By mid-March 1942, ninety P-39s and more than 100 of the P-400 derivative had been shipped to Australia. The P-39s went to the 8th Fighter Group while the 35th, which was reorganizing in Australia with pilots who had come out of the Philippines, received the P-400s. Five squadrons of P-39s were also distributed across the South Pacific, with squadrons at Fiji, Christmas Island, Canton, New Caledonia, and Palmyra. Four of the five squadrons, the 67th, 68th, 70th, and 339th, would be formed into the 347th Fighter Group in October 1942, with the group headquarters on New Caledonia until it moved to Guadalcanal late in 1943. Another squadron of P-39s was part of the 18th Fighter Group. Some South Pacific squadrons would still be flying P-39s in early 1944. A P-39 squadron was also dispatched to Alaska. But it would be in New Guinea that P-39s would enter combat, and it was there and in the nearby Solomons that they would play their greatest role with U.S. forces.
In the spring of 1942, the mission of Allied air forces in the Southwest Pacific was the defense of Australia. Immediately upon his arrival there from the Philippines, General Douglas MacArthur decided that the battle line should be drawn in New Guinea. The original Allied plan had been to withdraw south of a line in Central Australia and organize a defense of the more populated southern half of the country, but the idea of giving up more territory to the Japanese was anathema to MacArthur.
Holding Their Own in the Philippines
The loss of the Philippines had affected him deeply, and his every effort was devoted to offense, rather than a continuing retreat deep into Australia. He elected to defend Australia by holding the line in New Guinea until he had sufficient strength to go on the offensive and drive the Japanese off the huge island. While the 49th Fighter Group took its P-40s to Darwin, which had come under Japanese air attack from Java, an advanced echelon of the 8th Fighter Group moved its P-39s in April into Port Moresby on the south coast of Papua, New Guinea, and immediately began combat operations.
Although the pilots of the 8th Fighter Group were flying an airplane that lacked the performance to meet the Japanese at high altitude, their P-39s could hold their own at the lower altitudes and they were led by pilots with combat experience in the Philippines—where Army Air Corps pilots and gunners had destroyed as many Japanese aircraft in the air and on the ground as had been lost. Lieutenant Colonel Boyd “Buzz” Wagner was one such commander.
As a young lieutenant flying P-40s, he had quickly achieved a reputation for aggressive action in daring attacks on Japanese airfields in the first weeks of the war. An aeronautical engineer by training, he knew the capabilities of the Japanese fighters as well as those of his own aircraft, and his skill and knowledge quickly put itself to good use in New Guinea.
On the afternoon of April 30, 1942, Wagner led a formation of 26 Airacobras on their first combat mission, a strafing of the Japanese airfields and fuel dumps at Lae and Salamaua.
Facing the Japanese Air Force
They encountered Japanese fighters and engaged in an intense dogfight. Four P-39s were lost, but the Americans claimed three Japanese fighters shot down. Unfortunately, the losses were especially severe since eleven P-39s had failed to reach Port Moresby during the flight up from Australia and every airplane was badly needed. But there was a bright spot—all of the P-39 pilots were rescued and only one was seriously injured. In two months of combat in New Guinea, the 39th squadron shot down 12 Japanese aircraft for a loss of nine of their own—but did not lose a single pilot. The only serious injury came when a pilot bailed out at high speed and struck his airplane’s surface.
Intercepting incoming Japanese bomber formations was the pressing concern of the force at Port Moresby, but the P-39s and P-400s that constituted the bulk of the air defenses lacked the performance to reach the 22,000-foot altitudes at which the Japanese bombers came over in time to intercept them. It was not that the Airacobras were vulnerable to Japanese fighters. They simply lacked the climb performance to reach the altitudes at which the Japanese were operating!
During the month of July, P-39s only managed to intercept the Japanese formations four times during nine air raids. The P-40s had somewhat better high-altitude performance and attempted to intercept the Japanese formations, but most of their efforts were equally unsuccessful due to a lack of time to gain enough altitude. Furthermore, the P-40s of the 49th Fighter Group were needed to defend Darwin, which was becoming a major Allied base. So, the fighter role in New Guinea remained the responsibility of the P-39s.
Suited for a Ground Attack
If the Japanese dropped to lower altitudes, the P-39s were more than up to the task of knocking them down, but a more effective method was to catch the enemy aircraft on the ground and take advantage of the P-39’s cannon and machine guns in strafing attacks. The P-400s were particularly ineffective as interceptors due to their lack of heavy armament, but with racks for bombs they were well suited for ground attack. On August 8, a 32-plane formation struck Japanese supply dumps on the north side of the Owen Stanley Mountains in one of the first ground attack missions in the theater.
On August 22, an advance element from the 67th Fighter Squadron arrived at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal with five P-400s. The remainder of the squadron arrived five days later, and the Army pilots began operations under the control of Marine Aircraft Wing One and became part of the Cactus Air Force. After initially attempting to intercept Japanese aircraft, the squadron only had three airplanes still in commission after only four days of operations.
This article originally appeared on the Warfare History Network. Originally Published October 19, 2018.