Within days of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, the American Far East Air Force (FEAF) in the Philippines began a six-month long battle against vastly superior military forces of Japan. The Philippines, along with the Netherlands East Indies farther to the south, were primary targets of the Japanese because they desperately needed these island’s natural resources of oil, rubber and metals to expand Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere into Southeast Asia and the South Pacific region.
Among the fighters and bombers available to the FEAF were two commercial Beechcrafts – a single-engine B17R cabin biplane and two twin-engine A18D cabin monoplanes, both of which were operated by Philippine Air Lines. These airplanes had been serving with the airline carrying passengers and cargo on scheduled flights within the main island of Luzon and south to other islands and Mindanao. The FEAF impressed (commandeered) both Beechcrafts and quickly put them to work flying resupply and evacuation missions to the embattled fortresses of Bataan, Corregidor Cebu and Mindanao.
The B17R (registered NPC-28) and the two A18D (registered NPC-54 and NPC-56) carried pilots from Corregidor to Mindanao where they were ordered to Australia to fly Curtiss P-40 fighters back to the Philippines in a last-ditch effort to stem Japanese attacks. The gallant Beechcrafts often flew day and night missions bringing in ammunition, food and medical supplies to Bataan and Corregidor, frequently under heavy enemy gunfire, as the Japanese pushed the Americans and Filipinos southward while devastating the FAEF’s obsolete aircraft on the ground and in the air.
Both NPC-28, NPC-54 and NPC-56 flew sorties almost daily during January and February, often without the benefit of much-needed maintenance and repairs, but the rugged Beechcrafts from Wichita, Kansas, proved to be up to the task. Flown by a ragtag bunch of brave pilots unafraid of the overwhelming odds against them, the B17R and the two A18D were unarmed and had to evade Japanese floatplane fighters as they flew at low altitude using the mountains and jungle terrain to help mask their presence until out over open water.
In addition to these airplanes, the FEAF also impressed about 30-35 other private aircraft including a Bellanca monoplane, a Waco cabin biplane and a Grumman J2F-“Duck” amphibian. Within two months the Bellanca, overloaded with fuel and evacuees, crashed into Manila Bay after takeoff from Corregidor, and the Waco was shot down in flames by enemy floatplane fighters. The fate of the “Duck” remains a mystery to this day.
As for the Beechcrafts, the first to meet its end was the B17R that was flying FEAF pilots south when fighters intercepted it near the coast of Mindanao. The helpless Beechcraft was riddled with bullets and the pilot crash-landed on a beach. The airplane was so badly damaged that it was deemed beyond repair and abandoned. Meanwhile, NPC-54 continued to fly missions until sometime in February when it was destroyed by Japanese bombers on the ground at the main Dutch naval base at Java. The fate of NPC-56 is uncertain.
After putting up a vigorous and heroic fight for nearly six months, in May 1942 the Americans and Filipinos surrendered to the enemy. It would be more than two years before U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur made good on his vow to the Philippine people: “I shall return,” in 1944. By contrast, the three gallant Beechcrafts eventually lost their fight for survival in the skies over Luzon and Mindanao, but they will always be remembered as warriors from Wichita and unsung heroes of the fight to defend the Philippines.