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United States Army Air Forces in Australia

During World War II, the United States Army Air Forces established a series of airfields in Australia for the collective defense of the country, as well as for conducting offensive operations against the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy. It was from these airports and airfields in Australia, that the Fifth Air Force was able to regroup, re-equip and begin offensive operations against the Empire of Japan after the disasters in the Philippines and Dutch East Indies during 1942.

Airfields of the United States Army Air Force
in Australia
Fifth Air Force - Emblem (World War II).svg 
Part of World War II
Result Allied victory over the Empire of Japan (1945)
Map all coordinates using: OpenStreetMap 
Download coordinates as: KML · GPX


Following the Japanese conquest of the Philippines, the remnants of the USAAF Far East Air Force relocated southwest to bases in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). United States Army Air Force units in Australia, including the Fifth Air Force, were eventually reinforced and re-organized following their initial defeats in the Philippines and the East Indies. After those islands also fell to Japanese forces early in 1942, FEAF headquarters moved to Australia and was reorganized and redesignated the Fifth Air Force on 5 February 1942 under General George Brett in Melbourne. On paper, Brett had several hundred military aircraft of all types, but only a few of them were operational,[1] although replacements were in the logistics pipeline inbound on freighters

Headquarters, Fifth Air Force, was re-staffed at Brisbane, Australia on 18 September 1942 and the Fifth Air Force was placed under the command of 52-year-old Major General George Kenney on Tuesday, 28 July and Kenney had an immediate impact. Within a month, he had his command striving for, or at least seriously thinking about, seizing air superiority over New Guinea and parity over the Solomon Sea, and September saw the Fifth placing several dozen bombers over New Britain and Rabaul, whereas in July only mere handfuls could be fielded.[1] By the end of August, before the retreat began of the Japanese attacking over the Owen Stanley Ranges, he'd established five airfields at Port Moresby, more than necessary for its defense, but a good start for staging to forward bases.[1]

General Kenney encouraged MacArthur to conduct a forward defense and meet the Japanese along the choke-points among the jungles of New Guinea, and provided planning for airlifts to put the ground forces in forward positions and supply them by air-transport if necessary.[1] This model would be utilized throughout the coming two years of offensives as MacArthur's ground forces conducted Leapfrogging maneuvers and used combined arms tactics while strategically bypassing Japanese strong points and forcing them to attack his defensive works as he placed forces astride their supply lines. The Fifth Air Force kept pace, moving from forward air base to forward air base, repressing daylight activity by the Japanese on Land, Sea and Air. When he first proposed air supply (since sea-lanes were not safe because of the position of the Japanese bases in the Solomon Sea) to an objection that his C-47 airlift units could not move trucks as well as men and materials, Kenney immediately responded that they could, by cutting the truck frames in half with torches and welding them together again in Papua.[1] By November the Fifth was in forward Headquarters in Port Moresby, though the official HQ remained in Brisbane.[1]

In addition to the Air Force units, many United States Army forces embarked in Australia, using it as a base of operations prior to their deployment to New Guinea in 1942, and other islands in the Southwest Pacific, driving the Japanese forces north towards their home islands. As the ground forces moved forward, the tactical air units of the AAF moved with them, providing the necessary air support for the ground operations.

Throughout the Pacific War, Australia remained an important base of operations, but with the advance of the Allied Armies, the air-bases in Australia were returned to the Royal Australian Air Force once the Allied forces deployed north during 1942 and 1943. Today, most of the airfields in the Northern Territory have returned to their natural state, being abandoned after the war, but most of the airfields in Queensland and the other Australian states and territories still exist as civilian airports or military bases.

Later, during the Cold War, the United States Air Force assigned a small number of personnel to Australia for communication duties and logistical support. Today, USAF units routinely visit Australia for joint exercises with the Australian Defence Force, with a few personnel assigned for military liaison duties.

Major unitsEdit

The initial USAAF units assigned to Australia in late 1941 and 1942 were ones which had withdrawn from the Philippines, leaving their ground echelons in Bataan as part of the 5th Interceptor Command to fight as infantry units. Later in 1942 and 1943, additional units arrived from the United States as replacement and argumentation to the Fifth Air Force for offensive operations. Known units assigned were:

Major aircraft operatedEdit

A-20 aircraft of the 6th Bomb Group, 89th Bomb Squadron
Unidentified 1941 serial Douglas A-24-DE Dauntless Dive Bomber, ex 27th Bombardment Group (Light), reassigned to the 8th Squadron of the 3rd Bomb Group, Charters Towers Airfield, Queensland, Australia, 1942.
B-17E attacking Japanese positions on Gizo Island in the Solomons
B-24 Over Salamaua, 13 August 1943. Note smoke from bomb bursts.
Major Richard Bong in his P-38.
P-40E of the 7th Fighter Squadron – 49th Fighter Group – Australia – March 1942
  • A-20 Havoc. A-20s first arrived in Australia by way of the air echelon of the 3rd Bombardment Group (Light) and the first operational unit to fly the A-20 in actual battle was the 89th Bombardment Squadron of the 3rd Bombardment Group. Many A-20s were reassigned to the RAAF, being known as Bostons by the RAAF and had varied origins, some being ex-USAAF machines, some being acquired from the Netherlands Marine Luchtvaartdenst, and others being diverted from British contracts. These planes served with just one RAAF squadron, No. 22 Squadron which saw a lot of action in the Dutch East Indies.[2][3]
  • A-24 Dauntless. The first operational A-24 unit was the 27th Bombardment Group (Light). Three of the four squadrons of the 27th BG were equipped with the A-24, plus one squadron of the 3rd Bombardment Group. The remaining squadrons of these groups were equipped with A-20A twin-engined level bombers. The crews of the 27th BG were in the Philippines when war broke out in the Pacific but their aircraft were in-transit via ship from Hawaii. The shipment was diverted to Brisbane, where they arrived on 22 December. Some of the 27th BG pilots were sent from the Philippines to ferry their aircraft back from Australia but were unable to do so when gun motors and solenoids could not be found during assembly. From Brisbane, eleven A-24s flew up to Java in February 1942, but this battle was already lost. The remainder began operations from Port Moresby, New Guinea with the 8th Bombardment Squadron on 1 April 1942. These units suffered heavy losses in the face of the Japanese advance. After five of seven A-24s were lost on their last mission, the A-24s were withdrawn from action as being too slow, too short-ranged, and too poorly armed. However, in all fairness to the A-24, their pilots had not been trained in dive-bombing operations and they often had to operate without adequate fighter escort. Following the New Guinea debacle, the A-24s were withdrawn from combat and the 27th was returned to the United States, where after being re-equipped with A-20s was sent to North Africa as part of Twelfth Air Force.[4]
  • B-17 Flying Fortress. After the mission to attack a Japanese amphibious operation at Legaspi on 14 December 1941, only 14 B-17s remained of the original 35 assigned to the Philippines on 8 December. All were stationed at Del Monte Field on Mindanao, with the aircraft needing depot maintenance. Beginning on 17 December, the B-17s began to be evacuated to Batchelor Airfield near Darwin. These first B-17s in Australia were shark-tailed C and D models. The first B-17 mission out of Australia, an attack on Japanese shipping at Davao, took place on 22 December with nine "Flying Forts" taking part. They landed at Del Monte, which remained in American hands until April 1942. However, the small force of B-17s could do very little to stem the tide of the Japanese advance, launching valiant but futile attacks against the masses of Japanese shipping. Newer large-tailed B-17Es began to join the depleted force of earlier-model B-17s in the Pacific in mid-1942, with the tail gunner of the B-17E being unpleasant surprise for the Japanese, who had become accustomed to attacking the Fortress from the rear. The crews of pre-B-17E Fortresses often adopted the expediency of rigging sticks in the rear of their planes, hoping to convince the Japanese attackers that tail guns were actually fitted to these planes as well. However, by mid-1943, most Fortresses had been withdrawn from the Pacific in favor of the longer-ranged B-24 Liberator. The B-24 was better suited for operations in the Pacific, having a higher speed and a larger bombload at medium altitudes. In addition, the losses of Eighth Air Force in Europe were reaching such magnitudes that the entire B-17 production was urgently needed for replacements and training in that theatre. Shortly after the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, it was decided that no more B-17s would be sent to Australia.[5]
  • B-24 Liberator. Fifteen USAAF LB-30 (B-24A) bombers were deployed in Java in early 1942 to reinforce the B-17-equipped 19th Bombardment Group in a vain attempt to stem the Japanese advance. The Java-based LB-30s would be the first US-flown Liberators to see action and participated in numerous attacks against Japanese targets in the Sulawesi, in Sumatra, and against shipping during the Japanese invasion of Bali. By late February, the position of Allied forces in Java had become untenable, and the surviving LB-30s were evacuated to Australia. The early LB-30s were replaced by the first B-24Ds to reach the Pacific in late 1942. By 1943, the Liberator had almost entirely replaced the B-17 Fortress as the primary long-range heavy bomber in the theatre. The B-24 became the most numerous USAAF heavy bomber based in Australia and New Guinea in the most desperate phase of the Pacific war, and it was the first four-engine heavy bomber to serve with the Royal Australian Air Force home squadrons. It reigned supreme in the Pacific until the arrival of the B-29 Superfortress in mid-1944.[6]
  • B-26 Marauder/B-25 Mitchell. In February 1942, the 22d Bombardment Group was ordered to Australia, being assigned to bases around Townsville. The B-26 first entered combat on 5 April 1942, when the 22nd Group took off from their bases in Queensland, refuelled at Port Moresby, and then attacked Japanese facilities at Rabaul. Each B-26 had a 250-gallon bomb bay and carried a 2000– pound bombload. The Marauder was the only medium bomber available in the Pacific, and generally, no fighter escort was available leaving the Marauders were on their own if they encountered enemy fighters. There were two groups equipped with B-26s, the 22nd and 38th, with two squadrons of the 38th Bombardment Group (69th and 70th) equipped with B-26s. In this series of attacks on Japanese-held facilities in the Dutch East Indies, the B-26s gained a reputation for speed and ruggedness against strong opposition from Japanese Zero fighters. Attacks on Rabaul ended on 24 May, after 80 sorties had flown. A series of unescorted raids were made on Japanese installations in the Lae area. These raids were vigorously opposed by Zero fighters. In the 84 sorties flown against Lae between 24 April and 4 July 1942, three Marauders were lost. As the Allies pushed northward in the South Pacific, temporary airfields had to be cut out of the jungle and these runways were generally fairly short. The North American B-25 Mitchell had a shorter takeoff run than the B-26, and it began to take over the medium bomber duties. Although it was admitted that the B-26 could take greater punishment, was defensively superior, and could fly faster with a heavier bomb load, the B-25 had better short-field characteristics, good sortie rate, and minimal maintenance requirements. In addition, the B-25 was considerably easier to manufacture and had suffered from fewer developmental problems. At this time, there were more B-25s available for South Pacific duty because it had been decided to send the B-26 Marauder to the Mediterranean theatre. Consequently, it was decided to adopt the B-25 as the standard medium bomber for the entire Pacific theatre, and to use the B-26 exclusively to Twelfth Air Force in the Mediterranean with some later being used by Ninth Air Force in the European theatres.[7]
  • P-38 Lightning. The first P-38s to reach Australia during 1942 were P-38Fs assigned to the 39th Fighter Squadron of the 35th Fighter Group. This unit traded in its Bell P-39 Airacobras for the Lightnings at RAAF Base Amberley in Queensland before returning to combat operations at Port Moresby in New Guinea. Its first success took place on 27 December 1942 when its pilots claimed eleven kills for the loss of only one P-38F. Two of these kills were claimed by Richard I. Bong, who was to go on to claim a total of 40 kills, all of them while flying the Lightning. The Lightning was ideally suited for the Pacific theatre. It possessed a performance markedly superior to that of its Japanese opponents. It possessed a range significantly better than that of the P-39s, P-40s and P-47s available in 1942 in the Southwest Pacific, and its twin engines offered an additional safety factor when operating over long stretches of water and jungle. However, the limited number of Lightnings available during late 1942 and early 1943 had to be used to make up attrition in the 39th Fighter Squadron and to equip only a single squadron in each of the 8th and 49th Fighter Groups.[8]
  • P-39 Airacobra. At the time of Pearl Harbor, the P-39 (along with the P-40 and a few P-38s) was virtually the only modern fighter available to the USAAF. Those P-39s already in service with the USAAF at the time of Pearl Harbor were deployed at home bases, but were quickly moved forward to overseas bases in the Pacific to try and stem the Japanese advance. They carried much of the load in the initial Allied efforts in 1942. However, many Allied pilots lacked adequate training, and equipment and maintenance of the planes were below average. The Airacobras operating from Australia were sometimes called upon to serve as interceptors, a role for which they were totally unsuited. They proved to be no match for the Japanese Zero in air-to-air combat and were withdrawn from combat by the end of 1942.[9]
  • Curtiss P-40. During 1941, a substantial number of P-40Bs and Cs were shipped to USAAF bases overseas, including the 20th Pursuit Squadron of the 24th Pursuit Group at Clark Field in the Philippines. Almost all were destroyed in the Battle of the Philippines (1941–42), and only a few reached Australia, although the RAAF operated a large number of P-40E-1 export models (Kittyhawk IA) and P-40Ks (Kittyhawk III) from the United States.[10]
  • P-47 Thunderbolt. The first P-47Ds to arrive in the Pacific theatre entered service with the 348th Fighter Group in June 1943. They were initially operated out of Queensland and were used on long-range missions to strike at Japanese targets in New Guinea. The 348th was followed by the 35th Group and at the beginning of 1944 by the 58th Group as well as the 35th Squadron of the 8th Group and the 9th FS of the 49th Group. However the Thunderbolt was used primarily by Seventh and Thirteenth Air Forces in the Central Pacific, with the long-range P-47N arriving in June 1944.[11]

Airfields and unit assignmentsEdit

In cooperation with the Royal Australian Air Force, (RAAF), the Fifth Air Force was able to use many existing Australian airports and airfields to carry on the war effort. In 1942, additional new military airfields were constructed by Australian and United States engineering units to accommodate the increasing number of USAAF groups and personnel being deployed. The Air Force groups and squadrons moved frequently from airfield to airfield, and often group headquarters was located away from the operational squadrons, as the squadrons were dispersed over several airfields for defensive purposes.

Known airfields of the Fifth Air Force units and squadron assignments are as follows:

Note: Airfield locations shown on map above

Historical notesEdit

  • The 2nd Combat Cargo Group operated from Biak in the Dutch East Indies from May 1942 – May 1944 to fly passengers and cargo to US bases in Australia, the Admiralties and the Philippines.
  • Six of the 7th Bombardment Group 's B-17 Flying Fortresses left Hamilton Field, California on 6 December 1941, reaching Hickam Field, Hawaii during the Japanese attack but were able to land safely. Later in December the remainder of the air echelon flew B-17's from the United Staates to Java, with the unit establishing its headquarters in Australia. From 14 January to 4 March 1942, during the Japanese drive through the Philippines and Netherlands East Indies, the group operated from Java, being awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation for its action against enemy aircraft, ground installations, warships, and transports.
  • On 7 December 1941 (8 December in the Philippines), when the Japanese first attacked Clark Field, the 19th Bombardment Group suffered numerous casualties and lost many planes. Late in December the air echelon moved to Australia to transport medical and other supplies to the Philippine Islands and evacuate personnel from that area. The men in Australia moved to Java at the end of 1941 and, flying B-17 Flying Fortress, LB-30, and B-24 Liberator aircraft, earned a Distinguished Unit Citation for the group by attacking enemy aircraft, ground installations, warships, and transports during the Japanese drive through the Philippines and Netherlands Indies early in 1942. The men returned to Australia from Java early in March 1942, and later that month the group evacuated Gen Douglas MacArthur, his family, and key members of his staff from the Philippines to Australia. After a brief rest the group resumed combat operations, participating in the Battle of the Coral Sea and raiding Japanese transportation, communications, and ground forces during the enemy's invasion of Papua New Guinea. From 7 to 12 August 1942 the 19th bombed airdromes, ground installations, and shipping near Rabaul, New Britain, being awarded another DUC for these missions. Captain Harl Pease, Jr. was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during 6–7 August 1942: when one engine of his bomber failed during a mission over New Britain, Captain Pease returned to Australia to obtain another plane; unable to find one fit for combat, he selected the most serviceable plane at the base and rejoined his squadron for an attack on a Japanese airdrome near Rabaul. By skillful flying he maintained his position in the formation and withstood enemy attacks until his bombs had been released on the objective; in the air battle that continued after the bombers left the target, Captain Pease's aircraft fell behind the formation and was lost. The group returned to the US late in 1942.
  • The 24th Pursuit Group was wiped out on Luzon in the spring of 1942 during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. Some pilots escaped to Australia where they were assigned to other units. The unit was never remanned or reequipped, but remained on active status until 2 April 1946

Post World War IIEdit

In 1978, Australia and the United States established a Joint Geological and Geographical Research Station (JGGRS) in Alice Springs.[12] The US Air Force "Detachment 421" was centred there, and were granted Freedom of Entry to the Town in 1995.[13]

In 1981, Australia and the United States agreed to station up to three B-52 and six KC-135 aircraft, supported by about 100 US Air Force personnel and associated equipment at RAAF Base Darwin.[14]

See alsoEdit


  This article incorporates public domain material from the Air Force Historical Research Agency website

  1. ^ a b c d e f American Caesar, Wm. Manchester, 1978, Little Brown Company, pp.300–307: On and about July–Dec 1942 and Kenney's impact on MacArthur and the war, his support for Guadalcanal and his daring offensive gamble in going to meet the Japanese in the difficult jungles of New Guinea in defense of Australia, rather than risk a war of maneuver when he had insufficient forces to move around.
  2. ^ Mesko, Jim (1994), A-20 Havoc in Action, Aircraft Number 144, Squadron/Signal Publications
  3. ^ Wilson, Stewart (1992),Boston, Mitchell and Liberator In Australian Service, Aerospace Publications
  4. ^ Tillman, Barrett (1976). The Dauntless Dive Bomber of World War Two. Naval Institute Press. ISBN 9780870215698.
  5. ^ Staecker, Gene E. (2001). Fortress Against The Sun: The B-17 Flying Fortress In The Pacific. Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-1580970495.
  6. ^ Freeman, Roger A. (1969), The Consolidated B-24J Liberator, Profile Publications
  7. ^ Tannehill, Victor C. (1997). The Martin Marauder B-26. Boomerang Publishers. ISBN 9780960590063.
  8. ^ Jeffrey L. Ethell, Joe Christy, 1978, P-38 Lightning At War
  9. ^ McDowell, Ernie, 1989, P-39 Airacobra At War
  10. ^ Ethell, Jerry, 1982, Warbirds, American Legends of World War II
  11. ^ Scotts, Jerry, 1995, P-47 Thunderbolt, The Operational Record
  12. ^ "Exchange of Notes constituting an Agreement between the Government of Australia and the Government of the United States of America to amend the Agreement regarding the Management and Operation of the Joint Geological and Geophysical Research Station at Alice Springs of 28 February 1978. ATS 9 of 1984". Australasian Legal Information Institute, Australian Treaties Library. Retrieved on 15 April 2017.
  13. ^ "Seventh Council 1992-1996". Alice Springs Council. 18 March 2014. Retrieved 13 June 2017.
  14. ^ "Exchange of Notes constituting an Agreement between the Government of Australia and the Government of the United States of America for the Staging of United States Air Force B-52 Aircraft and Associated KC-135 Tanker Aircraft through Royal Australian Air Force Base Darwin. ATS 9 of 1981". Australasian Legal Information Institute, Australian Treaties Library. Retrieved on 15 April 2017.