by Eric Hammel
Copyright © 1992 by Eric Hammel
1st Lieutenant CORKY SMITH, USAAF
80th Fighter Squadron, 8th Fighter Group
Cape Gloucester--December 26, 1943
Brooklyn, New York's Cornelius Marcellus Smith graduated from Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, in June 1940, worked in industry for over a year, and quit his job to join the Army Air Corps at the outbreak of the war. He earned his wings in September 1942, trained in P-39s in Florida, and departed for New Guinea to join the 8th Fighter Group in November 1942.
It took six months for Lieutenant Smith to hit the charts, but he did so in a big way. On June 21, 1943, he shot down three Zeros and one Zero probable near Lae. He got another Zero probable on September 15, over Wewak; a confirmed Kawasaki Ki-61 Tony fighter, also over Wewak, on October 16; and another confirmed Zero over Rabaul on October 24, 1943.
On December 12, 1943, the 80th Fighter Squadron completed a permanent move from Kila (3-Mile) Airdrome, Port Moresby, New Guinea, to the multi-base airdrome complex recently constructed at Dobodura, on the east coast of New Guinea. During October and November 1943 our air strikes against forward Japanese air and the sea strongpoints on New Britain and along the more northern shores of eastern New Guinea had critically interfered with the enemy's ability to pose a major threat to our air installations. We had seized control of the New Britain and southern New Guinea air space and shipping lanes necessary for our logistical support. General MacArthur's leapfrog strategy was moving northward. Lae and Salamaua had fallen to our forces and we had greatly negated the capability of the Japanese to operate in strength from Rabual, Wewak, Madang, and Cape Gloucester. We had also seized Finschafen, an enemy air base on the coast of New Guinea only some 80 miles distant from the western end of New Britain, where Cape Gloucester harbored an airfield still held by the Japanese. Finschafen had been developed as a new airbase by our engineers and was fully operational. In short, the stage had been set for our forces to undertake the long-awaited initiative and push the enemy back.
The 80th Fighter Squadron, also known as the Headhunters, had been engaged in the war since August 1942. Equipped with P-39 and P-400 fighters and initially stationed at Port Moresby, the squadron had moved to Milne Bay, on the southern tip of New Guinea in early October 1942. While at Port Moresby, the squadron had seen active combat and its pilots had downed six Zeros. Another Zero had been shot down in January 1943 at Milne Bay. The morale of the pilots was at a low ebb due to the few occasions on which we had seen combat up to January 1943. The P-39 had proved itself incompetent against faster and more maneuverable enemy fighters. Its range and altitude limitations were also major drawbacks. Additionally, an epidemic of malaria and dengue fever had rendered many of the pilots and ground-crew personnel hors de combat. It was time for a change. In late January, the unit was withdrawn from New Guinea and moved to Mareeba, Australia. Rest and rehabilitation to recover from malaria and dengue was the primary reason for the move, but more important was the news that our P-39 and P-400 aircraft were to be replaced by the highly regarded Lockheed P-38 Lightning twin-engine fighter, mounted with four .50-caliber machine guns and a 20mm cannon. Morale soared. The move was completed in early February.
In early April 1943, the Headhunters brought their new P-38s back to Port Moresby. Our camp was Kila Drome, more commonly known as 3-Mile Strip. In the following eight and a half months, the squadron proved itself an outstanding combat unit. The P-38 was superior in most aspects to the Japanese Zero fighter aircraft we were facing. By the middle of December, when the move to Dobodura took place, we had contributed a total of 136 confirmed kills to the war effort. All but seven of these had fallen to P-38 guns.
I had joined the Headhunters at Milne Bay in late November 1943. Now, a year later, I had been credited with five aerial victories, all in the P-38. Morale of both pilots and ground-crew personnel was at an all-time high. We welcomed the increasing opportunities to bring the war to the enemy with our long-legged fighter.
Unbeknown to us when we arrived at Dobobura on December 12 were Theater plans to invade the Japanese bases at Arawe and Cape Gloucester, New Britain, in the immediate future. Cape Gloucester was to be developed as a forward air base. Madang and Wewak, on the New Guinea coast, were to be bypassed, and the Japanese bases on Manus Island (some 50 miles off Wewak), Aitape (north of Wewak), and Hollandia (further to the north) were to be seized and made into advance U.S. bases. Once this had been accomplished, we would strike at and seize key areas of northern New Guinea, Java and its surrounding waters, and, eventually, the Philippines.
Initial operations against Arawe took place immediately following our arrival at Dobodura. On December 14, the Headhunters participated in pre-invasion attacks by providing escort for Douglas A-20 Havoc light bombers of the 3rd Bomb Group in a low-level bombing strike aimed at softening up the beachhead during the early part of a seaborne invasion. No enemy aircraft were encountered. On December 15, we provided fighter cover over the beachhead. Arawe was some 175 from Dobodura. Time en route, including warm-up, takeoff, assembly, and climb to altitude was approximately one hour. We stayed over the beachhead for a bit over two hours. I landed back at Dobodura and logged a four-hour mission.
That plans also included an invasion of Cape Gloucester was evidenced by our assigned mission on December 18--escorting a combined force of B-25s and A-20s in a low-level strike against the airstrip there. No Japanese aircraft were encountered. This strike took place in the early morning. We flew direct, over the sea, to New Britain and I logged a three-hour, forty-minute mission. That afternoon, I flew a three-hour, fifty-minute mission, providing cover of our beachhead at Arawe. Again, there was no enemy air. On December 21, we repeated the two missions of the 18th. I logged three hours and fifty minutes on the Cape Gloucester morning mission and two hours and twenty minutes in the afternoon at Arawe. There was no Japanese air activity on either mission. On December 22, I participated in a bomber-escort raid against Wewak and shot down one Zero fighter. I got shot up myself, but I made it back on one engine. I now had six victories. Things were picking up. On December 25, I participated in covering U.S. naval convoy going into Finschafen. There was no Japanese air and I logged three hours and fifty minutes.
During the evening of December 25, we were informed by 8th Fighter Group headquarters that we would provide air cover for an amphibious landing at Cape Gloucester the next day. Details would be provided at a flight-line briefing in the morning. This was good news; we went to bed in high spirits.
On the morning of December 26, we were called to a meeting at our flight-line operations hut and briefed on the mission. We were to provide air cover over the new beachhead, some 200 miles distant, beginning at 1400 hours. Control of all flights over the beachhead would be handled by a team aboard a destroyer. We would contact the ship upon arrival to receive further instructions. Major Edward "Porky" Cragg, our CO, would lead the mission. Major Carl "Freddie" Taylor, our operations officer, would also participate. As it looked like a big operation with the probability of seeing combat, the more-experienced pilots were chosen to fly. Our call sign would be the same as always--"Copper." We would fly 16 P-38s in the usual flight formation. Call signs of Red, White, Blue, and Yellow would be utilized in that order. Major Cragg was Copper Red-1, his wingman Copper Red-2, and so forth. I was to be the element leader in the forth flight, Copper Yellow-3.
We were at that time programmed to replace all our P-38G and P-38H models with new J models, a few of which had arrived the preceding week. These were operational and had been programmed for the mission. However, the majority of our unit was equipped H models, and we still had a few G models. Most of the allocations made at the briefing were for H models. My plane was an H model. The newer J models had more fuel capacity--a 55- or 60-gallon tank in each wing tip. They also had various other advanced design features, but none pertinent to the mission at hand.
Since we were to start engines at approximately 1145 hours, we were to be in our cockpits or close by the aircraft by 1130. Taxi would be in order of flights. Takeoff would be by two-ship elements. Climb-out and assembly would be the usual circular left-hand pattern, climb to 12,000 feet, loose formation to the coast of New Britain (direct route), and then the formation would tighten up for the remainder of the distance across the island to Cape Gloucester. We would contact the Cape Gloucester control ship about 15 minutes out and receive further instructions. Radio silence was to be maintained by all following takeoff. Aborting aircraft, if any, would indicate intentions by rocking their wings before departing from the formation. Unless in extreme difficulty, aborting aircraft would not be escorted back. Following departure from Cape Gloucester, the route home would be determined by remaining fuel. If possible, aborting aircraft would return to Dobodura. If necessary, Finschafen or Nadzab (in the Lae area) would be alternates. The weather forecast was CAVU (ceiling and visibility unlimited) throughout the mission, but scattered low clouds might be encountered in the beachhead area during afternoon. We were to use our drop tanks and run them dry unless we got into a combat situation.
Evasion and escape matters (approximate location of Australian Coastwatchers and friendly natives), air/sea rescue (location of friendly ships and PBY aircraft), and enemy strength at Rabaul, Manus Island, and Wewak were covered. If encountered enemy aircraft, they would probably be fighters with dive bombers, coming from Rabaul. Their most likely approach was from the east to the south of the hilly-to-mountainous terrain running through the center of New Britain from east to west. We were told to be especially alert for aircraft emerging from behind this ridge.
We were to relieve P-38s from another squadron that were already in the area. Also, P-47s from the 348th Fighter Group would also provide cover. No P-40s or P-39s were expected in the vicinty. Their mission would be to provide air cover for Finschafen, our alternate destination. In short, the only friendly single-engine aircraft we would see near the cape would be P-47s. The large size of that type of fighter was sufficient to identify it as friendly.
All of our pilots were at our aircraft long before 1130. Shortly thereafter, a jeep came by with the word to start engines. Following start-up, the tower gave the word to taxi. We took off in two-ship formations, as planned, climbed to 12,000 feet, and headed on course at approximately 1215 hours. The weather was perfect en route. Copper Red-1 contacted our ship control at about 1345 hours. We were instructed to maintain our 12,000-foot altitude and patrol the beach area.
We tooled around for about 20 minutes, watching LSTs and other naval craft running to and from the beach. I observed some shelling by various naval vessels and saw some of our Marines and their vehicles on the beach. Everything seemed to be going well, but there was less activity than I had expected. The landing had gone off early in the day and things were under control. Although we kept a continual lookout for enemy aircraft, no bogies were seen. A few scattered clouds began forming in the beach area and toward the low mountains to the south, but the weather was clear. Radio chatter on our frequency was virtually nil even though we were no longer under the restriction of radio silence.
The calm atmosphere was broken by our control ship advised us that a large blip had appeared on radar some 20 to 25 miles out to sea north of the beachhead. We were instructed to climb to 20,000 feet and given an intercept heading. The radar sighting indicated a large force of aircraft at high altitude. We spent about 10 minutes under radar control, following heading and altitude instructions, but we saw nothing. We were then informed that the blip had completely disappeared from radar and that we were to return immediately to the beachhead. We did a quick 180-degree turn and headed back while descending to our original 12,000-foot assigned altitude. We had no more than started our return when we were alerted by the destroyer that a large force of enemy fighters and dive bombers had come in from the south--screened by the mountains--and was attacking the beachhead and shipping in the area.
The word was given by Copper Red-1 to drop belly tanks and get in trail formation. When this was accomplished, we were instructed by the controller to split our force. The first two flights--Red and White--were to engage the enemy aircraft attacking the area at low level. The last two flights--Blue and Yellow--were to remain at 10,000 to 12,000 feet to intercept a second wave of fighters and dive bombers should any appear. Since I was in Yellow Flight, I would remain with the high group.
In our brief absence, more low clouds had formed against the hills and over portions of the beach. Although thin and scattered, these hindered our view of the coast. Several naval vessels were firing at low-flying enemy aircraft, and I observed sundry explosions in the beach area.
Red and White flights had left our altitude and were closing rapidly with the land. When Blue and Yellow flights arrived over the beach at our assigned altitude, we placed ourselves above the ridgeline to serve as a shield against any attacking force. I could not see either Red or White flights due to low clouds. Blue Flight was then directed to support our first two flights at low altitude. Yellow Flight was to hold our patrol altitude.
We had no more than reinitiated our patrol when my radio receiver went dead. All sound ceased. I hit my mike button to call my wingman, but I received no response. He could easily see me in the cockpit, so I informed him of my predicament by pointing to my headset and shaking my head. He got the picture and indicated that he could not hear any transmission from me. I intended to follow the flight from above and to the rear. That accomplished, I checked my headset and various channels on my radio, but to no avail. I was kaput as far as communications were concerned.
This was for the birds. I wanted to join in whatever was going on beneath me rather than fly around looking for enemy aircraft that I had no means of reporting should any arrive on the scene. I pulled abreast of my flight leader, waggled my wings, and waved good-bye to signify I was going to leave. He grinned and stuck his thumb up to bid me well. I peeled off and started down to find something to shoot at.
Arriving below the clouds, I found eight or nine P-47s engaged in a dogfight with four Oscars north and east of the beachhead and about two miles away from my position. No P-38s were in sight. I decided to help out the 47s. As I headed toward the fracas, three of the broke off and headed southeast. Evidently, they decided to head for home as the P-47s already outnumbered them and the arrival of my P-38 would only lessen their chances. However, one of the Oscars decided to stick it out a bit longer and continued to go around with the 47s. When I got to within about 2,000 yards, he decided to leave and took off with three of the Thunderbolts on his tail but some 500 or more yards back.
I had played around in mock combat with 47s before and knew that they could not outrun a 38. Moreover, I did not believe a 47 could catch an Oscar in a low-altitude chase. Hence, I took out after them even though I was at a greater distance back than I had originally believed. The start of the chase was at about 4,000--possibly 4,500--feet of altitude. The Oscar was about a quarter-mile out to sea and running east at a good clip, parallel to the coast, in a slight descent. His speed surprised me, but I felt that I could catch him in the long run if he kept on a straight-away course without attempting to turn and engage. I planned to get real close, fill my gunsight, and hit him full bore with the four .50-cals and 20mm, all at once. Hopefully, the 47s would bring up the rear and provide cover for me should any other Japanese fighters appear. But this was not to be the case. Each 47 peeled off and headed back for the beachhead area as I overtook it. I than realized that I had put 15 to 20 miles between me and the beachhead. Although alone, I felt the urge to continue the chase. My adrenalin was at high pitch!
We were now close to the surface of the sea, and the Oscar had begun to level out. I was hardly overtaking him. I was well aware of my vulnerability to attack from any other Japanese fighter, should any turn back to render him assistance. I kept alert, looking for any to appear. My visibility over the water was clear, but the low clouds over land obscured my view of any such planes in that direction.
My intention was to wait until he more than filled my gunsight before I opened fire. This would ensure his destruction. When I was about 500 yards from him, a Zero appeared at 1 o'clock, diving toward us through the clouds. He was coming fast. I knew it was touch and go as to whether I could hold fire long enough to guaranty the kill before the Zero opened fire at me. I knew he would be confronted with a difficult deflection shot, so I took the gamble and concentrated on the Oscar.
When the Oscar filled my gunsight, I let go with my 50s and 20mm, hitting him with everything I had from the tail up through the fuselage and cockpit. He did not blow up, but pieces of his ship, including a large portion of his tail section, flew everywhere. A sure kill!
The Zero was close upon me and firing as I pulled up in a steep right turn to gain altitude and headed 90 degrees from course. I felt my 38 get hit by his fire, apparently in the right engine area. I flew over the coast in a shallow high-speed climb, trying to put as much distance between me and my attacker as possible and, at the same time, gain some altitude to enhance my maneuverability in case he pressed his attack. My right engine started overheating, which indicated damage and loss of coolant. I leveled out at about 5,000 feet, still going south. I was well over the land when I shut the engine down and feathered the prop. I scanned the skies through all points of the compass, but with nary a sighting of my attacker.
I had no desire to bail out or crash-land over any part of New Britain in the event my good left engine failed or if any attacking Zero downed me. Hostile natives reportedly lopped the heads off the American airmen, and the Japanese were known to do the same. Subjecting myself to capture held no appeal. I headed back toward the coast and the friendlier sea.
There was still no sign of my attacker, so I decided to get four or five miles offshore and then head toward Finschafen via Cape Gloucester. I climbed back to about 10,000 feet, well over the sea and set course. The left engine ran okay, flight controls gave no indication of damage, the voltmeter was okay, and I could not see any sign of damage to the aircraft. However, I knew my right engine had taken some hits, and I had no intention of trying to restart it. The P-38 flew well on one engine. I had no doubts as to my ability to reach Finschafen. I had previously made four one-engine landings in 38s, so I felt quite confident. Fuel posed no problem; I had dropped my two belly tanks at Cape Gloucester, but I had ample gas in my main and reserve tanks.
I passed the cape about four miles out to sea and saw a few P-47s over the beach area. One ship was burning off the coast. It appeared to be a destroyer, but, at my altitude and distance, I could not be sure. Other than those sightings, the area was clear. I never saw my attacker--or any other enemy aircraft--during the course of my flight. Over the sea between New Britain and the New Guinea coast, I saw one flight of P-39s, but nothing more.
As I neared Finschafen, I saw that the strip and adjacent air space were very active. Many aircraft, mostly P-38s and P-47s, were engafed taking off, flying in the traffic pattern, and maneuvering in the vicinity of the field. It was no place to attempt a single-engine landing without communications. I could not alert anyone to my predicament. If I joined up with another plane to visually indicate my situation so he could talk to the tower, I would have to descend. Loss of altitude held no appeal because I would need all the altitude I could get should my good left engine act up. Also, the strip at Finschafen ran from the sea to neighboring high jungle growth. Landings were made from the sea. In the event I overshot the strip in attempting to land, I would have to go around on one engine. This was not a recommended procedure, especially with a wall of tall trees to contend with at the end of the strip. I elected to continue on to Nadzab, near Lae, and land at one of several strips there. This would lengthen my flight by some 50 to 75 miles, but it posed no problems. I headed on course.
About 10 miles past Finschafen, my left engine started missing--not a good sign. I immediately turned 180 degrees and headed back, checking the cockpit instruments. Fuel pressure was okay, but my RPM was fluctuating noticeably and would not stabilize. I had come back on the throttles first thing and found that the engine ran fairly smoothly at about 15 inches of manifold pressure and about 1,600 RPM. However, any increase in throttle setting or RPM resulted in engine misfires, and increasing the RPM increased the fluctuation. A landing was essential. I as losing altitude and could not fool around. I also noticed that my voltmeter needle was doing a good bit of wavering, which signified an electrical problem. Everything was coming at once!
I was close enough to the field to glide and make it. In fact, it appeared that I had room to spare. I was not elated over the possibility of a wheels-up landing, especially on the Pierced Steel Planking (PSP) strip. It would enhance the danger of fire and could render the strip inoperative if the planking was torn up. Also, I would have no control of the aircraft if I overshot and slid into the trees at the far end. I had enough air space for a wheels-down landing if I judged my approach procedure correctly. I hoped that my hydraulic system was operating properly and that I could get my gear down and locked. I not, I could always bail out.
I had no way to alert the tower other than to come over the strip at a good clip with the wheels down and my landing and fuslage lights on, rocking my wings to get attention. From past experience, I knew that if I came over at 800 to 1,000 feet at 150 miles per hour or more with the gear down. I could do a "widow-maker" 360-degree circle descent to the approach end of the runway. If I was not too hot, I could utilize flaps to prevent landing too far down the strip.
I turned on my navigation and landing lights and headed down. I dropped my gear at about 2,000 feet, doing a bit over 200 miles per hour. That was a bit fast, but I wanted the gear down real quick in the event I encountered any problem with it. I risked tearing off the main- and nose-wheel doors at 200 miles per hour, but I was not overly concerned with that possibility. Fortunately, the gear indicator showed "down and locked." At that speed, my landing light had probably ripped off, but that was of little concern. I had kept my throttle at 15 inches, but, since I had a high descending speed, I cut that all the way back. I decided to "dead stick" the landing as I could not depend on my left engine.
Now my only problem was getting the tower's attention so they could advise other aircraft to clear the area for my approach. I observed several planes taxiing toward take-off position, and others were in the traffic pattern. The tower gave no notice of me. I came over the strip at about 1,000 feet, real hot--about 200 miles per hour--and rocked my wings hard. I peeled off about halfway down the runway in a steep turn, climbing a bit to kill some speed and stay fairly close to the field. Leveling off at about 1,200 feet abreast of the approach end of the runway, I hit one-quarter flaps and continued the turn. I was indicating about 120 miles per hour--still hot--so I dumped half flaps. At that moment, I got a green flare and brought the airspeed down to just below 100 miles per hour. I set my glide angle and cut my main ignition switch and fuel mixture off to safeguard against fire in event the gear collapsed. There were no problems. I set it down about 500 feet from the approach end and came to a rolling stop off the right side of the strip.
I made a final cockpit check, climbed out with my chute and other gear, and was greeted by a bunch of line personnel. One of them got my gun-camera film for me and gave me a lift to the tower. They were most helpful; they put me in touch with some old friends and set me up for a flight to Dobodura, which was planned for the next morning.
In the morning, I was inforned that a P-38 on the strip needed to be ferried to its home outfit at Dobodura. Engine trouble several days previously had necessitated some repairs, and the pilot had caught a ride home. I volunteered to fly it to its home base and was quickly taken up on the offer. I gave it a quick check ride, landed, signed it off as okay, and flew it home. The receiving unit, based at another strip, gave me ride to the Headhunters' camp.
Upon arrival, I learned that our CO, Major Porky Cragg, had been shot down at Cape Gloucester along with our operations officer, Major Freddy Taylor. Both were listed as MIA.
During the afternoon of December 28, Freddy Taylor came home, much to everyone's surprise. His return lifted morale tremendously and gave us hope that Porky Cragg might also have survived. Unfortunately, he never returned. He was a fine man, a natural leader in every respect. At the time of his loss, he had a total of 15 confirmed aerial victories and was one of the leading American aces.
The Headhunters shot down a total of 17 enemy aircraft during December 1943, putting our grand total at 146 confirmed kills. However, despite our combat record, our morale was at a low ebb because of the loss of Major Cragg and three other fine pilots during the month. Two pilots were shot down by Zeros at Wewak on December 22 and one was lost in a take-off accident at Dobodura on December 28. I considered myself most fortunate, for I had had an engine shot out over Weak on December 22, just four days prior to my encounter at Cape Gloucester. Two single-engine return trips in the month! I didn't need any more!
By the time Captain Corky Smith returned to the United States in May 1944, he had driven his total of confirmed kills to 11, including two Zeros destroyed on January 18, 1944, at Wewak, a Mitsubishi Ki-46 Dinah high-speed reconnaissance bomber over Hollandia on March 31, and a Ki-61 Tony fighter over Lake Santani on April 12. He went on a War Bond tour and then served for the rest of the war as a P-38 instructor at Santa Rosa, California. Smith remained in the Air Force after the war and retired as a colonel in December 1968.