The 459th Twin Dragon Fighter squadron, Burma Banshees
The P-38 Aircraft
Just a few bits of history before proceeding. My article "Burma Banshees, 'Angels on our Wings,' the call of death to the enemy" has extensive history in it, but I need to add a few things as we focus on the 459th squadron.
This map, courtesy of National Geographic, highlights the situation in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The brownish-red areas are held by the Japanese.
Japan invaded and took the British colony of Burma in 1942. By September 1943, the American General Joseph Stilwell, leading Chinese troops, led a ground offensive into Burma. The British created a South East Asia Command in November 1943 designed to protect India, led by Lord Mountbatten. By year's end, the British and Americans began building the Ledo Road to connect with the Burma Road above where the Japanese held the Burma Road and open a route into China.
The Japanese in February 1944 began to attack the Arakan coast of the Bay of Bengal in far western Burma and were defeated. They did this to protect their left flank while they invaded India a bit farther north. Furthermore, the Arakan coast was the shortest route from India to Rangoon for the Allies.
In March 1944 the Japanese led an offensive against Imphal and then Kohima in northeast India (we'll show their locations on a map in a moment). That invasion was defeated, crippling the Japanese on all fronts in the area.
The Allies then focused on three fronts in Burma: north, central and south during 1944-45. Rangoon was taken back in May 1945 and the Japanese began to withdraw in July, during which time the Allies and monsoon weather resulted in near destruction of the Japanese Army in Burma. The war ended in September 1945. At a top level, the only ground forces provided by the US and Britain were commandos along with British Commonwealth forces, mainly from India. The British and US provided the air power and transport support Over the Hump to China.
In June 1943, the 80th Fighter Group (FG) with three squadrons of P-40s began deploying to the theater, known as the China-Burma-India Theater, the CBI. The 88th, 89th and 90th FSs arrived at Karachi in June 1943. The 80th Group said it was ready to fight in September 1943 and that's just what it did. The timing was good, as General Stilwell began his offensive into Burma at about this time.
As early as 1938, the famous aircraft designer Clarence "Kelly" Johnson was working on a radical new design for a fighter. She would have enormous power with two engines vice one, she would have extensive armament that did not have to fire through the propeller, she would use a tricycle landing gear, she would fly at 400 mph, and she would have great range, especially with extended and droppable fuel tanks. The aircraft was built secretly and flew its maiden flight in 1939. The P-38, of course, would quickly find its way to Europe. They began arriving in the Pacific in December 1942, but only three squadrons would get them, and only one of those squadrons would be dedicated to the CBI.
The 459th FS was constituted in August 2, 1943 to fly the P-38 in the CBI. It activated on paper on September 1, 1943 as the fourth squadron of the 80th FG. Three officers were tasked to form it up: First Lieutenant Hampton E. Boggs, Capt. Verl D. Luehring and 1st Lt. William G. Broadfoot, all P-40 pilots. As best as I can tell, all three came from the 80th FG Burma Banshees. People from the 80th FG, 311th Fighter Bomber Group (A-36 dive bomber version of the P-51), and operational training units from the US began to assemble in November. It was operationally ready
Their mission was straight-forward:
"Destroy enemy aircraft in the air or on the ground."
This is the kind of mission fliers like. Short and sweet.
John Stanaway, in his book P-38 Lightening Aces of the Pacific and CBI, wrote this:
"At war's end, Japanese veterans gave grudging tribute to the P-38 as their most formidable foe ... The top American aces of the war flew the aircraft with both confidence and a certain affection which sometimes approached fanatical devotion."
The Germans found the P-38 to be a formidable foe as well, nicknaming it the Forktailed Devil.
Karachi hosted the delivery of a great deal of equipment, especially aircraft, from the US, and pilots did a lot of flight training from there before heading to their combat bases. I suspect the P-38 aircraft initially were delivered to Karachi, India, where they would go through some final assembly, tweaking and checkouts. Flight training also occurred there.
While in India, the squadron came under the command of the RAF No. 224 Group, RAF Third Tactical Air Force, formed in December 1943, known as Tactical Air Force (Burma). Its main area of operation was the Arakan Front, in southwestern Burma along the Bay of Bengal, which we'll discuss in a moment. The 224 Group was commanded by RAF Air Commodore Alexander Gray, and his deputy was US Brigadier General John P. McConnell, who ultimately became a Chief of Staff of the USAF.
The other element of the Third Tactical Air Force, RAF No. 221 Group, concentrated on defense of Imphal and Kohima to the north.
This map shows where the Japanese were in Burma since 1942, it highlights the locations of Imphal and Kohima, India, two high priority Japanese targets, and it reflects the air base moves made by the 459th.
Searching for WWII photos of the airfields from which the 459th operated has been nearly futile. I'll give you the best I have been able to find.
This is Kurmitola Airfield in 1971, at the time in East Pakistan, at this moment being bombed by the Indian Air Force. Presented by the Indian Air Force.
Following set up and training at Karachi, the squadron moved to Kurmitola on November 5, 1943, near Dacca. This was the 459th's first operational base.
This video grab shows the 459th using a crashed C-46 at an undisclosed airfield being employed as its control center.
The squadron flew its first combat mission from here on November 14, 1943. At this point in history, fears were rising that India would be invaded and the newly formed combined command under Mountbatten aimed to stop that. Just looking at the map, Kurmitola presented the 459th with a central location from which they could fly against the enemy along much of the breadth of the Indian-Burma border. That said, take note of how the squadron moved south over time.
By December they were escorting B-24 heavy bombing runs over Burma. In January they were escorting B-25s medium bomber runs, attacking railways, towns, boats, buildings and steamers, strafing oil plant and storage tanks, anti-aircraft positions, bivouac areas, warehouses, airfields, bridges, pipelines, gasoline plants and they just kept on going, all the while shooting down enemy aircraft threatening them or the aircraft they escorted.
Kurmitola Airfield was a fairly newly constructed field in 1942, as many were, hacked out of the jungles near Dacca. The 490th Bombardment Squadron B-25s used it, as did other Allied B-25 outfits, and they were constantly harassed by Japanese fighters. It ended up becoming a major base for bombers and "Over the Hump" transports. At the time, it had a single runway. In the above 1971 photo, it still does. In the gee whiz column, we spotted an article where USMC F/A-18 Hornets stopped at Kurmitola, Bangladesh in October 2007. Lt. Adrian Rankine-Galloway described the field this way:
"Morning mist rose above a jungle-bound airfield in Bangladesh October 25..."
The squadron would then move to Chittagong Airfield, India on March 4, 1944. Pacific Wrecks Data Base has a photo of a 459th FS parked at Chittagong Airfield. This is it.
It looks like the aircraft is parked on grass. Pacific Wrecks reported that this aircraft was piloted by "Boggs." According to MSgt. Walker's 459th Roster, that would be the late Hampton E. Boggs, one of the three who helped form the 459th.
Hampton Boggs with his P-38, Melba Lou IV, the number two ace in the squadron with nine kills. Photo credit: Len Boyd. Extracted from the book, P-38 Lightning Aces of the Pacific and CBI (Osprey Aircraft of the Aces No 14), by John Stanaway, Tom Tullis.
Capt. Boggs would end up an Ace, credited with nine kills, though we have seen a couple lists that said he had only six. I do know that he killed three enemy on a single mission on March 25, 1944, for which he received the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). On this mission, he was a flight leader, shot down an aircraft in the air, it in turn crashed and destroyed one on the ground, and then he destroyed another one on the ground.
Moving to Chittagong in March 1944 was, I think, in response to the Japanese invasion of India, attacks against Imphal and Kolima, and importantly, attacks into the Arakan area of western Burma on the Bay of Bengal. The Japanese attacked in to the Arakan, outlined in red, in order to clear their left flank for the main thrust through western Burma to Imphal.
Here is a view of that strategy, presented by answers.com.
Greg Boyington has done some virtual paintings he calls "skins" and did this one of 459th P-38s over Chittagong in 1944. Chittagong was on the Bay of Bengal and was much closer to Burma than Kurmitola. This made it ideal for attacks against the Arakan area.
On February 1, 1945, the squadron was moved to Rumkha, which is close to a well known place named Cox's Bazar, and even closer to the Arakan. This move supported the push into Burma which culminated in retaking Rangoon in May and the ultimate defeat of the Japanese in Burma.
The decision to press to Rangoon was made in February 1945. This was huge decision, and many units began moving to the south to support this operation. As you can see, the shortest distance to Rangoon was through the Arakan. The red dot marks the approximate location of the 459th at Rumkha.
Transports would fly troops, including paratroopers, and supplies to the south, many staging from Chittagong. By the end of April 1945, the Allies were on the outskirts of Rangoon and aircraft, including some from the 459th, were actually flying from bases in the Arakan. The 224 Group on May 1, 1945 dropped the 26 Indian Division to the south of Rangoon from the base at Arakan, and no doubt had fighter escort and support. Rangoon fell on May 3, 1945. This meant the war against the Japanese in Burma was effectively concluded.
Once Rangoon was taken, it appears the squadron was moved west, out of harms way, to Dudhkundi where it remained from May 11 through October 8, 1945. During this period, with Rangoon taken, a major effort was mounted to fly supplies Over the Hump at increased rates, and we suspect the 459th provided escort duties. Dudhkundi had served as an important bomber base and became the first home of the newly XX Bomber Command which would become the 20th AF.
As an aside, Dudhkundi was one of several airfields in the flatlands near Calcutta. These bases were used by bombers in Operation Matterhorn, where US bombers, mainly the B-29, would fly from India to bases in China, top off fuel, and then go on to bomb targets in Japan's Home Islands. Those flights began in June 1944 and represented the first concentrated bombing of Japan's Home Islands and also included massive bombing of Japanese bases in China. This was a difficult, cumbersome and inefficient operation, but a necessary one because it was the only way the B-29s at the time could get to the Home Islands. Once the Marines took Saipan and Tinian, the B-29s started flying round-robin directly to and from the Home Islands. Once the Marines took Iwo Jima, they did so with fighter escorts to and fro, and they had a great emergency landing base.
The atomic bombs were dropped in August from Tinian and the war ended in September 1945.
The men then went to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey in November 1945 where the squadron was inactivated, along with many others.
With all that as background, let's now dive into some of MSgt. Herb walker's photography of his days with the 459th FS Twin Dragons in India. Where I feel gutsy, I will make a stab at identifying locations, hoping someone will either validate my guesses or chew me out and correct me.
The P-38 was the first fighter to top 400 mph flying level. It had a near speed-of-sound dive and a bubble canopy. She could handle a variety of missions. It had long range, up to 2,000 miles, making her American’s first long range fighter and her first high altitude fighter.
459th FS "Twin Dragon" P-38H "Lightning." I will guess this photo was taken at Kurmitola. I have seen a photo of a CAT (CIA) C-199 transport parked at Kurmitola and the ramp looks the same, though that is flimsey evidence to be sure. The P-38H was manufactured by Lockheed. She had two 1425 hp Allison V-1710-89/91 12-cylinder V12 engines, automatic oil radiator flaps to solve engine overheating problems and jacked up her power above 25,000 ft. from 1150 to 1240 hp, each engine.
She carried a fixed forward-firing 20mm cannon in the nose, 150 rounds, four 0.50 in. Browning MG53-2 fixed forward-firing machine guns in the nose, 500 rounds each.
Placed in the nose, these guns and cannon fired in parallel, eliminating the need to synchronize their firing with the propellers. In short, she had immense fire power. That the guns did not have tot die through propellers gave it a major hitting advantage against enemy aircraft.
She could handle 3,200 lbs. of bombs (we have seen the figures 2,000 lbs and 4,000 lbs. as well) under two hardpoints under the inner wings. She also had B-33 turbosuperchargers that increased her high altitude performance. Her max speed was 401.35 mph or 349 knots at 25,000 ft., and could operate up to 39,000 ft. altitude. Her range without droppable fuel tanks was 300 miles. I'll talk more about range a bit later.
There she is, aloft. This is P-38 "San Joaquin Siren" flown by Bill Behrs. Below his name we count four, perhaps five Japanese flags denoting kills.
We have a few shots of 459th FS nose art.
Guerrilla in the Clouds
Fire From the Clouds (looks like he's got a bit of battle damage, lower right)
Some aircraft on the ramp.
This latter photo is interesting. I cropped them out, but there were a line of fuel tanks on the ground to the left of the one shown here in the foreground. In looking at the P-38 to right of center, I've placed a yellow arrow pointing to one of those mounted on the wing; you can see another mounted on the other wing. The P-38 used droppable fuel tanks especially for long-range escort missions, such as those that went "Over the Hump" to China or deep into Burma. Most photos I have seen from the Walker Collection has them wearing their droppable tanks. I have seen figures ranging from 1,500 - 1,600 mile ranges for the fighter with these fuel tanks. I have seen 300 mile ranges without them. I have also seen references to flying "slick" P-38s, essentially empty, carrying fuel tanks that enabled 2,600 mile range, probably used for aircraft deliveries.
All that said, data I have found says the aircraft could carry two 75, 150 or 165 US gallon fuel tanks. I have seen people using 316 gallon P-38 fuel tanks to build racing cars. Net score here is I do not know what size tanks these are.
This is most certainly an airfield with P-38s parked. I am not sure what field this is, though if on a quiz show, I would guess Chittagong since the aircraft are parked on grass. Here are two zoomers.
This is a nice shot. You see two P-38s with extended fuel tanks taxiing, and a whole bunch of them parked in the background.
Here's a gaggle of them parked side-by-each. In this photo, the aircraft look silver. At some point they were painted. If we knew when, we could identify this field.
The 459th FS Operations Center. The board shows Confirmed Air Victories on the left, Confirmed Ground Victories on the right. As of the date of this photo, the squadron had scored 75 air victories and 69 ground victories.
My guess here is that MSgt. Walker was the non-commissioned officer in charge (NCOIC) of communication, tech supply, maintenance and sheet metal.
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