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Book Review – Every Day a Nightmare: American Pursuit Pilots in the Defense of Java, 1941-1942

By William H. Bartsch; Texas A&M University Press; 506 pages

Americans in uniform have no recent experience being soundly defeated, but in late 1941 and early 1942, a handful of Army Air Corps pilots – outnumbered, with poor equipment, training and leadership – were beaten badly as they fought to defend the island of Java in the oil-rich Dutch East Indies.

William H. Bartsch has made a mark among historians by writing about the dark days of the Pacific War when Americans were losing.

His story comes across as a warning against being caught unprepared.

Every Day A Nightmare: American Pursuit Pilots in the Defense of Java, 1940-1942 is Bartsch’s third book about the era. It’s a popular history, albeit one written to academic standards, drawn from personal diaries and American, Dutch and Japanese records. It’s the account of young Americans who went into harm’s way in P-40 fighters only to be ground down and beaten by a juggernaut of a Japanese war machine.

Bartsch tells about “what happened to a bunch of guys,” as he described it in a telephone interview, without being preachy – but his story comes across as a warning against being caught unprepared.

Every Day a Nightmare: American Pursuit Pilots in the Defense of Java, 1941-1942

Every Day a Nightmare: American Pursuit Pilots in the Defense of Java, 1941-1942, by William H. Bartsch; Texas A&M University Press; 506 pages

Although more experienced pilots were certainly available stateside, the War Department diverted to the East Indies 101 pilots who were fresh out of flight school, some with as few as five hours of cockpit experience in the P-40. After arriving in Australia, some were lost in crashes caused by their lack of experience, others when the Japanese sank the transport-carrier USS Langley on Feb. 27, 1942 – but 43 of the pilots made it to the secret Ngoro airfield on Java and made their stand.

They faced a foe with good discipline, superior training and better aircraft. When they pitted their own inexperience against the vaunted Japanese Zero fighter, censorship was heavy. “The Flying Tigers in China were heavily publicized but nobody heard about these guys,” Bartsch said.

They faced a foe with good discipline, superior training and better aircraft. When they pitted their own inexperience against the vaunted Japanese Zero fighter, censorship was heavy.

Near the end on Java, their American commanders having pulled out and now under command of the Dutch, with no plans for an evacuation when the island fell, these Americans were using P-40s against an invasion fleet. Once Java was overwhelmed, an ad hoc arrangement got most of the pilots out. They’d fought bravely and had been defeated.

Bartsch’s exhaustive research lowers their number of aerial victories from several dozen to just eleven.

William H. Bartsch

Every Day a Nightmare: American Pursuit Pilots in the Defense of Java, 1941-1942 is William H. Bartsch’s third book on the dark early days of World War II. U.S. Air Force photo

Chicago Daily News war correspondent George A. Weller – later a Pulitzer Prize recipient – spent most of February 1942 on Java and wrote a three-part magazine series called “Luck to the Fighters” about P-40 airmen on that doomed island. Bartsch got to know Weller (1907-2002) late in life. At age 87, Weller lamented not having had access to the full story of the desperate fight on Java. Of the pursuit pilots Weller expressed his wish that “someone speak for them.” Bartsch decided to do so, and spent 16 years on his book. He’d previously written Doomed At the Start: American Pursuit Pilots in the Philippines, 1941-42 and December 8, 1941: MacArthur’s Pearl Harbor.

“They felt they were sacrificial lambs,” Bartsch said in the interview. “They were bitter. They wanted to make a contribution but they knew it was a hopeless situation.”

Every Day A Nightmare should be required reading for anyone who wants to be reminded that war is unfair and that Americans don’t always win.

One of the P-40 pilots, Tommy Hayes (1917-2008) went from defeat to triumph. Evacuated from Java in February 1942 feeling humiliated and outfought, Hayes was a squadron commander in a P-51 Mustang over Berlin during the first mission to the German capital on March 6, 1944. He retired as an air ace and a brigadier general.

Every Day A Nightmare should be required reading for anyone who wants to be reminded that war is unfair and that Americans don’t always win.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...