Thursday, 17 March 2011

P-38 Lightnings early operations in the Solomons

In June/July 1942, the 39th FS of the 35th FG was pulled out from New Guinea, after having spent several difficult months fighting against Japanese forces. The squadron had flown througout that months P-39s, and had scored ten victories for the loss of ten Airacobras. Considering the Airacobra's inferiority against Japanese Zeros and Oscars, it was a good result, but it was also clear the a new fighter was necessary, an aircraft able to cope with Japanese fighters and to guarantee its pilots a machine to attack the enemy, rather than to defend themselves.

39th FS' members were therefore relieved when they knew to have been chosen for conversion onto the P-38 Lightning: their new mount promised to have all those qualities they were looking for: long range, speed, climbing ability and firepower. Japanese fighter units used to operate at altitude below 20,000 feet, a fact which would have enabled USAAF pilots to fully use their favoured tactics of diving at high speed onto the enemy, rather than give the Japanese the chance of a dogfight, where Zeros and Oscars had superior manoeuvrability.

1st Lt Robert Faurot
From 1942 to the end of the war, the P-38 enjoyed great success, despite the European theatre of operations was given priority in deliveries and spare parts: the number of squadrons equipped with the Lightning was, in fact, never more than 15 at any one time. Over 1800 Japanese fighters were claimed, and more than 100 pilots became aces with the twin-engined fighter.

The first ever P-38 victory was achieved in a rather strange way: in late November 1942 39th FS' Lightnings flew an offensive sortie against Lae, New Guinea. Lt Robert Faurot was leading a flight of four P-38 armed with 500-lb bombs. Once over Lae, pilots noticed a Zero taking off from the ground just above them. Lt Faurot immediately dove onto the enemy, but in his excitement forgot that with two bombs under his wings he was unable to dogfight; he released his 500-lb bombs and pulled away to avoid the explosion and prepared to engage the enemy from another angle. Unxpectedly, the bombs hit the water and exploded just as the Zero was passing over them. The fountains from the explosion hit the Japanese fighter, which crashed winged-over into the ocean.

On the last day of 1942, 39th FS celebrated its first ace, and first for the P-38. Lt Hoyt Eason shoot down three Zeros, to add to the pair he had claimed on the 27th over Dobodura.
On 1st March, 1943, Lightnings of the 39th FS took part in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea: the clash developped from the Japanese intention to reinforce the Lae garrison with a convoy carrying 7,000 Army soldiers. The force consisted of seven troopships, one cargo and eight destroyers, escorted by 30 Zeros. The fleet was attacked by a large number of American bombers, almost 200 according to some sources, covered by P-38 of the 39th FS. All eight transports were sunk, together with four destroyers, and the Lightnings shot down 15-20 Zeros. However, the unit did not escape unscathed; together with 2nd Lt Frederick Schifflett, two other pilots were lost: 1st Lt Robert Faurot, the man who scored the first P-38 victory in the Pacific, and 1st Lt Hoyt Eason, the first P-38 ace.

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