For every P-38 Lightning lost to enemy action in Burma, the 459th Fighter Squadron claimed more than 12 Japanese fighters.
The twin-engine Lockheed P-38 Lightning provided the U long-range fighter, but its frontline allocation during World War II reflected the United States’ priorities. In consequence, while P-38s were appearing in substantial and growing numbers in North Africa, New Guinea and .S. Army Air Forces with a remarkably fast and potent the Solomon Islands, American squadrons in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater had to make do with what they had—primarily Curtiss P-40s—to hold the line against Japanese forces.
The Allied victory in North Africa in May 1943 gave the USAAF a small surplus of Lightnings that allowed it to respond to repeated pleas from Maj. Gen. Claire L. Chennault by diverting some P-38Gs and pilots drawn from that theater to his Fourteenth Air Force in China. Initially called “Squadron X,” the China-based 449th Fighter Squadron began operations in August 1943, protecting vital supply routes over “the Hump”—the Himalayas—and attacking Japanese ground targets formerly beyond the striking range of Chennault’s fighters.
On September 1, a second P-38-equipped unit, the 459th Fighter Squadron, was organized in India to support the Tenth Air Force over Burma. Known as the “Twin Dragons,” the 459th was unusual in that it was formed overseas and dissolved at the end of the war, having never served on American soil.
New P-38Hs sent to the 459th flew their first sorties on November 20, 1943, escorting B-25 Mitchells against targets in central Burma. Within days they were guarding B-24 Liberators en route to targets in Rangoon, missions that showcased the Lightnings’ long reach. Equipped with external fuel tanks, the Twin Dragons frequently ranged as far as 700 miles from base, striking airfields jammed with fighters that the Japanese had previously considered safe havens. The Lightning pilots typically used their external tanks until they reached the target, fought with any defending fighters for roughly 20 minutes, then shot up ground targets and made their exit, hoping to get back to base with whatever fuel they had left. Some airplanes reportedly landed on fumes, then had to be towed off the runway.
Japanese airfields in Burma were well equipped with Nakajima Ki-43 “Oscar” fighters, which had a top speed of 325 mph and a range of almost 1,100 miles. The 459th’s Lightnings occasionally tangled with as many as 40 to 50 Oscars in the course of a sortie.
On May 10, 1944, the 459th was tasked with a long-range mission to hit a major airfield at Kangaung, in Burma. The strike force, operating from a base at Chittagong, India, would be divided into two sections. The first wave, eight P-38s led by Captain Walter Duke, launched around 0830 hours. The second, led by Captain Maxwell Glenn, passed the first strike force as it was returning to base. Duke’s first objective was to catch a group of roughly 40 Japanese aircraft returning to Kangaung from a mission around Imphal, India. The P-38s destroyed many of those planes on the ground just after they had landed, as well as a couple that were still in the air. Then the Twin Dragons went after fuel storage tanks and vehicles. Glenn’s flight surprised the enemy while the base was trying to recover from the earlier attack, claiming a few more aircraft on the ground. One Oscar that did manage to get airborne was destroyed within seconds. By the end of the day, the 459th’s tally stood at 101 kills.
Soon the Lightnings were involved in air-to-ground missions, carrying bombs and putting the fighter’s formidable firepower—a 20mm cannon and four .50-caliber machine guns—to work. The Americans took a lot of groundfire, and a few were shot down. Lieutenant William M. Behrns, who flew several bombing strikes with the 459th, recalled a memorable mission on October 13, 1944, that didn’t turn out quite as planned: “We were assigned some targets around Mawdauk in support of ground troops who were having a tough time subduing a Japanese force of about 25,000 that were in that immediate area. Our main target was a bunker position, which required that we load up with two 1,000-pound bombs that would be capable of destroying it. I was given the lead position in the four-plane flight, with another four following close behind. I was not flying in my assigned Lightning, which was named the San Joaquin Siren.”
Behrns decided to approach the bunker by flying slightly to the south, hoping to deceive enemy observers about where he was headed. Since Allied intelligence had warned that the target area was heavily defended, he thought a bit of deception might give the strike force a better chance of surviving. The Lightnings increased speed to 360 mph and dropped down to 14,000 feet to set up their bomb run.“When the city of Mawdauk passed beneath my left wing, I turned my plane on her side, did a wingover and pushed down into a 60-degree dive with the throttles on War Emergency Power,” Behrns said. “I was gaining speed fast as I approached my release point of approximately 6,000 feet. I was doing better than 550 mph, and the ground was coming up quickly, including a lot of anti-aircraft fire.”
Behrns’ P-38 must have been aimed straight down the barrel of one of the enemy guns, because a round hit his Lightning before he could release the bombs, shutting down all the electric-powered equipment in the cockpit. As his fighter plunged toward the ground, Behrns’ first thought was to jettison his payload, so he used the manual override handles to release the two bombs. He had no problem in getting the bombs off, but given the airplane’s speed and angle, they were continuing down along the same path as the Lightning, just a few feet away from the plane—and its pilot. Behrns recalled:
I had to get away by creating some space between the rapidly approaching two explosions and my aircraft! Luckily, the Lightning’s avionics were manual and not dependent on electrical power, so I was still able to control the path of my flight as long as I had momentum to carry me. I eased my half-dead plane away from the bombs, and when I reached 400 feet, I pulled hard and brought her out of the dive and set a course for friendly territory near the Burma Road. It was a distance of several miles before I would be over a safe area, so I concentrated on making a good glide and getting as far from our target as I could without power. It was a hectic ride while it lasted, but there was one comforting thing I remember and that was the fact that my squadron mates finished their bomb runs and promptly joined up on my wings to escort me as far as my ride would go. Gradually I lost speed and started preparing myself mentally for a low-altitude bailout.
In the distance Behrns spotted a straight and level gray streak in the middle of a green expanse of jungle—the Burma Road—which meant he was going in the right direction. The Burma Road was the only cleared space in the seemingly endless jungle. Easing his P-38 down, he managed to land in a soft, sandy stretch of road. The only damage was a bent prop. His landing kicked up a huge cloud of dust, covering his escape into the jungle. Behrns was eventually rescued. Theoretically, he had been shot down, but had lived to tell about it.
Late in the spring of 1944, when Colonel Philip Cochran and his 1st Air Commando Group were at Assam, the Japanese were inflicting heavy damage on the American airfield with relentless attacks. Some of the Air Commandos’ P-51A Mustangs had managed to get airborne and defend the base, even though there was no warning for most strikes. Still, the enemy’s hit-and-run raids caused significant damage in just a few minutes’ time. Cochran asked the 459th for four P-38s to come and stand alert with his Air Commandos, since the Lightnings could climb faster and higher than the P-51As.
Behrns, who was part of the group that reported to Assam, recalled: “We had to take our crew chiefs with us, which was kind of difficult. Normally, the pilot sits on his parachute with the harness hooked, to enable bailing out. When a second person rides, it’s necessary for one person to sit on the lap of the other, or the easier position of side by side. In my case, my crew chief was too tall, so we had to sit side by side. Each of us sat on one half of the parachute, with the other half of our backsides pinned to the sides of the cockpit. The chute could not be used by either of us on our flight over to Assam.”
On the field at Assam, the crew chiefs would warm up the fighters’ engines every half hour, to keep them ready for takeoff. Evidently word got back to the Japanese that some P-38s were sitting on ready alert. The enemy planes would edge closer to the base each day, then abruptly turn back before the Lightnings could get off the ground. After a week of this cat-and-mouse game, the 459th fighters were sent back to Chittagong, a memorable trip for Behrns: “It took me longer to get my lanky crew chief settled in the cockpit, and consequently the other three took off and climbed up to 10,000 feet and waited for me to join them. This put me in the ‘Tail-End Charlie’ position. The P-38 does not have torque because of its counterrotating props. This enables it to fly 12 to 18 inches from another aircraft. In extremely close formation with wings just inches apart, but slightly back and line astern (the left wing of one plane just inches behind the right wing of the other plane), we dived down for a high-speed buzz of the Air Commandos’ mess hall. They were standing outside waiting for us.”
Captain Glenn was leading the tight formation. The mess hall was bracketed by two tall pine trees, and the plan was to fly between them, right over the roof. As they approached, Glenn judged the distance between the trees as too narrow, so he gave slightly to his right, toward his wingman. This caused that pilot to move farther to the right into the next aircraft, which in turn moved toward the fourth one. Behrns, flying in the no. 4 position, remembered what happened next:
I had to move a greater distance out, and only then could I take my eyes off the plane next to me and look ahead…right into the top of a pine tree! I pulled my wheel back sharply and added right rudder—all to no avail. I hit the tree halfway up with my port engine, causing the tree to snap in half and fly over the back of my plane. My port prop was bent and the center spinner was smashed, causing all of the dzus fasteners to come loose, allowing the engine cover to flap. The plane vibrated badly, and my crew chief’s face turned whiter than mine. There was no parachute to use in case we went down. I shut the port engine down, trimmed up and flew two hours over extremely dense jungle back to our base!
The 459th routinely flew long distances to strike busy Japanese bases. Before the P-38s’ arrival, those airfields had been relatively immune to attack, but now the enemy began keeping large numbers of Oscars in the air for protection. The Twin Dragons would sometimes be greeted by as many as 50 enemy fighters at their targets.
On May 23, 1944, Captain Glenn led a flight of Lightnings to a base at Meiktila. The plan was to drop down to low altitude, with each pilot in line astern and a good distance between aircraft when they got close to the target. That way the pilots could look for targets of opportunity without worrying about how close they were to each other. This tactic proved to be hazardous, however, since enemy gunners on the ground could concentrate on each plane as it came within range.
Behrns, an element leader, wasn’t hit by groundfire when he made his strafing pass, but he soon faced a bigger problem: a swarm of Oscars. Throwing his P-38 into a series of violent turns, he broke free of the pack, then immediately turned back into the melee and locked onto one enemy’s tail. He fired a short burst at close range, and the Oscar exploded. In total, the flight downed two enemy planes and destroyed three on the ground that day, with no losses of their own.
In addition to the many awards and decorations the 459th received during its stint in Burma, its men destroyed 132 Japanese aircraft in a three-month period—an impressive kill rate. By the end of the squadron’s combat tour, unit records stated that for every P-38 lost to enemy action, the 459th claimed more than 12 enemy fighters. Tragically, the unit’s top ace, Captain Walter Duke (10 aerial kills and nine on the ground), failed to return from a mission on June 6, 1944, and a second ace, Lieutenant Burdette Goodrich (5.5 victories), was also shot down, dying in captivity. Behrns was one of several 459th pilots who received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Warren E. Thompson has been writing about military aviation for more than 40 years. Additional reading: The San Joaquin Siren: An American Ace in WWII’s CBI, by William M. Behrns with Kenneth Moore; and P-38 Lightning Aces of the Pacific and CBI, by John Stanaway.
Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.