Saturday, March 14, 2009

Revisiting the Balikpapan Raid of 1944

Revisiting the Balikpapan Raid

In November last year I wrote an article about the first bombing raid on the oil refineries at Balikpapan by US forces in 1944. It seems to have been well received, and is still one of the most viewed of my 'Weekend Wings' series.

To my delight, a couple of weeks ago I received an e-mail from Mr. Pete Hobstetter. He wrote:

I just read your blog about the Balikpapan raid. My father, Capt James Hobstetter, led the second group (13th Air Force) on the initial raid against the Pandasari Oil Complex. His diary very closely matches your description of the raid. His group was one of those who lingered over the target until it could be identified. I have attached a photo from his memoirs.

Intrigued, I wrote back, asking if he had any further information about the photograph, as well as about his father's wartime experiences. He replied:

My father is still alive but his vision is bad, and he can't positively identify the picture. I am, however, certain that it is from one of the first two raids against Balikpapan. His name is written on the back of the photo, leaving me to believe that the unit had the photos developed and distributed to the flight crews who participated on those raids.

If you look carefully you can see a complex of oil storage tanks on the right side of the photo, and the amount of flames beneath the smoke indicate that the fuel source is petroleum.

Your blog indicates that the skies over the target cleared significantly. My dad's journal indicates it cleared only over a portion of the target. My assumption is, if they gave dad the picture, it would be from the raid he was on, but it is possible that it was the second raid since the skies seem fairly clear. I don't suspect we will ever know for certain.

I have attached his diary entry for the mission. I will see him next week, and ask him if he has any objections to having it posted to your blog.

Dad arrived at Guadalcanal in April, 1944. He trained for 80 hours before being assigned to to the 370th Squadron., 307 Bomb Group (Heavy), 13th AAF. As the unit moved through the pacific they bombed targets primarily at Rabaul, Biak, Truk, Yap and finally Balikpapan. I know they went on to bomb targets in the Philippines, but his journal ended at Balikpapan so I can give you no details.

After the war he returned to his home in Dayton, Ohio and raised a happy family of six children. I was born in February of 1946, so if the math is right, he returned home sometime in June of 1945.

He and one remaining crew member, Wayne Cooper of Hayward California, are still living.

Mr. Hobstetter asked his father whether I might quote from his diary about his wartime experiences, particularly concerning the Balikpapan raid. His father has graciously given permission for me to do so. Mr. Hobstetter sent me the following extract from his diary, which I reproduce with grateful thanks to both of them. Here's the picture, followed by an unvarnished eye-witness testimony to that historic raid.

First Raid on Pandansari Refinery in Balikpapan, launched 29 September 1944

Sept. 20, 1944

This is it. Balikpapan in Borneo, the largest producer of aviation gasoline the Japs have. We are all going after the Pandansari refinery “the Ploesti of the Pacific”. How we will ever make it and home again I don’t know.

Test runs on fuel consumption have been made and the higher ups say we can and must do it. If we can they say the war will be shortened six months to a year and the Philippines campaign will be much easier. Everyone is excited as hell. War correspondents and reporters are flooding in to witness the mission.

Sept. 27

This is important. The Rank from every place in the Pacific are here. The place is full of Generals. General Kenney is here. Every plane is being carefully tuned and loaded to full capacity, 3550 gal of gasoline – meaning two bombing tanks and both wing tanks. Our ammunition has been cut down to decrease the load. With the interception expected I don’t like it a bit. The planes will weight close to 70,000 lbs. And our runway is only 6,000 ft. long. This alone is bad enough – the worst part is that it will be a night take-off.

I wonder how many boys will die trying to get off the ground.

The Snoopers are laying bets that we lose 10% on take-off. They say we can’t do it. Theoretically they should know because every take-off they make is at night and they never carry anything approaching our load.

Sept. 28

We have had briefings everyday. Everything is being done to boost our morale. We have been told that no matter what our losses are – if we can knock Balikpapan out the cost is worth it. Everyone is to get a medal that makes the flight.

Sept. 29

This is it! Although I’m not certain that I’m very enthusiastic about it. I am to lead our group. We are going over in two waves about 20 minutes apart, so actually I am leading only a section. The 5th group is going, also the 5th Air Force, 90th group. We will not get fighter cover naturally.

The mission is expected to be 16 hours continually over Jap held territory. We are to fly individually to a rendezvous point on the other side of the Celebes.

I’m not sure whether to try to sleep or not. I’m too nervous to make up my mind. Takeoff is at 0100. The thought of that take-off worries the hell out of me. I’ve never taken off with such a load even in the daytime, and I don’t mind admitting I’m scared.

They are placing ducks and all different kinds of boats with lights on in water off the edge of the strip in order to give us some sort of horizon.

It’s a black night but the weather is supposedly pretty good. Our ships are lined up the entire length of the strip. Crowds of people have come down to the line to watch. M.P.s and Jeeps are all over the place.

The first ship from the 5th group is in take-off and everyone is asking one question – Can he make it? I’ve never been so nervous. I hope he makes it. If he can I can. The 5th group leader is a Lt. Colonel flying his last mission. Little does he know now that he is to be shot down over the target. He made it and I breathed a sigh of relief. It looked for a moment as if he would never get off the runway, but he did and I could see his lights very low on the water.

I’m in take-off position and waiting for the light – my throat is very dry. I’m moving down the runway. The engineer is calling off the airspeed. 105 – 110 – 120 –130 – 135. I was almost out of runway when she finally became airborne. I could see the last lights pass below before I went on instrument. We were just mushing through air and very low. I thought the airspeed would never build up to normal climb. I held my altitude to 100 ft. until I got enough airspeed to climb. I hate to think of what would happen if an engine had sneezed once.

I circled and headed out on course while continuing to climb. Immediately I ran into turbulent cumulus clouds based at about 1,000 ft. We were rocked, thrown and jolted until I thought the bomb bay would break in two. My respect for a B-24 increased doubly in that it could stand that turbulence and still carry that load without breaking up.

We finally broke out and the weather cleared up beautifully. At daybreak we hit the Celebes coast. The weather was excellent and everything was running perfectly. I had carefully nursed my fuel, stretching every ounce I could get. My plane was new and the only one equipped with radar for blind bombing.

Our rendezvous on the west coast of Borneo worked perfectly – all ships did an excellent job and we were on course to the target on time. I had a sinking feeling when we reached the Borneo coast. After flying all this distance the weather was socked in below us, and the target obscured. I didn’t quite know what to do.

We proceeded in the general direction of the refinery but I couldn’t see a damn thing. I made a large circle and came back looking for an opening but no luck so, I headed inland again. The other group made an E.T.A. run, dropped their bombs and went home. I contacted our radar man and told him to pick up the target.

Interception had started and I was so busy I didn’t notice it at first. When our guns started to fire I rather stupidly asked Thayne if we were being intercepted. He simply said “what do you think”. I had to laugh. The other group was being heavily intercepted but as yet they had not turned their full attack on us.

Our radar operator was having trouble and the navigator’s radar was completely out. I didn’t know what to do. Every instinct told me that I should drop my bombs on E.T.A. and beat it for home. On the other hand we had flown the longest distance ever attempted by 4 engine bombers in formation, and we were after the most important target in the Pacific.

Had I known we were going to come back to Balikpapan again I probably would have dropped my bombs in the water and left, but at the time I was under the impression that this was to be the only raid – similar to Ploesti. At any rate I turned inland again and contacted the radar operator.

Everyone was getting rather nervous as we were still being intercepted. I know the other pilots must have been cursing me for staying over the target so long. The radar man finally called back that he had picked up the target and I turned back on course. The radar operator was flying his first mission and was excited as hell. I could barely make out what he was saying because he was yelling over the radio, and I couldn’t quiet him down. We got on course however and dropped our bombs on the northern portion of the target (as best we could tell from the radar). Had the navigator’s equipment been in operation I feel certain that we could have smacked it in the center.

Heavy AA barrages were coming up through the clouds, but not too accurate because we weren’t hit. I immediately concentrated on evasive action because the Zeroes were still attacking. I don’t know whether they were low on ammunition or what because they weren’t too eager and did little damage. The 5th group lost three planes and several badly damaged.

The 5th Air Force “Jolly Rogers” didn’t hit the target. They dropped their load on the coast up north, and one squadron turned back without dropping their bombs because they heard us being intercepted. They never hit a target without fighter cover and because they didn’t have it today, they turned back because of the enemy fighters.

I will never forget that long ride home. We had been over the target 40 minutes longer than we were supposed to be, and I sweated and nursed our gasoline like a newborn babe.

After 16 hours of flying we landed at Noemfoor. Crowds lined the runway to welcome the ships back. There was much handshaking but everyone was disappointed because the target was closed in. I was too tired and nervous to sleep so I got drunk and then slept for about a day and a half. I had gone without sleep for almost two days so everything averaged out beautifully.

This was my 36th mission.

Grateful thanks to Mr. Hobstetter Sr. for sharing his memoirs with us, and to his son for taking the time and trouble to forward them to me.

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