New Jersey Air National Guard History Part 10

  • Published
  • By Dr. Richard Porcelli, Aviation Historian
  • 108th Wing

The Origins of World War II in the Pacific

 World War II, also referred to as the Second World War, is generally considered to have spanned the time from Sept. 1, 1939, when Hitler’s Wehrmacht invaded Poland, to Sept. 2, 1945 when Japan surrendered to the Allied Powers onboard the USS Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay.  The conflict in Asia and the Pacific predates that starting point since the Japanese Empire invaded the Republic of China in July 1937.

 The U.S. entered the war immediately after the Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Within 24 hours, the U.S. declared war on Japan and subsequently their ally Germany declared war on the U.S.  Italy followed suit shortly thereafter.  In the ensuing months, the U.S. and its allies drafted a ‘grand strategy’ for persecution of the war against the Axis powers – Germany, Italy and Japan – and decided to focus on the defeat of Germany first, with an interim ‘holding action’ against Japan.  Simultaneously, Japan continued to extend its hold on Asian countries, occupying Central and Southeast Asia, the Dutch West Indies, New Guinea and most importantly in a historical context, even threatening to invade Australia.  Stopping the Japanese advance quickly became more than just a ‘holding action.’

 Unfortunately, at this time British Commonwealth member Australia had already dedicated its best forces, both ground and air, to the defense of Great Britain and the North African campaign in their war against Germany.  In light of the Japanese threat, Australian Prime Minister John Curtin appealed to the U.S., not England, to come to the aid of their defense.  In response, President Roosevelt sent Gen. Douglas MacArthur (who had recently escaped from the fall of U.S. forces in the Philippines) to Australia to organize a Pacific defense plan.  All Australian, New Zealand and U.S. forces were put under MacArthur’s command; he was named Supreme Allied Commander, Southwest Pacific.

 Early 1942 witnessed a number of important conflicts that ultimately determined the outcome of the war.   In April 1942, Army Air Corp Maj. James Doolittle led 16 B-25 Mitchell medium bombers on a surprise attack on Japan, launched from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet.  Although strategically insignificant, the raid shook the Japanese self-image of invulnerability, and caused the diversion of resources to the defense of the homeland at the expense of their Pacific Ocean island outposts.   More importantly, the attack spurred Japanese interest to push their area of control further relying on a flawed strategy to launch aircraft carrier task force attacks on Port Moresby, New Guinea, and U.S.-owned Midway Island.  U.S. code-breakers provided early warning, however, resulting in the stemming of the Japanese attack in the Battle of the Coral Sea and the resounding subsequent defeat of the Japanese naval-air forces at the Battle of Midway, in May and June 1942, respectively.

 The Buildup of U.S. Forces

 Stymied at sea by the U.S. Navy’s victory at Midway, Japan again turned its thrust towards Australia through the Solomon Islands and New Guinea.  To help defend Australia the U.S. provided air forces in the form of fighter and bomber squadrons.  The initial forces were based on Curtiss P-40 Warhawk pursuit planes and early models of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers that had escaped from the Philippines.   They were supplemented by Bell P-38 Airacobra pursuit planes and an early version of the Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber.  They were put under the command of the 5th Air Force, formed in February 1942 with headquarters in Brisbane, Australia.  Twin-engine Lockheed P-38 Lightning was also supplied to the 5th Air Force but in limited numbers due to their need in the North African and European campaigns. 

 Command of the 5th Air Force was in the hands of Maj. Gen. George Kenney.  Canadian born, Kenney became a U.S. citizen and served, during World War I, with the American Expeditionary Force Air Service’s 91st Aero Squadron. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his battle against a force of German pursuit planes, claiming two of the enemy in the process.  As head of the 5th Air Force, he appealed to the War Department for more fighter and bomber squadrons.

 Meanwhile, in the U.S., flight training and aircraft production had been accelerated even before the official U.S. entry into the war.   Great hope was placed on one of the new designs.  It was the P-47 Thunderbolt designed by Georgian immigrant Alexander Kartveli of Republic Aviation, Farmingdale, Long Island, New York.  After its initial introduction, Life magazine claimed it was “just about the most important pursuit ship being built today in the United States.”  The Thunderbolt was the largest and heaviest single-seat, single piston-engined fighter ever built.  Kartveli later designed the F-84F Thunderstreak and F-105B Thunderchief, both of which were subsequently flown by the 141st Fighter Squadron.  He was also involved in the initial design of the ground attack aircraft that became today’s A-10 Warthog (officially, the Thunderbolt II). 

 The history of the development of the P-47 is an interesting story of technical advances, commercial challenges and hard-nose business practices.  Russian expatriate and World War I pilot Alexander de Seversky formed the Seversky Aircraft Corporation in 1931, with headquarters on Long Island. Alexander Kartveli became its chief designer.  In the 1930s Seversky Aircraft produced many advanced designs but failed to win any significant contracts from the U.S. Army Air Corps, often losing out to inferior Curtiss aircraft due to politics. The only success was a small contract for the Seversky P-35, all-metal, single-seat fighter.  But the company’s board of directors blamed de Seversky for the continued financial losses and forced him out of the company.  At the same time, to completely divorce the company of de Seversky’s influence, they changed the company’s name to Republic Aviation Corporation.  Interestingly, the name was chosen based on the fact that it had the same number of letters as Seversky Aircraft Corporation, thus minimizing the cost of replacing the company name on the large rooftop signs over the headquarters building and hangars.

 Republic then competed for an Army Air Corps request for a lightweight, high performance interceptor-fighter.  Kartveli’s design featured a turbo-supercharged version of the Allison V-1710 V-12 liquid-cooled engine.  The performance was disappointing and in an effort to win over the Air Corps, Kartveli switched to the new, enormous Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp air-cooled engine.  But the fuel-thirsty engine demanded more room for fuel tanks, and the turbo-supercharger needed an extensive network of air ducts and heat exchangers that took up the space needed by the fuel.  As a result, the design known as the XP-44 grew in size, gaining the characteristic large-diameter barrel shape, and weight. 

 In an important twist of history, as the air war in Europe raged prior to America’s entry, the Air Corp discovered it really needed a long-range, high altitude fighter capable of escorting its bombers.  Called to a meeting at the Army’s Wright Field development center, Kartveli was told that the existing design was not acceptable.  As the story goes Kartveli was devastated, but on the train ride back to New York, he decided to redesign Republic’s entry from his railway car seat, sketching out a new, even larger and heavier design that would become the P-47 Thunderbolt.  The value of his “midnight redesign” is indisputable; Republic, including licensed production by Curtiss Aircraft – its ‘arch-enemy’ in pre-war competitions, eventually built a total of 15,636 P-47s.  Many claim that it was the best ground-attack aircraft of World War II.  It was pretty good in air-to-air combat as well, with the 56th Fighter Group, which only flew the P-47 throughout the war, being the top-scoring group in aerial victories.

  The P-47 was a very large and heavy fighter aircraft for its day.  It was built around a 2000+ horsepower, turbo-supercharged Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp, two-row, 18-cylinder radial engine driving an enormous 13-foot diameter, 4-bladed propeller.  Armament was eight 0.5 caliber machine guns, four in each wing staggered to allow them to be mounted close together to concentrate their considerable firepower.  A turbo-supercharger added mechanical complexity (and a source of early problems) but gave it exceptional performance at high altitudes, including a top speed of 435 mph at 29,000 feet altitude, a service ceiling of 43,000 feet.

 The XP-47B prototype first flew May 6, 1941, with production P-47Bs entering service in November 1942.  Since it was a new aircraft with typical ‘teething’ problems the Army Air Corp decided to station early Thunderbolt squadrons in the northeast, near the production plant on Long Island.  For this reason, Bradley Field and Bridgeport Municipal Airport in Connecticut; Westover Field in Massachusetts; Bendix Airport and Newark Municipal Airport in New Jersey as well as Mitchel Army Air Field and Farmingdale Airport in New York were important early bases and the sites of the formation of new Thunderbolt squadrons. 

 The 341st Fighter Squadron and the 348th Fighter Group Are Formed

 One of the many new squadrons formed was the 341st Fighter Squadron.  It, along with the 340th and 342nd Fighter Squadrons were constituted on Sept. 24, 1942 and officially activated one week later at Mitchel Army Airfield, Long Island, New York with no personnel or aircraft.  (As noted in previous articles in this series, Mitchel Field was coincidently the same location where the 141st Aero Squadron assembled prior to deployment to England for action in World War I in early 1918, and where it returned to be deactivated in 1919 after the end of hostilities.)

 A few days later, the 348th Fighter Group was activated, also at Mitchel Army Airfield.  The 341st Fighter Squadron was assigned to this group, as were the 340th and 342nd Fighter Squadrons.  (After the end of World War II, the 348th Fighter Group became the 108th Fighter Group, while the 341st Fighter Squadron became the 141st Fighter Squadron – hence the tie to the NJANG History.)

 On Oct. 4, 1942 the 348th Group and all three of its component squadrons was reassigned to Bradley Field where the first personnel were assigned. Along with the aircraft, brand-new Republic P-47D Thunderbolts.    Training began immediately, but due to overcrowding of the Connecticut airfields with many newly formed Thunderbolt squadrons, on Oct. 30, 1942, the 348th Fighter Group moved to Westover Field. At that time, Col. Neel E. Kearby was assigned as the group’s commanding officer.

 Training intensified, but again due to the high level of activity, it was decided to split up the group’s squadrons.  The 340th Fighter Squadron transferred to Hillsgrove Field located in Providence, Rhode Island; the 342nd moved to Bedford, Massachusetts; while the 341st stayed at Westover Field.

 Training continued through April 1943 as the group neared the state of combat readiness.  At that time the group and the three squadrons received orders to prepare for shipment overseas.  But the question was to where?  Most thought that Europe was the likely destination as the air war was intensifying as the 8th Air Force continued to build up its bombing campaign against Germany and occupied Europe.  Others thought they were headed for the North African campaign.  This was reinforced when the group was issued cold-weather woolens in addition to their summer khakis.  All flying was suspended on April 25, 1943 and the squadrons reassembled at Westover Field.  By that time 17,135 flying hours were flown, with the pilots averaging 185 hours in their Thunderbolts.

 On May 4, 1943 the equipment was loaded onto rail cars and a few days later the group personnel took the train to Camp Shanks, New York where they remained in Spartan barracks until May 14.  On that day, they marched with full packs to a train that took them to Weehawken, New Jersey, where they took a ferry to Staten Island.  Finally they boarded the troopship USNS Henry Gibbons.  Sailing at dawn the next day as part of a small, slow convoy of four troopships defended by four destroyers and the cruiser USS Trenton, they steamed south.  That ruled out Europe or North Africa as their destination, leaving open the possibility of Alaska.

 A few days out, as they proceeded on a course leading to the Panama Canal, their questions were answered.  All personnel received pamphlets on … Australia!  It now became clear that they would be facing the Japanese in the Southwest Pacific Area.

 Next Month

 In the next history installment, the 341st Fighter Squadron, along with the other squadrons of the 348th Fighter Wing, take their large, heavyweight Thunderbolts into air combat against their Japanese adversaries flying more nimble, lightweight fighters.