Burma Banshees, "Angels on our Wings," the call of death to the enemy
February 22, 2005
Update April 8, 2012: Bob Contreas’ father, Walter Contreas, was a member of the Burma Banshees. Bob has forwarded some photos from his father’s collection and I have posted them at the end of this section. I am calling this the Contreas Collection.
The 80th Fighter Group, some stories and photos
80th Fighter Group (FG) "Burma Banshee" P-40N "Warhawk," 1944. A painting by Richard Groh, presented by Adam Lewis' "Adam's planes."
80th Fighter Group (FG) "Burma Banshee" P-38 " Model photo presented by Aiken's Airplanes. You can see her unique "Twin Dragon" art. The 459th Fighter Squadron was the only one of the Banshee squadrons to fly the P-38, and it came to be known as the "Twin Dragons." This model is in honor of Capt. Walter Duke, a leading "Ace" of the 10th AAF, a 459th FS "Twin Dragon" lost in combat in June, 1944. His aircraft was "Miss V."
A painting of Walter Contreras in front of “Old Red 5th.” You can see part of his pilot sitting in the cockpit. The pilot was Owen R. Allred, 90th FS.
The “Burma Banshees”, the 80th FG under the 10th AAF, fought in this region from September 1943 to November 1945. The group was the first USAAF fighter group to be available to fight the Burma war.
Burma Banshee P-40s parked at undisclosed airfield in India, date unknown. Photo taken from 16mm film of actual operations, provided courtesy of Randy Clower.
The group's 88th and 90th Fighter Squadrons (FS) arrived at Karachi, India on June 28, 1943 with P40s. The 89th FS arrived at Karachi with P-40s on the next day.
Lockheed P-38 Lightning, photo presented by HistoryChannel.com, "World War II airpower."
In September 1943, the fourth squadron of the 80th FG activated at Karachi and began training with the P-38s. Interestingly, General George Kenney, commander of the 5th AAF in MacArthur's South West Pacific Area (SWAPA), urgently wanted P-38 "Lightnings", which had the range to take the war to the enemy at Rabaul and the north coast of New Guinea, and the performance to outfight the opponents it would find. The P-38 began to arrive in December 1942, but only three squadrons got them, two in 5th AAF, and one in the 10th AAF, the 80th FG's 459th FS.
Karachi from the air. Photo credit: Jim Augustus/son, 493rd BS, 7th BG, presented by the 7th BG.
The Army had a facility at Karachi for reassembling fighter aircraft being shipped into the theater. It also had a flight school to indoctrinate newly arrived pilots. When a group of eight or ten aircraft were ready to go to the 10th or 14th AAF, pilots from the school would be assigned to fly them. We also have seen references to P-40s being delivered across the Atlantic Ocean to West Africa by aircraft carriers, then flown off the carriers to Accra, Ghana, and then flown to Karachi. We're not sure how the Banshees did it.
From September, 1943, until March, 1944, the 80th established its base of operations in the Assam Valley just outside of northern Burma. Its main task then was to defend supply routes to China. The majority of its missions were combat air patrols to support cargo aircraft flying over the "Hump" between Assam and Kunming, China. The group also struck targets in the Huwang Valley of northern Burma to protect allied engineers building the Ledo Road.
The official mission of the 80th Fighter Group was quickly extended to include offensive strikes in northern Burma to prevent the establishment of enemy bases from which Allied airlift planes might be attacked. The group launched several attacks on Myitkyina Airdrome, the only all-weather strip in northern Burma, and the principal Japanese base for the defense of Burma from the north.
This is a Banshee P-40 taking off from an unknown airstrip in Burma in June 1944. The photo, taken by "Hoffman," and presented by Merrill's Marauders, says this: "Men watch Flying Tiger P40 aircraft take off from small dirt strip in Burma. Note: The tiger shark markings on the aircraft's nose." After enlarging the photo, we have concluded that the nose art is a Banshee skull. It looks like a skull, and not like the tiger shark teeth, and extends above the exhaust manifolds, which the tiger shark did not. Further, the propeller nose is partly white, consistent with many Banshee aircraft.
Burma Banshee P-40 nose
Flying Tiger P-40 nose
Japanese opposition was not the only enemy. In the dense jungles temperatures sometimes soared to 140° and the humidity hovered near 100 percent. Crews worked amidst swarms of beetles, flies, and gnats. At night, sleeping required the use of mosquito netting. Supplies came by ship from half way around the world and were nearly impossible to obtain. Finally, disease and fungi claimed more troops than opposing enemy fire.
Meet 1st Lieutenant Freeling H. Clower, 89ths FS.
You might recall that while in training on the P-47, he designed the skull and ace of spades logo patch for the squadron. Based on the records we have been able to find, he was credited with one kill. It also turns out he was shot down by a Japanese Zero, and endured a multi-week escape through that most difficult terrain.
Clower was on an eight-ship bombing mission to take out an airdrome. His commanding officer, "Swede" Svenningsen, had to air abort for engine problems. They were supposed to have a 4-ship top cover to protect against Japanese air attack, but two of those failed to get off. By the time they approached their target, Capt. Upson was in the lead of a 6-ship group of P-40s in trail formation, each loaded with a 1,000 high explosive bomb, with Clower in the last spot, a location the pilots called "Tail End Charlie." As an aside, we are told by pilots that when you fly "Tail End Charlie," you are all alone. If making a dive run in formation, one pilot fired his guns to keep the enemy's heads down, then dropped his load, and pulled out. While pulling out, and making a wonderful target of himself, the guy behind him would lay down gunfire to offer some protection for them both. If you were "Tail End Charlie," there was no one there to do that for you, so the enemy would lift up its heads after he dropped his load and start firing. The only way to stay alive was alter speeds, altitudes, and maneuver around as best as you could.
Clower felt he was out of position for a good dive bomb run, so he pulled to the right, found some targets for strafing, and then spotted two Japanese Zeros approaching his wingman, Major Smith. He warned Smith that he had enemy on his tail but Smith apparently was concentrating on his dive run and did not hear the warning. The top cover also missed the approaching enemy fighters and did not hear Clower's warning either.
Unfortunately, Japanese patrols were in the area and one quickly found Lt. Clower's chute, which he had abandoned. The patrol then went on its way. Clower stayed put for about two hours, and then escaped and evaded until darkness. He had been hit, two holes in his leg and the same leg had been burned. He took some sulfanilamide tables, poured iodine into the holes, and wiped boric acid salve on his yellow burn blisters and applied a compress. He found a hollow tree trunk and hid.
Merrill's Marauder column passes bodies of Japanese killed shortly before in an attempted ambush of a preceding platoon patrol that was advancing along a Burma trail through high elephant grass, Feb-March 1944. Photo credit: TSgt. David Richardson, presented by Marauders.com
Clower estimated he was 200 miles from his base. The jungle environment was difficult, with heavy grass, such as shown in this photo of Merrill's Marauders. On occasion it took him an hour to go 100 ft. His leg was throbbing and burning, and this grass just beat up his wounds more. He headed north and west. He entered swamps and then the land gradually grew more steep, with the trees growing higher and wider. The climb strained his legs and one of his holes bled a lot.
By the fourth night on the ground, he had made it across a ridge and into a valley, where he found a stream, washed his wounds, started a fire, bathed, and rested. His leg was black and blue, and swollen. He had two bars of chocolate and estimated he could make those last for three weeks. His only weapon was a machete. He had no radio and no way of contacting help.
As he pressed ahead, he got himself tangled in deep meadows, followed various animal tracks, and ended up at a stream once again. He spotted smoke in a distance. He followed the stream, saw a small bamboo bridge and burned grass, and then came upon a small village, huts burning, the charred bones of humans on the ground, and a skull. He realized the Japanese had been there and burned down the village and killed the innocent Burmese living there. He decided not to follow any more paths.
God was on Lt. Clower's side. There was a Burmese Army lieutenant and a doctor there. Six days later, they arrived at the lieutenant's headquarters where there was a radio. Word soon came over the radio that Clower was going to be rescued.
This is an L-1A evacuation plane approaching an improvised runway for landing. Note flaps in down position. Low dikes in rice paddy can be seen leveled on field in runway area, markers at end of field indicate proper path for safe landing, Hsa'tnshingyang, Burma, April, 1944. Photo credit: Lt. David Lubin, official US war photographer, presented by Merrill's Marauders
At the designated time, Lt. Clower and villagers from throughout the area all came together at a home-made clearing. Then they heard the purr of an engine, spotted a tiny aircraft approaching, and circling above them, fighter aircraft escorting the Cub "Grasshopper" flown by Sergeant Caldwell.
Piper Cub, known as the L-4 Cub in WWII, with the "L" standing for "Liaison." It performed a wide variety of functions throughout the world such as for artillery fire direction, pilot training, glider pilot instruction, courier service and front-line liaison. It should be noted that several aircraft of this kind were employed: the Stinson L-1 and L-5, the Taylorcraft L-2 Grasshopper, the Aeronica L-3, and the Piper L-4. Collectively, they were called either the "Cubs" or the "Grasshoppers." Photo presented by Delta Aviation, UK.
As Caldwell put it after landing on the small patch:
"This little kite can land on a dime and take off from a pin head."
And that's exactly what he did with it. Lt. Freeling H. Clower, 89th FS "Burma Banshee, had been saved.
Duke's first missions were to escort bomber forces into and out of Burma. But then, in March 1944. The Allies launched their ground campaign to drive the Japanese out of the airfields they were using. Duke then flew fighter sweeps, including bombing and napalm attacks on Japanese air bases in Burma. During the period March 11 to mid-May, he scored 10 confirmed kills, eight probables and 13 damaged, plus several destroyed or damaged on the ground. At that point, he was the leading "Ace" of the entire 10th AAF.
It took until after the war to put together the story on what happened to Duke on June 6, 1944. He was known to be returning from a mission, could not find his wing man, and returned to search for him, after which he never was heard from again. A year later, in May 1945, intelligence revealed he was jumped by several Japanese KI-53 "Oscars." Reports were that he shot down one and he was shot down.
Here's a graphic shot of the P-40 "Lulu Belle," flown by Philip S. Adair, 89th FS during the spring of 1944. The model, designed by E & R Allen, with animated controls & moving parts, is presented by Duxford Legends. You can see the words "Lulu Belle" painted in yellow right behind the jaws of the blood-thirsty Burma Banshee skull.
Here's a painting of Adair in battle with some amplifying text to go with it.
This painting is titled, "Solo Attack, December 1943," and was done by Marii Chernev. According to the accompanying text, "2nd Lt. Philip Adair of the 89th FS 'The Burma Banshees', flying his P-40N-1 Lulu-Belle, single handedly attacked a force of 24 'Sally' bombers and 35 'Oscar' fighters on their way to bomb the American airfield at Nagaghuli, India. Finding himself alone in the midst of the Japanese formations, Lt. Adair made a determined effort to disrupt the enemy bombers before they reached their bomb release point. Repeated attacks through the formation damaged one of the bombers, shot down one of the 'Oscar' fighters and damaged two others. For his bravery in this action, Lt. Adair received the Silver Star."
As an aside, there has been some debate as to whether pilots had their own "personal" aircraft. No doubt, they tried to use one as their own, but you can bet your bottom dollar that if their bird was not ready, they would simply walk the line and when a crew chief gave them a "thumbs up," they jumped in that bird and took off.
We have learned of a Lt. H.H. Sealy, 459th FS, who flew out of Chittagong, India in 1944. A fellow named Igor Svetlev has made a model patterned after Sealy's P-38J, named "Haleakala." We recommend you visit his site because he does a wonderful job of showing you many facets of the P-38. Sealy had 10.5 victories. Sealy got a second P-38 when the first was shot down, and he called it Haleakala II.
Here is a photo of the actual "Haleakala:"
The pilot is 1st Lt. Harry Sealy. The aircraft is a P-38H (42-67004) assigned to Sealy. He scored 10.5 kills with her, 4.5 aerial kills and six strafing kills. He was shot down once, but got a second P-38 and named her Haleakala II. His nephew, Dan Sealy, contacted us with the identification and it appears confirmed in a book by John Stanaway, P-38 Lightning Aces 1942-43."
It looks to us that the 80th FG had three commanders during the time it fought in the CBI. Col Ivan W. McElroy commanded on July 14, 1943 through 1944; Col Albert L. Evans, Jr. commanded on Apr 13, 1944; and Col Sidney D. Grubbs, Jr., on February 1, 1945.
The Distinguished Unit Citation, later renamed the Presidential Unit Citation, is awarded to units of the Armed Forces of the United States and co-belligerent nations for extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy occurring on or after December 7, 1941. The unit must display such gallantry, determination, and esprit de corps in accomplishing its mission under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions as to set it apart and above other units participating in the same campaign. The degree of heroism required is the same as that which would warrant award of a Distinguished Service Cross to an individual. The Distinguished Service Cross is the second highest medal awarded to US military people, just below the Congressional Medal of Honor in the order of precedence. Extended periods of combat duty or participation in a large number of operational missions, either ground or air is not sufficient. This award will normally be earned by units that have participated in single or successive actions covering relatively brief time spans.
General McElroy retired in 1967 and died recently, in June 2004. McElroy, a West Point graduate, was commissioned in 1937 a 2nd lieutenant, and by 1943, just six years later, he was a colonel commanding this fighter group in India. Our estimate is that was about 32 years old.
We have found record that Colonel Grubbs was promoted to brigadier general and in the early 1950s commanded Bolling AFB outside Washington. He apparently was responsible, then, for creating a group called "Airmen of Note," now the premier jazz ensemble of the US Air Force. Grubbs was said to be an avid Glenn Miller fan. During WWII, Major Glenn Miller led a widely known group of Army Air Force Musicians.
We have worked on this article for some three weeks, in large part because there was so much to learn. It also has been extraordinarily hard to find reliable information about the Banshees. Had it not been for Randy Clower, some model airplane builders, and a lot of luck using Google, we would have had almost no photography. As you see, we have very little text specific to the Banshees. Nonetheless, we understand their missions, the environment in which they worked, the politics that drove how they had to fight, and as a result we know they were valiant, courageous, daring young men who, along with British, Indian, Burmese and Chinese forces, drove the Japanese out of South East Asia.
We must also comment that the Banshees, and perhaps many other fighting units throughout this theater, could not compete with the public relations machines associated with many of the star personalities such as Lord Mountbatten, Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, and Generals "Vinegar Joe" Stillwell, Alexander, Slim, Wingate, Chennault and Merrill, and those richly deserving combat units such as those who flew the Hump, the Chindits, Merrill's Marauders, and the Flying Tigers.
We will conclude our report showing you a few photos sent to us by Randy Clower, and in a succeeding set of two more pages, we will draw from several articles of the time in the National Geographic.
Clower's photos below are of the Banshees, the National Geographic photos are not, but these latter photos will add even more insight to many of the subjects we have discussed.
It is not a productive exercise to prioritize one military specialty over another. Each person in the military makes the whole thing work, and in the case of the American military, each person makes our military work exceedingly well. The fighter pilot has always had a special place in military lore.
"World War II was the defining moment of the 20th Century. For millions of young American men, it had an impact on them that would forever be a part of their lives. Their personal experiences defy description -- the trauma and tragedy they experienced would be theirs alone to endure.
"It was 1944. I was 22 years old. And I was a combat fighter pilot in World War II. Along with thousands of other young Americans, I had been trained to be an efficient killer, and the deadly skies over Europe were my battlefields. The events of those violent and bloody days are difficult to comprehend, or even imagine. The story you are about to see is the result of the urgings of my children. They have wanted to know -- in specific terms -- what my life was really like during those critical years....those were the years I left college and joined the Air Corps, and met the girl I later married. Those were the years this airplane, the P-47 Thunderbolt, was to be my main weapon of destruction. It has been a traumatic experience for me to go back through all this. But perhaps, in other ways, it has helped purge some of the devastating memories that have haunted me for almost 50 years. So this is my story. It is being told so the children and grandchildren of those who were involved in this mortal storm, can have a better understanding of what our world of war was really like.
"We are the boys of World War II ... Taps is just one sunset away.
"But in our lifetimes, we made a difference. We had the good fortune to live during a time when honor, patriotism, and character were important. We stepped up to defend freedom, and put our lives on the line for the 'cause.' It was a moment in history that may never occur again."
You can be sure that the Burma Banshees made a difference!
Standing (L-R) Lt. Ron Harper, Capt. Don Hansen, Lt. Glenn Pahl, Lt. Frank Scott. I have not yet identified those kneeling.
This is a photo of Burma Banshee pilots, in theater, most probably from the 89th Fighter Squadron, names unidentified. Photo here and below provided by Randy Clower, son of Banshee pilot Freeling Clower, 89th FS.
This Banshee is on his way to take care of business. Let's hope he came home, mission accomplished.
This next photo is of a group of Banshee P-40s lined up at an undisclosed airfield in India. Her name is "Miss Francis III." Photo presented by Onmarkint, an authority in die-cast replicas.
We have set up one more page of photos from National Geographic editions of the era to provide you even more insight to many of the subjects we have discussed.
Update April 8, 2012: Bob Contreas’ father, Walter Contreras, was a member of the Burma Banshees. Bob has forward some photos from his father’s collection and I have posted them here. I am calling this the Contreras Collection.
It is believed this is M.R. Glen, pilot
Walter Contreras standing next to “Old Red 5th”
Crew and skipper with “Old Red 5th”
This is Walter Contreras in front of “Old Red 5th.” You can see part of his pilot sitting in the cockpit. The pilot was Owen R. Allred, 90th FS.
This is a P-38, probably from the 459th FS. You can see she scored 17 kills.
Crashed Banshee, “Old Red 5th”