“Brad, I thought you’d get through. Glad you made it. Congratulations.”
—Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright to Bamboo Fleet pilot Capt.William Bradford
In February 1942, with U-boats sinking ships one after the other in the Atlantic and the Caribbean, the surrenders of Hong Kong and Singapore, the conquests of Thailand and Burma, the defeat of the Allied fleet in the Battle of the Java Sea and the imminent fall of the Dutch East Indies, American home front hope and attention was focused on the Philippines. There the bulk of Lt. Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s combined American and Philippine forces were holding out on the Bataan peninsula and Corregidor Island against the Japanese juggernaut. What the American public and the defenders on Bataan and Corregidor did not – and could not – know was that American military leadership had written off the defenders. Strategic defense was the order of the day. The Philippines would receive only token assistance through submarine, surface ship, and air blockade running. Among the heroic groups that risked their lives to bring medicine and other vital supplies to the besieged troops was a ramshackle collection of obsolete airplanes called the “Bamboo Fleet.”
Based at the air base in Del Monte on the southernmost Philippine island of Mindanao, the Bamboo Fleet was operated by Captains Harold Slingsby, Dick Fellows, Joe Moore, Harvey Whitfield, and Bill Bradford. Of the group “Jitter Bill” Bradford was the most experienced pilot, having spent ten years as senior pilot and general manager for the Philippine Air Taxi Company (Patco) transporting people and cargo around the 7,000-plus islands in the Philippines. According to John Toland’s But Not in Shame, he would tally his 5,000th hour flying on a Bamboo Fleet mission ferrying out of Corregidor a cargo of live cinchona seed, used in making the anti-malarial drug quinine. When war began, the Army Air Corps purchased a variety of civilian aircraft, including Patco’s, and Bradford and other civilian pilots were commissioned captains in the Air Corps.
“Jitter Bill came to be looked upon as the chief of the Bamboo Fleet,” Lt. Col. William E. Dyess later wrote in his book The Dyess Story. “He was a character I’ll long remember. His nickname came from no lack of nerve. No one in the squadron was braver. Day after day he flew the condemned and unarmed Bellanca, taking missions that sometimes appeared to be hopeless. But he was jittery; there is no question about that. He probably was the only man in the air forces who would try to wind his eight-day panel clock six times an hour. His speech was jerky and rapid-fire. You’d walk toward him to say something, but before you’d get your mouth open he would pop out with: ‘You bet, boy! That’s right. That’s right.’ And Bill ended all conversations, no matter the topic, with: ‘Thank you, boy. Good luck, boy.'”
The Bamboo Fleet consisted of three obsolete, fixed undercarriage airplanes. One was a Bellanca Pacemaker nicknamed “Old Number Nine,” a high-wing, cabin fuselage airplane capable of carrying seven passengers and notable for its long range (Pacemakers had set several long-distance records). It had a top speed of 180 miles per hour, and an average range of 900 miles. The second plane was a Waco UC-72, a designation given to all Wacos purchased by the AAF in 1942. A cabin fuselage biplane capable of carrying five passengers, it had a range of 600 miles and a top speed of 150 mph. Export Wacos provided valuable service for the British Long Range Desert Group during their operations in North Africa. The Waco Company would go on to build gliders used in airborne operations later in the war. The last plane was a Beech “Staggerwing” biplane. It was the fastest of the group, which wasn’t saying much. It had a top speed of 212 mph and a range of 670 miles.
All three were at the end of their operational life; in fact the Bellanca had been condemned for private flying. But so desperate was the situation that they were pressed into service. With faster, armed Japanese aircraft a constant danger during the day, the Bamboo Fleet literally became a “fly-by-night” operation. The dangerously overloaded planes took off at dusk on hair-raising flights timed to reach their objective just as dawn was breaking. Sometimes missions were so urgent that the pilots had to fly during the day. When that happened, they would island-hop, flying at an altitude of no more than 500 feet, often just 100 feet above the water’s surface. Bamboo Fleet mechanics claimed that pilots returned with leaves and seaweed stuck to their undercarriages.
By April MacArthur was in Australia and Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright was in command in the Philippines, the Japanese controlled key islands between Corregidor and Mindanao, and only Old Number Nine was operational. On April 18 a message came from Corregidor urgently requesting medical supplies.
“It became necessary that someone fly a plane of the Bamboo Fleet to Corregidor on an urgent matter, then proceed to Mindanao,” Dyess wrote. “The rub was that it would be necessary to refuel at the field on the island of Panay. And there was no way of knowing whether or not that field was in our hands or the Japs’ [according to Destination Corregidor, written by Robert M. Underbrink some 30 years after the war, Bradford actually had to refuel at Bacolod on Negros, but the concern was the same]. The fellows voted to cut for low card to determine who would get the job. Bill frowned at this and told two friends he did not intend to let any young and less experienced pilot get the assignment. After some talk Bill brought in the deck, which was shuffled and spread out. Everyone reached for a card. Bill took his and stepped far back. When the showdown came, he walked back to the table and laid down the deuce of clubs. The others were suspicious, but Bill shook a finger at them. ‘You boys just ain’t livin’ right; ain’t livin’ right,’ he said. Then he went off to warm up his plane. The last I saw of Bill he was industriously winding his panel clock.”
Though Bradford had told his commanding officer that his chances of getting to Corregidor were “exactly zero,” he reached the island and was met by a grateful Wainwright. On the return leg the Bellanca, with Bradford and two passengers aboard, crashed during takeoff. Everyone on board survived and was evacuated a few days later when two Navy PBY Catalina flying boats successfully ran the blockade, but it was the Bamboo Fleet’s last mission.