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U.S. Heavy Bombers in WWII: Caught on the Ground

by Sam McGowan

Ever since word of the disaster in the Philippines reached the rest of the world, there has been much speculation about what would have happened if the B-17s had been launched against the Japanese airfields on Formosa immediately after word of the attack on Pearl Harbor reached the islands.

Many, including his biographer, William Manchester, have accused General Douglas MacArthur of being personally responsible for the failure to mount an attack. But those who make the accusations fail to consider the true situation of the bomber force in the Philippines on December 8, 1941. For one thing, only half of the 35-plane heavy bomber force was on Luzon that morning. Two squadrons had been transferred some 500 miles south to Mindanao. Even if all of the B-17s at Clark had been able to take off for a mission against the Japanese airfields, they would have made up too small a formation to effectively defend themselves against the hordes of Japanese fighters they would have likely encountered over Formosa. The two squadrons at Del Monte would have had to fly to Clark or San Marcelino to refuel and take on bombs and ammunition for their guns before they could fly a mission.

Hindsight is Always 20/20

Another consideration is the weather that lay over the Japanese airfields. The same fog that kept the Japanese naval aircraft on the ground until midmorning would have also prevented the American B-17 crews from finding the airfields and the bombardiers from successfully bombing the targets. Furthermore, all of the B-17s at Clark had been ordered into the air in the early morning so they would not be caught on the ground by the inevitable Japanese attack. In fact, it was the decision to recall them to refuel and rearm for an attack on Formosa that caused them to be on the ground when the Japanese bombers and fighters struck Clark.

The gift of hindsight indicates that the best course of action would perhaps have been to send the bombers south and keep them aloft until after the attack. They could have then been recalled to Clark, along with the two squadrons that were at Mindanao, for a night or early morning attack on the Japanese airfields on Formosa. Or, the bombers could have been held in reserve at Clark to attack the Japanese invasion fleet when it came.

Still, either action would have merely prolonged the inevitable. The U.S. Pacific Fleet was in such disarray after the attack on Pearl Harbor that reinforcement of the Philippines had become impossible. It is unlikely that the B-17s could have done anything to change the eventual outcome.


  1. Ken Umeck

    This article reads like another attempt to salvage MacArthur’s reputation, cherry-picking an issue to redirect attention from his massive failures in the defense of the Philippines.
    MacArthur was told of the Pearl Harbor attack at 3am; at 4am Gen. George Marshall cabled him to follow thru with the established war plans. At 5am Gen. Brereton of the USAAF began several attempts to get MacArthur’s approval for offensive operations. This was finally given over 5 hours later. To judge whether or not an attack could have succeeded is indeed Monday morning quarterbacking. In fact, the Japanese on Formosa fully expected to see our B-17s coming, and Mac knew our war plans called on him to use all his weapons to confront the enemy.
    His dithering for over five precious hours led to the timing and results this article describes. Instead of being court marshalled for trying to obey two masters, (he was also employed by the Philippine government as a military trainer and supervisor) he was later awarded a medal for his “spirited” defense of the Philippines.

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