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by William Bartsch
Texas A&M University 1995
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|Doomed at the Start
American Pursuit Pilots in the Philippines 1941-2
Doomed at the Start is a monumental volume of research and writing by William Bartsch that tells the story of the United States Army Air Force Pursuits squadrons in the Philippines, that in the months before the Japanese surprise attack, its pilots had no illusions about the inevitable war ahead of them: "Well, we all hope it will come soon, because we are doomed from the start.".
About their warplanes, one pilot, Max Louk wrote home "Our planes - the latest P-40s - are not good enough to fight with! Someone in Washington said, "The are the best and so we have them. The English don't want our pursuit, they want our bombers... you know, one gets disgusted when he lays his life on the line for our lousy, out-of-date Air Corps."
Sergeant Bill King alerted his commanding officer, First Lieutenant Benny Putnam telephoned his superior Major Grover to tell him Japanese planes were approaching. The major asked, "How does he know they are Japanese planes?", the Sergeant yelled back, "We don't have so Goddamn many!".
Aside from the hampering of their higher levels of command, and the backwater status of the Philippines in the minds of those in Washington, the pilots had other problems, like the fact they had more planes than pilots. Even worse, each plane had practical problems that developed in combat, like the fact their P-40's .50 caliber guns would often jam. Pilots became familiar with the fact that and number of their guns would often jam, or not work at all. The problem was the guns had not been thoroughly cleaned of the cosmoline they were packed in. Worse, the gun charging system had been disconnected, so as not to overload the plane's other systems. This mean their guns could only be charged on the ground. Also, edgy American gunners often fired on their own planes.
Starting on December 8th, the Japanese launched air attacks against the Philippines from bombers and fighters based on nearby Formosa Island. During the first three days of the attacks, the USAAF lost 70% of their aircraft.
Only a handful of planes survived the first weeks of combat. These planes and their pilots began a desperate fight against the Japanese. Awaiting resupply and more aircraft from Australia, they were initially optimistic, but soon it became apparent that replacements were not coming and General Douglas MacArthur was evacuated to Australia.
This book is detailed, well researched and tells a story unknown to most. Although the legacy of the United States defense of the Philippines ends in disaster, it is the story of men who bravely face the extreme challenges of the overwhelming enemy, little rations, and zero support form their higher command to turn their situation around. This book is a triumph of oral history and of WWII history. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in the subject, or in detailed accounts of early war dog fights where the Japanese Zero commanded the skies, but was opposed by brave men flying the P-40 far beyond their expected roles.
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