80 Years Ago: The Fighting Cocks Clock In

Formed in January 1941 as the USAAF’s first 67th Pursuit (Interceptor) Squadron, the “Fighting Cocks” trained on laughably obsolete Seversky P-35s at Harding Army Airfield in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Six weeks after Pearl Harbor, as part of the newly forming Fifth Air Force, the ‘Cocks left their P-35s at home and caught the Army transport steamer, Thomas A. Barry, out of Brooklyn for the unheard-of destination of New Caledonia.

A trailing freighter carried 47 new disassembled and crated Bell Aircobras, almost all P-400 Caribou variants– named for the “advertised” top speed of 400 mph when a better name would have been the P350ish. The joke soon became that a P-400 was a “P-40 with a Zero on its tail.” The P-400 had initially been ordered by the British RAF but quickly requisitioned by Uncle Sam. They carried a less powerful 20mm cannon in the nose rather than the Cobra’s more typical 37mm cannon augmenting two synchronized .50 cals in the nose and two .30 cals in the wings. Also on the same boat were just two crated Model 15B/P-39F Aircobras.

While the 67th got a feel for their new aircraft and changed from a “Pursuit” to a “Fighter” squadron, Operation Watchtower kicked off in Guadalcanal, and the Marines and Navy recast a captured Japanese airstrip there as Henderson Field, home to the embattled Cactus Air Force, a force of Wildcats and Dauntless dive bombers.

On 22 August 1942, 80 years ago today, five P-39/P-400s of the 67th FS winged into Henderson after a three-day overwater hop, stopping first at Efate, then Espiritu Santo along the way to refuel while a B-17 filled with liferafts flew alongside the short-legged fighters in case they had to ditch. The pilots were welcomed to sniper fire as they slept in tents that night. After just four days, only three of the original P-400s remained.

Nine more P-400s of the 67th arrived on the 27th.

US Army Air Force 67th Fighter Squadron P-400s probably on arrival at Guadalcanal on 27 August 1942. “Shark-nosed Army fighters such as theses have combined with Navy and Marine planes to take a heavy toll of Japanese aircraft in the continuing Battle of the Solomon Islands.” The plane in front, BW-167 #6, was wrecked in a take-off accident on 8 September 1942, with 2LT Vernon Head piloting (survived with minor injuries). One of the other two shark-mouth planes was shot down on 30 August 1942, with pilot 2LT Keith Wythes lost. USMC photo 50467. NARA 127-GR-4-50467

The squadron would call Guadalcanal home for the next seven hellish months, much of it flying daily missions from the new Fighter One strip, AKA “The Cow Field.”

67th Fighter Squadron at Henderson Field in 1942, likely in The Cow Field of Fighter One. Note the ZZ tail flash

While the P-400s’ performance against incoming Japanese aircraft was poor– the aircraft lacked an oxygen system, limiting the fighters to operations at lower altitudes– it proved its worth in making “bloody X” attacks on transports of the “Tokoyo Express” steaming down “The Slot” and in performing low-altitude close air support for the Marines of the 1st MARDIV. In this role, they dubbed themselves “The Jagstafel.”

It was in the September fight for Bloody Ridge that three members of the 67th– Captain J.A. Thompson and his two wingmen, Lt. B.E. Davis and Lt. Bryan Brown– would, as Marine Maj. Gen. Alexander Vandergrift would say– become the “Saviors of Guadalcanal.”

As noted by the old Cactus Air Force Page:

Blue flames licked from the burbling exhaust stacks of the three fighters as they waited at the end of the runway called Fighter One. Over-heating was a real problem for the Allison V-1710 V-12s and when the engine temp began to rise so did the anxiety of the pilots. Adding to their discomfort, the pilots were already sweating from the musty heat and humidity of the nearby jungle. With first light, the three Bell Airacobras were flashing down the runway – heading into the rising sun to attack minions of the Empire of the Rising Sun. The fighters would be participating in one of the bloodiest engagements of the battle for Bloody Ridge. It was 14 September 1942.

Not long before their takeoff roll, Capt. John A. Thompson had reported to the “Pagoda” for his briefing – Col. Merrit Edson’s Raider Battalion was barely hanging on to an elevated perimeter ridge that defended the southern approach to Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. The Marines had survived two nights of vicious attacks by Maj. Gen. Kiyotake Kawaguchi’s brigade and bombardment from sea and air. The leathernecks had only about 300 men left in their ranks, all of them prepared to fight to the end or blend into the forest to continue with a guerrilla war.

Captain Thompson and his two wingmen, Lt. B.E. Davis and Lt. Bryan Brown, had barely cleared the palms at the end of the runway, banking to the right when they had the bloody battleground in sight. At the briefing, a Marine officer, caked with the grime and dried blood of two days of almost continuous combat, had given the captain the relative positions of the American and Japanese troops on a crude map. Edson’s 800+ men were fighting approximately the 1700 to 2000 Japanese troops that remained from a force of 2500 that actually made it to the ridge. The exhausted Japanese troops were preparing for another attack – trying to break through the defensive line and capture the airfield. Without warning, the three P-400s swept in at tree top level! Thompson knew that to achieve maximum effect with his cannons and machine guns, the three would have to get as low to the ground as possible. The shark-toothed pursuits roared over the Japanese, guns blazing. Each plane was firing one 20mm cannon, two .50-caliber, and four .30-caliber Browning machine guns. Even with their different trajectories, considering the altitude and attitude at which the P-400s were flying, the withering fire decimated the regrouping enemy troops. Like a scythe, the Airacobras mowed down the Japanese soldiers with a wide swath all along the ridge.

The first pass was a surprise to Maj. Gen. Kawaguchi’s men, but they had time to prepare for the next. As Thompson, Davis, and Brown swept around for another attack, every pistol, rifle, and machine gun available was pointed skyward. Again, the P-400s came in just a few feet above their victims, spraying the entire southern ridge with a barrage of bullets – this time, however, they were met with an equally intensive amount of small arms fire. Some of the Japanese soldiers, puddled into limp pieces of flesh, ended as mounds of congealed tissue on the ground. Others flew through the air as the larger bores tore at their bodies and mixed their blood with the volcanic mud of the island they would never leave.

In their dying efforts, however, they too drew blood from the enemy – this time in the form of glycol bleeding from the radiator of Brown’s craft. The young lieutenant had no other choice but to break off the attack and try to make it back to Henderson – these three P-400s were the only ones the Cactus Air Force had left.

Dank air mixed with the pungent smell of cordite left a coarse, bitter taste in Thompson’s and Davis’s nostrils and mouths as the remaining two aircraft swung around for another pass. Both planes had absorbed ground fire with no noticeable effect but the nerves of the pilots must have been jumping with electricity. As knots formed in their stomachs they continued their merry-go-round attack, but there was nothing merry about it. On the third run, the two remaining Airacobras came in so low it seemed they could have cut down the enemy with their propeller blades alone. The staccato of the machine gun fire counterpointed by the hesitating booms of the cannons had the same horrible effect as before. Some bodies exploded with the impact while others withered to the ground from the rifle-caliber machine guns. With no other option, the hapless Japanese returned fire, again with effect. This time Thompson had a stream of vapor trailing his aircraft as he too used the momentum of his attack to make it back to Fighter One.

Being in the only airworthy P-400 left on this Godforsaken island and the only plane that would withstand the entire fusillade of the enemy’s wrath during another strafing run, one would forgive Lt. Davis if he gave up the attack and returned to base. But Davis knew that the Japanese had to he stopped. If not, Henderson would he lost and if Henderson was lost, Guadalcanal would be lost and if Guadalcanal was lost, the supply lines from the United States to Australia would he lost – he went in for another lonely pass.

The lieutenant continued his attacks and with each pass, there was less and less returning small arms fire. Finally, he exhausted the ammunition, and in his wake and the wake of the previous P-400s before him lay the now lifeless bodies of reportedly over 600 of Kawaguchi’s finest. In this final action, the back of the Japanese advance was broken and the demoralized enemy retreated. For all intent and purposes, Guadalcanal was lost to the Empire and in essence, the Japanese had marched up to the line in the sand and were stopped dead in their tracks – they would never advance further east of Guadalcanal again. They would continue the struggle for this southern Solomon island, landing hundreds of men and tons of materials, the campaign was realistically lost and inexperienced American fighting men who only months before had been working in Montgomery Wards or pumping gas had won America’s first amphibious operation against a seasoned enemy, hitherto thought to have been invincible.

The 67th FS is still around, flying F-15Cs out of Kadena, Japan.

A few years back, they carried a camo scheme and the old “ZZ” and 5th AF tail flashes to salute their Guadalcanal P-400s.

You have to admit, the F-15C is, with the possible exception of the F-14, one of the sexiest air superiority fighters of the past 40 years.

They have a memorial installed at the National Museum of the Pacific War (the Nimitz museum) in Texas and came away from Guadalcanal with a Presidential Unit Citation (Navy).  

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