Lt. Floyd Fulkerson: Ultimate Wingman
By John Dejanovich
There are no great aces without great wingmen and young Lt. Floyd Fulkerson from Little Rock, Arkansas, was one of those wingmen. Although he had four confirmed victories, so he was nearly an ace himself, he sees his primary contribution to the war effort to have been the protection of his lead pilots, some of whom were America’s leading aces. During his time with the 475TH Fighter Group in the Pacific, Floyd flew with such notables as Major Richard Bong, Major Tommy McGuire, and even the much-celebrated “Lone Eagle,” Charles Lindbergh. Cover the shooter, that’s what wingmen do. They protect the shooter from surprise attack. In this role, Fulkerson helped some of our great aces achieve their successes.
Lockheed P-38 L. Paint scheme of Maj. Gerald R. Johnson who flew with the 49th FG, 9th FS from Tacloban Field in the Philippines in October 1944. Twenty-five kills, later reduced to 22 confirmed kills. (Photo courtesy of Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum/ heathmoffattphoto.com
A bomber pilot, but not for long
“At 91 years of age, I’m still living a few miles from where I was born and where I joined up. I was 21 when I finished training on the B-25 Mitchell and was shipped overseas. I arrived in the South Pacific in June 1943, and immediately started flying missions out of Port Moresby in New Guinea including one low-level strafing run on the Japanese airfields at Rabaul. That early in the war, that was an extremely risky endeavor.
“Not long after arriving, and quite by chance, I ran into an old college classmate while visiting Base Ops on a nearby field. My friend, Alec Guerrey, was in an administrative position and involved in the forming of a new P-38 fighter unit. After some catching up on old times, I let it be known that as much as I loved strafing the enemy with the Mitchell, I would rather be dicing it up in a ‘38.’ Alec took my suggestion to heart and set about pushing the right buttons to make my dream a reality.”
In another time and place, the probability of making a bomber-to-fighter transfer happen would have been bureaucratically nil. However, in the fast-moving dynamics of front line warfare and thousands of miles from Command Headquarters scrutiny, his friend did some paper-shuffling magic and somehow managed to change Floyd Fulkerson, bomber pilot, into Floyd Fulkerson, P-38 fighter pilot.
A new fighter group with a new airplane
At this point in time, General Kenney had completed the formation of the 475TH Fighter Group. This was Kenney’s pet outfit and was comprised of mostly hand-picked personnel. It was built around the revolutionary new Lockheed P-38 Lightning. By the time Fulkerson arrived, the 475th FG had just been organized, trained and deployed at forward bases around Port Moresby.
Fulkerson remembers, “In January 1944, I was 22 years old and was assigned to the 431ST Fighter Squadron. I began my fighter pilot career operating out of Dobodura. From that point on, I would fly combat missions continuously for a year with only an occasional 10-day rest and recuperation break. We ranged as far away as Ceram, Indonesia, all over the New Guinea countryside, the surrounding waters and ultimately to the big shootout in the Phillipines.
“From the beginning I flew the new ‘J’ series Lightning and I served my entire tour of duty as a member of the 431ST squadron.” This was significant because the 431ST was the first to be equipped with the P-38 and would produce a multitude of Aces including the top two American aces, Bong and McGuire.
The 431ST, along with its sister squadrons the 432ND and 433RD went on to exceed Gen. Kenney’s expectations by a wide margin and former bomber pilot, Lt. Fulkerson, was right in the thick of things. In particular, he witnessed history being made while flying wing on Maj. Bong when he made his last four kills starting on December 7, 1944 over Ormoc Bay in the Phillipines .
Watching the master at work
The mission was to fly top cover for the Leyte invasion and the flight also included number two ace, Maj. Thomas McGuire, and Maj. Jack Rittmayer, an old flying mate from Headquarters. Together they comprised “Daddy Green Flight” and their assignment was to orbit the landing beach area at about 4,000 feet. It was late in the afternoon and shortly after arriving on station, Bong spotted a Betty bomber making a run on the invasion fleet below. With Floyd as witness, it would become kill number 37.
Fulkerson says, “Maj. Bong suddenly rolled out of formation and began a descent. As I watched him, I could see a bomber low on the water in the distance lining up for a run on the landing area. For a second or two, I was angry. As wingman, my job was to cover him during our mission. Combat procedure required him to call out the target location and then initiate his attack. Don’t get me wrong, I have great respect for Maj. Bong. He was a very important part of the war effort, but it was my job to cover his six and I didn’t want anything happening to him on my watch. I took a quick look around and breathed a little easier: there were no more enemy aircraft in sight. Just the same, I rolled in on his tail and shoved the throttles up to catch him. As I approached, I was a little higher and just behind him, as he began his attack on the Betty. From my vantage point I could see it all quite clearly.
“Richard was a good fighter driver, but his real forte was gunnery. I had a ringside seat and watched a master at work. Approaching to about a 150 yards, he was a little high and behind the bomber, when he snapped off a quick burst. Just that fast, the tail gunner position turned into a shower of metal and glass shards. With no tailgunner to worry about, he moved into about 50 yards and, with about 3 degrees of skid to the left, began to work the left engine area. I could see the hits sparkling, pieces coming away and in seconds smoke began to trail from the engine. I scanned the area again and, as I looked back down, he started rolling the nose of the ‘38’ to the right.
“He methodically stitched through the fuselage and cockpit area on his way to the right engine. It was almost surgical. His aim so precise hardly any of the tracers missed the target. A few seconds burst and the right engine began to disintegrate. Soon the Betty fell off into the sea. In a matter of moments it was over.
“It was a privilege to have flown with him and I treasure the memories but, just the same, later, when we returned to base I gave him a piece of my mind. I even made note of the incident officially, even though he outranked me … it’s mentioned in the squadron history. But, that would come later in the day.
“Just as he rejoined us, a flight of five low-flying Tojos appeared and it was clear that their intent was to dive into troop transports gathered in the landing area. McGuire spotted their approach and ordered Daddy Green Flight to attack and destroy.
Going for broke
“We all broke flight discipline at this point. It was rare, but there was an overriding imperative. The anchored troop transports were naked to a new form of attack we called Kamikaze. En masse we ditched directives and slammed our throttles to the stops.
“We each latched onto a target and I followed mine into the heavy anti-aircraft fire that was boiling up from the vessels trying to ward off attack. It was obviously dangerous, but, I was young and there was no way I was going to let one of those guys hit one of our ships. I kept the power up and got so close behind him that he was all I could see in my windshield. I wanted to get right on his ass. I barely started firing when the Tojo exploded in a fireball and a shower of parts. He was maybe 20 feet high and the water beneath him foamed from debris splashing into it. It happened so fast that all I could do was hang on and fly right through all that stuff. I recall vividly thinking to myself. ‘This is it … I’m done.’”
Seconds later, Floyd found himself in clear air, still flying and just above the waves. Pulling hard, he zoomed back to 3,000 feet where the flight gathered and headed back to base at Dulag Airfield. On the way back, he witnessed Bong knock down another Tojo from a flight of five. McGuire and Rittmayer also bagged one each making for a successful mission.
Once landed and safely tucked into a parking spot, Floyd and several ground crewmen crawled all over his Lightning, fully expecting to find all sorts of damage from flying through the cloud of debris. To their astonishment, there wasn’t a scratch. The exploding Tojo hadn’t left a mark!
Bong’s score kept climbing
“On the 15TH of December on a sweep over Panubulon Island, I was flying wing on Bong when he bagged another Oscar. Covering his six o’clock, I watched as he hit it with a couple of bursts. Pieces started streaming back and it crashed into the ocean and exploded. This was number 39 for Bong and I officially verified the kill after we landed.
“On the way back to base we flew back over Negros Island where I made a strafing pass on Tanzan Airdrome. Out of the approximately 20 enemy aircraft on the field, I destroyed two Jacks and an Oscar, all three were lined up in a row and in the process of taking off. In addition, I nailed two Oscars that were parked near the far end of the runway.
“That was easily the fastest I had ever flown a P-38 close to the ground and it was quite an experience! I went in at 410mph well aware that Jap ack-ack was very accurate. Even at that speed, half way through the run, they very nearly got me when they shattered my canopy. Bong stayed up at altitude and covered me because the brass had restricted him from strafing. Coming off the run, I chandelled up to Bong’s altitude, assumed the wingman position and we returned uneventfully to Dulag.
Number 40 and history is made
“Two days later, on the 17TH of December, Bong and I were at it again. I had the privilege of covering this great Ace on what would become a history-making sweep over the landing beach on Mindoro Island. At 4:25 p.m. and at about 9,000 feet, Maj. Bong closed on an Oscar and, as I stated in the confirming action report filed back at Dulag. ‘I saw Dick close in on the Oscar from dead astern and fire a short burst which brought pieces from the Oscar. The Oscar turned right and with another burst from Maj. Bong, did a half roll, trailing fire and crashed into the jungle.’ This was the 40TH confirmed kill for Maj. Bong making him America’s ‘Ace of Aces,’ probably for all time.”
For Maj. Bong, the war was over as he was grounded by Gen. Kenney and returned to the states arriving in San Francisco in time for New Year celebrations and an adoring public reception.
Once again, Lt. Fulkerson had done the wingman’s job. As documented, Floyd flew protection and provided confirmation on all four of Bong’s final victories. Of the four members of the historic Daddy Green Flight, which included McGuire and Rittmayer, Lt. Fulkerson would ultimately be the only one to survive the war.
Mission number 124 ½
For Floyd Fulkerson, the war continued and on December 20 he touched another piece of history, although the significance was unknown to him at the time. On that date, flight records indicate he started a combat mission in aircraft serial number 44-23296. As it turned out, this particular aircraft was the 5,000TH Lockheed Lightning produced and being very proud of that contribution, Lockheed painted it a brilliant vermillion red, named it YIPPEE and sent it on tour around the country to push war bonds.
With its public relations glamour days behind it, this aircraft was eventually assigned to the 431ST Fighter Squadron at Dulag. The aircraft somehow arrived without fanfare and on this day Floyd flew it into battle, as his normal mount was temporarily out of service. Unfortunately, records indicate an early return to base from some unexplained problem and before the aircraft could be repaired and returned to duty it was involved in a ground crash and was so heavily damaged that it had to be salvaged..
Five days later, on Christmas Day 1944, Lt. Floyd Fulkerson flew his 125th, or as he calls it “Mission 124 ½” and final, combat mission. And it was a big battle. The target was the huge flight complex at Clark Airfield as well as the many surrounding airfields in the Manila area. Heavy bombers were brought in to pound the airfields and all the Allied fighters that could be mustered were thrown into the event. An excited Lt. Fulkerson climbed into his trusty old mount, emblazoned with nose art reading Who’s Next … ? and flew toward the target zone. The Japanese threw approximately 70 fighters into the melee. The battle quickly turned into a free-for-all, making it a fighter pilot’s dream with targets everywhere.
“I homed in on a pair of Jacks making a run on a box of B-24s. Pulling behind the second one, I hit him with a 25-degree deflection shot and he spun off toward the jungle and exploded on impact. I immediately kicked in a little left rudder, lined up the leader and started chewing on him with the 50s. Taking hits he started a shallow turn to the right and I pulled tighter raking through the wing root and cockpit area. As chunks flew out, he rolled left and headed down trailing smoke. Moments later, I watched him crash into the jungle below and explode.”
One more victory and Floyd would officially join the ranks of the Aces. With the mission and his personal goals in mind he bore in on his third target and violated one of the most fundamental rules of aerial combat: in his excitement and ambition he ran off and left his wingman.
“Looking around for more action, I found number three aircraft crossing right to left in front of me and just about the same altitude. I kicked the big twin fan to the left, and, just as I lined him up, tracers started passing to my right and I began taking hits in the tail. I could hear the shells hitting and I could feel the aircraft shudder. Those booms taking hits were like a tuning fork sending me the news. I slammed the nose down and went to full throttle and dove off to escape. I soon outdistanced them and they turned back to the fight. Once free, I looked around for my wingman who was nowhere to be seen. As I maneuvered and glanced around I thought I could see spray trailing from the tail area.
“Very soon my worst fears were realized. They had punched holes in my radiators, which were located in the booms. Both engines were heating up rapidly. The good news: my airplane was flying just fine. The bad news: I was a long way from home and it was plain to see that Who’s Next…? wasn’t going to carry me home. As the temp needles headed toward the pegs, I spotted what looked like a suitable place to set her down so I banked and headed that way. Hopefully, I had found a place where the Japanese wouldn’t be waiting to greet me.”
The landing site turned out to be a rice paddy about 50 miles north of Manila and near the town of Santa Maria. He brought the big fighter down in the paddy in a controlled manner but, took a nasty hit at the far side of the field when the aircraft slammed into a dirt embankment. The impact was hard enough that it cracked two of Floyd’s vertebrae. As he wiggled from the wreckage, the remains burst into flames. Lucky for him Philippino guerrillas had witnessed his plight, rushed to his aid, and spirited him away to the mountainous jungle before the Japanese arrived.
A fighter pilot with the guerillas
The next five weeks were spent evading the Japanese as a guest of the guerrillas, who quickly passed word back to U.S. authorities that he was at least alive and well. After an initial three weeks of healing and with communication again provided by the guerillas, he linked up with two O.S.S. agents. One from Laramie, Wyoming, and one from Pennsylvania. One night in mid-January 1945, along with these two men, he participated in a late night commando mission north of Manila.
Hidden by darkness, they slipped behind Japanese lines intent on destroying a railroad bridge that was crucial to the Japanese defense of that area. Using dynamite, they successfully dropped the span and faded away into the jungle. For this heroic ground activity, Lt. Fulkerson, Army Aviator was awarded a Bronze Combat Star by the U.S. Army.
Later in the month, with the aid of a plow animal borrowed from a farmer, he cleared a landing strip in the jungle from which he was eventually plucked by an Army L-5. With the construction of “Fulkerson Airfield” and his self -arranged rescue, his war ended—V-J Day came before his damaged back could heal.
After the war ended and there was time to address things left undone, Lt. Fulkerson was awarded a Silver Star by the United States Navy for his action while braving anti-aircraft fire and saving naval personnel from the Kamikaze attack at Ormoc Bay, December 7, 1944. This was one of the rare instances where an Army Air Force member received a Silver Star from the U.S. Navy.
Remembering famous friends
Today, when asked about his thoughts on some of his fellow fliers, he responded “Bong, was not as good a performance flyer as the very best but, he was fearless and hands down the best shooter I’d ever flown with. His marksmanship was phenomenal.
“Maj. Thomas McGuire was an excellent squadron commander. He was even handed and careful to be fair and treated everyone equally. He was a confident leader in combat and the best pilot I ever flew with. I enjoyed flying with him because he was so good. He was also one helluva poker player”
As to what happened to Tommy McGuire on his final, fatal mission, Fulkerson says, “Knowing him personally, having flown with him often, knowing how ambitious he was, knowing how superbly he could handle a P-38, knowing how badly he yearned to become Ace of Aces, in my opinion, in his eagerness and self assuredness … I believe he simply reached too far.”
“Charles Lindbergh was a prince of a guy. He was cordial, sophisticated, and knew more about airplanes than anyone I’ve ever met. He freely shared his knowledge to improve our flying and showed us how to extend the range our aircraft. Even though we were all basically kids and he was a middle-aged legend, he didn’t wear his fame on his sleeve. I felt comfortable in his presence and enjoyed talking to him.”
Even though Floyd is now 91 years old, his memories of these men and these events are sharp and easily recalled. To him, Bong and McGuire are still 24 years old and he sees them in their prime. He can hear their voices excited in combat and over beers at the Dobo “Club 38.” He can hear those Allisons firing up at dawn. Smell the gunsmoke in the cockpit. Close his eyes and fly through an exploding airplane. This he can do while we never can. It is only through the words of Floyd Fulkerson’s rapidly disappearing generation that we can hear history as told by those who made it. Their kind will not come again.
Read the full article in the December 2012 issue of Flight Journal.