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Sun Setters Over Japan

By John W. Lambert
3/30/2018 • Aviation History Magazine

Best known for their role in defeating the Luftwaffe, P-51 Mustangs also performed yeoman service in the Pacific, flying the longest fighter escort missions of World War II.

As 91 North American P-51D Mustangs of the 15th and 21st Fighter groups approached their rendezvous point on April 7, 1945, the pilots saw for the first time their ultimate objective: the Japanese homeland. “The weather was clear and we saw the coast of Honshu and old Mount Fujiyama standing out just like it did in the pictures,” recalled Major Jim Vande Hey, CO of the 78th Fighter Squadron. “It was an unmistakable landmark.”

The Mustangs soon formed up with their charges, 103 Boeing B-29 Superfortresses of the 73rd Bomb Wing. “It was a real spectacle,” said Captain Art Bridge of the 45th Fighter Squadron. “The 29s were just finishing their assembly in a grand circle as we arrived. I could see the lead B-29s were at 12,000 with the rest staggered back all the way up to 18,000. My flight was covering the point and we began to scissor to maintain our airspeed and not get ahead of the bomber stream.”

Crossing the coast of Honshu, the P-51 pilots dropped their 110-gallon auxiliary wing tanks as they began to spot the first head-on feints from a force of more than 100 Japanese interceptors. In a short time, more than 300 aerial adversaries converged in the flak-smudged sky over Tokyo Bay. When the smoke cleared and the Mustangs returned to their Iwo Jima base, the “Sun Setters” of VII Fighter Command were credited with 26 Japanese planes destroyed, one probable and five damaged, at a cost of two P-51s and one pilot. More important, only three B-29s had been lost—two to flak and one to an aerial bomb. It was an auspicious start to VII Fighter Command’s very long range (VLR) campaign, which would see the Mustangs make 50 more runs to the Japanese Home Islands before V-J Day.

Carrier and land-based air power defined the U.S. Pacific strategy in World War II. With each advance the Americans sought to achieve aerial supremacy, interdict Japanese maritime supply lines and isolate the battlefield. As the leapfrogging strategy proceeded, enemy garrisons were destroyed by air power and the islands either seized or bypassed. The targets of American air strength were largely tactical until B-29 Super – forts of the Twentieth Air Force began the final heavy bombing campaign against Japan’s industrial centers in 1944, operating from bases in China and the Marianas Islands, some 1,300 miles from Honshu. When Iwo Jima was secured in March 1945, it became a haven for damaged or low-on-fuel B-29s as well as a base for the escort fighters of VII Fighter Command.

For the D-model Mustangs it was 625 nautical or 718 statute miles to the coast of Honshu, due north of Iwo over a trackless expanse of the North Pacific totally lacking in alternative landing sites. Missions routinely lasted more than seven hours.

While the April 7 mission was a notable success, it was also vengeance of sorts for the fighter squadrons of the old Hawaiian Air Force that had suffered an ignominious beating on December 7, 1941. The 15th and 21st Fighter groups rose from the ashes of that “Day of Infamy,” and many of their command, group and squadron leaders were veterans of the Pearl Harbor attack.

After brief episodes of combat in the Gilbert-Marshall Islands campaign, the pilots of VII Fighter Command had undergone intensive training for the VLR missions that would be their specialty. Other than a few days of support missions before Iwo had been secured and some periodic shuttle flights to the rocky outcropping of Chichi Jima, 147 miles north of Iwo, there were no other targets for the P-51s besides those in the Home Islands. The Mustang force, eventually enlarged with the May arrival of the 506th Fighter Group, concentrated its main effort on the Honshu region between Osaka and Tokyo. (A Republic P-47N group, the 414th, arrived on Iwo in late July, in time for just three missions.)

Even before the first escort mission to Japan, the command had been blooded in one of the last ground battles on Iwo Jima. On March 26, 1945, the 21st was bivouacked in a tent camp on the west side of the island when 300 Japanese troops suddenly surged from their underground bunkers before dawn. They struck the unprepared Americans with swords, grenades and small arms. Pilots and ground crews fought back stubbornly at close range in the darkness until a Marine contingent arrived to help destroy the enemy force.

“Our first thought was to get clear of the tent, which seemed to be a primary target,” recalled Captain Jim Van Nada of the 72nd Squadron. “We didn’t know where we were going because it was still dark and we weren’t sure from which direction the attack was coming. Three of our pilots (Howard, Rogers and Canfield) made it outside the tent. But as Ralph Bruner and I got to the door a grenade landed about three feet in front of us. The concussive effect knocked us out and blew us back into the tent. When we came to we were both lying on the tent floor bleeding from head wounds.”

Don Howard had been killed, and Lieutenants Frank Rodgers and George Canfield, both wounded, stumbled back into the tent where Van Nada and Bruner were assembling a rampart of B-4 bags and ammo crates. The Japanese were slashing holes in other tents and tossing grenades inside, where some men were trapped.

“After our skirmish line had swept the camp and cleared the last of the tents, I joined Marines throwing 5½-second grenades at Japs in a trench,” said the 531st Squadron’s Captain Harry Crim. “We held the grenades until the last second to get an air burst over the ditch. The sun was just coming up as we hit the trench. I was 10 feet away when a Jap soldier jumped up and threw a grenade right at me. I rolled and it went off, blowing up a lot of sand and tearing my pants, but it never touched me. I called for a grenade and tossed it over on the Jap, re – turning the favor.”

The 21st lost 15 men killed and 50 wounded. The seriously injured, including group CO Colonel Ken Powell, were evacuated to Guam and Hawaii.

VII Fighter Command’s first VLR mission to Honshu was followed by another escort job on April 12. Thereafter the Mustangs alternated their escort duties with fighter sweeps designed to lure the Japanese air forces into battle or destroy them on their airfields.

The VLR missions followed a highly orchestrated routine. With B-29s serving as pathfinders, the Mustangs would assemble near Iwo in gaggles of 60 to 170. The outbound leg of each mission was performed at 205 mph with engines turning about 2,000 rpm and 29 to 30 inches of manifold pressure, in auto-lean. The trick was to keep the Merlins turning just above the cutout point. Every half hour the formation would run engines up to full power in order to clean out carbon buildup. The process, aggravated by Iwo’s fine talc-like volcanic sand, caused engines to wear out prematurely and resulted in many aborts. The P-51s flew on the auxiliary wing tanks (110-gallon and later 165-gallon) until they approached Honshu, then pilots switched to their 85-gallon fuselage tank and returned on the pair of internal 55-gallon wing tanks. The rigid cruise-control techniques brought fuel consumption below 40 gallons per hour, considered an early threshold of perfection. “We got so good that we would fantasize about flying our planes the 2,400 miles back to Hawaii,” remembered Lieutenant Leon Sher, 47th Fighter Squadron.

Combat over Japan, generally performed at or near maximum power, ignored cruise-control techniques. More than a few aircraft ran out of fuel short of Iwo Jima, triggering Air Sea Rescue (ASR) elements. Many others, flying on fumes, made straight approach landings at Iwo.

Major Vande Hey recalled how a “Big Friend” nursed him home: “When I started back I called a B-29 and told him I was low on fuel and to take me home by the shortest possible route. He said, ‘Get on my wing, little brother.’ We went through some weather without difficulty, and about 100 miles from Iwo he led me through an overcast and asked how I was doing. I looked at my tank gauges and said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to make it.’

“The B-29 alerted rescue, Dumbo [an ASR flying boat] came out on our heading, and I started saying the rosary. We broke out at about 4,000 feet and Iwo was dead ahead. Being a poor swimmer, I was ready to dead stick it from 4,000 feet. I made a straight-in approach, dropped my gear, and when I three pointed it, the engine conked out. I didn’t even have enough gas to taxi.”

After the first few escort and sweep missions, the Mustang drivers began to notice that the Japanese were reluctant to engage. Air- to-air combat most often occurred when USAAF squadrons stumbled upon enemy aircraft at lower altitudes that seemed to be trying to get out of harm’s way. Indeed, the Japanese still had thousands of aircraft of various types (the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey estimated as many as 10,000) in the closing months of the war, and they began husbanding that force to counter the anticipated invasion. Despite that strategy, and the reluctance of the Japanese army and navy to coordinate their air units in defense against B-29 raids, periodic aerial brawls occurred that rivaled the great battles over Europe.

On May 29 more than 450 B-29s, escorted by about 100 Mustangs, raided Yokohama for the first time, setting the stage for one of the biggest air battles of the Pacific War. The bombers encountered aggressive Japanese army and navy units, and a furball quickly developed as some 650 aircraft clawed at each other. One particularly daring Japanese pilot (believed to be naval ace Sadaaki Akamatsu) shot down 45th Squadron Lieutenant Rufus Moore and sped through the escort with seeming impunity. “He made us look like a bunch of truck drivers,” commented Lieutenant Jack Wilson of the 531st.

During the hectic action, a flight of 45th Squadron P-51s veered too close to its charges, and quick-triggered B-29 gunners riddled Lieutenant William Brown’s plane. The action ended after threequarters of an hour of sustained violence, leaving Yokohama a flaming ruin.

It was VII Fighter Command’s most successful mission. Although seven B-29s fell to flak and fighters, the Mustang pilots claimed 28 kills, eight probables and 23 damaged. Only one P-51 was lost over Japan, but long after combat subsided Mustangs continued to go down. Bill Brown, his P-51 full of .50-caliber holes, was the first to go, parachuting close to the coast of Honshu. The U.S. Navy submarine Pipefish rescued him.

Lieutenant Bob Roseberry’s 78th Squadron P-51 refused to jettison its wing tanks, reducing his airspeed and inviting attack by Mitsubishi J2M3 “Jacks.” “They apparently scored several hits on my fuel tanks or gas line,” he said. “After furious lumbering maneuvers I found myself all alone with two wing tanks and a slightly used Mustang. My wingman had lost me and the squadron had turned out to sea.”

Roseberry nursed his crippled fighter back to within 60 miles of Iwo Jima before parachuting to sea and climbing into his one-man life raft. A Northrop P-61 Black Widow was soon orbiting overhead, providing a fix for the destroyer escort Brough. The ship’s officers got him dried out sufficiently for a card game that cost the aviator all his available cash, just $10, causing one of the crew to reflect, “It hardly pays to fish you guys out for only ten bucks a head.”

With a shattered canopy and 20mm shell holes through his wing, flap and fuselage, the 47th Squadron’s Lieutenant Sher was miraculously unhurt as he coaxed his P-51 toward Iwo. After seven hours and 35 minutes of flying he still didn’t fully appreciate the extent of the damage as he made a cautious approach to Runway 5. He remembered: “My tail wheel wouldn’t come down, but I didn’t realize that and was trying a three point landing on only two points. However, I didn’t have enough wing area left and stalled out too early. All I could do was bury the nose in the ground. The Mustang pitched up vertically but didn’t go over and flopped back down, breaking its spine.”

As the weeks passed and Japanese aerial resistance began to diminish, VII Fighter Command was ordered to concentrate on airfield strikes. Tactical procedure dictated that one squadron remained as high cover while the others thundered down, full throttle, line abreast, to sweep the enemy field with .50-caliber fire. But as in a cavalry charge, some Mustangs outpaced others and could be seen later in gun camera shots. Captain Felix Scott, 46th Squadron, described one such hell-for-leather assault: “We were down in the treetops strafing when part of the 15th Group came through us. We were dodging P-51s, tracers and land mines all at the same time. The mines looked like dish pans floating in the air. The Japs were always late in firing them and they ended up behind us.”

The month of July saw 17 such sweeps and not a single high-altitude escort job. Tough as the air-to-air encounters often proved to be, the pilots preferred them to low-level strafing missions. Lieutenant Hank Ryniker, 47th Squadron, recalled one mission that claimed two 15th Fighter Group planes and pilots: “We came across Tokyo Bay from the east, dropping down because of rain and clouds until finally we were orbiting at 2,000 feet, low and slow over the heaviest flak area I’ve ever seen. Amid heavy flak bursts and tracers I heard fellows call in, ‘I’m hit,’ ‘My coolant’s shot out,’ ‘My rudders are jammed,’ and I felt cold fear. We encountered no fighters, just flak. You could see, fight and kill fighters, but there’s nothing so futile as a wall of flak.”

“We were getting pretty gun-shy in July and August,” said Major Robert W. Moore, CO and leading ace of the 45th Squadron. “By that time I fully expected to be killed on a strafing mission. I did not feel the same way about air-to-air combat because we were generally better trained than the Japs, and our equipment was better.

“I was not arrogant nor felt that I could not be shot down by an – other fighter, but this did not worry me nearly as much as did strafing,” he continued. “I always figured that the worst gunner in Japan could shoot at least within several hundred yards of you and that if enough missions were flown, enough bullets would be fired at you to get you sooner or later. A bullet in a radiator, oil line, coolant line, gas line could be as fatal as one in the head. And you could not always bail out of a 51.”

The laws of probability began to catch up with VII Fighter Command during three successive airfield strikes on July 8-10, when 327 Mustangs sortied over Honshu. Forty P-51s, 12 percent of the attackers, were hit by enemy groundfire, and 13 were lost. Thanks to superb rescue efforts, seven pilots were saved.

On an August 1 mission to strafe Akenogahara airdrome near Nagoya, Major Moore’s worst fears were almost realized. “I flew over the field at approximately 10 feet altitude and actually had to raise the nose of the fighter to shoot into hangars,” he said. “This was not an ill-conceived action since the Japanese gunners in the reveted gun emplacements could not depress their automatic weapons low enough to hit you. I knew I was safer at 10 feet than I would have been at 200.

“Outbound I strafed a line of ships at a small port and received a 37mm hit in my left wing. The explosion blew out all of the ammunition and the covering doors over gun and ammo bays as well as puncturing my left tire.” Moore’s P-51 remained airworthy despite the dam – age, but he ground-looped on landing at Iwo due to the blown tire.

In late May VII Fighter Command had added rockets to its airdrome strafing armament, increasing the danger to the pilots. Mus – tangs of one squadron in each group were outfitted to carry six 5-inch rockets in underwing positions along with two 165-gallon wing tanks. The factory markings on each P-51D wing warned: Maximum External Wing Load 550 lbs. “We were carrying over 1,500 pounds under each wing, so we were flying the heaviest P-51s in the world,” said Lieutenant Jack Wil – son, 531st Squadron. “The first 30 seconds off the ground they staggered around like a chunk of lead.”

Lieutenant Paul Schurr, also of the 531st, recalled: “We always hoped that we would locate airborne enemy units so we could tangle with them and not have to strafe. We jokingly referred to ourselves as the Kamikazes of the American Air Force. I always wondered if the rockets we carried were timed so that if one didn’t turn away after firing, and then they went off just as we passed over them, one could shoot himself down.”

During the marathon missions on what became known as the Empire Run, death took many forms. There was death due to takeoff accidents, enemy action and anti-aircraft fire, as well as losses to mechanical failures and several fatalities due to parachuting—a high-risk venture from a Mustang. However, the single biggest cause of fatalities among the Iwo Jima–based fighter pilots proved to be severe weather. The Western Pacific bordering the Asian littoral was frequently a cauldron of bad weather. B-29s had endured high-altitude jet streams up to 100 knots, and massive storms frequently built up ahead of or behind missions.

For the pilots of VII Fighter Command, June 1, 1945, will forever be remembered as “Black Friday.” On that day 184 Mustangs had been dispatched to Osaka for escort duties. Departing Iwo with three B-29s as navigation escorts, the fighters climbed to 10,000 feet. Consolidated B-24s preceded each mission on weather reconnaissance, and the bomber stream had already gone ahead with no reported problems. But 370 miles north of Iwo the Mustang pilots began to encounter a well-formed frontal zone that loomed with boiling cumulonimbus clouds soaring over 30,000 feet. They were like men at the sheer face of a mountain wall, contemplating the ascent.

The lead navigator first advised the fighter leaders that he intended to climb over the boiling mass, but the formation was already too close for that, and fuel considerations would not permit a gradual spiraling climb or circumnavigation. Lieutenant Colonel Jack Thomas, CO of the 15th Fighter Group, warned the B-29 leader, “If you try to penetrate that front this formation could blow up like a bomb!” Despite his protest, the lead B-29 headed into the ominous mass.

As the big bombers led their flock into the maw of the evolving system and the huge formation was swallowed by the increasingly heavy front, the Mustang pilots tightened their formation, striving to maintain visual contact and unit cohesion. P-51 leaders struggled to fly on instruments through the horizonless environment, and then turbulence struck the formation. Groping for salvation, most flight leaders began to turn away from the mission heading and lose altitude. Chaos ensued as Mustangs began to tap wings and formations merged.

The Mustang pilots were battered by snow and rain as they fought to avoid collisions amid the convection currents. A few managed to turn away and return to Iwo, while some two dozen found daylight and proceeded north toward the devil they knew. When the day’s grim toll was tallied, 27 P-51s had been lost, and ASR units recovered only two pilots.

Excepting the fatalities of that June 1 mission, ASR operations for the strategic air campaign against Japan were on the whole very successful, a marvel of service cooperation. There were five stations equidistant from Iwo to the shores of Honshu where Navy surface vessels and/or subs patrolled, coordinating with Consolidated OA-10 and Boeing B-17H Dumbos, B-29s, P-61s and Navy PB4Y Privateers—watching over troubled fighter and bomber crews. Of the Mustang pilots known to have gone down at sea, 54 percent were rescued, some from under the guns of the Japanese.

Even the pilots who survived VLR missions required special medical attention. Nearly eight hours in a coffin-like cockpit, astride the AAF’s version of the cavalry’s old McClellan saddle, turned young men into quasi-arthritics. They often had to be helped out of their Mustangs, and it took five to seven days before they were again able to strap on parachute and survival kit and climb into the cockpit. The command surgeon, Lt. Col. Joseph Walther, inveigled Navy Seabees into tapping the boiling hot springs under Iwo and building a spa of sorts. After debriefing, aching pilots were helped into tubs of hot water and handed a ice-cold Australian beer, followed by a rubdown.

Due to the marathon nature of the VLR flights, tours of duty were usually limited to 15 sorties. Major Harry Crim had served a previous tour of combat in the Mediterranean, compiling 50 missions and 211 hours in a Lockheed P-38. In just 18 sorties from Iwo to Japan he was credited with 134 hours, almost 7½ hours per mission. Crim was one of five VII Fighter Command Mustang pilots who achieved ace status.

The VLR flights were achievements in themselves, but once over Japan the Mustangs destroyed 225 enemy aircraft in aerial combat, probably destroyed another 56 and damaged 119. Claims from strafing were 219 destroyed and 450 damaged. The campaign exacted a heavy toll from the VII Fighter Command pilots: In-flight fatalities due to enemy action, weather and accidents totaled 91. Never again would American fighter pilots fly such long-range missions without air-to-air refueling.

 

Minnesota-based aviation writer John Lambert recommends for further reading his books The Long Campaign: The 15th Fighter Group in WWII and The Pineapple Air Force. Also try Very Long Range P-51 Mustang Units of the Pacific War, by Carl Molesworth.

Originally published in the July 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here

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