Running with the Devil
BECOMING AN ACE WITH “SATAN’S ANGELS”
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.
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.
THE ONE GOLDEN RULE THAT WAS DRILLED INTO US WAS TO NEVER, EVER, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES GET SUCKED INTO A LOW, SLOW-TURNING BATTLE WITH A ZERO.
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 FAILED TO SELECT INTERNAL TANKS BEFORE JETTISONING MY BELLY TANKS AND BOTH MY ENGINES QUIT IN UNISON AND BEGAN SUCKING AIR.
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.
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.
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)