In 1942 Sergeant Allan Thompson and a small group of Australian navigators were plucked from the Empire Air Training Scheme and sent to north Queensland to join the Flying Fortresses of the American 19th Bomb Group. In Part 1 of their story, Steve Birdsall recounts their training and initial missions.
As a young man Allan Thompson had “no desire” to do anything other than be a farmer in south-western Victoria, and farming was a reserved occupation. That changed in September 1940, when an appeal went out for qualified men to join the Empire Air Training Scheme. Thompson applied when the recruiting train stopped in Beaufort, met the required standard, and was put on the RAAF Reserve list to await call-up.
The next nine months were spent completing correspondence courses in mathematics and physics, and learning Morse code from the local Postmaster. In June 1941 Thompson reported to Melbourne hoping to become a pilot, but failed the Ishihara colour test and joined the No. 17 Air Observer’s Course instead. His training began at Victor Harbour, then on to Mount Gambier to learn dead reckoning, Port Pirie for bombing and air gunnery, and finally astro navigation at Nhill.
In June 1942 Sergeant Thompson was just one of many airmen at the Embarkation Depot at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, waiting for a ship to England. To his surprise, he was ordered to report to North Eastern Area Headquarters in Townsville. He remembers that six Pilot Officers went with him: Allan Davenport, John Edkins, Alan Esler, Allan Fairfax, Donald Farquhar and Edward Fowler. They had completed their navigation training with the 19 Course of the E.A.T.S. on May 28, 1942. Esler was the youngest at 20, Edkins and Farquhar the oldest, both 28.
They came from a variety of backgrounds: Farquhar had been a proof reader for The Age in Melbourne, Davenport a clerk, Edkins a jackeroo. The little group made their way by train to Townsville, where they learned that they would be flying with the American 19th Bomb Group. There seems to be no record of why the Australian navigators were required, but the 19th was building new crews around some of their more experienced co-pilots.
The Australians assembled at Townsville’s Garbutt Field where Capt. Jack Bleasdale introduced them to the Boeing Flying Fortress with a veteran B-17E named Tojo’s Nightmare. They were familiarised with the aircraft’s various systems on a 105-minute flight to Charters Towers and back, and it was pretty impressive to men who had never flown in anything larger than an Avro Anson.
The first combat mission for at least three of the Australians was on June 24, 1942, when ten B-17s took off from the forward base at Port Moresby to bomb the airstrips at Rabaul. Thompson was with Lt Douglas Kellar in 41-2452, Esler with Lt Robert Lewis in 41-2636 and Fairfax in 41-2649 with Lt Jack Thompson. It was an “experience” mission and they were supervised by American navigators. Thompson was keeping a notebook and wrote, “Ran into very bad weather. Did most of navigation on return trip.” The Australians were flown back to Townsville by Capt. Thomas Hubbard in 41-2668 the following morning.
Thompson, the only non-commissioned officer, recalled being told that “they didn’t know what to do with me as they had requested fully trained navigators”. The Americans were confused by the seemingly arbitrary allocation of commissions by the RAAF, but Thompson was able to convince them that he was “just as fully trained” as the others, and the proficiency assessments in his Log Book proved it. He was told that he would be given a trial with the 19th’s Headquarters Squadron. Davenport and Esler were attached to the 30th Bomb Squadron and flown to Cloncurry by Lt Earl Longacre in 41-2460. Farquhar and Fowler went to the 28th Squadron and Edkins and Fairfax to the 93rd, both based at Longreach.
For Thompson, much of July was spent “carting high ranked Americans around the north” as the 19th Bomb Group reorganised and relocated. On July 2, he completed his first flight as a fully-fledged navigator in Tojo’s Nightmare, when Colonel Ray Elsmore went to check on progress at Mareeba, the 19th’s new base. Over the next fortnight he flew on short hops between Townsville, Cloncurry, Longreach, Charleville and Mareeba with Col. John Connally, the group commander.
Still in Tojo’s Nightmare, he was off to Horn Island with Maj. Murray Crowder on July 22. Crowder was investigating recent crashes that had cost the lives of 20 men and three B-17s in a little over a week. By the end of July the 28th, 30th and 93rd Squadrons were established at Mareeba, about three hours by air from Port Moresby, and Lt Col. Richard Carmichael had assumed command. (The 19th’s fourth squadron, the 435th, remained at Townsville to carry out its invaluable reconnaissance work.)
The honorary Lieutenant On August 3 Allan Thompson was assigned to the 28th Bomb Squadron, commanded by cigar-chewing Maj. Elbert “Butch” Helton. He was given a USAAF navigator’s badge and made an “honorary Lieutenant”, allowing him entry to the officers-only briefings. His first three missions with the 28th were flown from Port Moresby with Capt. Paul Cool’s crew, beginning with a daylight high altitude attack on Rabaul shipping on August 12.
Thompson noted: “Lots of Zeros attack. Bomb Aimer collapsed through lack of oxygen. Gave him own mask until I repaired his.” With no response from his bombardier, Cool had no choice but to salvo his bombs over the water. The next morning they went to attack shipping carrying Japanese construction troops to Gona, and Thompson wrote, “Bombed convoy but results poor”. Late that afternoon they were in the air again, attacking the Japanese ships in Gona Bay.
Thompson wrote disgustedly, “Missed cruiser (Lousy)”. Paul Cool’s official reports were equally terse. The Japanese successfully landed at Milne Bay in the early hours of August 26 and it was a long day for the B-17s from Mareeba. Allan Thompson was assigned to Lt Harold Brecht’s crew in 41-24427 and they took off at 0730, bombed the Japanese landing forces and continued on to Port Moresby, arriving at 1400. Ninety minutes later Thompson was flying with Capt. Boris Zubko in 41-2642, leading a formation in a low-level bombing and strafing attack on a Japanese destroyer. They got back to Mareeba at 2210 that night.
All right for them back at Mareeba When the Japanese destroyers Isokaze and Yayoi were located near Normanby Island in the afternoon of September 11, Butch Helton led five B-17s from Port Moresby to attack them. Allan Thompson was flying in 41-9015 with Lt Walter Schmid, and P/O Donald Farquhar was in 41-2660 with Lt James Ellis. When the ships were in sight the formation split up to make individual bomb runs from varying altitudes on converging courses to confound the Japanese gunners.
Helton’s bombs fell short, but Ellis scored a direct hit on the stern of the Yayoi and the first of Schmid’s four bombs made a “very probable” direct hit on the bow (later confirmed by survivors). The Japanese warship, down by the stern and burning, sank that evening. The next morning Helton led seven planes in a dawn attack on the heavily-defended Buna airstrip. Thompson was with Schmid, Farquhar with Ellis, and P/O Edward Fowler was with Lt Jack Laubscher in 41-24424, the “Hell from Heaven Men”.
Ellis released his bombs near the runway and dispersal bays. Schmid, with Lt Gilbert Erb in 41-2663 on his right wing, dropped his bombs diagonally across the runway and the dispersal areas on either side. Thompson recalls, “we flew down the air strip at a very low level and saw Japs running everywhere, I was manning the front gun and spent the whole time spraying bullets.
About the end of the airstrip I heard the pilot say that the plane on the right was losing height . . .” Erb had been hit by what he later described as a “lucky shot on the radio room, firing our auxiliary tank, which exploded”. Four men were reported bailing out as the B-17, under control, descended parallel to the coast and ditched about 50 yards offshore. The tail section broke away and about a minute later there was a large explosion, but two men in life vests were seen in the water. Schmid circled the area and his crew dropped blankets, emergency rations, medical gear, guns and jungle knives to the survivors.
A couple of days later Thompson reported to the armoury and was shown a very badly burned gun barrel, and reminded that the gun “should only be fired in sharp bursts” then allowed to cool down. “All right for them sitting back at Mareeba”, he thought. Erb and three of his crew made it to the Australian outpost at Tufi a week after they were shot down, and were back in Australia by the end of the month.
The shell came through the floor In the early evening of September 22, six B-17s took off from Port Moresby at ten-minute intervals. One crew turned back with engine problems, but the rest proceeded to Rabaul individually, led by Capt. Paul Cool in “Hell from Heaven Men”. Edward Fowler was in 41-2644 with Lt Thomas Parkinson, and Donald Farquhar was in 41-24454, the Georgia Peach with Capt. Donald Simpson. Searchlights probed the sky as the B-17s approached the target and the ships and shore line lit up. The antiaircraft fire was intense and accurate, and the B-17s were silhouetted against a high, thin overcast.
Cool made the first run at 5,000 feet. Parkinson made his run at 8,000 feet and claimed two hits on a “possible cruiser” in the harbour. Simpson began a bomb run on some boats but the searchlights blinded his bombardier. Then Georgia Peach was hit. Cool reported: “The shell came through the floor of the nose compartment between the bombardier and navigator, tearing the left hand fifty caliber from the hands of the navigator. It exploded in his face, blasting one eye out and severely damaging the other. Also punctured his chest. The blast of the shell threw the PDI (pilot directional indicator) into the pilot’s lap.”
Georgia Peach suffered other damage and made it back to Port Moresby only “by the grace of good weather”, Cool wrote. Donald Farquhar would recover, but was permanently blind.
In Part Two, Steve Birdsall tells what happened next to these RAAF navigators in foreign aircraft and which of them managed to survive the war.
Acknowledgments: Australian War Memorial, Colin Bruggy, Paul Cool, Peter Dunn, Jill Franc, Kevin Ginnane, Glen Lewis, Bob Livingstone, MSgt Craig A. Mackey, Lex McAulay, National Archives of Australia, Janice Olson, Kevin O’Reilly, Jane Richardson, Edward Rogers, Robert Stitt, Justin Taylan and Allan Thompson.