75 SQUADRON AND PORT MORESBY REVISITED
44 days was the time that the pilots of RAAF 75 Squadron were alone providing air defence for Port Moresby New Guinea. March 1942 were dire times for Australia, with bombs falling on Darwin, these brave and barely trained pilots fought a desperate battle at Australia’s frontline. The Squadron flew P 40 Kittyhawks during World War II. 75 Squadron saw action almost every day during March and April 1942. They had much success with retaliatory raids against the Japanese.
By March 1942 only a few hundred kilometres of sea lay between Australia and the Japanese forces marauding south through the Pacific. With Churchill and Roosevelt prioritising the defeat of Hitler in Europe, the job of blunting the Japanese advance fell to the Australian forces in New Guinea.
The key to the defence of New Guinea was Port Moresby, where demoralised Australian troops with scant air support worried they would be sacrificed like the garrison at Rabaul on the neighbouring island of New Britain.
Newspaper headlines around the world reflected the seriousness of the situation. An editorial in The New York Times, widely quoted by Australian newspapers, argued that “If the Japanese forces now driving against Port Moresby are successful, Australia will be in greater danger of invasion … If the Japanese strike quickly, it is unlikely that the fringe of Northern Australia can be held”.
A Japanese seaborne assault on Port Moresby seemed inevitable. The town had been under continual air attack since early February and the lack of adequate fighter protection for the Australian garrison was underlined by the appearance of swarms of Japanese Zeros, some even venturing as far as the tip of Cape York.
All three services bore the brunt of the early Japanese onslaught through Malay / Singapore and the Netherlands East Indies, and sustained casualties accordingly. Australia’s forces were meagre in numbers, operating outdated equipment, and spread far too thinly.
When the fighting reached New Guinea, the enemy were on Australia’s doorstep. Protection of Port Moresby in New Guinea went to the top pf the list, and air cover was going to be vital.
Australia had no fighter aircraft on the Australian mainland as the Japanese surged south.
Prime Minister John Curtin made impassioned pleas to the UK and the USA for aircraft that could hold their own. The British had none, and the US were making good their own losses from recent set-backs. The major Allies were initially dubious as to whether Australia had the pilots to fly them! The fact that Australia was churning out aircrew under the Empire Air Training Scheme for the air war in Europe seemed lost on our Allies!
Fortuitously, aircraft originally intended for the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) were able to be diverted as the Japanese overran Java.
A shipload of Curtiss P40E Kittyhawk fighters were thus diverted to Sydney, and hastily assembled at Bankstown aerodrome in early-March 1942.
Command of No 75 Squadron now passed from Jeffrey to Flight Lieutenant JF “Old John” Jackson, another veteran of the war in the Western Desert.
In March and April 1942, RAAF 75 Squadron bravely defended Port Moresby for 44 days when Australia truly stood alone against the Japanese. The raw recruits had almost nothing going for them against the Japanese war machine, except for one extraordinary leader named John Jackson, a balding, tubby Queenslander – at 35 possibly the oldest fighter pilot in the world – who said little, led from the front, and who had absolutely no sense of physical fear.
Squadron Leader John Francis Jackson, shot down on 28 April 1942 over Port Moresby. He had previously been awarded a DFC. SQNLDR Jackson served with No 23 Squadron in Australia in 1939 and in the Middle East with 3 Squadron from 1940 -1941. His brother, SQNLDR Leslie Douglas Jackson, bravely fought on and took command of 75 Squadron following the death of his brother and was awarded a DFC and Bar, one of which he earned at Milne Bay, 75 Squadron’s next major engagement.
28 April 1942, John was killed in action above Port Moresby, leading his squadron’s five remaining airworthy Kittyhawks in the interception of a force of Japanese bombers and escorting Zero fighters. Historians believe he may have been trying to obey impossible orders, deliberately staying high to dogfight the superior Japanese fighters. He earned praise for his leadership during the defence of Port Moresby before his death. His younger brother Les took over No. 75 Squadron, and also became a fighter ace. Jacksons International Airport, Port Moresby, is named in John Jackson’s honour.
Time and time again this brave group were hurled into battle, against all odds and logic, and succeeded in mauling a far superior enemy – whilst also fighting against the air force hierarchy. After relentless attack, the squadron was almost wiped out by the time relief came, having succeeded in their mission – but also paying a terrible price.
Although militarily less significant than the success at Milne Bay, No 75 Squadron’s heroic 44-day defence of Port Moresby represented, in the words of the squadron’s official history, a “moral victory of incalculable value” against an enemy that until then had seemed invincible.
RAAF 75 Squadron had been formed at Townsville, Queensland, on 4 March 1942, under the command of Squadron Leader Peter Jeffery. On 21 March the squadron’s first four Kittyhawk aircraft landed at the Seven Mile Strip, Port Moresby. During the afternoon Flying Officer Barry Cox and Flight Lieutenant John Piper shot down a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft. Two hours later Squadron Leader J.F. Jackson, the newly appointed commanding officer, led the remainder of the squadron to the Seven Mile Strip.
The squadron was the sole fighter defence of Port Moresby during its 44-day deployment from 21 March to 3 May 1942. Thirty-nine enemy aircraft had been destroyed in the air or on the ground, and 54 damaged, for the loss of 12 pilots and 24 aircraft.
During their time in Port Moresby 75 Squadron had lost many aircraft and pilots. However, they had shot down four times as many enemy aircraft and delayed the Japanese invasion for just long enough for the US fleet to turn the tide in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. On a final note, Saburo Sakai, the famous Japanese ace and who took part in this battle, spoke very highly of the defence put up by the Australians.
During August 1945 the squadron undertook general flying and reconnaissance flying over prisoner-of-war camps. The aircraft were then flown back to Oakey, in Queensland, and the ground crew returned to Australia aboard HMS Glory, arriving in Sydney in December 1945. The unit was disbanded at Williamtown on 28 March 1948
GARETH MCCRAY OAM
WE WILL REMEMBER THEM
LEST WE FORGET