Friday 13 June 2014 by gartra. 7 comments
Collection, News, Opinion, views and commentary, P39 Airacobra, George Cantello, Port Moresby, RAAF Station Laverton

  • When we consider the many aircraft type which defended the skies above Australia and her territories, the P-40 Kittyhawk (Warhawk in American service) immediately springs to mind.  Indeed, the Kittyhawk would arguably be one of the most important fighters in service with the RAAF during the Second World War.  Though many veterans who served in the Northern Territory will recall with fondness, the sound of Merlin engines over the top end with the arrival of No. 1 Fighter Wing in January 1943.  Or home grown favorites, such as our CAC Wirraway and the Boomerang.   

    Yet one particular fighter aircraft lies understated and much maligned in the history of the Second World War; in western service at least.  Despite the bad press which later dogged it, this fighter bore the brunt of the Japanese onslaught against Port Moresby from May 1942 until P-38 Lightnings and U.S. P-40’s became available.  When 75 Squadron was recalled from Port Moresby to lick its wounds and regroup for the Milne Bay defence; it is the P-39 Airacobra which took up the fight against a very experienced foe.

       

    Probably Laverton, Vic. C. 1942. A WAAAF technical trainee takes a close look at the nose of a Bell Airacobra fighter aircraft at RAAF Station Laverton. Probably Laverton, Vic. C. 1942. A WAAAF technical trainee takes a close look at the nose of a Bell Airacobra fighter aircraft at RAAF Station Laverton. VIC0651

     

    According to Michael Claringbould and Luca Ruffato in Eagles of the Southern Sky, P-39’s first entered combat alongside 75 Squadron over Port Moresby on 6 April, 1942.  Flown by U.S. airmen 1st Lieutenant Louis Meng and 1st Lieutenant Charles Faletta, the 8th Fighter Group pilots were the first of five U.S. aviators to gain combat experience alongside the Australians.  The U.S. fighters took over defence of the city, with the last 75 Squadron sortie taking place on 3 May.  Whilst it is true the P-39 was not in the same class as the A6M Type ‘0’ fighters flown by skillful Japanese pilots, it was not all one sided.  According to Eagles of the Southern Sky, Airacobras accounted for the loss of at least 13 Japanese pilots and a greater number of enemy aircraft.

     

    Bell Airacobra, American designation P-39. This is a rare photograph, location unknown; showing what appears to be a Royal Air Force Serial BW-114 on fuselage. British (Pacific area) blue/ white roundel, no. red, NO. 266 On fin, and an American star under wing. appendix 4, page 117 of "the golden years, official RAAF publication in 1971, indicates that 22 of these aircraft, with Serial Prefix A53- allocated, were (at least on paper) taken on RAAF charge; and that NOS. 23 and 24 Squadrons, RAAF, had some issued to them (at least on paper). Note droppable belly tank. See V-651 and V653, showing WAAAF Aircraftwomen, possibly trainee fitters, with three of these aircraft, possibly at Point Cook (VIC). Possibly downgraded for use as instructional airframes. AC0006

     

    Well after the Second World War during a conference in Texas USA, Airacobra pilot Jack Jones met former Tainan kokutai veteran Sakai Saburo.  Regarding a Zero brought down by Jones on 9 June, 1942 Sakai explained that the hapless pilot was a very talented and experienced pilot - Warrant Officer Satoshi Yoshino who was credited with fifteen Allied aircraft at the time of his death.  Sakai stated “You must have been a great pilot yourself to have downed my comrade.  Yoshino was one of our outstanding pilots”.  Without a doubt, both pilot skill and the advantage of height are fundamental factors in aerial combat.  However the P-39 pilots rarely enjoyed the benefit of height over their adversaries.  Eagles of the Southern Sky provides numerous accounts of encounters between P-39’s and the Japanese Zeros.  One of which I found very interesting was a recollection by Sakai where an unknown U.S. pilot actually “mixed it” in terms of a twisting and turning dogfight.  The type of which the nimble A6M excelled.  Sakai stated “I jumped one fighter, which amazed me by flicking out of the way every time I fired a burst.  We went around in the sky in a wild dogfight, the Airacobra pilot running through spins, loops, Immelmanns, dives, snap rolls, spirals and other maneuvers.  The pilot was superb and with a better airplane he might well have emerged the victor”.  Whilst it has generally been acknowledged that heavily built U.S. fighters could escape the much lighter A6M by nosing over into a steep power dive, it was interesting to note some accounts by U.S. airmen which challenge this popularly accepted statement.  One by Second Lieutenant John C. Price states, ”Zeros stayed with the Airacobras.  I dived 12,000 feet indicating 450 miles per hour and a Zero stayed with me and followed me to the ground level firing.  Lieutenant Martin pulled him off me”. 

    The Australian War Memorial was very fortunate to accept into the collection, arguably the finest model aircraft built in terms of accuracy and detail.  A 1/16th scale model of a P-39D Airacobra fighter made primarily from aluminum and clear plastic was donated by the family of RAAF veteran Robert Glazebrook from Brisbane.  This aircraft model (REL35593 ) was completed in the 1990s, taking almost seven years to research and build. For the full story, please see WARTIME issue 61 or click on the following link:-http://www.awm.gov.au/collection/REL35593/

    One sixteenth scale model of a P-39D Airacobra fighter plane made primarily from aluminium and clear plastic. This example is considered to be the highlight of his modelling career and was completed in the 1990s, taking almost seven years to research and build. One sixteenth scale model of a P-39D Airacobra fighter plane made primarily from aluminium and clear plastic. This example is considered to be the highlight of his modelling career and was completed in the 1990s, taking almost seven years to research and build. REL35593

     

    Not only did the Airacobra defend Port Moresby, but few are aware that American airman Lt. George Leo Cantello lost his life on Australian soil in defence of Sydney.  Flying a P400 (export version of the P-39) Cantello scrambled from Bankstown airport the night a Japanese “I” Class submarine shelled the city with her deck gun.  Climbing to 1,000 feet, his engine failed and the aircraft plummeted to the ground - exploding in a ball of flame.  As a result of this incident, the Lt. Cantello Reserve in Hammondville NSW commemorates his sacrifice.

     

    Portrait of 1st Lieutenant (1st Lt) George Leo Cantello (left) Commanding Officer of the 41st Pursuit Squadron, 35th Pursuit Group, United States Army Air Force (USAAF) and another unidentified USAAF officer both looking at a map whilst on the wing of Lt Cantello's P-39 Bell Airacobra. For a time, this USAAF squadron (equipped with P-39 Airacobras) was based at Bankstown airport, near Sydney, NSW. One week after the Japanese midget submarine raid on shipping in Sydney Harbour, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) still had a number of submarines submerged off the east coast of Australia, three of them vainly waiting to recover their midgets and two others which had been tasked with shelling the Australian mainland. Just after midnight, on the morning of 8 June 1942, a submarine of the IJN (I-24), surfaced approximately ten kilometres offshore from Sydney's Maroubra Beach and rapidly fired ten rounds of 140 mm shells from the main deck gun. Six of the shells failed to explode and the remaining four caused minor damage to houses in the Eastern Suburbs and slightly injured one person. The submarine immediately crash dived, leaving wailing air raid sirens and searchlights sweeping the Sydney sky. In response to the shelling, a phone call was received by the 41st Pursuit Squadron at Bankstown airport and just before 1.00 am a solitary P-39 Airacobra piloted by 1st Lieutenant Cantello, took off in the hope of striking back at the Japanese. Not long after take off, over the small farming community of Hammondville, the P-39 stalled and crashed, killing the 27 year old pilot. The cause of the crash is not known, but it was suggested that in his haste to get airborne the engine had not been properly warmed. The following day the twisted remains of the aircraft was recovered and the body of George Cantello was sent for burial at a military cemetery in Hawaii. In 1988, at Hammondville, a memorial park with a monument was opened, dedicated to the memory of Lt George Cantello by the United States and Australian Governments. Portrait of 1st Lieutenant (1st Lt) George Leo Cantello (left) Commanding Officer of the 41st Pursuit Squadron, 35th Pursuit Group, United States Army Air Force (USAAF) and another unidentified USAAF officer both looking at a map whilst on the wing of Lt Cantello's P-39 Bell Airacobra. For a time, this USAAF squadron (equipped with P-39 Airacobras) was based at Bankstown airport, near Sydney, NSW. One week after the Japanese midget submarine raid on shipping in Sydney Harbour, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) still had a number of submarines submerged off the east coast of Australia, three of them vainly waiting to recover their midgets and two others which had been tasked with shelling the Australian mainland. Just after midnight, on the morning of 8 June 1942, a submarine of the IJN (I-24), surfaced approximately ten kilometres offshore from Sydney's Maroubra Beach and rapidly fired ten rounds of 140 mm shells from the main deck gun. Six of the shells failed to explode and the remaining four caused minor damage to houses in the Eastern Suburbs and slightly injured one person. The submarine immediately crash dived, leaving wailing air raid sirens and searchlights sweeping the Sydney sky. In response to the shelling, a phone call was received by the 41st Pursuit Squadron at Bankstown airport and just before 1.00 am a solitary P-39 Airacobra piloted by 1st Lieutenant Cantello, took off in the hope of striking back at the Japanese. Not long after take off, over the small farming community of Hammondville, the P-39 stalled and crashed, killing the 27 year old pilot. The cause of the crash is not known, but it was suggested that in his haste to get airborne the engine had not been properly warmed. The following day the twisted remains of the aircraft was recovered and the body of George Cantello was sent for burial at a military cemetery in Hawaii. In 1988, at Hammondville, a memorial park with a monument was opened, dedicated to the memory of Lt George Cantello by the United States and Australian Governments. P05600.001

     

    Of course the P-39 like many other aircraft, had its weaknesses.  However the Airacobra still filled a gap in our defense capability at a time when air power was in the balance.   It should be remembered that many pilots who flew this aircraft in hostile skies above Port Moresby were novice aviators, learning the deadly art of aerial warfare the hard way. I feel that Eagles of the Southern Sky gives an unbiased account of the P-39 Airacobra which should be justifiably recognised as an important aircraft in allied service.  And full credit should be accorded our American allies; many of whom gave their lives in defence of Australia.

Comments

Garth Occy

  • This is a fantastic blog entry Gary, the role of the Airacobra in the defence of Australia is not very well known. Also, the death of George Cantello in his P-400 at Hammondville on the night of the second Japanese attack on Sydney in June 1942 has been of interest to me for many years. Thank you for illuminating his service and sacrifice. Keep up the great work! Garth

gartra

  • Thank you Garth Occy for your positive feedback. Indeed, men such as George Cantello should not be lost in the fog of history. No doubt with people such as yourself, we will remember them.

Andrew Linden

  • Thank you for a great piece. My Uncle, Maj. Philip M. Rasmussen, served with USAAF 8th Fighter Group at Moresby and Milne Bay from May 1942. (EDITOR) Dear Mr Linden, your contribution to this blog is greatly appreciated. Is your Uncle the infamous 'Pajama pilot' from Pearl Harbour who against terrific odds on 'that day that will live in infamy' engaged with and shot down Japanese fighters? We would greatly appreciate hearing from you and your family on his service in Australia and his important role in our defence during the Second World War. Best regards, Garth.

Keith

  • Thanks for posting this wonderful blog. My Dad sailed with the 41st FS, 35th FG arriving Brisbane Feb. 1942. I believe they received their P-400's at Ballarat and/or Mt Gambier that March. They had them when they arrived in Bankstown that April. Dad spoke about George Cantello. George was their first pilot KIA. You can read more about Dad and the 41st FS on Flickr. I've posted some of his items. Check out his map and diary he kept. Thanks Keith https://flic.kr/p/9zPnNM (EDITOR) Dear Keith, thank you very kindly for contributing to this blog. You have an utterly superb collection of images, thank you for sharing them here with us. We would appreciate any further information or images relating to your Father and his friends in the USAAF who served here during the war. Our National Collection features many items relating to our American allies who came to our shores during the Second World War. The pictures of 'Olga' at Bankstown and 'Camps Creek' (Kemps Creek) are very revealing for many reasons. Best regards, Garth

Gerard

  • The kittyhawk didn't have a Rolls Royce merlin it was a Allison V12. (EDITOR - Garth) : Firstly thank you for your comment Gerard. In this blog, my colleague Gary (who is currently away) stated "the sound of Merlin engines over the top end with the arrival of No. 1 Fighter Wing. . .". He was of course referring to the famous Supermarine Spitfire which equipped No.1 Fighter Wing at the time. These Spitfire aircraft did indeed have Merlin engines. He did not specifically refer to P-39/P-400 Airacobras having Merlins though I can see where you may have confused the issue. Of interest possible further interest is that another single engined RAAF fighter aircraft during the Second World War (not including the P-51 Mustang) used the Merlin engine. In this case, the Kittyhawk Mk IIa (P-40L). No.3 Squadron RAAF started to operate with them from mid-1943, just prior to the Allied invasion of Sicily. We have an artwork here of one of their Kittyhawk IIa's here in the National Collection : http://www.awm.gov.au/collection/ART24446/ and an excellent reference with much futher detail can be found on a No.3 Squadron RAAF history website here : http://www.3squadron.org.au/subpages/P40L/P40L.htm. Thank you again. Garth

Garth the Elder

  • Let us not forget a limited number of reconditioned P-39s served with No. 23 and 24 Squadrons RAAF. (EDITOR) Firstly thank you 'Garth the Elder' for your comments. You are indeed correct with highlighting the use of the P-39 Airacobra with No.23 and No.24 Squadron RAAF during the war. Tragically like the young American LT George Cantello mentioned in this blog, several Australian Airacobra pilots were involved in fatal crashes. This includes one, A53-5, flown by young man from Yackandandah Victoria, 400728 Flying Officer Herbert Charles Nette. At Bankstown, NSW on 26 October 1942 his aircraft crashed claiming his life. He was buried in his local cemetary in Victoria. He is respectfully commemorated on panel 102 in our Roll of Honour. Best regards, Garth 'the editor'.

Dave Liles

  • The P-39 and P-40 were built by Curtis-Wright in Buffalo,,N.Y. I live about 35 miles east of Buffalo and remember these planes flying over on test flights This is the first article I have ever seen on the P-39. Thank you. (EDITOR) We appreciate and thank you for your comments and feedback Mr Liles. It must of been quite a sight during the war seeing so many different aircraft being test flown in and around up-state New York. Hundreds of those very aircraft undoubtedly would of ended up in either US or Australian service directly defending Australia and helping liberate the South West Pacific. The significance of the US 'home front' to assisting Australia and the many other Allies of the US during WW2 can never be understated. Thank you again, Garth.

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