Lightning ace P.J. Dahl survived being shot up, emergency landings, a runway crash, a midair, a bailout and two days in a life raft.
By the time Lockheed’s P-38 Lightning entered the European war in 1944, it had already racked up combat hours in the Aleutians, North Africa and the Mediterranean. Allied pilots anticipated that the twin-engine fighter would quickly become an important asset on the European continent, but problems with its high-altitude performance limited its utility (see “Why the P-38 Flunked in Europe,” May 2014). In the Pacific, however, the P-38 was essential to the success of Allied air operations.
Canadian-born Perry John “P.J.” Dahl had dreamed of flying as a youngster growing up in Washington state. He got his chance while serving with the 41st Infantry Division, a National Guard unit called to active duty. As an air cadet, he was sent to Cal-Aero Academy in Chino, Calif., where he learned to fly the BT-13 “Vultee Vibrator.” He was selected for fighter training and sent to Williams Field in Arizona to train in the RP-322, an early version of the P-38 without a turbocharger. Dahl finally tasted the real thing at Muroc Army Airfield in California, flying P-38s in an operational training unit and staging mock battles against Marine pilots in F4U Corsairs. After winning a fly-off, Dahl drew a replacement assignment to the 475th Fighter Group, and on October 27, 1943, landed at Dobodura, New Guinea.
“The 475th Fighter Group was the first all-P-38 group—all three squadrons, the 431st, 432nd and 433rd,” explained Dahl. “Our immediate objective was to run airstrikes against Rabaul. My first mission at Rabaul, we had 18 P-38s and the enemy order of battle was over 175 Japanese fighters. We escorted B-25s in those days. On that particular mission they would go in very low over the water and go after the shipping in Simpson Harbor. We ultimately neutralized Rabaul, then started moving up the coast, from Dobodura to Nadzab. I shot down my first airplane while at Dobodura…a Zeke, over Lae….”
On November 19, during another mission to Lae, Dahl made his first emergency landing. While tangling with some Zeros, his squadron leader ordered belly tanks dropped. In the process Dahl, the “tail-end Charlie,” got into trouble: “We all punched off our belly tanks. And in my inexperience, I punched off my belly tanks all right, but I forgot to select internal fuel. Of course both engines stopped immediately, and it got very quiet in the cockpit. I immediately realized what I had done and flipped a couple of switches and the engines roared back to life. But by that time I had lost everybody in the cumulus clouds, so I called Clover Red Leader and told him—I was too embarrassed to tell him what I did—I told him that I had a little engine trouble, I gotta head home. So he said, ‘OK, go to home plate.’”
On the way back Dahl spotted a group of G4M “Betty” bombers and thought for a moment his odds of becoming a hero looked good. Then he realized he wasn’t alone: “I [noticed] in my peripheral vision a little flash, and I looked out and here was a Japanese Zero. And he was about ready to have me for lunch. So I threw that starboard engine up and he just poured his .30-cals into that engine rather than into my cockpit. The engine took all of the hits and immediately all the coolant started pouring out of it. I still had some power, so man, I firewalled everything, dove for the deck and went screaming for home. I outran the Zero, and he gave up on me and turned around because I think he figured I was gonna crash anyway.” With his P-38 flaming and smoking, Dahl managed to land on just one engine.
On February 29, 1944, Dahl was off Cape Gloucester helping to drive Japanese troops away from a group of Seabees building an airstrip when bad weather forced the pilots to abandon their mission. Conditions were so dangerous that he didn’t know whether he and his squadron mates would be able to get back to base. Dahl recalled:
We were all kind of snaking in single file, trying to keep each other in sight. And an airplane right in front of me caught a wingtip in the water, cartwheeled and went in….I looked down and saw this airstrip… so I broke off to go over to it and they shot me a green light out of the biscuit gun….I looked up just as I touched down on the runway, and…they’d given the green light to a B-24 on the other end of the runway, and he was taking off in the opposite direction. I couldn’t do much; it was pierced steel planked runway, and there was water all over it. I tried to tap the brakes on the right wheel, but it didn’t do any good, so I gunned the left engine just before we hit, and I went under him 1 to 2 inches. One of the props hit right in front of my canopy, the other hit behind the canopy. Turned my airplane around, and I was still doin’ about 70, 80 knots, going backwards on the runway. Went right down off the runway into a big gully full of water. I scrambled out of the airplane and got on dry land. The airplane just washed out to sea. So that was the first airplane I lost.
Later, as American forces were moving up New Guinea’s northern coast, Dahl shot up a Zero during a mission out of Hollandia. The enemy fighter turned into a fireball, and pieces of it damaged the right landing gear of Dahl’s P-38 as he climbed away. Back at base, he landed on the left and nose wheels, finally skidding to a stop across a revetment. Once again he walked away unhurt.
After the Allies landed on Leyte, the 475th moved to bases in the Philippines to fly escort missions and aid with ground operations in the region. On October 10, Dahl found himself leading a 432nd Squadron mission supporting B-25s bomb ing Japanese shipping at Ormoc, a key Japanese stronghold. He recounted:
We were circling over Ormoc. I could see a couple of cruisers and a lot of destroyer escorts and a lot of shipping….I saw a big V-formation of Japanese [Ki-61] Tonys right up underneath the cloud deck, so I circled around up on top of that cloud deck and they came out from underneath it and I zoomed down. I went right up that V and I knocked off the leader….Then we got in a big fight. And I had another one all lined up and he started to turn. I threw my maneuver flaps down, I pulled through and I was just about ready to unload on him…I was doing like maybe 400 knots, and all of a sudden, man, I was doin’ nothing—had a midair collision. I looked up in the rear-view mirror and both tailbones of that P-38 had been knocked off. Then the right engine blew up and it fell out….So I popped the canopy. I had on this Aussie helmet but I didn’t have it strapped and I lost it, so I got burned pretty bad. The airplane blew up about the time I stood up to bail out of it. I suffered a lot of flash burns, but really nothing too severe.
In fact, Dahl’s right elbow was badly burned, but when he hit the water he managed to deploy his life raft. He drifted the rest of that day and overnight, and the following day played dead while floating through an enemy convoy. On the second day, suffering from shock and exposure, he finally reached Leyte’s western coast and discovered a trail. He recalled:
I was about ready to step out on the trail when right in front of me there was a figure. He was sitting there…stopped to smoke a cigarette. I took my .45 out…and I pointed [it] to his head. I wasn’t 3 feet from him. In the .45 automatics we carried a package of shot ammunition. I squeezed off a round [but] while out in the water that cardboard had opened up and all the BBs had run out of it. So when I shot this guy in the back of the head the only thing that hit him was a wad of paper. Of course, he was a little upset. He took his machete [and] chopped the thing down I was spying behind. And then I saw he was a Filipino. I said, “Americano, Americano!” and he said, “Oh, why didn’t you say you were American?”
Dahl had happened upon some Filipino guerrillas, who nursed him back to health and took him to the Alamo Scouts. He rejoined his unit on December 10, two months after his splashdown and shortly before the squadron settled into Clark Field. From Clark, Dahl flew with and sometimes led the squadron in attacks as far away as Formosa and Indochina.
After the war Dahl returned to Seattle, finished his education and worked for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Recalled to service in the Korean War, he was sent to France. Thereafter he stayed in the U.S. Air Force, serving two tours of duty in Southeast Asia—leading forward air reconnaissance at Bien Hoa Air Base in 1970-71, and commanding the 56th Special Operations Wing from Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, in 1974-75. He also served as vice commandant of cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy before retiring as a colonel in 1978.
P.J. Dahl achieved ace status while serving in the 475th Fighter Group, with nine confirmed kills and one probable, earning many decorations, including the Silver Star. In the process he proved what a great pilot with a splendid airplane can accomplish—no matter how many crashes he walks away from.
Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.