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The Bombing of Balikpapan: August 13-18, 1943

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Fold3 Image - Bombing of Balikpapan
In the early morning hours of August 13, 1943, twelve US B-24 Liberators from the 380th Bombardment Group (also known as the Flying Circus), began a low approach over the harbor of Balikpapan, Borneo. They were about to break records for the longest bombing run in history. Their 17-hour non-stop flight would take the Japanese completely by surprise and result in destruction in Balikpapan.

Intelligence had suggested that Balikpapan refineries were producing half of Japan’s WWII aviation fuel.

Under the command of Lt. Col. William A. Miller, a risky plan was conceived for a bombing run to Balikpapan. Pilots would need to cover 2600 miles – roughly the distance between Los Angeles and New York City.

The planes and crews were readied at the Royal Australian Air Force Base Darwin in Northern Australia. Each plane was loaded with six 500-pound bombs, 3500 gallons of fuel, and weighed nearly 66,000 pounds.

The runway at Darwin was especially short and ground crews watched nervously as the planes, including one piloted by Lt. Col. Miller, took off. They cleared the tree line by just inches.

Approaching the harbor, the first plane dropped its load without encountering any resistance. A massive explosion ensued. The next 11 planes encountered flak but managed to successfully drop their bombs on refineries and ships. The harbor exploded into a ball of flame. Burning oil ran down the hillsides. Lt. Col. Miller found the heat so intense that he was forced to drop his load from 7,000 feet.

After the successful run came the challenge of returning to Darwin. The planes headed back to Australia but as they crossed over a Japanese base on Timor, a B-24 piloted by Capt. Doug Craig was engaged by enemy fighters. Craig was forced to take evasive maneuvers all the way back to the coast of Australia. He was short on gas and 100-miles off course when he touched down on a stretch of sand.

Fold3 Image - Curious Australian Aborigines at the site of Capt. Doug Craig's crash landing
The exhausted crew rolled to a stop. As they deplaned they found themselves surrounded by a large group of Aborigines. Craig tried to communicate using exaggerated sign language but was surprised when the Aboriginal leader asked him, “What are you trying to say?” The Aborigines protected the crew until a rescue party arrived.

Days later, the 380th participated in a risky daylight flight to Balikpapan to assess the damage. Another Liberator performed a high elevation photo run of the harbor before dropping his load. The element of surprise was gone, and the Japanese scrambled to engage the B-24. Though riddled with bullets and running on fumes, the plane successfully returned to Darwin. Photos revealed more ships in the harbor and a third bombing run was planned for August 18th. The Liberators successfully bombed the harbor again. They were under heavy attack that resulted in bullet-riddled planes and wounds, but managed to return to Australia. The Flying Circus received a Distinguished Unit Citation. Search our records for the 380th Bombardment Group and others like it on Fold3.com!

49 Comments

  1. Great story. Had not heard of this effort before. Brave Americans for certain. The aborigines portion points up never assume!

  2. I am looking for any photos of VMF 113 (1944 thru 1945). Specifically leading up to and including the battle of Okinawa.

    Also, any other air groups that may have photos of them included.

    Any assistance on where to find these photos is very much appreciated. Thank you.

  3. My father, SSgt Houston S Burkhart, was a tail gunner in the 528th squadron of the 380th and flew on the second of the three Balikpapan missions. The 380th is one of only a handful of unit histories posted on Fold3.
    .
    The 380th Bombardment Group (Heavy) was activated on 3 November 1942 at Davis-Monthan Field, Tucson, Arizona. This year, Nov 1-4, 2018, the 380th Bomb Group Association will meet in Tucson for the “The Final Last Hurrah!” of the World War II veterans of the 380th, their families, and their friends. The 380th has built and maintained an incredible website filled with information on the men, planes, and missions, http://380th.org/.

    • I am flying from Melbourne to Balikpapan today for ten days annual leave. Having previously been in Navy Reserves (and currently with an RSL), the first place I want to go to is the War Memorial dedicated to the Aussies who fought over there.

    • Sandi,
      There are still some relics in the area. I lived in BPN for 4 years back in the 90’s. Last visit was 2015.
      Large caliber AA guns up behind the refinery complex near the old Dutch military barracks.
      AA guns in front of City Hall.
      Concrete bunk near the entrance to Balikpapan Bay.
      Concrete bunkers/bomb/ammo storage up the coast at Manggar. Also when you cross the bridge st Manggar you can see remnants of the original bridge on both sides of river. Destroyed in 45.
      If “Jack’s Place” is still there, there were a lot of photos. Also “Jack” if still alive knows where lots of other sites may be. Just up the coast from Sepinggan Airport.
      The taxi way on terminal side is the old runway built by the Japanese in 43/44 At Sepinggan. Pre war, the airport was at Manggar.
      Australians did a great job at Balikpapan.
      Lot’s of pre war Dutch housing in and around Balikpapan as well.
      Safe travels,
      Cliff

  4. The story kind of glosses over the fact that this first mission to Balikpapan was at night with each aircraft basically flying independently the entire 2600 mile route. There were no navigation aids and there were two significant weather fronts required to fly through. It was like 12 individual missions to the same target at the same time. No formation flying as they did not have the fuel to do it. Besides, they were over Balikpapan around midnight.
    I am amazed at the navigation skills of the navigators. Any error on this middle of nowhere mission would have resulted in the loss of the plane and crew. Talk about a high stress flight. And all 12 navigators were successful in returning to Australia.
    I talked with Doug Craig in 1998 about his return flight. Morning was breaking as he and his crew discovered they were right over a fighter base on Timor. He was low on fuel and both his tail and top turrets were not functioning. He maneuvered the plane to fend off attacks and finally escaped into clouds. He said they were fortunate as the Japanese had not been aggressive. He put down on the dry lack bed in Australia as they were lost and out of fuel. The nose wheel collapsed and they slid nose down to a stop. His wife visited the dry lake in 2012/13 as the Australians were found a documentary of this mission for TV. The wheel and skid marks of “Shady Lady” are still visible on the lake bed.
    A tough mission flown by brave and dedicated crews. Follow missions in 43 and again in 44 were some of the toughest and deadliest flown by B-24’s in the SW Pacific.

    • Cliff, Good to know you are still turning to the right. You get a ton of credit for doing on-the-ground research about those events during your time in Balikpapan. I recall seeing artifacts and relics of the war both in camp and in town during my work there, but never put it all together. I have a broad interest in the Pacific theater as my Dad was a B-29 pilot with the 444th BG based on Tinian the last year of the war. He never talked much about it, but we were able to connect bits and pieces of his experiences when my uncles would visit (both aviators in Europe/North Africa). There is an interesting story about a pre-dawn briefing on Tinian one morning in early August. Also, I recall a discussion with the manager of the helicopter service at Sepinggan. A Dutchman by birth, he was born in a Japanese concentration camp somewhere in Kalimantan. He told us that his mother “missed the boat” as the Dutch were evacuating in the face of the Japanese invasion. Thanks for sharing. Greg McF

    • Thank you for adding this information very interesting

  5. Thanks for the additional information. It really puts into perspective the obstacles these brave men overcame.

  6. My father-in-law was part of the 98th and flew B-24 Liberators. He flew over Normandy and was behind enemy lines at one time. Thankfully he made it back home just fine. The first part of the war he was a flight instructor before becoming a pilot and flying bombers.

  7. My late uncle Ipe Klaus de Vries worked for Shell Oil and was in charge of the operation at Balikpapan until the Japanese invasion. He told me that prior to the arrival of the Japanese forces they dropped leaflets telling them not to damage any of the wells or equipment. He and his staff immediately destroyed many of the wells. There was a ship in the harbor that they scuttled. Ne and my Aunt to off for Jakarta by car, but were captured. They spent the rest of the war in separate camps.They survied the camps after the war and returned to the Netherlands. Of the 900 Shell employees captured 300 survived to return home.

    • Thank you for sharing this info about your uncle and Shell. My dad was an 18 year old Marine who fought in the 2nd battle of Guam and then in Iwo Jima. He returned to West Texas in March 1944 where he and my mother married on the 8th (engaged prior to him leaving for war). On June 1 he went to work for Shell Oil and worked for the next 40 years.

      I, too, had a career with Shell in the pipeline area. I’m always interested in people with something to say about Shell. Thank you for sharing and as always, I thank all soldiers who served, or who are serving. I am so grateful to live in the U.S. My country is not perfect, but it is still GREAT.

    • Cynthia, that kinda doesn’t add up. If your dad returned, got married and started working at Shell in 1944, he couldn’t have been at Iwo Jima.
      Also I had a dad and four uncles involved in various theaters, Army, Navy, and Army Air Corps and none was ever allowed to be discharged til the war was over. My dad had an infant son die while in North Africa and couldn’t get leave to come home for the funeral.
      Only if your dad was wounded seriously, and still Iwo didn’t happen til Feb. ’45.
      Perhaps you have the wrong dates/years in mind.

  8. Thank you so much for sharing all these personal stories. The personal stories of your family members are amazing. And thank you for sharing the links. I love it when Fold 3 features these stories, there is so much to learn.

  9. A couple of related notes:
    Doug Craig of the 380th Bomb Group told me on his flight from Honolulu to Darwin, his B-24 was one of the last to arrive in Brisbane in 42. Getting ready for his trans Australia flight, he ventured over to the operations shack to get flight information and a map. He was given a Shell roadmap of Australia and told to fly due west. When he saw “the” road running to the north, just fly along it. “Your base will be on the left.”
    Regarding the Shell refineries at Balikpapan, they were state of the art and literally in the middle of nowhere. They still exist today.
    The Dutch did a very good job of damaging facilities. The Japanese had spied for years and knew exactly what facilities and wells existed. The Dutch were told to keep all intact, but didn’t. The invasion commander of the Japanese inflicted a steep price for not following his orders. 68 foreign prisoners we taken down to the beach at the mouth of Balikpapan Bay and executed just a few days after the Japanese conquest in January 42. For Robert’s grandparents to have escaped this, is a miracle. They had to have been headed overland south to Bangermiasan (sp), the only escape route to Java. Most never got away. Captured and interned or executed.
    I don’t think the Japanese ever got production back up to pre-war levels at the refineries. But they did take a huge amount of product out of Balikpapan for their war effort.
    It seems that most of the avgas left Balikpapan in drums and empty drums were returned for reuse. Makes sense for all Japanese frontline airfields. And any ship the Japanese had in service could haul drums.
    It is no wonder that the Allies wanted to destroy the refineries!

    • A Shell road map is just plane funny in a harsh non-funny war! Had to laugh at that one!

    • I thought Craig’s story was hilarious and he said it was “now”. As a kid responsible for a crew and a $200,000 airplane, he was a little concerned about flying completely across the continent of Australia, intercept a road that ran basically north/south, turn and follow the road north, and look for his base south of Darwin and to the left of the road. He said they climbed in the plane, started up, and did exactly that.

  10. Wow what great stories of amazing bravery! Lest we forget

  11. There is a movie! http://380th.org/ShadyLady.html

  12. Hello all. I am having trouble finding information about my father’s group/unit that is listed on his veteran grave marker. The lineage moved around a lot. Unfortunately, his AAF records were destroyed in the St Louis archive fire. All I know is he went in as a private and out as a Staff Sergeant. He already had his pilot’a license when he was 16. He was a flying sergeant as far as we know and was in between 42-43, probably served in Pacific from family stories. All the elders who might know are gone, as well as my Mom. They got married in 1944 after he was out, and had me 18 years later, so I am a generation younger than most with a parent who served in WWII.

    The notation on the marker is:
    91 B HQ & AB SQ AAF

    Which would be 91st Bomber/Bombardment Headquarters and Air Bombardment Squadron. Units changed and moved a lot.

    I was able to pull up the lineage once and a really great surprise is that my first assignment in the Air Force at Cannon AFB, NM, with the 524th Hounds of Heaven, F-111 squadron, was in the lineage of the 91st. So my Dad n I served in same group!

    Thanks for any pointers regarding the
    91 B HQ & AB SQ

    • What was his name? Do you have a copy of his headstone paperwork?

    • This:

      “Which would be 91st Bomber/Bombardment Headquarters and Air Bombardment Squadron. Units changed and moved a lot.”

      …is very non-standard interpretation of the information you have.
      And AAF didn’t trust their H’s (heavy) bombers to sergeants. The 91 BG H for instance was comprised of B-17s (crew of 2-3 officers and 5-7 enlisted) and flew from England on European targets.

      Name of your father is key to finding him.

  13. My late father-in-law was a Liberator pilot in WWII. I am uncertain whether he flew our of North Africa or England. The one photo we have of his plane and crew has what appears to be a desert back drop, so I am thinking it was probably North Africa. I am always interested in WWII exploits, what with one uncle(casualty) buried in the US Cemetery in Manila and numerous other family warriors who served in WWII.

  14. There is a place to get a bunch of stuff on B-24.
    Go here: http://www.b24bestweb.com/

  15. Correction to the story: It was actually Maurice “Slim” Powers, not Doug Craig (Powers was one of Craig’s waist gunners), who first approached the Aborigines and tried to talk to them using the only native word he knew (for “friend”). The Aborigine replied in perfect English, saying “Good Morning, how are you” surprising them all.

    To learn more about the Shady Lady story, go to http://380th.org/ShadyLady.html

  16. My father was on an LCI (1072) and participated in the invasion of Balikpapan July 1, 1945. He referenced having Aussie troops onboard. I’m glad these flyboys softened the target beforehand.

  17. Later in the war, my brother-in-law, Lt Edward B. Mills Jr, and his crew bombed Balikpapan and the area, using Radar enhanced bombsights. They flew from Morotai Island. They were members of the 868th Bomb Squadron (H), also flying B-24s in small groups or even a single plane. They were later KIA over Korea, the last week of the war. The only Americans KIA in Korea in WW II.

  18. My Indonesian mother in law was on the banks overlooking the Balikpapan oil refineries as they were being bombed. She took us there and told us the story in 1981. She is still alive and in her 90’s, living in a rest home in Holland.

  19. In October of ’44 P-47’s of the 35th Fighter Group in Papua New Guinea escorted Liberators to Balikpapan in the longest fighter mission ever flown to that point in the theatre. They were outfitted with extra fuel tanks for the 8 1/2 hour mission covering 835 miles. To ensure they had enough fuel to make it back to base they had only 10 minutes for combat upon arrival to clear the target of enemy fighters for the B-24’s. My father Capt. Darrel J. Laird, an element leader with the 40th Fighter Squadron scored his first victory during this mission. A little known fact about preparation for this mission is that Charles Lindbergh was brought in to brief my Dad and the other pilots in the squadron on long distance flying techniques for conserving and maximizing fuel.

    • I note from several sources that a one-way flight from Papua to Balikpapan is between 1200-1400 miles. Your 835, even x2 (roundtrip) would suggest the Jugs were flying at under 200 knots.

    • James, I’m getting more confused, as the original article stated the Liberators flew from Darwin AU. It would be hard to coordinate that ten minute window of ‘contact time’ with fighters having flown 8.5 hours from New Guinea.
      Harder still to ‘escort’ them when they’re flying in from different directions.
      Not doubting your or anyones’ account, just trying to work out the logistics.
      In any event, it was an incredible mission.

    • Balikpapan was first bombed in 43 by B-24’s of the 380 BG flying out of Darwin. Missions flown were to arrive at night over the target area. All planes flew independently to save fuel.
      Fast forward to 1944. Balikpapan is bombed on 4 separate days; Sept 30 and Oct 3, 10, and 14. All B-24s from a number of bomb groups (5th, 22nd, 43rd, 90th, 307th all participated to some extent in these missions) flew out of Biak Island, just west of New Guinea. It was about the same distance as flying from Darwin. These missions were designed to be over the target at noon, so early morning take offs and evening returns. Bombers idled forward single file saving fuel to a staging point on a map on the west coast of present day Suluwasi. At the point they orbited and formed up into combat boxes for the bomb run to Balikpapan. First two missions were flown without fighter escort. B-24s took heavy losses and damage but hit the refineries. Missions of the 10th and 14th did get fighters due to the capture of an airfield on the southern tip of Morotai Island. Being so much closer, plus the brand new addition of 310 gal drop tanks gave the fighters a chance. Timing was everything as the fighter also idled to Balikpapan with timing planned to intercept the bombers just before they reached Balikpapan. They truly did only have enough fuel reserve to give 10 minutes of combat.
      Only the best fighter pilots were selected for these mission because of the distance. Charles Lindbergh had taught fuel conservation earlier, which indeed allowed these fighters to make the distance and return.
      The Navy had staged lifeguard subs off of Balipapan and PBY rescue planes were staged along the route along Sulawesi. Balikpapan was deep inside Japanese territory and extremely dangerous to rescue downed crews. We lost of a dozen B-24s in 44 over Balikpapan. Only 16 men were rescued by the subs. I have only found one reference to 1 (one) gunner shot down over Balikpapan ever returning home. I do believe any who survived the shoot down were executed.
      Flak over Balikpapan was heavy and accurate, Japanese fighters engaged the bombers from 30 minutes out, through their own flak on the bomb run and followed them for 30 more minutes. Very intense. And our bombers had to cut the .50 cal ammo load in half because of the weight.
      Hope this clears up some about combat over Balikpapan.

    • Thanks Cliff for the elaboration and clarification.
      A tough target, as was Ploesti on the other side of the world.

    • randy b: The 380th didn’t just stay in Darwin. As the jap forces were destroyed in their ability to hit us, the 380th moved up to other locations through the South Pacific. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/380th_Expeditionary_Operations_Group#World_War_II

    • Spencer; If they were transiting to a different airport for takeoff, they wouldn’t have been fully loaded as stated in the original article.
      I know they moved around. During WWII all units moved around…

      “The planes and crews were readied at the Royal Australian Air Force Base Darwin in Northern Australia. Each plane was loaded with six 500-pound bombs, 3500 gallons of fuel, and weighed nearly 66,000 pounds.
      The runway at Darwin was especially short and ground crews watched nervously as the planes, including one piloted by Lt. Col. Miller, took off. They cleared the tree line by just inches.
      Approaching the harbor, the first plane dropped its load without encountering any resistance.”

    • randy b: The first bombing run on Balikpapan was from the bases in Northern Australia but had no escorting fighters. I think that our confusion is the later bombing runs to Balikpapan that did have escorts.

  20. I am trying to search your blog for any post on the Battle of the Bulge, Patton, Dachau for my blog https://stcharlescountyveteransmuseum.com/ and am hoping you can help. There is no search bar.

  21. My father was awarded the DFC for the Oct ’44 mission to Balikpapan. To conserve fuel they flew most of the flight “on the deck” and at slower speed than normal and then climbed to altitude just before arrival. The DFC citation reads: “For extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight to Balikpapan, Borneo on 14 October 1944. This officer was a pilot in a formation of P-47 type aircraft which provided cover for a bombing strike to this heavily defended enemy base. The extreme distance necessitated the use of three external fuel tanks, which made the take-off from an incompleted metal strip double hazardous. Arriving over the target area ahead of the bombers, Lieutenant Laird contacted a number of enemy fighters which he promptly attacked. As one of them was maneuvering in front of him he dived at the hostile aircraft and opened fire, whereupon it burst into flames and crashed. At this point Lieutenant Laird’s engine began to misfire, and oil poured over the canopy. Two enemy planes approached for an attack, but he was able to elude them and make a successful crash landing on the beach, where he was picked up immediately by a rescue craft. The outstanding courage and devotion to duty displayed by Lieutenant Laird on this long and difficult mission are worthy of the highest commendation.” What the citation doesn’t say is that when his aircraft came to a stop on the beach it swung around to face a boardwalk and a very surprised Japanese soldier holding a rifle. The soldier stared at my Dad who had his finger on the button for the P-47 machine guns pointed back at the soldier. The soldier jumped off the boardwalk and began running down the beach presumably for reinforcements and my Dad threw back the oil soaked canopy, jumped off the wing and ran down the beach in the opposite direction. He said it sounded like the whole Japanese army was opening up behind him so he started firing his 45 sidearm over his shoulder at the soldier as he ran. It turned out that another pilot had followed him down and was strafing his P-47 so it couldn’t be used by the enemy. The same pilot called in the PBY rescue craft but they had to stay outside the coral reef and my Dad had to swim out to them to be rescued. His Mae West only half inflated and kept turning him face down in the water. He wasn’t a good swimmer and thought he was going to drown on the way out. The PBY finally inflated a raft and came and got him after he made it part way and climbed up onto a shallow portion of the coral.

  22. For Randy B.
    My figure of 835 comes from a passage that Major John R. Young Operations Officer 35th Fighter Group wrote about this mission. He states “This particular target was 835 statute miles from our nearest base.” This comes from an account he wrote in Twelve To One, Fighter Combat Tactics in the SWPA, V Fighter Command, dated 1 August 1945. I’m not sure where this “nearest base” is that he is referencing so it’s possible that they had moved closer to the target temporarily for this mission. That seems to be borne out by the reference to the “incompleted metal strip” in my Dad’s DFC citation that they took off from.

  23. My heart fills with such anxious joy when I read your article. What History we have lived and what extrordinariy brave men we still have.

  24. My Dad was in the 30th thBomber Group.405th Squadron His station was on Borneo/New Guinea. During WWII.

  25. The 5th Bomb Group (H) received it’s first Presidential Unit Citation on this operation.
    Members of the 5th Bomb Wing (H) at Minot N.D. still wear this citation.
    I was told that their 24’s carried half bomb loads, the other half of the bomb bay was fitted with an auxiliary fuel tank. This was also done at Ploesti.

  26. Thanks to all for the amazing missions. Can’t imagine the sress involved. Sad that young people today don’t know or care about things such as this, I, however, stand in awe of our heroes. I was five when the war began.

    • A good friend, Al Busedu, who was tail gunner in “Queen of the Strip” 5th AAF 380th BG 529th BS told me that there was a “Bird Colonel” in the 380th who was only 24. Heck Al was 17 when he was shooting from the tail position of that B-24! You run that up the flag pole and kids that age today wouldn’t salute… they would run like hell!

  27. I am 70-years old and have long collected WWII Militaria with a focus on USAAF items. In the early days of eBay I purchased a piece of “nose-art” from a lady that was liquidating a hanger in central California and the piece turned out to be a painting of the 380th Bomb Groups logo on a roughly 30×30 piece of aircraft aluminum. It includes the words: “King of the Heavies”, The Flying Circus, Fenton, Australia, 1943. An airflow pattern is present on the back of the piece along with the painted number 5 followed by two worn away numbers that one just can’t make out, but I think they could be 528. This was long before the internet and one could not even find Fenton, Australia on a map.

    Over the years I have worked with Barbara Gotham of the 380th Association but have never been able to determine whether the piece hung in a headquarters building or group club. Working with the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum I was however able to determine that the piece came from an under panel of a P-51 Mustang. While there is no record of a P-51 having crashed at Fenton, I did run across a story of a gentleman collecting pieces of a P-51 in the Fenton bone-yard. I was also advised that a P-51 crash in Australia in 1943 would most likely not be recorded because it’s presence there would have been highly classified at the time.

    In any case, I would gladly post pictures of this piece on the 3-Fold 380th site if someone can provide instructions for same.

  28. my father John Lavoie was with VPB 109 Crew 3 and Lt Chay along with another crew piloted by Lt Hicks bombed Balikpapan on 4/28/45 with BAT radar guided bombs which were experimental at the time. They were aiming at a large transport ship in the harbor. Hicks first BAT missed and sunk an 800 ton freighter a mile short of the target. Chay’s first BAT bomb took out a 100 ton “picket boat” and the second dropped from aprox 10000 ft and 7 miles away took a 45 degree turn and locked on the Pandanseri oil refinery and hit a large oil storage tank 3 miles short of the transport ship target. They were flying ~ 10 hours round trip from Palawan. These details are from Alan C Carey’s book The Reluctant Raiders (the story of USN bombing squad VB and VPB-109 in WWII), and my dads flight log.

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