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The P-38 Theaters Of Operation

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The Lockheed design team enabled the P-38 to be able to operate in a broad range of climates and locales. The P-38 began its operational life in the harsh climate of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska and finished in the tropical jungles in the Pacific. In between, it served with distinction in the Mediterranean and also held the line again the Luftwaffe in the early stages of the daylight bombing campaign in Europe.


Alaska And The Aleutian Islands 

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise, but many keen observers foresaw an inevitable attack. General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. was one of these men. He was under the opinion that the Japanese were planning an invasion, and took several precautions to at least his command area would be as ready as possible. Buckner was in command of the Aleutian Island chain branching off from Alaska. It was perhaps the harshest of places to operate air operations during the war. The weather would rapidly change, and extreme winds made operating an aircraft extremely difficult. Winds can easily get up to 80 mph, and visibility can get to only 6 ft. Heavy bombers such as B-17s and B-24s can get coated with a ton of ice in minutes, hydraulic fluids would solidify, and rubber could harden to the point in which it could shatter. Jet stream winds could enable an aircraft to reach a target in two hours, but spend more than seven on the return trip. It was in these conditions that the P-38 would begin its operational history.

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A P-38E In The Aleutians

General Buckner recognized the threat posed by the Japanese, and realized that it was only a matter of time before they target their aggression towards the American forces in the Pacific. The two main parts would be Hawaii, and the Aleutian Islands. Buckner devised defense strategies with what limited resources were at his disposal. He stockpiled as much resources as he could, but knew it would not be enough. Not everyone believed that the Japanese posed an immediate threat, and Buckner was not given additional resources nor was he given permission to build extra airfields. Buckner knew he was right in his observations and began to divert funds through indirect means. He diverted funds from Alaskan mainland projects to begin the construction of airfields. He also set up false fish cannery factories to help with his defense efforts. This was a huge gamble on Buckner's part, and would easily lead to his court marshal if he were caught. In the summer of 1941, construction crews began building a new airfield on Umnak Island. Ironically, he was ordered to begin construction of an airstrip just ten days prior to the Pearl Harbor attack.

In an act of clairvoyance, Buckner put his forces on alert on December 1, 1941. In spite of his efforts to build up his defensive forces, Buckner only had a few P-40 Warhawks, and about two-dozen P-38s. Buckner's prediction of attacks was correct, but the Aleutian Islands were never the main focus of an enemy invasion. Immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack, General Arnold sent additional P-38s to Buckner, though the P-38s they were operating were mostly the P-38 D models. Fortunately for the Americans, the Japanese underestimated the strategic value of the Aleutians and never attempted to invade in force. The Japanese would be in bomber range of factories and targets in the Pacific Northwest. General Buckner took as many precautions as possible, but the Japanese would have been able to overwhelm the American forces. Buckner was due to receive additional resources because Washington was realizing the possible problems that the Japanese would be able to pose to the mainland. However, American code breakers were able to crack the Japanese code, and realized that the main target of the Japanese was not the Aleutians, but rather Midway Island. Once the Japanese was defeated at Midway, their Pacific offensive was over and was on the defensive through the remainder of the war.

Even though the Japanese never officially invaded the Aleutians, there were still military operations on both sides. In May 1942, the P-38 F model was coming into production. They were quickly sent elements of the 343rd Fighter Group at Cold Bay. By early June, Japanese forces began to strike at Buckner's forces. Vice Admiral Boshiro Hosogaya launched a two-pronged assault. Hosogaya sent a small fleet of Kawanishi Mavis flying boats, six heavy bombers to strike at American forces. Before any momentum could be established, the Battle of Midway was decided, which undermined any Japanese threat. The Japanese would still operate and strike at the Americans. On August 3, 1942, they attacked the USS Gillis, a seaplane tender, but failed to inflict any substantial damage. Clearly the Midway defeat took the drive out of the Japanese offensive. The 54th Flight Squadron flew missions against the Japanese on September 2nd, 3rd, and on 14th. Several ships were sunk and damaged as a result. The P-38s would continue strikes against Japanese forces well into 1943. Only nine P-38s were lost to Japanese attacks, whereas sixty were lost to various problems associated with the extreme weather. Finally, in July 1943, the Japanese withdrew the remaining forces from the Aleutian Islands altogether. The Aleutian Islands Operations were not as high profile as operations in the Pacific or Europe, but it represented the beginning of the war in the Pacific. It would be later in the Pacific where the P-38 would earn the respect and strike fear into the hearts of the Japanese pilots.



The War In Europe


The Mediterranean Theater


An Overview

The P-38 never got off to a fast start in Britain. When Operation Bolero was concluded, the P-38s in England made flew some initial missions, but never really in significant numbers. Shortly after their arrival in Britain, the P-38s were moved into the Mediterranean theater to provide support for Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa. These pilots had no combat experience, and they would be thrown into the fight with seasoned German pilots. The numbers of P-38s were small and spread thin, and most of the time they were outnumbered.

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Escorting duties were the most common missions early on. The P-38s would provide escort for light, medium, and heavy bombers. They would also escort cargo and sometimes reconnaissance aircraft. The weather made maintenance conditions hard, and replacement parts and pilots were slow coming. The inexperienced pilots were tied to the bomber formations, and made their duties much more difficult. However, when the P-38s began escorting duties, more and more B-17s were making it to the target and back home. Pilots were flying missions every day, which began to take its toll of the machines. Additionally, due to the versatility of the P-38, more aircraft were being diverted to other types of missions. The numbers of available P-38s were usually not enough.

Prior to the arrival of the P-38 in the Mediterranean, the Italian and German transport planes were able to deliver their cargos without any problems. With its long-range capabilities, the P-38 was able to begin intercepting these flights. Transports began to fall from the sky in alarming numbers, and caused problems for the German troops on the ground. Allied commanders began to experiment with the bombing capabilities as well. The P-38 was quickly gaining attention and respect from the German pilots. Hans Pichler, a German pilot, came in behind some P-38s and fired. The P-38 pilots applied full WEP power and Pichler described what then happened, "They disappeared leaving our mouths wide open. The five-minute chase caused my engine to seize. One of the connecting rods pushed itself through the cowling." Pichler felt that the P-38 was more maneuverable that his BF-109G-6 fighter. He did not look forward to engaging P-38s in combat.

February 1943 represented the beginnings of the P-38 as a lethal weapon. On February 8, fourteen P-38s escorted a bomber formation. Several 109s came in and struck an initial blow. The P-38s quickly responded and confirmed eight German fighters destroyed. Special attention was being paid to the P-38 as a low-level bomber. A skip-bombing technique was developed to attacking targets including enemy troops, ground vehicles, and naval targets. This also opened up the possibility for German fighter interception. One mission accounted for 65 ground vehicles destroyed, and several hundred ground troops were killed. By March 1943, German forces were struggling for supplies. The number of supplies being delivered was severely reduced due to the P-38. More and more German fighters were escorting the transports. P-38 pilots would relish the opportunity to tangle with these formations, usually with great success. One mission of April 5 stands out as especially destructive. A force of twenty-six P-38s encountered a large formation of German transports. P-38s ripped through the formation accounting for 11 JU-52s, 2 ME-109s, 2 JU-87s, and 1 FW-187 at the loss of only 2 P-28s. At the same time, another formation of Allied bombers, attacked ground convoys and airfields. Escorting P-38s destroyed an additional 15 German fighters. By the end of the day, over 200 German aircraft were destroyed either on the air or on the ground. A few days later, another transport intercept missions accounted for 20 transports and 5 fighters. No P-38s were lost.

Morale was sky-high and the experience of the P-38 pilots was on the rise. Pilots were flying more and more different missions. Nothing was safe from attack. In April 1943, Lt. Col. John Weltman led a flight of 4 P-38s to Porto Torres, Sardinia. They attacked 2 cargo ships. Weltman flew on the deck, avoided AA fire, and released his 1,000 lb. bomb. The bomb smashed into the first ship and tore completely through it, and right into the second ship. The second ship, possibly carrying fuel or ammunition, exploded in a huge fireball. The resulting explosion severely damaged the first ship, as well as the surrounding dock and cargo areas. By June 1943, pilots were flying better and newer P-38s. They also had 11 official aces. On June 18, escorting P-38s engaged 40-50 German fighters. They destroyed 16 fighters, had 2 probable kills, and at least 8 others were damaged.


William Hoelle

Recollections of Capt. William Hoelle
Commander 49th Fighter Squadron of the 14th Fighter Group

Hoelle actually thought the P-38 would not work out as a ground support aircraft. He was quickly won over once he saw that the concentrated area of firepower would deliver destruction to ground forces. The concentrated area of firepower would allow for greater accuracy when attacking. One of the persisting rumors of the P-38 was that it would not perform with only one engine. Hoelle quickly realized that a P-38 had no problems with one engine. Many pilots were returning to base with one engine. On any other type of fighter, that pilot had to bail out and hopefully evade capture, or in some cases, the pilots were killed. According to Hoelle, the procedure for an engine failure was, "Cut power on both throttles, and gently apply power gently to the good engine, while using the rudder to offset the engine thrust." One example of one-engine performance was in a flight with Lt. Robert Carlton, Viregul Lusk, and James Butler. Carolton's aircraft was hit by flak, and the right engine was disabled. On the way to their home base, the flight encountered nine Italian troop transports. The P-38s, along with Carlton, engaged the transports and destroyed them all. Carlton was able to claim one kill while flying on one engine.

One personal experience enabled Hoelle to describe the durability of the aircraft. Hoelle was strafing trucks and tanks, and in the process, he collided with a telephone pole. Hoelle was still in the air and had to engage full rudder and ailerons just to maintain level flight. Deploying full flaps allowed for better control, and enabled him to gain altitude. The rest of his flight flew as escort, and managed to fly 360 miles to get home safely.

Hoelle describes his feeling for the P-38 as, "I'll take fighter duty and the P-38 every time. I meant it then and I wouldn't change a thing today."


Sicily And  Italt

Once combat operations were winding down in North Africa, Allied forces turned their attention to the invasions of Sicily and eventually Italy itself. The P-38 continued it role as the main Allied escort and attack fighter. The German and Italian troops were trying to extract themselves from Allied forces, trying to maintain their strength. The P-38s were given the task of disrupting these maneuvers. With little aerial opposition, P-38s attacked roads, canals, and railroads. These attacks were very successful. P-38s would continue attacking Axis forces relentlessly and eventually was beginning to cause fatigue. In fact, more pilots were being lost due to fatigue induces errors than enemy fire. On two days in September 1944, pilots flew 1,250 sorties over two days. They broke up over 40 attacks and shot down 20 enemy aircraft. Eventually, the Allied forces advanced enough for the Allied pilots to use the captured airfields, which were closer to their targets and reduced flight times.

With the introduction of the P-38 J, the 15th was beginning to replace old battle fatigued P-38s. New P-47s were also being introduced to the battles. The Germans were only seeing the beginning of the end in the MTO. One raid in particular was evidence of the lopsided struggle. A regular force of heavy bombers escorted by P-38s was flying to German fields in Austria. They were counting on German radar tracking them to their targets. Unknown to the Germans was a force of P-47s from the 325th Fighter Group flying a different track below radar. They were flying ahead of the bomber formations, and were able to pounce on the German pilots as they were taking off to intercept the bombers. At least 36 German fighters were shot down. As the bomber formation arrived, there was no opposition, and proceeded to attack their targets. This mission only cost the Allied forces 6 bombers and 3 fighters. Roughly 140 German aircraft were destroyed.


Operation Frantic

Operation Frantic was the idea of using Allied aircraft to shuttle-bomb German targets. The idea was for Allied forces to take off in Britain, Italy, and Africa, and proceed on a normal bombing raid. Rather than turn around and head home, they would continue to selected airfields in the Soviet Union and land there. Upon arrival, all the aircraft would re-arm and refuel. After a break for the crews, the aircraft would take off, attack German targets, and return to their normal home bases. The theory behind this idea was to be able to hit Germany from all sides, and would later work against Japanese targets.

Soviet procrastination led to the slowness of this plan developing. Fields in Poltava, Migorod, and Piryatin were selected, and supplies had to be flown there. The aircraft would need fuel, bombs, ammo, and hangars. The fields also needed to be worked on to lengthen the runways and construct control towers. July 1943 marked the first time the shuttle-bombing missions took place. A combination of P-51s and P-38s participated in raids against the Ploesti oil fields in Romania. They continued to the Russian bases. Three days later, they attacked other Romanian targets and returned home. Additional exclusive P-38s raids were conducted striking targets of opportunity. Eventually, the Allied efforts were so effective, that they were running out of legitimate targets. The Allied commanders finally felt it was not worth the effort to continue shuttle-bombing missions.



The Pacific Theater



Perhaps the lasting legacy of the P-38 was the combat record established in the Pacific against the Japanese. Pearl Harbor caught the United States off guard, and at that point, the P-38 was still under development. The introduction of the P-38 allowed the Air Corps to have an aircraft capable of dealing with the Japanese Zero. Up to this point, the closest thing to a modern fighter was the P-40. Other fighters were woefully inadequate, and were no match even for a "green" Japanese fighter pilot. The P-38 gave the Allied pilots something to match the Zero. It was not as maneuverable, but it contained devastating firepower and when combined with teamwork, it was more than a match for any Japanese aircraft. It was widely used in all the major ground campaigns in the Pacific and was the instrument of death for Admiral Yamamoto.

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Early in the war, P-38s would normally engage topside Zero escorts, while older P-39s and P-40s would attack bomber formations. Maintenance was a nightmare. Primitive fields tore up landing gears, there were violent tropical storms, and electrical systems were having problems with fungus and humidity. There was also corrosion of all metal surfaces as well. There were problems with fuel tank leakage, intercooler problems, and armament needs many adjustments or repair. All of these combined caused the P-38 introduction in the Pacific to be slower than expected. It was not until late December 1942, before the P-38s in the south Pacific flew major combat missions. On December 27, 1942, the first attacks against the Japanese took place. Twelve P-38s dove against a Japanese formation of twenty Zeros and seven Val dive-bombers. Having a height advantage, the P-38s dove upon the Japanese aircraft, destroying nine Zeros and two Vals. There was only one P-38 lost in this conflict. Again, on January 7, 1943, a combination of P-40s and P-38s tore into Japanese fighters covering a naval convoy. P-40 pilots accounted for twenty-eight kills, and a smaller force of P-38s accounted for thirteen.


Port Moresby

During July 1942, the Japanese struck at Port Moresby. Initial encounters with against the P-38 resulted in excessive losses. Japanese pilots gave it a wide berth until they learned more of this new aircraft. One man who deserved special recognition was Major Jake Schuster. Schuster assisted with major problems with the intercoolers. He showed the other pilots and maintenance crews how to detect leak problems, and how to either repair or replace them. Schuster also addressed various engineering problems and helped the pilots and crews get the most out of their aircraft. Pilots were shown how to handle one-engine situations, especially on takeoff. Through his efforts, many lives were probably saved.


Dick Cilla

Cella flew with the 39th squadron, and possessed an engineering background. He refined single engine procedures, and the results were the rest of the squadron making many one-engine landings without many problems. Pilots achieved such a level of one-engine landing proficiency that they would often shut down an engine that was not running consistently prior to landing. One of Cella's innovative changes was the relocation of the gun camera. When it was normally mounted in the nose, the images were blurry due to vibrations from the firing guns. He decided to mount in on the drop tank shackle, and designed a cover, which was connected to the external fuel tank. The cover kept the lens clear and out of the weather until it was needed in combat. This was not standard, and the 39th possessed the best gun camera footage in the SW Pacific.


The Cockpit Redesign

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P-38 Cockpit

Early P-38 models contained undesirable switch positions as deemed by the pilots. A few squadrons got together and created an unofficial optimized standard for switch positions. One of the problems was before the pilots got used to the new layouts, they may inadvertently activate the wrong switch. In some instances, when the pilot hit the radio button on the yoke, they actually engaged the external fuel tank drop switch.


Wewak And Rabaul

Before any operations could be started against Wewak, the Allied forces needed to occupy Tsili Tsili, near Marilinan to be able to support the bombing missions. A major event in the strike against Wewak occurred on August 17, 1944. A force of 44 B-25 bombers, with an escort of 83 P-38s went after four Japanese airfields. The attack was timed to perfection, and caught over 145 Japanese aircraft lined up on the runway ready for takeoff for their strike mission, with many others exposed. The attack destroyed 150 Japanese aircraft. Another strike was planned the next day. This time they ran into Japanese interceptors. Only one P-38 and three B-25s were lost.

The first attacks against Rabaul began in October. On October 12, a large force hit Rabaul. 87 heavy bombers, 114 B-25s, 12 Beaufighters, and 125 P-38s took part. The attack caught the Japanese by surprise, but they still managed to get about thirty aircraft in the air. Twenty-six of those fighters were destroyed with the loss of two B-24s, 1 B-25, and 1 Beaufighter. The Allied losses were attributed to AA fire, not being shot down by fighters. The Allies encountered another large interceptor force a few days later. Twenty fighters were shot down with only two P-38 losses. Another mission resulted in thirty-five additional fighters destroyed, thirty-seven a few days later. The Japanese were adamant about reinforcing Rabaul. They were determined to hold it, and the maintenance toll was rising on the P-38 forces. Raids would continue until in November. Japanese losses were mounting. Irreplaceable pilots were lost, and little trained pilots were being thrust into combat against veteran P-38 pilots. The last major raids resulted in 114,000 tons of shipping to the bottom, with twenty-three fighters destroyed.


The 475th Fighter Group

The fabled 475th Fighter Group was the scourge of the Pacific. They accounted for more Japanese aircraft destroyed, and many of the top American aces were part of this group. The 475th was broken down into three squadrons, the 431st (Hades), the 432nd (Clover), and the 433rd (Possum). The 475th was strictly a P-38 outfit, and was the only group to fly P-38s from beginning to end. Totaled 551 enemy aircraft confirmed kills.

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Thomas McGuire

The 475th was originally formed as an all P-38 outfit under Major George Prentice. In early August 1943, the group headed to New Guinea. The aircraft arrived at their home fields around the Port Moresby area on August 16, which also marked their first contact with the Japanese. Twelve Japanese aircraft were destroyed for only two losses. Pilots usually flew with the 49th Fighter Group due to their inexperience. During their "training" period, sixteen missions were flown against Wewak (257 sorties in all). 475th pilots were responsible for 41 enemy aircraft destroyed with only 3 losses. They continued taking part in major roles at Wewak, Hansa Bay, Saidor, and Cape Glouchester on New Britain. They also supported Allied landings at Lae.

September 22, 1943, the 475th flew a sixteen aircraft patrol, with twelve of those supporting Allied landings at Finschhafen. Ten bombers and twenty fighters attacked, but were headed off by the P-38s. Seven bombers and eleven fighters were destroyed, against the loss of two P-38s. On October 12, fifty-five P-38s took part in a large raid against oil fields at Rabaul. October 15, a large Japanese formation was moving towards Allied bases at Dobodura. P-38s were scrambled, and within sight of the base, thirty-six Japanese aircraft were shot down. No P-38s were lost. Two days later, the Japanese struck again and lost eighteen more aircraft with only 1 P-38 lost. Incidentally, the lone P-38 shot down was Thomas McGuire, who had flamed three Japanese, but was hit by friendly AA fire.

Through December 1943, the 475th only lost a total of seven aircraft. However, the aircraft being used were in bad shape. Attrition was beginning to take a toll on the worn out P-38s they were flying. Additional aircraft were transferred from squadrons in the 49th and the 35th fighter groups. At the end of 1943, the 475th flew 557 combat missions, 6069 sorties, and had 285 confirmed kills.

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Early 1944 saw little action against the Japanese. Only encountered any Japanese aircraft once in February. The 475th was then moved from Dobodura to Finschhafen. They also received new P-38s and started flying missions against Hollandia. By April, the Japanese were starting to challenge the P-38s over Hollandia after laying low for a while. April 3, 1944, the 475th destroyed fifteen Japanese fighters. The 475th would suffer a setback in which would be known as "Bloody Sunday". On April 16, P-38s were returning from Hollandia, and ran into severe thunderstorms. Eight P-38s were destroyed, and six pilots were lost. It was the most pilots lost in a single day for the 475th, even more than any other day engaging the Japanese.

By mid-May, the 475th moved into Hollandia and started flying various escort, anti-shipping, and long patrol missions. By October, most of their aircraft were transferred to the 49th and the 8th fighter groups, which were supporting the Allied landings in the Philippines. In November, the 475th was re-equipped and back in combat. On Christmas day, the 475th notched its 500th kill, and two weeks later, Thomas McGuire was killed in combat after reaching his 38th kill, two short of Bong with 40.

In February, the 475th moved to Mindoro to support ground forces at Luzon. They would later move to Clark Field near Manila. The 475th would then relocate to Linguyen, Luzon. For the remainder of the war, the 475th flew mainly ground support and long-range escort missions, including targets in China, French Indo-China, and Formosa. There was no significant aerial opposition at this point in the war.

The 475th Fighter Group flew 3042 combat missions, 21,701 sorties, and shot down 551 enemy aircraft. Lindbergh's unofficial kill brings the total to 552. The 475th lost only 56 to the Japanese. Almost a 10:1 ratio, or for every ten Japanese aircraft shot down, only one P-38 was lost. The 475th was obviously one of the top outfits in the war.


The End Of The War

As the war in the Pacific was winding down, the Navy and Marines were bearing the brunt of the action as the Allied forces were nearing the Japanese mainland. The P-38 still was a valuable weapon in the Philippines. Ground forces would benefit from the P-38s destructive capabilities. There was little aerial opposition. The Japanese were building their forces for the inevitable main invasion. The costs would have been staggering, and the P-38 would have been there in the midst of everything. However, with the dropping of the atomic bombs the war was brought to an end. Hundreds of thousands of lives would be spared on both sides by not having to invade. The Pacific showcased all the benefits of the P-38 as a weapon. Many pilots were saved by the rugged durability. Bringing their aircraft home on one engine saved many pilots. Aircraft with one engine would have been forced to bail out or ditch the aircraft. Search and rescue was not nearly as advanced as modern times. Many pilots who survived ditching or parachuting were never rescued. Many of the top aces flew the P-38 for most of their kills, and were more than a match for the Japanese pilots. Throughout the war, the American pilots were becoming more and more experienced with flying the P-38 in combat. As the quality of the Japanese fighter pilots due to the losses and the lack of newly trained pilots began to drop, the advantages held by the P-38 pilots were almost unfair. The kill ratio in the Pacific Theater is evidence to this.




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