In this Dakota Hunter Blog, you will see photos and read stories of the air raids against the Japanese airfields, shipping, and harbors in the Dutch East Indies. This blog post highlights the assaults made by Australian and Dutch pilots of the 18 Squadron NEI (Netherlands East Indies). Where the Americans fought their heroic battles early in the Pacific War against Nippon on the Eastern and later the Northern side of what now is Papua New Guinea (PNG) with the battle of the Coral Sea (early May 1942), the Solomon Islands, Wake Island, Tarawa, there was a forgotten war on a much smaller scale fought over the Southern Indonesian Archipelago.
Feature photo (on top of this blog): Two of twelve USAAF A-20 Havoc light bombers on a mission against Kokas (Western New Guinea) in July of 1943. One bomber was hit by anti-aircraft fire after dropping its bombs, and plunged into the sea, killing both crew members. The low bomb runs were more accurate against shipping and harbor installations but became very risky. The Japanese had their highly effective 75 mm anti-aircraft guns, mostly well camouflaged, positioned in gun pits all around the harbors and airfields.
The US military pressure on the Japanese naval and occupational forces took the Theater of War in a North-Western direction to the Philippines. With that surge, most of the Indonesian Southern chain of Islands (Java, Bali, Lombok, Sumba, Flores, Timor) on the SW rim of the Pacific were left untouched for the rest of the War. Only the very strategic oil refinery harbors on the Eastern Borneo coast (Balikpapan, Tarakan) were subject to a combined Australian-American invasion/assault in July 1945 (See my Blog Australian American Invasion of Borneo). With the lower situated islands under the lee of the raging Pacific war, the Japanese airfields and harbors on Java and Timor remained operational throughout the war years 1942-43-44. It was felt like an outright menace for Australia, the country remained a potential prey for (partial) invasion/ occupation by The Empire of the Rising Sun.
Japanese air raids on Darwin and later on Broome (February, early March 1942) were sufficient reason for the USAAF to supply B-25 Mitchell Bombers and fighters to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) which had very limited means to stop an eventual Nippon invasion of Darwin or the Northern Territories. The almost forgotten war against Java and Timor started with only a handful of aircraft under RAAF command. With a limited number of Dutch ML/KNIL pilots who had barely escaped the Japanese invasion of Java in February 1942 and Australian ground crew, the 18nd Squadron NEI was installed on 4 April 1942 with its HQ in Canberra.
Photo above depicting Parachute-dropped fragmentation bombs dropped on a camouflaged Japanese Mitsubishi Ki-21, “Sally”, during an attack by USAAF against a Japanese airport on Buru Island (West of Ambon), Dutch East Indies, on October 15, 1944. A few seconds after this picture was taken the aircraft was perforated by this forerunner of the cluster bomb. The use of the para-frag bomb enabled low-flying bombing attacks to be carried out with higher accuracy. Top/Feature photo and this photo with parts of the text are courtesy http://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2011/09/world-war-ii-the-pacific-islands/100155/
Photo above shows a Lockheed type L-18 (or C-60). The Dutch Army Air Service had nineteen of those Lodestars at its disposal. These L-18’s played an important role in ferrying army and air service units to their war destinations around the archipelago. During January and February 1942, Lodestars were also tasked with the evacuation of large numbers of civilians (mainly women and children) from locations that were coming under Japanese threat, such as Tarakan, Balikpapan (Borneo) and Makassar (Celebes). ( Courtesy thejavagoldblog.wordpress.com/2015/02/07/the-lockheed-lodestar/)
Photo above. Just one month before Holland was invaded by the German Wehrmacht in May 1940, the Dutch Government had made a desperate order in the USA for 30 Curtiss-Wright CW-21 fighter planes. That odd-looking plane was rejected by the USAAC and therefore the only fighter available for prompt deliveries in quantities! The Netherlands had been occupied before deliveries could be made so the contract was transferred to the Netherlands East Indies government. With its light construction, radial engine, low wing loading, limited pilot protection and lack of self-sealing fuel tanks, the CW-21B was on an equal level with the opposing Japanese fighters like the Mitsubishi A6M5-Zero. (Courtesy thejavagoldblog.wordpress.com/background-info-book-1/airplanes-2/curtiss-cw-21b/)
Japanese Navy Zeros made a fighter sweep over eastern Java on February 2nd but the CW-21Bs based at Surabaya/Perak were not engaged. The next day, there followed a large Japanese raid. Twelve CW-21Bs were among the 25 Allied fighters scrambled to counter the attack. Zeros engaged the Allied fighters and claimed 33 fighters shot down including 15 “Curtiss-Wrights” or “Curtiss” fighters as distinguished from P-36s, P-40s, Buffaloes and other types that they also claimed. In addition to the CW-21Bs, the only other Allied fighters involved were USAAF P-40s and Dutch Hawk 75As. That surely was a dramatic day for the Allied Fighters.
By mid-February 1942, refugees and soldiers fleeing from the Japanese invasion were arriving in large numbers on the Australian coast. The remote port of Broome had an airfield and a suitable harbor for flying boats (Roebuck Bay). It formed a convenient landfall for aircraft coming from Batavia, Tjilatjap, or Surabaya in Java. In the last two weeks of February, 8,000 (mostly) Dutch refugees, including many women and children, passed through Broome on their way south. Soon after this date, the war in this remote corner of the world escalated quickly. On 19 February 1942, the Japanese made the first airstrike on Australian Territory with the Bombing of Darwin (see map above), in order to protect their planned invasion of Java and Timor. That was the start of almost 100 air raids that Japan would make on Australian harbors, shipping, towns, etc. in 1942-1943.
The most devastating of all air assaults was to follow 2 weeks later with the surprise attack on Broome, which is comparable in surprise factor with the Japanese attack on Dutch Harbor, Alaska. (see my Blog Japanese second attack on the USA, Dutch Harbor)
Photo depicting Roebuck Bay , Broome, W. Australia. 3 March 1942, after the Japanese attack. By the start of March, Japanese forces had occupied Koepang, on the island of Timor, and that placed them within striking range of the Australian coast. Reconnaissance flights on the 2nd of March confirmed the presence of many Allied aircraft at Broome both on the aerodrome and in the Bay, and an attack was launched the next day.
The Japanese Air Force was again capable of launching an air raid against Allied Aircraft with devastating losses. The USAAF lost 2 B-17´s and 2 B-24 Liberators on the aerodrome (see the photo in the left corner). The US Navy lost 2 Catalina PBY’s, RAAF lost a Hudson A-16 and a Short Empire Flying boat A-18, while Qantas had also a Short Empire that was destroyed in the Bay. The RAF lost 2 Catalinas while the Dutch East Indies Air Force lost a Douglas DC-3 and a Lockheed Lodestar LT.9.
The worst disaster came with the loss of a major part of the Dutch flying boat fleet with 5 Dornier Do.24’s and 4 Catalina’s that were jam-packed with refugees, mainly women, and children that had barely escaped from Java during the previous days. Their escape turned into a nightmare, as they spent the night onboard the aircraft and were mercilessly attacked the next morning by the strafing Zero fighters.
Photo above: a Dutch East Indies ML/KNIL Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina, photographed after the war. In early 1942, four of such Catalinas had made the escape flight to Australia just before the Japanese Army invaded Java. While Darwin was considered too close to the Japanese occupied islands and had become under attack, the more distant village of Broome seemed the ideal Safe Haven. That became an illusion with the rapidly advancing Japanese Forces conquering Timor. All 22 aircraft moored in the bay and on the aerodrome were attacked and destroyed. ( This photo is taken from my book “80 Years, a tribute to the PBY Catalina”, see the link here http://www.catalinabook.com
Nine Mitsubishi Zero fighters and an observation aircraft departed Timor at 7.05 am on the 3rd of March. They arrived over Roebuck Bay at 9.30 am, and promptly set about destroying the tempting 22 aircraft targets they found. As there were no Allied fighters in the area, the Japanese faced minimal opposition and completed their tasks with ruthless efficiency. All flying boats were burned or sunk at their moorings. At the nearby airstrip, the Bombers and the Dutch DC-3 were sitting ducks, not a single operational aircraft was left in Broome when the Japanese departed at 10.30 am.
In the Broome air attack, 88 people died and the returning Zero Fighters had a final lucky encounter 50 miles north of Broome with a Dutch DC-3. Unaware of the air raid, the Dakota was attacked but managed to make a miraculous emergency landing on the beach. In that attack, 5 passengers died, the rest survived and a fortune of diamonds disappeared in the waves or in the pocket of a local beachcomber. See my Blog Diamond Dakota shot near Broome.
Photos above ; on the left: “Line-up of first No. 18 (NEI) Squadron B-25 Mitchell bombers at Canberra after arrival from the USA, before their departure for the Northern Territory. The Dutch flag markings and “N5” codes are clearly visible on the aircraft in the foreground. Photo on the right: Personnel and aircrew of No 18 Squadron, Netherlands East Indies (NEI), RAAF, in front of their North American B-25 Mitchell bomber, (aircraft number N5-131), named Pulk, after returning from a raid against the Japanese. Photos & Text: courtesy www.awm.gov.au/exhibitions/alliesinadversity/australia/nei/
The Broome Raid was clearly another pivoting point in the popular conception of the Japanese Military Potential. Big wheels were running slowly but 6 months after Pearl Harbor, the US Military were supplied with the first results of a re-tooling of their huge Industrial complex into an unprecedented Production Machine of Military Hardware. The USAAF was now able and willing to supply Bombers for this neglected theater of war. By June 1942, the RAAF got their first batch of Douglas A-20 Havocs and B-25 Mitchells for attacking the Japanese harbors and airfields.
Many Dutch pilots who had made their Flight to Freedom from NEI, were available to join the ranks of the RAAF. Most had left their families and homes in Java and were more than motivated to fight the Empire of the Rising Sun over their lost homeland. Tens of thousands of Dutch and Dutch-Indonesian families were separated from their fathers. Women and children were interned in many guarded camps all over Indonesia, the men and PoWs were locked up in other camps.
Photo above shows the Dutch No.18 (NEI) Squadron B-25 Mitchell bombers flying from Batchelor Airfield in 1944, underway to attack Japanese harbors, shipping lines and occasionally, submarines. One of the prominent pilots of that No. 18 Squadron, was Lt. Ben Wetters, the father of my lifetime friend Ben. In 1942, Lt. Wetters had departed to California with another Dutch pilot for making the ferry flight of their first B-25 to Canberra, Australia, where Dutch pilots were further trained on the type.
Photo above shows the line-up of 8 C-47A’s from the Netherlands East Indies unit which operated alongside RAAF units in the war against Japan. Later in the war, also a Dutch Fighter Squadron Nr 120 NEI became operational under RAAF command with Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawks. ( Courtesy Royal Netherlands Air Force, http://www.airpages.ru/eng/ot/raaf_10.shtml)
Photo above shows Lt. Ben Wetters in his pre-war role as Flight Instructor, standing with a low dangling parachute pack in front of a Dutch-built Trainer. The Koolhoven FK-51 was supplied with a Wright Whirlwind R-975-E1 of 420 HP in large numbers to ML-KNIL. (Photo Ben Wetters Jr.)
Lt. Ben Wetters’ wartime career as a patrol commander/ pilot is decorated with most harrowing missions flown with exceptional performance and expertise, accomplished during the more than 3 years that the war lasted until the capitulation of Japan, 15 August 1945. Their squadron moved from Darwin to Balikpapan, Borneo on 17 July 1945, one month before the end of the war and came under command of SEAC (South East Asia Command). The 18 (NEI) Squadron had accomplished 1900 flights in which 85 Japanese ships were destroyed.
They attacked enemy airfields all over the archipelago and performed Propaganda Raids over Java, Borneo, Celebes, etc. with the droppings of thousands of leaflets over the occupied territories, in order to inform the population about the Allied Progress in the Pacific War against Japan. The squadron had lost in the war years, 95 crew members. Lt. Ben Wetters was distinguished twice with the Flying Cross Medal for exceptional valor. The first was for a daring action: he had landed his B-25 on a remote airstrip on occupied Java and had picked up a crew member that had survived an earlier crash in the jungle.
In the second act, he flew out without armament (for saving fuel) in his B-25 on a long reconnaissance flight in early 1945. His mission was to detect the locations and dimensions of the many scattered Internment camps/ PoW camps and to photograph them. He realized that somewhere out there in one of those camps, his wife could be present, maybe even watching the impressive antics of his aircraft as he flashed low overhead. Once the camps were mapped for the planning of future rescue operations, the B-25 started to drop leaflets, announcing the imminent collapse of the Empire. The message was clear: “have patience, we are close by”.
Photo above. The photo of Lt. Ben Wetters in the cockpit of his B-25 Mitchell. With this plane, he flew from Balikpapan over an Internment Camp in Java, early 1945 and dropped a crate with medical supplies. On top of that crate, he wrote a message that he was Lt. Ben Wetters and hoped that his wife was well in that camp. She got the message alright and the wooden plank from that crate with the handwritten words survived until today in the collection of his son Ben. (photo and info from O.G. Ward’s book “De Militaire Luchtvaart van het KNIL in de jaren 1942-1945”.)
Lt. Ben Wetters and his wife were reunited shortly after the war, and my friend Ben Jr. and his sister were born in 1948 and 1946. The family’s love story seemed set for a peaceful and happy future. But tragedy soon struck, a new war started in Indonesia. Freedom fighters of TNI (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, the National Army under Sukarno, fighting for Independence) were the new enemy of the Dutch East Indies Army. They were well armed with ammo and guns from the Japanese Army. Those occupational Forces had surrendered but were left untouched. It took weeks before Allied troops arrived to disarm them and resolve the power vacuum.
On 23 June 1948, Ben Sr. was with his own mother on a train from Batavia heading for Bandung. TNI soldiers ambushed the train with a tree over the rails and soon noticed Ben in his uniform. In the ensuing shooting incident, Ben was trying to defend himself with his pistol. From outside, bullets penetrated the train. In a heart-rending tragedy, Ben perished in the arms of his mother. It was a most bizarre twist of fate: where he had fought for years for the freedom of his beloved Java, the victory over Japan had sparked off yet another Freedom fight that clashed with what they had fought for. He died in that horrid incident at the age of 35 years, leaving behind his wife and their 2 babies. With her life devastated, she had no other option than to depart to Holland.
For more details of that harrowing incident, the Independence War against the Dutch Army and the second wave of horror that came over the Archipelago, may I recommend you to read my books ‘ The Dakota Hunter’ and “80 Years, a tribute to the PBY Catalina”.
My book The Dakota Hunter describes my quest for the lost and the last Dakotas of this world. As a young kid, I came to Borneo in 1950 with my family. Soon after Indonesia was ‘liberated’ from the Dutch Colonial Rule, we landed in the Jungle where the Scars of the War were still omnipresent. My fascination for the WWII aircraft and history must have started right there and would flare up later in my life. My book is an engagingly written report of my passions and the adventures I encountered: 320 pages illustrated with 250 unique photos, all made during my 25 years of expeditions to the remote places where the last of the WW II built aircraft still struggle for survival. Meet the DC-3/Dakotas/C-47, the PBY-5 A Catalina, Commando/ C-46 and other vintage aircraft that still fly in remote places, the pilots, the owners, the Military and the War Lords, who use the planes for their trade and transport.
For ordering this book, you can go directly to the Amazon page by clicking here at Ordering at Amazon The Dakota Hunter Book. For previews, 5-star reviews of my book The Dakota Hunter, scroll down on the Amazon page or come to my website and also view my earlier Blogs by clicking here at dc3dakotahunter.com.
Enjoy the reading of my Blogs about vintage aircraft & their war history, read one of my most successful Blogs here about the PBY-5 Catalina that I flew as a young kid over the Jungle and rivers of Borneo. Click here Dakota Hunter Catalina Photo Album. And for ordering and reviews, come to
Best, Hans Wiesman