April/May Dakota Territory Air Museum P-47 Update

39th Fighter Squadron P-47s fly over Papua New Guinea
39th Fighter Squadron P-47s fly over Papua New Guinea in the later summer of 1944, USAF photo courtesy of Jeff Oerding collection


After the exciting milestone of the wing attachment last month, the restoration moved on to work on the turbosupercharger and landing gear. The systems and components of the firewall forward area were also a focus this month.

Control Surfaces

With the wings, horizontal and vertical stabilizers installed, completing them requires control surfaces – so the elevators, ailerons, rudder, and flaps all were part of this month’s work.

The first step was taking apart the original control surfaces. The parts were then evaluated for serviceability and parts that needed to be replaced were fabricated. Restoration of the elevators, rudder, ailerons, and flaps could begin after all the components were completed.

Turbo Supercharger

Landing Gear

The landing gear is nearly ready for installation.

Firewall Forward

Always one the most complex areas of a restoration is the area forward of the firewall. The engine installation, along with all the accessories takes great attention to detail.

Rear Fuselage

Further back in the fuselage, system work is being wrapped up.

39th Fighter Squadron, Summer 1944

39th Fighter Squadron P-47s
A spectacular photo of a formation of nine 39th Fighter Squadron P-47s over Papua New Guinea in the later summer of 1944, USAF photo courtesy of Jeff Oerding collection

The 39th fighter Squadron was still getting used to their new P-47D-23RAs that they had received in late June and early July 1944. In fact the pilots had logged no combat hours in July 1944. But that changed rapidly in August when they flew 1,181 combat hours.

As the pilots became more familiar with the new D-23, adaptations were made to better suit the conditions in the SW Pacific. Testing how much fuel could be carried in various drop tank configurations, a change in the location of the microphone, and bomb switches were all important. Perhaps most significant was a change in the position of the water injection switch. A combat evaluation report explains:

39th Fighter Squadron, 35th Fighter Group Combat Report
39th Fighter Squadron, 35th Fighter Group Combat Report detailing modifications to the water injection control switch.

The 39th squadron history is sketchy on details of this period, or just so faint as to be illegible. But an idea of pilots’ reaction to the new machine can be found in a sister squadron, the 41st’s history.

The squadron air echelon was stationed at Nadzab airbase while being re-equipped with the new P-47D-23 series aircraft. The campsite was formerly occupied by the 8th Fighter Group. As practically all the squadron’s equipment was aboard ship with the ground echelon, camp facilities (lighting, showers, etc.) were at an absolute minimum.

The great majority of pilots were enthusiastic over the performance of the new D-23. Among the few skeptics were the old P-39 pilots who had seen no brilliance displayed by the old D11 and D18 series.  Their first love was still the “finger tip” controlled P-39. It was here that Joe Parker, the Republic representative, demonstrated and taught to our pilots the techniques involved in obtaining maximum flying range from this new “Thunderbolt:”. They were amazed to find that it was possible to fly a single engined fighter for seven plus hours without refueling.

Mechanics of the 333rd FS 318th FG
Mechanics of the 333rd FS 318th FG fill 165 gallon tanks, originally designed for the P-38 with napalm. These are the same tanks used in long range experiments with the P-47 in the SW Pacific. Photo World War Pilots

That increased range with maximum drop tanks loaded was important as noted in this excerpt from an unofficial squadron history.

 “The History of the 39th Pursuit Squadron. Volume One”, by Colonel Frank R. Royal and S/Sgt Roy Seher for the 39th Squadron Association, gives us an idea of the locations and combat activity in late summer of 1944.

“A few new airplanes were coming in, the new D-23 series of the P-47 and they were unpainted, no longer the dull olive drab that we were used to. As the war front moved forward the 39th moved from Nadzab to Owi Island and then to Noemfoor Island in quick succession.  These are small islands near Biak Island in Geelvink Bay, way up near the Vogelkop (eagle head) Peninsula of New Guinea. The squadron still flew many low level bombing and strafing (interdiction) assignments, but they now had the capability to protect the bombers over their targets.”

Protecting the bombers all the way to their targets was a critical step to air superiority, as the fighters and bombers of the 8th Air Force had already demonstrated in the European theater.

On August 23rd of 1944, the squadron sustained its first operational combat fatality, when First Lieutenant Billy Richards was shot down by enemy anti-aircraft fire over Jefman.1

In correspondence with his great nephew, Dave Elliot, a retired naval aviator and graduate of the Naval Academy, I found out Lt. Richards was flying P-47D-23RA, AAF serial number 42-27620. This P-47 is only 9 numbers in the Evansville sequence after our restoration, and it arrived in Townsville, Australia on the same day. Both aircraft were shipped to the SW Pacific on the same carrier with 42-27609, the Prince William, CVE 31.

Dave Elliot is working on gaining top priority for a search for his great uncle. He posted in social media:

His P47 shot in the belly crashed 3 miles North of Jefman Island Indonesia landing in the water as recorded in the “39th Fighter Squadron Daily Logbook” maintained by their Maintenance Chief during the war.”:

Jon Kreitz Joint POW/MIA Accountability Agency called me and said he is working with Indonesia to gain approval for a new search for my Great Uncle 1st Lt Billy E Richard’s and 7 other MIA/KIAs in the Jefman area and many others across Indonesia.

All of us here at AirCorps Aviation and Dakota Territory Air Museum wish him the best of luck in his important efforts to find MIA pilots.

1 Air Force Historical Research Agency, microfilm Reel AO737m, 39th FS history frame 572

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