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Top Hatted Skull P-38 Lightning

Walter Colvin

Showlow, United States

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3d digital fine art render of the Top Hatted Skull P-38 lightning

This aircraft with the Top Hatted Skull belonged to Bob Faurot who has the honor of the first P-38 kill in the pacific. This P-38 tail number 42-12633 or the 39th Fighter Squadron 35th Fighter group “Cobra’s In The Clouds” carries Bob Fourot’s #16

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning was a World War II American fighter aircraft built by Lockheed. Developed to a United States Army Air Corps requirement, the P-38 had distinctive twin booms and a single, central nacelle containing the cockpit and armament. Named “fork-tailed devil” (der Gabelschwanz-Teufel) by the Luftwaffe and “two planes, one pilot” by the Japanese, the P-38 was used in a number of roles, including dive bombing, level bombing, ground-attack, night fighting, photo-reconnaissance missions, and extensively as a long-range escort fighter when equipped with drop tanks under its wings.

The P-38 was used most successfully in the Pacific Theater of Operations and the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations as the mount of America’s top aces, Richard Bong (40 victories) and Thomas McGuire (38 victories). In the South West Pacific theater, the P-38 was the primary long-range fighter of United States Army Air Forces until the appearance of large numbers of P-51D Mustangs toward the end of the war.

The P-38 was unusually quiet for a fighter, the exhaust muffled by the turbo-superchargers. It was extremely forgiving, and could be mishandled in many ways, but the rate of roll in the early versions was too slow for it to excel as a dogfighter. The P-38 was the only American fighter aircraft in production throughout American involvement in the war, from Pearl Harbor to Victory over Japan Day.

The P-38 was used most extensively and successfully in the Pacific theater, where it proved ideally suited, combining excellent performance with very long range, and had the added reliability of two engines for long missions over water. The P-38 was used in a variety of roles, especially escorting bombers at altitudes between 18–25,000 ft (5,500-7,600 m). The P-38 was credited with destroying more Japanese aircraft than any other USAAF fighter. Freezing cockpits were not a problem at low altitude in the tropics. In fact, since there was no way to open a window while in flight as it caused buffeting by setting up turbulence through the tailplane, it was often too hot; pilots taking low altitude assignments would often fly stripped down to shorts, tennis shoes, and parachute. While the P-38 could not out-turn the A6M Zero and most other Japanese fighters when flying below 200 mph (320 km/h), its superior speed coupled with a good rate of climb meant that it could utilize energy tactics, making multiple high-speed passes at its target. Also, its focused firepower was even more deadly to lightly armored Japanese warplanes than to the Germans’. The concentrated, parallel stream of bullets allowed aerial victory at much longer distances than fighters carrying wing guns. It is therefore ironic that Dick Bong, the United States’ highest-scoring World War II air ace (40 victories solely in P-38s), would fly directly at his targets to make sure he hit them (as he himself acknowledged his poor shooting ability), in some cases flying through the debris of his target (and on one occasion colliding with an enemy aircraft which was claimed as a “probable” victory). The twin Allison engines performed admirably in the Pacific.

General George C. Kenney, commander of the USAAF Fifth Air Force operating in New Guinea, could not get enough P-38s; they had become his favorite fighter in November 1942 when one squadron, the 39th Fighter Squadron of the 35th Fighter Group, joined his assorted P-39s and P-40s. The Lightnings established local air superiority with their first combat action on 27 December 1942. Kenney sent repeated requests to Arnold for more P-38s, and was rewarded with occasional shipments of them, but Europe was a higher priority in Washington. Despite their small force, Lightning pilots began to compete in racking up scores against Japanese aircraft.

On 2–4 March 1943, P-38s flew top cover for 5th Air Force and Australian bombers and attack aircraft during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, a crushing defeat for the Japanese. Two P-38 aces from the 39th Fighter Squadron were killed on the second day of the battle: Bob Faurot and Hoyt “Curley” Eason (a veteran with five victories who had trained hundreds of pilots, including Dick Bong).

Death of Isoroku Yamamoto.
The Lightning figured in one of the most significant operations in the Pacific theater: the interception, on 18 April 1943, of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of Japan’s naval strategy in the Pacific including the attack on Pearl Harbor. When American codebreakers found out that he was flying to Bougainville Island to conduct a front-line inspection, 16 P-38G Lightnings were sent on a long-range fighter-intercept mission, flying 435 miles (700 km) from Guadalcanal at heights from 10–50 ft (3–15 m) above the ocean to avoid detection. The Lightnings met Yamamoto’s two Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” fast bomber transports and six escorting Zeros just as they arrived. The first Betty crashed in the jungle and the second ditched near the coast. Two Zeros were also claimed by the American fighters with the loss of one P-38. Japanese searchers found Yamamoto’s body at the jungle crash site the next day.

Artwork Comments

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