Run­ning with the Devil


Flight Journal - - CONTENTS - By Col. Perry J. “PJ” Dahl, USAF, Re­tired, as told to and writ­ten by James P. Busha

Be­com­ing an Ace with “Satan’s An­gels”

“As a kid grow­ing up on the bow of my fa­ther’s tug­boat, haul­ing oil from Seat­tle to Alaska, I had a lot of time on my hands. I used to read the pulp mag­a­zines about the aces of WW I, such as the Red Baron. That’s prob­a­bly how I be­came in­ter­ested in fly­ing. But when I be­came a fighter pi­lot, I didn’t care about fly­ing straight and level; I was more in­ter­ested in the fighter as­pects of pur­su­ing and at­tack­ing an en­emy. It was the ag­gres­sive in­stinct of be­ing a fighter pi­lot in com­bat, hunt­ing and at­tack­ing other air­planes as op­posed to be­ing the hunted, that in­trigued me the most.”

Earn­ing My Wings

My ini­tial ex­po­sure to the mil­i­tary was in 1939. At the ripe old age of 17 I joined the 41st In­fantry Di­vi­sion of the Na­tional Guard in Seat­tle, Wash­ing­ton, be­cause my par­ents thought that serv­ing a year in the Army would do me some good. I guess it was be­cause trou­ble al­ways fol­lowed me wher­ever I went—thank­fully al­ways two steps be­hind! As a foot soldier, my mind was al­ways in the clouds, so when the op­por­tu­nity pre­sented it­self for me to go into avi­a­tion train­ing, I was at the front of the line sign­ing up. Af­ter com­plet­ing pre­flight, I was sent to Cal-Aero in Chino, Cal­i­for­nia, and al­most washed out.

I had been out over the desert on a solo flight in my PT-17 Stear­man and be­gan to do some unau­tho­rized aer­o­bat­ics. As I looped and rolled my bi­plane around the sunny Cal­i­for­nia sky, I didn’t no­tice the other PT-17 nearby with an in­struc­tor seated in­side. By the time I got back to base, my pun­ish­ment awaited me: 25 tours of walk­ing guard duty. Back to be­ing a foot soldier again! The only rea­son I wasn’t washed out of fly­ing was be­cause I was the only cadet in my class who hadn’t ground-looped the Stear­man. I at­tribute that feat to an ex­cel­lent in­struc­tor I had, who took his time with me and showed me how to han­dle a Stear­man, in­clud­ing aer­o­bat­ics. It was in­stilled in me early on to be ag­gres­sive and uti­lize the strengths of the airplane in com­bat sit­u­a­tions. By the time I earned my wings, I was sent to mul­ti­engine train­ing, not as a bomber pi­lot but as a fighter pi­lot.

Light­ning Lessons

I thought the Lock­heed P-38 Light­ning was mas­sive! As fight­ers go, it was a big airplane. With twin Al­li­son en­gines, twin tails and a deadly weapons pack­age in the nose, the P-38 was all busi­ness. I felt the Light­ning was much eas­ier to fly than a sin­gle-en­gine fighter; there were no wor­ries with ground loops be­cause of the coun­ter­ro­tat­ing pro­pel­lers and tri­cy­cle gear. The vis­i­bil­ity was ex­cel­lent, sit­ting up high on three wheels in­stead of two with your tail drag­ging. There wasn’t any dual-con­trolled P-38, so you hung on to ev­ery word the in­struc­tor told you about how to fly it and get back down in one piece. The check­out was sim­ple; the in­struc­tor kicked you in the ass, slapped you in­side and said go!

In early 1943 I was as­signed to the 55th Fighter Group that was sta­tioned in the north­west sec­tion of Wash­ing­ton state. Most of the guys I flew with had com­bat time in the Aleu­tians, and a cou­ple of them had even tan­gled with the Ja­pa­nese. Need­less to say, they be­came our in­for­mal in­struc­tors and showed us what to do and what not to do in com­bat. The one golden rule that was drilled into us was to never, ever, un­der any cir­cum­stances get sucked into a low, slow­turn­ing bat­tle with a Zero. Al­though the Light­ning was faster, had more ar­ma­ment and bet­ter weapons, the only way to sur­vive against a turn­ing Zero was to keep your speed up, other­wise you were toast!

As fight­ers go, the P-38 was the hottest ship in the air—at least that was my fa­ther’s opin­ion dur­ing WW II. He had come to visit me in Wash­ing­ton, and I was show­ing him around the base, when two P-38s came roaring across the field prac­ti­cally “cut­ting grass” as they crossed in front of us. My fa­ther’s jaw dropped as his eyes tracked the low-level duo leav­ing as quickly as they had come in. He turned to me and with the big­gest smile I had ever ob­served on his face pro­claimed, “23 Ski­doo!”

That was an old slang from the 1920s that meant get­ting out and leav­ing quickly. I de­cided that if I ever got my own P-38, I would paint that say­ing on my Light­ning’s nose.

With the war heat­ing up in the Pa­cific, we re­ceived word that a re­cently formed, brand-new all P-38 group—the 475th FG—was des­per­ately look­ing for re­place­ment pi­lots. Be­cause they couldn’t af­ford to send all of us over­seas, the in­struc­tors de­cided to have a fly-off to see who was the most ag­gres­sive and ca­pa­ble. When the dust had set­tled, two of us—Joe Forester and I— were se­lected to join the group in New Guinea in Oc­to­ber 1943.


One of Satan’s An­gels

Af­ter the C-47 dropped Joe and me off in Do­bo­dura, New Guinea, we re­ported to the com­mand­ing of­fi­cer (CO) for our squadron as­sign­ment. Al­though Joe was only two years older than I, his hair was pure white in color. I, on the other hand, looked like a 16-year-old kid and stood only 5 feet, 5 inches tall. When we re­ported to the CO, he gave Joe and me the once-over and threw his hands up in dis­gust. He turned to his ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer and said, “Oh, my God, they’re send­ing me old men and boys!”

I be­came one of “Satan’s An­gels” with the 5th Air Force, 475th FG. Joe and I were as­signed to the 432nd Fighter Squadron known as “Clover.” The 431st was code-named “Hades,” and the 433rd was called “Pos­sum.” My in­tro­duc­tion to com­bat came at an ac­cel­er­ated pace.

Bap­tism of Fire

There were no milk runs for a new fighter pi­lot to fly in the Pa­cific in 1943. My very first mis­sion was to Rabaul, the Ja­pa­nese fortress of the Pa­cific. The en­emy or­der of bat­tle was to put up be­tween 100 and 150 Ja­pa­nese fight­ers against 18 of our P-38s. Our job was to pro­tect the for­ma­tion of B-25 Mitchell bombers that were sent in for low-level bomb­ing and straf­ing. I have to be honest with you: I was all over the sky that day and never fired a shot. It wasn’t be­cause of a lack of Ze­ros—there were plenty all around. The prob­lem I had was that I couldn’t get any of them to stay in one place long enough for me to get a shot off! I al­most obliged them, though, be­cause I came home with a hand­ful of bul­let holes in my Light­ning. But I would soon re­turn the fa­vor.

A few days later, on Novem­ber 9, 1943, I was fly­ing the tail-end-Charlie po­si­tion in Blue flight near Alex­ishafen, when all of a sud­den my el­e­ment leader broke off and went af­ter a He­len bomber. I stayed with him cov­er­ing his six o’clock and was dumb­founded to see a Zeke zoom­ing in try­ing to get on my leader’s tail. This guy must have had only one good eye, or he was so locked in on my leader that he never no­ticed me right be­hind him. The Zeke slid di­rectly in front of me in the 12 o’clock po­si­tion; I think I could have knocked it down with my pis­tol!

The P-38 car­ries an aw­ful lot of fire­power in its nose—four .50-cal­iber ma­chine guns and one 20mm can­non. The rounds were a mix­ture of ar­mor-pierc­ing, in­cen­di­ary and can­non shells, and when they con­verged at 300 yards, they formed a six-inch cir­cle of death. Heck, you could sink a de­stroyer with that lethal com­bi­na­tion. I barely squeezed the trig­ger and—boom! The Zeke blew up in front of me; there was noth­ing left of it. The guy never knew what hit him, and un­for­tu­nately for me, four mis­sions later the roles would be re­versed.

Switch­ing to Glide

With a hand­ful of com­bat mis­sions un­der my belt, I was as­signed to the tail-end-Charlie po­si­tion in our flight. We had 18 P-38s up that day on com­bat pa­trol as we made our way to Lae, New Guinea. Some­where up ahead some­one called out “bo­gies.” For what­ever rea­son, our leader de­cided to trade air­speed for al­ti­tude and or­dered us to climb—a bad de­ci­sion, es­pe­cially when Ze­ros are around. As the tail-end Charlie,


I was just above stalling speed when the or­der came to “Drop tanks!” Due to my in­ex­pe­ri­ence, I failed to se­lect in­ter­nal tanks be­fore jettisoning my belly tanks, and my world went silent in a split sec­ond; both my en­gines quit in uni­son and be­gan suck­ing air.

It took me less than a sec­ond to re­al­ize my er­ror as I pushed the Light­ning over and screamed for the deck to keep my speed up. As I switched to in­ter­nal tanks, both en­gines roared back to life as I pulled the nose up and be­gan search­ing for my flight. I called my leader and, of course, lied to him, telling him I had some en­gine trou­ble and had lost sight of the group. He told me to turn for “home plate,” as they were busy en­gag­ing en­emy fight­ers. Re­luc­tantly, I turned for home, mad at my­self for miss­ing out on a good scrap. That’s when I saw the Betty Bombers about to make a run on Lae.

I was young and fool­ish, so I con­vinced my- self that I would just wan­der over to the Bet­tys and shoot a cou­ple of them down. The trou­ble was I was so fix­ated on the Bet­tys that I never saw the Zero div­ing down at my three o’clock un­til it was al­most too late. This guy was so close, he was al­most in my cock­pit! As he ham­mered away at me, I threw my right wing up try­ing to block the in­com­ing rounds. They found their mark and tore my right en­gine and ver­ti­cal sta­bi­lizer to shreds. I could feel each of his rounds im­pact­ing my Light­ning; this guy was re­ally pour­ing the lead into me. As I looked into my rearview mir­ror, all I saw were the flashes of the Zero’s guns and a long white va­por trail stream­ing from my en­gine. Trou­ble was right be­hind me, and it was time to lose this guy!

I shoved the throt­tles for­ward and pushed the P-38’s nose down­ward as I dived for the deck a sec­ond time. With both en­gines turn­ing, I was able to lose the Zero, and as soon as I was out of harm’s way, I shut down the bad en­gine be­fore it blew up on me. On the way home, a fel­low Light­ning pulled up along­side and rode shot­gun on my wing. When I ar­rived over my field, I made a long ap­proach, threw down my gear and greased my wounded Light­ning onto the PSP run­way. It didn’t take me long to re­al­ize that, had I been fly­ing a sin­gle-en­gine fighter, all of those slugs would have gone into my cock­pit in­stead of my en­gine. It was a nice feel­ing to know while fly­ing the P-38 that al­though you had two en­gines, you could al­ways make it home on one.

The Old Man and the Kid Make Ace

Right be­fore Christ­mas 1943, I claimed a Zeke near We­wak, and a month later I bagged my third one. By April 1944, we were re­ally on the of­fen­sive as we slugged it out with the Ja­pa­nese day af­ter day. On April 3, our Fighter Group along with the 80th Fighter Group, the Head­hunters, were tasked with pro­vid­ing bomber es­cort to Hol­lan­dia. The 80th stayed up high with the B-24 Lib­er­a­tors, as our group was as­signed to deck with low-fly­ing A-20 Hav­ocs and B-25 Mitchell bombers.

Lt. Col. “Mac” MacDonald led our squadron in as we pro­tected the with­draw­ing A-20s. There were so many Ja­pa­nese fight­ers around that every­one in our group got in on the ac­tion, even one guy from 5th Fighter Com­mand, who showed up unan­nounced.

I tacked onto a Zeke and an Os­car and raked both of them with ma­chine-gun and can­non rounds over Lake Sen­tani, and both hit the ground burn­ing. My buddy Joe Forester was the tail-end Charlie in one of the flights and had a pair of vic­to­ries to his credit be­fore this mis­sion. Joe was able to bag three more that day as we both evened our scores to five apiece. But

Joe was about to pass me up, when he spot­ted a flee­ing Os­car and went tear­ing af­ter it. Un­for­tu­nately, an­other Light­ning, flown by Maj. Rich-

ard Bong of 5th Fighter Com­mand, ap­peared on Joe’s wing and shot the Os­car down be­fore Joe even had a chance. It was hard to be up­set with a guy like Bong. That was his 25th victory of the war; be­sides, he still had 15 more to go be­fore the war ended. All in all, that day our two groups shot down 25 Ja­pa­nese fight­ers to the loss of one P-38. Not a bad day for “An­gels and Head­hunters.”

Trou­ble Catches Up

By Novem­ber 1944, I had been pro­moted to the rank of cap­tain and was the as­sis­tant op­er­a­tions of­fi­cer. Our Army and Navy were march­ing and sail­ing north­ward and in­vad­ing parts of the Philip­pines. On Novem­ber 10, our group was part of a large air ar­mada sent over Or­moc Bay off Leyte. The mis­sion called for our B-25s to go in low and skip-bomb the Ja­pa­nese troop and war­ships that were try­ing to sup­ply and re­in­force the Ja­pa­nese troops on the ground. Col. MacDonald was lead­ing our group, and he spot­ted a lone Zero stooging around up ahead. As Col. MacDonald dived on him, I think the Zero pi­lot bailed out be­fore a shot was fired. He must have seen the daisy chain of P-38s right be­hind him!

Af­ter Col. MacDonald shot down the Zero, he called me and told me to take over the group, as he was re­turn­ing to base for more fuel. Just as he bugged out, I looked to the other side and saw a flight of 18 Tony fight­ers in a big V fly­ing just un­der­neath the cloud deck. I cir­cled our flight around and got on top of the clouds as I waited to pounce. We came zoom­ing out of the clouds into the un­sus­pect­ing Tonys, and I knocked off the lead Tony with a short burst. The Tonys that re­mained turned into us as we got into a big swirling dog­fight at 20,000 feet.

I was in­di­cat­ing over 400 miles per hour rolling and turn­ing with the Tonys, when all of a sud­den, I felt a huge jolt and looked in my rearview mir­ror and saw that both of my tail booms were gone. I never saw the guy I col­lided with. It was sur­real, as time seemed to slow way down. I could see our base off in the dis­tance and re­al­ized I would not be home for din­ner. I watched as my right wing fell away while gas poured out of the rup­tured tank. As I blew my canopy off, I thought out loud, “Boy, this ain’t my day!”

I was hav­ing trou­ble get­ting out of the airplane and had just un­buck­led, when—ka­boom! The P-38 ex­ploded and shot me out, leav­ing me with a bunch of nasty flash burns. My el­e­ment leader later told me there wasn’t a piece of my airplane big­ger than a quar­ter left; it had sim­ply dis­in­te­grated. I chose to free-fall for awhile be­cause I wanted to get away from the fight. At around 10,000 feet, I popped my chute and looked down and saw the en­tire Ja­pa­nese Navy di­rectly un­der­neath me. Not to be out­done, I looked up and saw a Ja­pa­nese pi­lot just above me hang­ing in his para­chute. I was sur­rounded!

Be­cause he had a smaller chute, he beat me down and hit the wa­ter first. He never came back up. As I floated down­ward through a hail­storm of bul­lets from the Ja­pa­nese gun­ners on the ships be­low, they sud­denly turned their at­ten­tion to the in­com­ing low-level B-25s as they made their skip-bomb­ing runs in on the ships. With the Ja­pa­nese ships turn­ing tail and mak­ing a run for it, I just missed snag­ging the rig­ging of one of their cruis­ers as I splashed into the wa­ter nearby. They could care less about me as the gun-nosed B-25s con­tin­ued to as­sault them.

Dur­ing the next 30 days, I floated in the ocean for a cou­ple of days, was strafed at by a Zero, shot at by a de­stroyer, res­cued by Filipino gueril­las, adopted a pet monkey I named Or­mak, lived in the jun­gle and ate worms and bugs, lost 30 pounds, was res­cued by Amer­i­can “Alamo Scouts,” sent to Aus­tralia for R&R and lost an­other 10 pounds “fight­ing off” the Aus­tralian women! I re­turned to my squadron at Clark Field and ended up bag­ging a Sally and a Hamp in March 1945 to end the war with nine vic­to­ries.

Look­ing back on it, be­ing a suc­cess­ful fighter pi­lot meant you had to have that killer in­stinct. Sure, there were times when you got vic­to­ries be­cause you were there at the “right time, right place,” but for the most part, if you weren’t ag­gres­sive in com­bat, you were ei­ther a tar­get or a fu­ture statis­tic on a govern­ment chart. We po­liced our­selves in the squadron: if you were afraid to mix it up, you were sent pack­ing to fly C-47s for the rest of your tour. That may sound harsh to some, but war was life and death, and in or­der to sur­vive, you had to count on the guy next to you to watch your back. There weren’t many sec­ond chances in air-to-air com­bat.


When the 475th Fighter Group As­so­ci­a­tion de­cided to put its mem­o­ra­bilia into a pur­posely built dis­play hangar at the Planes of Fame Air Mu­seum in Chino, Cal­i­for­nia, the mu­seum’s Lock­heed P-38J Light­ning was re­fin­ished to rep­re­sent the fighter flown by Perry Dahl in World War II. Al­though it’s not a par­tic­u­larly com­fort­able ride, as seen in this photo, the P-38 is some­times used to give sup­port­ers “piggy-back” war­bird ori­en­ta­tion flights, which are quite pop­u­lar. (Photo by Frank B. Mormillo) In­set: PJ Dahl strap­ping into his P-38. (Photo cour­tesy of au­thor)

Then and now: PJ stands in front of his 23 Ski­doo art­work both in com­bat and at the Planes of Fame Mu­seum in Chino, Cal­i­for­nia. (Photo cour­tesy of au­thor)

The in­tro­duc­tion of the new P-38J to the Pa­cific War in early Fe­bru­ary 1944 gave op­er­at­ing units an ad­vanced-range as­set sport­ing im­proved ma­neu­ver­abil­ity with pow­ered ailerons and dive flaps to con­trol com­press­ibil­ity ef­fects. De­layed to the the­ater be­cause of ETO pri­or­i­ties the de­fin­i­tive “J” model pi­loted by skilled vet­er­ans soon wiped the skies of op­po­si­tion from a swin­dling cadre of ex­pe­ri­enced Ja­pa­nese pi­lots. (Photo cour­tesy of Stan Piet)

In the be­lea­guered South­west Pa­cific The­ater dur­ing the sum­mer and fall of 1942,AAF units strug­gled against the ad­vanc­ing Ja­pa­nese jug­ger­naut, fend­ing off their foes with well-worn P-39s and P-400s and a hand­ful of P-47s. By Novem­ber 1942, brand-new P-38Fs and soon Gs be­gan to fil­ter into 5th AF units giv­ing them a pow­er­ful of­fen­sive weapon that would help change the bal­ance of the air­war over the Solomons and New Guinea cam­paigns. (Photo cour­tesy of Stan Piet)

A dis­tinc­tive fea­ture of the Lock­heed P-38 Light­ning’s cock­pit is the use of a con­trol yoke in­stead of the con­trol stick more com­monly used in most fighter planes. (Photo by Frank B. Mormillo)

P-38H-5-LO Light­ning#88 Elsie of the 9th Fighter Squadron 49th Fighter Group 5th AF af­ter land­ing with bat­tle da­m­age at Do­bo­dura, New Guinea, fall of 1943. (Photo cour­tesy of Jack Cook)

Marge—a P-38 named af­ter Richard Bong’s home­town sweet­heart, played a sig­nif­i­cant role in achiev­ing his 40 vic­to­ries. (Il­lus­tra­tion by Tom Tullis)

Lone Star Flight Mu­seum’s P-38, flown over Breck­en­ridge, Texas, by Ronnie Gardner. (Photo by Bill Crump) In­set: Col. Charles MacDonald, CO of the 475th Fighter Group by his P-38L-5 s/n 44-25643 #100 Putt Putt Maru at Du­lag, Leyte, PI, af­ter scor­ing the 25th aerial victory on Jan­uary 1, 1945. (Photo cour­tesy of Jack Cook)

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