Academic journal article Air Power History

Shootout at Rabaul

Academic journal article Air Power History

Shootout at Rabaul

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning has an iconic reputation as the outstanding U.S. Army Air Forces fighter for much of the Pacific air war. The two top ranking U.S. Army fighter aces of World War II, Richard Bong and Thomas McGuire, both flew the P-38 in the Pacific. After its first major combat in late December 1942, the fighter commander in New Guinea, General Ennis Whitehead, announced, "we have the Jap[anese] Air Force whipped." (1) This is the reputation that has come down to us--the P-38 was the fighter, the nearly unbeatable fighter, which conquered the Japanese in the southern Pacific.

The Lightning did not hit the ground running. The first thirty arrived in the southwest Pacific in August 1942, with additional P-38s arriving in the following month. It was November before the P-38 actually got into combat and late December 1942, before it claimed its first air kills. Over New Guinea, after a few false starts, it quickly gained a positive reputation, and by providing top cover for P-39s and P-40s improved the effectiveness of those fighters as well as racking up an impressive ratio of claimed kills to losses. In the Solomons some of its early actions were medium altitude escort missions and it did not initially impress the pilots who flew victory to loss ratio among Allied fighters operating in the Solomons. (2)

Some aviation historians have noted the slow start of the P-38. In the book Zero, Masatake Okumiya asserts that pilots of the Japanese navy's Zero fighter were able to master the P--38 in early combats, but with improved tactics the P--38 became an extremely formidable opponent. Captured documents indicate Japanese army fighter pilots, who initially encountered the P-38 over New Guinea, felt capable of handling the big American fighter, but also recognized its potential if used in tactically advantageous situations. (3) Once its teething problems were worked out and suitable tactics were developed, the P-38 gained its formidable reputation.

This article studies a series of combats constituting a relatively brief but significant air campaign to assess the P-38's combat performance at mid-career and test its super star reputation. Undoubtedly, the P-38 was a good fighter with longer range and better high altitude performance than the P-39 and P-40. Based on claimed victories versus admitted losses, the P-38's record was remarkable. Was the P-38 a super fighter? Was its superiority highly dependent on favorable tactical circumstances? One campaign does not determine the merit of an aircraft, but the facts cited in this article suggest that other campaigns need to be examined on the basis of verified losses and not just claims. The outcome of those campaigns, and possibly the reputation of the P-38, may need to be reconsidered.

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The Rabaul Campaign

As a preliminary to the invasion of Bougainville by South Pacific forces scheduled for November 1, 1943, Gen. George C. Kenney, Commander of Allied Air Forces in the Southwest Pacific and U.S. Fifth Air Force, was assigned the mission of getting rid of the Japanese air force at Rabaul, destroying the supplies in the town, sinking shipping in the harbor, and making the place untenable for enemy vessels. In his book, General Kenney Reports, he titles the chapter on the October-November campaign against Rabaul "Taking out Rabaul." (4) The official history of the Army Air Forces (Craven & Cate, The Army Air Forces in World War II, vol. IV) says "the Fifth's attacks...neutralized Rabaul as a major threat to the American beach head at Bougainville...." (5) admitting it was done with some help from carrier strikes. Some historians protest that such claims are inaccurate.

While the Fifth's attacks caused considerable damage, evidence that Rabaul was not "taken out" or "neutralized" is not hard to find. During and after the Fifth Air Force's bombing campaign, Japanese planes and ships from Rabaul were active in opposing the Bougainville invasion. …

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