Air Escape from Java

B-17 41-2460 Delivered MacDill 25/12/41; Assigned 93BS/19BG Java 15/1/42 with Chas Hillhouse, transferred 7BG; after several missions, picking up damage flew to Andir, Java, for repair. When completed 4/3/42 with Dutch pilot Sub Lt Sibolt Kok, Dutch civilian CP Gerald Cherymisin and US T/Sgt Harry Hayes (crew chief), flew it to Port Hedland, Aus. on three good engines. Flew more missions from Australia then returning from Rabual mission crash landed Horn Island, Aus 27/7/42 with Ed Becktold; even further unofficial repairs by Lt Bill Lorance and his crew flew it back to Mareeba, Aus., before eventual salvage and parts used for other B-17s.

The sprawling 600-mile island of Java in the Dutch East Indies was falling to the Japanese. But in the rush, eighteen Americans were left behind. Then while they were wondering what to do about it, ten enemy Zeros dived down over their airfield, sent staccato machine-gun fire over the dusty ground, peeled off, and throbbed away into the distance. The hearts of the Yanks had been throbbing, too, as they lay on their stomachs, but now they limbered up again to survey the scarred airfield.

The only way out of Java was by air, and the only one of the Yanks able to fly was a young Dutch pilot, Gerald Cherymisin. So he looked around the airfield after the raid to see what assets, if any, they had. The total: four crippled aeroplanes. Three Flying Fortresses and a B-18. Mission pointed to the B-18 and said, ‘It’s a wreck – but it’s the only one I can fly.’ US T/Sgt Harry Hayes glanced up at the sky and said, ‘Well, we’ve got to get out of here fast – somehow.’

Cherymisin clambered into the aircraft to test the engine, as the others looked on silently, each with their own particular thoughts and feelings. Only a few minutes passed before he emerged to say, ‘It won’t work.’

Sergeant Hayes did not comment, but went over to the damaged aircraft, took a preliminary look at the engine, then stripped off his shirt and went to work on it. For the next two days he ate altogether just six sandwiches and drank some water, yet by the third day he had repaired the engine, and was able to say, ‘It ought to fly now.’

But before they could celebrate, the whine of Zeros sent them for shelter again. The morse-code chatter from the enemy guns punctuated and punctured the field – and the B-18 – so that when they rushed up to examine the damage they found all Hayes’ work had been ruined. They were back where they had been before. The situation became acute now, for among the group were civilians including Cherymisin’s young American wife.

Hayes had another idea in hand, however, as he sized up the three Flying Forts on the riddled airfield. ‘I shan’t be long’, he called to the rest, and vanished.

A quarter of an hour later he returned with some sixty Dutchmen. He showed them the Fortresses. They appreciated the Americans’ plight and agreed to help at once. Hayes decided which one of the Forts was least damaged and then he organised stripping the remaining two of everything that could be transferred to the chosen plane. Three days later, the engines were working, but the wings seemed in tatters. The tail had been shot away, while the wing flaps were non-existent.

‘I don’t think we can get her off the ground,’ Mission said.

‘But we’ve got to,’ Hayes insisted.

‘Somehow they fitted parts into the plane, which now looked like a crazy patchwork rather than a real flying machine. Next Hayes decided: ‘We need space. Eighteen people take up a lot of room.’

So they stripped the interior of seats, parachutes, everything possible. At last they were ready, and Hayes called the group before him.

‘I want you to know that you’re putting your lives in my hands. I’ve never flown a plane before. I don’t know how long this plane will stay together. I can’t even promise you that she’ll get off the ground. And if the Japs attack us while we’re in the air, we won’t have a chance. If anyone thinks they’ll be safer here, they’re quite free to stay.’

No-one wanted to stay.

Tensely they trooped into the aeroplane, sitting on the bare floor. Hayes and Cherymisin took over the seats of pilot and co-pilot of the Flying Fortress. Neither knew how to fly her. Hayes started the engines, and as they warmed up he studied the maze of strange controls. Cherymisin sat beside him. Mrs Cherymisin was with the rest of the passengers.

Suddenly they sensed the rapid chug of machine gun bullets slapping into the side of the plane and piercing through its thin metal. They all dived for the floor.

Hayes’ hand automatically, instinctively, moved to open the throttle. It was a natural reaction. But Cherymisin stopped him, shouting, ‘Don’t take off now, for God’s sake, or they’ll shoot us down like an October duck.’

Hayes waited, itching to get airborne. For ten minutes, the four engines of the Flying Fort went on roaring, while seven Zeros trained a tracery of fire at the machine. Finally they must have thought they had finished it off, for one by one the Zeros zoomed away over the jungles of Java, leaving Hayes and Cherymisin the familiar task of surveying the damage. Surprisingly, it proved negligible, and no one had been hit by the bullets. But something might have happened to the Fortress which would only show up when it was too late and they were taking off – or actually in the air. But it was literally now or never.

Hayes eased the throttle and the tattered ship shivered down the runway, gradually gathering momentum. Nothing collapsed. The Fortress gained speed, when Cherymisin suddenly shouted in the pilot’s ear, ‘Hayes – even an empty Fort needs a 3,000-foot runway to lift. This is only 2,800 – and we’re filled. Move the stick gently, boy: move it gently.’

The Fortress clambered off the ground, but bounced down. Cherymisin watched the manifold pressure edge from danger point of 46 up to 50. Hayes’ hands eased the controls back and the plane lifted. Wobbling like a wounded bird, she staggered forward over the forest. The passengers watched the foliage flash by them, much too near. Gradually she gained height, leaving the trees behind, till a few minutes later they shed the Java mainland, crossed the coastline, and thundered out over the Timor Sea.

But the sea bore a black, foreboding face: an endless blur beneath them. And the sky, too, had a darkness that could conceal Zeros at any time. It would need no more than a single accurate burst to finish off the ‘Fort’ in this vulnerable state.

Her engines wheezed away, as the passengers huddled themselves against the fuselage. They were without armament, without maps, without instruments. Cherymisin kept his eyes on the dim horizon to give the pilot advice on navigation from time to time. Mrs Cherymisin acted as observer.

Hayes himself, a man who had never flown an aeroplane before, kept the huge machine moving forward over the waters. Timor. The sea of fear.

Hour upon hour for a thousand miles or more. Mesmerised by the expanse and ellipse of sea and air, they had to concentrate to avoid losing control of things. Hayes was wonderful. All they knew was that they headed in approximately the right direction, but in these vastnesses it would be quite possible to miss Australia altogether. That was their goal.

More miles. Finally Cherymisin pointed ahead and said simply, ‘Land.’

The north coast of the continent scribbled and shaped up before them through the screen. A rustle of excitement was permitted to escape among them, though they knew first, that this might not be Australia at all but Japanese-held territory, and second, that the detail of landing the battered giant of a bomber would be hazardous. That was an understatement.

‘Look,’ said Cherymisin, ‘There’s a clearing near that beach. Maybe you can set her down easy and run up the beach.’

Hayes nodded and the nose of the Fortress dipped, too, as if in agreement. The worst moment was coming up to meet them any minute, any second, now. They were only feet in the air. The ‘Fort’ hit hard, bounced off the beach, levelled off and stayed on the sands. It plopped and pounded along, then slowed and stopped. The propellers died until the blades became visible. Twenty people jumped down to the Australian ground, hardly yet able to appreciate the miracle that had whisked and borne them out of a much-razed Java airstrip and deposited them on a friendly shore. As they talked it over together afterwards, Sergeant Hayes said, ‘I’d like to be a real pilot some day.’