The unsung aviator who helped saved Darwin
A genuine American war ace who did his greatest fighting 70 years ago over the skies of Darwin has passed away in California at the age of 95.
Colonel James Morehead played a crucial role in the defence of Australia, and proved with his courage that formations of the feared AM6 Mitsubishi Zeros and long-range bombers of the Imperial Japanese Navy were not invincible.
He ended the war having shot down eight enemy planes, most of them off Darwin, flying in P-40s. These planes, the ones famously painted with shark teeth, were hopelessly outclassed by the faster and in all ways superior Zeros.
For his deeds over northern Australia, Jim Morehead was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, only five months into his war service.
By that stage, he’d already shot down two Nell bombers over Malang, in east Java, and been awarded his first DSC for escorting a C-45 cargo plane carrying high-level US and Dutch brass to Surabaya, through a storm, at water level.
Jim was born in Oklahoma in 1917 and made his way to California, where he trained on P-40s, clunky machines which were notoriously difficult to land. Ten days after Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, he was one of 55 young flyers headed for the Philippines in a ship with 55 P-40s packed in wooden crates.
The ship berthed in Brisbane, where the Americans were put up in the Ascot horse stables and then began assembling the planes at the RAAF’s Amberley base, south of Brisbane. Jim was bound for the Philippines, but the war had quickly changed its course and so did Jim.
General Douglas MacArthur’s forces had been overrun in the Philippines; the British lost Singapore; Burma and most of the Dutch East Indies had fallen; and Darwin was bombed on February 19, 1942.
By early April, the Bataan Death March had begun. Jim was in a ragtag bunch of American pilots who made it out of Java to Darwin, which was by then being bombed on an almost daily basis.
Morale was not to be found. Australia expected a land invasion. Not only was the whole region falling to Japan, the American and Australian pilots knew that going up to do battle against the Zeros in a P-40 was a death sentence.
“He said the Japanese used to do aerobatics over Darwin and dare the pilots to come up,” said Leon DeLisle, a military historian and longtime friend of Jim’s, who made time to talk as he helped organised Jim’s funeral for Friday in Petaluma, California.
“They knew they would be shot down. He said every time you pulled your canopy down, you were pulling your coffin over you. It was devastating what they did.”
Not only was the Zero superior, the Japanese pilots were much more experienced, having been fighting for 10 years back into Manchuria and China.
On April 25, 1942, Lieutenant Morehead led a group of eight pilots in their P-40s in a battle that changed Allied perceptions of Japan as an unbeatable aerial force. Around noon, they scrambled over Darwin after getting the alert that the Japanese were incoming.
“We were finally airborne and climbing hard,” Jim wrote in his book, “In His Sights”. The metal throttle handle was so hot it would blister the hand; the pilots avoided touching it by tapping it backward and forward.
The leader of 8th Squadron was a Captain Sims, who had never been in aerial combat. They were off the northern tip of Bathurst Island, about 100km off Darwin, when Jim saw a large number of enemy planes in close formation.
“At first I said nothing while I struggled with my over-speeding heart,” he wrote. “I wanted to sound calm and confident and in control when I spoke into the mike to warn Captain Sims of their presence.”
The planes looked to be large bombers, which meant the deadly Zeros were nearby, serving as escort. The P-40s could not fly as high as the Japanese but the formation was coming in low for the Darwin bombing run, which suited Jim. He sought permission to lead the attack and was given the job.
With no Zeros in sight, he began a shallow dive in front of the bombers, and observed that it was a kind of plane he had never seen before.
“They looked huge,” he wrote. “We later learned they were their new Bettys, the heaviest bombers the Japanese built during the war.
“I resented their arrogance and with the thought of raising the confidence of my troops, I did a slow roll in front of the enemy formation.”
He lined up the leading bombers and poured bullets from his six guns into the formation of shiny new planes. “To my ultimate joy, the lead bomber began smoking as I held the trigger down, ripping into the packed formation.”
Taking a hard turn, he briefly blacked out, then swooped back down – delighted to see one of his comrades sawing the wing off another Betty with machine gun fire, which in turn crashed into another Betty.
The Zeros appeared.
Jim kept at another Betty, raking it with bullets until it started smoking and a sluice of oil from its right engine covered his windshield. He was having trouble seeing out of his windshield and after briefly engaging a Zero he decided to turn for home, where he crash-landed his bullet-riddled P-40 on the airstrip.
It is not clear from his own book whether he took out a Zero or a third bomber (most accounts say it was a Zero) in this battle, but his “victory” count for the day was three enemy planes. With five victories now under his belt, he officially became an ace.
The attack he led gave the most gratifying results of the aerial war over the Pacific to that date: between them, they shot down eight bombers and three Zeros. “It demonstrated that the awe was not so awesome – that they could be defeated even by a bunch of gringo greenhorns,” he wrote.
Intelligence officers were sent to Darwin to interview Jim about the new bombers they had shot down.
The victories of the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway, which would be crucial turning points in the war, were still some weeks away. The destruction of 11 Japanese planes without loss to American life was big news.
“Numerous newspapermen came to interview us, as this was something new on the battlefront,” Jim wrote. “Headlines in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York carried the story of this victory over the Japanese.”
The air battle off Darwin didn’t change the war, but it was a spark.
Jim Morehead began hunting Japanese off Darwin. On August 23, 1942, he was flying with two others when they saw three Zeros below them. One of Jim’s team claimed his engine was running rough, and pulled out, leaving Jim and his buddy outnumbered.
The two dived at the three Zeros, Jim waiting to get close enough so he could clearly see the red circle on the wing. “I held the trigger down until I saw the plane was shattered,” he wrote. He swung his guns on the second plane and fired. His comrade took the third.
He received the Silver Star for this expedition. He missed out claiming a kill on another solo mission when he shot down another Zero because there were no witnesses.
It was such a matter of pride to him to claim Japanese scalps that he seriously contemplated trying to catch the Zero’s empty parachute with his wingtip as it floated towards the sea, in order to provide proof of the kill. But they were fitted with heavy metal buckles that could mangle an engine. He thought better of it.
Jim said most of his buddies considered Darwin a hellhole, but he’d grown up in the wilds of Oklahoma and loved hunting and fishing. “With the .22 rifle I would bag geese, ducks, bustards, a delicious turkey-like bird, young pigs and cranes,” he wrote.
With his mates, and bigger guns, they’d go for buffalo and big pigs, and his hunting trips became a source of anticipation for the others. “Meals were poor until I would go hunting or fishing,” he wrote.
Jim appears to have been the leading North Australian ace. He was returned to the US at the end of 1942 to prepare for Europe, where he took down an ME109 - a German Messerschmitt - over Romania.
Last year, on his 95th birthday, he was given a surprise by his friends. “We took him to an airport in the (San Francisco) Bay area where a man had a fully restored P-40, with dual controls,” his friend Leon told me. They flew over the old Hamilton base, where he’d done his early training, and out over the bay.
“Here he was doing it again on his 95th birthday,” said Leon.
What Jim and his band did for Darwin, and the war, was significant.
“They bought time,” said Leon. “With that time came more support and logistics. It was a tenuous time. Everyone was focused on Europe, while the Japanese had taken Borneo, Singapore, Java, the west Pacific.
“That group out of Darwin held the line and the complexion of the war in the Pacific changed. Our forces got stronger. He’s definitely the last of anyone who was an ace or pilot in those very early dark days of WWII. Jim’s gotta be it.”
They gave Japan cause for doubt, even though these P-40 pilots doubted their own survival. Leon says there is a photo of Jim in his plane, taken at an airfield near Darwin, where you can “see death in his eyes”.
Such was the expectation.
Colonel James Morehead, who was inducted into the Combat Airmen Hall of Fame, will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery outside of Washington DC. He leaves two daughters.
Military historian Leon DeLisle said he planned to speak to the family about getting some of Jim Morehead’s “artifacts” into the excellent Australian War Memorial in Canberra, to better tell his story. Mr de Lisle will be watching The Punch and is happy to weigh in with any comments or questions that might arise.
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