile, because of its distance from Port Moresby. The field at this time was dirt and sloped so that only one direction was available for either takeoff or landings – regardless of the wind.

After the 3 B-17Ds that land at Rabaul for refueling had caught up, they flew out of Port Moresby with good weather westward over the Coral and Arafura Seas and picked the north Australian shore up beyond the Gulf of Carpentaria. As they passed over the base of the Cobourg Peninsula, they had their first view of Australia’s wastelands. The planes came out once more over Van Dieman Gulf and followed the scalloped coastline into Darwin, the last way station on their flight.

At any rate, the entire flight had become so stretched out by this time, that when the last aircraft arrived in Darwin, most had already departed and some aircraft had already reached Clark. One aircraft had to spend 2 days in Darwin for engine maintenance for two engines lost during the hop from Port Moresby; then it took off on the night of Nov 3-4 for Clark.

Towards 8:30AM the tail end planes were reaching Zamboanga and heading over the Sulu Sea. They kept well to the left of Negros and Panay, whose mountains were deeply shadowed against the morning sunlight. Over the Cuyo Passage they look down on the myriad islands – small, green-forested bits of land outlined by the thread of their own beaches. A weather front had been reported off Mindoro. They saw it hanging in the east as they came abreast of the island; but they kept clear and by 11:00AM they were approaching Luzon.

They came into Luzon from over the China Sea, striking for the entrance to Manila Bay, and then swept over Corregidor and the heel of Bataan. Clouds hung low over the Pampanga Plain and the top of Mount Arayat was veiled.

The last one down, landed at Clark Field, a little before noon, 4 November 1941. They had flown more than 10,000 miles, almost entirely over water, and delivered their planes without loss and on schedule, except for McDonald’s (at Darwin).

The American public knew nothing about the flight and in the light of present-day long distance flights by B-29s it may not seem impressive; but in 1941 it was an achievement of outstanding quality, for which all members of the participating crews were subsequently decorated.

This, of course, is not the whole story. There were many more happenstances along the way that are covered more in depth in Mr. Edmonds book. This is also, not the end of the story of the B-17Ds sent to the Philippines either. But then, that’s a story for another time.

The Boeing B-17D

Forty-two more B-17Cs were ordered on April 17, 1940. However, these planes were sufficiently different from the original batch of B-17Cs that the Army decided on September 6, 1940 to give them a new designation of B-17D. In reality, the B-17D was only slightly different from the B-17C and bore the same company model number (299H). Externally, the B-17D differed from the C in having a set of engine cowling flaps to improve the cooling. Internal changes included electrical system revisions and the addition of a tenth crew member. The B-17D had paired guns in the belly and top positions, bringing the total armament to one 0.30-inch and six 0.50-inch machine guns. The external bomb racks were deleted.

The first B-17D flew on February 3, 1941. The B-17Ds were delivered to the Army from February to April of 1941. First priority was given to overseas units, with most of the B-17Ds going to units based in Hawaii or in the Philippines. The first to get the B-17Ds were the 7th and 19th Bombardment Groups of the 4th Air Force. The batch of B-17Cs, which did not get sent to Britain, were later modified to B-17D standards and redesignated B-17D.

Starting in March of 1941, the Army began to paint its B-17s in olive drab and grey camouflage paint. By the time of Pearl Harbor, virtually all B-17Cs and Ds were in warpaint. The B-17Ds of the 19th Bombardment Group did not get their repaint until after their arrival in the Philippines.

Serial numbers: 40-3059 to 40-3100

Notes: Boeing Model 299H; 18 B-17Cs were modified to B-17D standard; all B-17Ds became RB-17D in October 1942


Span: 103 feet 9 3/8 inches
Length: 67 feet 10.6 inches
Height: 15 feet 5 inches
Wing Area: 1420 square feet
Weight: 48,500 lbs. gross weight (actual - normal load)
Armament: One .30-cal. and six .50-cal. machine guns and 4,800 lbs. of bombs
Engines: Four Wright R-1820-65 (G-205A) Cyclone with turbo-supercharged radials of 1,200 hp each, 1000 hp at 25,000 feet.


Maximum speed: 318 mph at 25,000 feet.
Cruising speed: 227 mph
Service ceiling: 37,000 ft.
Range: 3,400 miles (maximum ferry range)

The only "shark-fin" B-17 known to still remain in existence is B-17D 40-3097 (known as *Swoose*). It is currently in storage at the Paul Garber facility at Silver Hill, Maryland.

Boeing B-17D “The Swoose”

Watch BOTH the Boeing B-17 Ground Operations and Flight Operations videos. TAKE NOTES – it will help.
Zeno’s Warbirds - B-17

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