The year was 1943 on a beautiful November day and WWII was in full swing. As a Second Lt. with only a few combat missions under my belt I was assigned as tail end Charley for a mission to Lae, New Guinea led by our then commander of the 432nd.Fighter Squadron, call sign Clover.
Upon reaching the target area you could see the build up of cumulus clouds that seemed to inevitably form over the land areas. Somebody in the flight of 18 aircraft sighted bogies and called them out to Clover red leader and he began an immediate climb trading airspeed for altitude, truly a bad decision when you are amongst Japanese Zeros. If you get caught in a P-38 by a Zero when you are below 200 knots or so he will have you for lunch. No way can you turn with them and your only salvation is to dive and hope you can generate enough airspeed to separate yourself from him then come back at him from an angle of your choosing.
As tail end Charley I was down to just about stalling speed when bandits were sighted and lead called “drop tanks”. Due to my inexperience I failed to select internal tanks before hitting the jettison tank button and as the tanks separated from the aircraft both engines quit. It took but a micro second to realize my error, switch to internal tanks and get all engines going again but I had to dive sharply to prevent stalling and I became separated from the flight.
I called Clover red Leader, said I had experienced troubles was ok now but had lost sight of the formation. He advised me to head for home as they were engaging enemy fighters. As I took up a compass heading for home I spotted a flight of Japanese Betty bombers about to make a run on the runway at Lae. I started towards them and was so concentrated on watching them I failed to see a zero diving down at my 3 o’clock until I caught the flashing of his guns in my peripheral vision. I mean this guy was all but in the cockpit with me. The only action I could take was to roll the aircraft and through up my wing to place the right engine between us and dive for the deck.
He poured a lot of rounds into that right engine, but better it than me. Many coolant lines were severed and as I looked up in the rear view mirror all I could see was what appeared to be white smoke trailing behind the aircraft. Actually it was the hot coolant leaking out. I was able to out run the Zero with both engines still running. I then shut down the right engine as it started to overheat from lack of coolant. So here I was flying serenely homeward with one engine shot out, but the aircraft was certainly sound enough otherwise, unless I got jumped again but there really was little chance of that.
There were no Japanese bases along the journey home and another P-38 had pulled up on my right wing as escort. Finally I called Buna tower for a DF steer, gave them a long count, got a new heading and after a while had the field in sight. I made a long approach, threw down the gear when I was sure I had the landing made and greased this wounded machine on to the PSP runway; thus living to fight another day.
It was important to make a single engine landing on the first try. To attempt a go around on one engine for another approach was definitely not recommended. The clean aircraft flew straight and level on one engine real good and could even climb some, but with the gear extended and the airspeed down to final approach and landing speed trying to go around for another approach in case you over shot the runway was a great way to buy the proverbial farm. We already had a burned spot on the side of a hill just off the runway where somebody had already tried that little maneuver. I wasn’t about to make that mistake
This experience was another tribute to the twin engine P-38. If I had been flying a single engine bird all of those slugs would have gone into the cockpit rather that the engine. It was a nice feeling to know you have those two mills and that one could always bring you home if needed.