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20 December 1941

Kawasaki Ki-48 Army Type 99 twin-engine light bomber. Allied reporting name, “Lily.”

20 December 1941: For the first time, the 1st American Volunteer Group engaged aircraft of the Empire of Japan in combat. 1st and 2nd Squadrons, based at Kunming, China, intercepted ten Kawasaki Ki-48-I Army Type 99 twin-engine light bombers of the 82nd Dokuritsu Hiko Chutai.

Japan and China had been at war since 1937. The Japanese aircraft were based at the Gia Lâm airport, near Hà Nội in occupied French Indochina. They had frequently attacked Kunming, a Chinese city at the northern end of the Burma Road, and had previously been unopposed. For this mission, the bomber squadron initially had a fighter escort, but the fighters turned back at the Indo-China/China border.

The AVG had established a network of observers which would report enemy aircraft in time for the fighters to take off to intercept them. Having received the warning of inbound aircraft, the 1st and 2nd AVG squadrons were ordered into battle.

1st American Volunteer Group fighter pilots run toward their shark-mouthed Curtiss-Wright Hawk 81-A2s, “somewhere in China.” (Defense Media Network)

Sources vary widely as to the number of AVG aircraft involved, but there may have been as many as 16 Curtiss-Wright Hawk 81-A3s from the 1st Squadron, and 8 more from the 2nd Squadron. There is a general consensus that the fighters shot down three of the Japanese bombers, and that a fourth went down while returning to base. Other sources say that only one of the ten Ki-48s made it back to its base. AVG pilots claimed five bombers shot down and two damaged. One Hawk 81 ran out fuel and was damaged beyond repair in a forced landing.

A Curtiss-Wright Hawk 81-A3 of the 1st American Volunteer Group, Kunming, China, 1942. (U.S. Air Force)
CAMCO assembly facility for Curtiss-Wright Hawk 81-A3 fighters for AVG (74250 A.C.) (SDASM)
Curtiss-Wright 81-A3, 1st American Volunteer Group, circa 1942.
AMERICAN AIRCRAFT IN ROYAL AIR FORCE SERVICE: CURTISS HAWK 81A TOMAHAWK. (CH 17252) The first Curtiss Tomahawks, Marks I and IIA, to enter squadron service with the RAF, in the hands of No. 403 Squadron RCAF at Baginton, Warwickshire. The Squadron operated the Tomahawk for only a short time, yielding them in favour of Supermarine Spitfires in May 1941. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205210781
AMERICAN AIRCRAFT IN RAF SERVICE 1939-1945: CURTISS HAWK 81A TOMAHAWK. (ATP 10993F) Tomahawk Mk.IIb, AK184: cockpit interior, port side. Photograph taken at Air Service Training Ltd, Hamble, Hampshire. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205127117
Curtiss-Wright Tomahawk Mk.IIb, AK184, at Hamble, Hampshire © IWM.

RAF order for 100 Tomahawk IIb (Curtiss-Wright Hawk 81-A2 ) was released to be available for AVG. They were built as hybrids of the Tomahawk Mk.IIb and the P-40C Warhawk, though the airplanes intended for the AVG differed in details from either the standard Britsih or American fighters. The airplanes were painted in the standard RAF brown and green camouflage patterns. The completed airplanes were knocked down, crated, then shipped from New York. They were reassembled at a CAMCO facility near Rangoon, Burma.

Two Curtiss-Wright Tomahawk Mk.IIBs on a test flight following assembly at No. 107 Maintenance Unit, Kasfareet, Egypt. Copyright: © IWM.

The Curtiss-Wright Corporation Hawk 81 was a single-seat, single-engine pursuit (fighter). It was a low-wing monoplane of all-metal construction and used flush riveting to reduce aerodynamic drag. It had an enclosed cockpit and retractable landing gear. Extensive wind tunnel testing at the NACA Langley laboratories refined the airplane’s design, significantly increasing the top speed.

The Hawk 81 was 31 feet, 8¾ inches (9.671 meters) long, with a wingspan of 37 feet, 4 inches (11.379 meters) and overall height of 10 feet, 7 inches (3.226 meters).

Allison Engineering Co. V-1710-33 V-12 aircraft engine at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. (NASM)

The Tomahawk/Warhawk was powered by a liquid-cooled, supercharged, 1,710.597ubic-inch-displacement (28.032 liter) Allison Engineering Co. V-1710-C15 (V-1710-33), a single overhead cam (SOHC) 60° V-12 engine, which had a Continuous Power Rating of 930 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m., from Sea Level to 12,800 feet (3,901 meters), and 1,150 horsepower at 3,000 r.p.m. to 14,300 feet (4,359 meters) for Take Off and Military Power. The engine drove a three-bladed Curtiss Electric constant-speed propeller through a 2:1 gear reduction. The V-1710-33 was 8 feet, 2.54 inches (2.503 meters) long, 3 feet, 5.88 inches (1.064 meters) high, and 2 feet, 5.29 inches (0.744 meters) wide. It weighed 1,340 pounds (607.8 kilograms).

Armament consisted of two air-cooled Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns mounted in the cowling and synchronized to fire forward through the propeller arc, with 380 rounds of ammunition per gun. In British service, the Tomahawk was armed with an additional four Browning .303 Mark II machine guns, with two in each wing. The American P-40, P-40B and P-40C Warhawks had two or four Browning AN-M2 .30-caliber aircraft machine guns as wing-mounted guns.

The “blood chit” was sometimes sewn on AVG pilots’ jackets.

The AVG pilots were employees of the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO). Most were former United States military pilots who had been secretly recruited. They were required to resign their officers’ commissions. Importantly, they were all civilians—not members of the Chinese military–nor were they otherwise employed by the government of China. They each had a one year contract, 4 July 1941–4 July 1942. They were paid a monthly salary, more than three times their former military pay, and were also paid a bonus for each enemy airplane they shot down.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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18 December 1941

First Lieutenant Boyd D. Wagner, USAAC. (U.S. Air Force)
First Lieutenant Boyd David Wagner, United States Army Air Corps. (U.S. Air Force)

18 December 1941: First Lieutenant Boyd David (“Buzz”) Wagner, United States Army Air Corps, commanding officer of the 17th Pursuit Squadron (Interceptor) at Nichols Field, Pasay City, Commonwealth of the Philippines, shot down his fifth Japanese airplane, a Mitsubishi A6M2 Type Zero fighter, with his Curtiss-Wright P-40B Warhawk, near Vigan, Luzon. He became the first U.S. Army “ace” of World War II.

On 12 December 1941, “Buzz” Wagner was flying a lone reconnaissance mission over the airfield at Aparri, which had been captured by the invading Japanese. He was attacked by several Zero fighters but he evaded them, then returned and shot down two of them.  As he strafed the airfield he was attacked by more Zeros and shot down two more, bringing his score for the mission to four enemy airplanes shot down.

On 18 December, Lieutenant Wagner lead a flight of four P-40s to attack the enemy-held airfield at Vigan. He and Lieutenant Russell M. Church strafed and bombed the field while two other P-40s covered from overhead. Wagner destroyed nine Japanese aircraft on the ground, but as he passed over the field a Zero took off. Wagner rolled inverted to locate the Zero, then after spotting him, chopped his throttle and allowed the Zero to pass him. This left Wagner in a good position and he shot down his fifth enemy fighter. Lieutenant Church was shot down by ground fire and killed.

Mitsubishi A6M3 Model 22 "Zeke" in the Solomon Islands, 1943. (Imperial Japanese Navy)
A Mitsubishi A6M3 Navy Type 0 Model 22, UI 105, (Allied reporting name “Zeke”, but better known simply as “the Zero”) in the Solomon Islands, May 1943. This fighter is flown by Petty Officer 1st Class Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, 251st Kōkūtai, Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service. (Imperial Japanese Navy)

This fifth shoot down made Buzz Wagner the first U.S. Army Air Corps ace of World War II. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Purple Heart for injuries sustained in an air battle, 22 December 1941. He was evacuated to Australia in January 1942.

2nd Lieutenant Boyd D. Wagner, Air Corps, United States Army.

Boyd David Wagner was born 26 October 1916 at Emeigh, Pennsylvania. He was the first of two children of Boyd Matthew Wagner, a laborer, and Elizabeth Moody Wagner. After graduating from high school, Wagner enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh, where he majored in aeronautical engineering.

After three years of college, Boyd Wagner enlisted as a flying cadet in the U.S. Army Air Corps, at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 26 June 1937. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, Air Corps Reserve, 16 June 1938. Lieutenant Wagner received advanced flight training and pursuit training, and on 1 October 1938 his commission as a reserve officer was changed to Second Lieutenant, Army Air Corps.

Wagner was promoted to First Lieutenant, Army of the United States, on 9 September 1940. Lieutenant Wagner was assigned to the 24th Pursuit Group in the Philippine Islands, 5 December 1940.

1st Lieutenant Boyd David Wagner, United States Army Air Corps, Philippine Islands, 1 December 1941. (Photograph by Carl Mydans/TIME & LIFE Pictures/Getty Images)
Lt. Col. Boyd D. Wagner

Lieutenant Wagner was promoted to the rank of Captain, A.U.S., 30 January 1942. On 11 April 1942, Captain Wagner was again promoted, bypassing the rank of Major, to Lieutenant Colonel, A.U.S. He was assigned to the 8th Fighter Group in New Guinea. On 30 April 1942, while flying a Bell P-39 Airacobra, Wagner shot down another three enemy airplanes. In September 1942, Colonel Wagner was sent back to the United States to train new fighter pilots.

On 29 November 1942, Colonel Wagner disappeared while on a routine flight from Eglin Field, Florida, to Maxwell Field, Alabama, in a Curtiss-Wright P-40K Warhawk, 42-10271. Six weeks later, the wreck of his fighter was found, approximately 4 miles north of Freeport, Florida. Lieutenant Colonel Boyd David Wagner, United States Army Air Corps, had been killed in the crash. His remains are buried at Grandview Cemetery, Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

Curtiss P-40B Warhawks at Clark Field, Philippine Islands, early December 1941.
Curtiss-Wright P-40B Warhawks of the 17th Pursuit Squadron, Nichols Field, Luzon, Philippine Islands, early December 1941. This squadron was under the command of 1st Lieutenant Buzz Wagner. (U.S. Air Force)

The Curtiss-Wright Corporation Hawk 81B (P-40B Warhawk) was a single-seat, single-engine pursuit. It was a low-wing monoplane of all-metal construction and used flush riveting to reduce aerodynamic drag. It had an enclosed cockpit and retractable landing gear. Extensive wind tunnel testing at the NACA Langley laboratories refined the airplane’s design, significantly increasing the top speed.

The P-40B Warhawk was 31 feet, 8¾ inches (9.671 meters) long, with a wingspan of 37 feet, 4 inches (11.379 meters) and overall height of 10 feet, 7 inches (3.226 meters). Its empty weight was 5,590 pounds (2,536 kilograms), and 7,326 pounds (3,323 kilograms) gross. The maximum takeoff weight was 7,600 pounds (3,447 kilograms).

Curtiss-Wright P-40B or C Warhawk, circa 1942. (Niagara Aerospace Museum)

The P-40B was powered by a liquid-cooled, supercharged, 1,710.597 cubic-inch-displacement (28.032 liter) Allison Engineering Co. V-1710-C15 (V-1710-33), a single overhead cam (SOHC) 60° V-12 engine, which had a Continuous Power Rating of 930 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m., from Sea Level to 12,800 feet (3,901 meters), and 1,150 horsepower at 3,000 r.p.m. to 14,300 feet  (4,359 meters) for Take Off and Military Power. The engine drove a three-bladed Curtiss Electric constant-speed propeller through a 2:1 gear reduction. The V-1710-33 was 8 feet, 2.54 inches (2.503 meters) long, 3 feet, 5.88 inches (1.064 meters) high, and 2 feet, 5.29 inches (0.744 meters) wide. It weighed 1,340 pounds (607.8 kilograms).

Allison Engineering Co. V-1710-33 V-12 aircraft engine at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. (NASM)
Allison Engineering Co. V-1710-33 V-12 aircraft engine at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. (NASM)

Heavier than the initial production P-40, the P-40B was slightly slower, with a maximum speed of 352 miles per hour (567 kilometers per hour) at 15,000 feet (4,572 meters). It had a service ceiling of 32,400 feet (9,876 meters). Its range was 730 miles (1,175 kilometers).

Armament consisted of two air-cooled Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns mounted in the cowling and synchronized to fire forward through the propeller arc, with 380 rounds of ammunition per gun, and four Browning AN-M2 .30-caliber aircraft machine guns, with two in each wing.

Curtiss-Wright produced 13,738 P-40s between 1939 and 1944. 131 of those were P-40B Warhawks.

These Curtiss P-40B Warhawks of the 44th Pursuit Squadron, 18th Pursuit Group, are the same type aircraft flown by Buzz Wagner. (U.S. Air Force)
These Curtiss P-40B Warhawks of the 44th Pursuit Squadron, 18th Pursuit Group, are the same type aircraft flown by Buzz Wagner in combat over the Philippine Islands. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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2 December 1936

Boeing YB-17 Flying Fortress 36-149. (U.S. Air Force)
Boeing YB-17 Flying Fortress 36-149. (U.S. Air Force)

2 December 1936: The first Boeing YB-17, U.S. Army Air Corps serial number 36-149, made its first flight.

Although the prototype Boeing Model 299, NX13372, had crashed at Wright Field, Ohio, 30 October 1935, the Army had ordered thirteen Y1B-17 service test aircraft, serials 36-149–36-161. Prior to the model’s first flight, this designation was changed to YB-17. (The “-1-” in the original Y1B-17 designation indicated that the service test bombers were ordered using funding other than the normal appropriations for new aircraft.)

Boeing YB-17. (U.S. Air Force)
Boeing YB-17 36-149. (U.S. Air Force)

The YB-17 had several improvements over the Model 299, which was retroactively designated XB-17. There was a long carburetor intake on top of the engine nacelles which visually distinguishes the YB-17 from the follow-on YB-17A. The main landing gear has one strut rather than the two of the Model 299.

Boeing YB-17 36-149. (U.S. Air Force)

The Boeing Model 299B, designated YB-17 by the Army Air Corps, was 68 feet, 4 inches (20.828 meters) long with a wingspan of 103 feet, 9 inches (31.633 meters) and the overall height was 18 feet, 4 inches (5.588 meters). It had an empty weight of 24,465 pounds (11,097 kilograms), gross weight of 34,880 pounds (15,821 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight of 42,600 pounds (19,323 kilograms).

Boeing YB-17 36-149. (U.S. Air Force)

Instead of the Pratt & Whitney engines installed on the 299, the YB-17 had four air-cooled, supercharged 1,823.129-cubic-inch-displacement (29.876 liter) Wright Aeronautical Division Cyclone 9 R-1820G5 (R-1820-39) nine-cylinder radial engines with a compression ratio of 6.45:1. They turned three-bladed Hamilton Standard constant-speed propellers through a 16:11 gear reduction drive, in order to match the engines’ effective power range with the propellers. The R-1820-39 was rated at 805 horsepower at 2,100 r.p.m., at Sea Level, and 930 horsepower at 2,200 r.p.m. for takeoff. The R-1820-39 was 45-7/16 inches (1.154 meters) long and 54¼ inches (1.378 meters) in diameter, and weighed 1,198 pounds (543.4 kilograms).

The cruise speed of the YB-17 was 217 miles per hour (349 kilometers per hour) and the maximum speed was 256 miles per hour (412 kilometers per hour) at 14,000 feet (4,267 meters). Its service ceiling was 30,600 feet (9,327 meters). The bomber’s maximum range was 3,320 miles (5,343 kilometers).

The YB-17 could carry 8,000 pounds (3,629 kilograms) of bombs. Defensive armament consisted of five .30-caliber air-cooled Browning machine guns.

Boeing YB-17 36-149 nosed over on landing at Seattle, 7 December 1936. (Unattributed)

36-149 was damaged in a landing accident 7 December 1936. It was repaired and then flown to Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio, 11 January 1937. After testing at Wright Field, 36-149 was delivered to the 2nd Bombardment Group, Langley Field, Virginia. By 1938 the bomber was back at Wright Field for additional tests.

“In the summer of 1938, Bill [Captain William C. Bentley, Jr., U.S. Army Air Corps, a B-17 test pilot at Langley Field] and his aircrew flew back to Seattle to pick up an additional aircraft, YB-17 tail number 36-149 from Boeing. This aircraft was different from the original thirteen. During its assembly phase at Boeing, it was packed with additional instruments for recording purposes. Once delivered to Langley, the plane was going to be subjected to a variety of stress tests in order to determine how much damage the plane could take and still operate. During its flight to Langley, Bill arrived over the field in a thunderstorm. The strength of the storm flipped the plane upside down, a stress never envisioned by the designers for such a large aircraft, much less one loaded to capacity with measuring instrumentation and a full crew. Using his fighter pilot training, Bill flew the aircraft at its maximum altitude then performed a slow roll to bring the airplane into its proper attitude. After recovering from a harrowing spin, Bill got control of the plane and landed successfully.

“Much to the crew’s amazement, the wings were slightly bent and some rivets were missing. But the measuring instrumentation had recorded all of the stress placed on the plane. . . .”

—The Touch of Greatness: Colonel William C. Bentley, Jr., USAAC/USAF, by Stewart W. Bentley, Jr., Ph.D., AuthorHouse, Bloomington, Indiana, 2010, Chapter 2 at Page 45.

(This meant that a fourteenth YB-17, which had been built specifically as a static test article, could be completed as a Y1B-17A, 37-369.)

Boeing YB-17 at Hamilton Field, California. (U.S. Air Force)

In October 1940 36-149 was transferred to the 19th Bombardment Group at March Field, California. Finally, on 11 February 1942, it was transferred to the Air Park at Amarillo Army Air Field, a B-17 training base in Texas. It was written off 11 December 1942.

After several years of testing, the YB-17 went into production as the B-17 Flying Fortress. By the end of World War II, 12,731 B-17s had been built by Boeing, Douglas and Lockheed Vega.

Boeing YB-17 36-139 arrives at Langley Field, Virginia, 1 March 1937. (U.S. Air Force)
Boeing YB-17 36-139 arrives at Langley Field, Virginia, 1 March 1937. (U.S. Air Force)
Boeing YB-17 36-149 at Langley Field, Virginia, 1 March 1937. (U.S. Air Force)
Boeing YB-17 36-149 at the Golden Gate International Exposition, Treasure Island, California, ca. 1939. (Stephen Fisher)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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14 October 1938

The Curtiss-Wright XP-40 prototype, 38-10, on its first flight, 14 October 1938. Test pilot Ed Elliot is in the cockpit. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives) 16_008532

14 October 1938: At Buffalo, New York, test pilot Everett Edward Elliot made the first flight in the new Curtiss-Wright Corporation’s Model 75P, a prototype for a single-engine pursuit plane which had been designated XP-40 by the U.S. Army Air Corps.

Curtiss-Wright’s Chief Engineer, Donovan Reese Berlin, had taken the tenth production P-36A Hawk, Air Corps serial number 38-10, and had its air-cooled radial engine replaced with the Harold Caminez-designed, liquid-cooled, supercharged, 1,710.597-cubic-inch-displacement (28.032 liter) Allison Engineering Co. V-1710-C13 (V-1710-19).

Donovan Reese Berlin. (Niagara Aerospace Museum)

The V-1710-19 was a single overhead cam (SOHC) 60° V-12 engine with four valves per cylinder and a compression ration of 6.65:1. It had a Normal Power rating of 910 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m. at Sea Level, and 1,060 horsepower at 2,950 r.p.m. for Takeoff. At 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), the V-1710-19 had Maximum Continuous Power rating of 1,000 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m., and Military Power rating of 1,150 horsepower at 2,950 r.p.m. The engine required 100/130-octane aviation gasoline. It drove a three-bladed Curtiss Electric constant-speed propeller through a 2:1 gear reduction. The V-1710-19 was 8 feet, 1.75 inches (2.483 meters) long, 3 feet, 4.75 inches (1.035 meters) high and 2 feet, 4.94 inches (0.735 meters) wide. It weighed 1,320 pounds (599 kilograms).

Curtiss-Wright XP-40 38-10 (SDASM 16_008531)

At 1,829.39-cubic-inches (29.978 liters), the original Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp S1C1-G (R-1830-17) 14-cylinder radial engine had greater displacement and produced 80 horsepower more for takeoff than the Allison V-12. The long, narrow V-12, though, allowed for a much more streamlined engine cowling for higher speed and greater efficiency.

XP-40 16_008533
Curtiss-Wright XP-40 prototype. (SDASM 16_008534)
The Curtiss XP-40 prototype at Langley Field in the original configuration. (NASA)
The Curtiss-Wright XP-40 in the original configuration at Langley Field. (NASA)
Everett Edward Elliot (1907–1981).

In the early testing, the XP-40 was much slower than expected, reaching only 315 miles per hour (507 kilometers per hour). (The P-36A Hawk had a maximum speed of  313 miles per hour). Engineers experimented with different placement for the coolant radiator, oil coolers and the engine air intake. The Air Corps project officer, Lieutenant Benjamin Scovill Kelsey, had the prototype sent to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) Research Center at Langley Field, Virginia, where the full-size airplane was placed inside a wind tunnel.

Over a two-month period, NACA engineers made a number of improvements. The radiator was moved forward under the engine and the oil coolers utilized the same air scoop. The exhaust manifolds were improved as were the landing gear doors.

When they had finished, Lieutenant Kelsey flew the modified XP-40 back to Curtiss. Its speed had been increased to 354 miles per hour (570 kilometers per hour), a 12% improvement.

By December 1939 the airplane had been further improved and was capable of 366 miles per hour (589 kilometers per hour).

The Curtiss-Wright XP-40 prototype in a wind tunnel at Langley Field, 24 April 1939. (NASA)
Curtiss XP-40 in the NACA Full Scale Wind Tunnel at Langley Field, Virginia, April 1939. (NASA)
Curtiss-Wright XP-40 in the NACA Full Scale Wind Tunnel at Langley Field, Virginia, 24 April 1939. (NASA)

The Curtiss Hawk 75P, XP-40 38-10, was 31 feet, 1 inch (9.574 meters) long with a wingspan of 37 feet, 4 inches (11.354 meters) and overall height of 12 feet, 4 inches (3.734 meters). It had an empty weight of 5,417 pounds (2,457.1 kilograms) and maximum gross weight of 6,870 pounds (3,116.2 kilograms).

The prototype had a maximum speed of 342 miles per hour (550 kilometers per hour) at 12,200 feet (3,719 meters) with a gross weight of 6,260 pounds (2,839.5 kilograms). Its range was 460 miles (740 kilometers) flying at 299 miles per hour (481 kilometers per hour) with 100 gallons (378.5 liters) of fuel. With 159 gallons (601.9 liters) and with speed reduced to 200 miles per hour (322 kilometers per hour), the XP-40 had a maximum range of 1,180 miles (1,899 kilometers).

The prototype was armed with two air-cooled Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns mounted above the engine and synchronized to fire forward through the propeller arc.

The Air Corps placed an initial order for 524 P-40s. This was the largest single order for airplanes by the U.S. military up to that time. The first production model was the P-40 Warhawk, armed with two .50-caliber machine guns. There was only one P-40A variant which was a P-40 modified as a camera aircraft. The definitive pursuit model was the P-40B Warhawk, which retained the two .50-caliber guns of the P-40 and added two Browning M2 .30-caliber machine guns to each of the wings.

A Curtiss-Wright P-40B Warhawk, 79th Pursuit Squadron, 20th Pursuit Group, Hamilton Field, California, 1940. (U.S. Air Force)

The P-40B was best known as the airplane flown by the American Volunteer Group fighting for China against the Japanese. They were called the “Flying Tigers”. Between 1939 and 1945, Curtiss built 13,738 P-40s in many configurations. They flew in combat in every theater of operations during World War II.

A Curtiss-Wright Hawk 81-A3 (Tomahawk IIb) of the American Volunteer Group, Kunming, China, 1942. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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2 September 1944

Lt. (j.g.) George H.W. Bush, USNR, VT-51, in cockpit of TBM-1C Avenger Bu.No. 46214, USS San Jacinto (CVL-30), 1944. (U.S.Navy)

2 September 1944: Lieutenant (Junior Grade) George Herbert Walker Bush, United States Naval Reserve, led a flight of four TBF/TBM Avenger torpedo bombers of Torpedo Squadron 51 (VT-51), from the Independence-class light aircraft carrier USS San Jacinto (CVL-30), against a radio transmission station on the island of Chichi-Jima.

The Avenger had a crew of three. Along with Lt (j.g.) Bush were Lt. (j.g.) William G. White, USNR, gunner, and radio operator ARM 2/c John Lawson Delaney, USNR.

Undated photo of future United States President George H.W. Bush as a United States Navy pilot seated in the cockpit of an Avenger. (U.S. Navy)

Each airplane was armed with four 500-pound¹ general purpose bombs. The flight was joined by eight Curtiss-Wright SB2C Helldiver dive bombers of VB-20, escorted by twelve Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat fighters of VF-20, from USS Enterprise (CV-6).

Chichi-Jima is the largest island in the Ogasawara Archipelago of the Bonin Islands, approximately 150 miles (240 kilometers) north of Iwo Jima and 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) south of Tokyo, Japan. The United States Hydrographic Survey described the island in 1920 as “very irregular in shape,” approximately 4¼ miles (7.2 kilometers) long and 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) wide. The area of the island is presently given as 23.45 square kilometers (9.05 square miles). Its highest point is 326 meters (1,070 feet) above Sea level. The island has a small sea port where midget submarines were based beginning in August 1944. Chichi-Jima was heavily garrisoned with 20,656 Imperial Japanese Army and Navy personnel, and 2,285 civilian workers.²

A Curtiss-Wright SB2C Helldiver over Chichi Jima. (U.S. Navy)

Lieutenant Bush’s flight was scheduled for a time over target of 0825–0830. They encountered heavy antiaircraft fire and Bush’s Avenger was hit. With the torpedo bomber on fire, Bush continued the attack and later reported good results. Unable to return to the aircraft carrier, he flew away from the island to limit the risk of capture of the crew by the enemy when they bailed out.

Bush and one other crewman (which one is not known) bailed out. While Bush parachuted safely, the second crewman’s parachute never opened. The third crewman went down with the airplane. Both Lieutenant White and Radioman Delaney were killed.

The Gato-class fleet submarine USS Finback (SS-230) was stationed near the island on lifeguard duty during the attack. At 0933, Finback was notified of an aircraft down nine miles northeast of Minami-Jima.  Escorted by two F6F fighters, the submarine headed for the location. At 1156, Finback picked up Lt. Bush, floating in his life raft. A search for White and Delaney was unsuccessful. Their bodies were not recovered.

Lt. (j.g.) George H. W. Bush, USNR, in inflatable raft, is rescued by the crew of USS Finback (SS-230), 2 September 1944. (U.S. Navy)

(Later that same day, Finback, while submerged, towed a second pilot and his life raft away from Magane-Iwa, as he held on to the sub’s periscope.)

Lieutenant Bush and the other rescued pilots remained aboard for the remainder of Finback‘s war patrol (her tenth), and were then returned to Pearl Harbor. In November he rejoined San Jacinto for operations in the Philippines.

Gato-class fleet submarine USS Finback (SS-230) off New London, Connecticut, 7 March 1949. (U.S. Navy)

George Herbert Walker Bush was born at Milton, Massachusetts, 12 June 1924, the son of Prescott Sheldon Bush and Dorothy Walker Bush. He attended high school at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.

One day after his 18th birthday, 13 June 1942, Bush enlisted as a seaman, 2nd class, in the United States Naval Reserve. He was appointed an aviation cadet and underwent preflight training at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He was honorably discharged 8 June, and commissioned as an ensign, United States Naval Reserve, 9 June 1943. At the age of 19 years, 2 days, he became the youngest Naval Aviator in history. (His age record was broken the following month by Ensign Charles Stanley Downey, who was commissioned 16 July 1943 at the age of 18 years, 11 months, 14 days.)

Aviation Cadet George H. W. Bush, USNR, 1942. (U.S. Navy)

Ensign Bush continued flight training at NAS Pensacola, Florida, and then the Carrier Qualification Training Unit, NAS Glenville, Illinois. After training with the Atlantic Fleet, Ensign Bush was assigned to Torpedo Squadron Fifty-One (VT-51), in September 1943. He was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade), 1 August 1944.

After leaving San Jacinto, Bush was assigned to NAS Norfolk, Virginia, from December 1944 to February 1945. He then joined Torpedo Squadron Ninety-Seven (VT-97) and then VT-153.

Lieutenant (j.g.) Bush was released from active duty on 18 September 1945, retaining his commission. He was promoted to lieutenant 16 November 1948. On 24 October 1955, Lieutenant Bush resigned from the U.S. Navy.

During World War II, George H. W. Bush flew 58 combat missions. He flew a total of 1,221 hours and made 126 carrier landings. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with two gold stars (three awards), and the Presidential Unit Citation.

He would later become the forty-first President of the United States of America.

Grumman TBF or General Motors TBM Avengers over Wake Island, 1943. (U.S. Navy)

The airplane flown by Lt. (j.g.) Bush on 2 September 1944 was a General Motors TBM-1C Avenger torpedo bomber, Bu. No. 46214. This was a licensed variant of the Grumman TBF-1C Avenger, built by the General Motors Corporation Eastern Aircraft Division at Linden, New Jersey.

The Avenger was designed by Robert Leicester Hall, Chief Engineer and Test Pilot for the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, Bethpage, New York. The prototype XTBF-1 made its first flight 1 August 1941. It was a large single-engine aircraft, operated by a crew of three (pilot, radio operator and ball turret gunner). It was equipped with folding wings for storage on aircraft carriers. Production of the torpedo bomber began with the opening of a new manufacturing plant, Sunday, 7 December 1941. The first production Avenger was delivered to the U.S. Navy in January 1942.

The TBF-1 and TBM-1 were 40 feet, 11 inches (12.471 meters) long, with a wingspan of 54 feet, 2 inches (16.510 meters) and overall height of 16 feet, 5 inches (5.004 meters). The airplane had an empty weight of 10,545 pounds (478 kilograms), and its maximum gross eight was 17,895 pounds (8,117 kilograms). The Avenger was the largest single-engine aircraft of World War II.

LCDR Albert B. Cahn, USN, gives the take-of signal to a General Motors TBM-1C Avenger of Torpedo Squadron 51 (VT-51) aboard the light aircraft carrier USS San Jacinto (CVL-30), during exercises on 16 May 1944. (U.S. Navy)

The Avenger was powered by one of several variants of the Wright Aeronautical Division Cyclone 14 (R-2600): GR2600B698 (R-2600-8 and -8A); GR2600B676 (R-2600-10); and 776C14B31. The R-2600 was series of air-cooled, supercharged, 2,603.737-cubic-inch-displacement (42.688 liter), two-row 14-cylinder radial engines. The engines used in the Avengers all had a compression ratio of 6.9:1, supercharger ratios of 7.06:1 and 10.06:1, and propeller gear reduction ratio of 0.5625:1.

The R-2600-8, -8A and -10 had Normal Power ratings of 1,500 horsepower at 2,400 r.p.m. at Sea Level, and 1,700 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m. for takeoff. The R-2600-20 was rated at 1,600 horsepower at 2,400 r.p.m., and 1,900 horsepower at 2,800 horsepower, respectively.

Dimensions and weights varied. The R-2600-8 and -8A were 64.91 inches (1.649 meters) long. The -10 was 74.91 inches (1.903 meters) long, and the length of the -20 was 66.08 inches (1.678 meter). The R-2600-8 and 8A and -10 were 54.26 inches (1.378 meters) in diameter. The -20 was 54.08 inches (1.374 meters). The -8 and -8A both weighed 1,995 pounds (905 kilograms). The -10 weighed 2,115 pounds (959 kilograms) and the -20 weighed 2,045 pounds (928 kilograms).

The engines drove a three-bladed Hamilton Standard Hydromatic constant-speed propeller.

The TBF/TBM had a cruise speed of 147 miles per hour (237 kilometers per hour) and maximum speed of 276 miles per hour (444 kilometers per hour) at 16,500 feet (5,029 meters). The service ceiling was 30,100 feet (9,174 meters). Its maximum range was 1,010 miles (1,625 kilometers).

The Avenger was armed with one air-cooled Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine gun mounted in each wing, firing forward. Another .50-caliber machine gun was installed in an electrically-operated dorsal ball turret. In the ventral position was a Browning M2 .30-caliber aircraft machine gun in a flexible mounting.

The primary weapon of the Avenger was carried in an enclosed weapons bay. It could be armed with one Mk. 13 aerial torpedo, ³ or up to 2,000 pounds (907 kilograms) of bombs.

A Grumman TBF-1 Avenger 4-T-2 of Torpedo Squadron Four (VT-4) drops a Mk. 13 aerial torpedo, circa 1942. Following the destruction of Torpedo Eight at the Battle of Midway, aerial torpedo attacks were rarely used by the U.S. Navy. (U.S. Navy)

The Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation produced TBF Avengers from Early 1942 until 1943, when production was taken over by the General Motors Corporation Eastern Aircraft Division. Grumman produced 2,290 TBFs, while Eastern built 9,836 TBMs.

Lieutenant Bush’s aircraft carrier, USS San Jacinto (CVL-30), was an Independence-class light carrier. It had been started by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation as a Cleveland-class light cruiser, USS Newark (CL-100), but was converted during construction. Construction took 11 months and the ship was launched 26 September 1943. It was commissioned 15 November 1943.

The carrier was 622.5 feet (189.7 meters) long, with a beam of 71.5 feet (21.8 meters) and draft of 26 feet (7.9 meters). It had a full load displacement of 15,100 long tons (16,912 short tons, or 15,342 metric tons). The ship was powered by steam turbines producing 100,000 horsepower and driving four shafts. San Jacinto was capable of a maximum 31.6 knots (36.4 miles per hour, or 58.5 kilometers per hour).

San Jacinto had a complement of 1,549 men, and carried 45 airplanes. For defense, it was armed with 28 Bofors 40 millimeter anti-aircraft guns and 40 Oerlikon 20 millimeter autocannon.

San Jacinto was decommissioned 1 March 1947 and was later scrapped.

USS Independence (CVL-30), late 1943. (U.S. Navy)

On 7 October 2006, the tenth and final Nimitz-class supercarrier was christened USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) in honor of President Bush’s service to his country.

USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77). (U.S. Navy)

¹ The most common U.S. 500-pound general purpose bomb of World War II was the AN-M64. Nominally a 500-pound (227 kilogram) bomb, the munition actually weighed from 516.3 to 535.4 pounds (234.2 to 242.9 kilograms), depending on the explosive used. It contained 266 pounds (120.7 kilograms) of TNT, or 258.5 pounds (117.3 kilograms) of a 50/50 TNT and Amatol mixture. For easy identification, these were marked with a single 1-inch (2.54 centimeter) wide yellow band painted at the nose and tail. Composition B bombs, which were marked with two yellow identification bands, contained 272.7 pounds (123.7 kilograms) of explosive, while the heaviest was filled with 278.3 pounds (126.2 kilograms) of Tritonal. This variant was marked with three yellow bands. The bomb, without fins or fuses, was 36 inches (0.914 meters) long. The overall length was 59.16 inches (1.503 meters), including nose and tail fuses. The maximum diameter was 10.9 inches (0.277 meters).

² Personnel numbers as of 3 September 1945.

³ The U.S. Navy Torpedo, Mark 13, was a gyroscopically-steered single-speed anti-ship torpedo designed to be dropped from aircraft. It was 13 feet, 8.55 inches (4.180 meters) long, 1 foot, 10.42 inches (0.570 meters) in diameter and weighed 1,949 pounds (884 kilograms) ± 20 pounds (9 kilograms). The warhead contained a 400 pound (181 kilogram) TNT explosive charge.  The Mk. 13 was driven by a two-stage alcohol-fueled geared steam turbine, turning 10,983 r.p.m., with the coaxial counter-rotating propellers turning 1,150 r.p.m. It was capable of running at 33.5 knots (38.6 miles per hour, or 62.0 kilometers per hour), with a range of 6,300 yards (5.8 kilometers). This same type torpedo was used by the U.S. Navy’s PT boats late in the war.

Thanks to regular TDiA reader Joolz Adderly for suggesting this topic.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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