VI BOMBER COMMAND
IN DEFENSE OF THE PANAMA CANAL
1941 - 45
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VI BOMBER COMMAND IN DEFENSE OF THE PANAMA CANAL, 1941-45
Air Force History Program
The information contained in this chronology of bombardment aviation in the Caribbean Area during World War II was acquired from historical documents in the unit history Collection of The Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. The major portion of the Collection consists of unit histories that the various Air Force organizations have prepared and submitted periodically since the establishment of the Air Force History Program in 1942. Reporting requirements changed from time to time over the years, and the submissions vary in quality. Most of the unit histories which served as sources of information for this report do not document unit activities which occurred after 1945. Taken as a whole, however, the unit histories, with their supporting documents, provide remarkably complete coverage of Air Force activities.
Coverage and Organization of Historical Report
This historical report, consisting of two major subdivisions or Parts. Part One- The Historical Development of the VI Bomber Command, describes the early history of the air units in the military organization for defense of the Panama Canal, the expansion of bombardment aviation in the Caribbean area, and the organizational and administrative changes that brought about the VI Bomber Command during World War II. Part One provides the important historical context within which the events described in Part Two can be better understood by the reader. Part Two - Unit Histories, provides a month-by-month, narrative account of the major activities and operations of the 6th, 9th, 25th, and 40th Bombardment Groups and their organic tactical components that were assigned to the VI Bomber Command at the height of the expansion of bombardment aviation in the Caribbean. These tactical units were frequently moved between bombardment groups to suit the immediate needs of the missions and changes in patrol plans. This historical report lists the units with the bombardment groups to which they were assigned at the time the parent organization was either inactivated or returned to the United States for redeployment to another theater of operation.
Tactical Employment of Bombardment Units
The major tactical employment of the VI Bomber Command's bombardment squadrons, from the beginning of hostilities in December 1941, until late 1943 when the Navy took over the patrol missions, was flying aerial reconnaissance of assigned sectors of the Pacific and Atlantic approaches to the Panama Canal to protect against possible enemy attack. After being relieved from these patrolling operations, to be held in reserve as a striking force, the tactical units reverted to a 100% training schedule. The squadrons continued the training activities, except for several periods when it became necessary to relieve the Navy in flying patrols when the Navy's patrol bombers were ordered to the Caribbean to perform anti-submarine operations. In addition to their tactical operations, the squadrons participated in Joint Command Post exercises, called "minor joint exercises," to test and evaluate crew proficiency. These exercises usually involved a friendly carrier approaching the Canal from the West Coast of the United States. The job of the VI Bomber Command bombardment aircraft in these exercises was to intercept the vessel as it passed through the Pacific patrol screen and to send a striking force against it. Mock attack run on the locks and spillways of the Panama Canal was another type of minor joint exercise conducted by the Bomber Command that gave its bombardment squadrons excellent practice, while at the same time tested the defenses of the Canal. The Bomber Command also was frequently called upon to make searches for aircraft down at sea, for ships lost, overdue, or in distress. These searches, during which vast areas of water were combed again and again, constituted some of the Command's most arduous service. Carried out with a high degree of success, these searches were frequently dangerous.
The Historical Development of the VI Bomber Command
The 7th Aero Squadron, nucleus of what was to become the VI Bomber Command, arrived in the Panama Canal in March 1917. The 7th was stationed at Corozal, Canal Zone, for a while, and for a time at Fort Sherman at the Atlantic entrance to the Canal, where the parade ground was enlarged and used as a landing field. In March 1918, the 7th Aero finally moved to Old France Field, a location then known officially as "Coco Walk," but popularly as "Camp Misery." It seemed that it was a bit muddy!
The Squadron did not accomplish much flying in 1917 - the energies of its personnel were consumed in endeavors to establish themselves, to provide barracks, and to assemble their Curtiss and DeHaviland airplanes.
It was generally understood at the time that the only thing Panama had more of than jungle was water; consequently, a large percentage of the planes were equipped with floats. So important a role was planned for the hydroplanes that "Camp Misery" was constructed with the hangars and buildings on three sides of a small, dredged-out bay, so that both land and seaplanes could be operated from the same hangar facilities. The pilots of the 7th Aero had to be versatile, for it was expected that they be able to operate both types of aircraft - land or sea.
Suchwere the operations of the 7th Aero Squadron, the beginnings of military aviation in Panama. The scale was small, but a start had been made. How much was learned was difficult to judge 24 years later when World War II began. But one lesson was recorded by Lt. Charles B. Austin, Air Service, historian of the 7th Aero, when he declared, "The Tropics are hard on the Pilots, but harder on the flying machines."
As the conception of the role of air power in defending the Panama Canal changed through the decades of the twenties and thirties, as aviation itself developed and aircraft became specialized, the place of the air units in the military organization for defense of the Canal changed apace.
In 1940, the 19th Wing, Air Corps, was the highest air headquarters in the Panama Canal Department, and under its control were all types of aircraft - pursuit and bombardment, observation and Reconnaissance. On November 20, 1940, however, bombardment and pursuit aviation came into their own with the organization of the Panama Canal Department Air Force.
Headquarters and Headquarters Section, Panama Canal Department Air Force was activated, with station at Albrook Field, Canal Zone. Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron, 12th Pursuit Wing, was also activated, while the old Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron, 19th Wing, became the Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron, 19th Bombardment Wing. Shortly after the organization of the 19th Bombardment Wing, Brigadier General Douglas B, Netherwood, former commander of the 19th Wing and of the Panama Canal Department Air Force during its first few days, assumed command, while Major General Frank M. Andrews became commander of the newly formed air force.
At its activation, the 19th Bombardment Wing consisted of two groups - the 6th Bombardment Group (Medium), and the 9th Bombardment Group (Heavy). Two medium range reconnaissance squadrons, the 7th and the 44th supplemented these groups. A few weeks after the activation of the 19th Bombardment Wing, the 6th Bombardment Group (Medium) was designated as a heavy group, and the 7th and 44th reconnaissance squadrons (Medium Range) became "heavy" reconnaissance squadrons.
In the spring of 1941, it was decided that air power in the Caribbean should be given a unified control. Accordingly, the Caribbean Air Force was constituted, an air force composed of the air forces of the Panama Canal Department, the Puerto Rican Department, and the Trinidad Base Command, headed by Major General Andrews. The 19th Bombardment Wing continued under this reorganization. On August 4, 1941, Brigadier General Edwin B. Lyon, then stationed at Moffett Field, California, arrived in Panama and assumed command of the 19th Bombardment Wing.
General Lyon had arrived in time to preside over the expansion of bombardment aviation in the Caribbean area, for on October 25, 1941, the Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron of the 19th Bombardment Wing was inactivated, and all personnel and equipment became the Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron, VI Bomber Command. The VI Bomber Command's main strength at the time of its activation centered on three heavy and one medium bombardment groups. These groups included not only the 6th Bombardment Group (Heavy) in Panama, but the 9th Bombardment Group (Heavy) in Trinidad, and the 25th Bombardment Group (Heavy) and the 40th Bombardment Group (Medium) in Puerto Rico, as well. The 59th Bombardment Squadron (Light), an independent Squadron attached to the 6th Bombardment Group, with its 12 A-20's was based at Rio Hato.
The total personnel complement of the VI Bomber Command on December 7, 1941, was 1,183 officers and enlisted men, and its assigned aircraft included 25 B-18's, 2 B-17's, and one other aircraft. These numbers were scarcely proportionate to its responsibilities for operations in the Pacific.
This story of the organizational and administrative changes that brought about the VI Bomber Command is the skeleton of the history of bombardment aviation as a defense of the Panama Canal.
Preparations for War
The 19th Bombardment Wing and the expansion of bombardment aviation in Panama had origin in the military crisis precipitated by the fall of France in June 1940 and in the increasing tension caused by Japan's aggressive policy in the Far East. The strengthening of the air arm in Panama was a prime part of the United States effort to bolster its ramparts against invasion. It came at a time when the German and Japanese fifth Column in Latin America was something to be reckoned with; and at a time when Nazi possession of the Dakar-South Atlantic-Natal route to the Americas seemed the next step in the Nazi pattern of world conquest.
Bombardment aviation in Panama achieved separate organization at a time when it was fully realized that it might well have to be used as our first line of defense against invasion. Its first mission was to prepare for combat, and the training activities that were conducted to achieve that end form the main thread in the picture of the VI Bomber Command's history before December 7, 1941. These training activities have significance, not merely as a record of events in one military department, but as a part of the whole study of the preparation of United States air power for World War II. The long range vision of a few outstanding leaders, the general apathy of Americans during the period of "national defense," the difficulties of logistics, the problem of building an air force, the laying of the foundation for American air power today - all are reflected in the story of the efforts made to build bombardment aviation in Panama into a potent striking force. The details of local activities are a significant chapter in the story of America's preparation for war.
Training in the 19th Bombardment Wing and in the VI Bomber Command emphasized the training of individuals in aviation specialties - the training of pilots, navigators, bombardiers, aerial gunners, radiomen - and the training of selected groups of these individuals to function as combat crews. The basic element in air warfare is the individual airplane, and the first step in bombardment training in Panama was to secure the efficiency of that element.
Such were the preparations. Such were the strengths and dispositions. On December 7, 1941 came war.
Sunday afternoon, December 7, 1941, came the report of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. The VI Bomber Command was placed on alert, and by 1700 all sections were functioning on a 24-hour schedule. Orders were issued immediately to disperse all airplanes, to take special security measures. The almost incredible news of the raid on Pearl Harbor, the uncertainty concerning the situation in the Caribbean, the consciousness of the importance of the Panama Canal- - all combined to charge the situation in Panama with tension. Everyone was conscious of the danger in the Pacific. Attack was expected.
The VI Bomber Command, the only long range striking force in the area, and an important part of the reconnaissance strength, was a key organization in the defense of the Canal. Upon its men and aircraft were to fall a large share of the burdens of reconnaissance and the responsibility for destroying any enemy force which might be discovered in the approaches to the Canal.
The 6th Bombardment Group consisted of the 3rd and 25th Bombardment Squadrons (Heavy) located at France Field; the 74th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy) at Aguadulce, R. de P.; and a heavy reconnaissance unit, the 7th Reconnaissance Squadron based at Howard Field across the Canal from Albrook Field.
While the responsibility for long range defense of the Canal on the Pacific side rested with the 6th Bombardment Group (Heavy), the Group's strength on December 7 was scarcely proportionate to its responsibilities.
The tragedy of Hickam and Clark Fields - the destruction of aircraft as they sat helpless on the ground, made a deep impression in Panama. It was recognized immediately that heavy bombardment strength was concentrated too heavily in the Canal Zone. Dispersal of that strength was a prime need, and was accomplished through the publication of Field Orders Number 1 and 2, VI Bomber Command, on December 9 and 10, 1941.
Movement outward from the Zone was ordered on December 9. Headquarters and Headquarters Section of the 6th Group were sent to Aguadulce, R. de P., the station of the 74th Squadron. The 3rd and the 25th Bombardment Squadrons (Heavy) were directed to proceed to Rio Hato, R. de P., from France Field, Canal Zone, while the 7th Reconnaissance Squadron (Heavy) was ordered to move to David, R. de P. The 59th Bombardment Squadron (Light), still attached to the 6th Bombardment Group, remained at Rio Hato. The aircraft of the affected Squadrons completed this move on December 9, with the ground elements continuing the move the following day.
But the situation was changing rapidly, and on December 10 revisions in the dispersal plan were necessary. Several changes in the locations of the squadrons were needed, chiefly because B-17 aircraft augmentation from the States was expected. The moves were completed on December 11 and all units were ready for tactical operations, although the ground echelons had not yet completed the move.
The previously mentioned Field Orders Number 1 and 2 stressed security measures. The necessity of getting planes off the ramps in front of the hangars was emphasized, and all units were directed to camouflage, to conceal, and to disperse. Slit trenches were to be dug for the protection of personnel during air attack, and revetments, protected by machine guns, were to be constructed. While these orders were intended primarily for the 6th Bombardment Group (Heavy), they made the same general security instructions applicable to the VI Bomber Command's units in the Antilles. In addition, the Antilles units were directed to be prepared to reinforce the Panama units.
The immediate task had been accomplished - it was now imperative that systematic reconnaissance be made of the area considered the greatest source of danger to the Canal. It was realized that the coastal areas on the Pacific side might be used as bases for sneak attacks or for submarines. To meet this threat, the 59th Bombardment Squadron (Light), on December 14, was directed to make a daily reconnaissance of the Perlas Islands, San Miguel Bay, and Panama for the purpose of locating and reporting any enemy activity in that area. A-17's were to be used for this work.
Reconnaissance of the Caribbean coastal areas was provided on December 18 when the 6th Bombardment Group furnished two B-18 aircraft daily, one for a reconnaissance of the Caribbean Coast northeast to 12-30 N, 71-40 W, the other for reconnaissance north to Cabo Gracias a Dios, Nicaragua.
The VI Bomber Command, one week after Pearl Harbor, published a Plan of Operation which required, in event of a surprise raid, that every tactical aircraft take to the air and proceed to a previously designated rendezvous to await orders. The plan was to use B-17's for long-range search and striking missions, holding the B-18's in reserve for use as a striking force only should a definite target be discovered within their radius of action. The Command's mission, according to the operation plan, was to discover and destroy the enemy before an air attack on the Canal could be launched. Failing this, it was to destroy the carriers of the attacking aircraft. All units were reminded of the possibility of an attack launched from some neighboring country, and enjoined to be prepared for any orders.
Throughout the early days of the war, numerous unconfirmed reports of Japanese attempts to approach the Canal from the west were current. The sober judgment of the military men was that a Japanese strike at Panama was highly probable. It was necessary, therefore, to set up some system of scouting the western approaches far out to sea. On December 18, the 6th Bombardment Group (Heavy) was ordered to dispatch six B-18A aircraft with maintenance and operating personnel to fly out of Guatemala City, Guatemala, as a reconnaissance task force. Starting December 20, the Group was to dispatch three planes each day on a fan search and reconnaissance of the sector 225-270 degrees to the limit of their radius of action with 200 gallons of gasoline in reserve. Navy planes, operating out of Fonseca Bay, were to cover a supporting sector.
The measures described thus far were largely temporary expedients, stopgap measures designed to give some degree of security until a more systematic patrol theory could be placed in effect. By the second week of the war, definite ideas had been evolved as to the best ways of patrolling the Pacific approaches to the Canal. The first patrol concepts, of course, were based primarily on the current estimates of the enemy's capabilities. In the light of experience at Pearl Harbor and what little was known about Japanese aircraft, it was believed that enemy aircraft carriers would not launch their planes at a distance from the Canal greater than 400 nautical miles. It was further believed that enemy carriers approaching the Canal would not maintain a speed greater than 30 knots during the last 12 hours before launching their planes, presumably sometime around daybreak.
These assumptions led to the fixing of two significant circles for use in planning the patrols of the western approaches. The first, or inner circle, was fixed at a radius from the Canal Zone of 440 nautical miles, the maximum distance from which it was believed aircraft would be launched to attack the Canal plus 40 miles as a margin of safety. The second, or outer circle was fixed 360 miles beyond the inner circle, a figure based on the distance that an enemy carrier could cover in 12 hours at 30 knots. To protect the Canal, two types of patrols were believed necessary. The first one, a thorough reconnaissance of the inner circle at the time the Japanese would likely be in the vicinity conducting launching operations; and the other, a thorough reconnaissance during daylight hours of a 240 mile band of water beyond the 800 mile circle. It was felt that patrol of the area between roughly 550 miles and 800 miles from the Canal was unnecessary - that an enemy force would have to traverse that area at night, and that interception and successful attack during the hours of darkness would be difficult. The idea was to intercept the enemy beyond the 800 mile zone, but to provide a patrol of the area from which he was most likely to launch his planes should he succeed in slipping through the outer patrols.
The VI Bomber Command developed three proposals, identified as Plans A, B, and C, each designed to accomplish this general strategy under different conditions of supply, maintenance, and availability of aircraft. The patrol plans, were submitted to the Caribbean Air Force on December 20, 1941. The first proposal, Plan A, which was predicated on the bases available December 20, and upon the number of aircraft then on hand - 8 B-17B's and 6 B-18B's of the Army and 24 patrol bombers of the Navy, was selected. Plan A provided that the 800 nautical mile outer circle was to be patrolled by Navy planes during the daylight hours. It was believed that 12 planes would be required for this patrol each day, thus allowing the Navy to have one-half of its aircraft out of commission each day for maintenance. Army B-17's were to patrol by means of a fan search of the sectors 180-212 degrees and 231-269 degrees from David, R. de P., to a line 550 miles from David. The two planes assigned to this task each day were to be 400 miles from Panama at daybreak. Army B-18's were to operate out of Guatemala. Three each day were to search the sector 225-270 degrees from Guatemala to a distance seaward of 370 miles. The plan was for all aircraft, both Army and Navy, to carry bombs.
On December 21, 1941, an important step was taken toward activating the VI Bomber Command's Plan A when the 6th Bombardment Group was ordered to dispatch four B-17B's each day on a radial search and patrol of the sectors 180-212 degrees and 231-263 degrees from David. The supreme importance of the Canal during these early days of the war is emphasized in the same Field Order which set up the David patrols by a paragraph which details the 59th Bombardment Squadron to furnish four A-20 airplanes as an anti-submarine screen for the USS "Yorktown" while in waters off Cape Mala.
An Air Task Force was created on December 22, 1941, at the direction of the Caribbean Defense Command to give unified command to Army and Navy units. The Air Task Force was to include all Army bombardment aviation in the Panama Sector, Caribbean Defense Command, and all Navy patrol bomber aviation assigned to the Caribbean Air Force. Each service was to provide the necessary logistic support for its elements in the Air Task Force. Brigadier General E. B. Lyon, Commanding General, VI Bomber Command, was named commander of the new unit. The mission of the Air Task Force was twofold - to establish an aerial reconnaissance of the Pacific and Atlantic Sectors of the Panama Naval Coastal Frontier; and to locate, trail, and attack any enemy forces encountered in this area. The Air Task Force was not a separate headquarters or staff. The Bomber Command actually fulfilled those functions.
The new Air Task Force began operations without delay. Field Order Number 1, which closely followed "Plan A", directed the 6th Bombardment Group to begin a daily radial search on December 25 with one-half of its B-17's of the sector 276-277 degrees from Panama to their maximum radius of action with a reserve of two hours of fuel, leaving the decision as to the best tracks to be followed to the Group's judgment. The 6th Group was instructed to continue its daily patrol of the north coast of South America and of the Caribbean coast of Central America. The 59th Bombardment Squadron was directed to continue its daily reconnaissance of the Perlas Island and the Pacific coast of Panama. The Navy air unit in this area, Patrol Wing Three, was ordered to search and patrol the water bounded by arcs with radii 800 and 1,040 miles from Panama each day with approximately one-half of its available patrol bombers; at regular intervals it was to search and patrol the sectors east of 176 degrees from Panama to the coast of South America and north of 277 degrees from Panama to the coast of Central America.
General Lyon announced upon assuming his new command, that more airplanes and better facilities for night navigation and landings were needed to increase the efficiency of the Air Task Force. General Lyon also pointed out that the patrols provided by Field Order Number 1 did not give an absolute guarantee of protection, and he proposed to extend the search by the Navy to a greater radius. He also advocated establishing striking forces of Army airplanes at Guatemala, David, Salinas, Ecuador or Tulara, Peru, and if possible, at the Galapagos Islands; and extending and widening the patrol of the Caribbean when more planes and suitable navigational aids were available. General Lyon's statement was the first indication of the Army's intention to acquire such a base as the Galapagos Islands that were soon to become the key to Pacific patrols.
Another important step in the establishment of a fully developed patrol screen was the acquisition of additional aircraft. Bomber Command's strength as of December 7 was negligible, and its B-18's were useless for the type of over-water patrols required for protection of the Canal. By the end of April 1942, however, the situation was improved, for 18 B-17E's, 16 LB-30's, and 5 of the original B-17B's were on hand, a total of 39 four-engine aircraft. This was not an adequate strength, of course, but it was a 300% increase over the December 7 strength. More significant than the increase in the number of airplanes was the fact that many of the new planes carried ASV radar which provided a constant visibility day or night in all types of weather conditions through which the airplanes were capable of flying. The first planes so equipped were the LB-30's which began to arrive March 9, 1942, along with trained enlisted radar operating and maintenance personnel. Other new aircraft without ASV were flown to the San Antonio Air Depot for its installation. The installation of the ASV equipment and the establishment in 1942 of the Command's own air-ground radio communications net consisting of a ground-air station at Headquarters and all aircraft in flight, and, by the end of 1942, the installation of radio transmitters at the home stations of patrol aircraft, greatly increased the tactical efficiency of the airplane. The development of communications facilities during 1942 was one of the factors making possible the expansion of the VI Bomber Command's patrols. At the war's beginning, communications were clearly inadequate.
More efficient and systematic patrol operations in the Pacific were made possible when VI Bomber Command was permitted to concentrate on the Pacific approaches. Throughout the spring of 1942, the tendency of Navy Patrol Wing Three was to withdraw from the Pacific and to use its aircraft for anti-submarine operations in the Caribbean. As a result, Army planes exclusively were flying the Pacific patrols by June 1942. The 25th Bombardment Group (Medium) (10th, 12th, and 35th, and 417th Bombardment Squadrons) which had formerly been a "heavy" outfit, the 9th Bombardment Group (Heavy) (1st, 5th, 99th, and 430th Bombardment Squadrons), and the 59th Bombardment Squadron (Light) were detached from the VI Bomber Command in June 1942 and attached to the VI Fighter Command. This freed the Bomber Command from the necessity of supervising operations in the Antilles, and enabled it to devote all of its energies to the Pacific patrols.
Badly needed reinforcements arrived June 17, 1942, when the 40th Bombardment Group (Heavy) reached Panama with its four heavy squadrons - the 29th, 44th, 45th, and 395th. By July 6, the 29th was based at Aguadulce, R. de P.; the 44th at Guatemala City, Guatemala; the 45th at France Field, Canal Zone; and the 395th Bombardment Squadron at Rio Hato, R. de P.
VI Bomber Command had passed through the period of adjustment to wartime conditions. It was still under strength in practically all categories, but it was in a better position than it had been before. Bomber Command was now ready to fly patrols.
In June 1942, the 3rd Bombardment Squadron (Heavy) arrived at the new Army air base at the Galapagos Islands. This was an event of first importance, for it was the first time an Army four-engine Squadron had been based at the "Rock." Now, there was a striking force almost 1,000 miles seaward from Panama. During this period, the 74th Squadron at Guatemala was reinforced by a detachment of 70 officers and enlisted men from the old 7th Reconnaissance Squadron which had been redesignated and now was known as the 397th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy).
The 397th Bombardment Squadron was moved from its base at David in August of 1942 to the 8,000-foot field that had been newly constructed a few miles from the oil-refining town of Tulara, Peru.
Airplane strength had not increased over the April level, but by the end of 1942, 20 new B-24D's, aircraft well suited for over-water patrols, were added. Four-engine aircraft strength at the end of 1942 stood at 20 B-24's, 3 B-17B's, 17 B-17E's, and 13 LB-30's.
In December 1942, Major General Hubert R. Harmon, who had become Commanding General of the Sixth Air Force on November 23, 1942, succeeded General Lyon of the VI Bomber Command as Commander of the Panama Task Force. Actually, the situation changed little except that General Harmon took over responsibility for the patrols.
The VI Bomber Command order of battle was now complete. Eight heavy squadrons were now dispersed, with one occupying the Galapagos, the key to the Pacific Approaches; two on the southern coast of Central America; two on the western bulge of South America; and three close in on the Isthmus of Panama itself. The headquarters of the Bomber Command remained at Albrook Field. The geographic spread of these units was remarkable - it was 1,466 statute miles from Tulara to Guatemala City and 987 from France Field to the Galapagos. If the Bomber Command patrol screen were superimposed upon the United States with Headquarters at New York City, Memphis would occupy approximately the same position as the Galapagos, Minneapolis as Guatemala City, and a point in the Atlantic considerably east of Jacksonville as Tulara.
Bomber Command at Reduced Strength
The War Department reduced the Caribbean Defense Command, in April 1943, to the status of Category "B;" that is, it was considered a coastal frontier that "may be subject to minor attacks." The danger to the Panama Canal at last was considered reduced sufficiently to permit the withdrawal of some of the air strength tied down in its defense. Accordingly, the 40th Bombardment Group (Heavy), consisting then of four heavy squadrons, the 25th, 44th, 45th, and the 395th, was returned to the United States early in June 1943. The 40th Group was soon to become one of the first B-29 groups, and participate as a designated unit in combat operations in the China-Burma-India and Western Pacific Theaters in 1944 and 1945.
The departure of the 40th Group, left VI Bomber Command with its strength greatly reduced and its operations limited. Only the 6th Bombardment Group (Heavy) remained. The 6th Group Headquarters and the VI Bomber Command Headquarters were pooled to form a joint headquarters. The 6th Group at this time consisted of the 3rd at David (moved from Salinas in July), the 29th at Galapagos, the 74th at Guatemala City, and the 397th at Rio Hato. The Headquarters, 6th Bombardment Group (Heavy), was inactivated in October 1943, and the VI Bomber Command assumed command jurisdiction over the units formerly assigned to the 6th Bomb Group, becoming responsible for the tactical operations and training of both tactical and non-tactical units assigned to the bases under its command.
In June and July 1942, 20 combat crews were returned to the United States by direction of the War Department. Many of these crews subsequently saw combat action in the European and Pacific Theaters. In July of the same year authority was received to return the personnel of Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron, VI Bomber Command, and the Headquarters of both the 40th and 6th Groups, at a monthly rate of five percent. Before the end of 1942, 43 officers and 108 enlisted men were returned under the latter authority.
The Bomber Command, in November 1942, was authorized to return one tactical squadron a month. Replacement personnel, under this authority, were to be sent from the United States, and upon their arrival in Panama, the personnel of one of the experienced Squadrons were to be relieved, the replacement personnel assuming its designation. The first shipment of new personnel under this plan arrived December 22, 1942, and, by the end of the year, the personnel of the "old" 25th Bombardment Squadron was standing by to depart. The personnel of the "old" 74th, 3rd, and the 397th, under this arrangement, were returned to the United States during the following six months. The plan for returning one tactical squadron a month vanished in June 1943 when the 40th Bombardment Group (Heavy) was redeployed to the United States.
The rotation of ground personnel was an even more difficult situation. The Panama Canal Department reported ground personnel for return to the United States on a Department-wide basis, with rotation and reassignment established at one-half of one percent per month. In practice, enlisted men were leaving shortly after completion of two years of service in the Department. Ground officers, however, were required to serve close to three years before returning.
Morale suffered because of the lack of a consistent policy with well-defined ground rules for the rapid rotation and reassignment of Bomber Command's personnel. Without such a policy, it would become increasingly difficult to maintain a high level of efficiency. Orientation programs, athletics, more liberal leaves and furloughs to the United States, special cross-country flights- all of these helped, but could not correct the situation.
The morale of flying personnel improved greatly after July 1944. In that month, Brigadier General Sorenson, Commanding General of the Sixth Air Force, proposed to the Commanding General, Army Air Forces, that the Sixth Air Force be used for training combat crews, with four trained crews returned to the United States each month, and new and untrained crews be assigned to take their place. The necessity for rotation of combat crews was underlined by the fact that in August 1944, Bomber Command's combat crews had an unusually high level of crew experience, 85% of the flying personnel having completed a year or more of combat crew training. In October 1944, a rotation plan for combat crews actually became effective when 20 complete crews were returned to the United States, and 20 untrained crews from the States were assigned to the Panama Canal Department. The rotation plan approved by the Headquarters, Army Air Forces, however, was not as extensive as that proposed by General Sorenson, calling for the return of only seven crews every three months. The rotation policy for flying personnel was rounded out in November by a procedure established by the Sixth Air Force which required that all rated air crew personnel be reported for return to the United States upon completion of 24 months' service in the Panama Canal Department. This slow rotation was speeded up only occasionally when some special arrangement was made. The rules concerning the rotation of ground personnel, however, were unchanged.
The absence of a consistent, well-defined policy for rotation or replacement of troops was to disappear as an issue the following year when the war in the European and Pacific Theaters ended. The War Department announced the suspension of its rotation plan in all active theaters, following the capitulation of Germany in May 1945. After the Japanese surrender the following August, the Sixth Air Force canceled its rotation policy for rated air crew personnel.
The VI Bomber Command's tactical bombardment squadrons were thoroughly reshuffled in August 1944. By August 26, the 3rd and 29th Squadrons were at Rio Hato, the 74th and 397th Bombardment Squadrons at the Galapagos Islands, and the Command Headquarters was located at Albrook Field, CZ. At the beginning of December 1944, the location of the VI Bomber Command and its tactical squadrons seemed to have become stabilized. All units had completed the inevitable adjustments resulting from the wholesale moves of the preceding August and had settled down to serious work on the new three-phase training program. By the end of December, however, the situation had changed considerably, for the Rio Hato runway had become so unserviceable those heavy bombardment operations there had to be suspended to make possible adequate repairs. A quick decision was made to shift the 3rd Squadron to the auxiliary airdrome at David, and the 29th to Howard Field. By sundown on December 9, both moves had been accomplished. A small care-taking staff was left by each squadron to guard and maintain Squadron property that had been left behind.
Seven weeks later, when the runway at Rio Hato was again repaired and it appeared that the squadrons could resume their normal stations, the situation was complicated by the deterioration of the runway at the Galapagos Islands. It was apparent that the two Squadrons there would have to be moved to fields in the Republic of Panama while repair work was accomplished. The 29th Bombardment Squadron was moved from Howard Field back to Rio Hato, while David, an alternate airdrome redesignated as an airdrome, was made the permanent station of the 3rd. The 397th, the Squadron with the longest recent tour on the Galapagos, was brought into Rio Hato on February 7, 1945, while the 74th was stationed at the airdrome at Aguadulce, R. de P.
The new disposition of the squadrons was an emergency measure, and as such, it was acceptable. But the situation was poor from the standpoint of operations and training. Since both Aguadulce and David were ill-equipped to service a heavy bombardment Squadron, squadron personnel had to devote time that should have been spent in training to functions which were normally the role of base personnel. Aguadulce, a 6,000 foot dirt and sod fighter field, had inadequate facilities for night operations and would become unsuitable for four-engine operations during the rainy season. Although Rio Hato was usable, the repair work, still continuing, necessitated closing the field every Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. It was quite within the realm of possibility that the tactical bomber squadrons would soon have to move again.
The War Department issued directives on demobilization in September 1945 which established "point" criteria for discharge based upon such factors as length of service, time in the overseas area, awards and decorations. Age was a separate criterion for discharge. The discharge eligibility criteria were to be progressively reduced as demobilization continued to occur. The War Department directives made it obviously clear that the VI Bomber Command would soon lose a large part of its personnel. Enlisted men with Adjusted Service Rating (ASR) scores of 80 points and over, and officers with ASR scores of 85 or more had departed Panama by the end of September. These losses, together with losses of men returned for discharge because of age, resulted in a decline of officer strength to 316 on September 30 and of enlisted to 1,968. These losses were severe, but they would be even greater in October when 4,444 Bomber Command enlisted men in the 70-79-point category were due to depart. By the end of November, when the 411 enlisted men in the 60-69 point bracket were expected to have to be returned to the United States for discharge, Bomber Command would be whittled down to a mere shadow of its former strength.
It was clear that the operation and organization of the Bomber Command would have to be modified radically to conform to the new personnel situation. Since it was impossible to maintain four squadrons at efficient operating strength, it was decided to affect a consolidation of all of the squadrons at Rio Hato. It was planned to bring the 3rd in from David, the 29th from Galapagos, and to attach them to the 397th at Rio Hato. Eventually, the 3rd and the 29th- - and sooner or later the 74th - would cease to operate as a unit, although they would probably continue to exist on paper. These plans were still subject to change, but effective September 27, the airplanes and combat crews of the 3rd Squadron were placed on temporary duty at Rio Hato. Orders for the 29th were expected within a few days.
The exact status of Headquarters, VI Bomber Command, remained uncertain, though its personnel losses under the point system would soon reduce its strength to the point where it could not function. It was considered most likely that the Headquarters would continue on paper, but that most of its work would be taken over by Headquarters, Sixth Air Force.
Merger at Rio Hato
The movement of the bomber squadrons continued throughout the remainder of 1945. The 397th Bombardment Squadron was moved from the Galapagos Islands, and assigned to Rio Hato Army Air Base, R. de P., in February 1945. The 74th Bombardment Squadron was relieved from assignment at Aguadulce, R. de P., and transferred to Rio Hato in May 1945. The 3rd Bombardment Squadron relocated from David, R. de P., to Rio Hato in the first part of October, and was attached to the 397th Bombardment Squadron on October 29, and then consolidated with the 397th on December 31, 1945. The 29th Bombardment Squadron, the last of the VI Bomber Command's four squadrons to be returned to Rio Hato, was moved from the Galapagos Islands to Rio Hato in October, and attached to the 74th Bombardment Squadron. Thus, by October 1945, all four of the Command's bomber squadrons were stationed at Rio Hato, this being the only time they had ever been assigned to a single field.
September 2, 1945, was officially V-J Day, and the men of the bombardment squadrons underwent the transition from intensive wartime activities to peacetime duties. Rio Hato Army Air Base went on a half-day work program in October, with mornings devoted to normal duties, while afternoons were open for recreational and educational activities. Combat ground training was rescinded entirely. Flying was curtailed to a minimum. Nonetheless, at least three or four aircraft daily participated in flights designed to insure the maintenance of flying proficiency among air crews. Base sections and non-tactical operations of the bombardment squadrons at Rio Hato were combined, and their personnel integrated to the maximum extent possible. Rated officers were assigned jobs as either "section heads" or "assistants" to nearly every section on the base, and enlisted flying personnel were given jobs as clerks in many of the sections.
The inability of the VI Bomber Command to maintain the bombardment squadrons at efficient operating strength resulted in the decision in July 1945 to form the 1st Provisional Bombardment Group composed of the 3rd, 29th, 74th and 397th bombardment squadrons, operating as a single composite unit. A Provisional Group Command Post and Briefing Room were established, and senior men of the squadrons worked together as Group Officers, under the supervision of Colonel Herbert E. Rice, Commander, Rio Hato Army Air Base, with the latter performing as the Provisional Group Commander. The adoption and implementation of this concept meant that there would be only one briefing for the group, and exercises would be conducted under one unified operations order, in contrast to the old method which involved rendezvous following separate briefings, etc.
The personnel of the 29th and 74th Bombardment Squadrons were attached to the 397th Bombardment Squadron in February 1946, joining the 3rd Bombardment Squadron which was already a part of the 397th Bombardment Squadron. The 397th Bombardment Squadron, as the result of this final unit attachment, became the only operational squadron remaining of the VI Bomber Command's four bombardment squadrons. The operational merger or consolidation of the 3rd, 29th, 74th, and 397th Bombardment Squadrons at Rio Hato had become a reality, although the squadrons continued to maintain their separate unit identities on "paper."
The 3rd, 29th, 74th, and 397th Bombardment Squadrons, the last of the original squadrons assigned to the VI Bomber Command's 6th, 9th, 25th, and 40th Bombardment Groups at the height of the expansion of bombardment aviation in the Caribbean, continued to operate as a provisional bombardment group well into 1946, conducting combined exercises under simulated combat conditions, mostly simulated aerial attacks upon the Panama Canal and friendly naval vessels. The Rio Hato squadrons were inactivated on November 1, 1946, by the authority of War Department letter, AG 322 (27 Aug 46) AO-I-AFCOR (223e)-M, dated 9 Sep 46. Thus, ended the final chapter in the story of bombardment aviation in defense of the Panama Canal during World War II. Rio Hato Army Air Base did not close immediately upon the inactivation of the 3rd, 29th, 74th, and 397th Bombardment Squadrons. At that time, it also was home to the 23rd Tow Target Squadron, 4th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, 414th Night Fighter Squadron, and the 319th Fighter Squadron. The Caribbean Air Command, the successor to the Sixth Air Force, began withdrawing these Rio Hato units and transferring them to other stations in December 1947. Rio Hato Army Air Base was returned to the government of Panama in February 1948.