Military Ops





U.S. at War Before Pearl Harbour?

By Frank Tibbo

The Americans established a military presence in Gander seven months before they declared war against the Axis powers. Their activities are well documented, and I was surprised when I first discovered what the Americans were doing.

The first few American military personnel arrived on April 20, 1941, in a B-18A aircraft. On May 5 the initial contingent was complemented by five officers and 70 enlisted men who arrived by rail from St. John's.

During the four days beginning May 7, other contingents arrived increasing the personnel strength to 181 enlisted men and 5 officers. Most of the first arrivals were members of the 21st Squadron's Ground Echelons, who had left McDill Field and Miami, Florida, April 26 and proceeded to St. John's by way of the Brooklyn Port of embarkation. Five B-18A aircraft and their crews arrived May 26 and spent the remaining days of the month making familiarization flights.

Although the first troops already had arrived and assumed their duties, it was not until May 9 that the Newfoundland-United States Army Air Base was officially established with Major J.V. Crabb as commanding officer.

The U.S. was not yet at war, but the U.S. Army's mission was to defend Newfoundland. The U.S. forces at Gander were ordered to co-operate with the British, Canadians, and the U.S. Navy task force at Argentia in defending Newfoundland and the adjoining coast line of Newfoundland and Labrador and Canada. An area for patrol was designated, and German or Italian land or naval forces encountered in that area were to be destroyed.

As the U.S. air corps ferrying command was restricted by neutrality, the delivery of combat planes to Europe was entirely in the hands of the Royal Air Force Ferrying Command, which was successful in keeping a small flow of tactical planes moving through Gander to the United Kingdom during the winter months of 1941. The Americans continued to operate a trans-Atlantic shuttle service for diplomatic mail and passengers; and the Air Corps Ferrying Command had a control officer, office space, and the use of aerodrome facilities at Gander.

After the arrival of the U.S. 21st Reconnaissance Squadron, the Newfoundland Army Air Base grew rapidly, and reinforcements of specialized units were assigned to the new base.

Among the units to arrive before Pearl Harbour were the 21st and 41st Reconnaissance Squadrons, the Air Base Detachment, Quartermaster Detachment, Chemical Warfare Detachment, Air Corps Detachment, Weather; Air Detachment, Communications; 1st Aerodrome Platoon, 466 Ordinance Company, 1st Signal Platoon and Medical Detachment.

In the seven months between the establishment of base and the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the strength of the base grew from the original 181 enlisted men and 5 officers to 627 enlisted men and 57 officers.

Until war was declared, the Americans at Gander were considered to be operating a defence outpost; tactical missions were reconnaissance, anti-submarine and convoy patrol, and search and rescue.

It makes one wonder, however, how the Americans considered their status. On the one hand, they were neutral; while on the other, they were trying to sink German subs. The British and Canadians were delighted that the Americans considered it in their best interest to defend the convoys headed for Britain. German submarines were making bold attacks on Allied shipping, and many submarines were sighted off the coast of Newfoundland. For example, during October a German submarine was reported to be using Conception Bay – only a few miles from St. John's, – and five others were lurking not far off the coast.

The Americans worked closely with the RCAF, the planes of the 21st. Reconnaissance Squadron began a regular schedule of patrols in June making patrols on Monday and Thursday of each week.

When the 21st Reconnaissance Squadron was relieved late in August, the 41st Reconnaissance Squadron, equipped with B-17s arrived and continued the anti-submarine and patrol missions. The first recorded encounter with an enemy submarine was on October 26, 1941. A plane of the 41st Reconnaissance Squadron, while on a co-operative search mission with the RCAF, sighted and attacked an enemy submarine. The plane released one 300 lb bomb as the submarine began to submerge but missed the target by an estimated 125 feet. The early anti-submarine operations proved effective as enemy submarines began avoiding the patrolled areas.

Intelligence Officer George W. Johnson made an interesting remark in connection with sub-hunting. He said: "I have not been able to get complete details of the position locating device used by the navy called "radar," but information I have indicates that it would meet our present deficiency in submarine hunting."

A typical day's operation of the early period was November 22, when five aircraft carrying depth-charge bombs were on patrol. Three planes searched for submarines due east of St. John's, and two patrolled the area along the coast of Notre Dame Bay, Belle Isle Straight, and Cartwright. No submarines were sighted, but several convoys were given protection against possible attack.

Contributed by F. Tibbo


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