“What I have to say may not be entirely accurate for fifty years has a way of dimming the exact truth, but I will try. Another thing that I have noticed, the more of the participants that die off seems to make the survivors more positive in the telling of their tales. By the way, all of the historical information that I have collected is posted with the Aerospace Museum in San Diego.
I read in one book dealing with the early part of the war that the 74th Pursuit Squadron was the very first operational squadron in combat from Port Moresby. Who they were or where they went I have no idea whatsoever. The 35th and 36th squadron relieved them around the first of May 1942. The 80th remained at Petrie and acted as a replacement squadron. Each time either of the two sister squadrons lost personnel, the 80th saw to it that they received a new body. The 35th and 36th only remained in combat for about a month, the survivors were removed to Charters Towers, near Townsville Australia. They were replaced by the 39th and 40th squadrons of the 35th group. These two squadron remained engaged for six weeks, or until mid-July.
These two squadrons were replaced by the 41st of the 35th group, and the 80th. The 41st flew from 7-Mile Strip while the 80th occupied both 12-Mile and 14-Mile Strips. The two strips were separated by the Laloki River. 14-Mile was so dusty that we finally abandoned it and moved everything to 12-Mile. When we took off from 14-Mile you wanted to make certain that you stayed in the dust. If things started to lighten up you knew you were getting off the runway.
When a squadron was relieved the personnel would pack their belongings in a duffel bag and head for 7-Mile Strip to catch a ride to Townsille. They would leave their planes and equipment. You inherited everything.
After we had been there for about a month we started looking for replacements. At the end of six weeks we just knew they had to be there. After two months “Squeeze” Wurtsmith, Commander of Fifth Air Command, drove up one day to inform us that this was a permanent change of station. The 80th was committed to combat from that day until the end of the war, with the slight break to go to Mareeba Australia to pick up the P-38s.
Remember, I mentioned that the 80th was acting as the replacement squadron for the other two squadrons. When the 80th was committed to combat, it went north with only about half strength itself!
This is where I entered the picture. Along with about half of the squadron, I was in the “Panama Bunch.” A large number of us were to have gone to Africa and go to work for Pan American Airways. We were to ferry P-40s from Accra Gold Coast to Khartoum, on the Nile. We were to resign our commissions-civilians had to do it since we were not at war at the time. I checked out in a P-40 on the morning of 7 December, 1941. With war coming on they did not need civilians for anything, so all of that bunch ended up in Panama eventually.
Following the battles of Midway and the Coral Sea they assumed that the Canal would be safe, so orders to get us out of there and into combat were immediate. We arrived in New Castle Australia on 7 July 1942. No one had any idea who we were, where we were from, how we got there, or even whose side we were on! We spent about a week there awaiting orders. Finally, we caught a train to Sydney. Reported in, after much searching for someone to report in to. They immediately us to every organization in the theater. Then some wise one awakened just long enough to realize that they had just committed the 80th to combat and that they were only at half strength. So, more orders had to be issued countermanding the first orders, the about half of us were finally assigned to the 80th, with the remained being scattered. That should give you some idea as to the composition of the early squadron.
“Virgins Lane” was not a ravine, but was built on the side of a small hill. A very steep grade accessed the area. Immediately upon entering was a relatively large area that was relatively flat. This was where the Officers’ Club, Orderly Room, Mess Hall, and Dispensary were located. Each of these buildings were grass hutments constructed by native labor prior to our arrival. This had been the 40th’s quarters before our arrival. Then all over the side of the hill were slit trenches with further small grass shacks for living quarters, about five or six men per hut. They were nothing more than roof, with sides open. We slept under mosquito netting with our personal gear in a foot locker beneath the cots. The 80th had the hospital cots, the only outfit on the island to have such. It was a subject that was never discussed as to where they had come from. They were there, so we didn’t ask any questions. The Mess Hall was a tent. The sides were of canvas but the front and back were of netting for ventilation. Each Friday they served canned Salmon. You could always tell when Friday arrived because the flies gathered at the tent in such numbers that they would almost cause it to collapse. Our showers were of the outdoor variety, that is, until the nurses started arriving, which was about when we left for Milne Bay.
Shortly after we arrived the above setup played a very important part in one of our biggest battles. The Kunai grass growing on our hill had become ignited one day. By nightfall the blaze was out but there were still several twigs and limbs glowing after dark. We got our usual bombing raid that night. After the lights in the camp area were extinguished a rumor started that the Japs were landing paratroopers. How it was able to spread throughout the camp so fast will never be known. Someone hollered to put out the cigarettes (the twigs glowing). Since that got no response, someone decided to shoot them out. They were glowing just above a slit trench located in my area. That slit trench fired back. Before long we had a real war going on within the camp area. Fortunately, everyone was such a marksman as I, and no one was hurt.
While the 80th was in New Guinea, the 35th and 36th, along with Group Headquarters, were in Australia. Group Headquarters was like a millstone around your neck, but they were always associated with the two older squadrons. They never flew with us, we never saw them. In fact, I might have known who the Group Commander was, but probably did not. We were a bastard organization. We became very independent and isolated. We could operate much more efficiently. Consequentially, this independence carries through to this very day. They have constantly sought to be invited to our reunions, to no avail!
Here is something few people realize, our entire duty and responsibility was to hold and contain the Japanese until the war in Europe was completed. They gave us only that equipment that Europe did not want; the B-24, B-25, and the P-38. Instead of holding, we almost had Japan whipped by the time that the European Theater was finished. The world has yet to realize what an outstanding task that General George C. Kenney performed. Kenney was head and shoulders above any other officer in the Air Corps. Let me suggest, if you are interested in WWII history, read “General Kenney Report.” It is by far the best book on the Southwest Pacific, in spite of being among the few in which I am not mentioned…
Incidentally, notice that the 80th had letters instead of numbers designating their planes. This happens to be happenstance. We ended up with the 40th squadron planes when we relieved them in July 1942. They were marked with letters. We merely kept the tradition. Our nose cone and markings were originally a baby crap yellow. This changed, I do not know why, to green shortly after receiving the P-38s.
Also, it was Robbins’ son Robert that was responsible for the squadron returning to the original headhunter patch. He wrote home asking for one of the originals. They immediately returned to its use. It was during Duthie’s command that the insignia received official recognition.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my appreciation for all that you are doing to try and get the history straight. It is a history worth preserving.”
– M. F. Kirby