Mustangs as Ground Attack Aircraft
Mustangs were also used as fighter-bombers, especially after the Luftwaffe’s fighter squadrons were practically grounded because of lack of gasoline and oil. Thunderbolts and Lightnings continued flying escort missions until Mustangs replaced them in most VIII Fighter Command squadrons in the latter part of 1944. But the conversion did not take place until comparatively late in the war as more Mustangs became available. Thunderbolts and Lightnings continued to be the primary escort fighters in Europe until mid-1944. Ironically, at about the same time that Mustangs started appearing in European skies in large numbers, the air war moved down, as providing close air support for ground troops became the primary Army Air Forces mission.
While the Mustang became the primary escort fighter with VIII Fighter Command, P-51s were not absent from the tactical air commands of the Ninth Air Force. Brig. Gen. O.P. Weyland’s XIX Tactical Air Command included one group of Mustangs when it went operational on July 31, 1944, to support General George S. Patton’s Third Army, and other Mustang groups transferred in and out as operational needs changed. The Mustang faced a major drawback when it came to low-altitude attack. The liquid-cooled Merlin engines made the P-51s more vulnerable to ground fire than the radial-engine P-47s, so they were often assigned to fly fighter cover over the battlefield to protect against German aircraft.
Thunderbolts were equipped with two more machine guns than Mustangs and were thus more suited for attacks on German armor and other ground targets. Still, the P-51s flew their share of ground attack missions, using their six .50-caliber machine guns to strafe and fire rockets and drop bombs and napalm. Eighth Air Force Mustangs often transferred to Ninth Air Force control, particularly during the battle to regain the Allied initiative during the German Ardennes offensive in the winter of 1944-1945.
The Red Tails of the Tuskegee Airmen
Mustang-equipped groups entered combat with the Fifteenth Air Force from Italian bases in the late spring of 1944 when three groups that had been flying P-40s received P-51s. The 52nd Fighter Group of the Twelfth Air Force traded in Spitfires for Mustangs as well. A fourth Fifteenth Air Force group that received P-51s was the controversial 332nd Fighter Group, an all-black unit popularly associated with the Tuskegee Airmen, that had most recently flown P-47s. Group pilots painted their airplane tails red, making them easily identifiable to both friend and foe. Group members would later claim that they “never lost a bomber” while flying escort missions, although the qualifications for such a claim are somewhat murky.
Standardizing the P-51
With the appearance and acceptance of the Merlin-powered Mustangs, the Army Air Forces began making plans to eliminate production of other types in an effort to standardize maintenance and supply roles. But all of the combat commanders were not as enthusiastic about the Mustang as was VIII Fighter Command’s Brig. Gen. William Kepner. When notified by Headquarters, U.S. Army Air Forces that his command’s P-38s and P-47s were slated to be replaced by P-51s, Far East Air Forces commander Lt. Gen. George C. Kenney flatly said “No!” Early in the war, Kenney had told General Henry H. Arnold that he really did not care what kind of airplanes he received in his theater, but as the war continued he developed a preference for the twin-engine P-38.
Kenney commanded a theater that included a great expanse of water, and he felt that the second engine on the P-38 gave his pilots a chance at returning home that the P-51 failed to offer. Furthermore, Fifth and Thirteenth Air Force P-38s in the Pacific had been doing a pretty good job of shooting down Japanese airplanes since they made their combat debut at the end of 1942. By mid-1944, Far East Air Forces P-38s were flying 700-mile missions, distances far greater than any encountered in Europe. The P-38 remained the fighter of choice in Far East Air Forces until the end of the war.
In spite of General Kenney’s initial refusal to accept Mustangs as replacements in his veteran fighter squadrons, some newly arriving units were equipped with the P-51. In early 1945, the 460th Fighter Squadron joined the P-47- equipped 348th Fighter Group with P-51s, and the rest of the group began making the transition to the more maneuverable fighter. The first Mustangs in the Southwest Pacific were actually F-6D reconnaissance airplanes that began operations in late 1944 with the 82nd Reconnaissance Squadron.
Mustangs in the Pacific
A few days after entering combat, Captain William Shomo, the squadron commander, was on a photography flight when he and his wingman encountered a formation of 13 Japanese aircraft, a bomber and 12 fighter escorts. Although both Shomo and his wingman, Lieutenant Paul Libscomb, were rookies with no combat experience, they managed to shoot down the bomber and 10 of its escorts. For their actions, Shomo received the Medal of Honor and Libscomb the Distinguished Service Cross. Other Mustangs operated in the Southwest Pacific with the 3rd Air Commando Group.
Air Commandos also brought Mustang fighters to the China-Burma-India Theater, where the P-51 played a major role with the Fourteenth Air Force during the final year of the war. After initially supporting British long-range ground operations in Burma, the Air Commando Mustangs were used primarily for ground attack, particularly against Japanese airfields and supply routes. The Air Commando Mustangs were not the first in the CBI, however. The agile fighters entered service in the theater in mid-1943 when the 311th Bombardment Group arrived with two squadrons of A-36s and one of early model Allison-equipped P-51As. They were joined by the 8th Photo-Reconnaissance Group, which flew the F-6 version of the airplane. Mustangs later replaced Curtiss P-40s in the famed 23rd Fighter Group, the Army Air Corps unit that replaced the American Volunteer Group known as the Flying Tigers, in early 1942 after the United States entered the war.
During the final months of the war, the Army Air Forces also began assigning P-51s to the Central Pacific to provide escort for Boeing B-29 Superfortresses flying long-range bombing missions over the Japanese home islands from their bases in the Marianas. To secure a forward base for the P-51s, U.S. Marines landed on Iwo Jima, an island 660 miles southeast of the Japanese home islands. The first mission over Japan took place on April 29, 1945, when 108 P-51s escorted B-29s. Mustangs were also based on Okinawa, whence they joined other American fighters and ground attack aircraft on sweeps over Japan.
The Ever-Evolving P-51 Mustang
As the first customer for the Mustang, the British Royal Air Force continued to use the type in a variety of roles throughout the war. After their initial use as reconnaissance aircraft, RAF Mustangs served as escort fighters and ground attack aircraft in Asia as well as Europe and the Mediterranean. Mustangs also served with the Royal Australian Air Force, the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Netherlands East Indies Air Force, and the South African Air Force, although the SAAF was operational only in the final weeks of the war.
Ironically, the feature that made the Lockheed P-38 the favored fighter in the Southwest Pacific led North American to propose the development of a twin-engine version of the Mustang. North American carried its design a bit further than Lockheed and added a second pilot. Essentially, the Twin Mustang, designated by the U.S. Army as the F-82, was two P-51 fuselages joined together with a short wing and single stabilizer connecting the two. Production began in early 1945, but only 20 had been produced by war’s end.
Author Sam McGowan is also a pilot. He resides in the Houston, Texas, area.
Originally Published in 2016.