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Darwin’s First Death – the Brave Fight of Lieutenant Buel

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Although the first raid on Darwin is by now well known to most Australians, the tale of the first man to die is not. 

Four days before the big attack, Lieutenant Robert Buel of the United States Army Air Force fought an aircraft of the Japanese forces from the cockpit of his P-40 Kittyhawk fighter.

With the possibility of attacking Darwin developing, and the situation in what is now Indonesia rapidly developing positively for the Japanese advance, their reconnaissance and patrols across Australia’s north coast were expanded. 

Big Kawanishi H6K4 “Mavis” flying boats began flying long range armed reconnaissance missions from their bases at Ambon and Ceram. 

On 15 February 1942, three Mavis four-engined aircraft lifted off from their base on a patrol over the Arafura Sea to find any convoy that might be leaving Darwin to reinforce Timor.  
     
Japanese aircraft navigator Lieutenant Marekuni Takahara recalled, “A convoy was discovered…[and] reported by radio…We were instructed to keep the vessels in sight.” 

The convoy, of seven vessels out of Darwin, was led by the American cruiser USS Houston. The convoy was sailing for Timor, packed with supplies and reinforcements. The Mavis shadowed the ships for another three hours at 4000 metres using cloud as cover. Eventually the aircraft commander decided to attack.

“Our fuel eventually began to run low and we had to head for home, but before departing 60kg bombs were released over the target…” Takahara recalled. “Vigorous anti-aircraft fire was returned from the ships but we remained unharmed.” 

With the report of the convoy being attacked, back in Darwin the RAAF station chief, Wing Commander Sturt de B Griffith, ordered the only available aircraft at his disposal to fly out and intercept the enemy. 

Two USAAF P-40 Kittyhawk fighters were available, having been left behind with unserviceable aircraft as their unit, the 3rd Pursuit Squadron, flew on to Java. 

The P-40 being flown by Lieutenant Robert Oestreicher was in the air and out of contact, and the order to intercept was given to Lieutenant Robert ‘Blackie’ Buel, a 24 year pilot from California. 

Buel took off in his aircraft No. 54 and headed for the last position of the convoy as the Mavis turned for home. Relaxing, the crew were about to have lunch when, Takahara recalled: “…a single-engine fighter, which looked like a Spitfire, approached us from the front on the right. All the crew rushed to their posts and I…manned the 20-millimetre cannon in the tail.”      

Buel, an inexperienced pilot, overflew the Mavis and came in from astern, where he was met with 20 mm fire. But his bullets had found their mark and had severely wounded the radio operator and set the flying boat on fire. Buel meanwhile had been hit, and his aircraft was rapidly descending. It hit the water and soon sank.

Takahara recalled his own Mavis diving and the pilot signaling the distress signal of G-G-G before the flying boat hit the sea. The crew took to a life raft, though the radio operator died later and was buried over the side. The remainder, including Takahara, drifted ashore and were later captured.

Buel’s body and his P-40 were never found. 

In 1992 a memorial plaque to Lieutenant Robert Buel was dedicated in Darwin by the American Legion, the equivalent of our RSL. It may still be seen next to the USS Peary memorial on the Darwin Esplanade. A year later he was awarded a posthumous Distinguished Flying Cross by the American government. Robert Buel was the first Allied pilot to die in aerial combat over northern Australia.

Buel’s P-40E at Darwin RAAF base on 15 Feb 1942 before take-off on the USS Houston mission, with the port engine cowl off for a spark plug change (Bob Alford Collection)
Kawanishi H6K Mavis on the water in trouble. (USAAF)
Lieutenant Robert Buel of the USAAF (Bob Alford Collection)
Lieutenant Robert Buel - sign