Republic’s big fighter is best known for its epic battles over Germany, and later for its role as a close support heavy weight.
Yet it also played a role in the Pacific War. Let’s take a look.
Initially the Thunderbolt was not really considered desirable in the Pacific. It had less range than the P-38 Lightning and was really best up high. Add to that a little pilot insecurity related to single engine use over water and inhospitable jungle, and its not hard to see why it was a second choice at best.
In late 1942 and early 1943 the 5th Air Force (headquartered in Australia, fighting mostly in New Guinea) was adding all the P-38 Lightnings they could. Initially this meant no complete groups, but rather one squadron at a time until three groups had a single squadron of Lightnings. But parts and replacement aircraft remained hard to come by. This is largely because of the ferocious air combat in the Mediterranean that was expending P-38s nearly as fast as they could be built (I’ll have more of that story in a later post). 5th Air Force was a very low priority. So General George Kenny (commander of the 5th Air Force) took advantage of stateside planning meeting to plead his case for more P-38s. Hap Arnold, the Army Air Force chief of staff was pretty set that the Pacific was a low priority, and the Navy’s show anyway. So no new planes (beyond the trickle of replacements) or groups for Kenny.
But Kenny was able to arrange an audience with FDR and pled his case again. Much of the argument had to do with how much good press was coming from his P-38 pilots like Tommy Lynch, George Welch and Gerald Johnson. So the president ordered Hap Arnold to send a completely equipped group with modern aircraft to the 5th Air Force. Perhaps to spite him, he sent the P-47 equipped 348th Fighter Group.
Fortunately for all concerned the 348th was well trained group of Thunderbolt specialists. Even better, the CO Neel Kearby was an excellent and aggressive leader. He understood he was taking a heavy weight fighter that was all about power, speed and kinetic energy against light opposition that focused on maneuver. Really, P-47 Thunderbolt vs Ki-43 Oscar may be the most extreme examples of their respective design philosophies to face off during the War.
For Col Kearby the Group’s over-riding principles would be all about altitude and speed. Get above everyone, keep your speed up, make high speed diving firing passes, dive through the enemy formation, keep speed up to pull away, then climb and repeat. For these early Thunderbolts in particular this was all very important. Their weight, and comparatively thin propeller blades, made it hard to build up speed down low. And at the speed an Oscar pilot would want to maneuver at the Thunderbolt was hanging on the edge of a stall.
In late 1943 when the Thunderbolts entered combat they were not long enough ranged to accompany the P-38s to Rabaul. So initially they were given escort missions for the tactical bombers and transports. This did not sit well them at all. Col Kearby determined they barely had the range for Wewak, which was the Japanese Army’s main airfield complex in Northern New Guinea. So he began organizing hunting teams of four or eight that would periodically head to Wewak to cause trouble. Accordingly, Thunderbolt kills began to build.
Meanwhile, General Kenny was having an easier time getting new Thunderbolts than Lightnings. There were never no new Lightnings, but there were never enough either. He was able to start reequipping P-39 and P-40 Squadrons with Thunderbolts, which was very useful. The Thunderbolt could carry far more ordnance and had heavy firepower for close support work. But the P-38 shortage became so acute he had to reequip one of his Lightning squadrons with Thunderbolts too. The 49th Fighter Group’s 9th Fighter Squadron was one of those squadrons that had received Lightnings at the end of 1942. But from November of 1943 to April 1944 they had to switch to Thunderbolts. This was not well received.
This particular aircraft, White 71, was one of those that was issued to the 9th Fighter Squadron. It was issued to 1st Lt James W. Harris. He had four kills as a P-38 pilot and carries those victory marks on this airplane. But he scored no kills in the Thunderbolt and failed to make ace.
In April of 1944, when the squadron switched back to Lightnings, this aircraft was reissued to the 386th Service Squadron at a “Combat Replacement Center”. Basically that means it was used to familiarize new pilots with the area and conditions before heading forward to a combat unit. As an older Thunderbolt its days forward were over.
On April 29, 1944, still in its 9th FS colors, the plane was taken up by a newly arrived A-20 pilot for a test flight and an excuse to fire the guns. But 1st Lt Marion C Lutes disappeared somewhere over New Guinea and remains Missing in Action.
But in 1979 “White 71” was located by a group of students doing a study in the jungle. It was located in the mountains at 8200′ near the village of Tauta. No human remains were found.
In 2004 the wreck became a source of controversy. It was recovered from the jungle for restoration work (or spare parts). The recovery team stated there was evidence the pilot had left the cockpit and there was waste from emergency rations found under a wing, suggesting the pilot had survived and walked away. But no photographs of this were provided and the US, Australia and New Guinea all considered it an open MIA case, evidence disturbed without permission.
Fortunately the wreck was well photographed, at least fortunately for modelers and others interested in such things. We can plainly see the red surrounded insignia that had been ordered painted over in August of 1943. We can see that the upper surfaces of the horizontal stabilizers were left in OD Green in spite of directives for all white tail surfaces. And we can see the unnamed pin-up nearly pristine under the cockpit glazing. This is all a wonderful look at how markings and colors were often applied, or not applied as directed.
Since that time the wreckage has disappeared again. Possibly still crated in a warehouse somewhere (next to the Ark of the Covenant?) or thoroughly parted out never to be seen again.
This is the Tamiya kit, a drama-free build if ever there was one. “White 71” was a P-47D-4, which means the cowling flaps in the kit are wrong. Fortunately the after market supplier Quick Boost makes the cowl flaps for early Thunderbolts as a single part that replaces the single kit part. Easiest conversion ever. The decals and wonderfully detailed marking guide are by PYN-up Decals. Awesome product.