Text: Jan Bobek a Jan Zdiarský

Illustration: Piotr Forkasiewicz


The B-17 bomber played a key role in the European and Mediterranean theater of operations, but also figured prominently during the early years of the Pacific War. However, in the Pacific, B-17s flew less than two percent of the total combat sorties of this type. In contrast to Europe, where B-17s served with thirty-three bomber groups, there were only five in the Pacific. Neither the number of available planes per Group within the Pacific units was comparable to the ETO. Particularly early in the conflict, Pacific BGs had only five to twenty planes available per unit. B-17s were involved in combat as early as the attack on Pearl Harbor, albeit  more as casualties. At this time, the series of B-17 (B, C, and D) that rarely made it to Europe were in service.

In the early period of B-17 service in the PTO, mostly versions without a tail turret were used. This influenced the development of combat boxes. In the event of an attack by Japanese fighters from the rear, B-17B/C/D pilots would bring the aircraft into an S-style turn, giving their waist gunners the opportunity for more effective defensive fire. That caused necessity of larger space between planes in formation. That spacing was maintained  later when B-17 versions E and F, which already had a tail turret, predominated. Unlike in the ETO, where it was attempted to keep the formation as tight as possible, in the Pacific, individual aircraft were given more freedom to maneuver, resulting in formations that appeared relatively disorganized. While the basis of formations in the Pacific was also the V-shape element of three machines, formations here tended to be much smaller, usually consisting of only 10 to 15 aircraft.

The B-17, despite its obvious advantages, proved to be not quite suitable for the PTO. In the early phases of the conflict, when they targeted marine convoys and other targets at sea, they achieved marginal success. Such targets were much more suitable for dive and torpedo bombers. Later, when land targets became more numerous, B-17 service in the PTO was past its zenith. Beginning in early 1943, they were replaced by faster, longer-range B-24s. And by the time Japan itself began to be bombed, the more modern B-29s bore the brunt of the attacks.

Two missions of B-17 bomber crews, whose route took them around the east coast of New Guinea on August 14, 1942, were characteristic of this battlefield. First, a B-17E crew from the 435th BS, 19th BG, took off from Port Moresby in the early morning hours on a reconnaissance flight to Rabaul and  Kavieng. The machine was named “Chief Seattle”, the crew was commanded by 1st Lt. Wilson L. Cook and one RAAF member was on board. The bomber was paid by citizens of Seattle through war bond campaign and its nom de guerre honoured the memory of Chief Seattle, who was the leader of the Suquamish and Duwamish tribes.

Unfortunately, the reconnaissance machine encountered nine patrolling Zeros of the Tainan Kōkūtai under the command of Lt.(jg) Jōji Yamashita. Their mission was to provide cover for two cargo vessels and their escorting warships. Cook’s outnumbered machine was shot down during a five-minute air battle with no survivors. One Zero was damaged by defensive fire and, together with its wingman, its pilot returned to Buna, New Guinea.

The remaining seven Zeros continued to cover the convoy, which was partially protected by cloud cover. Six B-17s from the 19th BG searched for the Japanese vessels. The formation was led by the CO of the 30th BS, Maj. Dean C. Hoevet. Just as the Americans were about to drop their bomb load, they were attacked by Yamashita’s Zeros. During the five-minute battle, four bombers were damaged, one of them severely. The American gunners managed to shoot down a Zero flown by PO3c Masami Arai, who was killed in his machine. The Japanese pilots reported that the bombers dropped eight bombs, but in the bad weather, the crews of the Japanese vessels didn’t even notice the bombers’ attack . Piotr Forkasiewicz captured the opening part of this encounter in his painting.

Tainan Kōkūtai was deployed to the fighting over Guadalcanal from August 1942. This unit retained the new A6M3 Type 32 Zeros with shorter range on New Guinea. The fighting over the New Guinea at the end of August was disastrous for Tainan Kōkūtai, which is described in the article Headhunters over Buna in the January 2023 issue of INFO Eduard magazine.