29 October 2015 (Updated 18 October 2016) | Colorado Springs, Colorado. There was a slight breeze on this relatively cool morning. The sun occasionally broke through the clouds to reveal the stark, blue Colorado sky and majestic foothills just to the west.
Lockheed P-38 White 33 (the original USAAF tail number) sat, propellers turning, on the WestPac Restorations ramp with her twin tails pointing to the parking lot. It was an important milestone for the Lightning, which was recovered as a wreck at Finschhafen, New Guinea; she was nearly fully restored and her fresh engines were being tested. “White 33” sat motionless as the pilot inside the center concentrated intensely on the oil temperature and pressure gauges in addition to the tachometers.
Afterward, a National Museum of World War II Aviation representative remarked, “White 33 will be the most noteworthy airworthy P-38 because her regular pilot [1st Lieutenant Kenneth C. Sparks] shot down 9 Japanese aircraft while flying this machine.”
What were the results of the engine tests? “A few minor leaks,” reported the former colonel. He added, “We expect to have Federal Aviation Administration certification by the end of next month.”
Some 50 Lightnings, the type having been designated as ‘Lightning’ by the Royal Air Force which had received inferior earlier models, were delivered by ship to Brisbane, Australia almost exactly 73 years ago. The planes were unloaded from escort carrier USS Barnes (CVE-20) and assembled at Eagle Farm Field. Afterward the P-38s were ferried to Amberley Field for installation of armament and final checks.
The 475th Fighter Group (FG) was activated on 14 May 1943, and the 39th Fighter Squadron (FS) was the first in the Fifth Air Force to operate the large twin-tailed, twin-engine fighters. In Martin Caiden’s Fork-Tailed Devil: The P-38, former 475th pilot Bob Anderson is quoted (page 343) as having said the Group primarily received P-38H models.
The 475th FG commenced operations at a critical point, as the Fifth Air Force was tasked with the difficult objectives of attaining and maintaining control of the air over New Guinea. White 33 was assigned to the 39th FS.
Although U.S. Army Air Force leaders in the European Theater were generally unenthusiastic about the Lightning, the fighters excelled in the Pacific (and Mediterranean) as evidenced by the 475th. Notably, the end of hostilities the 475th had produced the top scoring aces in the theater. In fact, in excess of 40 pilots from the 475th achieved ‘ace’ (5 or more aerial kills) status while exclusively flying Lightnings. In total, the 475th flew 3042 missions and shot down 551 Japanese aircraft while losing only 56 aircraft to Imperial Japanese forces.
An important factor related to its success was that the Lockheed product could usually cruise higher than the single-engine Japanese army and navy fighters and was faster in level flight and in dives. Furthermore, having two engines was reassuring to the pilots who knew that if one powerplant was inoperable the other could power them home over the vast distances they were forced to fly.
Robert A. Vrilakas, author of the book Look Mom – I Can Fly! Memoirs of a World War II P-38 Fighter Pilot, flew approximately 1,000 hours in P-38’s, both in combat and as an instructor at Ontario Field, California. Mr. Vrilakas is of the opinion that the Lightning was additionally exceptional because “two features put it above any other fighter aircraft of that time. One was counter-rotating props, which as you know eliminated torque. The other was the four .50-caliber machine guns and single 20-millimeter cannon centered in the nose of the aircraft. This arrangement eliminated the need to converge one’s fire at a selected distance. That permitted our effective fire several times further out from the aircraft than those fighters with machine guns in the wings.” In fact, he recalled, “The nose of a P-38 scared the hell out of the Luftwaffe, making it a great escort for the bombers. An attacking enemy aircraft would break off an attack on a bomber if they saw the nose of a P-38 pointed at them.” Is it any surprise that the P-38 was, and still is Robert Vrilakas’ favorite airplane?
Recently 100-year-old former 39th FS commander Frank Royal, who also flew White 33, reunited with his former charge at WestPac Restorations. Mr. Royal recalled one harrowing mission that that the plane brought him safely through. The visit was exciting for all concerned.
Lightning White 33 stands as a fitting and deserved tribute to the 475th. As Bob Anderson indicated to Martin Caiden in Fork-Tailed Devil: The P-38 (page 346), “We lost, in all the time we flew, exactly twenty-seven men in combat to the enemy, and that is absolutely astounding when you consider the confirmed 551 air kills Satan’s Angels scored. . . .” Anderson added that the referenced tally does not include “the Zero shot down by Colonel [Charles] Lindbergh”while he was piloting a 475th Lightning.
Aviation aficionados may view P-38 White 33, a rare risen phoenix, in person. The National Museum of World War II Aviation and WestPac Restorations are located adjacent to Peterson Air Force Base, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The National Museum of World War II Aviation offers an inexpensive docent-led tour of the facilities. Reservations and payment may be made via the organization’s website: http://westpacrestorations.com/
Author’s Note: Katie Fletcher reports that White 33 briefly returned to the air on 17 October 2016. Photos of the memorable flight are expected to be posted onto the National Museum of World War II Aviation’s Facebook page in the near future.
The author (John Stemple) thanks the National Museum of World War II Aviation and WestPac Restorations for providing access to White 33.
WW2 P38 Pilot Reunited With His Plane
Museum of WWII Aviation P-38 (White 33)
Sources and Suggested Readings
2015 USAF Almanac. Air Force Magazine, May 2015, page 125.
39th Fighter Group, 475th Fighter Squadron
475th Fighter Group
475th Fighter Group
475th Fighter Group (Satan’s Angels)
Caiden, Martin. Fork-Tailed Devil: The P-38, New York: Ballantine Books, 1973.
National Museum of World War II Aviation
Vrilakas, Robert A. Look Mom – I Can Fly! Memoirs of a World War II P-38 Fighter Pilot, Amethyst Moon, 2012.
White 33 – National Museum of World War II Aviation
WWII pilot, 101, gets one last flight in his ‘godsend’ P-38