Though the B-17’s role in Europe has been studied for decades, the Flying Fort started its USAAF combat career in the Pacific. The 19th Bomb Group, stationed in the Philippines in 1941, carried out the first American B-17 raids of WWII. Later, the 19th moved to Australia, supporting the Dutch East Indies campaign along with the 7th Bomb Group before joining the fight over New Guinea and Rabaul. The 7th later went on to serve in the China-Burma-India Theater.
As the 19th held the line, the first squadrons of the 43rd Bomb Group began to arrive in Australia. By late summer, when General George Kenney took command of the 5th Air Force, the entire 43rd had reached the SWPA, giving him two groups of heavy bombers with which to strike the Japanese. Being an unconventional thinker, Kenney and one of his aides, Major Bill Benn, talked through how to better employ their Forts. Pre-war doctrine called for mass formations of B-17’s to hit both land and naval targets, but Kenney knew he’d never get very many heavies. Bombing ships from 20,000 feet with a half dozen or less B-17’s on any given mission had resulted in almost no hits. Had a hundred or two hundred Boeings been used to saturate an enemy naval force with bombs, perhaps they would have had more success. As it was, Kenney had to make do with somewhere between twenty and forty B-17’s available for operations on any given day. With a percentage always performing long range reconnaissance missions, the 5th Air Force rarely had more than a dozen B-17’s free for bombing missions.
Kenney and Benn decided to see if the B-17 could be used in low altitude anti-ship attacks. They’d read reports of the British using such techniques to bounce bombs across the surface of the water and into the sides of Italian ships in the Mediterranean Sea and thought that might be workable. Others in the 5th Air Force, including the legendary Paul “Pappy” Gunn, had concluded through experience that wavetop attacks were the only way to take out Japanese ships.
Kenney sent Benn to command the 63rd Bomb Squadron, 43rd Bomb Group, which was used as an incubator for such tactics. Simultaneously, the 3rd Attack Group also began working on the technique. Soon other units began training on the new tactics as well.
That fall, the B-17’s of both the 43rd Bomb Group and the 19th began launching night skip bombing attacks against Japanese vessel. Operating in small numbers, or sometimes as lone wolves, the B-17’s prowled the night skies over the northern coast of New Guinea and New Britain in search of targets. They repeatedly struck heavily defended Simpson Harbor, Rabaul, which was the main Japanese base in the area.
Flying from bases in Northern Australia, the B-17 crews would stage out of Seven Mile Drome at Port Moresby, New Guinea, before heading out against their assigned targets or patrol areas. The attacks proved to be far more successful than all previous B-17 anti-shipping raids done from altitude. The 5th Air Force later estimated the hit rates against shipping increased from 1% to over 70%. Nevertheless, using Forts like this was a stopgap measure at best. Low and large, they were vulnerable to Japanese anti-aircraft fire, and they lacked the firepower needed to suppress those defenses during bomb runs. To counter that, the crews learned to make fast approaches from two thousand feet. They would dive down, level off below five hundred, pickle their bombs and run for home on the deck.
Eventually, the A-20 and B-25 gunships became the 5th Air Force’s primary anti-ship aircraft, along with Australian Beaufighters and Beauforts. The B-17’s were replaced by longer-ranged B-24’s which were mainly used for conventional bombing from altitude. Still, for a brief period in late 1942-43, Kenney’s Fort crews carried out some of the most unusual B-17 attacks of the war.