JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. --
In the last segment of the 141st Air Refueling Squadron Heritage story, we told how its predecessor, the 341st Fighter Squadron, was one of many new Thunderbolt squadrons formed in 1942. It, along with the 340th and 342nd Fighter Squadrons, were components of the 348th Fighter Group. They were sent to Australia and assigned to the 5th Air Force for the pending battle to retake New Guinea from the Japanese. From their arrival in the Pacific in June 1943, and for the remainder of the year, they advanced alongside U.S. and Australian ground forces. In other words, as soon as the advancing Allied ground forces secured new areas from the Japanese, the air units would move forward to be closer to the battle lines. The first such move forward to Finschhafen Airfield took place in early December 1943. Meanwhile, Group Commander Lt Col Kearby was promoted to full colonel and transferred to 5th Fighter Command as Chief of Staff, with Lt Col Dick Rowland taking his place as 348th Fighter Group Commander.
New Airfield, New Year
At the end of December 1943, while getting settled at Finschhafen, the 341st Fighter Squadron and the other squadrons of the 348th Fighter Group enjoyed particularly good hunting of enemy aircraft as well as ships. On 16 December, in one of their first sorties from the new airfield, the Group successfully attacked 15 Japanese ships that were trying to counter American and Australian troop landings at Arawe, sending five of them to the bottom of the sea and badly damaging the remaining. In the air, they downed more than 50 Japanese aircraft, bringing the Group total for the year to 95 aerial victories.
The New Year began with Col Kearby (he still insisted on flying despite his 5th Fighter Group Command staff position) led fighter sweeps in the Wewak, Saidor, Cape Gloucester and Arawe areas. Col Kearby and the other Group pilots scored many victories. However, Finschhafen’s position closer to Japanese strongholds to the north made it a target for a number of enemy air raids, particularly nighttime low level attacks by long-range, twin-engined Mitsubishi G4M (reporting code name Betty) bombers. Although not devastating in their impact, these raids did kill a number of 348th Group ground personnel and interrupted the pilot’s much-needed sleep.
In an effort to extend the aircraft’s range, the Group’s Engineering Section devised a belly tank that could be mounted on their Thunderbolts. There was a belly tank specifically made for the P-47 but all of them were sent to the European Theatre for use by the Thunderbolts escorting 8th Air Force B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators bombing raids into Germany. Instead, the industrious Group engineers adapted the readily available Bell P-39 Airacobra external fuel tank to the Thunderbolt. With the drop tank moved to the fuselage belly, the wing pylons were now used for bombs, giving the Thunderbolts a true fighter-bomber capability. In addition, since tail wheels were in short supply, pilots were instructed to make two-wheel (rather than three-point) landings.
In February the Group designed and adopted an insignia that was thought to be both representative and distinctive. A competition among personnel of all three squadrons resulted in a design that the 108th Wing still uses today! It is a silver grey gauntlet that represents strength holding a torch, signifying freedom. A green laurel wreath signifies peace through victory.
In the air, the 341st along with its sister squadrons flew patrols, fighter sweeps and escort missions. They continued to increase their score of aerial victories, with the Group racking up 100 additional victories during this period without a loss. Their targets were airfields, enemy installations and shipping in western New Guinea, Ceram and Halmahera. These raids were aimed at beginning to neutralize these Japanese outposts and bases in preparation of the planned invasion to liberate Philippines.
The Loss of Col Kearby
When Kearby was transferred to the 5th Fighter Command headquarters, he had amassed 12 aerial victories. Despite the objections by Gen Kenney, head of the 5th Air Force, Kearby still continued to fly combat and his tally of aerial victories continued to rise. By early March 1944, Kearby’s 21 victories matched those of Lockheed P-38 Lightning pilot Richard Bong as leading ace in the Pacific.
On 5 March 1944, Kearby and two other pilots attacked a formation of 15 Japanese aircraft near Wewak, the same area where Kearby’s earlier combat earned him the Medal of Honor. After shooting down one of the aircraft, his 22nd kill, Kearby, flying his personal Thunderbolt “Fiery Ginger IV,” was shot down by a Japanese Army Air Force Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa (reporting code name Oscar) fighter. Although Kearby escaped by parachute, he apparently died of his wounds near the crash site. His remains were found in 1947, but they were left unidentified for two more years. He was buried in Dallas, Texas in July 1949. In the 1990s the wreckage was discovered and the tail of “Fiery Ginger IV” was recovered. It is now on display, complete with bullet holes, at the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, next to a P-47D painted to represent that same aircraft (serial 42-22268).
The War Continues
The Group was shocked and plunged into great sorrow with the loss of Colonel Kearby. He had been Group Commander since its formation in 1942 and was the driving force behind the Group’s remarkable record. But the Group had no choice to continue on. At the end of March, the 341st “packed their bags” again and moved further up the coast of New Guinea to the newly captured Saidor airfield. From here the 341st and sister squadrons flew mainly escort and patrol missions, livened up periodically with fighter sweeps aimed at destroying Japanese air power.
But at this point, for some unknown reason, the quality of the Japanese pilots, or perhaps just their tactics, improved and provided more of a challenge for the Thunderbolts. In addition, the Japanese were flying more advanced models of their Navy Mitsubishi Type 0 (code name Zero or Zeke) and Army Nakajima Oscar fighters. If you recall, when the 348th Figher Group arrived in theatre, the tails of the olive drab/grey camouflaged P-47s were painted white, as were the leading edges of the wings. This was done to aid American and Australian pilots to identify friendly aircraft. However, it was found that Thunderbolts without the white markings appeared more capable of eluding their Japanese enemy. The controversy continued for a while but later became a non-issue when replacement Thunderbolts, mainly P-47D-15 and -23s, arrived in all-aluminum finish, rather than the olive drab/camouflage color scheme. With these new “bare” Thunderbolts, Squadron and Wing markings would consist of red/white rudder strips and a vertical tail bar in the corresponding squadron color.
In April 1944 the Allied air forces suffered a major setback when over 32 aircraft were lost at and around Saidor Strip when aircraft returned short of fuel to find that extremely bad weather had enveloped the airfield. Crash landings claimed 12 aircraft, while a further 20 had to ditch in the nearby sea.
In May the squadron moved further up the coast to Wakde Island. Unfortunately this move of the 341st Fighter Squadron and the rest of the 348th Fighter Group did not go well. Supplies were lost due to a storm that overtook the ships moving equipment, and then a fire at the new base destroyed most of the food and ammunition stores. Air combat needed to be put on hold while all personnel worked to establish a livable base on the adjacent Insoemenia Island. It took more than a month to gather materials and build a mess hall; pilots and ground crew alike had to persevere in tents. Around this time the Group Commander Rowland was promoted to Colonel.
In June the 341st Fighter Squadron was selected to evaluate a new, secret very high frequency (VHF) radio set. The new radios made plane-to-plane and plane-to-ground communications easier, and shortly thereafter, all the Group’s aircraft received this upgrade.
In July, the 348th Fighter Group was enhanced by the addition of a fourth fighter squadron when the 460th Fighter Squadron was activated. Known as the Black Rams, this squadron was formed from replacement personnel and aircraft that had been gathered at Port Moresby; however, to aid in the ability of the “green pilots” to enter combat effectively, a number of experience pilots and ground crew were transferred to the 460th Fighter Squadron from the other squadrons.
By early August 1944, the base on Wakde Island had been competed, just in time for the next move, this time to Neomfoor Airstrip, also known as Kornasoren Airport. This was one of three airstrips constructed by the Japanese after they occupied Neomfoor Island in December 1943. The 348th Wing moved in while U.S. and Australian troops were still engaged in heavy combat with Japanese forces on the island, making just walking around the new base hazardous for the Group’s pilots.
During this period, the 348th Fighter Group welcomed a very famous, even if temporary, addition to the staff. “Colonel” Charles A. Lindbergh (yes, that one!) arrived as part of his tour of Pacific island bases to teach pilots how to extend the range of their aircraft. Actually, Lindbergh was still a civilian acting as a representative for the aircraft manufacturers (Grumman, Lockheed and Republic) and used the “colonel” rank as a cover story to hide his true identity. After a few test flights alongside Group pilots, he determined best cruising airspeeds, climbing airspeeds, power settings and other procedures, all with the purpose of extending the range of the Thunderbolt in actual combat mission conditions. He then tried out his findings by flying missions with the 348th Fighter Group squadrons. He spent six months in the Pacific and flew on 50 combat missions. He actually shot down a number of Japanese aircraft but because of his unique civilian position could not claim them; nor was any official account made.
In the fall of 1944, the Group indirectly supported the US Army and Marine Corps amphibious landings on Palau Islands in the Marianas Island group and on Moratad Island in the Halmahera Island group. Although the 341st Fighter Squadron did not play a direct role, constant fighter sweeps of Japanese Army and Navy airbases on neighboring islands destroyed numerous enemy aircraft and more importantly, kept Japanese air forces diverted from threatening those key landings. Also during this period, all four squadrons of the Group completed the re-equipment with a later model of the Thunderbolt, the P-47D-23, which was equipped with wing mounted bomb shackles and built-in provision for extra fuel tanks.
The 341st and 342nd Fighter Squadrons also developed a new bombing technique were a flight of Thunderbolts bombing enemy facilities and key bridges were “spotted” by L-4 observation planes. This was a very rudimentary form of what today we call airborne forward air control [FAC-A].
By October 1944, the New Guinea campaign – the routing out of Japanese forces from New Guinea and the Dutch East Indies - was essentially completed. Now, all eyes turned northward towards the next obvious target – the liberation of the Philippine Islands. No one within the Group knew exactly how and when the coming Philippine campaign would develop. But all knew instinctively that it was imminent. It would fulfill Gen Douglas MacArthur’s famous statement “we will return” that he had avowed when forced to retreat from the Philippines in early 1942. Now flying from bases in New Guinea and the Dutch East Indies that had been seized from Japanese hands during the just completed campaign, the tide was turned and the remaining Japanese positions and their strongholds in the Philippines were under constant air attack. Therefore, this last month in New Guinea was devoted to planning and training for an operation that everyone sensed would dwarf what they had already been through.
In the next installment of the history of the 141st Air Refueling Squadron (and 108th Wing), we will continue to relate the exploits of the 341st Fighter Squadron and the 348th Fighter Group as they advanced to the Philippines and beyond.