P-39 Airacobras in defence of Australia
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.
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.
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:-/collection/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.
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.