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P-47 Thunderbolt: Aviation Darwinism

Chapter Six:

There were stark differences between the air war in Europe and that being fought over the enormous expanse of the Pacific. Recall that the limited range of the P-47 had presented some serious problems with bomber escort in the ETO. Now consider the situation in the vastness of the South Pacific.

General Kenney's 5th Air Force was deeply involved with the struggle of pushing the Japanese out of the Southwest Pacific area. The only Army Air Force fighter capable of bringing the war to the Japanese was the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Round trip missions frequently exceeded 800 miles for the Lightning. On occasion, the P-38 was required to venture more than 600 miles to find and attack Japanese air assets. For shorter range missions, various models of the Curtiss P-40 were most commonly used. Incredibly, some squadrons were still soldiering on with the P-39 Airacobra to very near the end of 1943.

General Kenney certainly preferred the P-38 over the P-47 because of the Lightning's
remarkable combat radius. This is a P-38F-1-LO, a later sub-model of the P-38F type
was used by the 5th Air Force.

Gen. Kenney had found that the P-38 was the answer to his dreams of taking the fight to the Japanese. With its very long range capabilities, 400+ mph speed and the inherent advantage of two engines, the Lightning introduced the Japanese to the next generation of high performance American fighters. For all of the P-38's attributes, one problem became evident. There would not be enough of them to go around. Operation Torch (the invasion of North Africa) had gobbled up all the P-38 fighters in Europe. Even the 8th Air Force was stripped of its Lightnings for Torch. Kenney was finding it increasingly difficult to obtain additional numbers of the big, long ranging twin. Another dilemma facing Kenney was that many of his existing P-38's were older P-38F and G models with considerable combat hours in their logbooks. It would not be long before many of these would be officially classified as "war weary".

Kenney was offered a choice of several other fighters in its stead. However, the 5th was already well populated with the P-40 Warhawk. The performance of the P-40 was only adequate at best. Its range was limited, which largely meant that it was not suitable for many of the 5th's mission requirements. There was but one other option, the new P-47 Thunderbolt. The word had filtered down to the 5th that these were hot fighters. However, that would be of little value because the Jug had shorter legs than the Curtiss P-40. Without external drop tanks and a remarkable thirst for avgas, the P-47 could not even match the Warhawk's combat radius. Kenney was handed the hot potato when Gen. Hap Arnold offered him a newly trained P-47 Group. Kenney, who was never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, promptly accepted.

The 348th Fighter Group arrived in Australia on June 30th 1943 with their P-47D-2-RE Jugs. Just as in Britain, the Thunderbolt made an immediate impression upon the RAAF personnel. Reportedly, as a P-47 pilot climbed down from the cockpit, one Aussie ground crewman inquired; "Where is the rest of the crew?"

348th FG taking off from Eagle Farm
Thunderbolts from the 348th FG head out from Eagle Farm. Note that
they are carrying two 165 gallon drop tanks designed for the P-38.

As the 348th settled into temporary quarters, Kenney went to work on increasing the range of the potent new fighter. He set his engineering staff to work designing a suitable external drop tank. Once the design was finalized, Kenney contracted with Ford of Australia to manufacture the tanks. By middle August, the first tanks arrived and were fitted to the Thunderbolts. The tanks were big and ugly, but they held 200 gallons of fuel, which nearly doubled the P-47's combat radius. Now able to range out further than the P-40E, the Jug could now reach out to the Japanese where previously no single engine fighter could go.

After some time for orientation, the 348th went operational. Lt.Col. Neel Kearby commanded the Group and led them into combat. Kearby understood the tactical advantages of the P-47. He knew that the Japanese had no aircraft that could counter the Thunderbolt's combination of speed, high altitude performance, firepower and ruggedness. Using these attributes to their best advantage, the 348th tore a swath through the Japanese while suffering minimal losses to the enemy fighters. Kearby was able to gain his first victory against the Japanese on September 4th and added a second on the 15th. On October 11th, 1943, Kearby would fly a mission that would eventually earn him the Medal of Honor.

Leading three other P-47's on a reconnaissance mission near Wewak, Kearby spotted a formation of Japanese aircraft far below his own cruising altitude of 26,000 feet. Kearby and his flight counted at least 12 bombers and an estimated 36 fighters as escort. Ignoring the lopsided odds, Kearby led the Thunderbolts down at high speed. Tearing into the Japanese formation, Kearby quickly splashed three of the escort while Captains Dunham and Moore each blasted a Ki-61 Tony into oblivion. Using his speed to zoom back up to 20,000 feet, Kearby planned on gathering his flight for another high speed pass. However, he spotted one of his flight with a pair of Tonys nipping at his tail. Rolling into a dive, Kearby came roaring down well in excess of 400 mph. In one pass, both Japanese fighters were fatally hit. Continuing right on by, Kearby ripped into yet another gaggle of Tonys. One of these went down on fire. A second was likely shot down as well. Unfortunately for Kearby, his gun camera had run out of film and he could only claim the last Tony as a probable.

Kearby then assembled his flight and diverted to an emergency airfield. After landing, it was discovered that the four Thunderbolts had less than 300 gallons of fuel remaining between them.

With six confirmed kills and a probable, Kearby had set an Army Air Force record for the most victories during a single sortie. General Kenney quickly recommended Kearby for the Medal of Honor. General MacArthur signed the recommendation and forwarded it through channels. During the first week of January, 1944, MacArthur personally presented Kearby with the nation's highest decoration for valor.

Actor John Wayne and Ace Neel Kearby
In this well circulated publicity photo, John Wayne, an actor who played a
fighter pilot in the movies, meets the real McCoy in the person of Neel Kearby.

Having taken up the goal of being the highest scoring ace in the Pacific, by March 5th, Kearby and Dick Bong were tied with 21 victories each. That day Kearby would lead his flight in a diving attack on a large formation of Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa (Oscar) fighters. Smacking down one of the Oscars on his first pass, Kearby's aggressiveness would lead him to violate a cardinal rule of aerial fighting in the Pacific: Never engage in a low speed turning fight with the agile Japanese fighters. Kearby hauled around in a punishing turn, trying to work his way onto the tail of another Hayabusa. That was a mistake. Virtually nothing could turn with the Ki-43 at speeds below 200 mph. Quickly three of the Japanese fighters had slipped in behind the slow moving P-47. Seeing Kearby's immediate peril, two members of his flight bounded into the Oscars. Maj. Blair and Captain Dunham each shot an Oscar off of Kearby's tail. The third Oscar managed to get a burst into the cockpit of Kearby's Thunderbolt. The P-47 went straight into the jungle below. There was no parachute seen. Kearby's killer had little time to celebrate his victory. Dunham exploded his Hayabusa seconds later. Dunham would finish the war with 16 confirmed kills. Kearby's own aggressive nature was directly responsible for his untimely death and ended his challenge to Bong. Kearby's total ended at 22. Bong would go on to be the leading American ace with 40 confirmed victories while flying the Lockheed P-38 Lightning with the much feared 49th Fighter Group, which would also fly the P-47 for several months.

As Kenney had expected, the Thunderbolt was proving to be a remarkably effective fighter against the Japanese. Unable to get any P-38's due to the demand in the ETO, Kenney was able to acquire additional Thunderbolts to replace the worn out P-38's being flown by the 9th Fighter Squadron of the 49th Fighter Group.

The 49th flew a composite of fighters. The 7th and 8th squadrons flew a mixture of Curtiss P-40E's and P-40K's, with some newer P-40N aircraft arriving in October of 1943. The 9th transitioned from the over achieving P-40 to the P-38 in October of 1942. General Kenney handed the Lightnings to the 9th after practically stealing them from the 17th Fighter Squadron. By the fall of 1943, the 9th had pretty much used up the remaining Lockheeds. They needed to be replaced with new aircraft. However, since the P-38 was not available, Kenney decided to transition the "Flying Knights" of the 9th FS into the P-47D-5-RE.

P-38s of the 9th FS, 49th FG
The war weary P-38s of the 9th FS sit lined up. Note the odd looking pipe installed on the turbocharger
on the fighter in the foreground. This field modification provided additional "ram air".

To say that the pilots of the 9th were less than enthused with the P-47 would be nothing less than a gross understatement. These pilots had developed a deep abiding faith in the P-38. The security of two engines could not be underestimated. Especially when one considers the huge tracts of open ocean in the SWPA. Nonetheless, their tired Lightnings were becoming a maintenance nightmare. The constant use (and, some would say "abuse") and tropical conditions had combined to result in worn out engines, systems and electrical bugs that kept the squadron's mechanics working 18 hour days just to meet the basic operational requirements. In addition, the actual airframes were beginning to show the wear and tear of hard use. In short, the P-38s, mostly G models, were long overdue to be retired to less demanding training duty. Kenney ordered that the 9th transition to the P-47. On November 12, 1943, the remaining P-38s were handed over to a maintenance squadron and the 9th began training with the Thunderbolt.

By late November, the 9th was declared as operational. The commanding officer of the 9th, Maj. Jerry Johnson, would get the squadron's first victory with the P-47. Yet, it was a victory that should have been passed up. Taking an opportunity to fly with Kearby's 348th FG, Johnson accompanied them on a sweep over Finschhaven (New Guinea). Spotting a radial engine aircraft flying about 3,000 feet above the jungle canopy, Johnson raced down and put a burst into the plane's engine. A parachute was observed.

Jerry Johnson's P-47D
This rare photo of Jerry Johnson's P-47 survived many months of South Pacific heat and humidity.
Although washed out in the photo, there are 13 victory flags just below the windscreen.

Upon his return, Johnson was deeply disturbed to learn that the radial engine aircraft was not Japanese. Johnson had shot down an RAAF artillery observer flying an Australian built Wirraway (the Wirraway was essentially, a modified North American BT-9 which was the predecessor of the AT-6 and SNJ advanced trainer. Wirraways were built, under license, by Australia's Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation). The pilot of the Wirraway had escaped serious injury. Nonetheless, he was sufficiently rattled and angered to file a complaint with the 5th Air Force command. Johnson, in a successful effort to make amends, hand carried a case of bootleg gin to a very forgiving Flight Officer R.M. Stewart. 5th Air Force legend has it that General Kenney personally provided Johnson with the alcoholic bribe.

Some of the best pilots of the 49th FG
Some of the 49th's best. Top row, left to right; G. Laven, Jerry Johnson, CO Tice.
Bottom row, left to right; Bob DeHaven, Wally Jordan, Duckbutt Watkins.

By the first week of December, Johnson was satisfied that the 9th was ready for combat. Shortly thereafter, the 36th Fighter Squadron of the 35th Fighter Group went operational with their new Thunderbolts. But, even as the P-47 began to operate in ever larger numbers, the air war was once again moving beyond the range of Jug. The Japanese were being forced to withdraw the bulk of their aircraft away from the rapidly growing Allied air strength. Opportunities for the Thunderbolts would be few and far between. The 9th FS operated the P-47 for just over four months. During the time that the P-47 flew operationally with the 9th, only 8 Japanese aircraft were downed. Once again, the P-47 had found itself limited in range and bringing the war to the enemy would require a longer ranging fighter. By April of 1944, hand-me-down P-38J Lightnings had become available and Kenney sent them to the 9th FS.

A 318th FG P-47 gets ready for a catapult launch
A 318th FG P-47D-11-RE runs up to full power as it prepares for a catapult launch from the deck of the
CVE Manila Bay off of Saipan. Note the artwork on the drop tank under the fuselage.

By mid 1944, the P-47 would be increasing used for close air support and tactical air strikes against the Japanese Army. Indeed, P-47s would be flown off of U.S. escort carriers to newly captured airfields on Saipan, and be used with great effect against Japanese air and land forces in the Marianas Islands.

U.S.S. Manila Bay and Thunderbolts being bombed at sea
The 318th Fighter Group was delivered to Saipan on two small escort carriers. This photo, taken aboard
the CVE Manila Bay, shows the deck crowded with Thunderbolts. Of greater interest is the large geysers of
water from exploding bombs dropped by Japanese bombers.

The P-47 would fight with distinction in the Far East. Flown by American and Allied Air Forces, the Thunderbolt would perform yeoman service in Burma and China. Yet ultimately, the P-47 would only be a bit player in the Pacific and China-Burma-India theaters. Until the arrival of the remarkable long range P-47N in 1945, the long range mission in the Pacific would be domain of the P-38 and later, the P-51 Mustang.

1st Air Commando Group P-47D makes a wild landing
Feeling for the runway like a bicyclist feeling for the ground, this 1st Air Commando pilot risks a ground
loop with this one wheel landing. The risk is enhanced by the increased chance of a blown tire. Possibly,
this pilot is not yet comfortable with the Thunderbolt's high approach and touchdown speeds.

Back in the ETO, the Mustang was fast becoming the primary escort fighter. For the P-47, this meant a change of roles. Still the finest high altitude fighter in Europe, the invasion of France would thrust the P-47 into a new and far more dangerous job. Once again, the Thunderbolt would rise to the mission and ultimately, become one of the best tactical fighter-bombers in the Allied inventory.

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