The Del Monte Airfield during World War 2

Del Monte Field was a heavy bomber capable airfield located on Mindanao in the Philippines. The airfield was located in a meadow of Del Monte Corporation

Although the airfield was built as early as the plantation itself,  It was designed for small bi-planes of the era.  It was until September of 1941 that the Del Monte Airstrip was first constructed to accommodate heavy aircrafts, capable of landing four-engine B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers. It was built on a natural meadow on the Del Monte Pineapple Corporation plantation, in the municipality of Manolo Fortich, Bukidnon in northern Mindanao. The airfield established as part of the build-up of United States military forces in the Philippines due to the rising tensions with the Japanese Empire.

Stearmans parked in the airfield in the early ‘30s.

Stearmans parked in the airfield in the early ‘30s.

By the beginning of November, the runways were almost completed, however other than tents being used for the construction crews and to shelter construction equipment, there were no buildings or support equipment to support aircraft operations. In mid-November 1941, General Douglas MacArthur decided to expand Del Monte into a heavy bomber base, based on the belief that heavy bombers on Luzon would be subject to attack and that they should therefore be moved south, out of reach of the enemy. His plans, MacArthur told the Chief of Staff on 29 November, called ultimately for a bomber base in the Visayas, but until such a base was completed he expected to use the field at Del Monte.

On 9 November General Lewis H. Brereton, Commander of Far East Air Force ordered a detachment of airbase ground troops to Del Monte to hurry construction along with supplies of gasoline, ammunition and high-explosive bombs. Work on Del Monte Field was rushed and by the beginning of December it was able to accommodate heavy bombers.

Two runways were built: No. 1 (main runway) and No. 2 (pursuit). A golf course was used as a third auxiliary strip. The airfield was created because bombers at Clark Field, on Luzon, were within range of land-based aircraft on Taiwan (then Formosa). There were additional auxiliary airstrips at Malaybalay Maramag, Dalirig, and Valencia.

American C-47 transport planes and B-17 bombers in the airfield

American C-47 transport planes and B-17 bombers in the airfield

On the morning of 4 December, Bremerton decided to move the 35 B-17s at Clark Field on Luzon down to the facilities at Del Monte, under the belief that the Japanese had no knowledge of the new airfield. Also, the facilities at Clark Field were becoming overcrowded with the reinforcements being rushed to the Philippines in November as the crisis between the United States and Japan grew. However the sparse facilities at the new base couldn’t handle all of the planes and personnel of the 19th Bombardment Group, and in addition, the 7th Bombardment Group was expected to arrive in the Philippines at any time. He wanted to station the 7th at Del Monte when it arrived.

So instead, orders were issued on the night of 5 December to move the 8 B-17s of the 14th Bombardment Squadron and the 8 B-17s of the 93d Bombardment Squadron from Clark to Del Monte. Since there were no barracks built at Del Monte yet, the bombers were filled with tents, cots, blankets and rations. The men also took only what they needed, some toiletries and a few changes of uniform. However, it wasn’t until the morning of 6 December 1941 that the squadrons were ready to take off, and the squadrons arrived later that morning at Del Monte No. 1, just completed the day before. Upon arrival, the squadrons found no workshops, no hangars, no aircraft maintenance facilities, and a runway that slanted downwards like a ski slope. The construction materiel to support them was not scheduled to arrive until 10 December.

Battle of the Philippines

On 8 December, the initial Japanese attack on Clark Field caught the remaining 19th Bombardment Group on the ground and most of its aircraft were destroyed by the bomber and fighter sweeps on the field. In the ensuing Battle of the Philippines (1942) and the destruction of Clark and Nichols Fields on Luzon in the first days of the war, the Japanese were flying extensive reconnaissance missions in an effort to discover the remaining American aircraft in the Philippines. They had been unable to find the Del Monte field, but it was only a question of time before this last haven would be discovered and destroyed as were the airfields on Luzon. Moreover, it was becoming increasingly difficult to service the B-17s with the inadequate facilities at Del Monte. There were no spare parts, engines, or propellers for the B-17s in the Philippines; damaged B-17s had to be cannibalized to keep the bombers flying. The only tools were those in the possession of the crews. The men who worked on the planes all night often got no rest the next day because of air alerts. On some days the heavy bombers had to remain aloft during the daylight hours to avoid destruction on the ground. They dodged back and forth between Mindanao and Luzon, playing a game of hide-and-seek that wore out men as well as planes.

B-17s flying from Del Monte Airfield became the first United States aircraft to engage in offensive action against the Japanese. On December 14, 1941, the American Army Air Forces reacted to the Japanese invasion of the Philippines at Legaspi, Luzon by sending 3 of a group of 6 Del Monte-based B-17s, ordered to attack the landing force. They attacked a Japanese minesweeper and a transport, thought to be a destroyer, with meager results, and 9 naval aircraft based on the Legaspi strip. The unescorted bombers were no match for the Japanese fighters and soon beat a hasty retreat. Only one of the B-17s was able to make its way back to Del Monte; the others had to crash-land short of their base. The Japanese lost at most 4 fighters.

Under these conditions, it was evident that the remaining heavy bombers could not operate efficiently in the Philippines. General Brereton therefore requested authority on December 15 to move the B-17s to Darwin in northwest Australia, 1,500 miles away, where they could be based safely and serviced properly. His intention was to operate from fields near Darwin, using Del Monte as an advance base from which to strike enemy targets in the Philippines. The planes were immediately prepared for the long flight southward, and on December 15 the first group of B-17s left Del Monte airfield. By the following evening ten of the bombers had reached Batchelor Field outside Darwin. They had left Mindanao none too soon, as the complex of airfields was discovered by the Japanese on December 18, 1941 and attacked the following day by Japanese planes based on the carrier Ryujo.

Lt. James T. Connally and the crew of B-17C Flying Fortress #40-2062 at Batchelor, Northern Territory after their first bombing raid out of Australia. Nine B-17's staged through Del Monte on Mindanao to bomb the Japanese landing at Legaspi.

Lt. James T. Connally and the crew of B-17C Flying Fortress #40-2062 at Batchelor, Northern Territory after their first bombing raid out of Australia. Nine B-17’s staged through Del Monte on Mindanao to bomb the Japanese landing at Legaspi.

On December 22, 1941, 9 B-17’s from Batchelor Field near Territory, Australia, attacked shipping in Davao Bay, Mindanao Island and landed at Del Monte. The next day 4 B-17s took off from Del Monte after midnight and bombed enemy shipping in Lingayen Gulf. On the 24th, 3 B-17’s based at Del Monte bombed the airfield and shipping at Davao on the southeast coast of Mindanao before flying to Australia.

Del Monte was later used to evacuate General MacArthur, his family and senior staff from the Philippines, in March 1942. When the evacuation party arrived by PT boat from Corregidor on March 16, four B-17 Flying Fortresses from Australia flew up to Del Monte: B-17E 41-2408, B-17E 41-2429, B-17E 41-2434 and B-17E 41-2447 and evacuated them to Batchelor Field.

On April 8, 1942, the air echelons of the 24th Pursuit Group along with the remaining Army Air Corps flying operations in the Philippines were withdrawn from Luzon and transferred to Del Monte with whatever aircraft were left to carry on the fight.

A B-17 is being prepared by the ground crew. Scenes like these are the norms during 1941 to May 1942

A B-17 is being prepared by the ground crew. Scenes like these are the norms during 1941 to May 1942

In April 1942, a group of 7 B-25s and 3 B-17s from Australia returned to Del Monte for the Royce Mission, to attack the Japanese on three bombing missions. On April 12, B-25s hit the harbor and shipping at Cebu, Cebu Island while B-17s carried out single-bomber strikes against Cebu harbor and Nichols Field on Luzon. On 13 April B-25s hit targets in the Philippines for the second consecutive day. The B-25s took off just after midnight and bombed shipping at Cebu on Cebu Island and installations at Davao on Mindanao. Later in the day the B-25s again attacked Davao, bombing the dock area.

The advancing Japanese forced their return to Australia without loss. In addition to the raids, they brought out a number of important military and diplomatic personnel who had gathered at Del Monte to await evacuation. The last of the 24th Pursuit Group’s aircraft were captured or destroyed by enemy forces on or about May 1, 1942 when the airfield was abandoned by the United States, leaving its facilities to the Japanese invaders.

Del Monte Airfield today

The complex was not used by the joint United States and Philippine Commonwealth armed forces during the Philippines Campaign (1944–45), and the airfields were returned to the Del Monte Pineapple Corporation.

The present-day airstrip of the Del Monte Company, built for their light aircraft, is about two miles east of the wartime airfield. Both #1 (Main) and #2 (Fighter) fields have become rice paddies and cornfields, a dirt road being the only trace of their wartime purpose. As of October 2013, The Del Monte airfield is already closed to general aviation, but ultra-light aircraft, Paramotor aircraft from paramotor flying school of Kampo Juan eco resort  r/c aircraft enthusiast from nearby Cagayan de Oro city use the airfield with the approval from the Del Monte management.