Burma Banshees, "Angels on our Wings," the call of death to the enemy
February 22, 2005
The Allies eat up the clock getting organized
80th Fighter Group (FG) "Burma Banshee" P-40N "Warhawk," 1944. A painting by Richard Groh, presented by Adam Lewis' "Adam's planes."
The US was completely unprepared for this Japanese race through Asia. In January 1942, shortly after the Japanese onslaught began, the Congress created a plethora of new combat units, including the 80th Pursuit Group, which was later renamed the 80th Fighter Group (FG) and later came to be known as the "Burma Banshees."
The 80th FG originally formed in January 1942 with two squadrons, the 88th and 90th. Then, in March, the 89th was formed. All three squadrons would fly combat with the P-40 "Warhawk." A fourth squadron, the 459th, was formed in 1943 and, unlike the other three squadrons, flew the P-38 “Lightening.”
The 10th's first order of business was to set up shop in New Delhi, India, which it did between March-May 1942. The 80th FG's first order of business was to get pilots and train them to fly and fight. Their flight training began in July 1942 with the Curtis P-47 “Thunderbolt” and then the P-40.
Republic P-47 "Thunderbolt," affectionately known as the "Jug." Originally conceived as a lightweight interceptor, it ended up as a heavyweight fighter. Photo courtesy of the USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.
Curtiss P-40 was America's foremost fighter in service when WWII began. P-40s engaged Japanese aircraft during the attack on Pearl Harbor and the invasion of the Philippines in December 1941. They also were flown in China early in 1942 by the Flying Tigers and in North Africa in 1943 by the first AAF all-black unit, the 99th Fighter Squadron. Photo courtesy of the USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.
A study of the 10th AAF to which the Burma Banshees were assigned takes you into the mind-boggling organizational chaos that enveloped the Allies from the outset of the war against Japan. It has taken us some considerable time and effort to piece it together. We hesitate outlining it, because it can be a boring read and will twist you all over the place. But we're going to do it anyway.
The Bataan Death March, the Philippines, U.S. National Archives, presented by Department of History, University of San Diego
The short answer is "because." Japan was busily conquering nearly all of Asia and a good part of the Pacific Ocean and its islands, it attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, it was committing horrendous crimes against humanity, which it would continue to do throughout the war, thousands and thousands of American and friendly forces were fighting, dying, being wounded and captured, and the US and British were scrambling about to give these courageous warriors a command and control system that was essential for these troops to fight effectively. Understanding what evolved is therefore important.
What will evolve is a division of effort in the war against Japan.
First, we have the Japanese invasion of mainland Asia, most importantly China, Indochina, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya and Burma. Then we have the Japanese attacks and invasions of major island states throughout the Pacific, including, most notably, Hawaii, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, and the island chains stretching from Australia all the way to Japan.
Wavell graduated at the top of his class at the prestigious Sandhurst Military Academy, fought in the Boer War in South Africa, fought on India's Northwest frontier, fought in France during WWI, served in Palestine, and created the Middle East Command responsible for protecting the Suez Canal from Germany. German General Rommel gave Wavell a hard time in Libya, Wavell lost the confidence of Churchill, and was transferred to become the Commander-in-chief of British forces in India. Following Pearl Harbor, he was sent to Burma where he was outgunned by the Japanese, and lost Malaya, Singapore, and Burma. He resigned. In 1943 he was promoted to field marshal and returned to India tasked with the job of liberating Burma.
The picture that is in its embryonic stage here is of a three-fold geographic division of effort: China, the island states of the Pacific, and Southeast Asia: Chiang Kai-shek, MacArthur, and Wavell. To be perfectly accurate, we should say there was a fourth geographic region, the Pacific Ocean itself, which was under the command of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas.
As previously described, the Japanese onslaught of Asia and the Pacific islands began in December 1941 and occurred with lightening speed. The Allies found it very hard to catch up organizationally to fight efficiently and effectively.
Soon after the war with Japan began, the US and Britain planned for a combined command (more than one country) for all Allied forces in Southeast Asia. In other words, they saw a singular combined command running the war against Japan in the Pacific. This command was named the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command, or ABDACOM.
ABDACOM area of responsibility, presented by World War II History
General Wavell was called from India to command the ABDACOM, comprised of thinly spread Allied forces from Burma to Dutch New Guinea and the Philippines. Other areas, including India, Australia, and Hawaii remained under separate, national commands, as did the fleets at sea. Wavell set up his command headquarters in Java.
For our purposes, US Lt. General George H. Brett, Army Air Corps (AAC), was named the deputy commander and Major General Lewis H. Brereton, also AAC, was named deputy commander air forces behind a RAF air marshall.
Brereton was an interesting choice, since he was General MacArthur's "air boss" in the Philippines, the commander Far East Air Forces (FEAF). Brett too was an interesting choice. Then Major General Brett was in charge of arranging plans for General MacArthur's escape from the Philippines. When the Philippines was attacked, what was left of the FEAF covered the retreat to Australia and Brereton arrived in Darwin in late December 1941. MacArthur stayed behind. Continue keeping Brereton in your memory bank.
Also note for the record that the ABDACOM did not include China. As we have said, the command arrangement there was settled. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was in charge.
This ABDACOM arrangement never had a chance of working, for at least two reasons. First, the Japanese moved so quickly through the entire Pacific and mainland Asia that ABDACOM, first headquartered in Java, was split in two by the Japanese advance. Second, General MacArthur saw himself responsible for the Philippines, and no British general was going to get a piece of that pie. But MacArthur would end up stuck in Australia, so his only way back to the Philippines was to island hop his way back, and that would demand a major ground, air and naval commitment.
Wavell saw the combined command as unworkable, and, with the agreement of his superiors, resigned from that job in February 1942, with only one month under his belt. He returned control of the forces subordinated to him to the individual nations, and recommended creation of a Southwest Pacific Command and another similar command based in India.
Map of India, 1930, presented by PBS
General Wavell had to get out of Java anyway, as the Japanese were on their way. He returned to India to be the British Commander-in-chief, India, and he took control over operations in Burma and Ceylon as well. This is a good map of the India-Burma-Ceylon area of command. Ceylon today is Sri Lanka. But also note that in those days, India butted right up to Burma along Burma's entire western border. There was no Bangladesh and no Pakistan. Karachi, which became a very important logistics center, belonged to India and hence to Britain. You can also clearly see the Indian state of Assam, which is from where the majority of Allied air operations would launch later in the war.
We will return to this region in a moment, because Wavell's command is a British command, although it is multinational with British, Indian and Burmese forces involved. The point to make here is that Chiang is in charge as an Allied commander in China, and Wavell for the moment is in charge of South East Asia.
Let's now move over to the Southwest Pacific Area.
Nearly everyone except MacArthur acknowledged that he would have to leave the Philippines and go to Australia, but MacArthur would not budge. Something had to be done about all those American forces in Australia. So, Lt. General George H. Brett arrived in Australia on December 28, 1941 to take command of all American forces there. Major General Brereton, also in Australia, in turn was appointed to command all US Army Air Forces under Brett.
This is General MacArthur being greeted at the Terowie railway station by the commanding officer, Terowie Staging Camp, Australia, Major Claude Rogers, March 20, 1942. It was here that MacArthur address journalists with the statement echoed around the world: "I came out of Bataan and I shall return." Photo credit Terowie Citizens' Association, Inc., presented by Peter Dunn's Australia at War
MacArthur finally left the Philippines for Australia in March 1941 in a harrowing escape for his pilots. They flew heavy and through Japanese lines. Shortly after his arrival, he went to Brisbane and the US appointed him as Supreme Allied Command South West Pacific Area, (SWAPA). General Brett became the Commander of Allied Air Forces in Australia, subordinate to MacArthur. A decision was made that the 5th AAF, previously commanded by Brereton in his FEAF role, would be focused entirely on the SWAPA. Interestingly, Brereton was instructed to split away from the SWAPA and organize the 10th AAF in India. A new commander, General George Kenney, a close associate of General MacArthur, was brought in to replace Brett, take command of the 5th AAF, and ultimately command a resurrected FEAF.
Map of South West Pacific Area (SWAPA), presented by the National Park Service
This map is not perfect for what we want, but it does show MacArthur's SWAPA area of responsibility and his general objectives. Fundamentally, when you think of SWAPA, think of allied forces launching from Australia and elsewhere to take back all the major islands and island states in the western Pacific. As it turned out, this would include taking the island state of Japan.
The important point here is that by March and April 1942, the broad command and control lines in the Pacific took shape. The US Navy was responsible for all of the Pacific Ocean. There were two supreme allied commanders, General MacArthur and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. General Wavell was the British Commander-in-chief, India Command, which included Burma, but he had not yet donned a combined command hat.
The India-Burma command lines still had to be sorted out. Frankly, these lines of command were a mess, and commands would change names frequently, with various general officers wearing several hats at one time.
General Alexander was educated at Harrow and Sandhurst, served with distinction in France during WWI and between the wars, he served as a brigadier-general on the north west frontier of India (later to become Pakistan). At the start of Britain’s military involvement in WWII, Alexander commanded the First Division that was part of the British Expeditionary Force that landed in France. The First Division was to suffer the same consequences of other British units in northern Europe when in April 1940, the Germans unleashed its blitzkrieg against armies ill prepared for such an attack. The First Division was pushed back to Dunkirk where it was evacuated. Alexander was the last officer to be evacuated from the beaches there. After this, in 1942, Alexander was given the task of stemming the onslaught of the Japanese in Burma. Among his first tasks was to oversee the British and Commonwealth withdrawal from Rangoon, Burma, to Assam state, India.
But, for our purposes here, it is still 1942 and the lines of command in the India-Burma region were not well formed and started breaking down. Recall that Rangoon fell in February 1942, the British general there was fired and Alexander took over, then all Burma was lost to the Japanese in April, the Japanese were in full control of Burma in May, and they were knocking on India's door.
Let's focus on Stillwell to demonstrate how the lines of command were messed up.
Set aside that he had just told Stillwell he would not be combat ready until May. The missions he ordered were not coordinated with Stillwell, his boss. Brereton received orders directly from Washington to support the British in India, hence the raids. The British never had much use for Burma, seeing it only as rich in resources. India was the crown jewel. Responding to British desires, the War Department on April 15 instructed the 10th AAF to concentrate on defending India and forget about providing air support for the Burma campaign.
That ran against Stillwell's grain. It was his intention to defend Burma to the last drop of blood, and then take the offensive and drive the Japanese out.
In addition, Chiang Kai-Shek had agreed to place the Chinese troops in Burma under General Stillwell's command, but Chiang routinely gave instructions directly to his commanders, circumventing Stillwell. Stillwell also communicated directly with the Joint Chiefs back home to receive his orders. There was no love lost between Chiang and "Vinegar Joe." We have seen reports they literally hated each other. Chiang viewed Stillwell as arrogant and power hungry, while Stillwell always wanted to be on the offensive and did not like the defensive strategy Chiang was employing. In any event, Chinese commanders refused to follow Stillwell's direction to launch a counter-offensive against the Japanese. Then, abruptly, the Chinese were placed under General Alexander's command. Alexander ordered all forces under his command to retreat into India.
Following the British lead, the US War Department gave up on Burma. General Brereton launched a few more bombing raids on Rangoon on April 16 and 29, but on April 22, his and other aircraft began evacuating military and civilian people from Burma to India, a process that continued through June 15. The Chinese, Indian and Burmese were in hot retreat to India, and the Chinese then were finding ways to get back to China. Well, Stillwell was still in Burma, angry watching all these forces, especially the Chinese under his command, retreating.
General Stillwell (in the lead) marches out of Burma, May 1942. Photo courtesy of the National Archives, presented by the US Army.
In May 1942, General Stillwell officially ordered the evacuation of Burma. He tried to get himself, his staff and others out by air, rail, truck and jeep but by May 6 decided to walk out of Burma over very difficult terrain to Imphal, India. He took about 114 people, including his staff, medical people, and a Chinese general, and marched them out, arriving in India on May 20. By May 26, the Burma campaign was effectively over. Stillwell's famous assessment was this:
"I claim we got a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out why it happened and go back and retake it."
Following all this tumult, the loss of Burma started to sink in back in Washington.
The loss of Burma meant China was effectively blockaded by the Japanese, nearly completely blockaded. The Japanese held that part of the Burma Road that ran through Burma and the rail lines to Rangoon. There was no way Chiang's forces could fight the Japanese with no supplies.
General Stillwell, all the way up to the point he decided he had to march himself and his people out of Burma, was attempting to develop and implement alternate scenarios to return to the offensive, but most of his forces were going in the other direction. To the British, Burma was not important. With Japanese forces knocking on the door, India had to be defended at all costs. To the Chinese, Burma was a lifeline for national survival and supply routes had to be re-opened. Reversing course away from the British position, the US started to view Burma as central to keeping China in the war against Japan.
As a result, General Stillwell, now in India, began planning to recapture Burma and reestablish the supply line to China.
But Vinegar Joe's troubles were not over. In June 1942, Major General Brereton, his 10th AAF air commander, was appointed to command the Middle East Air Force. Somehow, Brereton arranged for the 9th Bombardment Squadron to go with him. The 9th was virtually the only operational squadron in the 10th AAF's inventory.
B-17 "Sally B" Flying Fortress at the Shuttleworth Military Pageant (UK) in August 2001. This aircraft is the official flagship of the American Air Museum in Britain, is believed to have fought in Europe and is permanently based at the Imperial War Museum Duxford, England. Photo credit: Jo Mitchell, presented by Answers.com
Not only did the crews leave, but they took all the B-17s belonging to the 7th BG, leaving behind the B-24s. As a general rule, crews preferred the B-17 to the B-24 "Liberator.". The B-24 was actually a newer and better aircraft, she flew in all theaters, but she was advanced and complicated, demanded more pilot training, and often flew so heavy that she was dog to fly. At any rate, Brereton's maneuver here effectively left the 10th AAF with no offensive capability until the 436th squadron could get checked out on the B-24s that were left behind. The 7th BG had two other squadrons, the 492nd and 493rd, but they had no aircraft and no personnel assigned.
B-24 "Dauntless Dottie" Liberator flown by the 380th BG of the 5th AAF in the Southwest Pacific. Photo presented by oldnautibits.com
The 436th completed its training on the B-24 in late in 1942. The 9th returned to India in October 1942 and transitioned to the B-24. So, by year's end, the 10th AAF again had some operational forces, mostly bombers.
Brigadier General Earl L Naiden took over the 10th AAF in June when Brereton left. Naiden did not stay at the helm very long either, replaced in August 1942, by Major General Clayton L Bissell. Naiden took command of India-China Ferry Command under the 10th AAF, responsible for ferrying supplies over the Himalayas, the "Hump," to China. This had to be done because the Burma Road and Burma's railroads to the sea were closed to friendly traffic bound for China.
Much like his boss, General Stillwell, Bissell was autocratic, and austere, and, like Stillwell, he came into immediate conflict with now Major General Chennault up in China, who ran his operation by what came to be known as "shirtsleeve efficiency" as opposed to Bissell's "accounting efficiency." As an aside, by this time Chennault's "Flying Tigers" had disbanded and were melded in first with the 23rd FG and then, with the arrival of the 51st FG, with what would become the 14th AAF. Chennault, recalled to active duty at the rank of major general, commanded the 23rd and then the 14th AAF. Note that the 14th AAF was responsible for Chinese airspace and ground targets, while the 10th AAF was responsible for Indian and Burmese airspace and ground targets, the former responsible to Chiang, the latter to Stillwell.
Legend has it Chennault taught his Chinese ground maintenance crews to greet pilots disembarking from a 10th AAF aircraft with these words: "Piss on Bissell." Chennault was close to Chiang Kai-shek, Chiang hated Stillwell and now complained to Washington about Bissell's failing to get along with Chennault. Bissell was reassigned to Washington in August 1943, a year and a day after taking the 10th.
It's now August 1943, the 10th AAF has certainly been through a roller coaster ride, and the ride was not over. Yet more new organizational arrangements were made. As an aside, the 80th FG Burma Banshees had been training in the US for about 8-9 months, and in May 1943, declared themselves operationally ready and shipped out for India. We don't want to discuss this now, but be aware that they're on their way and three squadrons arrived in June. Let's finish the organizational issue in this area of war.
In August 1943, Lt. General George E. Stratemeyer took command of the newly created US Army Air Forces, India-Burma Sector, China-Burma-India Theater. This command included the 10th AAF, China-Burma-India Air Service Command (Provisional), China-Burma-India Training Unit (Provisional) and several lesser units.
Broadly speaking, up until now, the British were fighting under their command and control system, and the US under its, such as it was. That changed, also in August 1943.
The Allies created the combined South East Asian Command (SEAC) to take over their separate national commands and strategic objectives. Admiral Louis F. Mountbatten was appointed Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia.
Much can be said about the quality of some of the British officers sent to this area to command. But that's for others to comment. For our purposes, by August 1943, there were supreme allied commanders in all three sectors of the war against Japan: Chiang in China, MacArthur in the Southwest Pacific area, and Mountbatten in South East Asia. There were more changes later, but we'll stop here.
Please remember that during all this time, soldiers and airmen were fighting and dying, and perhaps worst of all, being captured by the Japanese. A lot was lost by the Allied failure to have solid command arrangements in the region.
We mentioned that the Burma Banshees were ready. Originally, the group trained on P-47s because it thought it was going to Europe. It then received orders for India and had to train in the P-40. The group shipped out in May 1943, bound for India by way of Brazil, the Cape of Good Hope, and Ceylon. Once there, the group deployed to bases in the Assam Valley in India, just outside northern Burma. Its motto was, “Angels on our wings."
In the next section, we'll take a close look at what the 80th FG was up against when it arrived. That is, what missions would the group have to fly, and why.