May 2001 Issue
John Stanaway Concludes the Story of the 459th Fighter Squadron's
P-38 Lighning Operatins in Burma
One of the reasons for the 459th Fighter Squadron's success was the impressive range of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Many of the Japanese were surprised to see enemy filters ranging over their airfields, sometimes from as far as 700 miles (1,126 km) away.
Wayne Sneddon was Lockheed's technical representative with the squadron, and he wrote down some of his experiences in keeping the 459th on maximum operational status: When the Wingate expedition was to take place, the squadron was neutralizing the Japanese fields some 700 miles out. This required the P-38s to carry external tanks to the target area, drop them, and then do 20 minutes of combat before heading back to home base. All planes reached home base, but two planes had to be towed from the end of the runway to their parking areas because they were out of gas! A week before the expedition launch date, the squadron ran out of drop tanks and substitute tanks made from a P-40 tank were flown in for our use. The captain of the airplane bringing the tanks asked how many more tanks were needed, I replied that we couldn't use these tanks on the current missions as they would slow the airplane down about 40 mph and that I had no idea what they would do when dropped. The net result was that I was put under 'house arrest' while the tanks were tested and my statements were confirmed. The Wingate expedition was postponed one week until we got P-38 tanks.
The Wingate expedition began on March 5,1944 -the 459th's impressive claims in the air and on the ground between March and the end of May certainly raised interest in Japanese as well as Allied camps. Some 70 air claims and more than 60 others destroyed on the ground during the period made the Japanese fear the P-38 as a formidable weapon, white Allied fortunes on the ground were commensurately improved.
Twenty of those air claims were scored in May for the loss of two pilots missing in action. The most productive mission of the month was a raid on Kanguang. led by Captain Max Glenn on May 15. Earlier in the day Captain Wally Duke had led a sweep to the Heho/Kanguang area and caught the Japanese on the ground. Duke accounted for one Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa (Oscar) on the ground, and another damaged in the air. while five additional 'sitting' Japanese were claimed destroyed by the rest of the P-38 fight.
Glenn took off with his flight in the early-afternoon and ran into a hornet's nest of Oscars over the same area. By the end of the engagement Glenn had shot down two, with another probably shot down and a fourth damaged. The action made Glenn an ace with 6 1/2 air victories. Newly-promoted Captain Hampton Boggs also increased his score to six confirmed victories, and Lieutenant Aaron Bearden scored his fifth air kill during the mission. Captain Duke was the ranking ace of the squadron with eight air victories at that point.
Duke scored two more aerial victories in May to become the permanent ranking ace of the squadron, with ten confirmed in the air and eight others on the ground. His aerial score may have been a bit higher if he hadn't fallen victim to his own concern for a wingman in trouble during an early June mission.
While the 459th was running rampant over Japanese airfields, the enemy was not content to let this sort of nonsense go on forever - and the P-38 squadron paid a price during one of the sweeps over Heho/Meiktila on June 6, 1944. Twenty P-38s were in the force that was jumped by Oscars from every side. The Americans were forced to fight their way out and lost two P-38s for two Oscars confirmed and nine others reported damaged. Captain Bill Broadfoot was the leader of one flight, and he damaged one Oscar. He explained the high number of damage claims by pointing out that nobody wanted to keep count when they were fighting their way out of a trap; they just kept shooting and got clear as soon as possible.
One of the pilots who did shoot his way out was Wally Duke. He then realised that his wingman, Lt Bill Baumeister, was missing, so he turned back to find him. Baumeister reported over the radio that he was flying over the crash-landed P-38 of Burdette Goodrich. Duke then radioed that he was heading home, but was listed as missing when the mission was completed.
Hampton Boggs made a survey of Japanese units at the end of the war, and was surprised to find some details relating to Duke's fate. The Japanese told him that some of their high cover had seen Duke's lone P-38 and bounced it immediately. Perhaps they would have thought twice about the matter when the feathers finally flew because, by the Japanese reckoning. three of their number were lost in the fight with a single Lightning. If that account is accurate then Duke would have had a total of 13 air victories and eight victories on the ground before he was shot down and killed over Meiktila.
Throughout March, April and May 1944, the 459th so vigorously assaulted Japanese air power in Burma that it boosted confidence among Allied ground units so they could advance without much concern about Japanese opposition from the air. Along with RAF units, the 311th Fighter Group and the 1st Air Commando Group, the 459th had a remarkable record of defeating Japanese air power in Burma.
The time for accolades began after June. General Stilwell's office sent a commendation to the 459th on July 21, 1944. The squadron's maintenance section was commended in a letter by the commander of the 10th Air Force in November for efforts that kept the squadron in top form throughout the year. Finally, the 459th received a Distinguished Unit Citation, mainly for the period March 11 through to May 19, 1944.
August 1944 saw the successful clearing of the Myitkyina area with the subsequent control of
northern Burma going over to the Allies. Within the next year of the war, all of Burma fell into Allied hands, and the air units found dwindling opportunity for aerial combat. It remained for units, like the 459th, to attack railroads, bridges, truck convoys, and to fly harassing missions to hasten the Japanese out of the country.
September 3 was a tragic day for the squadron when ten of its P-38s set out on a dive-bombing mission to a railway yard around Mandalay. The weather was bad, so a bridge (that was an alternative target) was successfully bombed. Lt Aaron Bearden and his wingman, Lt Gene Barnes, were apparently disoriented in the low visibility because they collided - Barnes was killed outright, but Bearden took to his parachute and fell into captivity.
Another 459th pilot, Lt Joe Moore, was only on his third mission during a dive-bombing attack on Monywa docks on September 8. Moore was flying close to his element leader, Captain Klumb, when heavy Japanese flak disabled his P-38. He managed to crash-land his broken fighter but remained in captivity until Rangoon was liberated in May 1945. Moore was the last surviving 459th pilot to have endured the harsh reality of life as a prisoner of the Japanese.
October continued the assault against Japanese rail and communications targets. The last mission, 16 P-38s escorting B-25 Mitchells to an airfield at Namsugn on October 28, gave the 459th pilots at least a chance to strike the Japanese Army Air Force on the ground. After the B-25s had dropped their bombs, the P-38s went down and shot up the hastily erected hangars. The American fighters passed up a bomber on the field that seemed too badly shot up to merit the use of any precious ammunition.
A better chance to meet the enemy in the air came on November 4 when the P-38s escorted B-24s of the 7th BG to rail targets around Insein. Oscars and Nakajima Ki-44 Shokis (Tojos) attacked the bombers just as the American force was withdrawing. Nineteen P-38s reacted with ferocity and claimed three Japanese shot down with another three damaged. No P-38s were lost.
One of the victories scored on that mission was credited to Major Verl Leuhring, commander of the 459th since the glory days of March 1944. His final score was three Oscars claimed in the air and 2 1/2 bombers scored on the ground. In March 1945 he returned home on rotation, handing command of the 459th over to Hampton Boggs, who went home himself just a few months later at the end of June.
By June of 1945 the 459th was practically out of a job in Burma because no suitable targets remained within the country. In the previous month the squadron had been assigned to the 33d Fighter Group with the stated purpose of supporting operations in China.
In point of fact, the last air victory scored by the 459th was a Kawasaki Ki-6i Hien (Tony) shot down on a B-24 escort to the Rangoon area on February 11, 1945. The bombers had just cleared the target when a single enemy aircraft was sighted below. Hampton Boggs noticed it, and led his flight down from the direction of the sun to open fire at about 400 yards. Boggs was gratified to see the enemy fighter explode, becoming his ninth confirmed air victory.
With the fall of Rangoon in mid-1945, there was little for Allied airpower to do except harass retreating bands of Japanese troops. The war seemed to diminish in China-Burma-India (CBI), while other shrinking war fronts forced the Japanese to retreat toward their home islands. When the war did end, the merchant fleet of the Japanese Empire was so nearly obliterated that Japanese troops in the hands of the Allied victors could not be transported home for a considerable time.