A B-24 Over Borneo
About twelve thirty midday on November 16, 1944, District Officer William Makahanap looked up from his draft report on the expected rice production in his East Borneo district of Mentarang and realized that for the past few minutes he had been hearing a whining noise. The overhead fan in his old office back in the Celebes used to sound like that, but here in the little settlement of Long Berang there was no electricity to run a fan. The whine could have been from mosquitoes, but it was the wrong time of day for their assault. Such a loud noise was unusual in the quiet midday period, when able-bodied Dayaks (the general term for the various tribes of inland Borneo) were away in the rice fields or the jungle, and nearly everybody else was dozing. Even the schoolchildren, curled up on mats in the schoolroom down the road, would be taking a nap while the day was hottest.
The whine grew louder and Makahanap finally recognized what it was: the engines of a big airplane. Then, above the engine noise, he heard people yelling out in the fields. What could be disturbing the Dayaks? He stepped outside and heard them shouting that “the big thing in the sky” was “breaking apart” and “going to fall to the ground.”
Standing on his office steps, he squinted up into the shimmering sky above the jungle at the edge of the little settlement. He could see that the plane, flashing in and out of the cloud cover, had four engines and big wings, but he did not know enough about aircraft to recognize a B-24. Nor could he tell whose plane it was, Allied or Japanese. What he did realize was that the Dayaks were right. It was about to break apart and fall out of the sky.
Standing there on his front step, blinking at the bright sky, Makahanap’s first reaction was probably annoyance at being interrupted. But his next would have been anxiety. In his experience of the past three years, the arrival of something new was rarely a blessing for himself, his family or his district.
He could see, though, that the Dayaks were filled with wonder. None of them had ever seen anything like this thing in the sky. He could no longer see or hear it. Had it gone down somewhere behind the mountains to the northeast? What had happened to it? Where was it now? Above all, was it Japanese or Allied?
November 16, 1944, had begun as a routine Thursday for pilot 2nd Lt. Tom Coberly, USAAF, and the ten men of the crew of his B-24 (a four-engine bomber also known as a “Liberator”). They had been awakened shortly after two in the morning and given breakfast: a choice of hot or cold cereal, along with powdered eggs scrambled and Spam fried and liberally doused with tomato ketchup. They washed it down with tall glasses of milk and orange juice and enough coffee to wake them up.
It was the coolest, best time of day at their air base on Morotai, a small island of the Moluccas in the Netherlands East Indies. Just south of the Philippines and hundreds of miles due east of Borneo, Morotai was built on a foundation of coral and was relatively bare. Much of its scrub plant life had been cleared away to make the coconut plantation thatwas now an airfield. There was nothing to do there but wait to fly out.
Lieutenant Coberly’s crew, simply called Coberly’s, had been on Morotai less than a month. Their Twenty-third Squadron belonged to the Bomber Barons, the Fifth Bomb Group that was an arm of the tiny Thirteenth Air Force (sometimes called the Jungle Air Force) of the USAAF whose missions were to retake the Japanese-occupied Philippine Islands and cut off Japan’s Pacific oil supplies.
In response to the prewar U.S.-led oil embargo against Japan after the latter took Indochina, the Japanese military had launched a brilliant offensive in 1941–1942, starting with the December raid on Pearl Harbor that had destroyed an unprepared American sea-and-air armada. Next, Japan’s troops had taken over the American and European holdings in the Pacific, virtually without a struggle, while America devoted most of its energies to beating back Hitler’s armies in Europe and North Africa. Japan hoped its new empire—which it called the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere—would make it self-sufficient in the oil, tin and rubber needed for its growing industrial economy. But the effort to secure and run such a far-flung empire was making Japan the victim of its own success.
Its forces were spread so thinly across an area that ran from China to the South Seas that it risked losing all or part of its new colonies if the natives rebelled or the Allies invaded. Lacking the manpower to match its territorial ambitions, Japan relied in part on the fear inspired by the harshness of its occupation to keep the subject peoples in line.
Japan really needed Borneo’s oil: In 1943 and 1944, it counted on Borneo for 40 percent of its fuel oil and 25 to 30 percent of its crude and heavy oils. By 1944, cutting off these Japanese oil supplies had become a major goal of the Thirteenth Air Force’s bomber arm.
Liberator squadrons of the Bomber Barons had had increasing success bombing Japanese shipping, including the ships bringing oil home from Borneo. The Bomber Barons were not just attacking transport vessels; in October 1944, some squadrons had taken part in the massive naval battle of Leyte Gulf, in which the Japanese navy had lost close to a hundred ships, including three battleships, four carriers, six heavy and four light cruisers and eleven destroyers.
With this naval victory, the Allies began to feel that a corner had been turned. From now on, the Allies reasoned, not only would the Japanese have more trouble protecting their shipping, but they would be unable to prevent the tropical islands from being liberated by the Allies and serving as stepping stones for the planned invasion of Japan itself. Moreover, the Imperial Navy now lacked enough carrier platforms for the fighter planes needed to protect the Japanese homeland from air attack.
Today, Coberly’s squadron had been scheduled to attack a Japanese-held airfield in the central Philippines. But the previous night, after supper and a briefing on the morning’s raid, the men were watching an outdoor movie when they were summoned back to the briefing tent. Their mission had changed.
They were now told to prepare for an attack against a Japanese heavy cruiser. There might also be an aircraft carrier, which had been seen “lazing along like a fat duck in Brunei Bay.” Their orders were to hit the largest ship. Coberly’s plane was quickly reloaded with weapons appropriate to its new mission: five one-thousand-pound, armor-piercing bombs.