HOW THE 3RD BOMB GROUP
STOLE THEIR B-25 MITCHELLS

FROM THE DUTCH AIR FORCE

 

The 3rd Bomb Group arrived in Brisbane on 25 February, 1942 without any aircraft. The highest ranking officers in the Group were 1st Lieutenants. The Group was promised new B-25 Mitchells and sent to Charters Towers where they waited for their planes. Repeated calls to Melbourne elicited the fact that there were no planes on the way to them.

On 1 April 1942, 13 men from the 3rd Bomb Group (including 1st Lt. James McAfee) flew down to Archerfield airfield in Brisbane in a C-39 to pick up some B-25C Mitchell bombers that belonged to the Netherlands East Indies Air Force (Dutch). In his diary, James McAfee wrote:-

2 April 1942 - "Checked out on B-25C today. Flies real good"

3 April 1942 - " Left for CT today. Damn near flew into Schmidt over Rockhampton. and busted door of the back hatch. Bomb sight nearly fell out the open door. Made it to CT OK. Rose was my co pilot."

The story below is from the book "THE GRIM REAPERS" History of the 3rd Bomb Group, 1918-1965" by Lawrence Cortesi, Published by Historical Aviation Album. It tells, with some fictional elaboration, how the 3rd Bomb Group "stole" their B-25s from the Dutch Air Force.

Bas Kreuger, the Curator of the Military Aviation Museum RNlAF in Soesterberg, the Netherlands, advised me that the Mitchells mentioned below were handed over to the Americans rather than being "stolen". The other point with the story below is that it refers to a Batchelor airfield in Melbourne. Batchelor field was actually in the Northern Territory.

Bas Kreuger advised that "Twelve plus five B-25's arrived in April 1942 from a batch ordered and bought by the Netherlands Purchasing Commity in the US. As a new NEI-AF squadron (18th Squadron) was yet to be filled with capable crews, those first 12 were handed over to the USAAF 3rd Bomb Group, where they flew for some time with Dutch serials (N5- .......). So they were not stolen, but handed over to the US."

Noel Tunny's book, "Gateway to Victory" also states that fifteen B-25 Mitchells of the Dutch N.E.I.A.F. were taken over by the 3rd Bomb Group after they were delivered to Archerfield.  They were delivered to Australia in crates.  After assembly, they were flown to Charters Towers, but the first 3 aircraft to land were damaged in landing incidents. This seems to support the statement from Bas Kreuger.

 

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"THE GRIM REAPERS"
History of the 3rd Bomb Group, 1918-1965
by Lawrence Cortesi
Published by Historical Aviation Album.

On 27 March, a few days after Davis took over the Reapers, Gunn came into Big Jim's (Lt. Col. John Davis) office and grinned. "Johnny, there's a couple dozen B-25s at Batchelor Field in Melbourne." (Note - I know of a Batchelor AIr Field in the Northern Territory. There is no Batchelor field in Melbourne)

Davis was surprised and asked if the executive officer had heard anything. Strickland (1st Lt. Bob Strickland) shook his head. He had not heard of any aircraft reaching Australia for consignment to the 3rd Bomb Group. Davis then turned to Gunn with a frown.

"They aren't exactly ours," Gunn said. "I think they've been allocated to the Dutch Air Force, but from what I hear, they'll never use them because they have no pilots. The planes are just sitting there, and we've got a war to fight. Why don't we go down and get them."

Davies grinned. "You mean steal them?"

"They said our planes were on the way," Gunn shrugged. "Who's to say those Mitchells aren't ours?" He leaned close to Davies. "Go see Eubank; he's a friend of yours. Tell him your planes are at Batchelor Field and you'd like an authorization to pick them up.

"You're crazy, Pappy," Davies said. "All I know-those Aussies could sure use aerial help up in New Guinea. We could give them plenty with 24 Mitchells." Davies flew immediately to FEAF ADVON headquarters in Brisbane to see General Eugene Eubank who had been a Philippines acquaintance of Davies when Eubank commanded V Bomber Command, Eubank welcomed Davies' visit until he learned the colonel's mission.

"If you give me an authorization," Davies said, "I'll take a load of pilots down there to pick up the planes. Gunn says he can have them ready for combat right away."

"If I'm not mistaken," Eubank said, "those Mitchells are consigned to the Dutch."

"They said our planes were on the way," Davies said. "It wouldn't be your fault if we picked up the wrong planes; if we mistook those B-25's for the planes Washington promised us."

Eubank pursed his lips. "I don't know; that wouldn't be by the book."

"When did we start going by the book?" Davies asked, as he leaned closer to the general. "We could do an awful lot of damage up in New Guinea with those ships."

Eubank grinned again. "What've we got to lose except our necks, and we won't have those anyway if those Nips keep coming on the way they are."

After the 3rd Group commander got the authorization, he flew quickly back to Charters Towers. He rounded up 24 pilots, including himself, Pappy Gunn, and Bob Strickland. When the mail plane landed, Big Jim and his airmen were waiting on the field.

After service crews unloaded the cargo, and while tankmen refueled the aircraft, Davies and his men climbed aboard. When the pilot and co-pilot returned to the plane, they were surprised to see 24 pilots crammed inside.

"Colonel," the pilot asked Davies, "What's going on?"

"We're going to Melbourne to pick up our B-25's," Big Jim said. He showed the pilot the authorization from General Eubank.

"Okay," the transport pilot shrugged. "We'll be making a stop at Archer Field (Archerfield) in Brisbane to refuel. We should reach Melbourne about 1700 hours this afternoon."

The C-47 then took off for the 900 mile trip to Batchelor Field, stopping briefly at Brisbane. By 1700 hours, the Gooney Bird was landing. Most of the Reapers had slept during the trip so they were well refreshed to fly the "hot" bombers back.

With a nonchalant air of authority, Davies presented his authorization to an American OD Officer at the field. The duty captain, like others around the base, knew little of high level decisions concerning allotments, strategies, or operations. "I wondered who the hell owned these planes," the officer said. "They've been sitting here a couple of weeks."

The captain did not question the authorization. In fact, he called an ordnance NCO to check the fuel supply and to warm up the planes. After a hot meal, the 3rd Group pilots boarded the B-25's. At 1830 hours, as the sun began setting below the Melbourne River, they took off. By 1900 hours, the last B-25 was droning northward.

Not until 2100 hours did somebody at Batchelor Field discover that an air corps Lt. Colonel had taken off with 24 unauthorized B-25's. The OD officer had talked about the incident in casual conversation during an evening bull session and he was overheard by two staff officers who knew the bombers had been consigned to the Dutch. Within a half hour, the shocked twosome were frantically making phone calls up and down the east coast of Australia to determine how Davies had shammed an authorization to pickup the planes.

Meanwhile, Davies stopped at Brisbane's Archer Field (Archerfield) to refuel. But, before the 3rd Group pilots could take off, the base commander and a squad of MP's met them with fire in their eyes.

"Colonel, Sir," the major said, "I have orders from FEAF to hold these planes here in Brisbane and to detain you and your men. Your authorization is invalid and nobody can reach General Eubank to verify your orders."

"Major," Davies said, "I have a written authorization and you know that under AR regulations a signed order supercedes an oral one."

"Are you questioning General Eubank, Major?" Pappy Gunn suddenly blurted.

The base commander rolled his tongue around his lips.

"We need those planes, Major," Davies said soberly.

The base commander looked at the pilots in their cockpits wearing a mixture of apprehension and supplication on their faces. Davies' argument about the written authorization was a weak one, for the major had authority from FEAF VIP'S. He squinted at the B-25's, their fuselages shaking from warming engines--like anxious greyhounds ready to pursue game.

"As soon as we get these planes to Charters," Pappy said, "we'll have them hitting Lae and Salamaua within a couple of days."

The major looked at the middle aged Mad Professor. "Are you Captain Gunn?"

"Yes.

The major grinned. He knew Pappy's reputation,

"Yes", he said, "I suppose you will have those planes ready in a couple of days."

"I guarantee it," Gunn said.

The major looked at Davies and sighed. "Okay, Colonel, I guess a written order does supercede an oral one," as he cocked his head and the MP's moved off.

Soon, the major stood on the field and watched the Mitchells soar into the sky. He ignored a clerk who had rushed out to the field to tell him that FEAF wanted to know if the bombers had been held as requested. Not until the last B-25 had disappeared to the north, did the base commander return to his office to call an aide of General Brett himself.

"I'm sorry, Sir," the major told the FEAF officer, "we're too late. The planes have already taken off."

"What? You let them go off with those bombers?"

"Colonel Davies had a written authorization and he left before I could determine whether of not the authorization was valid."

"You idiot," the aide cried, "I'll have your ass. "

"Yes Sir."

At 2400 hours, while a deep midnight darkness hung over Charters Towers, the drone of planes prompted the men of the 3rd Group to rush onto the air strip and ignite lights. Swiftly, the B-25's touched down on the runway and taxied to the far end of the strip, while waiting vehicles led them to the revetment areas. By 0100 hours, the pirated bombers had been safely tucked away and the lights snuffed out.

Grim Reaper ground crews hugged the clean olive green surfaces of the Mitchells, almost awed by the sight and smell of the new planes. Unlike the A-24's that Davies had brought originally, these bombers did not need service, new engines, new electrical equipment, armament systems, or extensive overhauls.

In Brisbane, meanwhile, the understanding major was already confined to quarters for possible court martial because he had allowed an air corps officer to abscond with 24 new aircraft without proper authorization.

The Dutch reacted furiously, demanding that FEAF return the planes at once. However, when a FEAF officer asked if they had pilots to fly the Mitchells back to Melbourne, the NEI officer was strangely mum for a moment. He then muttered, "The Americans took them and they should fly them back."

FEAF headquarters, meanwhile, sent a frantic message to Charters Towers: "Return 24 B-25's to Batchelor Field at once." But, 3rd Group clerks said they needed to check with Colonel Davies who, unfortunately, was unavailable at the moment. FEAF probers got similar blanks from ADVON FEAF in Brisbane.

"Sorry, General Eubank is somewhere in the field." Thus, the Melbourne brass could only tell the Dutch that Air Force headquarters in Australia would form a board of inquiry to look into the matter.

Not until 24 hours later did somebody at FEAF finally reach General Eubank. Eubank pleaded ignorance. He had merely allowed Davies to pick up the allotted B-25's that had apparently arrived in Australia as promised by Washington. Eubank was not to blame if the report had been false and Davies had picked up the wrong aircraft.

The aide grumbled but a moment later, General Brett was on the phone. "Gene, we could have an international incident over this thing. The Dutch are furious and if they go to the state department, God only knows what'll happen. You'll need to get those planes back to Batchelor Field."

"I can't do that," Eubank said.

"What the hell do you mean, you can't?"

"Am I in charge of FEAF planning or not?" Eubank asked.

"Sure, but what's that got do with it."

"The Nips are building up Lae and Salamaua, and I plan to hit those bases with these B-25's. We've already made arrangements to stage them out of Moresby."

"Goddam it, Gene," Brett growled, "they'll have my ass."

"If we can hurt those Japs, it'll be worth it."

"Okay," Brett sighed. "I'll go along."

Yet, the brazenness of the 3rd Group airmen had not ended. On the same 30 March day, Captain Gunn and his engineering crews readied the B-25's for combat, but discovered that the planes did not have bomb sights. The instruments were still in Brisbane. John Davies was shattered, but Pappy promised to get them. He flew at once to Batchelor Field.

With unmitigated boldness, Gunn walked into the Dutch supply building at the base and demanded the bomb sights for the B-25's. The Dutch, already infuriated, wondered how the Americans now had the audacity to ask for anything. The request was refused. The story then prevailed in Melbourne that Pappy Gunn aimed a tommy gun at the depot personnel and ordered them to give up the bomb sights or else. Whether or not Pappy actually made such a threat with a gun is mere rumor, but one thing is certain: Gunn returned to Charters Towers with the bombsights for the B-25's.

 

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Three of these Dutch B-25's may have arrived at Archerfield on 9 March 1942, being part of the first delivery of aircraft. They may have flown via West Africa.

 

Netherlands East Indies Air Force Home Page

 

REFERENCE BOOKS

"Queensland Airfields WW2 - 50 Years On"
By Roger R. Marks

"The Grim Reapers"
History of the 3rd Bomb Group, 1918-1965"
By Lawrence Cortesi,
Published by Historical Aviation Album.

 

 

 

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