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CANTON, PHOENIX ISLANDS

Back on Oahu in '42
Eager beavers, me and you
Makin Island, '43
Reluctant dragons, you and me . . .

(From "Big Bomber Blues",  a 7th Air Force ballad sung to the tune of  "Casey Jones".     Author unknown)

The prewar plans for war with Japan were history. But work was in progress on a series of island airstrips. Never intended to be a line of defense, they were the line by the spring of 1942. And over the horizon was an enemy that seemed unstoppable.

Dozens of white coral atolls run Southwest from Hawaii. These include the Phoenix, Ellice, Union, and Line Island chains. Islands like Baker, Canton, Christmas, Funafuti, Johnston, Nanomea, and Palmyra, were now the outer defensive perimeter, and would be the first stepping stones on the long road to Tokyo Bay. Distance was a major factor. Canton was about 1,600 miles from Oahu. It was 1,161 miles south from Hawaii to Christmas Island and 1,156 miles  from there to Bora Bora. Funafuti was 645 miles  SW of Canton and Nanomea was 252 miles North of Funafuti. Baker Island, about 250 miles northwest of Canton and toward the Gilbert Islands was practically in the enemy's back yard. Baker turned out to be a fairly well kept secret. Every recon flight the enemy made was intercepted and shot down: they may have never known what the US was up to there. Other outposts farther away would be reconned, bombed, and shelled.

Work began on Canton, the largest of the Phoenix group in November, 1941. It was almost on the equator and a true desert island. (Sometimes spelled with a "K", the spelling was changed to Kanton officially in 1973 when it became part of the nation of Kiribati).

Canton had no fresh water, no people, a single palm tree, millions of rats, and some brushy cover of pig weed and cow trees. It was hot, flat, and arid, no higher than 40 feet of elevation, and varied from 100 to 500 yards wide. Distilleries were purchased and shipped in from a bankrupt brewery. So was 70,000 gallons of fresh water in drums and 500 gallon fuel tanks. The first construction crew of 150 workers was top notch. Thank God for them; the work and conditions were brutal. Canton had no natural harbor, and storms took out the temporary docks. It was hell just getting the heavy equipment ashore. A second crew arrived expecting a tropical paradise, took one look at conditions and almost mutinied. Some deserted into the brush after Pearl Harbor. (All civilians were evacuated on Dec. 14th.)  A lot of supplies had to be floated in on rafts or in barrels with the tide. Eventually, a channel was blasted through the coral reef into the lagoon, but it could only be used at high tide. But that white coral made a excellent airstrip in days versus months if concrete mix had to be shipped in. By January 17th, the airstrip could support a B-17 heavy bomber.

Meanwhile, in the Territory of  Hawaii   . . . . .

Raw pilots from the mainland were being rushed into Hawaii with 10 hours training in front line aircraft. They needed 60 to 70 hours more in gunnery, formation flying, and air combat maneuvering. They were  untrained in long flights over water having only training in point to point navigation. That might cut it in Europe, but not in a 3 million square mile search area in the mostly empty Pacific.

Navigation aids and radar were in their infancy: GPS was science fiction. New pilots and navigators had to learn accurate dead reckoning navigation fast! The fledgling 7th Air Force  didn't go through channels, they just set up their own navigation school. The Hawaiian Air Depot hands knew that skill well and passed it on. Lew Sanders made the rounds briefing new pilots, telling how that Zero turned inside his P-36 on Dec. 7th: doctrine on how to defeat the Zero in air combat was being born.  The sky was filled with planes in mock dogfights, but there was nothing friendly or casual about it. 22 pilots would die in various training accidents on Oahu in 1942. The next worst thing a rookie pilot could do was lose sight of his instructor in mock combat. If it happened, the rookie landed alone, and no one would even speak to him after he landed. If it happened again, he was transferred out. After low level training, the instructors would inspect the props for grass stains, and heaven help the rookie pilot with the grass stained propeller. The new fliers were run hard. But the pilots that made it went on to be not just good, but great pilots. Some stayed in the 7th Air Force, some were sent all over the globe. (The most famous is Francis "Gabby" Gabreski, a top ace with Zempke's Wolf Pack in the ETO).  Group combat tactics were learned, including the "Thatch Weave", credited to Navy Lt. Commander John Thatch. Army  pilots practiced  with a vengeance in mock battles against Navy fliers. And in the midst of this, the brand new 333rd Pursuit Squadron came into being at Bellows Field when the 44th Squadron was split in two. They had no planes at first: only personnel. It was soon renamed a fighter squadron, as were all the pursuit squadrons. Their job was to fight, not pursue. At this early stage of the war, units and people were getting shuffled all over, but ultimately the 333rd would end up in the 318th Fighter Group.
On their first deployment, the 333rd flew the Bell P-39 Airacobra. In some ways it was a good plane, but not for the needs in the Pacific. It had short range, was not especially maneuverable, and lack of a supercharger seriously hampered it's high altitude performance. Above 20,000 feet it took forever to climb and couldn't do much when it got there. It was the first American fighter with a tricycle landing gear (long since the standard) and was designed around a 37 mm nose cannon with additional machine guns in the nose and wings and the engine behind the pilot. From what I can figure out, it was a good gun platform. But lack of high altitude performance and range meant for the first part of the war, the 333rd chased an enemy that was too high or too far away. Eventually many P-39s were lend leased to Russia to strafe Germans on the Eastern front. It was far better suited for that. So why did the 333rd fly such a obsolescent aircraft? Because it could be spared at the time probably. A lot of the new stuff was bound for Europe. Some units flew P-39s well into 1943, including the 333rd. (The 333rd got a British export model with a 20 mm nose gun instead of a 37 mm (likely an improvement), and the fuel gauge in Imperial gallons).
The 333rd was dumped on Canton in September, 1942. Things hadn't improved much. If the US sent prisoners to such a place today, they would sue the government. The 333rd  settled in. The first thing you did there was trade your  helmet for one that was painted white to match the coral background. There were 4 P-39s: the other 15 came in big crates. Each had to be wrestled ashore and assembled. Planes were refueled by hand and facilities were very primitive. There were still millions of rats. There was a rat killing contest, no firearms allowed, with a bottle of scotch as a prize and a Sergeant named Warburton killed over 500 in a week on his spare time. There was dysentery and the bad diet did nothing to help it.  For fun, one could periodically forage on the wreck of the transport SS President Taylor, which had grounded months earlier, losing 80% of it's needed supplies in the process. (On the other hand, working in the flooded holds under equatorial sun attempting supply salvage was no fun at all.)  A 10 foot high seawall had been bulldozed around much of the island so enemy submarines couldn't see anything to shoot at. Drums of water and gasoline were stored in it. Until some industrious 333rd soul borrowed a bulldozer and successfully dug a well, everyone was bathing in sea water. The well was a big improvement. It wasn't drinkable, but at least it wasn't salty. Porcelain fixtures and mirrors from the President Taylor went into the first permanent shower and latrine. The planes went on alert or on patrol around the clock.

This Canton photo was probably taken from the palm tree.
Note the army cot and fuel drums by the wing shadow. The plane's engine was
kept warmed up, the tanks topped off, and the pilot slept by his plane.
If there was an alert, he was flying in about 60 seconds.

Pacific airfields were mostly named for the first man killed on them. When the night patrol returned at dawn, they were under orders to buzz the field at 3 feet off the deck. 2nd Lt. John H. Topham died buzzing it in a spectacular two plane crash: it became Topham Field.  The enemy had a uncanny knack for approaching Canton and turning away at just the point where a P-39 couldn't intercept them. It was wonderful training and over water flying practice, but the 333rd got no kills.  In mid deployment, they moved from 18th Group to the 318th Group, and the original "Coral Cobra" patch was created by pilot Bob Rieser during that time. One highlight (low light?) came when Canton got in on the search for Eddie Rickenbacker. Somebody sent America's  leading World War 1 ace around the atoll circuit for either a morale boosting tour or fact finding tour depending on your source. His  B-17 went missing. Many years afterwards, MSGT. Harry  Double recalled . . .

“... so they sent Eddie Rickenbacker out to help boost our morale. Hell, our morale was fine; there was nothing wrong with our morale on Canton. But then his plane went missing, and as if we didn't have enough on our plate already with what little we had to work with, we had to screw around searching for Eddie Rickenbaker”.
(After 22 days in 3 life rafts, Eddie and his crew were spotted by an OS2U Kingfisher
and rescued  40 miles from Funafuti. The forces on Canton had nothing to do with it.)

SGT Pope, two unknown pilots, SGT  Double, unknown ground crewman
and  "Thumper"     Topham Field     1942

By now, the main focus of the fighting was in the Guadalcanal area; about 2,000 miles away from Canton. Still, Canton knew they were in a war. Canton was a key link in the supply line. The enemy kept Canton under surveillance with long range flying boats out of the Gilbert Islands to the west. Around January 1943, enemy submarines put a blockade on, and food and supplies got scarce. Everyone's shoes wore out. Coral is a living thing, so you couldn't just walk about with holed shoes as coral would grow in any cut on your foot. Or anywhere else with moisture including the ear canal. Chunks of old inner tubes were used as shoe liners. The food situation went from bad to worse; the once discarded bread with grubs became part of the diet. Everyone's clothing was falling apart and there was barely gas for the planes to fly patrols. The Navy finally broke the blockade, but things got tight before they did.

On January 30, 1943, a Japanese sub surfaced before dawn and shelled the island for 30 minutes. It did no damage, but 333rd  planes that scrambled with depth charges didn't sink it either. There were night raids by Japanese patrol bombers on March 19th, 22nd, and 26th, 1943. The 333rd scrambled planes, but the enemy came in at high altitude  in ones or twos and, without radar, interception was a long shot. Only the last raid caused any real damage including 3 destroyed barracks, a Navy PBY Catalina, and holes in the water tank the 333rd had built. (Contrary to one published account, the mess hall was not hit.)  But everyone got a good laugh as Tokyo Rose claimed great damage, including 2 hits that "sunk" the rusting derelict  SS President Taylor.
That last raid turned out to be the going away sendoff for the 333rd. They soon turned 17 sun faded planes over to the newly arrived 46th Squadron (by coincidence under command of John Thacker) along with  6 junior pilot officers, and shipped out. It was the end of what had to be a pretty depressing deployment. When Operation Galvanic kicked in, the 72nd Squadron was still attached to the 318th and got the 318th's first 5 kills (James R. Snyder, George S. FarinaJohn Thames, James C. Van Nada, James H. Carlyle) as the US began to move up the Gilbert and Marshall Islands through Makin, Tarawa, Mili, and Kwajalein. But by then, the 333rd was back on Hawaii. A more ragged looking outfit was probably never seen. It took a high ranking order just to let them off the ship and get the MPs to leave them alone until they could get squared away. But with no place to spend it on Canton, they had a half year's pay. They were rollin'! Then they got back down to business.

The pre-war 19th and 73rd Squadrons moved from 18th Group to  318th Group about this time. The 19th had defended the Hawaiian Islands so far in the war. The 73rd was the first squadron to launch land based fighters off a carrier deck as they deployed their 25 P-40Ks after the Battle of Midway in June, '42. Midway is remembered as the turning point in the Pacific, but that was far from clear at the time. Midway was well shot up in the battle and the 73rd went in to replace battle losses. They had a pretty hard scrabble existence out there themselves. The 73rd made a little more history later as they flew the P-40Ks back from Midway to Hawaii with large external fuel tanks.  At 1,300 miles, it was very long flight for a P-40! A flight that long over water in a single engine fighter was a first for any pilots in any theater. These unprecedented flights would become routine in the 318th.

For their next deployment, the 318th got a legend. For the rest of the war,
they would mostly fly the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt.
The T-Bolt had eight .50 caliber machine guns (4 per wing) and an air cooled 2,000 HP Pratt and Whitney radial engine. It was turbo supercharged. Around 22,000 feet, it got it's second wind. It could do 420 MPH at 42,000 feet: likely the best high altitude fighter of the war. It also proved to be a rugged ground attack plane that could both dish out and take a lot of damage. God, was it rugged! Many a P-47 pilot got home with cylinders shot off the engine and the loose connecting rods thumping like a disco. At 16,000 lbs., it was the largest single engine fighter in WW2. Water/methanol injection gave it a 20% boost in performance  (emergency war power) for short periods. It could out roll almost any thing in the air. But perhaps the best thing was it's dive speed. A standard pilot tactic was to dive away from an adversary when in trouble. But nothing flying could out dive a healthy Thunderbolt in 1944. It's weak points were less than stellar climb and agility at lower altitude, and it was a gas hog. It got nicknamed  "the Jug” in Europe: no one in the Pacific ever heard it called that. It was quite a plane. (This link may be of interest to P-47 or  WW2 aircraft enthusiasts. ) The 318th got brand new P-47D  models with razorback canopies. They would be the first unit to get the long range P-47N models later.
  P-47D   (with a razorback canopy)

 P-47N (with a bubble canopy)

The 318th had solidified into 3 squadrons, the 19th  (with  bare cowling and a blue tail stripe), the 73rd (with white cowling and tail stripes), and the 333rd (with yellow cowling and tail stripes). They trained way over strength and spun a lot of new pilots off into the 44th Squadron. Lew Sanders, now a Lt. Colonel, became the  318th CO, having spent the war with the 46th and Headquarters until now. His number two was Major Phil Rasmussen. The same two men who had tangled with the Japanese over Kaneohe during the Pearl Harbor attack.


Lew Sanders lobbied hard to get his group a more meaningful role in the war. He got it. The 318th was assigned to Operation Forager.

In late May 1944, 111 318th P-47Ds  lined up wingtip to wingtip for final inspection by Lt. Col.  Sanders and Major Rasmussen at Bellows Field, Hawaii.
 Soon afterwards, 73 Thunderbolts were hoisted on the escort carriers USS Natoma Bay, USS Sargent Bay, and USS Manila Bay. They went west with Task Force 58 and, upon arrival, learned their destination. The 19th, 73rd and 333rd Squadrons  were about to take part in the other D-Day: the biggest invasion of the Pacific war to date. Around June 10th, the fleet took up station off  the Marianas Islands. The welcome mat wasn't out.

On June 15th 1944, TF 58 kicked in the door.


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