Operation PLUM

- Operation PLUM -
The Ill-Fated 27th Bombardment Group and the Fight for the Western Pacific

Acronyms and code names played a big role in the military lexicon of World War II. Radar, OVERLORD, and D-Day all had an additional life once the war was over. One name, however, seemed to fade away not long after its birth—Operation PLUM. For many it meant death. For most, 3-1/2 years as POWs. The 27th Bombardment Group arrived in the Philippines with 1209 men in November 1941. One year later 20 of them returned to the United States.

Americans know a great deal about Pearl Harbor and subsequent battles across the Pacific as the troops fought their way to Japan. They know MacArthur left the Philippines and those left behind endured the infamous Bataan Death March. Yet they know almost nothing of the fighting by U.S. forces that raged in and around the Philippines, Java, Australia and New Guinea during those first months of the war. Why? Because we were losing.

The Japanese had counted on an easy victory in the Philippines, leading to a quick overrun of the Dutch East Indies and New Guinea. They didn’t get it. Because of the fierce resistance, led in part by the 27th, they were forced to keep fighting, using manpower they sorely needed elsewhere. This delay gave valuable time to the U.S. to recover from the devastating blow at Pearl Harbor and prepare for war.

PLUM is both the true tale of the 27th Bombardment Group and a cohesive overview of America’s early months of WWII in the Western Pacific. Some pilots, such as Glenwood Stephenson, are featured to lend a more personal element to the story. The story begins in 1940 with Stephenson entering U.S. Army Air Corps pilot training school. This period is important because it presents the reader with a better understanding of the national and international policies that were formulated then and how they would later spell disaster for the 27th. Glen left home in the Depression years to ride the rails as a hobo in search of work; he returned to visit Wisconsin several years later as a West Point cadet. After graduation and completion of pilot training, he was assigned to the 27th stationed in Savannah, Georgia and subsequently shipped out to the Philippines and became a squadron leader.

When the Japanese invaded the Philippines in December 1941, U.S. forces retreated to the Bataan Peninsula, and the 27th became an infantry unit. Stephenson becomes one of the common threads as the story of the 27th unfolds. When Bataan fell, most of the 27th became a part of the infamous Death March. But General MacArthur, realizing the need for trained pilots, evacuated Stephenson and other pilots in a submarine from Corregidor to Java, where they continued to battle the enemy until Java fell. Once again, he escaped with a handful of pilots to Australia, where they met up with other pilots from the 27th. At this point in the war, these pilots were practically the only air force in northern Australia, and attrition was high as they fought an overwhelming enemy from bases in Australia and New Guinea.

In late March, 104 airmen of the 27th merged with the newly arrived 3rd Bomb Group in Australia. On April 6th the men of the 3rd successfully bombed the Japanese air base at Gasmata, New Britain, a daring mission that exceeded 2200 miles. They followed this up with two days of bombing behind enemy lines on Mindinao, flying over 5200 miles without losing a plane. Newspaper headlines dubbed this “Royce’s Raid,” and for a short time it thrilled the public until Jimmy Doolittle and his men dropped their bombs on Tokyo, overshadowing the courageous and now nearly forgotten successes of these airmen.

Although Stephenson was killed shortly before the tides of war changed in favor of the United States, the story continues and follows the relatively few remaining pilots until they were rotated home in November 1942. The last few months of the story slightly overlap with the time when many other books on the War in the Pacific begin (i.e., MacArthur going on the offensive in New Guinea and the Marines at Guadalcanal). Pilot survivors quickly rose through the ranks to become Air Force leaders. Portions of the story are told in the first person by these retired colonels and generals.

The 27th and other such units played an important role in delaying the enemy while America got its military production and troop training in high gear. Had it not been for these units, America’s offensive ground and air campaign in the Pacific might have started in Hawaii or even California instead of New Guinea and surrounding islands.

The shock and confusion of those early months of the war, added to the grievous losses the Allies were sustaining, has not made the activities of the 27th Bombardment Group the subject of much in the way of inspirational literature. It should be. This book corrects that oversight. PLUM presents an overview of America’s early months of World War II in the Western Pacific, which until now seemed to be missing. It explains how events in different places in this theater of the war were interrelated and influenced each other. The appeal of this book will be multi-faceted. It is a story of bravery and courage in the face of tremendous odds. It is a war story full of action, danger and strategy. Once the tide turned, the story of the War became hard-fought Allied victories. In its own way, the story of the 27th was also a hard-fought victory and deserves to be told. And it’s all true.

Operation PLUM is available in all fine bookstores.

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