80th Ftr Sqn "Headhunters" insignia

80th Ftr Sqn "Headhunters" insignia

P-38 Lightning

P-38 Lightning nose view

P-38 Lightning

P-38 Lightning diving

P-38 Lightning

P-38 Lightning in flight

Major Jay T. Robbins

Ace of 8th Ftr Group/80th Ftr Squadron

By , June, 1999. Updated June 29, 2011.

Weevil-infested toast, powdered eggs, salt pork, Australian jam, coffee, and chlorine-laced water once again passed for breakfast at Three Mile Drome on the morning of September 4, 1943. The pilots of the 8th Fighter Group might have felt they deserved better fare, at what could be the last meal for any one of them. Here they were, at a primitive, muddy airstrip in the malaria-ridden jungle of New Guinea, in the pre-dawn darkness about to fly a dangerous combat mission, sure to be outnumbered by Japanese Zeros. Why complain about lousy food?

Lt. Jay "Cock" Robbins had been with the Group for almost a year, at first flying the under-performing Bell P-39 Airacobras, switching over to Lockheed P-38 Lightnings in the spring. For him, the day's mission was typical of the assignments undertaken by the "Headhunters" -- the 80th Fighter Squadron and the other two squadrons of the 8FG. (The patch shown was based on a drawing by Yale Saffro, an enlisted man of the 80th, who had worked as a Disney cartoonist before the war.) As CO Major Ed Cragg had outlined the previous night, they were to fly cover for the American troops landing near Lae and Salamaua in the Huon Gulf on New Guinea's north coast. After breakfast, the 16 pilots piled into a battered jeep and weapons carrier to make their way from the mess hall to their planes.

Jay Thorpe Robbins was born on in Coolidge, Texas. He graduated from Texas A&M College in 1940 with a reserve commission through R.O.T.C. Entering active duty as a second lieutenant of Infantry in February 1941, he later transferred to the U.S. Army Air Forces and completed pilot training at Randolph Field, Texas in July 1942. Sent to the 20th Fighter Group at Morris Field, North Carolina, he transitioned to fighters. In October he joined the 8th Fighter Group in New Guinea. On Lt. Robbins' first mission on January 17, 1943 he shared a kill, but as the 5th Air Force policies didn't recognize shared kills, they tossed a coin, which Robbins lost.

Earlier that summer, on July 21, Robbins had had a big day. He and his wingman, Lt. Paul Murphey, were returning from an escort mission, when he saw Ed Cragg diving into combat. He turned, slowed down enough to drop his tanks, and came face-to-face with an Oscar. He fired and saw it burst into flames. Then ensued a climbing, shooting, diving, turning dogfight, with Robbins destroying another Oscar with a well-placed 30 degree deflection shot. Quickly the combat dispersed, Robbins led Murphey home, both too low on fuel to respond to call to help a pilot in his chute who was being strafed by the Japs. For the day he claimed three destroyed and another probable.

Ed Cragg was first in line for the 0510 engine start for the September 4 mission. Robbins was leading the third flight of four planes, taking off ninth in his Lightning Jandina (i.e. "J and Ina," for him and his Australian wife, Ina). All 16 pilots took off successfully, and Major Cragg led them over the 10,000 foot Owen Stanley Mountains toward their advanced refueling base at Dobodura, on the north coast. They all landed there quickly, but were held on the ground while V Fighter Command gave final mission instructions. About 1100 they took off again, headed for the Salamaua and Lae area, where U.S. troops were landing. They climbed for altitude, arrived over Huon Gulf, and took up stations at various altitudes from 8,000 to 21,000 feet. They patrolled for over an hour without incident.

Then at 1345, "Bandits - ten o'clock high!" came over the radio. Robbins' flight was closest, and as he turned toward the 30 enemy Zeros, another pilot reported Val dive bombers below, five of them. Robbins ignored these tempting targets and continued toward the fighters. He dropped tanks and switched on his guns. As they closed, a Zero tried to get on Robbins' tail. He kicked left rudder and climbed left. A swirling dogfight developed between the Zeros and the Lightnings. As they turned and twisted, the Japanese pilot tried to dive away - almost always a big mistake, because the big, heavy P-38s could dive better than the lighter Zeros. Robbins caught up quickly, opened up with the four fifties and two 20mm cannon, and tore big holes in the Jap's right wing root. Robbins kept shooting, tearing the right wing off his target. The plane flipped over and dove into the sea.

The next instant he spotted a lone Lightning cornered by several Zeros, as he flew over to help, several turned head-on toward him. As they flashed past each other Robbins fired a short burst, conserving ammo, not wanting to be caught short, as he had on an earlier mission. Another of the group surrounding Robbins' comrade now fired on him, scoring hits. But Robbins fired back and poured shells into the enemy's bely and wing. The Lightning could absorb more damage than the Zero, which spun out and spiraled downward, trailing heavy black smoke.

He watched the Japanese plane fall into the ocean for a second too long. Jandina shuddered as bullets ripped through the wings. Robbins' only hope was to dive away fast, quickly accelerating to over 400 mph, screaming straight down from 15,000 to 5,000 feet. Too much for the Zero. Robbins spotted another Zero below him, and pulled back on the stick. The G forces built up and Robbins struggled to keep conscious. His vision went gray and blurry. His damaged wings held together through the dive.

He could see the lone Zero some distance away, no Americans. By now the fight had taken him some 50 miles offshore, with many Zeros between him and the relative safety of the American landing zone. As the Jap planes maneuvered, one of them cut it too close and crossed in front of Robbins, who turned and squeezed off a perfect deflection shot. The Zero's left side disintegrated and the pilot bailed out, for Robbins' third victory of the day.

Now enemy fighters closed in on him from all directions and turned toward land. A Zero came at him, guns twinkling. Robbins waited until he was in range, and then fired. Some of his guns were jammed. The Jap bullets struck home. The two planes whizzed by each other. Another head-on firing exchange caused no more hits. He radioed for help. No response. Both engines had been running at full throttle for a long while, and as the next Zero turned at him, his starboard engine started to cut out. More Zeros appeared! Another head-on pass! Robbins instantly lined up a shot with his nearly empty guns and fired, and for the fourth time that day a Zero plunged down into the sea.

Now Robbins was ready to go home. But more Japanese fighters continued to attack him. Out of ammunition and with a dead radio, Robbins didn't have many options. As the Zeros swarmed at him, he feinted and turned toward one, as if to counter-attack. Again the two planes zoomed by each other at a combined speed in excess of 600 mph. As Robbins worked towards the coast, he saw American warships below. Displaying the P-38's distinctive belly silhouette, he swept over the ships. His tactic worked, and the ships directed their anti-aircraft barrage at the Japs dogging Jandina. The flak drove them off. Robbins only had to negotiate the looming Owen Stanley Range to get home, with only one engine working. The altimeter slowly climbed. At 8,000 feet he saw some single-engine fighters - P-47s! Relieved, Robbins continued to climb to 11,000 feet. He passed over the mountains and approached his airfield. As the ambulance and fire truck stood by, he bounced his crippled Lightning to a landing at 1520 hours. Robbins got out of his plane and fell to ground in crumpled, exhausted heap. After the intelligence briefing, he asked for 10 days leave, and got it. He relaxed with Ina in Australia for those precious days. In all, he claimed four Zeros and two probables on September 4. The other pilots of the 80th Squadron had destroyed another seven planes, all without loss to themselves.

As the American ground forces moved up New Guinea's north coast, capturing the Huon Peninsula in the fall of 1943, planners turned their attention to the major Jap base at Rabaul. To neutralize the enemy there, General Kenney's Fifth Air Force launched a series of bombing raids against it. P-38s began escorting the Rabaul bound bombers in mid-October. On the Oct. 24, sixteen 80th Squadron fighters joined the B-25s on a low-level bombing and strafing raid.

Jay Robbins was leading the second flight when he downed a Hamp just 300 feet over the water. While the Jap pilots were very good and adroitly countered the American pilots' passes, Robbins was able to bring down a second Hamp that seemed intent on ramming him, and a third with a thirty degree deflection shot. Then, when three pilots converged on a fourth Hamp and it went down in flames, they agreed that Robbins had fired the lethal shots. With four victories on this day, making eleven to-date, Robbins became one of the top aces of V Fighter Command.

The Fifth Air Force carried out the raids on Rabaul for one month, until mid-November 1943, when carrier-based and Solomons-based air units took over these missions. V Fighter Command returned to missions over New Guinea and other parts of New Britain in December. On the Dec. 26, American Marines landed at Cape Gloucester on New Britain, to further isolate Rabaul. The 80th FS flew supporting missions over the area, from 6AM until 4 in the afternoon.

Jay Robbins was leading a flight of P-38s, covering the ships below when a huge formation of Vals and Zeros appeared. The U.S. fighters 'boomed and zoomed' the Japs without visible results, turned to fire again, and on the second pass, Robbins shot up a Zero that spun in and crashed. In the ensuing dogfight, Robbins caught a second Zero that was climbing almost straight up, setting it on fire with a short burst. He returned to base at Finschafen at 3:40PM, credited with two destroyed and one probable.

In another wild dogfight that day over Cape Gloucester, Porky Cragg was lost, reported MIA, last seen exchanging shots with a Tojo. Jay Robbins was appointed acting CO immediately. And in January 1944, Robbins became commander of the famed "Headhunters." Under his leadership, and with numerous pilots attaining ace category, it became the first squadron in the Southwest Pacific to score 200 victories. From 30 March until 17 August, Robbins added eight Japanese fighters to his score, while participating in raids against the Japanese strongholds at Rabaul, New Britain and Hollandia, Dutch New Guinea as the Americans pushed back toward the Philippines.

Promoted to major on 22 May 1944, in September Robbins became deputy commander of the 8th Fighter Group but continued to fly with his old squadron. He returned to the United States in December 1944, having logged 181 combat missions.

Over the next 30 years, Robbins rose to lieutenant general, serving as commander of the Twelfth Air Force and vice commander of Tactical Air Command prior to retiring as vice commander of Military Airlift Command in 1974.

TALLY RECORD: 22 Confirmed, 6 Probables and 4 Damaged

DECORATIONS: Distinguished Service Cross with one Oak Leaf Cluster, Distinguished Service Medal with 2 OLCs, Silver Star with one OLC, Legion of Merit with 2 OLCs, Distinguished Flying Cross with 3 OLCs and Air Medal with 6 OLCs.


Buy Attack & Conquer: The 8th Fighter Group at

Attack & Conquer: The 8th Fighter Group in World War II, by John Stanaway

The 8th fought the best Zero pilots, and took the war to the enemy with P-38s over Rabaul and Hollandia. Hardback: 8 1/2" x 11," Illustrations: over 500 photos, 12 color plates, mostly P-38s but also a P-39, P-40, and P-47; 320 pages.

A detailed history of the 8th FG, at the pilot and mission level. It follows all three squadrons (the 35th, 36th, and 80th) from their pre-war beginnings in P-36s, through the New Guinea and Philippine air battles. The 8th FG moved out to Hawaii a month after Pearl Harbor, and was in Australia by March, and Port Moresby, New Guinea by April. During this first period of the war, they flew P-39s; the book includes many detailed photos of the infamous Bell aircraft, typically with a pilot standing in front of a plane amidst the palm trees. Excellent views of the nose cannon and doors.

Stanaway gives a lot of ink to the aces of the 8th: Jay Robbins, George Welch, Dan Roberts, Ed Cragg, Dick West (a poet!), and Cy Homer. There's a photo of a smiling Dan Roberts with his Silver Star that he won for downing 2 e/a in August 1942. In Feb./March, 1943, the 80th FS became the first squadron to switch to the superior Lockheed P-38, which caused some rivalry with the other squadrons. Chapter 6 is entitled "One Belly - Double Ass Fella - He Smellum out Japan Man," which allegedly is native pidgin for "P-38 get the Japanese." In late 1943, the Group took part in the air offensive against Rabaul, New Britain. This campaign is well covered, as are the later big air battles over Wewak, Hollandia, Leyte, and Ormoc Bay.

The period black-and-white photographs are the real treasure of this book. The aircraft of the aces, with colorful names like Jandina III, Porky II, Uncle Cy's Angel, Windy City Ruthie, Hill's Angels, Screwy Looie and San Antonio Rose, are shown in many different views. The book also provides a sample of Dick West's poetry, like:

"A '38 is some machine
The answer to a pilot's dream
Those G.I.s you must concur
Can make an Allison engine purr.
Bill Wallisch heads my crew - the best."

I guess he was a good pilot.

Other photos I enjoyed included numerous shots of the squadron signs, like: "HOME OF THE HEADHUNTERS / 80TH FIGHTER SQUADRON / The Leading Twin Engine Fighter Squadron in the World / DESTROYED 203"

Buy "Attack & Conquer: The 8th Fighter Group" at