The Lockheed P-38 Lightning
The P-38 Lightning was the first high performance aircraft Lockheed built. The United States Army Air Corps made a Request for Proposals for a long range pursuit plane in 1937. The XP-38 made its first flight on January 27, 1939. The prototype crashed at the end of a transcontinental speed-dash on February 11, 1939. The pilot Lt. Benjamin S. Kelsey survived the crash.[i] The Royal Air Force (RAF) ordered P-38s under Lend Lease and the Royal Air Force gave it the name Lightning. The RAF was dissatisfied with the aircraft and canceled the order.[ii] They found the aircraft inferior to the Spitfire V at high altitude and compressibility problems made the P-38 dangerous in a dive. The addition of superchargers improved the high altitude performance of the P-38. The addition of dive flaps corrected the compressibility problem.
The P-38 was a single seat twin-engine fighter. Its twin boom gave it a distinct though not unique appearance. The P-38’s speed compared favorably to the single engine fighters at the start of the U.S. involvement in World War II. It was less maneuverable than its single engine counterparts. The standard armament for the P-38 was one 20 millimeter cannon and 4 .50 caliber machine guns. Since these guns were in the nose and did not have to synchronize with a propeller the P-38 had a great concentration of firepower. Centrally mounted guns are less prone to jamming.[iii] Enemy pilots soon learned it was a bad idea to attack the P-38 head on.
It was a relatively complex fighter to fly. It was also larger than its single engine counterparts. This made it easier to spot and easier to hit. The twin engines and larger size in theory would make it able to take more punishment than single engine fighters.
[i] Aviation History (http://www.aviation-history.com/lockheed/p38.html), last accessed 1/15/2017.
[ii] Vintage Aircraft Recognition Guide, by Tony Holmes, © HarperCollins Publishers, 2005, Page 185.
[iii] Fighter Aces of the Luftwaffe, by Raymond F. Toliver and trevor J. Constable © 1977, P 173.
The P-38 in Combat
When the United States entered World War II it had 69 P-38s.[i] The F-5, reconnaissance version of the Lightning, entered combat before P-38 fighters entered service. These F-5s joined the Royal Australian Air Force 8th Photographic Squadron and began flying combat missions in April 1942.[ii] The first Lightning air victories were in the Aleutian Islands on August 9, 1942. Pilots of the 343rd Fighter Group shot down two Japanese Kawanishi H6K flying boats. On August 14 a P-38, flown by 2Lt. Elza E. Shahan, and a P-40 flown by 2Lt. J. K. Shaffer, became the first American aircraft to shoot down a Luftwaffe aircraft in World War II. The victim was a Focke-Wulf Fw 200C-3 Condor over Iceland. These kills are ironic because at the time the P-38 had an inadequate cockpit heating system.
P-38s flew practice sorties from Northern Ireland. Then they were transferred to North Africa. While en-route to Algeria they shot down 2 Junkers Ju 88s over the Bay of Biscay.[iii] In North Africa, as in subsequent theaters, P-38s flew fighter and ground attack missions. The P-38s of the 14th Fighter Group claimed 62 aerial victories by the end of January 1943. This was at the cost of 32 of its pilots.
On April 5, 1943 P-38s attacked a formation of 65 Ju 52 transports. The Lightnings shot down 14 Ju 52s and damaged another 65 on the ground.[iv] The P-38s also claimed 2 fighters for the loss of 3 P-38s. On the 10th P-38s shot down 41 transports and 8 fighters. On the 11th P-38s shot down 26 Ju 52s and 5 fighters without loss.[v] These and other horrendous losses inflicted on the Luftwaffe transports all but severed the German air bridge between North Africa and Italy. The Axis forces in North Africa surrendered on May 12. During the North African campaign the P-38 proved superior to the P-40 and could contend with the Luftwaffe single engine fighters on an equal basis.
The United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) believed their heavily armed 4 engine bombers could stave off enemy fighters and didn’t need a fighter escort. Heavy losses proved that strategy wrong. After the October 14, 1943 raid against Schweinfurt the 8th Air Force decided they would no longer send their heavy bombers outside the range of their escort fighters. During the autumn of 1943 the 8th Air Force flew P-38s and P-47s on escort missions. The P-38s kill to loss ratio was 1:1 while the P-47 ratio was 2.5:1.[vi] In December, 1943 the P-51s began escort missions. From December 11 – January 7, 1944 the P-38s had a kill to loss ratio of 1:1, the P-47 ratio was 1.7:1, and the P-51 ratio was 2:1. During this period 4 P-38s, 15 P-47s, and 2 P-51s returned to base damaged beyond repair.[vii]
P-38 Pilot Captain Arthur Jeffrey was the first pilot credited with shooting down a Me 163 rocket fighter on July 29, 1944.[viii] In fact the Me 163 he shot at got away.
At Clastres, France on August 25, 1944 about 40 Fw 190s of II/JG6 attacked 12 P-38s of the 394th Fighter squadron. The P-38s were strafing an airfield and the Fw 190s shot down 6 Lightnings. The other squadrons of the 367th Fighter Group came to the aid of the 394th fighters. The P-38s shot down 16 Fw 190s. The numbers were equal yet the Fw 190s only shot down one P-38 besides the initial six they shot down in the initial attack. Among the German pilot shot down was Leutnant Rudi Dassow, who had 22 kills to his credit.[ix]
Lightnings of the 474th Fighter Group also had a major air battle that day. They engaged a force of Bf 109s then Fw 190s of II/JG26 attacked the P-38s. The group lost 11 P-38s. The losses included Captain James Austin who was wounded and captured. Unteroffizer Ottomar Kruse shot down Captain Austin.[x]
The 8th Air Force P-38s had a 1.5:1 kill to loss ratio.[xi] The P-38 continued as a front line fighter in Europe until V-E Day.
[i] Aviation History (http://www.aviation-history.com/lockheed/p38.html), last accessed 1/2/2017.
[ii] Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, (https://airandspace.si.edu/collection-objects/lockheed-p-38j-10-lo-lightning), last accessed 1/16/2017.
[iii] Joe Baugher (http://www.joebaugher.com/usaf_fighters/p38_17.html), last accessed 1/16/2017.
[iv] Warfare History Network, (http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/iron-annie-the-junkers-ju-52/), last accessed 1/15/2017.
[v] Air Power Australia, (http://www.ausairpower.net/P-38-Analysis.html), last accessed 1/15/2017.
[vi] These losses are from all causes. Source: Mighty Eight War Diaries, by Roger A. Freeman, © 1981.
[vii] Mighty Eight War Diaries, by Roger A. Freeman, © 1981.
[viii] World War II Database (http://ww2db.com/aircraft_spec.php?aircraft_model_id=74), last accessed 1/22/2017).
[ix] The Last Year of the Luftwaffe, by Alfred Price, © 1991.P. 66.
[x] JG26, Top Guns of the Luftwaffe, © 1991 by Donald L. Caldwell.
[xi] Aviation History.com (http://www.aviation-history.com/lockheed/p38.html), last accessed 1/15/2017.
USAAF Fighter Comparison
P-40 Kittyhawk III
Rate of Climb
P-38s Against Japan
During the Aleutians campaign P-38 pilot Captain Fred M. Smith sank a destroyer-mine sweeper. His report read; “Saw steamer, strafed same, sank same, some sight, signed Smith.”[i]
On December 27, 1942 P-38s had their first major engagement with Japanese aircraft. Lightning pilots claimed 11 Japanese aircraft for the loss of one P-38. Richard I. Bong scored his first 2 kills in this engagement.[ii]
U.S. intelligence intercepted and decoded a message containing Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's schedule. He would be flying from Rabaul to Balalae Airfield on April 18, 1943. The U.S. started Operation Vengeance. The P-38 was the only aircraft with the range necessary to carry out the operation to intercept Yamamoto’s aircraft and shoot him down. Major John W. Mitchell led 16 P-38s to find the 4 G4M1 “Betty” bombers and its 6 Zero escorts and shoot down Yamamoto. Mitchell’s P-38s reached the interception point just before the Japanese. Rex Barber was credited with shooting down and killing Yamamoto. Barber and Besby Holmes shot down a second bomber, killing Admiral Ugaki. A Zero shot down and killed Raymond Hine.[iii]
Charles Lindberg was a civilian technical representative working for United Aircraft Corporation. He flew a number of missions to instruct pilots on how to use the P-38’s cruise control. On July 28, 1944 he shot down a Mitsubishi Ki-51.[iv]
The two highest scoring American pilots, Majors Richard I. Bong, 40 kills, and Thomas McGuire, 38 kills, scored their victories in P-38s. Five other top scoring USAAF aces also flew P-38s.
A P-38 Major Richard Bong flew is at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia. He flew this P-38J-10-LO on April 16, 1945 to evaluate an experimental method of interconnecting the movement of the throttle and propeller control levers. The plane’s starboard engine exploded before he could conduct the experiment.[v] Major Bong was killed while test flying a Lockheed P-80 on August 6, 1945. That same day the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
On December 7, 1944 Major Tommy McGuire flew a mission with Major Dick Bong. Major McGuire shot down 2 enemy aircraft to bring his total to 30. Within the month the USAAF sent Major Bong back to the United States and McGuire shot down 8 more aircraft to bring his total to within 2 kills of Bong’s record. On January 7, 1945 Major McGuire led a flight of 4 P-38s on a fighter sweep. Flying with him were Captain Edwin Weaver, Major Jack Rittmayer, and Lt. Douglas Thropp. Captain Weaver spotted a Japanese Ki-43 “Oscar” ahead and below them. It seemed a perfect position for an easy kill. The Japanese pilot quality had deteriorated much over the past 4 years. The Ki-43 pilot was Warrant Officer Akira Sugimoto, an instructor pilot. Another competent pilot, Sergeant Mixunori Fukuda flying a Ki-84 “Frank”, saw the uneven fight aborted his landing approach and entered the combat. Sugimoto damaged Lieutenant Thropp’s aircraft. McGuire ordered his pilots not to jettison their belly tanks. Dropping the belly tanks would have made the P-38s more nimble. Dropping the tanks would have meant McGuire’s flight would have had return to Leyte before reaching their patrol point. Rittmayer, who was having engine trouble, opened fire and struck Sugimoto’s Ki-43. Sugimoto broke off the attack on Thorpp but stayed in the fight. He turned tight and fired into Weaver’s P-38. McGuire turned tight so he could shoot Sugimoto off Weaver’s tail. Instead McGuire crashed giving Sugimoto an air combat maneuvering kill.[vi] McGuire apparently caused Sugimoto to break off the attack on Weaver. Rittmayer and Thropp pursued Sugimoto and Thropp shot him down. Sugimoto survived the crash but natives shot him dead. Sergeant Fukuda made a head on pass at Thropp. Rittmayer turned to assist Thropp but Fukuda shot Rittmayer down. Fukuda fired a bust at Weaver before Weaver escaped in a cloud bank. Major Tommy McGuire was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on December 25 and 26, 1944 where he shot down 7 Japanese aircraft. His demise serves as a reminder never to underestimate an opponent.
P-38s shot down more Japanese aircraft than any other USAAF aircraft.[vii] The P-38 was the only twin-piston engine World War II aircraft that had a proven record of being able to fight against its single engine opponents on an equal basis.
[i] World War II Almanac 1931-1945, by Robert Zgoralski © 1981.
[ii] 456 Fighter Interceptor Squadron web page, (http://www.456fis.org/P-38_LIGHTING.htm), last accessed 1/15/2017.
[iii] Aviation History.com (http://www.aviation-history.com/lockheed/p38.html), last accessed 1/15/2017. Who actually shot down Yamamoto's aircraft has been a subject of arguments between the fighter pilots on the mission. There was even a court case on the issue.
[iv] 456 Fighter Interceptor Squadron web page, (http://www.456fis.org/P-38_LIGHTING.htm), last accessed 1/15/2017.
[v] Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (https://airandspace.si.edu/collection-objects/lockheed-p-38j-10-lo-lightning) , last accessed 1/16/2017.
[vi] For scoring purposes it is not necessary for a pilot to shoot at an opposing aircraft to get credit for a kill. In this instance had Sugimoto maneuvered and crashed it would have been McGuire’s 39th kill.
[vii] Aviation History.com (http://www.aviation-history.com/lockheed/p38.html), last accessed 1/16/2017.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Robert Sacchi