Lockheed P-38G Lightning

The P-38 Lightning would become a major part of the American war effort against the Japanese.  It was flown by more aces than any other Army Air Force type in the Pacific.  But it is perhaps best known for one mission that pushed the limits of what anyone had considered before.

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Let’s take a look at an ambush that made history.

In early 1943 a small number of units flying P-38 Lightnings were making their presence known in the South Pacific.  The P-38 was the first really modern fighter to come available to the AAF.  It was fast and powerful with good firepower.  Its twin engines provided security that was much appreciated by pilots on long, over-water flights.  It was long ranged with plenty of load carrying ability to carry extra fuel and go even further. And it had state-of-the-art turbo-chargers behind each engine that could drive the type higher and faster than any previous fighter in theater.

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In April of 1943 Japanese morale was badly bruised.  The Guadalcanal Campaign had ended in defeat and US forces were starting to fight their way up the Solomon Island chain.  The Navy commander-in-chief, Admiral Yamamoto, had sent a number of Navy aircraft into the area to try and blunt American operations.  This was known as Operation I-Go and started on April 7. Early reports looked favorable to the Japanese; the Operation did do some serious damage, but much less than the pilots thought.
Admiral Yamamoto decided a personal inspection of the forward air units would provide a much needed boost.  His precise itinerary was sent to all concerned.

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Of course we know today that the Japanese codes were completely compromised.  The decoded itinerary showed that on the morning of April 18 Yamamoto would be arriving at a base 400 miles from Guadalcanal.  This was out of range for anything except a group (347th Fighter Group) of recently arrived P-38s.  Even for the P-38 it was pushing limits.  To avoid a direct route to the intercept (and risk revealing to the Japanese that we were reading their codes) a 600 mile route was selected.  That meant 1000 miles of range were needed round trip.
The standard 165 gallon drop tanks weren’t enough.  A special load of 330 gallon ferry tanks were flown in, enough so each plane could carry one in addition to the standard 165 gallon tank.  The navigation needed to be perfect; group commander Maj. John Mitchell even had a Navy compass installed in his aircraft for better precision.  Four aircraft were assigned to a “kill” team to get the Admiral and twelve others provided cover.
Yamamoto’s flight consisted of two Betty bombers escorted by six Zeros.  The interception occurred exactly on schedule.  The only mission of its sort at this kind of range in the entire war. The Lightnings had kept low, 50 feet off the water, to avoid any detection ahead of time.  Making contact meant the “kill” team went to a full power climb after the bombers.  At least Capt Thomas Lanphier and Lt Rex Barber did.  Lt Holmes’ had a problem getting his drop tanks to detach and Lt Hines held back to cover him.  Lanphier and Barber both attacked the lead bomber which was observed to crash in the jungle.  Barber then went chasing after the other bomber that had turned back out to sea and joined with Holmes for the kill. A general melee involving the escort fighters and P-38s only resulted in one further aircraft loss, Lt Hines was not seen again.

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Noticeable difference between the standard 165 gallon tank on the right and 330 gallon tank, with extra sway braces, on the left. This is a P-38 at full load.

Yamamoto had been on the first Betty that crashed into the jungle in flames.  His body was recovered and it was found he’d been killed by gunfire before the crash.  Admiral Yamamoto’s chief-of-staff, Vice Admiral Ugaki, was on the second bomber and survived the water landing.

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Miss Virginia was the regular mount of Lt Bob Petit.  But 24 hours before the Yamamoto mission Rex Barber’s plane went unserviceable, so it became his ride for the day.  The scoreboard on the nose consists of a ship hit by Lt Petit some days earlier and two Zeros Lt Barber shot down in this plane on April 7.

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Admiral Yamamoto addressing pilots on Rabual, April 18, 1943. This is the last photo of the Admiral. (Wikipedia)

This mission generated quite an enduring controversy, and I don’t mean the silly stuff about trying to kill someone during a war…
Thomas Lanphier and Rex Barber initially were both credited with Yamamoto’s plane.  But post-War Lanphier wrote a memoir in which he claimed sole credit.  He became insistent about it, perhaps because another Zero kill of his was disallowed post-War, which left him with 4.5 kills.  Full credit would make him an ace.
This all led to a pretty epic clash between Lanphier and Barber with both requesting full credit from the Air Force. A more thorough investigation, including Japanese combat reports, was inconclusive; but would indicate Barber as the more likely victor.  But “official” credit remained split. Other pilots on the mission mostly sided with Barber. That may be in part because Barber was a more likable sort; but the consensus seems to be that Lanphier’s account involves physically impossible maneuvers for a P-38 and is inconsistent with evidence from the crash site.

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Admiral Yamamoto’s Betty on Bouganville, where it still lies today.  (Wikipedia)

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P-38 is obviously a much bigger plane that the Zero.

This is the Tamiya kit.  Its currently their newest kit.  My one word review is: WOW!
I think I said that word every five minutes while building it.  The engineers at Tamiya are artists.  This is simply the best scale model kit I’ve ever seen in my life.  Make no mistake, any good thing you think when looking at these pictures is to Tamiya’s credit.  I’ll accept the blame for any shortcomings; that is, any place I didn’t do this masterpiece of a kit full justice.

~ Dave 

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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10 Responses to Lockheed P-38G Lightning

  1. Ernie Davis says:

    Considering your next on the bench, I believe Charles Lindbergh flew P38’s in the Pacific and oddly had a lot of ideas on how to squeeze extra range out of them.

  2. jfwknifton says:

    A marvellous account of one of the most glamorous, imaginative and daring raids of the war. And I’m amazed to see that Yamamoto’s plane is still there in the jungle!

    • atcDave says:

      Yeah I was surprised by that too! I guess it’s a way off the beaten path. But several surveys have been made of the wreck. Several pieces have found their way into museums, but the hulk remains where it crashed.

  3. Very interesting indeed! I suppose the secret of the code’s compromise was not revealed as a result of the attack then, and that the US forces were able to continue breaking the Japanese codes for some time to come.

    • atcDave says:

      Yes that’s right. They concocted a story that a coast watcher had radioed seeing an unknown VIP boarding a Betty that departed Rabaul to the southeast. At least, that’s how it was reported in the American press. So a long range patrol was sent to find it and got “lucky”.
      Ironically I don’t think the Japanese heard (or believed?) the American press. But they were so certain the JN25 code was unbreakable they spent a year looking for spies in every corner of their government and military. That may have caused as much disruption as killing Yamamoto!

      • Indeed it must have, all that mistrust and questioning of staff! Perhaps it was a little naive of the Japanese to think it unbreakable.

      • atcDave says:

        Yeah it was a real blind spot for them. It started with being sure no westerner could possibly understand Japanese. And no Nisei would ever be loyal to a non-Japanese country. Of course, many westerners feared the same thing.
        Funny since there were plenty of Americans and British at their respective embassies that were fluent in Japanese.
        But I guess that’s how blind spots work.

        They did follow the basic sort of protocols about periodically updating their codes. I believe the only MAJOR overhaul was scheduled for just before Midway. But due to physical distribution problems it was pushed back until just after that battle (it was a traditional book cypher; so whole bound code books needed to be printed and distributed). I think that left us in the dark for a couple months, but they only did minor tweaks after so we were never completely in the dark again.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        I believe that is one area we have, due to our history in the US, been largely spared the myopia of some of our axis opponents. They were not just nations, but a people, distinct from other lesser peoples, like Chinese or Czechs or Russians, whereas, granted with problematic aspects with identifiable minorities lingering even to this day, by WWII we were a bunch of Pollacks, Czechs, Germans, Jews, Irish, Scots, Italians, English and Russians who all called ourselves Americans.

      • atcDave says:

        Excellent point! The advantages of a melting pot…

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