P-38 Lightning page

McGuire as a Captain

McGuire as a Captain

McGuire and Bong by P-38 propeller

McGuire and Bong by P-38 propeller

Charles Lindbergh, Tommy McGuire, and P-38

Charles Lindbergh, Tommy McGuire, and P-38

P-38 Lightning

P-38 Lightning

P-38 Lightning

P-38 Lightning

Major Thomas B. McGuire, Jr.

475th Fighter Group, Medal of Honor Recipient

By , Jan. 2000. Updated June 29, 2011.

A group of twenty P-38's flew in to Tacloban air field on Leyte, which badly need more fighters. Suddenly a Japanese Tojo fighter appeared. One of the P-38's opened up full throttle, hit the gear and flap levers, sounded a warning to other pilots, and swung around to face the Tojo. In full view of the Tacloban airstrip, the P-38 pilot attacked and shot down the intruder with one short burst.

The Tojo crashed in flames just outside the field. Finding no other Jap planes, the P-38 pilot circled and landed.
Major Thomas B. McGuire of the 475th Fighter Group climbed down from his beloved Pudgy V and grinned. He had just shot down his twenty-fifth Japanese aircraft. "This is my kind of place. You have to shoot down Japs to land on your own field."

Shooting down aircraft was something Tommy McGuire excelled at. He stood about five feet seven inches tall, and sported a big black mustache to make himself appear older. He was extremely aggressive and wanted to be the number one ace and win the Medal of Honor before going home. He was also a magnificent pilot. On one occasion, he was approaching a Japanese fighter head on, neither willing to move, and pulled out at the last second. Later at his base, the ground crew had to use steel wool to scrape away the paint left by the Japanese fighter! McGuire was the commander of the 431st Fighter Squadron of the 475th Fighter Group. The pilots of the 431st felt that McGuire could do things in a P-38 that were virtually impossible. His skill with the P-38 was so extraordinary, he almost defied reality. He had tremendous faith in his skills as a pilot and the plane he flew.


Tommy McGuire was born in Ridgewood, New Jersey on . His parents, Thomas and Polly, divorced when he was a child, and he spent most of his youth living with his mother in Sebring, Florida. They were well off, and Tommy always had plenty of toys to attract friends. Among his other diversions, he flew kites and model airplanes. During high school, he played clarinet in Sebring's nationally acclaimed marching band. He also acquired a reputation as a hell-raiser by driving his car too fast through the small town. He attended Georgia Institute of Technology and enlisted as an aviation cadet when the United States entered the war. He trained at Corsicana, Texas, and at San Antonio, where he met his wife, Marilynn. She was a trim, attractive young woman, who had somehow picked up the incongruous nickname "Pudgy."

He earned his U.S. Army Air Force pilot's wings and Lieutenant's bars in February 1942. McGuire pleaded to be sent where the action was, and was eventually sent to Alaska. There he flew P-39s and shivered in the cold in Nome. There was little combat flying in the Alaska, and McGuire soon began to ask to be transferred. Late in 1942, he was transferred to Harding Field in Louisiana. He and Marilynn married in December, shortly before his next transfer, this time to California, where he began flying P-38s full-time. He learned all about the big twin-engined Lockheed, and put in for all the flight time he could get.

To the Pacific

In March 1943, McGuire was ordered to report to the 49th Fighter Group, Fifth Air Force, in the Southwest Pacific. While he was with the 49th, he first met Dick Bong, already known as the group's hottest pilot. In mid-July, he reported to the 431st Squadron of the 475th Fighter Group, General Kenney's new, all P-38 group. Kenney, C.O. of the Fifth Air Force, had made it known that the new group was his special project. "Don't send any dead-heads," was the word that went around. (The thought of a Dead Head flying any kind of airplane, let alone a high-performance fighter, really scares me. - SS) Consequently, the 475th started off with some of the best pilots and enlisted crews in the Pacific. The Group started at Port Moresby in southern New Guinea, flying P-38H's. McGuire was always hanging around the flight line, always wanting to learn more about the aircraft. Captain Nichols, CO of the 431st, noticed this, and made McGuire the squadron's Assistant Engineering Officer. This small event was typical of McGuire, and of the reactions it caused. Some other pilots felt McGuire was an "eager beaver," a "brown-noser." McGuire, his superiors, and McGuire's defenders would have only observed an excellent young pilot, who always wanted to do as much as he possibly could.

They flew their first combat missions in August, 1943, up and over the Owen Stanley Range, flying in support of McArthur's drive up New Guinea's northern coast and attacking the Japanese airdrome at Wewak. On the 18th, 1st Lieutenant McGuire faced the Japanese fliers in combat for the first time. He made the most of it, hitting five of them.

One could not be confirmed and he lost a coin toss for another, leaving him with official credit for three, still not too bad for a rookie pilot's first fight. (This was the time that his crew had to use steel wool to scrape off a Jap fighter's paint from his Lightning.) Three days later, the 431st visited Wewak again, and McGuire shot down two more Zeros. He was an ace after only two missions! His success was part of the 475th's outstanding combat debut; in its first 10 days, Kenney's new group had downed 40 enemy planes - an unrivalled achievement.

Tommy McGuire Combat Chronology

Date Mission Medals Victories Comments
Aug. 17, 1943 First Raid, started operations at Port Moresby
Aug. 18 Wewak DFC 3 Silver Star (SS) for late August
Aug. 21 Wewak DFC 2 Zeros
Aug. 29 Wewak DFC 2
mid Sept. assigned Pudgy II; moved to Dobodura
Sept. 28 Wewak DFC 2 Zeros shot up & lost one engine, landed at Tsili-Tsili
Oct. 15 Oro Bay . 1 visible to cheering ground crews at Dobodura
Oct. 17 Oro Bay SS 3 borrowed Capt. Nichols' plane, bailed out, injured
late Oct. - Dec. 12 hospitalized, R&R in Australia, off flying status
late Dec. promoted to Captain, flew 2 missions a day, no combat
Dec. 26 Cape Gloucester DSC 3 Vals cut cards & lost credit for a 4th; 16 kills to-date
Dec. 29 little combat, no kills in these 5 months promoted to 431st Sqn Operations Officer
Jan. 1944 flew 27 hours
Feb. flew 60 hours, moved to Finschhafen
March assigned Pudgy III, a P-38J-15; moved to Nadzab
April some big missions for the 475th, no luck for McGuire
early May promoted to CO 431st Sqn; moved to Hollandia
May 16 Noemfoer . 1 Oscar broke 5 month drought
May 18 Manokwari . 1 Tojo total 18 to-date, promoted to Major
June 16 Jefman . 2 an Oscar & a Sonia
June Charles Lindbergh arrived at 475th Group
mid July 475th FG moved to Biak
late July Halmaheras . 1 Oscar .
August shared tent with Lindbergh, explored cave and went "fishing" with him
August assigned Pudgy IV, when Pudgy III was wrecked
Sept. assigned Pudgy V, a new P-38L
mid Oct. Balikpapan . 3 "tacked on" to 9th FS for bomber escort
Nov. 1 Tacloban . 1 Tojo see opening story
Nov. 10 Tacloban . 1 Oscar total 26 to-date
Nov. 12 . . 2 Jacks .
Nov. 19 moved to Dulag
Dec. 7 Ormoc Bay . 2 Tojos flew with Dick Bong
mid Dec. Cebu . 1 new pilot orientation flight
Dec. 25 Manila . 3 awarded Medal of Honor for these 2 days
Dec. 26 Manila . 4
Jan. 7, 1945 Negros . . Final Mission

Lindbergh's Visit

The famed flier visited the 475th in the summer of 1944, primarily to train the pilots in a technique for conserving fuel on long-distance missions. McGuire and Lindbergh spent time together, flying, fishing, and visiting local caves. McGuire even got so comfortable in their friendship, that one time he asked Lindbergh to get him a cup of coffee, much to the amusement of his more awestruck squadron mates. Apparently, the great man quietly fetched the brash young flier a hot cup of joe.

On Christmas Day 1944, McGuire volunteered to lead a squadron of fifteen planes to provide protection for B-24 Liberators attacking Mabaldent Airdrome. As the formation crossed over Luzon, the Americans were jumped by twenty Zeros. McGuire shot down three throughout the fight. The following day, he volunteered for a similar mission. One of the B-24's was being hit and while firing at extreme range of 400 yards at a 45 degree deflection shot, McGuire hit the Zero in the cockpit and it burst into flames. During the course of this engagement, McGuire shot down four Zeros, bringing his total to thirty-eight overall. By this time Dick Bong had gone home, for a triumphant tour of the U.S., with 40 victories to his his credit. McGuire had 38, was still in combat, and there were still plenty of Jap planes around. Everyone, including McGuire, expected him to break Bong's record. It seemed like just a matter of time, not too much time at that. Afterwards, McGuire would have gone home to a hero's welcome as well. But time ran out for Tommy McGuire, just as he almost had his goal within his grasp.

The Final Mission

On , Tommy McGuire led a flight of four planes on an early morning fighter sweep over the Japanese airdrome on Negros Island. Flying McGuire's wing was Capt. Edwin Weaver, whom McGuire had given demerits to when they were cadets in San Antonio. Major Jack Rittmayer and Lt. Douglas Thropp formed the second element. All were veteran combat pilots. The P-38's each carried two 160 gallon external fuel tanks. They spotted a single Jap fighter coming right at them. They departed Marsten Strip around 0615 and leveled off at 10,000 feet, but in the vicinity of Negros the weather forced their descent to 6,000 feet. McGuire led Daddy Flight to an airdrome over Fabrica Strip and made a futile attempt at provoking an enemy response by circling the area for approximately ten minutes. They were now flying at 1,700 feet.

When this effort failed, McGuire proceeded to another airdrome on the western coast of the island. En route, Rittmayer throttled back while breaking through the clouds and became temporarily separated from the rest of the flight. McGuire ordered his pilots to regroup, but learned that Rittmayer's aircraft encountered engine trouble. Thropp, therefore, moved into the number-three position.

Suddenly, Weaver spotted a Japanese fighter heading in their direction, 500 feet below and 1,000 yards ahead. The Ki-43 Oscar, piloted by Warrant Officer Akira Sugimoto, passed below McGuire's P-38 before either pilot could react. Meanwhile, Sergeant Mixunori Fukuda, piloting a Ki-84 Frank, was attempting to land and noticed his comrade's plight. Sugimoto fired into Thropp's aircraft, destroying one of the turbo-chargers. The Lieutenant's first thought was to drop his belly tank, but McGuire anticipated his intention and ordered his pilots to refrain from doing this. It is assumed he issued this order to avoid an early return to Leyte, thereby scrubbing the mission.

Rittmayer, meanwhile, had rejoined the flight and maneuvered his malfunctioning fighter to an advantageous position. He fired into Sugimoto's Oscar, frightening the Warrant Officer off Thropp's tail, but the enemy pilot didn't flee as anticipated. Instead, he turned his fighter tightly and fired several long bursts into Weaver's P-38. Weaver summoned McGuire's assistance.

McGuire's response was immediate as he turned sharply to the left, but something went wrong as his Lightning shuddered and threatened to stall. He sharply increased his turn in an attempt to get a shot at the enemy fighter, but his plane lost momentum and snap-rolled to the left. It was last seen in an inverted position with the nose down about 30-degrees.

Weaver momentarily lost sight of McGuire's fighter, but a second later witnessed an explosion. Sugimoto broke off his attack against Weaver just before McGuire's plane crashed. Rittmayer and Thropp pursued the damaged Oscar as it climbed to the north, and the young Lieutenant managed to deliver one last burst into Sugimoto's aircraft before it crash-landed in the jungle. He died shortly thereafter from six bullet wounds to the chest. Now Sergeant Fukuda arrived on scene and charged head-on at Thropp's P-38, but Weaver recovered from his ordeal in time to fire at the Frank. Rittmayer turned his aircraft to assist, but Fukuda caught the Major in a vulnerable position and fired a burst into his aircraft. The bullets struck the P-38 with telling effect, and it exploded outside the village of Pinanamaan. McGuire had crashed near this area a few minutes earlier.

Thropp's aircraft bellowed smoke from its engine, while Fukuda tried to advance on Weaver. When this failed, Fukuda chased Thropp and discharged a burst from his guns, but the lieutenant escaped to the relative safety of a cloud bank. Weaver sought to locate the Frank, but could not; he and Thropp returned to Dulag about ten minutes apart. They gave their combat reports, which disagreed on several points; and it wasn't until after the war that it became known that two, not just one, Jap planes were involved.

It can be said that McGuire was never shot down by enemy fire, only a split second violation of his rules for combat resulted in his death. Some critics have maintained that McGuire's order to keep the tanks was greedy and foolish; supposedly he wanted to score a 'quick kill' on the lone Japanese plane. Charles Martin, McGuire's biographer makes a persuasive case for other motivations. McGuire almost certainly ordered his flight to keep their drop tanks so that they could complete their mission. There's not much question that McGuire wanted the three extra kills he needed to surpass Bong's record. But it seems unlikely that he would have been foolish enough to violate his own rules of combat in pursuit of that goal. Far more likely he thought the single Jap fighter would pass by his four Lightnings, and then he could go about his mission.

It is ironic that McGuire did get one thing he wanted so desperately, the Medal of Honor. But a cruel twist of fate resulted in it being awarded posthumously. Tommy McGuire's legacy is still flourishing, and McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey is named after him; and a P-38, decorated as Pudgy V sits outside the base.


In Association with The Last Great Ace: The Life of Major Thomas B. McGuire, Jr. , by Charles A. Martin

A full-length biography of Tommy McGuire, a work that my wife called "a real labor of love." The author, Charles Martin, grew up in the small Florida town where McGuire spent most of his youth. Incredibly, he put together McGuire's story more than 50 years after the fact, based on interviews, letters, and official histories.

I had always thought that the stories of those aces who died young (McGuire, Bong, Hanson, Preddy) were lost forever. But Martin has done the impossible, and reconstructed a detailed picture of McGuire's life. It took him almost 20 years, and he had to self-publish the book. It's a fantatic achievement!

Buy "The Last Great Ace..." at

Buy 'The Last Great Ace...' at