The Day They Became Veterans
Born in 1920, Phil Shriver became interested in flying while attending Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, where he received his pilot’s license through the college’s CPT (Civilian Pilot Training) program. The lure of good pay drew him to the Army Air Force. He graduated with class ’41H at Luke Field October 31, 1941. While part of his class, including Besby Holmes, received orders sending them immediately to Hawaii, Phil went first to the 54th Pursuit Group in Washington, then later detached for service in the Southwest Pacific. In the summer and fall of 1942, Phil participated in the desperate defense of Port Moresby as a member of the 35th Fighter Group. Hopelessly out-class in their quirky P-39 and P-400 Airacobras, the 35th and 8th groups formed the only defense the USAAF could offer in New Guinea at the time.
Phil Shriver took part in some of the most desperate attritional warfare seen the the Southwest Pacific. He arrived at a time when the Japanese still held air superiority. The AAF deployed the 8th and 35th to challenge Japan’s control of the air, a challenge ultimately paid for with the lives of Phil’s squadron mates.
I interviewed Phil back in the late 1990’s, the following is an excerpt from those interviews.
When the war started, most of the squadrons on the West Coast were asked to supply men for immediate service in the South Pacific. I was with the 54th up at Paine Field at the time, fresh from flight school. I think I had six hours in P-40s. I think what the squadrons did was detach their most inexperienced pilots as naturally they wanted to hang on to their best men.
We went down to Hamilton as part of a large, thrown together group of pilots. There must have been about 125 of us-and I don’t think any of us had much fighter training. None of us were assigned to any group. They just put us on a ship and sent us out to war.
We landed at Melbourne, Australia. For awhile, we were at loose ends while the Air Corps waited for a shipment of P-40s to arrive for us. We waited and waited, but every time a batch of planes arrived, somebody else got them. We moved around a lot. It was a pretty confused mess at the time. In March of 1942, I was finally assigned to the 40th Fighter Squadron, 35th Group.
We had P-400’s–the export version of the P-39 that the RAF didn’t want. The only differences were that the P-400’s had an electrical propeller system instead of the P-39’s hydraulic one and they carried a 20mm cannon in the nose instead of the P-39’s usual 37mm. That 37 was a complete failure. If you got three rounds out of it before it jammed, you were lucky. The P-400 was one of the first planes to get into combat up in New Guinea. Another group, the 8th, was formed about the time we were. They used a mix of P-39’s and P-400’s. Initially, our group had nothing but P-400’s.
Our P-400 carried British markings since the RAF had turned them down and given them back to the Air Corps. We used our Allies’ cast-aways, planes not fit for the Royal Air Force.
I preferred the P-39 because of its prop system. The electrical system on the P-400 failed all the time and the prop would flatten out. You’d lose control of the RPM’s and you’d have a heck of a time getting back home in that condition. It happened to me, but never in combat. When it happened, you’d lose altitude fast. I learned to flip the circuit breakers as that sometimes got things working again.
All the same, it was a sturdy little airplane, and I liked it. Even after we found out about all the things that were wrong with it, well, I had fallen in love with it. It got me home every time.
The squadron stayed in Australian for a couple of months until a group of us went to Port Moresby. I arrived at Port Moresby on the 1st of June, 1942. We had planned to arrive on the 30th of May, but as we neared our assigned field-Seven Mile Drome–we saw that it was under a bombing attack. We turned around and flew back to Australia. We got in two days later.
The field was always in bad shape. It was bombed practically every day. An engineering division cleared the field every day so we always managed to take off and land only a few hours after these raids. They never really put us out of commission. Seven Mile Drome was Port Moresby’s main strip, but we were the only fighter unit up there at that time. Bombers would fly in and use it, but we were the only air defense unit. We had relieved one of the squadrons of the 8th Group, and our two outfits rotated back and forth every few months or so.
There were no facilities there like in the States-or Australia for that matter. We had no hangers. We hired native workers to build our alert and operations shacks. Both were basically grass huts. For our living quarters, we secured some five-man pyramid tents which we set up a few miles from the field. At morning and in the evening, we traveled between our tents and the airfield in two ton trucks. This way, if the Japanese bombed the field at night, our camp area was far enough away to avoid some of the action.
The day after we arrived, my squadron flew its first mission. My own first combat flight took place the following day on June 3rd. Through most of our first tour, we used our P-400’s as interceptors, though we sometimes escorted transports to Wau, a base north of us.
As interceptors, the P-400’s were just about useless. We could never climb fast enough or high enough to catch the Japanese bombers. The P-400 operated effectively to 15,000 feet. After that, its performance died. If you could get to 25,000 feet, the plane’s max speed would be somewhere around 125 mph. The wings would be flopping around-you couldn’t do anything but wallow.
Did I mention that the Japanese were always at 25,000 feet?
The quality of the Japanese pilots we faced went downhill fast from sheer attrition, a fact we noticed over the six months we flew in New Guinea. In December of ’42, our squadron finally scored its first big victory. We had been escorting transports to Wau, when some Zeroes from Lae intercepted us. Our guys shot down 12 planes that day-more than any other during our two tours up to Moresby. Those Japanese who intercepted our squadron just weren’t very good. We could tell they weren’t very good by the fact that we were beginning to get victories.
At the start of our tour, though, we didn’t do well. The Japanese fighters were always above us, giving them the advantage in nearly every engagement. Worse, we soon learned that we could never dogfight with the Zeroes in our P-400’s–the Airacobra was just too inferior. To survive, we could only one pass, then dive away. The Zeroes couldn’t keep up with us that way. It was our only escape. The P-400 was a rugged little airplane and would dive like mad.
We learned the hard way how to fight the Japanese, though Buzz Wagner helped us out quite a bit when we first arrived. Buzz, who was one of America’s first aces, taught us how to fight the Zero. He had flown in the Philippines then taken glass shrapnel in his eyes. The Air Corps took him out of combat flying and sent him to Australia. He went from squadron to squadron sharing his experiences and knowledge. To us, he became our guardian angel and we looked up to him and listened to him. He told us to never dogfight with the Japanese. Later, we heard that from other pilots, too. But Buzz Wagner was the one we all respected. He could do things in a P-39 that were just unbelievable.
He even came up to talk to us while we were at Seven Mile Drome. He stayed in the operation hut and filled us with information. He never flew combat with us, though he did with the squadron we had relieved.
The first contact with the Japanese that I occurred on the 16th of June. We had the full squadron up and our c/o was leading us that day. I’m sure we looked real good–we were all in formation at 12,000 feet. That was until the Japanese showed up. I glanced up and at about 20,000 feet I could see probably 20 Zeroes. I remember thinking how colorful they were. They had big red dots on their wings, and their cowlings were painted black. They went into a Lufberry circle, just like they were playing a game. They started chasing each other around, going through all sorts of little antics. They were quite good no question about it. And they were a cocky bunch, doing all those aerobatics above us like that. They knew they were going to kill us even before they attacked.
On the other hand, we didn’t know what was going on-half the time we never did. Neither did our squadron commander.
All of a sudden, they peeled off out of that circle one at a time. They came down right through us. There wasn’t a whole lot we could do. We were too low to dive, so we scattered. I saw one P-39 flying straight and level with a Zero behind it. Pieces were just falling off his airplane-good God, it was a terrible experience, one we were not too proud of. We should have done a lot better. I went into a handy cloud and got away. We lost three pilots in that one attack. It wasn’t a good show for the Americans.
We should have pulled up into them. At least that way we could have gotten a few shots off, but we didn’t. They just decimated us. We became veterans that day.
The Japanese never gave us a break. We were bombed constantly, day and night. In between, we’d go up and try to intercept them. Sleep was hard to come by, that’s for sure.
The first bombing raid I experienced took place the second day we were there. It was kind of funny in the way it happened. I’d never seen Japanese bombers or Zeroes before. They were very high as usual. I stood out on the field watching them since I knew they hadn’t released their bombs yet. The engineers on our field that did all the work keeping it operational were black. So there I was watching all the Zeroes and bombers when one of the engineers runs by and shouts, “Come on boss! Them bombs ain’t marked black or white!” I wised up fast.
We learned not to be too afraid of the bombing raids. They usually hit the strip, and our alert shack was a ways away. We had slit trenches we could get into, but we didn’t worry too much about the bombs. The Zeroes were another matter.
On that first tour, one other mission stands out. The Japanese Betty bombers had just hit Port Moresby. They were escorted by Zeroes, but there were some B-17s in the area flying en route to bombing Rabaul. The Zeroes pulled off away from the Betties and went after the B-17s. Saburo Sakai, in his book Samauri! talks about the mission that day, so I know the Tainan Air Group–the best Japanese outfit of the war–was involved.
The Betties were only at 15,000 that day, and only a few Zeroes stayed with them. That gave us the best tactical set-up we’d ever seen. Three miles out of Moresby, 12 of us attacked them. We shot down three bombers and a Zero and lost one pilot. For a change, we were slightly above the Japanese, and off to one side. That day, I was in a P-39. I dove on their formation and made an almost 45 degree run on one Betty. When I opened fire, I could see the tail gunner get hit by my bullets. I got two rounds out of my 37mm cannon before it jammed. I pulled up without seeing what happened to my target. I rolled back in and made another pass. Later, three Betties were found on the ground and I was given credit for one.
In our first month, we lost ten pilots. As a result of all the losses, morale in our squadron was very low. To tell you the truth, we were a pretty scared bunch of guys. We were getting beat up good. To keep morale up, while we were on alert we played volleyball down near the flight line. We also had chess tournaments going, but that was about it. We just waited around for the word to scramble. We had a field telephone wired up in the alert shack. Whenever it rang, our hearts would stop. We knew what it meant. Somebody would hollar, “Take off!” We’d all jump into a truck or jeep and race down to our aircraft. There was an alert board in the shack which listed who were the flight leaders, who were the element leaders and who flew in which flight for the day. It also listed what planes we were assigned to. As our trucks and jeeps passed our planes, each pilot would jump off and run to it. Our airplanes were about 300 yards apart, parked back in the jungle. Originally, we had them on the field itself, but the Japanese hit them by bombs so we quit doing that.
When we started out, we each had our own plane. I got two I called my own. I named them Ruby I and Ruby II. Eventually, as planes were getting shot down or knocked out of commission, we were assigned to whatever planes were available that day. Ruby I and Ruby II were both shot down–but not on days I was flying them.
We did have an officer’s club–another grass shack that we built-stocked with liquor brought up from Australia. I wasn’t a drinker, so they put me in charge of our supply because I could be trusted with it. The Japanese used to send nuisance bombers against us at night. One evening, he hit our officer’s club and it caught fire. I remember everyone leaping from the slit trenches nearby to try and save our liquor!
Our first tour ended in the first part of August. We went back for a rest in Sydney and stayed at place called King’s Cross. I was engaged at the time so I didn’t run around much, and I didn’t drink, but I’ll tell you, some pretty wild things went on around there. The guys just had to blow off the tension we’d been under for so long back up at Moresby. I ended up meeting a wealthy family with three daughters. Three of us stayed with them, and took their daughters out to the swanky clubs.
We had a two week leave before going back to Townsville. We stayed there until mid-November and then returned to New Guinea. By November, it wasn’t nearly as stressful as our first two months. Things were slacking off a bit and the Japanese weren’t raiding us nearly as often. When we did run into them, they weren’t as good as the ones we faced during the summer. We did a lot more escort and patrol work than the first two months we were there. We also strafed ground troops at Buna from time to time, something the P-39 was good at. But communications with our own troops weren’t that stable, so we never knew where to strafe and if we’d hit friend or foe.
In May of 1943, I left New Guinea for good and caught a B-24 for home down in Brisbane. I came back to Hamilton Field, the same place I left out of. This all happened pretty fast, so nobody was there to greet me when I got back. It didn’t matter, it was wonderful to be home, to have survived the ordeal we all went through. Our squadron lost 12 of the 25 pilots who originally went to Moresby. We all figured we had about a 50/50 chance to get home. Somehow, I was one of the lucky ones.
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Outclassed, under trained and over matched by their well-equipped Japanese opponents, the 8th and 35th nevertheless held the line over Moresby until new squadrons flying better aircraft could arrive to continue the fight. In August, just as Phil’s group rotated home for a break, the American landing at Guadalcanal largely diverted the Japanese Naval air units away from New Guinea. The Tainan Air Group moved to Rabaul just prior to the August 7th landings, leaving Lae behind and all the terror they instilled in the AAF aircrews forced to fly there.
The Japanese Army Air Force stepped into the void created by the Imperial Navy’s new focus on Guadalcanal. From the fall of 1942 through the summer of 1944, Japanese air operations over New Guinea largely became a JAAF show. Occasionally, the JNAF would mount a strike from New Britain–April 7, 1943 and October 15, 1943 are two examples–but for the most part, the Army sentais carried the burden. The drop off in pilot quality Phil Shriver noted in his recollections could very well stem in part from this change over. The JAAF aircrews were noticeably inferior to their JNAF peers, even at the start of the war.
Throughout the fall of 1942 and into 1943, American air strength grew in New Guinea. The first P-38s arrived, and their superior high speed performance gave the Americans the edge in air-to-air combat they sorely needed. Nevertheless, the issue remained in doubt until the great air battles of the spring and summer forced the JAAF onto the defensive once and for all.
Phil Shriver spent the rest of the war as an AAF test pilot. He flew every aircraft in the Army Air Force’s inventory except the P-38. After VJ-Day, he returned to civilian life after giving serious thought to staying in the service.
While he fought in New Guinea, his older sister suffered through the horror of captivity in the Philippines. She had been one of the nurses who stayed behind to treat the wounded on Bataan. Liberated in 1945 at San Thomas prison, she rarely spoke of her experiences to anyone, even to her brother.