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The Lockheed P-38

Known as the "forked-tail devil" by German pilots, the P-38 was the only American fighter to remain in production throughout the entire war.


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The Doodle That Led To A Legland

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The Lightning was designed in 1937 as a high-altitude interceptor. The first one built, the XP-38, made its public debut on February 11, 1939 by flying from California to New York in seven hours. Because of its unorthodox design, the airplane experienced "growing pains" and it required several years to perfect it for combat. Late in 1942, it went into large-scale operations during the North African campaign where the German Luftwaffe named it "Der Gabelschwanz Teufel"--"The Forked-Tail Devil."

Equipped with droppable fuel tanks under its wings, the P-38 was used extensively as a long-range escort fighter and saw action in practically every major combat area of the world. A very versatile aircraft, the Lightning was also used for dive bombing, level bombing, ground strafing and photo reconnaissance missions.

TYPE Number built/Converted Remarks


1 (cv)
1 (cv)
75 (cv)

XP-322 crashed 11 Feb. 1939
Service test aircraft
YP-38 w/ 37mm cn. & 4 .50-cal. mgs.
P-38 40-762 w/ press. cp. & 20mm cn.
B&C designators never assigned
improved P-38; self-sealing fuel tanks
improved P-38D; 20mm cannon
improved P-38E; V-1710-49 & 53
improved P-38F; V-1710-51 & 55
improved P-38G; V-1710-89 & 91
improved P-38H
P-38G 42-13558 w/ V-1710-75 & 77
improved P-38J; V-1710-111 & 113
Vultee-built P-38Ls
P-38L mod. as night fighter


Span: 52 ft.
Length: 37 ft. 10 in.
Height: 12 ft. 10 in.
Weight: 17,500 lbs. loaded
Armament: Four .50-cal. machine guns and one 20mm cannon
Engines: Two Allison V-1710s of 1,475 hp. ea.
Cost: $115,000

Maximum speed: 414 mph
Cruising speed: 275 mph
Range: 1,100 miles
Service Ceiling: 40,000 ft.

ARMAMENT   One 20 mm. Hispano AN-M2C cannon. and four .50 caliber Browning machine guns.  External bomb load of 4,000 lbs. or ten 5 in. rockets.

The P-38 Lightning was the Army's fastest and most heavily armed fighter. The concentration of firepower in the Lightning's nose was so effective that a one-second burst could destroy an enemy plane. In the Pacific Theater, Lightning pilots downed more Japanese aircraft than pilots flying any other Allied airplane.

Courtesy Of The Air Force Museum


The P-38 Lightning introduced a new dimension to American fighters - a second engine. The multi-engine configuration reduced the Lightning loss-rate to anti-aircraft gunfire during ground attack missions. Single-engine airplanes equipped with power plants cooled by pressurized liquid, such as the North American P-51 Mustang, were particularly vulnerable. Even a small nick in one coolant line could cause the engine to seize in a matter of minutes.

The Lightning designed by Lockheed engineer Clarence "Kelly" Johnson and his team of designers, represented one of the most radical departures from tradition in American fighter development. The Lightning was a complete break-away from conventional airframe design, power, and at long last, armament. Not only did it have twice the power and almost twice the size of its predecessors, but with no less than four .50 cal. machine guns plus a 20 mm cannon, the P-38 had enough firepower to sink a ship--and sometimes did. Concentrated in the central fuselage pod, the guns fired parallel which eliminated a need for a propeller synchronizer.



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The P-38 Lightning was the Army's fastest and most heavily armed fighter. The concentration of firepower in the Lightning's nose was so effective that a one-second burst could destroy an enemy plane. In the Pacific Theater, Lightning pilots downed more Japanese aircraft than pilots flying any other Allied airplane.

The Lightning tricycle landing gear and twin-boom configuration completed the list of major deviations from what might he considered conventional Army fighters. In this respect, it was very unusual that the Lightning design progressed beyond the testing stage; such radical concepts seldom achieved production status. But the simple fact was that the P-38 design worked and the Army seemed to have found its dream plane in this 400 mph fighter.

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The P-38 Lightning introduced a new dimension to American fighters - a second engine. The multi-engine configuration reduced the Lightning loss-rate to anti-aircraft gunfire during ground attack missions. Single-engine airplanes equipped with power plants cooled by pressurized liquid, such as the North American P-51 Mustang, were particularly vulnerable. Even a small nick in one coolant line could cause the engine to seize in a matter of minutes.

P-38 Lighting USAAF, 20th FG.

The XP-38, 37-457, was built under tight secrecy and made its maiden flight on January 27, 1939, with Air Corps test pilot and P-38 project officer, Lt. Benjamin S. Kelsey, at the controls. The P-38's performance justified Lockheed's investment of nearly $6,000,000 of its own funds to complete the prototype. The Army was so delighted with the big new fighter, it lifted the wraps of secrecy from the plane for a transcontinental speed dash on February 11, 1939. This event was marred by a crash when Kelsey undershot the runway at Mitchell Field, NY. Kelsey survived the crash and remained an important part of the Lightning program. The airplane was written off, but Lockheed received a contract for thirteen YP-38s along with the usual list of improvements.  


The Crash Of The XP-38


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The 370th Fighter Group formed on 25 May 1943 and activated on 1 Jul 1943. The Ninth AF, equipped with P-47s and then P-38s in Feb., trained until May 1, 1944 when the group entered combat. They dive-bombed radar installations and flak towers, and escorted bombers that attacked bridges and marshalling yards in France as the Allies prepared for the invasion of the Continent.

P-38 Lighting USAAF, 485th FS-370th FG.

The XP-38 had been powered by two liquid cooled, Allison V-1710 engines turning 11 1/2 foot Curtiss Electric, inward turning, counter-rotating propellers. With the YP-38s and all subsequent Lightings, the propellers rotated outward negating torque when both engines were operating (A batch ordered by Britain did not have counter-rotating propellers.) One XP-38A was built with a pressurized cabin. Armament on the YPs was altered by replacement of two of the .50s with .30s, and the 20 mm cannon gave way to a 37 mm. But even before the YP-38s were completed, the original machine gun arrangement was standardized for production types. The first production order was 35 P-38Ds, followed by 210 P-3XEs which reverted back to the 20 mm cannon. These planes began to arrive in October 1941, just before America entered World War II. With the P-38D came self sealing fuel tanks and armor protection for the pilot. The Lightning was ready for war!

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Richard Bong was America’s all-time leading fighter ace. He held the US record of forty victories in combat. In San Francisco Richard Bong looped-the-loop around the Golden Gate Bridge. He then buzzed Market Street in his Lightning and waved at the stenographers staring in astonishment out of office windows. Though General Kenney had given him a stiff talking to, he knew that Dick Bong had the makings of a first-rate fighter pilot. At the age of 24, Major Richard I. Bong lost his life in the fiery crash of a P-80 jet he was testing for the Air Force On August 6, 1945 (the day the B-29 Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.)

P-38 Lighting USAAF, 5th AF, 9th FS-49th FG. Richard Bong.

A major problem surfaced with the loss of control in a dive caused by aerodynamic compressibility. During late spring 1941, Air Corps Major Signa A. Gilke encountered serious trouble while diving his Lightning at high-speed from an altitude of 30,000 ft (9,120 m). When he reached an indicated airspeed of about 320 mph (515 kph), the airplane's tail began to shake violently and the nose dropped until the dive was almost vertical. Signa recovered and landed safely and the tail buffet problem was soon resolved after Lockheed installed new fillets to improve airflow where the cockpit gondola joined the wing center section. Seventeen months passed before engineers began to determine what caused the Lightning's nose to drop. They tested a scale model P-38 in the Ames Laboratory wind tunnel operated by the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) and found that shock waves formed when airflow over the wing reached transonic speeds and became turbulent. Lockheed never remedied this problem but the firm did install dive recovery flaps under each wing in 1944 to restore lift and smooth the airflow enough to maintain control when diving at high-speed.

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Major McGuire scored 38 aerial victories in a P-38, making him our nation's second highest scoring ace. Among his many decorations was the Medal of Honor awarded for his actions on December 25-26, 1944 when he shot down seven enemy aircraft. On January 7, 1945, he crashed to his death on Los Negros Island in the Philippines while risking an extremely hazardous maneuver at low altitude in an attempt to save the life of a comrade. McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey is named in his honor.

P-38 Lighting USAAF, 5th AF, 431 FS-457 FG, Maj. Thomas B. McGuire.

The fastest of the Lightnings was the P-38J with a top speed of 420 mph, and the version produced in the greatest quantity was the "L", of which 3,735 were built by Lockheed and 113 by Vultee. The P-38L was powered by two 1,475 hp Allison V-1710-111 engines. As with any long-term production aircraft, the P-38 underwent many modifications. The P-38J intakes under the engines were enlarged to house core-type intercoolers. The curved windscreen was replaced by a flat panel, and the boom mounted radiators were enlarged. Some were fitted with bombardier type noses, and were used to lead formations of bomb-laden P-38s to their targets. The P-38M was a two-seat radar-equipped night fighter, a few of which had become operational before the war ended. One interesting variation had an elevated tail assembly on upswept booms; another one had an elongated center pod and was used for airfoil evaluation.

The dimensions of the P-38 remained the same throughout production, its wing spanning 52 feet with an area of 328 square feet. overall length was 37 feet 10 inches; height was 12 feet 10 inches. The P-38L weighed 12,800 pounds empty and 17,500 pounds gross. Thus, the P-38 was the largest, heaviest, and fastest "P" type to date. An internal fuel capacity of 410 gallons could be increased to 1,010 gallons with two external drop tanks and gave the Lightning a range of 450 miles, making it the first fighter suitable as a long-range bomber escort. In addition to its devastating nose armament, the P-38 could carry up to 4,000 pounds of external weapons including bombs and rockets.

Lockheed P-38L Lightning
Wing span: 52 ft. 0 in (15.84 m) 12:49 PM 4/14/2000
Length: 37 ft. 10 in. (11.53 m)
Height: 12 ft. 10 in. (3.91 m)
Empty: 14,100 lb. (6,395 kg)
Operational: 17,500 lb. (7,937 kg)
Maximum Speed: 390 mph (627 km/h) @ 15,000 ft. (4,572 m)
Service Ceiling: 40,000 ft. (12,192 m)
Range: 900 miles (1,448 km) @ 30,000 ft. (9,144 m)
Two Allison V-1710-111/113, liquid cooled engines. Engine power
developed 1,425 hp (1,062 kw) @ sea level and 26,500 ft. (8,077 m).
Under war emergency conditions 1,600 h.p. (1,193 kw) was available.
One 20 mm. Hispano AN-M2C cannon. and four .50 caliber Browing machine guns.
External bomb load of 4,000 lbs. or ten 5 in. rockets.

The Aviation History On-Line Museum.




The History Of The P-83


The P-38 in The European Theatre


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The story of the P-38 continues with an account of its service in the European theatre.

Having conducted service testing of the YP-38 in the late spring of 1941, the 1st Pursuit Group at Selfridge Field, Michigan was selected to become the first unit to receive P-38s and P-38Ds. The first Lightnings they received did not have their cannons fitted. The 1st Pursuit Group participated with some success in the Louisiana maneuvers of September 1941. Two days after Pearl Harbor, the Unit moved to NAS San Diego and joined the March Field-based 14th Pursuit Group, then transitioning to P-38D/P-38E. Although these fighters were not yet combat ready, these outfits had the only truly modern fighters then available to the USAAF, and provided West Coast defense at a time that Japanese attacks on the US mainland were believed to be imminent

Even though the defense of the US west coast initially took priority, plans were made in the spring of 1942 to deploy Lightning squadrons to Britain. This deployment caused logistical problems, since the U-boat menace made shipping across the Atlantic quite risky. However, development by Lockheed of reliable drop tanks for the P-38F-1-LO increased the ferry range from 1300 to 2200 miles. Test pilot Milo Burcham actually demonstrated a maximum range of over 3100 miles. This made it possible to ferry the Lightnings from Maine to the UK via Goose Bay, Labrador to Bluie West One (Greenland) to Reykjavik, Iceland and finally to Prestwick, Scotland. Following the victory at Midway, the USAAF felt sufficiently confident that the Japanese fleet was not about to show up off Santa Barbara that they decided to redeploy the 1st and 14th Fighter (renamed from Pursuit in May 1942) Groups to Britain. By August 1942, 81 P-38Fs of four of the six squadrons of the 1st and 14th Fighter Groups had arrived in Great Britain to complete the first transatlantic crossing by single-seat fighters. Two other Lightning squadrons (the 27th and the 50th) were held over in Iceland to assist the Curtiss P-40Cs of the 33rd Fighter Squadron in the flying of defensive patrols over the Atlantic. On August 14, 1942, a P-38F flown by 2nd Lieut Elza Shaham shared with a P-40C in the destruction of a Focke- Wulf FW-200C-3 to obtain the first victory over a Luftwaffe aircraft.

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The P-38F-equipped 82nd Fighter Group arrived in Northern Ireland in November 1942. After flying 347 practice and sweep sorties during which there was no contact with the Luftwaffe, the 1st, 14th and 82nd Fighter Groups were transferred to the 12th Air Force in North Africa. While in transit from Britain to Algeria, pilots of the 82nd Fighter Group were credited with the destruction of two Ju-88 bombers over the Bay of Biscay. The Lightnings were soon in regular combat in the North African theatre. The first of these took place on November 19, 1942 when the P-38Fs of the 1st Fighter Group escorted B-17s on a bombing raid on the El Aouina airfield at Tunis. The three P-38 groups contributed a great deal toward the establishment of local air superiority in the area. On April 5, 1943, 26 P-38Fs of the 82nd Fighter Group claimed the destruction of 31 enemy aircraft as against the loss of six Lightnings. In these air battles, mixed success was obtained Because of the tactics of the enemy, the Lightnings were forced to fight at lower altitudes of 15,000 feet, and in battles against fighters it was not entirely successful. The twin engines restricted maneuverability to some extent and the Lightning had a wheel control instead of the conventional stick, which may also have restricted maneuverability. Nevertheless, the Lightning was effective against bombers and had a sensational zoom climb that could rarely be matched. It wreaked great havoc among Rommel's air transport well out to sea, earning for itself the German nickname "der Gabelschwanz Teufel"--the Fork-Tailed Devil.

All Axis forces in the area surrendered on May 13, 1943, due in no small part to the contribution of the Lightning in cutting off Rommel's air supply route.

Already prior to the Axis defeat in Tunisia, the Northwest African Air Forces (of which the Twelfth Air Force was a component) had begun preparations for the invasion of Sicily. Attacks on Sicily, on Pantelleria and on Lampedusa were stepped up in preparation for Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily on July 10, 1943. Lightnings were in the midst of the fray until Sicily fell on August 17. The three P-38 Fighter Groups then concentrated their efforts against the Italian mainland. On November 1, 1943, they were transferred to the 15th Air Force. By that time, 37 Twelfth Air Force Lightning pilots had made ace, the top scorer being Lieut W. J. Sloan of the 82nd Fighter Group with 12 kills. Lieut H. T. Hanna of the 14th Fighter Group made ace in one day by destroying five Ju 87 dive bombers on October 9, 1943.

Following their transfer, the 1st, 14th and 82nd Fighter Groups concentrated on escorting the B-17 and B-24 bombers of the Fifteenth Air Force in their raids on targets in Austria, the Balkans, France, Greece, and Italy. However, on occasion, they escorted the medium bombers of the Twelfth Air Force.

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The first Lightning-escorted raids on Germany began in February 1944 with raids on aircraft factories in the southern part of that country. In April 1944 the Lightnings escorted bombers in raids on the oil refineries at Ploesti in Rumania. Bomb-carrying Lightnings also visited Ploesti on June 10, 1944 when 46 aircraft of the 82nd Fighter Group each carrying 1000-pound bombs paid a visit to the Romano Americana Oil Refinery under the protective escort of 48 P-38s of the 1st Fighter Group. On that raid, good bombing and strafing results were obtained, but in fighter actions against the Luftwaffe twenty-two P-38s were lost against 23 enemy aircraft claimed destroyed.

Six weeks later, Lightnings flew their first shuttle mission to Russia and returned to their Italian base after spending three days at a Soviet base in the Ukraine. Along with their P-51 escorts, they shot down thirty German planes and destroyed twelve on the ground. The last Lightning shuttle mission was flown on August 4/6 and was marked by the daring rescue of a downed pilot by Lieut R. J. Andrews who landed his Lightning in an open field to pick up Capt R. E. Willsie.

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The three Lightning Groups also took part in the August 1944 Allied landings in southern France. After that, they returned to providing fighter escort for bombers operating against strategic targets. By the end of the war, 28 of these Lightning pilots had made ace.

The departure of the 1st and 14th Fighter Groups for North Africa in November 1942 left the Eighth Air Force without Lightnings until September 1943, when the 55th Fighter Group arrived in England with its P-38Hs. It began combat operations on October 15, 1943, making its first kill on November 2. The next month, the outfit converted to P-38Js. On March 3, 1944, the 55th flew to Berlin for the first time, a round trip of 1300 miles. The 20th, 364th and 479th Fighter Groups soon became operational in England with P-38s.

However, in air combat over Germany, the Lightning was generally outclassed by the more maneuverable Fw 190 and the later marks of the Bf 109, especially at medium and low altitudes. However, the Lightning had a much faster top speed, a higher rate of climb and operational ceiling and was much better armed. Once pilots had perfected fighting tactics which suited the Lightning's unique characteristics, they had better success. The usual tactics was for the P-38 to climb to a high altitude and then dive down on the enemy, attacking him with a burst of firepower and then zoom back up out of harm's way. The later versions of the P-38 were equipped with maneuvering flaps, and when their pilots learned how to use these flaps properly, the P-38 could hold its own when maneuvering against German fighters, often being able to turn inside their Fw 190 and Bf 109 opponents.

The large size of the P-38 was both an advantage and a disadvantage in combat. The P-38 was quite large for a fighter, and Luftwaffe pilots could usually spot the Lockheed fighter at much larger distances than they could Allied single-engined fighters which were appreciably smaller. In addition, the twin-boomed configuration of the P-38 made it instantly recognizable to the enemy. However, this ease of recognition was not always a disadvantage--P-38s would often feel free to pursue Luftwaffe fighters right through Allied bomber formations with little fear of receiving friendly fire from the gunners.

The Allison engines of the Lightnings proved to be somewhat temperamental, with engine failures actually causing more problems than enemy action. It is estimated that every Lightning in England changed its engines at least once. Nevertheless, the ability of the Lightning to return home on one engine was exceptional and saved the life of the pilot of many a wounded Lightning. Experienced pilots could handle the Lightning satisfactorily at high altitude, but too many of the Eighth Air Force pilots did not have the training or experience to equip them for flying this temperamentally-powered aircraft in combat.

The power plant problems were not entirely the Allison engine's fault. Many of the reliability problems were actually due to the inadequate cooling system, in particular the cumbersome plumbing of the turbo-supercharger intercooler ducting which directed air all way from the supercharger out to the wingtips and back. In addition, the lack of cowl flaps were a problem. In the European theatre of operation, temperatures at altitude were often less than 40 degrees below zero and the Lightning's engines would never get warmed up enough for the oil to be able to flow adequately. Octane and lead would separate out of the fuel at these low temperatures, causing the Allison's to eat valves with regularity, to backfire through the intercooler ducts, and to throw rods, sometimes causing the engine to catch fire.

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These problems bedeviled the Lightnings until the advent of the J version with its simplified intercooler ducting and the relocation of the oil cooler to a chin position underneath the propeller spinner. When the P-38J reached the field, the Allison engine was finally able to attain its full rated power at altitude, and the engine failure rate began to go down.

Earlier Lightnings had problems with high-speed dives. When the airspeed reached a sufficiently high value, the controls would suddenly lock up and the Lightning would tuck its nose down, making recovery from the dive difficult. In the worst case, the wings of the Lightning could be ripped off if the speed got too high. This problem caused the Lightning often to be unable to follow its Luftwaffe opponents in a dive, causing many of the enemy to be able to escape unscathed. The problem was eventually traced to the formation of a shock wave over the wing as the Lightning reached transonic speeds, this shock wave causing the elevator to lose much of its effectiveness. The problem was not cured until the advent of the P-38J-25-LO, which introduced a set of compressibility flaps under the wing which changed the pattern of the shock wave over the wing when they were extended, restoring the function of the elevator.

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The P-38J version of the Lightning cured many of the ills that had been suffered by the earlier versions of the Lockheed fighter, producing a truly world-class fighter which could mix it up with virtually any other fighter in the world.

In April 1944, the Lightnings of the 20th Fighter Group began low level fighter sweeps over the Continent. That same month, the 55th Fighter Group used the "Droop Snoot" P-38J for the first time as a leader for other Lightnings in a bombing raid on the Coulommiers airfield. Both types of operations proved successful, and these techniques were later used extensively by P-38s of the Ninth Air Force.

The P-38s of the Eighth Air Force were rapidly phased out of service in favor of P-51 Mustangs--The 20th, 55th, and 364th Fighter Groups converted to P-51s during July 1944, and in September the 479th Fighter Group traded in its P-38Js for P-51Ds.

The Ninth Air Force was assigned a tactical role (in contrast to the strategic role of the Eighth Air Force), and retained its P-38J/L fighters a bit longer. Its first Lightning group was the 474th, which flew its first combat mission on April 15, 1944. It was soon joined by the 367th and 370th Fighter Groups. However, in March of 1945 these two latter groups converted to P-47Ds and P-51Ds respectively. By V-E day the 474th was the only Fighter Group still operating P-38s.

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More than one in eight Lightnings were either completed by Lockheed as photographic-reconnaissance aircraft or were so modified after delivery. Over 1400 F-5 and F-5 aircraft were delivered to the USAAF. Photographic Lightnings saw widespread service throughout the war. F-4s were first flown in combat beginning in November 1942. They were operated initially by the 5th and 12th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadrons. Later, these units and two other squadrons of the 3rd Photographic Reconnaissance Group operated various versions of the F-5. In the North African theatre, the 154th Reconnaissance Squadron obtained its photographic Lightnings when its maintenance personnel modified a number of P-38Fs in the field. The F-5-equipped 5th Photographic Reconnaissance Group was initially assigned to the Twelfth Air Force and became operational in September 1943. However it was transferred to the Fifteenth Air Force thirteen months later. In the European theatre, where the 3rd PRG had briefly been based before transfer to North Africa, the first operational sorties by photographic Lightnings was flown by F-4As of the 7th PRG on March 28, 1943. This group successively operated F-4As, F-5As, F-5Bs, F-5Cs, and finally, during the last year of the war, F-5Es. Operating initially from bases in England but later moving to the Continent, the Ninth Air Force had for Photographic Reconnaissance squadrons (the 30th, 32st, 33rd, and 34th), which flew various versions of the F-5 from the spring of 1944 until the end of the war.

The F-4/F-5s usually flew alone without fighter escort and in spite of heavy losses, especially when facing radar-controlled Luftwaffe fighters, they proved to be of unequalled value.

The Forces Aeriennes Francaises Libres also received photographic Lightnings. They operated as an attached squadron with the 3rd PRG of the Twelfth Air Force. One of their pilots was the well-known author Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who was lost off southern France on July 31, 1944 while on a combat sortie.


The P-38 in The Pacific Theatre


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.

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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.

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When compared with the Zero, the Lightning came off badly in terms of speed 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.

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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.

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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.


  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.

More On The P-38's Theaters Of Operation


The P-38s with US Navy and Foreign Air Forces


This account of the Lockheed Lightning concludes with the story of its service with the US Navy and a description of its operations with foreign air forces.

The US Navy acquired four F-5Bs from the USAAF in North Africa. They were designated FO-1 and were assigned the BuNos 01209/01212. They were operated exclusively as land- based aircraft and never from carriers. Lockheed had proposed a carrier-based version of the Lightning, the Model 822, with folding wings, arrester hooks, and a strengthened airframe. However, the Navy looked askance at such a large aircraft on its carrier decks, and they disliked liquid-cooled engines for carrier-based planes. Consequently, this project never got past the paper stage.

The number of foreign operators of the P-38 were quite small. Fifteen P-38J/P-38L fighters were delivered to China late in the war. Later they were supplemented by a similar numbers of F-5E and F-5G reconnaissance aircraft. I have no details of their service or their ultimate fate.

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The Royal Air Force never flew Lightnings on an operational basis. The RAF has initially ordered 143 Lightning Is and 524 Lightning IIs. However, they had received three Model 322 Lightnings and had found them completely unsatisfactory and canceled their order for all the rest. The remainder of the cancelled British order was diverted to USAAF contracts.

Three F-4-1-LOs were given to the Royal Australian Air Force in September 1942, and they were assigned to the No. 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit which them under the RAAF serial numbers A55-1, 2, and 3. A55-1 and 3 were written off in landing accidents, while A55-2 was returned to the USAAF three months after it had entered Australian service.

The Free French also operated photographic Lightnings. Six F-4s were assigned for conversion training to Groupe de Reconnaissance II/33 in Morocco in April of 1943. The Groupe later re-equipped with F-5s and operated as as squadron attached to the 3re Photographic Reconnaissance Group of the Twelfth Air Force of the USAAF. The best-known Free French F-5 pilot was the famous author Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Saint-Exupery was lost off southern France on July 31, 1944 while on a combat sortie in his F-5 from Corsica.

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After the liberation of France, GR II/33 was renamed GR I/33 "Belfort" and continued to fly reconnaissance Lightnings (F-5A/F-5B/F-5F/F-5G) for several years after the war. They finally re-equipped with modified Republic F-84G Thunderjets in 1952.

Two P-38s of the First Fighter Group had been forced to land at Lisbon, Portugal while being ferried from England to Algeria. The Portuguese government obtained American permission to retain these planes and assigned them the serial numbers 300 and 301.

There is at least one occasion in which Lightnings served with Axis forces, joining the list of aircraft which served on both sides during World War II. The Regia Aeronautica managed to obtain an intact P-38G when it had been forced to land on Sardinia on July 12, 1943 due to navigation equipment problems during a flight from Gibraltar to Malta. The captured P-38G was repainted in Italian markings and was flown to the experimental center at Guidonia for evaluation. It was flown from there on August 11, 1943 by Col Angelo Tondi to intercept American bombers. Tondi is credited with possibly shooting down one B-24D Liberator. However, the Italian P-38G was grounded shortly thereafter because of a lack of spare parts.

The Italians acquired additional Lightnings in a more orthodox manner six years later. When Italy joined NATO, the Aeronautica Militare Italiana received 50 Lightnings (P-38Js, P-38Ls, and F-5Es), which operated them until they were replaced by jets.

The Fuerza Aerea Hondurena received a dozen P-38Ls in the late 1940s.

With the end of the war, large numbers of Lightnings were scrapped. A few were sold off as surplus. Some of these were used for aerial surveys and some were flown in postwar National Air Races. There were still a few P-38Js and P-38Ls still around when the USAF was formed, and in June 1948 they were redesignated F-38J and F-38L. By 1949, all of these F-38s were out of service.


  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 Angelucci 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.

Courtesy of Joe Baugher


P-38 Testing, Training & Development


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P-38G Cockpit - Looking in from left wing

P-38G Cockpit Instrument Panel - S/N 42-13444 (141 KB)

P-38G Cockpit - Looking in from right wing



The P-38M

US Army WWII Press Release

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Uncle Cy's Angel

(Cy Homer - 16 Victories)

56248 - P-38 - During a recent strike on Japanese held Iwo Jima, this US Army 7th AF P-38 Lightning limped away from its target with its left engine out, its right wing badly damaged and in flames, Lt. Fred C. Erbels, Jr. Glenside, PA nursed his crippled plane back to its Saipan base in a 4 hr. and 40 min. grueling over-water flight, longer than the distance from London to Berlin. A 7th AF Liberator bomber, flying with flaps down to reduce its speed escorted the damaged fighter home.




The Ace Of Aces

Some P-38 Pilots Of Note

Some P-38 Stories

The Yamamoto Mission



P-38 Photo Gallery


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First production P-38D

 (S/N 40-774)


A Lockheed P-38J Lightning of the 27th Fighter Squadron 1st Fighter Group 15th Air Force  US Army Air Force          Salsola Italy 1944

P-38E "Swordfish" - Laminar Flow Wing Test-bed

Lockheed XP-38 - twin-boomed Model 22 design studies


Three views of the Lockheed P-38 Ligntning Two views og the P-38 in color
An unarmed photo-reconnaissance P-38-J (F-5 version)  -  reproduced from Combat Aircraft of World War Two by Bill Gunston (Salamander)
P-38 L Landing




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