P-38 Lightning in Pacific Theatre

Last revised June 13, 1999




The story of the Lightning continues with an account of its service in the Pacific.

The first lightnings to be deployed overseas in the Pacific theatre were the small number of P-38Ds and P-38Es which were rushed to Fairbanks and Anchorage for service with the Alaska Defense Command. However, these aircraft were not considered combat ready. These were soon replaced by P-38Es of the 54th Fighter Squadron which were modified by Lockheed to P-38F-1-LO standards with two drop tanks. Following the Japanese invasion of Kiska in June, 1942, the 54th Fighter Squadron was transferred to an airstrip at Ft Glenn on Umnak Island in the Aleutians. On August 4, two P-38 pilots, Lieutenants K. Ambrose and S. A. Long, shot town two four-engined Japanese H6K4 (code name *Mavis*) flying-boats to claim first blood for the Lightning. Later, during operations against Japanese-held Kiska, the Lightnings encountered opposition from Nakajima A6M2-N (code name *Rufe*) floatplane fighters. However, the Lightnings soon gained control of the air and by July 1943 the Japanese were forced to leave the Aleutians.

In the Aleutians, the initial batch of P-38Es of the 54th Fighter Squadron were supplanted by a specially-winterized version of the Lightning, the P-38G-10-LO. Later they acquired P-38Js. However, the Eleventh Air Force was never able to receive enough Lightnings fully to equip its 343rd Fighter Group. Three of its four squadrons flew a mix of P-38s and P-40s alongside the P-38 equipped 54th Fighter Squadron. The 343rd Fighter Group flew its Lightnings on fighter sweeps and escort sorties to the Kurile Islands up until V-J Day.

In India, P-38Hs were first operated by the 459th Fighter Squadrons of the 80th Fighter Group in September 1943. This squadron later was equipped with P-38J/P-38Ls and kept them until the end of the war. The other three squadrons of this group flew P-40s and P-47s. The 449th Fighter Squadron of the 51st Fighter Group flew Lightnings in China while the group's other squadrons flew other types. The 33rd Fighter group in Burma flew a mixture of P-38s and P-47s.

The first P-38Fs to reach Australia during 1942 were assigned to the 39th Fighter Squadron of the 35th Fighter Group. This unit traded in its Bell Airacobras for the Lightnings at Amberley in Queensland before returning to combat operations at Port Moresby in Papua, New Guinea. Its first success took place on December 27, 1942 when its pilots claimed eleven kills for the loss of only one P-38F. Two of these kills were claimed by Richard I. Bong, who was to go on to claim a total of 40 kills, all of them while flying the Lightning.

The limited number of Lightnings available during late 1942 and early 1943 had to be used to make up attrition in the 39th Fighter Squadron and to equip only a single squadron in each of the 8th and 49th Fighter Groups of the Fifth Air Force in New Guinea, and of the 18th and 347th Fighter Groups of the Thirteenth Air Force on Guadalcanal.

During this time, two P-38Fs of the 6th Fighter Squadron of the 18th Fighter Group were equipped with radar as single seat night fighters operating from Henderson Field to curb the activities of "Bedcheck Charlie", a Japanese aircraft flying nuisance sorties over Gualdacanal at night.

Two P-38J-20-LO single-seat night fighters were fitted at Townville with AN/APS-4 radar in a pod under the starboard wing. These were operated during the winter of 1944-45 by the 547th Night Fighter Squadron. One of them, operating from Tacoban, Leyte, scored its first kill on January 9, 1945.

The Lightning was ideally suited for the Pacific theatre. It possessed a performance markedly superior to that of its Japanese opponents. It possessed a range significantly better than that of the P-39s, P-40s and P-47s available in 1942 in the Southwest Pacific, and its twin engines offered an additional safety factory when operating over long stretches of water and jungle. The Lightnings proved to be extremely rugged and could take a lot of battle damage and still keep flying. Missions lasting 9, 10, or even 12 hours became routine, and many wounded Lightnings were able to limp home on only one engine. The maneuverability of the Lightning was inferior to that of its nimble Japanese opponents, but by the use of appropriate tactics--for example the avoidance of dogfighting at low altitudes and the use of fast diving attacks--enabled the P-38 squadrons in New Guinea and the Solomons to achieve impressive results.

When compared with the Zero, the Lightning came off badly in terms of speed and maneuverability at medium and low altitudes, but had a far higher top speed, rate of climb and operational ceiling and was much better armed. When the P-38 tried to outturn a Zero at low altitudes, it usually ended up second best. However, when the unique attributes of the Lightning were used to best effect, the results were devastating. The best tactic was for the Lightnings to loiter at high altitudes and then dive down on Zero formations in a blaze of concentrated firepower, using the Lightning's impressive climbing rate to zoom back up out of harm's way. If this did not work, the wise Lightning Lightning pilot would then use his superior speed to make good his escape.

Spurred by these impressive results, the commanders of the Thirteenth Air Force kept pressing the USAAF for more Lightnings. Unfortunately, because lower priority had been given to the Pacific theatre once the initial Japanese thrust had been checked, the requests for more Lightnings went largely unheeded.

One of the most famous Lightning operations during these early months was the killing of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander in chief of the Combined Fleet of the Japanese Navy. U. S. Navy cryptographers had intercepted and decoded a Japanese communication which said that Admiral Yamamoto would be flying out to visit the Ballabe airfield on Shortland Island on April 18, 1943. The Thirteenth Air Force was ordered to attempt to intercept and destroy Yamamoto's aircraft. A consignment of 165 and 310 US gallon drop tanks were flown out especially for the operation. On the appointed day, sixteen P-38F/P-38Gs from the 18th and 347th Fighter Groups took off from Henderson Field, Guadalcanal and flew 500 miles to Shortland Island. They reached their target on schedule just as Yamamoto's flight was coming in. In the ensuing battle, two bomber-transports and at least five Japanese fighters were destroyed at the cost of the loss of one P-38. Captain Thomas Lanphier, Jr. was credited with downing the aircraft in which Admiral Yamamoto had been flying.

In August 1943, the first all-Lightning Fighter Group of the Fifth Air Force, the 475th, began combat operations. Later in the year, continuing shortage of P-38s forced both the 35th and 49th Fighter Groups to convert their single P-38 squadron to P-47Ds, thus leaving the Fifth Air Force at the end of 1943 with only four P-38 squadrons versus eight squadrons with P-47s and three with P-40s. At that time, the Eighth Air Force in England had six squadrons of P-38s and 27 squadrons of P-47s.

In the summer of 1944, the Fifth and Thirteenth Air Forces had been reorganized into the Far East Air Force in preparation for the invasion of the Philippines. By that time, the shortage of P-38s had been alleviated somewhat and there were five Fighter Groups fully equipped with P-38s--the 8th, 18th, 49th, 347th and 475th. The 475th was perhaps the best known of these, since it contained among its personnel the top three-scoring aces in the Pacific--Richard I. Bong (40 kills), Thomas B. McGuire, Jr. (38 kills) and C. H. MacDonald (27 kills). By the war's end, no fewer than 38 other pilots from the 475th had achieved ace status while flying exclusively P-38s.

The late-model P-38J with its powered ailerons, its dive brakes, and its combat flaps could if flown properly by an experienced pilot actually hold its own against a nimble Zero in a dogfight at low and medium altitudes. However, it was generally a good idea to follow the advice of experienced combat veterans and avoid such dogfights against the Zero.

For a while, the 475th included among its personnel the famous pilot Charles Lindbergh. He was serving with the Group as a technical representative from the United Aircraft Corporation. Lindbergh flew a number of combat missions with the Group in June/August 1944 as a civilian to instruct pilots on how to use their cruise control to get maximum range and endurance from their P-38Js. On July 28, Lindbergh was credited with shooting down a Japanese Mitsubishi Ki-51 over Elpaputih Bay in the Netherlands East Indies.

By the end of the Pacific War, P-38s were flying from bases on Ie Shima and in the Philippines on sorties ranging as far as Formosa, Korea, and the Ryukyus. They are credited with the destruction of more Japanese aircraft than any other type of US fighter.

In 1945, three Night Fighter Squadrons (421st, 547th, and 550th) were sent to the Pacific zone with P-38M night-fighter Lightnings.

Reconnaissance Lightnings were used in the war against Japan, with F-4s being initially operated in the summer of 1942 by the 18th Composite Group in Alaska, the 8th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron in New Guinea, and the 9th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron in India. They served with the following groups: the 4th (17th, 18th and 38th Squadrons), the 6th (8th, 25th 26th, and 27th Squadrons) and with the 71st (82nd Squadron) as well as with the 28th, 35th, and 41st Squadrons. They took part in the India-Burma campaign with the 8th Photographic Reconnaissance Group (9th and 40th Squadrons). In the United States, they served with the 2nd Group (7th, 10th, and 29th Squadrons). The F-4/F-5s usually flew alone without fighter escort.

On August 25, 1945, a pair of P-38s piloted by Colonel Clay Tice and his wingman were the first American aircraft to land in Japan after the surrender on August 15. They later claimed that this unauthorized landing was due to "engine difficulties", a somewhat suspect explanation. Nevertheless, this was a fitting recognition for an aircraft which had contributed so much to victory.

Sources:

  1. Lockheed Aircraft Since 1913, Rene J. Francillon, Naval Institute Press, 1987

  2. The P-38J-M Lockheed Lightning, Profile Publications, Le Roy Weber Profile Publications, Ltd, 1965.

  3. War Planes of the Second World War, Fighters, Volume Four, William Green, Doubleday, 1964.

  4. Famous Fighters of the Second World War, William Green, Doubleday, 1967.

  5. The American Fighter, Enzo Anguluci and Peter Bowers, Orion Books, 1987.

  6. Wings of the Weird and Wonderful, Captain Eric Brown, Airlife, 1985.

  7. United States Military Aircraft since 1909, Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.