The Lockheed P-38 was one of the legendary fighters of World War II. Crowds are still thrilled when one flies by. The 475th Fighter Group, with 552 victories, was the top P-38 fighter group in the Second World War. America’s second highest scoring ace, with 38 victories, was Major Thomas McGuire, who flew the Lockheed Lightning – as did Richard Bong, America’s top ace. And Charles Lindbergh – hmm, what does he have to do with the P-38?
Aviation artist Domenic DeNardo’s painting “”Lindbergh’s Secret”" brings the P-38 and four famous aviators together in a beautiful tribute to the plane and the men. When legendary airmen such as these met, interesting things happened, and here is only part of the story.
Col. Warren R. Lewis, who was CO of the 475th FG’s 43rd Fighter Squadron, said that missions in the summer of 1944 required them to fly long distances, and it was necessary to conserve fuel as much as possible. Because of that, the normal takeoff procedure was to start up, taxi out and take off. They would check their mags on the takeoff roll. If they were okay, they would continue the takeoff, otherwise, they would roll to the end of the runway and turn off. This procedure allowed the entire squadron to get airborne and formed up while the lead plane did one 360° turn over the field.
The first time Lindbergh flew with Lewis’ squadron, Lewis took off and looked over his shoulder at the rest of the P-38s lined up on the runway. Finally, after what seemed to be a long time, the P-38 that had been holding up the others took off. At the debriefing session after the mission, he wanted to know who the “”blankety-blank”" individual was that held up the takeoff run. There was silence in the briefing room. Finally, Lindbergh spoke up and said he had to check his aircraft before takeoff. Lewis quickly calmed down and asked to speak to Lindbergh after the meeting.
It was from this incident that Lindbergh came up with a procedure to extend the range of the P-38s by cutting back the rpm and increasing manifold pressure. The procedure was controversial because they had been taught that would damage the engine. However, Lindbergh’s recommendation worked and saved the lives of many U.S. pilots on long-range missions over the vast Pacific.
But the story behind the painting really began earlier, on the afternoon of June 26, 1944. According to the artist, Col. MacDonald, CO of the 475th FG, was sitting down to a checker game with newly promoted Lt. Colonel Meryl Smith, the group’s operations officer, when Charles Lindbergh knocked on his screen door and introduced himself. MacDonald didn’t quite catch the name and resumed the game. Lindbergh explained that Gen. Donald Hutchinson, 3rd Air Task Force commander, sent him over to discuss combat operations of the P-38. Questions by Lindbergh were unusually intelligent and technical. MacDonald asked the man if he was a pilot, and after a startling recognition, realized he indeed was the Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh, as a representative of United Aircraft, had already made valuable suggestions regarding the F4U Corsair.
The conversation drew more attention from MacDonald and Smith, and the session continued into the early evening, attracting other pilots, including Major Thomas McGuire, who was one of MacDonald’s squadron commanders, the 431st FS. It was finally decided to take Lindbergh up for an operational flight and show him what these three aces were talking about. MacDonald, who was 29 at the time, and Smith, who was 26, realized that they were taking the responsibility for letting a civilian in his 40s go along on a combat mission. Smith suggested that Lindbergh stay with the 475th if he were to go on the mission. They all agreed and Lindbergh began his two-month stay with the 475th, his longest with any air unit in the Pacific.
It was raining at 5:30 the next morning when Lindbergh started to prepare for the mission. When the flight took off at 10:30, the rain had stopped and Lindbergh easily slipped in on McGuire’s wing. MacDonald noticed that Lindbergh flew perfect formation. It was even more impressive that he flew so well considering that he had checked out in the P-38 only a few days earlier and had flown to the base on Hollandia in Dick Bong’s old P-38. It was this scene as the flight headed out on its mission that artist DeNardo chose to depict.
On this mission, Japanese ships and barges were sighted. Lindbergh took his place in the strafing circle and fired bursts into the target. One ship began to flame, and its fuel tanks exploded an instant after Lindbergh’s P-38 cleared the mast by about 30 feet.
In the days that followed, Lindbergh was in the air for every possible mission. His achievements included bombing Japanese bases and ships, strafing airstrips and downing a Japanese Ki-51 Sonia aircraft.
On Aug. 4, MacDonald was sent stateside on forced leave as punishment for letting Lindbergh fly combat missions. The group’s operations officer, Lt. Col. Meryl Smith, replaced him during his exile. MacDonald was allowed to return Oct. 13 and remained the 475th FG’s CO until July 1945.
On Aug. 13, Gen. George C. Kenney sent word that Lindbergh was not to fly any more combat missions. Lindbergh had flown 50 missions with the Army and Marines by the time he returned to the United States, accruing 178 hours of combat flight time. With his active war “”service”" ended, Lindbergh was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
America’s top two aces, as well as the 475th FG, achieved all their victories in the P-38. America’s most famous aviation hero Charles Lindbergh also flew the picturesque Lockheed Lightning, and thanks to his expertise, pilots were able to extend the combat range of this nimble fighter, which undoubtedly saved some of their lives.
DeNardo chose this particular scene to depict a unique moment in aviation history to honor the plane and the men who flew it. With the rising sun and receding storm clouds, he symbolically shows aviation legends meeting over the vast Pacific Ocean in the war against Japan.
Larry W. Bledsoe is an avid aviation historian and writer. He can be contacted at 909-986-1103 or BledsoeAvArt.com.