JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. --
In last month’s installment of the NJANG History, we explained the background of World War II in the Pacific. As related, the Japanese achieved early success in their plans for expansion in the Asia-Pacific region, and were advancing undeterred towards their goal of Australia. Responding to the desperate request for aid from the Australian government, the U.S. responded by sending air, ground and naval forces to stem the Japanese advance. The 341st Fighter Squadron and its parent, the 348th Fighter Group, played an important role in this effort as part of the Army Air Corp’s Fifth Air Force. As we will see, their relevance to our story is that after the war’s end, the 341st Fighter Squadron and the 348th Fighter Group were reactivated and simultaneously reactivated as the 141st Fighter Squadron and 108th Fighter Group, assigned to the New Jersey National Guard. But we are getting ahead of our story…
348th Fighter Group Enters Combat
The 348th Fighter Group, along with its constituent 340th, 341st and 342nd Fighter Squadrons, were established at Mitchel Army Airfield, Long Island, NY, on 24 September 1942. After extensive training, the Group’s squadrons were gathered at Westover Field, MA, in order to prepare for transfer overseas. On 4 May 1943, the personnel and equipment (but not aircraft) were transferred by rail to Camp Shanks, New York (as was the 141st Aero Squadron in 1917) and then on 14 May boarded the troop transport ship USNS Henry Gibbins [T-AP-183] for the long ocean voyage to Australia. They arrived at Brisbane 23 June 1943.
If you recall last month’s installment, there was some hesitation on the part of the Army Air Corps to send the large, heavy Thunderbolt into combat against the much lighter and more maneuverable Japanese fighters. But the Fifth Air Force commander, General George Kenny, put the matter to rest by stating, “No matter what objections there are to the P-47, it has eight guns and is faster than the Zero at any altitude so I will use it and gladly take all I can get!”
The Group’s 72 brand new Republic P-47D-2-RE/RA (RE denoted built by Republic, Farmingdale NY while RA, Republic at Evansville, IN) Thunderbolts arrived separately from the personnel tied to the flight deck of the Navy escort carrier USS Barnes, CVE-20. The “baby flat top” carried the Thunderbolts in a knock down condition in order to aid in their preservation from the deleterious effects of salt-laden sea air. After off-loading, the aircraft were reassembled by Group and Squadron air staff personnel at Eagle Farms airfield, which was located adjacent to the Port of Brisbane. The weeks following were dedicated to test flying and bore-sighting the reassembled aircraft and equally importantly, ‘slow-time’ running-in of their new engines for a minimum of 10 hours. On average, six aircraft were accepted per day. The ground echelon was equally busy, establishing a tent city for Group Headquarters, collecting supplies and getting accustomed to the very different climate.
The Group’s time at Eagle Farms was short because on 12 July 1943 Lieutenant Colonel Neel Kearby, Commanding Officer of the 348th Fighter Group, led the first squadron, the 342nd Fighter Squadron, north to Port Moresby, New Guinea.
By 22 July all three squadrons had moved to New Guinea. Although the 342nd bragged that they were the “First Thunderbolt Squadron in the Southwest Pacific”, it was the 341st Fighter Squadron that actually entered combat a day before its sister squadrons.
348th Fighter Group Headquarters was located at Jackson ‘Drome, which was seven miles East of Port Moresby and also the new home of the 340th Fighter Squadron.
According to the official USAF history of the 348th Fighter Group, “This location was dubbed “Thunderbolt Valley” by personnel of the 340th. The 341st Squadron was located at Durand ‘Drome, which was also known as “Seventeen Mile” since it was this distance east of Port Moresby, while the 342nd Fighter Squadron settled at Wards ‘Drome, five miles East of Port Moresby.”
Through most of July 1943, operations were mainly orientation flights to familiarize the pilots with the terrain and flying conditions peculiar to the area. Occasionally the squadrons would be scrambled on a possible enemy interception, but each one turned out to be a friendly pilot. Since the Thunderbolt was the newest American fighter and though it had already begun to prove itself in the skies over Europe Theater but had not yet had a chance to prove its worth in the Pacific, the Fifth Air Force hesitated to assign hazardous combat missions to a “green” group flying a “new” fighter. The USAF history continued, “Pilots of the 348th Fighter Group were certain, however, that they and their Thunderbolts were ready and could take a place among the hottest fighters in the theatre.”
As the 348th entered combat, their Thunderbolts were painted in the standard Air Corps color scheme of olive drab upper surfaces over a camouflage grey under surfaces. The tails were painted white, as were the leading edges of the wings for identification purposes. Squadron colors were applied horizontally to the top of the vertical tail – yellow for the 340th, red for the 341st, and blue for the 342nd. The aircraft number was painted in the squadron color or in black on the white tail fin. Later, aircraft numbers were also painted in white or yellow on either side of the nose cowling. The range of squadron aircraft numbers was 1-25 for the 340th (the “Minute Men”), 26-50 for the 341st (the “Black Jacks”), and 51-75 for the 342nd (the “Scourgers”) Fighter Squadrons. In 1944, a fourth squadron – the 460th (the “Black Rams”) Fighter Squadron – was added to the Group. Their color was black, and they were assigned aircraft numbers 100-139. Furthermore, the squadrons got bigger, now with 30 aircraft assigned to each one, thus scrambling the original numbering system. Also, in 1944 the squadron started replacing their earlier aircraft with later model P-47D-15-RE and P-47D-23-RA Thunderbolts in a natural metal (i.e., unpainted) finish. By mid-1944, the old markings were gone, replaced by a very striking vertical band on the tail fin in the squadron color and pre-war style red/white horizontal rudder striping.
Port Moresby, the first home to the 348th Fighter Group, was located in a relatively “dry” part of New Guinea with “only” 80 inches of rainfall a year. Just 30 miles away behind the foothills that surround Port Moresby, the rainfall reaches 150 inches per year creating impassible swamps. In the fall of 1942, the push southward by the Japanese, who had crossed the Owen Stanley Range of mountains on foot, was stopped just 25 miles short of Port Moresby. It is here that the Australian and American forces began the push back of the Japanese, up the so-called Kokoda Trail, eventually forcing them off the large island of New Guinea (an island second in size to only Greenland that at that time comprised Dutch New Guinea to the west, and Australian administered Papua New Guinea to the east).
The first combat missions were mainly to provide fighter escort for Fifth Air Force bombers and transport planes. They were also assigned to provide air cover for the airfield at Tsili Tsili – a mountain locked air base that would eventually provide a base for the growing number of medium bombers. According to the USAF history, “The airfield had been built and maintained entirely by airborne troops and supplies and its vulnerability to enemy air attack made its protection vital to Allied plans. It was over Tsili Tsili that the pilots of the 340th and 341st Squadrons first engaged in combat with planes of the Japanese air force. In the ensuing air battle one of the 341st pilots was lost without the loss of any Japanese aircraft.” But in the following months, that loss would be avenged many times over. That started on 16 August 1943, when the Group escorting C-47 transports over the Owen Stanley Range engaged the Japanese again. A pilot of the 348th Fighter Group scored the first victories for the P-47 Thunderbolts in the South-West Pacific when, according to the Group history, “Major Max R. Wicks, commander of the 340th Fighter Squadron, brought down a Zeke (Mitsubishi Zero) and Lieutenant Thomas Barber also of the 340th claimed a probable on the same mission. Lieutenants Wilburn S. Henderson and Leonard G. Leighton of the 341st each destroyed a Japanese plane, an Oscar (Nakajima Ki-43) and a Zeke, but another Zeke shot down Leighton. From this unfortunate loss, the all-essential lesson of staying in at least a two-ship element was impressed upon the pilots of the group.
It appears that the Fifth Air Force command wanted to keep the untried 348th Fighter Group away from heavy duty air combat until they were more seasoned and the P-47 combat proven, but Lieutenant Colonel Kearby, 348th Fighter Group commander, was not pleased since he believed his squadrons were eager and capable, with unwavering confidence in their Thunderbolts. He finally convinced Brigadier General Paul Wurtsmith, commander of Fifth Air Force Fighter Command to allow him to lead a 20 Thunderbolt fighter sweep on 4 September over the Japanese bases at Morabe, Salamana and Finschhafen, New Guinea, to draw Japanese aircraft into air combat. The mission was an unqualified success, with four Japanese aircraft destroyed and no American losses.
This was followed the next day by the start of a major ground, sea and paratrooper assault on Japanese bases near Lae, at Nadzak and Hapoi. The 348th performed escort and fighter sweep missions in support of these successful operations. In doing so the Group achieved nine air-to-air victories, led by Lieutenant Colonel Kearby who accounted for three of these, garnering him the Distinguished Flying Cross. It was a just way to celebrate the Groups one-year anniversary since its formation.
In October, the results were even more impressive. With a flight of four Thunderbolts encountering a large formation of Japanese bombers escorted by over 30 fighters over Wewak, flight leader Lieutenant Colonel Neel Kearby downed 6 Japanese aircraft, while his wingman, Captain Moore of the 341st achieved two and element leader Captain William Dunham destroyed another. For his aerial kills and leadership in fighting an overwhelming enemy formation when his flight was low on fuel, Kearby was awarded the Medal of Honor. October ended with 37 348th Fighter Group victories, with Headquarters pilots accounting for 11, the 342nd Fighter Squadron 14, and the 330th and 341st Fighter Squadrons six each.
In November, Lieutenant Colonel Kearby was promoted to Colonel and transferred to Fifth Fighter Command as Chief of Staff; Lieutenant Colonel Robert (Dick) Rowland replaced him, but Kearby continued to sneak back to the 348th to fly missions whenever he could. As the Allied forces pushed back the Japanese and advanced across the island of New Guinea, the Fifth Air Force component wings also advanced to newly secured locations either taking over existing flying strips or creating new ones. For the 341st Fighter Squadron, 16 December 1943 saw the first of many such moves forward, this one to the newly constructed Finschhafen Airfield, (near the town named after German scientist and explorer Otto Finsch to established a colony there in 1884) New Guinea, complete with a 100 foot by 6,000 foot crushed coral runway and little else. The ground echelon had to construct living spaces, briefing rooms, a mess hall, latrines, water supply system, and all other necessities “from scratch” – a daunting task that they would have to repeat multiple times in the ensuing months.
In the next installment, the 341st Fighter Squadron along with the rest of the 348th Fighter Group continue to follow the advanced allied forces in their push of the Japanese off of New Guinea, pursuing them to the Philippines.