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The neverending story

Ever ask yourself why I long ago established a “The more things change…” post category here? The story of the Lockheed P38 Lightning, from which the ill-starred F35 Turducken misappropriated its own name, is supremely instructive.

Range extension
The strategic bombing proponents within the USAAF, nicknamed the Bomber Mafia by their ideological opponents, had established in the early 1930s a policy against research to create long-range fighters, which they thought would not be practical; this kind of research was not to compete for bomber resources. Aircraft manufacturers understood that they would not be rewarded if they installed subsystems on their fighters to enable them to carry drop tanks to provide more fuel for extended range. Lieutenant Kelsey (First LT Benjamin S Kelsey, godfather to three of the planes that won the war: the P39 Airacobra, the P38, and the P51 MustangM), acting against this policy, risked his career in late 1941 when he convinced Lockheed to incorporate such subsystems in the P-38E model, without putting his request in writing. It is possible that Kelsey was responding to Colonel George William Goddard’s observation that the US sorely needed a high-speed, long-range photo reconnaissance plane. Along with a change order specifying some P-38Es be produced with guns replaced by photoreconnaissance cameras, to be designated the F-4-1-LO, Lockheed began working out the problems of drop-tank design and incorporation. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, eventually about 100 P-38Es were sent to a modification center near Dallas, Texas, or to the new Lockheed assembly plant B-6 (today the Burbank Airport), to be fitted with four K-17 aerial photography cameras. All of these aircraft were also modified to be able to carry drop tanks. P-38Fs were modified, as well. Every Lightning from the P-38G onward was capable of being fitted with drop tanks straight off the assembly line.

In March 1942, General Arnold made an off-hand comment that the US could avoid the German U-boat menace by flying fighters to the UK rather than packing them onto ships. President Roosevelt pressed the point, emphasizing his interest in the solution. Arnold was likely aware of the flying radius extension work being done on the P-38, which by this time had seen success with small drop tanks in the range of 150 to 165 US gal (570 to 620 L), the difference in capacity being the result of subcontractor production variation. Arnold ordered further tests with larger drop tanks in the range of 300 to 310 US gal (1,100 to 1,200 L); the results were reported by Kelsey as providing the P-38 with a 2,500-mile (4,000 km) ferrying range. Because of available supply, the smaller drop tanks were used to fly Lightnings to the UK, the plan called Operation Bolero.

Led by two Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses, the first seven P-38s, each carrying two small drop tanks, left Presque Isle Army Air Field in Maine on 23 June 1942 for RAF Heathfield in Scotland. Their first refueling stop was made in far northeast Canada at Goose Bay. The second stop was a rough airstrip in Greenland called Bluie West One, and the third refueling stop was in Iceland at Keflavik. Other P-38s followed this route with some lost in mishaps, usually due to poor weather, low visibility, radio difficulties, and navigational errors. Nearly 200 of the P-38Fs (and a few modified Es) were successfully flown across the Atlantic in July–August 1942, making the P-38 the first USAAF fighter to reach Britain and the first fighter ever to be delivered across the Atlantic under its own power. Kelsey himself piloted one of the Lightnings, landing in Scotland on 25 July.

The US insistence on a strategic campign of “daylight precision bombing” of targets in Germany turned out to be a misnomer if ever there was one, with an abysmally low percentage of targets destroyed (or even hit at all) compounded by a horrendous loss of 8th AF B17s and B24s, along with their near-irreplaceable aircrews. Meanwhile, as the Bomber Mafia generals nattered, griped, and maneuvered to protect their turf at the expense of…well, pretty much everything else, the practical utility of an extended-range P38 was being established over the Pacific by a little something called Operation Vengeance.

Operation Vengeance was the American military operation to kill Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto of the Imperial Japanese Navy on April 18, 1943, during the Solomon Islands campaign in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Yamamoto, commander of the Combined Fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy, was killed on Bougainville Island when his transport aircraft was shot down by United States Army Air Forces fighter aircraft operating from Kukum Field on Guadalcanal.

The mission of the U.S. aircraft was specifically to kill Yamamoto, and was made possible because of United States Navy intelligence decoding transmissions about Yamamoto’s travel itinerary through the Solomon Islands area. The death of Yamamoto reportedly damaged the morale of Japanese naval personnel, raised the morale of the Allied forces, and was intended as revenge by U.S. leaders, who blamed Yamamoto for the attack on Pearl Harbor that initiated the war between Imperial Japan and the United States.

The U.S. pilots claimed to have shot down three twin-engine bombers and two fighters during the mission, but Japanese records show only two bombers were shot down. There is a controversy over which pilot shot down Yamamoto’s plane, but most modern historians credit Rex T. Barber.

To avoid detection by radar and Japanese personnel stationed in the Solomon Islands along a straight-line distance of about 400 miles (640 km) between U.S. forces and Bougainville, the mission entailed an over-water flight south and west of the Solomons. This roundabout approach was plotted and measured to be about 600 miles (970 km). The fighters would, therefore, travel 600 miles out to the target and 400 miles back. The 1,000-mile flight, with extra fuel allotted for combat, was beyond the range of the F4F Wildcat and F4U Corsair fighters then available to Navy and Marine squadrons based on Guadalcanal. The mission was instead assigned to the 339th Fighter Squadron, 347th Fighter Group, whose P-38G Lightning aircraft, equipped with drop tanks, were the only American fighters in the Pacific with the range to intercept, engage and return.

Bold mine, and entirely dispositive. The aforementioned controversy over credit for the Yamamoto kill arose primarily because COL Barber was flying the Miss Virginia, a G-model usually assigned to CPT Robert L Petit (eventually, Major General Petit) and borrowed for the Vengeance mission by Barber, likely due to mechanical issues with his own aircraft. There were other complications, several actually, but the confusion pretty much started with that.

See what I mean, though? Higher-Higher jealously safeguarding their own fiefdoms to the detriment of the overall war effort, eventually costing the taxpayers millions of dollars and the lives of experienced flight crews needlessly, only to have their position revealed at the end of the day as complete folly—naaah, that doesn’t ring familiar in the contemporary ear at ALL.

A few caveats definitely apply here, most prominent among them that said folly needn’t necessarily be attributed to nefarious purposes when the generalship could quite as well have merely been mistaken, which would certainly hold true for at least some of them. That stipulated, the fact remains: yes, we did win the war—not so much because of the American military leadership corps, but in spite of them. T’was ever thus, I’m afraid.

Update! For Barry: a pic of a Shark-Mouth logo’d P38 (in its F5 photo-recon incarnation), the Florida Gator.


In the contemporary argot, one could say that this P38 identifies as an F5; us oldsters might insist that it’s trying to pass as one, being bred-in-the-bone RAYCISS!™ as we all undoubtedly are. A little historical background on the Gator and its sad demise can be found here.


7 thoughts on “The neverending story

  1. but in spite of them

    True, and true for every conflict ever engaged I’m afraid. There are a handful, a small handful, of men that understand the strategic needs of war especially as the technology is changing. In that age I think it was less likely graft than ignorance, but both are there.

    The P38 was the inspiration for the rear styling of the ’49 Caddy Sedanette, the most beautiful car ever made IMO. I’ve always loved the P38 along with the B17, my favorite fighter and bomber.

    This thread does need a pic and since my P38 folder seems to have disappeared I’ll get one off the internets.

      1. Hm. Dunno about that limitation, Barry, it might be built into the WP software or something. I’ll look into that later tonight.

        Re: the P38, the Wiki article I linked is right about them being almost eerily quiet in flight. Years ago, at one of the Warbirds shows in Monroe, I saw one fly–note I said SAW, not HEARD. The five Mustangs that did a low pass behind the ’38 rattled the ground under my feet, but not that Lightning. Quiet as a kitten walking on cotton, it was. On TWO engines, not one, mind.

        As for the B17, one of my neighbors growing up, Charles Black, who later became mayor of Mt Holly and whose youngest son David was one of my best friends growing up, flew a Fort in the European Theater during the latter days of WW2. He went on to a career as an ATC at CLT-Douglas for many years, and built beaucoup models of WW2 aircraft, which Charlie then hung from the ceiling of David’s room in various positions depicting aerial combat. Why yes, that room was one of the most-favored places to hang out and play in for all us neighborhood kids, why do you ask? 😉

        1. David’s room

          As a youth I went into a couple of friends rooms like that. Really neat IMO.

          My late best friends Dad was an 8th B17 pilot. He continued to fly when he returned home, traveling to remote sites for projects as a civil engineer.

          On the pic, maybe I did something wrong. I first put the P38, then added the Caddy, which took the place of the P38. No big deal, just making separate comments works fine.

          1. 10-4, Barr. On a side note, I think you’re the first to ever have an update dedicated to ya, for whatever that might be worth. As the Mensa people told me back when I was a kid and I was being recruited for membership, that and 25 cents would get me a cup of coffee

            1. Ha, coffee is good enough. I told the Mensa girl* that any club that would have me wasn’t fit to have me…

              It’s an honor to have a dedication in a post about P38’s.

              *A friends girlfriend actually

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