American Courage in the Darkest Days of World War II
Da Capo Press, New York, 2018, 416 pages
Book Review published on: February 28, 2020
Bruce Gamble’s Kangaroo Squadron: American Courage in the Darkest Days of World War II is an engaging and in-depth account of a prominent and yet relatively unknown B-17 squadron in the Pacific. Many people are aware that a B-17 squadron had the bad luck to arrive unarmed at Pearl Harbor on the morning of 7 December just as the Japanese attacked. Many people have seen the B-17 (known as “Swamp Ghost”) that crash landed in New Guinea in February 1942, was recovered intact in 2006, and is now on display at the Pacific Aviation Museum in Hawaii. Many are also aware that Gen. Douglas MacArthur, his family, and his staff were evacuated from the Philippines to Australia on two B-17s in March 1942. What most people are not aware of is that the same squadron was involved in all of these events. Kangaroo Squadron chronicles the actions of the 14th Reconnaissance Squadron, also known as the Southern Bomber Group, an ad hoc squadron of B-17Es that was cobbled together and that operated out of Australia in the grim opening months of World War II when the allies came close to losing the war in the Pacific.
Gamble sets the scene by describing the B17’s development as well as the prewar background and actions of many different pilots and squadrons that would ultimately comprise the Kangaroo Squadron. This context can be a little confusing because the reader knows from the title that the book is about a single squadron, yet multiple squadrons are described. The Kangaroo Squadron was pieced together from three different squadrons originating from the 7th Bombardment Group (Heavy). The group’s squadrons suffered multiple combat and maintenance casualties during their deployment into the Pacific, ultimately resulting in a squadron consolidation in Australia that produced the Southern Bomber Group.
Once this composite squadron formed in Australia, Gamble’s account settles in, describing the relatively ineffective combat missions of the newly formed squadron against the Japanese Navy operating out of Rabaul, New Guinea, in February 1942. The squadron suffered the extreme impacts of mechanical problems and mishaps in its first combat mission. Out of the twelve planes in the squadron, only six were able to fly, and only two made it to the target area but without hitting anything with their bombs. One aircraft that did not make it to the target area ran out of fuel on the way back and crashed landed in a swamp in New Guinea. The crew survived and eventually made it back to Australia while their aircraft remained intact in the swamp for sixty-four years before being salvaged and moved to a new home at the Pacific Aviation Museum. The squadron continued to have mixed results in follow-on missions, achieving only minor damage against shipping. In early 1942, American air power in the Pacific was in its nascent stages and was little more than a nuisance to the Japanese.
The Southern Bomber Group operated under Navy control until March 1942 when it was transferred back to Army control and designated the 14th Reconnaissance Squadron. Part of the reason for this transfer was that the Army had a specific need for the squadron, which was to fly to Mindanao, Philippines, and evacuate MacArthur and Philippine President Manuel Quezon. An earlier squadron’s evacuation mission failed due to numerous mishaps. The 14th Reconnaissance Squadron prepared four aircraft for the mission, but mechanical failure resulted in only two aircraft able to complete the trip. Under the cover of darkness on a moonless night, the two bombers successfully landed at Del Monte Field in Mindanao. Three hours later, they took off with MacArthur, his family, his staff, and President Quezon with his family and staff. After an uneventful seven-hour trip, they landed in Australia and delivered their precious cargo.
MacArthur’s successful evacuation, coupled with minor success in operations against the Japanese, put the squadron on the radar with both the Australian and American public. The squadron was the only American heavy bomber unit in Australia that was conducting combat missions. This attention resulted in the squadron’s new name: Kangaroo Squadron.
Gamble describes the squadron’s eventual success as it helped turn back the Japanese during the Battle of the Coral Sea, its increased reconnaissance role reporting on enemy strengths on the islands in the Solomon Sea, and its shadowing of naval convoys for targeting by other bombers. By October 1942, as the squadron redeployed to the United States, the tide was turning in the Pacific. The battles in the Coral Sea and at Midway had turned back Japanese advances. The U.S. Marines began the Guadalcanal Campaign, which was designed to push the Japanese off the island. The Kangaroo Squadron had been a key part of the ragtag force that kept the Japanese at bay while the Allied war machine gathered strength.
Kangaroo Squadron is much more than a unit history. Gamble paints a vivid picture of the squadron’s actions. His story is personal in that it describes the crews and their missions in detail and fills in the time between missions with the usual fun and mayhem that occurs when the aircrews are away from danger. He also describes the sacrifices of pilots and crew members as they are either killed or suffer crippling injuries. Kangaroo Squadron is a valuable history of one the few and most successful B-17 squadrons to operate in the Pacific theater. It fills an important niche in describing the early air war in the Pacific as well as the experiences of bomber aircrews in sustained combat.
Book Review written by: David S. Pierson, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas