P-38 Lightning on Veteran’s Day.

Michael P. Whelan Photography. Today I am saying Thank You in a very special way, on behalf of my Father who was completely committed to the mission, to defeat the Japanese, and in that effort willingly climbed into the cockpit of a P-38 fighter, and led 68 missions, in almost everyone of which there were Fighter Pilots lost. The Second World War was the defining event in my Father’s life. I was always in awe of my Dad, and I am the oldest of six children, and so I probably had the most opportunity to spend time with him. On this Veteran’s Day, I will share with you something I have never shared with anyone in a public forum. In his recollection of his experiences as a Fighter Pilot in the Pacific during WWII, he shared this story with me several times, and he explained that he had been severely disturbed by a reoccurring nightmare in which he relived the most disturbing memory of his Life. I can tell you, that in most every way that you could take the measure of a man, my Dad was tough. Not that he was insensitive or full of vitriolic. It was just that he was never one to complain, and while he was deeply sensitive to needs of others, he didn’t hold onto grudges. Maybe one half dozen times over the years, my Dad recounted this story about an unforgettably tragic day in his Fighter Pilot career. The P-38 was a very high performance, combat fighter, with the hottest capabilities that made it important to escort Bombers in the long haul flights from New Guinea, where the American planes were established in the jungles, as remote as anywhere on the planet. From New Guinea they were making strategic Bombing missions over Saigon and Tokyo. The distance in air miles was at the very highest end of the range of a P-38. If for some reason, the engines became debilitated, and began to burn fuel inefficiently, the remaining fuel would not be sufficient to allow the Fighter plane to make it all the way to Bases on New Guinea. When the pilot realizes his fuel was impossibly low, and he would not be able to make land on New Guinea, he had orders to ditch the plane and await rescue. The navigation and geostat technology was not even conceptualized. So the co-ordinates were often not as accurate as you would like to have when conducting a search for a pilot in the vast South China Sea. So it was gut wrenching to have radio contact with a fellow fighter pilot who was preparing to ditch his P-38 in the water, which is very dangerous in itself. The P-38 had a very high stall speed, which means that you maintain a certain minimum air speed, or it will stall, loosing it air borne characteristics, and falling out of the sky. This speed was about or slightly over 100 miles per hour. So with this in mind, you could see the hazardous landing in the Ocean was very dangerous. Many pilots were unable to survive smashing into the water like flying into a mountain or a concrete wall. Then, if the pilot did survive ditching the plane, it was a known fact that the possibility of air and sea rescue operations finding the pilot were highly unlikely. So , as my dad often recalled, those conversations were gut wrenching, because , while no one admitted it openly, you were talking to someone who was involved in what would likely be the last contact before his demise. My Father told me that those pilots often reflected their fear in subtle ways, a slight breaking of the voice, a string of expletives, or most difficult of all, would use the short time while in radio contact, within the fighter group formation, to request that his family be told that he Loved them, to say goodbye to his Loved ones in the very real possibility that he would never see or be seen again by anyone. The Fighter Group formation could not dissemble, and so it was usually guesstimating by looking behind you, trying to see what the position on the map was, relative to where the pilot had gone into the water. Many times they did not even know the pilot’s condition, had he successfully been able to land on the water I know my Father thought about those men in his P-38 Squadron that ditched and were never found, or that from what could be deducted from their observation at 20,000 feet, had not been able to get out of the plane, incapacitated as they were from the impact of the landing, for the rest of his Life.Image

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