The P-47 Thunderbolt was not generally welcomed in the Pacific theatre. It was seen as too clumsy to compete with the very agile Japanese fighters and it did not have the range for operations over the vast expanses of the Pacific. Worse, the P-47 was best at the high altitudes at which American bombers operated over Europe. However, in Japan most combat occurred below 20,000 feet, where the P-47 was at its least maneuverable.
Despite these problems, General George C. Kenney, commander of the 5th Air Force in the SW Pacific, was determined to acquire as many aircraft as possible for his command. The Lockheed P-38 Lighting was popular with American pilots in the Pacific, but not available in sufficient numbers.
Fortunately for Kenney, the first Thunderbolt unit to reach him was the 348th Fighter Group, commanded by Col. Neel Kearby. He was very enthusiastic about the P-47, and had put some thought into the best way to take advantage of the big fighter. One of its strengths was a very high speed in the dive. He had put some thought into the best way to take advantage of the big fighter. One of its strengths was its very high speed in the dive. Kearby decided to take advantage of that.
Immediately after taking off, his P-47s would climb to a high altitude. At that height they would head towards their target, normally a Japanese base. Once close to the base they would dive into the attack. By the time they reached the target, they would be travelling at very high speed. Having made their attack, they would then use that high speed to climb back to high altitude before the Japanese could react.
These tactics would have been familiar to many British pilots of the Battle of Britain, having been used by pilots of the Messerschmitt Bf 109, who would reach high altitude over France, then swoop down on British fighters climbing to attack German bombers. They were particularly effective in the SW Pacific. Between August and December 1943 the 348th Fighter Group claimed over 150 victories while losing only 8 pilots. Kearby himself would become the highest scoring American P-47 Ace of the SW Pacific, with 22 confirmed kills.
The weak low level performance and limited maneuverability of the Thunderbolt was still a weakness. Kearby himself was killed on 6 March 1944 during a fighter sweep over Wewak, when he stayed at low level to confirm a probably kill and was caught by a Ki-43.
The P-47 was never popular amongst pilots who were used to the P-38 Lighting, although many were forced to fly it in early in 1944. The P-38 units had suffered relatively heavy losses in the fighting over Rabaul in November 1943, and P-38s were still in short supply. However, during 1944 the P-47 was slowly phased out in the SW Pacific. Suitable targets on New Guinea were in increasingly short supply. Those units that had converted from the P-38 were often able to convert back during the year. Early in 1945 even the 348th would move away from the Thunderbolt, moving onto the Merlin powered P-51D Mustang. By the end of the war the only Thunderbolt unit remaining in the Fifth Air Force was the 58th Fighter Group, a ground attack unit.
In mid-1944 the 7th Air Force finally received the Thunderbolt and the Mustang. This was just in time for them to take part in the invasion of Saipan, flying onto the island in June 1944. On Saipan the P-47 saw action in the ground attack role.
The capture of Iwo Jima and then Okinawa finally allowed the 7th’s Thunderbolts to see air to air combat. The two islands were used as bases during the increasingly heavy strategic bombing campaign over Japan. Both Thunderbolt and Mustang units saw service in the high altitude bomber escort role at which the Thunderbolt excelled. The same period saw the arrival of the long range P-47N, which had a range of close to 2,000 miles with drop tanks.
In terms of victories gained, the Thunderbolt’s best moment in the Central Pacific came in late May 1945. Kamikaze attacks were threatening Allied shipping around Okinawa, and so the 318th Fighter Group was allowed to fly fighter sweeps over southern Japan, with the aim of intercepting potential Kamikaze aircraft far from their targets. In 2 sweeps, on 25 and 28 May, the Thunderbolts claimed nearly 40 victories.
The career of the P-47 Thunderbolt in the Pacific is a good example of how important it was for the pilot to adjust their tactics to their aircraft. If a Thunderbolt pilot allowed himself to be dragged into a low level dogfight then they were in serious trouble.
Nicknamed as the “Jug” due to its silhouette looking like a milk jug,( some say it was named Jug, short for juggernaut ) Apart from US service, the P-47 Thunderbolt aircraft saw action as part of the British RAF, the French Air Force, Soviet Air Force and also as part of the contingent of pilots hailing from Brazil and Mexico who also participated as part of the Allied war effort.
The idea for this post came from Teagan Riordain Geneviene.
Research from: the Smithsonian Museum; Pacific Encyclopedia; History of War and War History on line.
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Farewell Salutes –
Elizabeth Brook – Galeburg, IL; US Navy WAVES, WWII, Lt.
John Hill – Webster, NY; US Navy, WWII, PTO, PT-boats
Michael Kormos Jr. – Wilkes Barre, PA; US Army Air Corps, WWII, 406th Squadron
Cleveland Lemon Jr. – Baton Rouge, LA; US Army, WWII, PTO
Charles M. Lentz – Independence, MO; US Navy, Korea & Vietnam, (Ret. 22 y.)
Terrance B. Salazar – San Antonio, TX; US Army, Spc., 82nd Airborne Division
James A. Scott – Aiken, SC; US Army Air Corps, WWII, PTO, 11th Airborne Division
Frederick Trader – Oriska, ND; US Army Air Corps, WWII, 2nd Lt., bombardier/navigator
Raymond R. Veckruise – Gary, IN; US Army Air Corps, WWII