James was born in Ballan, Victoria, on the 27th March 1920. He was known as Skeeter, short for Mosquito, because he was a little lad when he was young. Skeeter enlisted in the RAAF in Hobart on the 20th June 1940.
After Skeeter completed his initial training in Australia, like many other RAAF pilots he ended up in England. On the 30th June 1941, he was posted to 457 Squadron as a Pilot Officer. It was early days for the Squadron because it had only been formed on the 16th June, two weeks earlier. Skeeter quickly rose through the ranks and became an Acting Squadron Leader the day before he became CO of the Squadron on the 4th June 1941. He returned to Australia in June 1942 with the Squadron, when it was recalled to help defend the North West against the Japanese.
The photo on the left was taken in Canada and is of Skeeter and the boys on their way to the War in the UK. From left to right: Peter Watson, George Russell, Don McLean, Peter Brothers, A. Glendenning, “Knockers” North, Skeeter and John Newton. The one to the right is of Skeeter and Spitty was taken at Livingstone in 1943, when Skeeter was Commanding Officer of 457 Squadron.
Back in Australia, 457 Squadron began refresher training at Richmond with a motley collection of aircraft, its Spitfires having being commandeered in transit by the Royal Air Force in the Middle East. It returned to front-line service in January 1943 and Skeeter would have been based at times in Bachelor, Livingstone a and Sattler Airfields.
The Spitfires were crucial to the defence of Australia. They were Darwin’s guardian angels, and few Australians have understood the beating Darwin endured. The onslaught began on the 19th February 1942, when the aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryau, all of which had been in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour 10 weeks earlier, launched 188 planes. Another force of 54 bombers was despatched from Ambon. They pounded the town, harbour, airfield and ships with bombs and torpedoes, killing 243 people, in an attempt to render Darwin impotent as a base. Defended at first only by inadequate Wirraways, and later by Kittyhawks, Darwin was bombed in 64 attacks.
Skeeter remained with the Squadron until February 1944 and then became CO of 85 Squadron RAAF on the 4th September 1944. There he oversaw the introduction of Mark V Spitfires to the Squadron, which began arriving at the same time. 85 Squadron had been formed in 1943 and was responsible for the air defence to Western Australia. It did not see combat during the war, although it attempted to intercept Japanese aircraft on several occasions in 1943, but without success.
Skeeter remained with 85 squadron until March 1945 and was then posted as Commanding Officer to 79 Squadron in May 1945. 79 Squadron had been formed in May 1943 as a fighter unit equipped with Supermarine Spitfires, and saw combat in the South West Pacific theatre of the War. While Skeeter was with the Squadron, it flew air defence patrols to protect Allied bases and ships, escorted Australian and United States aircraft, and attacked Japanese positions. The photo is of some of the men 79 Squadron when it was based at Morotai in northern Indonesia. Skeeter was the Commanding Officer at the time and is in the front row, fifth from left.
While Skeeter was wih 79 Squadron, Bill Schoon, one of his pilot mates recalls the following story:”I wonder if Skeeter recalls our lucky find of two Mustangs ditched near the beach on Sangie Island, south of the Philippines. We had to destroy them, but refrained from firing at the Japs who were then about two miles away, because they were with the local natives. We then spotted the two yellow life rafts surrounded by native prahuas, each with a Jap aboard. From 50 ft you could see the broad smiles of relief on the two USAF pilots’ faces, as all they had to hold them off was their .45s. I returned to the base at full maximum power, it was 240 miles, while Skeeter climbed up into the clouds, throttling back and descending to keep them guessing. He eventually returned with minimum fuel, having contacted a passing DC3 – my radio went on the blink, but I had managed a “straight in” in busy Pitoe strip, and after reporting what happened, a relief section left immediately.
That night we received a signal from Zamboanga (south-west Philippineser advising that a Catalina had picked them up, and that they were safe. Lucky indeed, because they did not share the same fate that befell four Kittyhawk pilots in the same area, some time previously. Three were beheaded and the fourth paddled out to sea, never to be found again.
During the War, Skeeter shot down a German Fw190 over Europe and three Japanese Zeros (one shared) over northern Australia. Skeeter said, “it was our job so we did it. It all seemed so completely normal back then”. He was discharged on 11th February 1946 from No.11 Group Headquarters.
A past President of the Spitfire Association and fellow pilot, Lysle Roberts, often laments the “powers that be” and their error when Skeeter James did not receive a medal for bravery and accomplishing so much. He said that for one being so young, and having so much authority thrust upon him, it would surely one day be redressed. However, we think that Skeeter James would just shrug and walk away.
The photos towards the bottom are of Skeeter with his Spitfire in 79 Squadron. Judy, who he met in Perth while he was with 85 Squadron, is his wife. Then there is 457 Squadron’s unofficial barber, Eric Stephenson, giving Skeeter a good short back-and-sides. Finally, Skeeter’s residence was called Heathfield, but we do not know the wheres and whys of that one.
Bill Schoon, Kinga Jurth and Bruce Read
Updated by Vince Conant and Wendy James
The Spitfire Association