On April 9, 1942, the American and Filipino troops on the Bataan Peninsula surrendered. Japanese conquest of the Philippines was just a few short weeks away. Though theater commander Lt. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, now stationed in Australia, had few resources at hand, he had not yet shot his bolt regarding the Philippines. On April 11, 10 B-25 Mitchell medium bombers and three B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers under the command of Brig. Gen. Ralph Royce departed from the north Australian air base at Darwin for the Del Monte Airfield on the southernmost Philippine island of Mindanao. The Royce Special Mission, the first American aerial counteroffensive against Japan, had begun.
“The raids obviously threw the Japanese into a terrific panic.”
– Brig. Gen. Ralph Royce
The Royce Special Mission was one of the last efforts of the overall Philippine aerial campaign known as Operation Plum, “Plum” being the pre-war code word for the Philippines. Royce’s mission was initiated at the request of Lt. Gen. Jonathan “Skinny” Wainwright, who requested in late March that bombing raids be conducted to lift the Japanese blockade between American-held Mindanao and American and Filipino forces on Bataan and Corregidor Island. The fall of Bataan changed things. MacArthur agreed that the Royce Special Mission should continue, but now the mission would be to attack shipping and forward Japanese bases.
Royce, from Marquette, Mich., was the senior Air Staff officer at Allied Air Force Headquarters South West Pacific Area. A West Point graduate (1914), he was one of the Army Air Corps’ first pilots, receiving his wings in 1915. He participated in the 1917 Punitive Expedition to try and capture the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa. During World War I he was a squadron and later a group commander and was awarded the French Croix de Guerre. He remained in the Air Corps, gradually rising in rank and responsibility. He arrived in Australia from London, where he had been the Air Attaché.
Lt. John P. Burns, one of the pilots stationed there, noted in his diary that everyone at the Del Monte Field was “startled” at their sight and that no one had ever before seen the B-25.
The bombers arrived at Del Monte on April 11. Lt. John P. Burns, one of the pilots stationed there, noted in his diary that everyone at the Del Monte Field was “startled” at their sight and that no one had ever before seen the B-25. The fighter pilots were later briefed that they would be providing escort to the bombers. The B-25s would be hitting targets on Cebu and Mindanao and the longer range B-17s would bomb sites as far away as Luzon.
The B-25s were dispersed and hidden in the nearby airstrips at Valencia and Maramag, and the B-17s remained at Del Monte. On April 12, Japanese bombers made two raids on Del Monte. The morning raid caused no damage, allowing the B-17s to conduct operations with the B-25s, but in the afternoon raid all three were damaged, one so seriously it was unable to participate further.
The raids caught the Japanese completely by surprise.
The raids caught the Japanese completely by surprise. In an official memorandum from MacArthur’s headquarters to the War Department in Washington, D.C., on April 15, MacArthur wrote that Royce’s command had “attacked the enemy in the Philippines at Nichols Field, Batanga, Cebu and Davao with the following results: At Nichols destruction of hangars and damage to runways, Davao 1 bomber destroyed and several damaged, 2 transports hit 1 probably sunk, 2 seaplanes damaged, 1 shot down, troop concentrations dispersed, docks and warehouses damaged, at Cebu 3 transports sunk, 2 others hit and several close misses, shot down 3 planes, damaged several on the ground, and damaged docks; at Batanga 1 freighter sunk. 1 of our planes was lost but the crew saved.”
The Royce Special Mission concluded on April 14, with the aircraft and crews returning to Australia shortly afterward. America’s first aerial counter-offensive was an astonishing success and Royce would receive the Distinguished Service Cross for the victory. Unfortunately, Royce and his men never received the public, and historical, recognition they were rightfully due. Four days later, on April 18, Lt. Col. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle piloted his B-25 off the flight deck of the USS Hornet, the lead aircraft in the attack on Japan known as the Doolittle Raid.