The National Museum of World War II Aviation: P-38 Restoration in High Gear

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning is a legendary World War II fighter, and two — both with distinguished combat records — are being brought back to flying condition by Westpac Restorations at the Colorado Springs Airport. „White 33” will be the first to fly, in a couple of years. It was flown by Kenneth Sparks, who shot down 11 Japanese aircraft as a member of the 39th Fighter Squadron in New Guinea. „Jandina III” is next in line to fly. It was piloted by Captain Jay T. Robbins of the 80th Fighter Squadron, 8th Fighter Group, also in New Guinea. He downed 22 Japanese aircraft.

White 33 after collision with Japanese fighter
Both planes were written off as wrecks in 1944 and buried at Finschhafen, New Guinea. But they were recovered in 1999 and shipped to Westpac in 2003-2004. Parts of three other P-38s also are at Westpac.

The P-38 richly deserves its record as an outstanding American fighter plane. Some 10,000 were built but only a few remain. P-38s were flown in Europe, but were most successful in the Pacific and China-Burma-India theaters, where they downed some 1,800 Japanese aircraft, making aces of more than 100 pilots.

Japanese ace Sakai Saburo had great respect for the P-38. He’s quoted as saying that on his „first confrontation with the P-38, I was astonished to find an American aircraft that could outrun, outclimb, and outdive our Zero which we thought was the most superior fighter plane in the world. The Lightning’s great speed, its sensational high altitude performance, and especially its ability to dive and climb much faster than the Zero presented insuperable problems for our fliers. The P-38 pilots, flying at great height, chose when and where they wanted to fight with disastrous results for our own men. The P-38 boded ill for the future and destroyed the morale of the Zero fighter pilot.”

„White 33,” being restored for a customer on the west coast, may have an edge over „Jandina III” in terms of historical significance. The airplane, a P-38J-5, serial number 42-12652, was among the first Lightnings to be delivered to the Southwest Pacific.

And, with Lt. Sparks at the controls, according to several accounts, „White 33” was on the first P-38 mission against the Japanese. On that day, Dec. 27, 1942, twelve Lightnings of the 39th scrambled from Port Moresby, New Guinea, to counter a large force of Japanese fighters and dive bombers attacking the Allied base at Dobodura. One fight of four P-38s, including „White 33,” encountered „20 or 30 Zekes and Oscars with 7 or 8 Val Dive Bombers,” according to the squadron’s combat diary. Seven Japanese airplanes were claimed, including one Zeke and one Val by Sparks. „White 33” was so badly shot up that Sparks had to force-land at Dobodura, according to „P-38 Lightning Aces of the Pacific and CBI,” by John Stanaway.

Lt. Richard I.Bong, who went on to become the top American ace with 40 downed Japanese planes, was temporarily assigned to the 39th while his 9th Squadron waited to get its own P-38s, and on this first P-38 mission against the Japanese, Bong shot down one enemy fighter.

Sparks downed two other Japanese airplanes on Dec. 31, 1942. The second of these crashed over Lae after colliding with „White 33,” which Sparks managed to get back on the ground — his second forced landing in five days. Photos of „White 33” after this incident, showing damage to the right wingtip and aileron, are on display at Westpac. Also on display are photos of „White 33” being recovered at Finschhafen.

Nose section of White 33 at Westpac
Most of „White 33,” which may have been flown by other aces, was recovered. „We have the wings, it was on its wheels when it was shoved into the pit,” says Westpac’s Wojciak. „It had the tail, but it got broken off and was tucked underneath it, so we have the actual booms, and you can see on the tail it probably had at least four different buzz numbers,” which means it was repaired and returned to service a number of times. It ended up with the 433rd Fighter Squadron, a unit of the Fifth Air Force’s 475th Fighter Group. The 39th was a unit of the Fifth’s 35th Fighter Group. One of the last pilots to fly „White 33” apparently was Jerry Gettler of the 475th, whose name was on it when it was recovered.

One squadron mate of Sparks, Charles P. „Sully” Sullivan, visited Westpac and the National Museum of World War II Aviation shortly before he passed away on September 20, 2013. On that same date 70 years earlier, he crash-landed his P-38 in the New Guinea jungle after being shot up by a Japanese fighter. After a 30-day trek that included a serious altercation with hostile natives, he arrived back at his base, having lost about 40 pounds. Fifty years after the crash, on September 20, 1993, his P-38H – „Mareelee II,” 42-66851 — was discovered in the New Guinea jungle. Sullivan is credited with six kills, five in the P-38 and one in the P-39 Airacobra, according to

Colonel Frank Royal, Commander, 39th Fighter Squadron, Retired
„White 33” could have been flown by another member of the 39th, retired Colonel Frank Royal, who visited the Museum in 2012. „Kind of surprising to think back on what contact I might have had with that airplane those years ago,” Royal told KOAA television news in 2012. He said the 39th was the first squadron to shoot down 100 Japanese planes in the Pacific theater.

As replacement parts are made for „White 33” and „Jandina III,” Westpac is making duplicates for the other three P-38s slated for restoration, Wojciak says. „As we build parts for the first one, we’re making enough for all five.”

Jandina III with crewchiefs
„Jandina III,” a P-38J-15, serial number 42-103988, was being flown by Capt. Jay T. Robbins on April 12, 1944, when he got his 18th kill and 19th claim. On May 7, 1944, „Jandina III” lost nose wheel hydraulics returning from a mission. Robbins was instructed to land at an emergency airfield near Saidor, after which the plane was abandoned. It was later moved by barge down the coast to Finschhafen, where, after removal of the tail booms, landing gear, engines and outer wings, the remainder was buried.

Robbins downed a total of 22 Japanese airplanes. He flew five P-38s, with his third and fourth aircraft named „Jandina,” a contraction of his name, Jay, and his wife’s name, Ina. He was commander of the 80th Fighter Squadron, a unit of the Fifth Air Force’s 8th Fighter Group, from December 1943 to October 1944. The squadron claimed 225 Japanese aircraft. Robbins remained in the Air Force, becoming a lieutenant general and vice commander of Military Airlift Command and Tactical Air Command in the 1970s. He died in 2001.

„Jandina III” was pulled from the same pit as „White 33.” Alongside those two was a P-47 Thunderbolt, a D-2-RE model, serial number 42-8074. It’s also at Westpac and will fly eventually.


Source / Author: The National Museum of World War II Aviation

Photo: The National Museum of World War II Aviation