Flying Skulls over Burma
By the time I graduated from high school in Oklahoma during 1940 at the ripe old age of 19, I could see that the United States was going to get dragged into a world war. I had grown up in a farming family during the Great Depression and had felt the terrible hardships it caused us firsthand. The effects of the economic devastation continued to linger throughout our state. Finding a good paying job, or any pay, was like trying to find fertile soil in the ravaged Dust Bowl. I tried to join the Army at Fort Sill and asked about becoming a pilot. A lieutenant with a very sharp tongue shot me down right away.
“Sonny boy,” he said, “You got to get yourself two years of college first, and then maybe we will talk to you.”
I was depressed as the red clay soil under my feet but was determined to earn my wings. I moved to Wyoming, found work, and enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) and earned a private pilot’s license in a 50-horsepower Piper Cub with no brakes and a tail skid. A week later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and I got the impression from the Army recruiter I visited that if a fellow could see lightning and hear thunder then they would gladly take me!
Newly minted fighter pilot
By September of 1942, I was a green second lieutenant flying P-47 Thunderbolts with the 80 Fighter Group at Mitchel Field, New York. In the air, the P-47 was stable and solid and an all-around efficient gun platform. But once you pulled the power back, the Jug was more like a homesick brick and came down fast. In February of 1943, I had flown my P-47 for the last time in stateside training as I watched the Jug I was to fly in combat being loaded aboard a ship that would cross the Atlantic bound for England. I looked forward to flying and slugging it out with the Luftwaffe as the rest of the 80th Fighter Group prepared to join the fight in Europe. Unfortunately, the brass had other plans for our group and I would not see my beloved Jug for a very long time.
General Hap Arnold gathered our group together in the middle of the night and informed us we would be embarking on a very important mission, one that was vital to the war effort, but at that time he couldn’t disclose our final destination. He did tell us that we could forget everything we knew about the P-47 Thunderbolt and instead look forward to our new mount—the Curtiss P-40. There wasn’t a guy in the room who didn’t have a shocked look on his face! The P-40 Warhawk was lighter, slower and carried a lot less firepower than what we had been used to in the Thunderbolt.
I found the P-40 to be a good, honest, and reliable fighter in the air, but it was short on range and was a slow turner. In less than a week’s time, we hurriedly trained a total of 25 hours on our new fighters before we had abandoned our cold weather gear and left for parts unknown.
Read the article from the February 2014 issue of Flight Journal, click here
By Philip R. Adair, Col. USAF (Ret.) As told and written by James P. Busha