A-20 Havoc Pacific Strafer

3rd Bomb Group - Early History

The 3rd Bombardment Group-the Grim Reapers-was one of the oldest groups in the Air Corps, having been organized as the Army Surveillance Group on 1 July 1919, and soon afterwards, in August, it became the 1st Surveillance Group; then, in 1921, the 3rd Attack Group.  Throughout the 1920s and 1930s it trained, participated in maneuvers, tested new equipment, experimented with tactics, flew in aerial reviews, patrolled the Mexican border (1929), and carried air mail (1934).  After being equipped with 0-1s and 0-2s in its surveillance role, by the mid-1930s, the unit was equipped with Northrop A-17s and, by 1940, Douglas A-24 dive bombers.

Beginning 28 February 1935, the 3rd Attack Group was based at Barksdale Field, LA, moving to Savannah, GA, on 6 October 1940.  During this interval, the Group provided training and the nucleus personnel for several new groups that were established in 1939 and 1940, as Air Corps expansion began.  In 1939, the Group was redesignated the 3rd  Bombardment  Group (Light).  Beginning in January 1941, the unit started receiving its first A-20As that were beginning to leave the Douglas Santa Monica production lines, becoming the first group to be fully equipped with the new attack bomber. The group and its four squadrons (8th, 13th, 89th, and 90th) remained based at Savannah at the outbreak of the war under the command of Lt. Col. Phillips Melville.  Its wartime Commanders were: Lt. Col.  R Breen (November 1940); Lt. Col. Paul Williams (December 1940); Lt. Col. Phillips Melville (18 August  1941); 1st Lt Robert Strickland (19 January 1942); Col. John Davies (2 April1942); Lt. Col. Robert  Strickland, (26 October 1942); Maj. Donald Hall (28April 1943); Lt. Col. James Downs (20 October  1943); Col. John Henebry (7 November 1943); Lt. Col. Richard  Ellis  (27  June  1944); Col. John P. Henebry (30 October 1944); Col. Richard Ellis, (28 December 1944); and Col. Charles Howe (1 May 1945).

After Pearl Harbor, the AAC was hard pressed to find any available combat groups to stem the Japanese offensive.  The 3rd BG had both its aircraft and high command detached to form another bomb group, and then was assigned to the Far East Air Force (FEAF).  The Group left the US aboard  the SS Ancon and arrived in Australia, initially establishing its headquarters at Brisbane on 25 February 1942.  Shortly afterwards, on 10 March, the 3BG moved forward to the newly constructed airstrip at Charter Towers, southwest of Townsville, in Queensland.  The 3BG absorbed most of the surviving light and medium bombers that had escaped from the Philippines and Java Campaigns, and also the surviving pilots from the 27th BG and many of their A-24s.  Also, a number of NEI B-25Cs stored at Brisbane were transferred to the group, as Dutch crews were not available to fly the bombers.

The group continued to be short of supplies and aircraft, having only enough equipment to outfit a single squadron, and began combat operations with A-20s, A-24s, and B-25s.  The A-24 Dauntless proved unsatisfactory; almost all of the Group's complement suffered operational losses.  Thereafter, the group flew the A-20 and B-25 medium bombers exclusively.

Beginning in July 1942, crated A-20As began arriving from the US and were reassembled at the depot at Brisbane and assigned to the 89th BS for operations.  As attack tactics were evolving under Gen. Kenney, the nose armament was increased, with the addition of four .50-caliber nose guns to supplement the four .30-caliber guns installed on the standard A-20A.  The nose section of each aircraft was modified, with the Plexiglas being removed and replaced by an aluminum skin. Also, two bomb bay tanks carrying 450 gallons of additional fuel were added. Under the direction of the legendary armament and modification specialist Maj. Paul “Pappy” Gunn, the A-20As became true, low-level attack aircraft, with an emphasis on strafing and light bombing with parafrag" bombs.  The use of fragmentation bombs, each equipped with small parachutes, provided an effective bomb, while allowing the low-flying bomber to escape damage from its exploding bomb.  For more information about Major Paul “Pappy” Gun, here is a very good short article The Man Behind the Guns by J.D. Webster.

Southwest Pacific operations were essentially low-level attacks on enemy troops, airfields, and shipping using surprise, speed, and accuracy.  A low-level approach was crucial to avoid detection by ground radar or observation.  The typical approach for attacking enemy airfields or supply dumps was at less than 500 feet, descending to 100 feet or less for the run on the target. Three to six Havocs flying line abreast would fly a single pass over the target, giving enemy AA gunners little time to direct their guns on the attackers. Further, it was SOP to begin firing the six nose guns within 1,000 yards of the target to suppress any AA or ground fire.  After dropping their bombs, the Havocs would remain at low altitude until well beyond the range of enemy guns.  Because these attacks were made at speeds often as fast as 300 mph and as low as fifty feet-palm top level-they were referred to as “coconut knocking.”

The 3rd BG had flown its first operational mission on 1 April, when the 8th BS, flying A-24s, were based on a strip near Port Moresby, on the southern coast of New Guinea, from which it began a series of largely ineffective raids on Japanese positions around Lae, on the north coast of New Guinea.  On 6 April, the 13BS and 90BS conducted their first mission from Charter Towers, with B-25s against Gasmata, on New Guinea.  By August, the 89th BS was fully equipped with A-20As and arrived late that month at its base at Three Mile Strip, near Port Moresby.  The 89BS executed the first AAF A-20 raid on New Guinea on 31 August 1942.  Meanwhile, the 90th BS, also equipped with A-20As, was nearing full strength.  By 30 September 1942, the Fifth Air Force light and medium bomber forces consisted of sixty-three B-25s of the 38th BG, thirty-eight B-26Bs of the 22nd BG, and thirty-three A-20As and thirteen B-25Cs of the 3rd BG.  In September 1942, the Army changed the group's designation to the 3rd Bombardment Group (Dive), but shortly changed it once more, to the 3rd Bombardment Group (Light).

Beginning in October 1942, the 13BS moved permanently to the newly constructed Seven Mile Strip and the 90th BS moved its A-20s and B-25s to Seventeen Mile Strip, while the 89th BS A-20s remained at Three Mile Strip.  The 8th BS remained at Charter Towers as a maintenance support unit.  Throughout the autumn and early winter of 1942-43, the Allies fought a series of battles to prevent the Japanese from crossing over the Owen Stanley Range, particularly through the 7,600-foot Kokoda Pass, to threaten both Port Moresby and its vital airstrips.  Mostly through the courageous efforts of the  Australian Army and the assistance of the US Army, the RAAF and, also, through the efforts of 89BS A-20 crews, the Japanese  were thwarted. During 1942, the 3rd BG was commanded by: 1st Lt Robert Strickland (19 January 1942); Col. John Davies (2 Aprill942); and Lt. Col. Robert Strickland (26 October 1942).  For its participation in the Papua Campaign from 23 July 1942 to 23 January 1943, the 3BG was awarded the DUC.

During a strike against Japanese gun positions at Soputa, New Guinea, in fall 1942, 3BG A-20As swooped in at fifty to seventy-five feet.  The lead Havoc, flown by Capt. Edward Lamer, was hit just below the rear fuselage, forcing the bomber to go tail up and nose down.  As Lamer fought to regain control,  the A-20A cut a 100-foot swath through the treetops.  After he regained control, Lamer looked out and saw branches and vegetation protruding from many places in the nose and wings. Lamer expertly flew the aircraft back to its base and landed safely, where it was later described as a "flying Christmas tree."

The 3BG continued to pursue its attacks through the winter of 1942/43, concluding during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea during 2-4 March 1943, when a Japanese convoy attempted to supply and reinforce troops at Lae from Rabaul Harbor.  The convoy was destroyed in a series of attacks ranging from medium-altitude bombing to low-level by the entire RAAF and Fifth Air Force, including B-17s, B-24s, B-25s, and A-20s.  This was the first mission in which low-level attacks by B-25 and A-20 gunships had significant success sinking shipping.  This battle was a major Allied victory and marked the beginning of the end for the Japanese on New Guinea.

By August 1943, with no additional A-20 replacements imminent, all four squadrons of the 3rd BG were equipped with a full complement of sixteen modified B-25s.  The surviving war-weary A-20s were withdrawn from service, with a few serving as squadron hacks, some sent to the RAAF, and the remainder placed in storage or scrapped locally for parts.  Meanwhile, the 3rd BG headquarters moved from Charter Towers to Port Moresby on 28 January 1943, and then to Dobodura, near Buna, on the north coast of New Guinea, on 20 May.

In August 1943, the Fifth AF struck airfields at Wewak to neutralize Japanese air power that threatened the advance of Allied forces in New Guinea.  On 17 August, the Group's B-25s attacked the airfields in the face of intense AA fire and destroyed or damaged many enemy aircraft.  The group was awarded the DUC for the mission, and Maj. Raymond Wilkins was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor.  In the Fall of 1943, the group attacked Japanese naval and air forces at Rabaul in support of the invasions of Bougainville and New Britain.  In an attack on shipping at Simpson Harbor, New Britain, on 2 November 1943, the 3BG encountered heavy opposition from enemy fighters and warship anti-aircraft batteries.

At the end of 1943, however, the 3rd BG was reequipped with new A-20Gs, which were well-suited for the attack mission, incorporating the two primary improvements developed by Pappy Gunn the year before: six .50-caliber nose guns and increased fuel capacity with the addition of bomb bay tanks.  (William Wolf, The Douglas A-20 Havoc, Shiffer Publishing 2005)
89th Bomb Squadron History
89th Bomb Squadron Scoreboard

I have several pages of 89th Bomb Squadron reference photographs here.

Fifth Air Force History

The Pearl Harbor attack began the Japanese Pacific offensive, foreshadowing a chain of strategic defeats for America and the other Allied forces.  The Allied governments - principally the United States and Britain - decided the initial emphasis for the war would be on defeating Germany in Europe, and that the majority of war materiel and personnel would be intended toward that purpose, while a "holding action" would be carried out against the Japanese in the Pacific.  American planners, with Allied agreement, also decided the Pacific War was essentially an area of American responsibility, and an organizational structure was implemented that placed the Army in operational command of what was designated the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA), under Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and the Navy, under Adm. Chester Nin1itz, in operational command of the Pacific Operations Area (POA), which was further divided into the North, Central, and South Pacific areas.

MacArthur assumed command of the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) on 18 April l942, and assigned Gen. George Brett commander of his Allied Air Forces.  With the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) providing the bulk of the administrative and basing support, the groundwork was laid for the defense of both  New  Guinea and Australia.  However, the available air support was grossly insufficient, having only been conducted by the retreating survivors of the first months of the war supplemented by the meager reinforcements beginning to arrive from the United States.

In March 1942, US bomber strength in the SWPA was only twenty-six weary B-17s, forty-three obsolete A-24s, and a few B-25s and DB-7s collected from Dutch shipments. The fighter situation was not much better, with just thirty-three P-39s, ninety-two P-40s, and fifty-two P-400s (export P-39s) in inventory.  MacArthur's and the War Department's dissatisfaction with the organization of the Allied Air Forces caused Brett's replacement in July 1942 by the capable Gen. George Kenney, who assumed command on 4 August.  Three days later, MacArthur formally requested authorization for a numbered air force that would allow the US air units to be reorganized under a unified command, and the Fifth Air Force was constituted on 3 September 1942, with Kenney assuming command of both it and the Allied Air Forces, with its headquarters in Brisbane, Australia.  Because of the long distances involved in the SWPA and the constant threat of Japanese attacks on both New Guinea and northern Australia, all Allied heavy and medium bombers continued to be based in Australia, with these aircraft only staging through bases in New Guinea.  However, light bombers and pursuit aircraft were soon moved to forward fields near Port Moresby and the Fifth Air Force, Advance Echelon, was established at Port Moresby, with Gen. Ennis Whitehead, Deputy Air Force Commander, in command.

Kenney was partial to the A-20 and wanted many more, but only limited numbers were available due to foreign and Lend Lease commitments.  But beginning in July 1942, a small number began to arrive with the 3rd Bomb Group (Light).  However, by spring 1943, the Fifth Air Force was not receiving even sufficient replacements to cover attrition and many of the A-20As that had arrived in mid-1942 were already worn out. In March 1943, Kenney was in Washington for a conference and requested the deployment of two additional light bomb groups equipped with A-20s, along with two B-25 medium and two heavy bomber groups. He was promised the two additional light and medium bomber groups would deploy by the end of the year. However, the Twelfth Air Force operations in North Africa and the Mediterranean, plus demands of Lend Lease, continued to have priority over the requirements of the Fifth Air Force.  Kenney  was offered  North American A-36s and Curtiss A-25s instead of A-20s, but wisely declined, deciding to wait his turn for more A-20s and B-25s.  The B-25s arrived pretty much on schedule, but it was not until early 1944 before the two new A-20 groups arrived in the SWPA to help the Fifth Air Force leap-frog forward as quickly as advanced bases could be constructed or captured, joining the B-25 strafer/bombers and continuing their decisive attacks on Japanese troops, ships, airfields, and material targets from New Guinea to the Philippines, and onward to Okinawa as the war ended.  (William Wolf, The Douglas A-20 Havoc, Shiffer Publishing 2005)

Fifth Air Force Badge