Strange tales come from the South Seas, but none stranger than that of thirteen "home-made" P-40s which, in the first four months of their operations, helped cover the beach landings at Bougainville and shot down eighteen Japanese aircraft.
Credit is given to ten enlisted men of a Thirteenth Air Force fighter squadron with the achievement of building the planes from salvaged scraps and pieces of wrecked planes found on the beach and in the jungle. The record acquires added luster from the fact that much of the mechanical equipment used to build them had to be improvised from cocoanut logs, parts of wrecked ships and scrap salvaged from the sea.
Master Sergeant Lawrence Gross of New York City, New York, was identified as leader of the volunteer group which did the job. Reports reaching the War Department say that four of the Warhawks they built accounted for four Jap planes which attacked American landing forces on the second day of the battle for Bougainville, and that fourteen other enemy planes have been swept from the skies since by the "bits and pieces" put together by Gross and his crew.
Their contribution to the Bougainville campaign was made at a time when planes were desperately needed to protect the LSTs and landing barges pouring American ground troops onto the beaches and when the Air Force service squadron on the ground had its hands more than full repairing and rebuilding American planes which had been shot down or damaged in crash landings. The fourteen "home-made" planes were thus a net addition to the air forces which helped carry the day for the Americans and pave the way for ultimate victory in that area. It was the famed "Vampire Squadron" of the Thirteenth Air Force which flew the planes.
Three new airplane engines and five obsolete prewar wings without accessories were all the new equipment Gross and his associates could obtain for use in the planes they built. Everything else was salvaged or made on the ground from whatever materials were at hand.
They set up their workshop in an abandoned coral revetment at the South Pacific island base in the heart of the combat zone. Cocoanut logs and empty oil drums served in place of automatic wing jacks. A heavy crane was needed to lift engines and wings. Twenty miles away lay a sunken Japanese merchant-man, its boom encrusted with barnacles and rust. On the chance that they could use it, a small party of men sloughed their way through thick jungle undergrowth and wrenched the boom from the dead ship.
On a beach which had seen bloody battle, a rusted Japanese motor was found. Within twenty-four hours the GI aircraft builders had it supplying power for lights and for charging batteries.
Working 'round-the-clock and defying daily enemy air raids, the ten GIs stuck it out. At the end of four days the assembly line was working. A few hours later their first rebuilt P-40 was ready for its test flight.
Last November, on the second day of the invasion of Bougainville Island, as flotillas of landing craft were unloading supplies and reinforcements on the newly established beachhead, a big formation of Japanese dive bombers swept into view, intent on destroying the Allied foothold on the island. Allied fighters of the protective cover, spearheaded by a flight of four P-40s of the Vampire Squadron, shot off to meet them. The spearhead planes were from the GI assembly line. In a few minutes the attack was dispersed, a score of enemy planes destroyed, the beachhead preserved. Next day, intelligence reports credited the flight of four rebuilt P-40s with the destruction of four enemy planes. Into their construction had gone parts, wings, engines, fuselages, actuating struts, instruments, accessories, even nuts and bolts salvaged from wrecked and abandoned planes from fields up and down the Solomons.
This article was originally published in the September, 1944, issue of Air Tech magazine, vol 5, no 3, p 64.