Planes of WW2

The Flying Tigers

P-38 Lightning and Ki-61 Tony

P-38 Lightning and Ki-61 Tony

McGuire and Bong by P-38 propeller

McGuire and Bong by P-38 propeller

P-38 Lightning

P-38 Lightning nose view

P-38 Lightning

P-38 Lightning diving

P-38 Lightning

P-38 Lightning in flight

PTO/CBI Pilots of WWII

Top American aces of the Pacific & CBI

By , June, 1999. Updated April 20, 2012.

The fighter pilots of the Fifth Air Force, under General Kenney, flew and fought their way up the islands of the Southwest Pacific - New Guinea and the Philippines. In the early days, many flew P-39s or P-40s, and took a real beating from the Japanese Zeros. But during 1943, some fighter groups transitioned to the superior P-38. With its twin engines, long range and heavy firepower, the Lightning was ideally suited to the long distances of the Pacific, and with appropriate "boom and zoom" tactics, the Zero couldn't touch it.

In April of 1943, flying P-38s, Major John Mitchell led the famous mission to intercept and shoot down Admiral Yamamoto over Bougainville. (Neel Kearby's 348th FG was unique in the successes it achieved while flying the P-47. In the CBI, General Chennault's fliers flew the P-40 Warhawk.)

Here are some of the stories of the high scoring aces of the 475th, 8th, 49th, and other Fighter Groups - Dick Bong, Tommy McGuire, Charles MacDonald, Gerry Johnson, Robert L. Scott, and others.

Name Kills Medals Unit Plane
Richard I. Bong 40.0 MH 49FG P-38
Thomas McGuire 38.0 MH 475FG P-38
Charles MacDonald 27.0 DSC 475FG P-38
Gerald R. Johnson 22.0 DSC 49FG P-38
Neel Kearby 22.0 MH 348FG P-47
Jay T. Robbins 22.0 DSC 8FG P-38
Robert Westbrook 20.0 - 18FG P-38
Thomas J. Lynch 20.0 DSC 35FG P-38
David Lee "Tex" Hill 18.25 SS AVG/23FG P-40, P-51
Chuck Older 18.0 DFC AVG/23FG P-40, P-51
John C. Herbst 18.0 - 23FG/CBI P-51
William D. Dunham 16.0 - 348FG P-47
Bill Harris 16.0 - 18FG P-38
George S. Welch 16.0 DSC 8FG -
Edward "Porky" Cragg 15.0 - 8FG P-38
Cyril F. Homer 15.0 - 8FG P-38
John D. Landers 14.5 - see below
Landers scored 6 in the PTO flying P-40s,
and 8.5 in the ETO flying P-51s
Robert M. DeHaven 14.0 SS 49FG P-40
Edward O. McComas 14.0 - 118RCN/CBI -
Daniel T. Roberts Jr. 14.0 DSC 475FG P-38
John F. Hampshire 13.0 - 23FG/CBI P-40
Bruce K. Holloway 13.0 - 23FG/CBI P-40
Cotesworth B. Head Jr. 12.0 - 18FG P-38
Kenneth G. Ladd 12.0 - 8FG P-38
James A. Watkins 12.0 - 49FG P-38
Richard L. West 12.0 - 8FG P-40
Francis J. Lent 11.0 SS 475FG P-38
John S. Loisel 11.0 SS 475FG P-38
John W. Mitchell 11.0 - 18FG P-38
Murray "Jim" Shubin 11.0 DSC 347FG P-38
Bill Shomo 8.0 MH 82TRS P-51
Boyd "Buzz" Wagner 8.0 DSC 1FG P-40
Robert L. Scott n.a. DSC 23AF P-40
John Alison 6.0 DSC 23FG/CBI P-40
Tom Lanphier 4.5 NC 347FG P-38
Rex Barber 5.0 NC 347FG P-38
Paul Tibbets - DSC 509CG B-29
The Flying Tigers
35th Fighter Squadron

Gerald R. Johnson (49 FG)

Jerry Johnson was born in the small town of Kenmore, Ohio. He entered the U.S. Army Aviation Cadet Program in the spring of 1941, and completed his training in May of 1942. Johnson was then sent to the 54th Fighter Group of the Eleventh Air Force in Alaska. Flying P-39 Airacobras and P-40 Warhawks, Johnson was to take part in fifty-eight combat missions in gales, fog, sleet, and snow. These conditions were described as being the worst in the world! With the Japanese forces in the Aleutians being isolated by a sustained bombing campaign, a more urgent need for fighter pilots was developing far to the south.

Lieutenant Johnson was among a number of young pilots transferred from Alaska to Australia and was assigned to the 49th Fighter Group of the Fifth Air Force.

On July 26, 1943, planes from the 49th and 348th Fighter Groups flew up to the Salamaua area to intercept the Japanese. They caught 10 Oscars and 10 Tonys over Markham Valley. As they maneuvered into position, one of Johnson's flight couldn't drop tanks, another blew a supercharger, and other planes escorted these two back home. Johnson was alone. In the ensuing dogfight, Johnson chased a Ki-43 Oscar off Capt. Watkins' tail and shot it down. Suddenly an inline-type fighter came at him. Both pilots opened up instantly. The heavy, concentrated fire of the Lightning tore off the Kawasaki's wing, and as the stricken fighter tumbled over and at him, it smashed into his port tail assembly, tearing it away. Johnson regained control of the crippled P-38, and three pilots of the 39FS escorted him back to Horanda strip. Johnson was credited with two victories, but his plane, #83 Sooner, was scrapped.

Johnson was promoted to Captain and CO of the 9th FS, the "Flying Knights" in August, 1943.

On September 3, 1943, the P-38's of the 49th FG were assigned the job of flying escort for a formation of B-17 Flying Fortresses on a bombing mission to Cape Gloucester on the western tip of the island of New Britain. Johnson caught one of the Japanese fighters as it was coming off a firing pass at the B-17's. With a long burst from his P-38's machine guns, he sent the enemy plane into the ocean. Johnson quickly maneuvered behind another enemy plane and blew it out the sky at point blank.

The Americans quickly seized Lau and Salamaua, which caused the Japanese to mount a fierce counter-attack. The Japanese sent out a large formation of Zero fighters and Val dive bombers on October 15 to hit the Allied invasion fleet anchored in Oro Bay. The 49th was alerted to the formations, and their P-38's tore the formations to shreds. Johnson downed a Zero and a Val as well as two probables. On October 17, the Japanese mounted another strike, this time with a formation of Lily bombers protected by Oscars and Zeros. Again, the P-38's of the 49th savagely attacked the formations, with Johnson downing two more enemy aircraft. In late October, Johnson, having demonstrating his leadership and flying ability, was promoted to Major.

Having been sent home in the spring of 1944, Johnson returned for another tour of duty in the summer of 1944. He resumed command of the 9th Fighter Squadron, and was given the added responsibility of being deputy group commander of the 49th. Preparations were now underway for General MacArthur's return to the Philippine Islands. During the first two days of September, Johnson and the 9th Squadron were among the units given the job of eliminating the major enemy air bases at Davao and Mindanao. The 9th was then ordered to escort a formation of B-24's and B-17's over 1000 miles in distance (more than eight hours in the air), and allowed only one B-24 to be shot down. Another mission on October 14 was equally successful.

While leading a formation of P-38's on December 7, 1944, Johnson spotted a large formation of Japanese fighters and ordered an attack. Johnson came up fast behind one of the enemy fighters and quickly turned it into a fireball. Johnson immediately spotted another enemy aircraft and, using a perfect deflection shot, quickly destroyed it as well. That was two enemy downed at the hands of Johnson within one minute. Johnson then tore off after a Helen bomber and proceeded to destroy it as well.

Those three victories for Johnson gave him twenty total kills, and he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.

During the spring of 1945, the 49th Fighter Group occupied Clark Field and were concentrating on providing ground support roles. They were particularly effective in delivering napalm bombs which devastated enemy installations, which made an invasion of the Luzon unnecessary. By August, 1945, Japan surrendered, and Johnson elected to remain in the Air Force.

A little over a month after the war ended, Johnson was to show his courage and bravery one last time. Piloting a B-25, which had been pressed into service as a transport aircraft, Johnson flew into a typhoon and was hopelessly lost in the black skies. He ordered everyone to bail out, but one person neglected to bring a parachute. Johnson immediately gave his parachute away and tried to fly the B-25 back safely. Johnson's copilot also elected to stay behind to help Johnson, but both were killed when the B-25 was on approach. Lt. General George C. Kennedy, commander of the Fifth Air Force during WWII, told Johnson's father "You are the father of the bravest man I ever knew and the bravest thing he ever did was the last thing, when he did not need to be brave." Johnson finished the war with twenty-two victories and was awarded with the DSC, DFC, Silver Star, Air Medal, and Legion of Merit.


Robert Westbrook

Robert Westbrook was flying a P-40 Warhawk with the 44th Fighter Squadron when he was sent into Guadalcanal. The P-40's, along with some P-39 Airacobras and a small number of P-38 Lightnings, were on the island to help protect the ground forces. Henderson Field was taken eight months earlier by the Marines, but the living conditions were still very primitive. The new pilots found living quarters to be dirt floored tents and would from almost the first day begin to suffer all the discomforts prevalent in that environment. It was in these conditions that the ace of the Thirteenth Air Force would learn the deadly skill of combat.

On January 27, 1943, Westbrook would encounter his first major engagement of the war. A formation of ten enemy Betty medium bombers, covered by a large number of fighters, were heading for Guadalcanal. The P-40's were still climbing when a swarm of Zeros hit them from above. Two of the P-40's were shot down, and another had to return for home after taking severe damage. Westbrook was hit by a Zero, but quickly put the nose down and dove to get away. Westbrook made a wide circle of the area and sighted three Zeros which had not seen him. Westbrook opened up on one of the unsuspecting Zeros and destroyed it. The other two Zeros scattered, and Westbrook scored his first kill of the war.

After the Japanese lost control of Guadalcanal, they continued to hit the island with a barrage of air raids. On June 7, 1943, the Japanese sent forty to fifty Zeros down from Rabaul to hit American shipping targets. Westbrook was part of a P-40 formation and was in the air for two hours twisting and turning. During the fight, Westbrook scored two kills. Again, on July 1, eight P-40's were flying protective cover for Allied shipping in Rendova Harbor, when a formation of Japanese aircraft came in firing. Out of thirty Japanese aircraft sent on this mission, thirteen enemy fighters and twelve dive bombers were shot down. Westbrook scored two more kills during this mission with the destruction of a Zero and a Val. In September, the Allies launched a major offensive in the New Guinea area and the 18th Fighter Group was temporarily assigned to assist the Fifth Air Force in providing air support for the operation. The operation concluded a few weeks later, and Westbrook was promoted to captain, and was sent to Sydney for some rest. Westbrook was then sent to Munda, New Georgia which was home of the 18th Fighter Group. On October 10, 1943, Westbrook was part of a formation of P-38's flying escort for some B-24 Liberators on a strike against Japanese air fields at Kahili on New Ireland. The Allied formation was hit by a large number of Zeros, but Westbrook led his element in warding off the fanatical attack without a single loss. Westbrook was able to down two Zeros, which were his first in a P-38. Westbrook was promoted to Major and was given command of the 44th Fighter Squadron. During the following weeks, landings by American and Australian troops were made at Bougainville and Vella Lavella. The bombing campaign against the airfields at Rabaul and Kahili were stepped up. The Japanese were not able to interfere with the landings due to the effectiveness of the campaign. Virtually every day, Westbrook was to lead his group in protecting the bombers, and was able to score three more kills, bringing his total to thirteen. On December 23, the Lightnings of the 18th Fighter Group were again given the job of escorting a formation of B-24's striking Rabaul. The B-24's ran into a force of twenty to thirty Zeros. Westbrook lead his formation of P-38's into the battle and spotted a lone Zero and maneuvered behind his tail and blew it out of the sky. Westbrook evaded a Zero on his tail and soon spotted another lone Zero, and quickly sent in down in flames. Westbrook now notched his fourteenth victory and was sent home on leave.

Volunteering for a second combat tour, Robert Westbrook returned to the southwest Pacific in the late summer of 1944. Reporting for duty at Thirteenth Fighter Command, Westbrook was informed he had been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and given a new command, the 338th Fighter Squadron of the 347th Fighter Group. On October 23, sixteen P-38's were flying a fighter sweep over the Macasser Strait area. During the sweep, the P-38's shot down six Zeros without the loss of one P-38. Westbrook was able to down one of the enemy aircraft. On November 7, Westbrook lead a formation to the same area. Sixteen aircraft were destroyed on the ground, and Westbrook downed three Nick fighters upping his total to twenty. Preparations were under way for the Allies to retake the Philippines, and strikes against Japanese airfields were ordered. Bad weather hampered the operation for most of the month. On November 22, 1944, Westbrook was again leading a formation of P-38's and spotted an enemy gunship. Westbrook ordered his formation to attack the ship, and Westbrook and his wingman were hit. Poor weather did not allow anyone to see if they were able to bail out. A PBY Catalina flying boat was sent into the area and picked up Westbrook's wingman, but there was no trace of Westbrook. Although the war would go on for another nine months, Westbrook would remain the highest scoring ace of the Thirteenth Air Force.


Robert M. DeHaven

Robert Marshall DeHaven was born on 13 January 1922 in San Diego, California. He attended Washington and Lee University but left to join the Army Air Corps in February 1942. Earning his pilot's wings, he was assigned to P-40 training in Florida. In February 1943 he was sent to Hawaii, then on to Port Moresby, New Guinea via Australia in May. He was assigned to the P-40 equipped 7th Fighter Squadron, 49th Fighter Group at Dobodura.

Lieutenant DeHaven scored his first victory on 14 July 1943 and became an ace on 10 December. He participated in the offensives which took Buna, Lae, Markham Valley, Hollandia and Biak Islands. During these battles, he downed a total of ten enemy aircraft with the P-40, one of the highest P-40 scores for USAAF pilots, other than AVG pilots.

DeHaven liked the P-40, surprisingly, even preferring it to the highly acclaimed P-38. In Eric Bergerud's Fire in the Sky: The Air War in the South Pacific, DeHaven explains:

After training I requested duty in the Pacific and I requested being posted to a P-40 squadron and both wishes were granted. This was early in 1943 and most pilots already desired more advanced types and some thought my decision a mistake. Yet I had been inspired by the deeds of the Flying Tigers. We had also heard accounts that the P-38 was difficult to bail out of because of its twin-boom tail and that it was difficult when flying with one engine. I also knew that P-38s were still rare in the theater and I wanted to get into the war as soon as possible. That wish, too, was granted. I never regretted the choice.

If you flew wisely, the P-40 was a very capable aircraft. In many conditions, it could outturn a P-38, a fact that some pilots didn't realize when they made the transition between the two aircraft. The P-40 kept me alive and allowed me to accomplish my mission. The real problem with it was lack of range. As we pushed the Japanese back, P-40 pilots were slowly left out of the war. So when I moved to P-38s, an excellent aircraft, I did so not because I believed that the P-40 was an inferior fighter, but because I knew the P-38 would allow us to reach the enemy. I was a fighter pilot and that was what I was supposed to do.

The 7th Fighter Squadron transitioned to P-38s in July-September 1944 for the Philippine invasion. On 27 October, leading the 7th Squadron, DeHaven became one of the first AAF fighters to "return" to the Philippines. Within seven days he acquired four more victories. After leave in the U.S. he rejoined the 49th at Lingayen as group operations officer, serving into the occupation of Japan.

Following World War II, DeHaven joined the Hughes Aircraft Company as an engineering test pilot and personal pilot to Howard Hughes. Eventually he became an executive of the firm and manager of the Flight Test Division for over 30 years. He was also elected a Fellow in the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and served as President of the American Fighter Aces Association.

TALLY RECORD: 14 Confirmed and one Damaged

DECORATIONS: Silver Star with one Oak Leaf Cluster, Distinguished Flying Cross with 2 OLCs, Air Medal with 13 OLCs, and the Presidential Unit Citation with one OLC.

Dan Roberts

Dan Roberts was born in Springer, New Mexico. In his youth, he intended to go into the ministry. However, shortly after beginning his studies in theology, Hitler began expanding in Europe, and Japan in the Pacific. Roberts went into the U.S. Army Aviation Cadet Program and finished his training as a fighter pilot just three weeks before Pearl Harbor.

Roberts was assigned to the 80th Squadron, 8th Fighter Group of the Fifth Air Force, and was sent to Australia during the spring of 1942. The squadron was equipped with P-39 Airacobras and P-400's (A variation of the P-39), both of which were obsolete and no match for the Japanese Zero in a dogfight. After being sent to Port Moresby to bolster it's defenses against a Japanese threat, Roberts began to see some action against the Japanese. On the morning of August 26, 1942, Roberts was part of a strike force sent to attack an enemy airfield near Buna. The Japanese were caught by surprise and Roberts was able to down two enemy aircraft.

The 80th Squadron was transferred to Milne Bay in early November to assist the 35th and 36th Squadrons of the 8th Fighter Group. The 80th was equipped with new P-38D's which improved the performance of the P-39, but were still inferior to the Zero. After an exhaustive effort, the 80th was sent back to Australia for some well deserved rest. At this time, they were equipped with the P-38 Lightning, and Roberts was promoted to Captain. The 80th was sent back to Port Moresby in March of 1943. On April 11, Roberts was leading a flight of P-38's and sighted twenty Val dive bombers, escorted by Zero fighters. What followed was one the most successful fighter missions flown by the 80th Squadron. Eleven Zeros and three Vals were destroyed, and Roberts was credited with two kills.

Roberts was known for his flying skill and leadership abilities, and was requested to join the 475th Fighter Group, which was the first all P-38 group in the Fifth Air Force. Roberts was transferred to the 433rd Squadron and helped to form the nucleus of this new group. On October 4, 1943, Roberts became squadron commander of the 433rd. One point he stressed was that they needed to stay together and hunt the enemy "like a pack of wolves." Concentrating firepower in combination with providing mutual protection was the key to success.

The 475th Fighter Group took off over Rabaul on October 23, and were escorting a formation of B-24 Liberators. Roberts saw a group of thirty-five enemy fighters and ordered the attack. The 433rd promptly sent twelve enemy fighters (three by Roberts) and the B-24's were not disturbed. The Americans began an intensive air campaign, and the Japanese were reinforcing their airfields at Wewak, Madang, and Alexishafen. A strike was ordered on November 9, 1943, and Roberts was ordered to provide escort for a formation of B-25's. The formation was met by twenty enemy fighters, and Roberts got behind a Hamp and sent it into the ocean. That kill was Roberts' fifteenth and last confirmed kill. Roberts spotted a lone Zero and raced after it. Lieutenants Dale Meyers and William Grady also spotted it and formed on Roberts' wing. The Zero suddenly banked, and Roberts racked the Lightning over to stay with it, but Meyers was a split second too slow in compensating for Roberts' sudden move. The two P-38s collided with a tremendous explosion, and both pilots were killed.

A great leader and pilot was lost that day. Roberts had the skill to become one of the highest scoring aces of the war (Bong had nineteen and McGuire had thirteen at this stage). Roberts' leadership could be judged by the Squadron's excellent performance. The 433rd was credited with fifty-five victories against the loss of only three P-38's during his short time as squadron leader. The 433rd not only lost a great leader and pilot, but a inspiration as well. Roberts did not drink, smoke, or use profanity, and always was thinking how he could improve his squadron's skill, so they would be able to survive the war. Roberts was posthumously promoted to major and was awarded the Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross.


Murray "Jim" Shubin

Jim Shubin was born and raised in the town of Dormont, a suburb of Pittsburgh. Shubin enlisted in the U.S. Army Aviation Cadet Program in the spring of 1941, and was sent to Guadalcanal a few months after being commissioned. His first few months on Guadalcanal was mostly regulated to strafing and bombing missions to provide support for the ground forces. He also took part in numerous missions escorting B-17's of the 11th Bombardment Group sent to strike Japanese shipping in Tondlei harbor on the island of Bougainville.

Japanese resistance on Guadalcanal ended in early February. The Lightnings of the 347th Fighter Group were now free to accompany the heavy bombers of the Thirteenth Air Force deep into enemy territory. Primary targets included enemy shipping in the harbors of Bougainville, the Shortland Islands, and New Georgia. On June 16, 1943, the Japanese Imperial Air Force mounted their largest raid against Guadalcanal. This strike included two formations, the first containing thirty-eight aircraft, and the second containing eighty. First contact was made by twelve P-38's of the 339th Fighter Squadron, with Shubin leading one of the flights of four P-38's. This was the beginning of a very big day for Shubin.

Lieutenant Shubin signaled his flight to attack the rearmost group which contained fifteen Zeros, which were escorting a group of Val dive bombers. Diving towards their targets, the P-38's tore through the formation. Many Japanese aircraft were destroyed, and Shubin confirmed two of those as his. After prolonged dueling, many of the P-38's had been damaged or were out of ammunition and had to return to base. Finally Shubin found himself alone in the sky with five Zeros, and Shubin would spend the next forty minutes engaged in constant air-to-air combat.

Lieutenant Shubin finally maneuvered behind the rear of a Zero and, with a short burst, it turned over and proceeded to dive towards the ground. Shubin listed it as probable number one. Shubin headed into a spiraling dive and fired a deflection shot at another Zero. The Zero started to climb, but apparent engine damage kept it from doing so, and finally started a steep vertical dive. This was probably number two. Shubin went into another spiral dive to get away from the enemy fighters, and after a climbing turn, he maneuvered himself one-thousand feet above the Zeros. Heading into another dive, Shubin was able to hit a Zero with a head-on, and sent it smoking downward, and was probable number three. Separating from the enemy aircraft, Shubin was able to gather his thoughts and plan his next strategy. Shubin spotted the other two Zeros orbiting, and headed for them. After a maximum range shot. one of the Zeros dove and started to run for home, which left only one Zero remaining. The Zero made a frontal approach, and Shubin was able to register some hits in the engine, but did no major damage. The Zero leveled off and Shubin maneuvered in behind it and registered more hits in the fuselage. The Zero dove, and Shubin dove with it, but was not able to see if it crashed. This was probable number four.

The sky was now empty of enemy fighters, and Shubin headed for home. Fortunately for Shubin, an infantry captain witnessed the entire fight from the ground and confirmed that three of the four probable kills did crash. That made five enemy aircraft shot down in one day for Lieutenant Shubin. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his "coolness under fire, superior flying ability, and marksmanship." Shubin eventually downed twelve (eleven?) Japanese aircraft, which was second to Captain Bob Westbrook for the Thirteenth Air Force. Shubin was sent back home for a long rest, and never returned to combat. He spent the rest of the war on assignments in the United States. He was promoted to Captain and received the Silver Star and another cluster for his Distinguished Flying Cross.


Capt. Francis J. Lent

Francis J. Lent was born on October 20, 1917, grew up in Melrose, Minnesota, and ran a grocery store before the war. He joined the Army Air Corps in 1942 and went to Thunderbird Field, Arizona for primary flight training. He was commissioned at Luke Field, graduating on 10 March 1943, along with the famous ace and test pilot, Chuck Yeager.

After graduation, Lieutenant Lent was ordered to Glendale, California with the 329th Fighter Group. On July 9, 1943 he was assigned to the 431st Fighter Squadron, 475th Fighter Group, "Satan's Angels," then serving in New Guinea. There he flew wing for Tommy McGuire and began his fighter pilot's education. On August 18, 1943 he shot down a Hamp over Wewak and destroyed two more Japanese fighters on the 21st.

On October 15th, fifteen Vals and 39 Zeros, attacked American vessels in Oro Bay . The 475th FG intercepted and claimed 36 aircraft. Lent made ace that day, downing two Zeros and a Val. Over the next five months, he was credited with 5 more victories:

On December 1, 1944, just before going on leave and about to be married, Lieutenant Lent crashed into the ocean off Lae during a test flight of an F-6D, the photo-reconnaissance version of the P-51. At his death, Lt. Lent had been credited with 11 destroyed and one probable. He was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with 6 OLCs.

In Association with Possum, Clover & Hades: The 475th Fighter Group in World War II, by John Stanaway

Another great unit history from Schiffer Publications

Hardback: 8 1/2" x 11"     Illustrations: over 700 b/w and color photographs, color profiles of P-38s,     336 pages

The epic story of one of the highest scoring fighter units in the Southwest Pacific. Aces included Lent, McGuire, Loisel, MacDonald, Roberts and Bong.

Buy "Possum, Clover & Hades" at

Buy 'Possum, Clover & Hades' at

Bill Shomo

Reproduced with permission of Air Force Magazine, copyright protected
Valor, March 1984, Vol. 67, No. 3, By John L. Frisbee, Contributing Editor

Instant Ace

After 16 months of shooting up ground targets, Bill Shomo finally got a crack at a whole squadron of enemy fighters.

There are pilots who fly fighters, and there are fighter pilots. Bill Shomo was a fighter pilot, and a frustrated one at that. For 16 months, the 82nd Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron to which he was assigned had moved from strip to strip along the north coast of New Guinea and finally to Morotai, some 250 miles northwest of the big island. The squadron was equipped with obsolete P-39s and P-40s, too short-ranged to reach the air-to-air combat action where every true fighter pilot wants to be. The P-38 and P-47 jocks got the glory, while Shomo and his squadron mates supported General MacArthur's drive to the Philippines by photographing and shooting up ground targets--hazardous work, but not very satisfying for a fighter pilot.

As 1944 drew to a close, it looked as though the war would end before Shomo had a chance to test his skill in air-to-air combat. Then, in December, things began to pick up. The squadron learned that it was getting North American P-51Ds equipped for photo-recce work. Shomo had flown two local check-outs in the P-51 and one short mission to test its guns when, on Dec. 24, he was called to group headquarters on Leyte. There he was made commander of the squadron and ordered to move it to Mindoro, an island off the southwest coast of Luzon, to support MacArthur's landing about 75 miles north of Manila, which would take place on Jan. 9, 1945.

A fortnight after Shomo took command of the 82nd, it was in place at Mindoro, and on Jan. 9 he led his first P-51 combat mission (which was also only his sixth flight in the Mustang). It was a low-level recce to find out what air strength the Japanese had in northern Luzon. As they approached the Japanese airfield at Tuguegarao, Shomo spotted the first aerial target he had seen while airborne in all his months of combat--a Val dive bomber, turning onto its final landing approach. One burst from his six .50-caliber guns brought it down at a spot Shomo can describe as precisely today as he could on that January day 39 years ago. And with good reason.

Two days later, on Jan. 11, Captain Shomo and his wingman, Lt. Paul Lipscomb, were heading north on the deck to photograph and strafe Japanese airfields at Tuguegarao, Aparri, and Laoag at the extreme north of Luzon. Over the exact spot where Shomo had picked up the Val, they caught a brief glimpse of enemy planes flying south above broken clouds at about 2,500 feet. How many enemy planes? What difference did it make? Shomo and Lipscomb pulled up through the clouds in an Immelmann and rolled out behind a Betty bomber that was being escorted by a squadron of fighters 11 Tonys and one Tojo.

On their first pass through the formation, Shomo and Lipscomb had the advantage of surprise. Shomo shot down four Tonys, then came up under the bomber, putting a burst into its belly. The flaming Betty headed for a crash landing with two Tonys still hanging to its right wing.

Shomo and Lipscomb pulled up in a tight vertical spiral to regain altitude while the Tojo latched onto Shomo's tail, firing until it stalled out and dove into the clouds. The Betty blew up as it bellied in, and the two escorting Tonys headed for the hills, staying on the deck. Shomo made a second diving pass, nailing each Tony with a short burst, for a total of seven victories. In less than six minutes, Bill Shomo had become an ace, the ultimate goal of every fighter pilot. Lipscomb got three-fifths of the way to that goal. The last three enemy fighters then disappeared into the clouds.

On April 1, 1945, William A. Shomo, by then a major, was awarded the Medal of Honor for leading an attack against heavy odds and destroying seven enemy aircraft. Only one other USAAF pilot, Bill Leverette in the MTO, scored that many confirmed victories in a single mission.

In more than 200 combat missions, Shomo, now retired and living in Pittsburgh, saw only 14 enemy aircraft from his cockpit. He attacked and shot down eight of them. Shomo credits that remarkable record to closing within 40 yards of each target and not wasting ammunition on deflection shots. It may be credited equally well to the valor of a fighter pilot who didn't stop to count the odds.


John Alison

Reproduced with permission of Air Force Magazine, copyright protected
Valor, September 1983, Vol. 66, No. 9, By John L. Frisbee, Contributing Editor

They Said It Couldn't Be Done

John Alison's first combat mission added a new element to the air war in China.

On July 4, 1942, Claire Chennault's American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers, went out of business, turning its planes and bases over to the newly formed AAF China Air Task Force, later to become Fourteenth Air Force. A few of the AVG pilots stayed on, among them Tex Hill and Ajax Baumler, who had been an ace in Spain. Even before the turnover, AAF pilots began arriving to man the CATF's 23d Fighter Group. One of them was Maj. John Alison, fresh from a year in Russia, introducing our erstwhile allies to the P-40, A-20, and B-25.

The 23d, like its AVG predecessor, was strictly a frontier air force, operating at the end of the war's longest and most difficult supply line. Everything--fuel, ammunition, spare parts for its obsolescent P-40s--had to be flown in over the Hump. There was no ground radar and little in the way of radio aids. At one point, the 75th Fighter Squadron, to which Alison was assigned as Tex Hill's deputy, had nothing but five-gallon cans to refuel its fighters.

Alison's first few missions were relatively uneventful, with no Japanese aircraft showing up. Then about 3 a.m. on July 18, the warning net of Chinese ground observers reported bombers heading for the 75th's field at Hengyang. Alison and Hill stood outside their barracks about a mile from the runway and watched the bombs explode.

Alison asked Hill if the AVG had ever attacked Japanese bombers at night. It seems they had tried early on, but with no success, and had given it up. Whenever there was a moon, the Japanese enjoyed a free ride against Chinese towns and American airfields. "If they come over tomorrow night," said Alison, "I'm going to be up there waiting."

New-guy Alison convinced veteran Baumler that he was onto a good idea, and sure enough, the warning net reported approaching bombers the next night. Alison took up a position in his P-40 at 12,000 feet with Baumler below him, while warning-net position reports were relayed to them by radio.

The bombers, expecting another free ride, made two leisurely passes over the Hengyang runway before Alison was able to pick up the faint flame from their engine exhausts above him as the bombers turned on their bombing run. He pulled up the nose of his P-40, firewalled the throttle, and at the last moment saw he was closing too fast in this unpracticed nighttime maneuver. Chopping the throttle, Alison sideslipped to kill his speed and slid smack into the middle of a three-bomber V formation.

The top turret of the bomber on his right opened up at point-blank range, stitching Alison's P-40 from nose to tail. His radio was knocked out, one slug went through the seat, and another grazed his left arm. Almost immediately the P-40's engine began to run rough. In that situation, any fighter pilot could have been forgiven for thinking the AVG was right, and now was a good time to head for home. Not Alison. He kicked his fighter around and blasted the bomber on his left with the P-40's six .50-caliber guns. Oil covered his windshield as the bomber pulled straight up and disappeared. Swinging back to the right, he exploded the bomber that had hit him. By that time, flames were popping out from the engine cowling as he turned on the lead bomber and blew it up.

Alison at last pointed the nose of his wounded fighter down, heading for the blacked-out 3,500-foot runway as the engine threatened to jump out of its mountings and flames spewed from the cowling. There wasn't time for a planned approach. He came in too fast with only one viable alternative--to overshoot and crash-land in the river about two miles ahead. Clearing a railroad trestle by inches, he hit the water with a resounding crash, climbed out of the sinking P-40, and swam to a log raft near the shore. A young Chinese man pulled the bleeding Alison out of the water.

While all this was going on, Baumler had shot down two more bombers. As a result of Alison's experiment in night interception, for which he was awarded the DSC, Japanese bombers didn't come back in darkness for almost a year.

Alison ended his tour with the colorful 23d Fighter Group as an ace with six air-to-air victories and several probables. He then became Phil Cochran's deputy commander of the equally colorful 1st Air Commando Group in Burma.

But don't go away. There's a sequel to that first night interception. After the war, Alison served as an Assistant Secretary of Commerce, President of AFA, a major general in the Reserve, and a vice president of Northrop Corp. On a visit to one of Northrop's research organizations near Boston, he was introduced to its chief engineer, a Dr. Tsien. It came out that Tsien had lived near Hengyang while Alison was stationed there.

"Were you a bomber pilot?" asked Tsien. Alison replied that he had been deputy commander, then commander of the 75th Fighter Squadron. "Then we have met before," said Dr. Tsien. "I'm the man who pulled you out of the river."


In Association with Fire in the Sky: The Air War in the South Pacific, by Eric M. Bergerud

A readable, but detailed summary of the topic (750 pages worth). The author covers much of the logistical background to the war. It's an excellent complement to the information presented on this web site, because it omits all the "...and then he chandelled sharply up to left, caught the enemy in his sights and squeezed the trigger" stuff.
It really helped me form a more complete picture of the Pacific Air War, especially the fundamentally important role of the bombers and the massive organizations involved. Again, Mr. Bergerud does all this in a very readable, entertaining fashion.

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