Defenders of the Philippines

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P-40 plane

p-40 with Charles A Sheeley painting

Picture of P-40 with 2nd Lt. Charles A. Sheeley. who flew P-40 Tomahawks in the the Philippines at the outbreak of WWII.
Lt. Sheeley survived the Death March and shipment on a Hell Ship.
He was in a POW camp in Korea, before coming home to a year of medical care.
by Artist Russ Brown

Don Berlin designed the P-40 in an effort to make the Curtiss Corporation the top fighter aircraft producer.  In May 1939, the P-40 proved successful in a U.S. Army Pursuit Contest staged at Wright Field, and the Curtiss Corporation received the largest production order at the time for a US fighter, totaling 13 million dollars.  The first production series P-40 took to the air on April 4, 1940.

The P-40 project improved on features from previous planes, such as the airframe of the P-36A and its engine, which was upgraded to an Allison V-1710-12-Cylinder liquid-cooled-engine.    The P-40 design was unusual in having a fully retractable tail wheel.  Almost 200 P-40s were built in 1939-40 for the USAAF.  France and Britain bought many more at the time. 

 The P-40 went through several model improvements.  Over 16,000 planes were built through 1944.  The P-40s engaged the Japanese aircraft during the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

 According to Freeman Westel in “Last Ditch on Luzon” in Air Classics magazine, on Dec. 8, 1941 there were 20 P-40s on the ground at Clark Field in the Philippines, 19 at Nichols field and 18 at Iba.  When the Japanese flew over Clark Field they saw rows of unpainted B-17s and P-40s, making for an easy target.  Three of the P-40s were able to take to the air at Clark, but after three attacks by the Japanese all the Clark P-40s were destroyed.  When the Japanese struck at Iba, six of their P-40s were returning to their base.  Only one pilot escaped; the others were shot down.  By .  The P-40s would disappear to only one by March 1942 when Ed Dyess, another famous pilot subject of "Last Ditch on Luzon," was begging for more planes. 

For a detailed list of the P-40s' demise throughout the Philippines, see Eugene Souberman’s Philippine Air Diary

Flying Ace Boyd "Buzz Wagner

John Koot's
(ADBC Commander) biography contains this information about his friendship with Lt. Boyd Wagner  who flew  P-40s and became the first flying ace of WWII by shooting down five Japanese planes.

The 17th Pursuit Squadron was one of the squadrons that formed the 24th Pursuit Group and was commanded by Lt. Boyd D. Wagner. "Buzz" Wagner was born on October 31, 1916 in Emeigh, Pa. near Koot's hometown. He graduated from Nanty Glo High School in 1935 and enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1938.

 After transferring to the 17th Squadron, he was promoted to First Lt. in September 1940 and took command of that squadron. He and the 17th, equipped with Curtis P-40s went to the Philippines in late 1940.

 From December 8th to December 23rd, 1941 the air and ground communications unit, the air operations center and the commander's field headquarters were all located in the same little farmhouse adjacent to Clark Field. It was during this time and during debriefing sessions that the two young men frequently met and became friends.  Later, Lt. Colonel Wagner became the first American WW II Ace when he shot down his fifth Japanese aircraft on December 8, 1941.

 Boyd D. Wagner died on November 29, 1942 when he crashed his plane on a routine training flight out of Elgin Field, FL. He is buried in the Grandview Cemetery in Johnstown, PA.

All allied troops on the island of Luzon in the Philippines were ordered to withdraw to the Bataan Peninsula. The 24th Pursuit Group moved its equipment to the two airstrips on Bataan, December 23, 1941. During the defense of Bataan and Corregidor, American air activity steadily declined as aircraft were lost and damaged. Therefore, the available aviators and equipment were assigned to assist the ground defense units.

 December, 1941-Ace!

On December 8, 1941 the Japanese struck the Philippines, destroying most of the American air power in the first attack. Flying out of Nichols Field, south of Manila, Wagner led the remnants of his squadron in repeated counterattacks.

 On December 12, Wagner took off on a solo reconnaissance mission over the Japanese landing site at Aparri. A couple destroyers fired at him without effect. But five Zeros that pounced on him presented a deadlier challenge. Aware of the P-40s superior speed and diving capabilities, he zoomed away from his pursuers and then returned to shoot down two of them.

 As he strafed the airfield, more Zeros came after him. When they pursued, he pulled "the oldest trick in the book, " throttling back suddenly, causing them to overtake him. He then destroyed two of these before returning to his base at Clark Field.

 Five days later, Wagner, Lt. Allison Strauss, and Lt. Russell Church, attacked 25 enemy planes parked on a new strip near Vigan.  Flying at low altitude, they approached the airstrip, armed with fragmentation bombs. Wagner directed Strauss to cover, while he and Church hit the field. Wagner went in first, bombing parked aircraft. Church’s P-40 was hit by enemy fire and burst into flames, but he continued his attack until his aircraft dove into the ground and exploded. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

 Wagner strafed the enemy field repeatedly, destroying nine and damaging seven aircraft.

As he made his last pass, one Zero got off the ground, somewhat obscured by Wagner swing. He rolled his P-40 inverted to spot the Zero, rolled back, chopped his throttle to drop behind the Zero, and shot it down. He thus became the first USAAF ace of WWII and earned a DSC. On the 22nd, again attacking the Japanese beachhead at Vigan, he was badly injured by glass splinters in his face. He managed to return to base and was evacuated to Australia in early January 1942.