Special Plane, Special Role: How the P-38 Lightning Helped Win World War II

By U.S. Air Force - https://media.defense.gov/2004/Mar/12/2000593925/-1/-1/0/021001-O-9999G-005.JPG, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4012931
December 30, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: MilitaryTechnologyWeaponsWarLockheed Martin

Special Plane, Special Role: How the P-38 Lightning Helped Win World War II

The P-38 joined the war late, but it quickly became a famous workhorse.

Victory by Accident: Lockheed P-38s in the Pacific Theater

The first P-38 victory in the Pacific came about as more of an accident than a deliberate attack. For several weeks the P-38 pilots had little success at encountering Japanese aircraft; the Japanese pilots seemed to be avoiding the twin-boomed fighters. In late November, a flight of P-38s was patrolling over the Lae Airdrome and issuing taunts to the Japanese over the radio when one of the Japanese fighter pilots decided to take off. A young P-38 pilot from New Orleans named Ferrault went down to attack the Japanese fighter, then remembered he was carrying bombs and quickly jettisoned them. His plan was to come around and attack the Japanese fighter as soon as its wheels were retracted. The bombs fell in the water off the end of the runway. The unfortunate Japanese pilot flew into the water that had been tossed skyward by the explosions and crashed into the bay. General Kenney kidded the young Cajun that he did not deserve the promised Air Medal that was to go to the first P-38 pilot to achieve a victory since he had not shot the Japanese plane down, but later that evening he went over to the squadron and gave him the medal.

December 27, 1942, was the day the P-38 began to take over the skies of the Southwest Pacific. A flight of 12 Lightnings was sitting strip alert at Laloki Aerodrome at Port Moresby when they got word that a large Japanese formation was headed their way. Captain Thomas J. Lynch, who had already achieved some success in P-39s, led the P-38s off the ground and climbed to intercept the formation of 25 Japanese fighters and dive-bombers.

When the battle ended, 15 of the Japanese formation had been claimed (the official history of the Army Air Forces in WWII lists nine Japanese fighters and two dive-bombers destroyed). Lynch himself claimed two, as did Bong. Lieutenant Kenneth Sparks also claimed a pair of Japanese fighters.

Reportedly, Bong’s two victories came about as a result of his aggressiveness. Although he had innocent good looks—Kenney referred to him as a “cherub”—Bong was very aggressive on the inside. He was not a particularly good shot, but he was an exceptional pilot and he achieved most of his earlier victories by pulling in as close as possible to his quarry and “putting the guns right in the cockpit.”

In his first action Bong reportedly was separated from the rest of the formation and found himself surrounded by several Japanese planes. He promptly shot two down and escaped unscathed. Bong achieved all 40 of his aerial victories in P-38s, but died at the end of the war while testing a new jet fighter.

The twin engines and longer range of the P-38s made them the ideal fighter for the South Pacific Area of Operations, and General Millard Harmon constantly pressed General Arnold for P-38s for his theater. In the late fall and winter of 1942, Allied forces struggled to wrest control of Guadalcanal from the Japanese. Henderson Field had been the major objective of the Marines who initially landed on the island, and a major struggle took place for control of it.

Japanese aircraft staged constant raids on American-held Henderson Field, which was defended by obsolete Marine Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters and U.S. Army P-39s and P-400s; the P-400 was an export version of the P-39 Airacobra. Both the F4Fs and the P-39/P-400s were lacking in performance and were unable to meet the Japanese fighters on their own terms.

In November 1942, General Douglas MacArthur ordered the temporary assignment of some P-38s to Guadalcanal due to the uncertain nature of the situation. A flight of eight P-38s from the 39th Fighter Squadron left Milne Bay on New Guinea on November 13 and flew directly to Henderson Field, where they remained for a week. A major air and naval action against the Japanese Navy began on November 14 and prevented the Japanese from resupplying their troops on Guadalcanal, thus deciding the final outcome of the campaign, though the island would not be clear of Japanese until February.

Which Lockheed P-38 Pilot “Got” Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto?

In early 1943, Headquarters, Army Air Forces finally began releasing a few P-38s for assignment to the Pacific to replace the performance-limited P-39s and P-40s. Once Guadalcanal was secure, the South Pacific Area of Operations began making plans to move northward through the Solomon Islands. In March the 18th Fighter Group moved to the South Pacific from Hawaii and joined the 347th Fighter Group, which was in the process of converting from P-40s to Lightnings. Shortly after their arrival at Henderson Field, pilots from the 18th joined with others from the veteran 347th for one of the most famous missions of World War II.

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning was a Mainstay of U.S. Fighter Squadrons in Europe and the South Pacific.

In early April, Allied code-breakers learned that Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Japan’s leading naval strategist and the architect of the air attacks on Pearl Harbor and Midway, would be flying on an inspection visit of Japanese installations in the South Pacific. American cryptoanalysts had determined Yamamoto’s exact itinerary, including the information that he was due to arrive at the airfield at Ballale on the island of Bougainville at 0945 on April 18.

No doubt still chafing over the humiliation of the Japanese victory over the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor nearly a year and a half before, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J. King ordered Admiral William Halsey, commander of U.S. forces in and around Guadalcanal, to “Get Yamamoto.” Halsey relayed the order to the new Commander for Air, Solomons, a naval officer, Admiral Marc Mitscher.

Since the only Allied fighters in the theater capable of making the interception were P-38s, the order went to the Army. Eight pilots were chosen from the 18th Fighter Group’s 12th Fighter Squadron, two were chosen from the 70th Fighter Squadron, and eight more came from the 347th Group’s 339th Fighter Squadron. Captain Thomas Lanphier of the 70th Fighter Squadron was chosen to lead the four P-38s of the attack section. Major John Mitchell was in command of the operation and led the other 14 P-38s in the cover role.

The 18-airplane formation took off from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal at 0725 hours on the morning of the 18th and flew at wave-top height for more than two hours. As they neared the coast of Bougainville, the formation of P-38s sighted Admiral Yamamoto’s entourage. The two Mitsubishi G4M Betty bombers carrying the admiral and his staff tried to escape while six Zeros attempted to intercept the attack force. Captain Lanphier shot down one Zero then attacked one of the Bettys and sent it into the jungle in flames. Lieutenant Rex Barber shot down the other Betty.

Lanphier was credited with shooting down Yamamoto, but a controversy erupted between him and Barber over who “got Yamamoto” that continued for more than half a century. Regardless of who shot down whom, the flight of P-38s shot down Yamamoto and killed him and most of his staff. The Navy Cross was awarded to flight leader Major Mitchell and to each of the four pilots in the attack section.

In May 1943, the 475th Fighter Group was activated in Australia and planned to become the first group in the Southwest Pacific to be equipped solely with P-38s. At this time other groups were operating mixed bags of aircraft, including P-39s, P-40s, and P-47s as well as P-38s. Pilots and other personnel were drawn from other groups already fighting in New Guinea and sent back to Australia to form a nucleus around which the group would be built. Additional personnel arrived from the States to fill out the squadron while new airplanes were delivered by boat. By July 118 P-38s had arrived in Australia and were going through the modification program at Eagle Farms to bring them up to combat standards. By mid-August, the group was ready for combat and moved back up north to Dobodura, to join the 49th Fighter Group, which was operating P-38s and P-40s.

Range was one of the major problems facing the fighter commanders of the Fifth and Thirteenth Air Forces. Unlike the war in Europe, which was waged over a comparatively confined area and mostly over land, the war in the Pacific Theater was fought over great distances that required long flights over water. The twin engines of the P-38 made it the ideal candidate for over-water flying. With a single-engine fighter, an engine failure meant that the airplane was coming out of the sky. A twin-engine fighter or light/medium bomber could lose one engine and still continue back to base.

Charles Lindbergh’s History with the P-38

General Kenney and his fighter commanders pondered the problems of their theater and constantly thought of new ways to extend the range of the combat squadrons. Extended-range fuel tanks afforded increased range, but in the summer of 1944 a godsend came to the theater, a man who would significantly increase the range and combat radius of the P-38.