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20: Captain in the US 317th Troop Carrier Group

For the first few months the aircraft and crews belonging to KLM/KNILM were busy ferrying supplies from Archerfield, Brisbane, Queensland to US bases in Northern Australia. The crew members were Te Roller, Hulsebos, Dirk Rap, Peter Deenik, Van Dijk, Jan Van Balkom, Iwan Smirnoff, Van Messel, Dunlop, Frans Van Breemen and Rijers.

But, in May 1942 came the end. Their aircraft (two DC2, two DC3, three DC5 and four Lockheed-14) needed maintenance and spare parts which only the Americans could supply.

One day when Ivan drove to the airfield he found all the machines in their hangars and the director waiting for the pilots. He told that it was no longer possible for a civil company (KLM/KNILM) to get a licence to bring out spares from the USA. The director explained that although KNILM operated their aircraft under charter to the U.S. military, General MacArthur had been reluctant to allow so many valuable aircraft to remain in civilian hands. As a result, KNILM were coerced into selling their aircraft to the USAAF. This coercion took the form of a suspension of logistical support such as the impounding of one hundred cases of spare parts. To prevent the fleet being grounded KNILM had now arranged for its sale to the American Army Command.

Surviving documents suggest that all of the KNILM aircraft were to have been sold to the Australian government for a token 5 each, but the transaction was apparently overruled in favour of a sale to the USAAF. This purchase is reputed to have cost Uncle Sam $530,000.00 for ten aircraft (one Lockheed-14 had been written off).

Nicholas Dijkstra, a friend of Ivan Smirnoff, explains:

"KNILM management negotiated a handover of the aircraft to the US Air Force. Our crews, based in Sydney and Brisbane, were very upset about this decision. It meant that a useful service came to a sudden end, whilst the future of the crew members remained uncertain. Still, in my opinion this was not the reason that five(*) aircraft of KLM/KNILM flew a few days later under the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

On a beautiful Sunday in the month of May 1942, two US 'Kittyhawks' had flown under the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I was in Elizabeth Bay at the time, or near there, and saw them. Traffic on the bridge came to a full stop and people were excited. The following day it was the main item of conversation - everybody thought that it was a great stunt. Nobody had done that before!

A couple of days later on 14 May, when the aircraft of KLM and KNILM were being prepared for the final flight to Wagga Wagga, we were also talking about the 'Kittyhawk Stunt'. We were to make a short flight over Sydney for a final check of the aircraft. Some people of the ground staff suggested that it would be nice to come along for the short flight, so at the end close to fifty people, ground staff personnel, waiters and waitresses from the restaurant at the airport as well as kitchenstaff, were taken on board ready for take off.

Then one of the pilots suggested that we could do better than the two US Kittyhawks and fly some of the aircraft in formation under the Sydney Harbour Bridge. A KLM radio-operator, Joe Muller (he had previously been shot down at Carnot Bay, WA, with KLM Captain Ivan Smirnoff in the DC3 PK-AFV) was asked to go to the control tower to ask permission to fly under the bridge. Watching from the tarmac we could see Joe Muller talking to the personnel in the control tower. After a few minutes he came out to the walkway alongside the tower, Joe Muller looked in our direction and then raised his thumb in what we took to be the 'OK' signal. And off we went...

The five(*) aircraft took off and eventually took up formation approaching the bridge from the Sydney Heads. Still in formation we flew under the bridge, pulled up, made a wide turn and then flew in single line again under the bridge and then returned to Kingsford Smith Airport.

After we landed and taxied to the ramp, there was hell to pay! Anybody with some kind of authority was there. It then became clear that Joe Muller had not asked for permission to fly under the bridge. He explained to us that his thumbs-up signal only meant that the aircraft looked fine! The authorities did not have much to nail us down with, but we heard later that an order had been issued, forbidding to fly under the bridge and that anyone doing so, would be fined one hundred pounds ($200) for every person aboard."

(*) According to Nicholas Dijkstra there were five machines and he flew with Captain Jan van Balkom!

At least (according to other sources) the machines flying under the bridge were:

DC2, PK-AFK, piloted by Captain Frans Van Breemen
DC3, PK-ALW "Wielewaal" piloted by Captain Peter Deenik
DC5, PK-ADC, piloted by Captain Dirk Rab with John Gyzemyter as Flight Engineer

...."What about us?" growled Ivan. "You selling us, too?"
Ivan persisted: "I am with you to build things up, not to knock them down. Can you suggest some other way?"
The director was sorry, but he couldn't.

It was dreadful to think of KLM machines in the hands of the Yanks. It was dreadful to contemplate the prospect of sitting idle, month after month, waiting for the war to end. The Yanks were in dire need of pilots but when Ivan asked for a job the young captain in charge took one look at him and said, dryly: "Thanks, Pop, I guess we'll get by and not trouble you."

Ivan lived well now, he had grown 'fat and flourishing'. In fact he had grown so much that he burst out of all his clothes and had to search the Sydney shops to find seventeen-and-a-half-inch collars.

During most of 1942 the Japanese still thought they were going to win the whole Pacific region, and they found Port Moresby on New Guinea to be vital to fulfil that goal. The Allied, on the other hand, had not yet understood how important it really was to defend the very same area.

The first real victory against the Japs in the Pacific Ocean was carried out mostly by Australian troops. From 25 August to 7 September 1942 the Australians defeated the Japanese at Milne Bay about 350 km south-east of Port Moresby. This victory became an important turnpoint in WWII, it showed to everyone that the Japs could be beaten, and therefore the morale was now extensively increasing everywhere.

General MacArthur had had his HQ well of the way in Melbourne, but when things eventually started to look better, he moved his HQ to Brisbane. And when the Japs were defeated on New Guinea, he moved his HQ further on, to Port Moresby.

....Finally, on 20 January 1943 Ivan was gazetted Captain (First Pilot) in the 39th Troop Carrier Squadron, 317th Troop Carrier Group (which later that year (30 September) moved their headquarters from Townsville to Port Moresby) for operational flying duty. His appointment was made by General Kenny, Chief of Staff. It was an honour - there were only four First Pilots named. Now Ivan had joined the Americans.

Ivan Smirnoff

But Ivan had to learn about some US flight rules that appeared silly to him. One of the regulations laid down, that unless the weather (In Opinion Of Ground Control) were 100% good, the trip was cancelled. The experienced pilots went wild over this too-cautious rule.

Ivan just refused to accept it and soon after was preparing to leave when ground control signalled:
"Trip off, weather tricky."
"Nonsense!" he roared down the airfield intercom. "Put me on to the fellah in charge here."
When he was put through he blew up the airfield commander good and proper.
The commander listened patiently then said:
"I get your point, Captain; just the same, you can't fly."
"Like hell I can't!" bellowed Ivan. "Who is the guy that gives you your orders?"
"Senior Colonel, Divisional Command." He was given the name of a base a hundred miles away.

To the switchboard operator Ivan roared: "Get me Divisional Command," and when, an hour later, the call came through, insisted on getting on to the senior colonel and putting a politer version of his case.

"I sure admire your spirit," said the colonel, "all the same, you can't fly."
"Colonel," growled Ivan, almost crushing the receiver in his hands,
"I know that an order is an order. All the same I am now obliged to send a report to the General in charge of your Air Force."
"You do just that," said the colonel, and hung up.

Ivan composed a blistering report and organized a girl typist to "English" it for him.

He never got an answer but in 3 days' time a directive "from the Old Man himself" went out to all airport commands. "This man Smirnoff," it said, "he's Dutch. Let him fly whenever he says, disregard regulation in his case."

So Ivan was becoming a legend in yet another country, and the ground staffs, at every base, turned out cheerfully in all weathers to give him the best servicing they could. They knew that if Captain Smirnoff said he was going up, he damn' well would.

Months later Ivan was told that his letter had been circulating in "the highest circles" and that MacArthur had yelled with laughter and said: "Get me some more of those damn' Dutch, I could do with them."

The corner of Annerley Road and Laurier Street in Brisbane, Queensland.

....Margot was now living in Brisbane, close to the Brisbane River, in another furnished flat at the corner of Annerley Road and Laurier Street, so that Ivan could sleep at home between his arduous journeys to Port Moresby on New Guinea. There were only 5 kilometres to drive from Archerfield Airport to Annerley Road and Margot.

She had never worked harder in her life - the younger Dutch pilots, unhappy in the local "hotels", looked upon the Smirnoff home as Netherlands territory. The Australian climate agreed with her, she felt better, and there were experienced doctors at hand who saw to it she suffered no more pain than was absolutely unavoidable.

When Ivan first flew to Port Moresby there was nothing there at all - not a hut, not a yard of tarmac, not a telephone.

MacArthur fixed that. He had the complete airfield - stores, canteens, sick bays, offices, landing strips and all - built in just 3 days. "Those Yanks, they do an amazing job," said Ivan. Only a month after the first airfield was completed Port Moresby was surrounded by not less than 7 airfields.

Ivan ferried tools, building materials, jeeps, ammunition, bacon and eggs, and medical stores from Brisbane to Port Moresby in a series of bewildering priorities that he could never fathom. On one of his very earliest flights he took a complete plant for making Coca-Cola!

On the return flights to Brisbane Ivan took sick and wounded. Once he evacuated the whole hospital, all down with malaria - patients, doctors, nurses, everybody.

He also carried back Japanese prisoners for interrogation. This was a horrible task; nearly all the prisoners were sick, suffering from dysentery.

En route to Port Moresby Ivan gladly took on additional observation and spotting duties, mostly reporting movements of Jap destroyers and submarines. They soon learned that the Great Barrier Reef was favourite 'parking lots' for captains of the enemy submarines. They were easy to spot from high altitudes, and easy to destroy afterwards.

There were 2100 kilometres to fly between Brisbane and Port Moresby, and they normally made an intermediate stop at Townsville both ways. This service was maintained every 24 hours. After a 24 hour round trip to Port Moresby each crew member had a day off.


To the right you see a detail from Ivan's personal briefcase, which he carried on his missions to Port Moresby on New Guinea. Below in the ID-window the following can be read:

This case and contents are the property of the U.S. Army Air Corps. Click on the picture to enlarge...

At the same time, when Ivan was busy at the US 317th Troop Carrier Group, KLM had managed to build up new activities. In August 1942 they had opened a service to Ciudad Trujillo in Peru and now, one year later, by August 1943, they were running a service of Lockheed-14's from Miami in USA. The Dutch Air Force had been given a base at Jackson, Mississippi, where the Netherlands flag flew supreme - the only foreign flag, other than those flown at embassies - with permission to wave over United States territory. Ivan now realized that by hook or by crook he must get himself to America.

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