Hawaiian Air Depot Boeing B-17E Flying Fortresses, Part I

In the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack much of the American airpower in the Pacific lay wrecked, caught on the ground by the Japanese assault. Planes lined up in neat rows alongside airfields proved easy targets for bombers and strafing fighters.  Even worse, there were multiple instances of gunners on the ground firing on any aircraft within range regardless if it was American or Japanese.  To address these problems commanders ordered that aircraft were to be disbursed and camouflaged while on the ground, and additional national markings applied to aid recognition in the air.  The Hawaiian Air Depot (HAD) was tasked with making these changes.

The Hawaiian Air Depot scheme consisted of applying broad patches of colors from paint stocks on hand to break up the aircraft’s outline. Application appears to have been limited to medium and heavy bombers.  The exact colors were not documented nor were lists kept of which aircraft were repainted.  Fortunately there is surviving color film of four aircraft in HAD schemes, one B-18, one B-17C/D, and two B-17Es.  The Dark Olive Drab 41 upper surfaces were broken up with patches of what appear to be Sand 26, Neutral Gray 43, Rust Brown 34, and Interior Green.  There was no set pattern and not all colors may have been used on every aircraft.    Photographs of B-18s and B-17C/Ds show no uniformity, but the B-17Es follow a general concept with variation in the color boundaries.  In some photographs this color pattern “fingerprint” can permit the individual aircraft to be determined.  Data blocks were masked off before the new camouflage was applied which allows the original Olive Drab background to show through. The undersides were not repainted.  It is interesting to speculate if any of the B-17C/D or B-18 retained natural metal undersides.

National markings were augmented by applying additional insignia to the starboard upper and port lower wing surfaces bringing the total to six. Thirteen alternating red and white rudder stripes were also added, but without the vertical blue stripe of the pre-war marking convention.  The “U.S. ARMY” lettering remained on the underside of the wings as can be seen in several photographs.  Individual aircraft serial numbers were applied to the vertical stabilizers in Orange Yellow, but the size and shapes of the numerals varied so modelers must pay careful attention.

The application of the HAD scheme was short lived. The order was issued on 10DEC41, but when the 22nd Bomb Group B-26 Marauders arrived in Hawaii in February 1942 they received only tail stripes.  Three B-17Es also received tail stripes but no disruptive camouflage, serial numbers 41-2403, 41-2435, and 41-2446 – which is currently under restoration as  the famous “Swamp Ghost”.  However, tail stripes and red centers to the national insignia were being painted out by some units as early as April to avoid confusion with the Japanese Hinomaru, and this was formalized by ALNAV 97 on 06MAY42.

The HAD scheme Flying Fortresses are interesting not only due to their unique camouflage, but also due to the service records of the crews which flew them. They flew against long odds for a long time, in adverse conditions against a capable and determined enemy.  An excellent overview of their operations is provided by historian Steve Birdsall here:  http://www.historynet.com/pacific-tramps.htm

After digging into the subject, my opinion is eighteen B-17E, eight B-17C/D, and at least two Douglas B-18s (likely many more) received the full HAD scheme. I have posted examples of the early “shark fin” B-17s and B-18s in previous blogs, and will now focus on examples of the B-17Es which I hope are of interest to modelers in future posts.  Any additional information is most welcome, as are any corrections or citations.


Color screen captures from John Ford’s Battle of Midway documentary show the Hawaiian Air Depot scheme to good advantage. 41-2397 was the fifth B-17E built and originally carried the Sperry Model 645705-D remote sighted belly turret.  The top of the rudder appears to have been repaired and has a more reddish hue than the surrounding structures.
This picture of the nose of 41-2397 reveals several interesting details. Under the last nose window is a small rectangular area of the factory Olive Drab finish – this is where the aircraft data block was masked off to preserve the stenciling prior to the application of the HAD camouflage.  Also note the natural metal cowl flaps on the inboard port engine.  Replacement engines were issued with cowl flaps in place.  On this engine the cowl flaps were not camouflaged, but more usually the flaps would be painted in the standard OD/NG colors.  Modelers should presume that a HAD ship which had seen extensive service would have cowl flaps which might not match the colors on the rest of the nacelle!
41-2397 again, this time jacked up with coconut logs on Espiritu Santo in December 1942. She is missing her port outer wing panel, and has been refitted with a Sperry manned ball turret in her ventral station.  This aircraft was named JOE BFTSPLK after a jinxed comic strip character of the time.  (Ralph Morse photograph)
A well-known picture of three Fortresses. 41-2403 in a standard OD/NG camouflage but with tail stripes, 41-2404 in a full HAD scheme, and B-17D 40-3060 in another HAD scheme variation. The camouflage pattern on the HAD B-17Es appear to follow a similar pattern with individual differences in the color boundaries, but the known pictures of B-17C/Ds are all different.
Crew boarding 41-2404. Note the style of the serial number on the tail.  This aircraft was named “The Spider”.  Damaged by flak at the Battle of Midway, claimed (erroneously) to have scored hits on Kaga.   While operating from Espiritu Santo, she ran out of fuel and ditched on 12SEP42.  Two crew died of exposure, the remainder were rescued by a US Navy destroyer after seven days at sea.
On the right is 41-2408 in APR42. She does not carry rudder stripes nor red centers on her insignia.  The Fortress on the left has been identified as 41-2421 but has not yet had her serial number applied to the tail.  She retains the early war insignia with red centers but also lacks the tail stripes.  Both aircraft carry the remote Sperry belly turrets.  De-icer boots were often missing from Pacific War Fortresses.
41-2408 was one of four Fortresses used to evacuate MacArthur and his staff from Mindanao to Darwin. She carries the manned Sperry belly turret in this photograph.  Modelers note the paint wear on the back of the propeller blades, common to aircraft operating from sandy or dusty airfields.
Another Fortress lacking serials, this is 41-2416. It was common for crews to increase the defensive armament of their Fortresses, here the radio operator has replaced his single .50 with twins.  This ship was named “San Antonio Rose” after the popular Bob Wills song, one of many American aircraft to carry the name.
41-2416 again, this time with her serials. Compare the size and style of the numbers with 41-2404 above.  She survived combat, being written off at Brisbane on 31JAN44.  (USAAF photo from Pacific Wrecks)

Part II here: https://inchhighguy.wordpress.com/2018/11/30/hawaiian-air-depot-b-17e-flying-fortresses-part-ii/

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