The four Curtiss P-40 Warhawks plummeted 10,000 feet over NewGuinea’s coastline to ambush their quarry. Flight leader 1st Lt. Donald F. Lee, Jr., concentrated intently on his target, a silver-gray Aichi D-3 Type 99 “Val” dive bomber. After centering the Japanese plane in his gunsight reticle, Lee riddled it with a long burst of .50-caliber gunfire.
Just then he heard and felt a loud “thump.” One 7.7mm bullet fired by the Val’s rear gunner had hit his fighter in the radiator. Banking away, the veteran watched with alarm as his engine temperature gauge began to rise. Lee’s wingman next reported seeing a thin stream of white vapor trailing from the disabled Warhawk. That meant it was rapidly losing coolant.
Don Lee realized he would never make it home in this aircraft. As he prepared to bail out, the 23-year-old pilot coolly evaluated his chances of survival in the perilous waters off Cape Ward Hunt. They were not good. Even if he survived the jump, man-eating sharks and enemy patrol boats lurked everywhere. Could friendly rescue craft reach him in time?
Lee put those questions out of his mind as he unbuckled his safety harness and stepped onto the wing of his P-40. The plane suddenly rolled, however, smashing him against its rudder. Stunned, he fell toward the Huon Gulf, only 800 feet below.
This incident, which took place on July 14, 1943, was but one footnote in the saga of the 49th Fighter Group (FG), United States Army Air Forces (USAAF). Hurriedly thrown into the defense of Australia and New Guinea, the “Fighting 49ers” fought relentlessly in a most austere theater of operations against well-trained Japanese adversaries flying modern, maneuverable, and extraordinarily lethal warplanes.
During its 3½ years in combat, the 49th FG claimed 668 enemy aircraft shot down. Notable unit members included Major Richard I. Bong, America’s “ace of aces” with 40 victories (21 scored while assigned to the group), and Colonel Gerald R. Johnson, who made all of his 22 kills with the Fighting 49ers.
But for every Dick Bong or Gerry Johnson, there were dozens of capable, heroic airmen who day after day flew hazardous missions over inhospitable terrain in worn-out aircraft. One of these aviators was Lieutenant Donald Lee, who served with the 49th FG for 18 grueling months before he had to abandon his plane off New Guinea’s northern coast. Present at the start, when green American pilots clashed with battle-tested Japanese pilots flying the vaunted Mitsubishi Zero fighter over the Australian port of Darwin, Lee amassed a solid 600 combat hours in the P-40 Warhawk.
During his year and a half with the 49ers, Lee intercepted Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers, strafed enemy troops, and escorted countless Allied transport planes as they helped advance General Douglas MacArthur’s forces toward victory. Along the way, he scored four air-to-air victories. His story is one of courage, perseverance, and luck, both good and bad.
Donald Harwood Lee, Jr., was born in Ypsilanti, Michigan, on June 29, 1920, to Donald and Hazel Estelle Lee. He graduated from Ypsilanti High School in 1938 then attended the University of Michigan for two years to study architecture. Soon, however, his life would undergo a drastic change.
Like many people his age, Don Lee yearned to fly. At the time, young men with two years of college and who met stringent physical standards could volunteer for a seven-month course of instruction called the Aviation Cadet Training Program, which was held at private flying schools and military air bases all across the country. Standards were high—many cadets “washed out”—but those who persevered would earn both their pilot’s wings and a commission as a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps (redesignated the Army Air Forces in June 1941).
Joining these aviation cadets was an idea that appealed to the bright, athletic Lee. Opportunities in Ypsilanti were limited, while anyone who followed current events recognized that the United States would eventually be drawn into the coming war. He entered the U.S. Army on April 28, 1941, in Detroit, Michigan.
Following primary and basic flight training, Don went to Ellington Field near Houston, Texas, for advanced instruction in the North American AT-6A “Texan” two-seat trainer aircraft. There, he polished his night-flying techniques, air navigation, and formation maneuvers, all under the critical gaze of USAAF instructors. While at Ellington Field, Lee “ground-looped” an AT-6A on October 28 when his plane dug a wing into the grass and spun around after a poorly executed landing.
This accident did not prevent him from receiving his wings. On December 12, 1941, four days after the nation declared war on Japan, 2nd Lt. Donald Lee graduated from flight school and received his commission in the USAAF. He did not have much time to celebrate this achievement, though, as orders soon arrived posting Lee to duty at Morrison Field near West Palm Beach, Florida.
On December 21, Lee reported to the 49th Pursuit Group (PG) at Morrison Field. He was assigned to the 7th Pursuit Squadron (PS), one of three flying outfits that made up the 49th PG (the other squadrons were the 8th PS and 9th PS). Don heard his unit was supposed to be shipping out soon; these rumors proved correct when, on December 26, the group received an alert for overseas deployment.
Lee and his squadron mates must have felt lost in the chaos that followed. After hurriedly packing all their personal and organizational equipment, the 49ers boarded a troop train that departed from West Palm Beach at 11:45 pm on January 4, 1942. Four days later, the aviators arrived in San Francisco, where they were billeted at a former livestock pavilion nicknamed the “Cow Palace.”
While the men of the 49th PG waited for transport to arrive, their ranks were filled by dozens of officers and more than 500 mechanics, clerks, electricians, cooks, and other enlisted soldiers who would keep the organization running smoothly. On January 12, the airmen at last began boarding a former luxury liner named the SS Mariposa,their transportation to an unknown destination.
After the Mariposapassed underneath the Golden Gate Bridge that afternoon, senior officers finally divulged their destination: Australia. The 49th was the first pursuit group formed in the United States to deploy overseas after Pearl Harbor, yet it did so in a manner indicative of the nation’s general unpreparedness for war. Of the outfit’s 102 pilots, 95 including Lee, had never flown a fighter before, and no one knew what type of aircraft they would operate once the unit arrived “Down Under.”
After nearly three weeks at sea, the Mariposaarrived in Melbourne, Australia, on February 1. The next day, Lee and his companions disembarked. Within a week, the 7th PS had settled in at a training base at Bankstown, New South Wales. There, the airmen immersed themselves in the task of learning how to fly their new mounts, a set of freshly manufactured P-40E Warhawk pursuit planes.
The Curtiss P-40E Warhawk distinguished itself as the USAAF’s best fighter available in large numbers when World War II began. An all-metal, low-wing, single-seat interceptor, the E model was powered by a 1,150-horsepower Allison V-1710-39 inline engine driving it to top speeds of over 360 miles per hour. Six Browning M2 .50-caliber machine guns constituted the P-40E’s main armament, and it came equipped with shackles that could carry one 500-pound bomb or a drop tank.
Many aircraft were damaged during this training phase. The Warhawk’s powerful engine generated considerable torque, causing several rookies to veer off the runway on takeoff. Overheating was always a problem with the P-40’s liquid-cooled Allison, while its narrow-track landing gear led to frequent ground loops—just what Don Lee experienced in Texas. The group suffered more than 60 accidents, many of them fatal, while its pilots learned to fly these tricky Curtiss fighters.
While Lee and his fellow 49ers familiarized themselves with the warplanes that would carry them into battle, their aggressive enemy reached ever closer to Australia. By February 1942, Japanese airpower had wrested control of Philippine skies from USAAF and Filipino aviators. The Netherlands East Indies was next. Dutch, British, and American aircraft based on the island of Java proved no match for overwhelming numbers of expertly flown Japanese Zero fighters.
Papua New Guinea, part of a vast landmass sitting directly north of Australia, represented the last natural barrier between approaching Japanese invasion forces and the Australian continent. On February 3, enemy bombers hit Papua’s capital city of Port Moresby, preparatory to an amphibious invasion set for later that year.
More alarming to the Allies were two large-scale air raids that struck their advance base at Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory on February 19. Some 242 Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) carrier- and land-based planes demolished port facilities and airfields there, encountering only feeble resistance from surprised USAAF interceptors and Australian antiaircraft gunners.
Ready or not, the Fighting 49ers were desperately needed to help check Japan’s next move. On March 4, the 7th PS sent 12 planes north 3,000 miles from its Bankstown base to Horn Island, Queensland. Lee was among those who lifted off at dawn on March 7 to make this long staging flight. He got as far as the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) airdrome at Charters Towers, where his P-40 (serial number 41-5313) was severely damaged. Together with RAAF personnel posted there, Lee eventually repaired the Curtiss—now christened Bitza-Hawk—and flew it to Darwin in late March.