Doug Canning recalls Guadalcanal air war

MAM bannerDoug Canning at home by John StempleTop Photo: Doug Canning poses beside a painting of the Yamamoto interception mission. He was one of the pilots. (Credit: John Stemple) Middle Photo: A P-400 Airacobra survivor on Guadalcanal. (Credit: USAAF publication Pacific Counterblow) Bottom Photo: During a 1970s simulation, a P-38 climbs to intercept a flight of “Zeros.” (Credit: John Stemple)

20 April 2011 | Maitland, Florida. Mr. Doug Canning of Maitland, Fla., recently spoke about some of his experiences in the Southwest Pacific during World War II. A few months ago, he was a guest panelist at a “Pacific War” symposium hosted by Fantasy of Flight in Polk, City, Fla. During a 2011 interview, Mr. Canning more fully described his flying training and the pivotal Guadalcanal Campaign.

Doug’s flying career began when he graduated from Civilian Pilot Training at Wayne State College. Mr. Canning primarily flew an Aeronca Model 65 Super Chief. He entered the U.S. Army Air Corps as a member of Class 41-G. Notably, his brother, who would also become a U.S. Army fighter pilot, completed the same program contemporaneously.

Shortly after the December 7, 1941, Japanese attacks on and around Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Doug learned to fly the Curtiss P-40E Warhawk fighter. The U.S. Army Air Corps sent a group of stateside young pilots, of which Mr. Canning was one, and several P-40Es to Naval Aviation Station Alameda, California.

After some 90 minutes of verbal instruction about the rudiments of flying Warhawks, the students climbed into the cockpits. They then received a blindfolded checkout that covered the location of instruments, switches, levers and controls. Afterward, crew chiefs started the Allison engines and the neophyte P-40 aviators climbed into the single-seat pursuit planes, roared down the runway and climbed into the sky solo. In those days, dual-control training versions of high performance aeroplanes did not usually exist.

After approximately an hour aloft in their strange mounts, the men returned to the field for landing instructions. From the control tower, an instructor provided guidance via radio. On Doug’s first approach, he allowed the P-40E to drop too fast and had no choice but to go around the pattern for a second attempt. The torque of the Warhawk caused Mr. Canning some difficulty, and he scattered frightened civilian WPA workers to both sides of the runway. Turning his radio off in order to ignore the useless comments from the observer, Mr. Canning made a second attempt that resulted in a perfect landing. Afterward, the instructor queried, “Why didn’t you answer my broadcasts?” Mr. Canning deftly, if not truthfully, answered, “My radio quit working.”

Mr. Canning interjected that, “I had six flights in before we went to Fiji.” As for his opinion of the P-40, Doug stated the following: “I thought the P-40 was our worst WW II fighter.” Unbeknownst to him, two more similarly lackluster “pursuits” awaited him.

After arriving on Fiji, Doug began flying the Bell P-39D Airacobra. The unique Airacobra featured tricycle landing gear and side entry doors. The “D” model carried one 37-millimeter cannon, two .50-caliber machine guns in the nose and four .30-caliber machine guns in the wings. The plane could also carry a bomb beneath the fuselage. Mr. Canning did not dislike the P-39. He said, “It was a good flying airplane at low altitudes, but one had to be careful to not enter a spin when relatively close to the ground. Although I warned him about it, one squadron mate of mine died as a result of getting into such a situation.”

From Fiji, Mr. Canning went by Douglas C-47 Skytrain or “Gooney Bird” to Tontouta airfield on the island of New Caledonia. Here he joined the 67th Pursuit Squadron. The unit was flying the P-400. The P-400 was a version of the P-39 designed for Royal Air Force use. Interestingly, Doug holds only a slightly better opinion of the P-400 than he does of its contemporary the P-40. He said, “The P-400 was almost as bad as the P-40. It was a windy airplane, having gaps and crevices that permitted air to enter the cockpit.” Despite the type’s deficiencies, one weary P-400 served throughout the struggle and returned to the States for display.

In August 1942, Doug’s commanding officer, Dale D. Brannon, led a flight of Airacobras to Guadalcanal’s Henderson Field. Mr. Canning was one of the later pilots to arrive for his first tour of duty. Doug quickly discovered that life was hard and tenuous on contested Guadalcanal. Living conditions were primitive, and food was scarce and of a limited variety. However, insects of all kinds and Japanese soldiers were plentiful. These occupants were not welcoming neighbors. The U.S. forces on the island never knew which were worse, the ever-present malaria-carrying mosquitoes or the tenacious and brutal Japanese troops.

At least the mosquitoes did not discriminate. On one occasion Mr. Canning came across, while out scouting, 200-300 dead Japanese lying on the ground in rows. They had died from malaria. Doug himself survived three bouts with the malady, returning during each occurrence to New Caledonia for treatment.

P-400s were the first Air Corps fighters on the unsecured island. The P-400 was not an optimal fighter for several reasons. An Army Air Forces history, titled Pacific Counterblow, records the following: “The squadron, finding that the P-400’s instruments were inferior, learned how to fly without them.” Furthermore, the “P-400 lacked a two-stage supercharger and this severely restricted operations above medium altitudes.” Mr. Canning explained that early on the 67th performed its daily patrols at the medium altitude of 10,000 feet. Although P-400s could climb somewhat higher, the authors of Pacific Counterblow added the following caveat:”[T]he pilots, without oxygen, could not make long-sustained flights at this altitude.” This was because the P-400s “were equipped with the British high-pressure oxygen system” and no “high-pressure oxygen bottles were available at either New Caledonia or Guadalcanal.” Thus, the volume recorded, “The P-400’s days as an interceptor were numbered.”

Nevertheless, the American command decided that the P-400 possessed good defensive armor plating and armament consisting of a 20-millimeter cannon, two .50-caliber and four .30-caliber machine guns. Additionally, the P-400, like the P-39, could carry a bomb externally beneath the fuselage. Thus, despite performance woes up high, as Pacific Counterblow indicated, the “P-400 could use its bomb on shipping and shore installations, its 20-millimeter cannon on landing barges, and its machine guns on enemy personnel.”

Therefore, the Airacobras’ primary role became tactical. The 67th went to work providing ground support for the embattled U.S. Marines as the latter slugged it out with the Japanese forces who were desperately trying to hold onto the strategic base. Pacific Counterblow stated that the “P-400 had been flown under far from optimum conditions, but its pilots were skilled and courageous . . . .” Despite being at a disadvantage, a few of the 67th’s P-400 pilots were even able to shoot down one or two of the nimble Mitsubishi Zero opponents.

Historian Martin Caiden summarized the Airacobra’s legacy on Guadalcanal by making a blunt statement in his 1971 book titled The P-38: Fork-Tailed Devil. He said, “Where the airplane had been an unmitigated disaster in air operations against enemy planes, it turned out to be a superb weapon for ground strikes – for which it had been designed in the first place (as everyone seemed to forget.)” Pacific Counterblow noted that “General Vandegrift consistently used the plane against any position blocking his Marines . . . .” The top officer “even asked for more P-400s.” Remarkably, one weary P-400, defying the odds, survived to see the United States take complete possession of the island. It returned to the U.S. for display.

Mr. Canning lauded the U.S. Marines. He stated the following about these comrades: “The Marines, with their F4Fs, fought the incoming Japanese up high and did a good job.” One of these Wildcat pilots, he pointed out, was Joe Foss. Doug stated that Mr. Foss would become a legendary ace, Medal of Honor winner and eventually the 20th governor of South Dakota.

Both services were interdependent. One day, Doug landed his P-38 at “Fighter 2” on Guadalcanal and was taxiing past some parked F4Fs. Suddenly, a Marine ran up beside the fighter’s wing and handed Mr. Canning a beer in appreciation of the squadron’s air support.

During Doug’s second and third tours on Guadalcanal, the squadron operated Lockheed P-38Gs and a few P-38F Lightnings. He piloted one of the former. The sleek twin-engine P-38’s performance was a world beyond the P-40, P-400 and P-39. Possessing the ability to operate at very high altitude and possessing a deadly concentration of firepower in the nose, Lightnings were usually able to master the deadly Zeros.

The U.S. Army pilots would, whenever possible, cruise high above and dive down onto the enemy fighters. Mr. Canning himself downed 1 Zero. Doug nearly got another victory, but his windscreen fogged up, as a result of his rapid descent, when he came up behind an unsuspecting Zero. Finding himself blind to the outside world, the frustrated Mr. Canning had no choice but to climb away. Doug’s squadron commander (John Mitchell) shot down 4 of the Mitsubishi fighters. Mr. Canning understandably loved the Lightning.

Doug often flew escort for Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bombers, Grumman Avengers, Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and Consolidated B-24 Liberators. He flew a lot. From the middle of his second tour, he was a flight leader on every mission except one. This situation remained through his third.

Mr. Canning indicated that night flying, which sometimes was necessary, was a matter of calculating time and distance because there were no lights on the island with which to navigate. On one nocturnal return to Henderson Field, Doug passed a flight of F4Fs cruising in the opposite direction. He remarked, “The Wildcat pilots told me by radio that I was flying in the wrong direction, but I told them they were on the wrong heading. I was correct.”

There were several other particularly memorable sorties. During one very bold and daring mission, the hot and bored Canning counted sharks to break the monotony of flying his P-38 just above the waves for hundreds of miles. In total, Doug saw 48 sharks. Nearing the objective, he spotted two flights of three fighters escorting the Betty carrying Imperial Japanese Navy Admiral Yamamoto. Mr. Canning’s sighting resulted in the successful downing of the bomber in which Yamamoto was flying. Doug subsequently received an Air Medal, a trip home and promotion to the rank of captain.

On another occasion, Mr. Canning bombed and sank a 20,000-30,000 ton freighter. During this encounter, Doug dropped an auxiliary fuel tank onto an enemy munitions ship. He then strafed the vessel’s deck with incendiary, armor-piercing and standard bullets until the vessel caught fire. Later that night, the crew of a “Black Cat” Consolidated PBY Catalina flew out to the burning hulk and watched it explode.For this feat, Doug received a message from Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey that read, “Well Done!”

Mr. Canning recalled another instance involving a ship. A Jewish pilot, Julius “Jack” Jacobson, of Doug’s squadron, who flew as John Mitchell’s wingman during the Yamamoto mission, successfully attacked and sunk a Japanese light cruiser with a 500-pound bomb. The Lightning pilots were apparently adept at dive bombing.

Once, Doug unwillingly went swimming and rafting. In the middle of his second tour, and when he was about 10 miles from Guadalcanal, the P-38’s belly tank began to hang down at a 45-degree angle. This caused excessive drag. Mr. Canning grabbed the manual tank release and pulled. The drop tank released, but the airflow caused it flip backward where it impacted and damaged the horizontal stabilizer. Doug struggled to maintain control.

Soon, Mr. Canning realized that he would have to ditch the fighter into the sea. The buffeting plane skimmed the waves and the tail dragged in the water for about a mile. Finally, the Lightning came to a stop and began to sink. At first, Doug could not free himself from the seat. Mr. Canning fought to gain freedom until, at a depth of some 80 feet, he found himself rising from the sinking airplane. Surfacing, Doug inflated the small life raft and rowed with the small paddles provided for such occasions.

After a while a crash boat from Guadalcanal came motoring up to rescue him. On deck, a U.S. Navy officer offered him a shot. After his ordeal, Doug was in no mood for an injection with a needle. Mr. Canning shortly became aware of the fact that the “shot” would be whiskey reserved for medicinal purposes. Doug quickly decided that a dose of “medicine” was just what he needed. Below deck, Mr. Canning received treatment consisting of alcohol. He then enjoyed a steak, a Coke and a Hershey bar. He particularly savored the meat, not having tasted beef for many months.

Mr. Canning pointed out that several Allies supplemented the U.S. military with armed forces of their own. In addition to naval ships, fliers eventually arrived. For instance, in June 1943, No. 14 Squadron, Royal New Zealand Air Force, commenced operations from the island in P-40 Kittyhawks. One of the New Zealanders was Geoffrey Fisken. Geoffrey would eventually shoot down more, 11 aircraft in total, Japanese planes than any other British Commonwealth pilot. Mr. Fisken began the war with No. 243 Squadron over Malaya and Singapore at the controls of Brewster Buffalo fighters in which he scored his first kills.

Mr. Canning’s third tour of duty ended in August 1943. Doug subsequently flew during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. More information about Doug Canning’s recollections and some of his photos are at http://www.dougcanning.com/.

Readers should note that Fantasy of Flight owns examples of airplanes Mr. Canning flew or regularly saw during the critical months he spent on Guadalcanal during 1942-1943. The Army Air Corps types include a Bell P-39 Airacobra, Curtiss P-40N Warhawk, Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress, Consolidated B-24J Liberator and Douglas C-47 Skytrain. The P-39 is currently being restored in Australia, and a P-38J is also under restoration. The museum’s Warhawk is a TP-40N model, which was a factory-built dual control trainer. Although the B-17 is part of a display and not airworthy, the B-24 is in flying condition. A C-47, which has been in Europe for an extended time came home to roost several months ago. U.S. Navy and Marine Corps assets at the museum include a Grumman FM-2 Wildcat, TBM Grumman Avenger or “Turkey” and PBY Catalina. The facility also owns a partial Mitsubishi Zero that may serve as a basis for a future full restoration.

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The author (John Stemple) wishes to thank Doug Canning for graciously granting him an interview.

5 Responses to Doug Canning recalls Guadalcanal air war

  1. Bobby Campbell says:

    I am a history buff and specially WWII stuff. Guadalcanal was a long bloody drawn out affair that we were not sure we were going to win. If the Japs didn’t get us the Maleria and the running carps would and starvation, flys, gants, sandflies and it was misterable and sometimes death would have been a relief. I want to thank Doug Canning and John Stemple for remembering this battle because we should never forget all the brave men who lost their lives there.
    Those guys that flew those planes were absolutely amazing and I want to stand up and salute them, if I could stand up, I lost my legs there, so guys I want you to know I do remember you and I admire you for all you did, Thank you. for writing about a really dark time in History.
    Richmond, Va.

  2. Mr. Campbell,
    The campaign for Guadalcanal has always interested me and has touched my life. Years ago, I was at a base in Asia. An older individual had the cot across from me. I learned that he was a U.S. Marine who had survived the fighting on Guadalcanal. This man landed on the island at the age of 17 years. Meeting and interviewing Doug Canning provided a second personal connection to the struggle. I appreciate your kind and informative comments. — John Stemple

  3. Gary McIntosh says:

    I was fortunate enough to meet Doug a few years back. A local PBS station here in Orlando did an interview with him. I was very surprised to find someone on the Yamamoto mission lived just a few miles away. I wrote him a letter and asked if I could meet him. A few days later he called me and gave me directions to his home. He was an extremely interesting man and he gave me his own first hand account of the mission. He signed my copy of “Lightning Strike,” a book about the mission. I took a photo of him very similar to the one above with him standing beside a painting of a P-38. I believe the photo on this site was also taken at his home.

  4. Thomas G. says:

    Hello I happen to have had the honor of meeting Mr. Canning today at the Publix Where I work he came through my checkout line and told me about his life. Amazing how someone who went through all of this to still be alive today. God Bless you sir.

  5. Colonel FOG says:

    If it hasn’t yet been decided, then might you consider painting the TP-40N as “Black Lightning Squadron”. They used two seat P-40s as recon aircraft in the CBI Theater. I have a photo of one of those P-40s I also am in contact with a WW2 pilot who is still alive, and who flew them.

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