by Major General Franklin Nichols
When I graduated from flying school in April 1941, I was assigned to Wheeler Field, Hawaii to fly fighters. I was elated, as this was my first choice and I arrived there ready to be a gung-ho fighter pilot and enjoy living it up in Hawaii. Then in December 1941, the Japanese changed my life forever and we were playing a different game. It became a matter of survival— kill or be killed.
In August of 1942, I volunteered for the Fifth Air Force in Australia and joined the 7th Fighter Squadron, 49th fighter group en route to Port Moresby, New Guinea, flying P-40s. Initially, I was a wingman, then a Flight Leader, and then Operations Officer of the squadron. I hoped that I would become the Squadron Commander of the 7th Squadron, but that was not to be.
In March of 1943, Colonel Hutchison, the Group Commander told me to pack my bags. I was going to activate a squadron, in a new twin-engine P-38 Fighter Group, being formed in Brisbane, Australia. Starting with experienced cadre from the 49th Group and the balance of the squadron, new personnel from the United States, we were to have the 431st Fighter Squadron combat-ready in three months. I was walking on air. This was a chance to form a squadron using my ideas and my objectives and this is when I first met Tommy McGuire. He had recently been assigned to the 9th Fighter Squadron, of the 49th Group, and was reassigned as one of my combat-ready pilots, and he joined me in Brisbane. McGuire had little combat experience and no victories, but he had been in the Alaskan theater. Though I didn’t know it at the time, he was one of the few pilots in the Pacific who had been trained to fly p-38s back in the States, and he was highly-qualified in this type of aircraft.
At first I thought he was just another fighter jock and I welcome him and turned him over to Captain John Hood, my Operations Officer. Two weeks passed before I had my first serious conversation with him. John Hood came to me with a problem of assigning McGuire. He should have been an element leader but none of the Flight Commanders wanted him. They all said that “he talks too much.” It was strictly a matter of personality conflicts. I told John to send Mac to see me and I would try to resolve this petty personality problem. Mac didn’t know that there was a problem, so I told him I needed an Assistant Engineering Officer who was highly qualified in the P-38 to test fly all the new aircraft arriving in the squadron. He would okay each plane or recommend proper maintenance for it. Since I was beginning my flying transition into the P-38, I also told McGuire that I needed an experienced P-38 instructor pilot to check me out and get me combat ready in that aircraft.
We met the three month challenge of achieving combat-ready status and we proceed to Port Moresby the latter part of August and on the day after our arrival we flew our first combat mission. We were flying out of twelve-mile strip for a month, and waiting for our new strip to be completed across the mountains in the Buna area. In late September we finally got the squadron together as a complete unit. Our combat results had been outstanding. We had been on several successful air-to-air combat missions. and our number of confirmed victories was rapidly growing. McGuire’s talents as a fighter pilot were soon evident and he was one of the first members of the group to be an ace, shooting down five enemy aircraft. With long-range P-38s we were able to escort the bombers to new Japanese airbases at Wewak, Kabul, and Hollandia, and our air-to-air opportunities had increased considerably during the period and Mac became one of our leaders in confirmed kills.
On 16 October 1943, I received a call in the evening from the Fifth Fighter Command telling me to report to General Wurtsmith the next day. I caught the courier early the next morning and arrived at his office about 10 o’clock. He explained that I had been selected to return to the states for one month’s leave and said another month would be approved if I wanted to stay longer. He wanted to award me the medals I was due, that day, so I could return that afternoon to make arrangements for change of command of the squadron and take care of details for my departure. I was elated but also sad that I was leaving the best job I ever had with the finest squadron any commander ever had.
Late that afternoon I caught the courier and returned to the squadron. I was met at the airplane with the news that my squadron had been involved in some heavy aerial combat defending American shipping in Oro Bay. The good news was that the 431st Squadron had made a big air-to-air interception of a large bomber and fighter force with great results. The bad news was that McGuire had been shot down after he had destroyed three enemy planes.
Later that evening we learned that McGuire had been picked up by a PT boat twenty miles off shore. He had “borrowed” my airplane, since his was in for repairs, and he had bailed out of the burning craft after being wounded. It was that he survived as his parachute had become entangled and opened just before he hit the water.
There were standing orders that no one would fly my airplane without my permission. McGuire had taken it anyway, knowing that a maximum effort was important to protect our forces. I was glad McGuire had survived but I was upset that he had taken my plane. The next morning I headed to the hospital where I planned to ream him out real good.
I learned that McGuire had been repeating over and over, “My God, Major Nichols is really going to be mad at me for losing his plane.” He was right, but he had broken ribs, shrapnel wounds, severe burns, and his eyes were bloodshot, and when I saw how badly he was injured I could only console him. I told him how proud I was of him for shooting down the Japanese planes and surviving. I said, “To hell with it, I don’t care about the airplane.” Of course I was lying about the airplane but it made him feel better.
I was convinced this was his last combat mission and he would not fly combat for a long time, if ever. In fact, when I left in a few days for my trip home to join my wife in San Antonio, I met Tommy’s wife, Marilynn, for the first time and I assured her that he would never fly combat again. I told her I was sure he would be coming home after his recovery. How wrong I was and how mistaken I was with his motivation to remain and fight the war to it’s very end. He would be one in a million and my hero.
I will never forget the last conversation we had when I visited Mac at Hollandia. I was a Lieutenant Colonel with the Fifth Fighter Command and he was now a Major and the Squadron Commander of the 431st Fighter Squadron. He told me, “Colonel Nichols, I remember when we started out in Brisbane in 1943, you had a goal to make the 431st the best fighter squadron in the Army Air Force. My goal is the same as yours.” He gave his life making that goal possible.
Written by: Major General Franklin A. Nichols, USAF (Ret)
Photo’s are of Maj. McGuire and his P-38 “Pudgy V” and are taken from the book “Lightning Strikes” which has much more on the subject of America’s second highest scoring ace.