15th Fighter Group, 7th Fighter Command, 20th USAAF, “The Pineapple Air Force”

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Col. James O. Beckwith 15th FG, 7th Fighter Command, 20th USAAF at Iwo Jima, March – May 1945.

James O. Beckwith, born in Vermont, (no relation but a namesake to my father) began flying in 1929. Transferred by carrier to Oahu in February, 1941, he was one of the original members of the “Pineapple Air Force” as it was dubbed by Brigadier General Howard C. Davidson. The transfer was completed by carrier launch in their P-36s on February 21.

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Beckwith resting on a Havard before the hostilities began.

By October, Beckwith was promoted to command the newly formed 72nd Pursuit Squadron, flying P-40s. On December 7th the 72nd Pursuit Squadron was destroyed on the ground. Their tent complex, housing the enlisted men of the 72nd, was struck by a Japanese bomb and had also been thoroughly strafed by the attacking Japanese fighters. Beckwith concentrated his activities towards the two dozen casualties in the enlisted men’s charred tents while his new P-40s burned on the ground.

In the period between 7 December 1941 and the Marianas Campaign, the 7th Fighter Command provided an air defense shield in the Central Pacific stretching from Midway to Christmas and the Canton Islands. In late 1943 and early 1944, the 45th, 46th, and 72nd Fighter Squadrons along with the 531st Attack Squadron participated in the Gilbert Islands Campaign. Operating from Makin Island, these units made raids against the nearby Marshall Islands of Mille and Jaluit and provided for Makin’s air defense.

With the completion of the Gilbert and Marshalls Campaigns, as well as the USN’s greatly enhanced control of the seas, it became evident that the need for massive air defense in the Central Pacific was subsiding fast. In June of 1944 the 318th Group left Bellows Field for the Marianas. The 15th Group, now commanded by Colonel Jim Beckwith, followed them at Bellows and completed the process of converting from P-40B’s.

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Col. Beckwith sitting on the wing of P-40B “Squirt II”

The Group was then equipped with P-47D-20’s and 21s in mid March. The group had aspirations of also moving to a battle-front somewhere and it wasn’t too long in coming. On 30 August 1944 they got word that the Group would be going to Yap Island. Preparations proceeded up to the point of embarkation of Col. Beckwith and his staff as well as the ground echelon. The air echelon was standing by for loading aboard the aircraft carriers. However, a more ambitious plan was adopted; by-pass Yap and instead return to the Philippines. Disappointingly for Col. Beckwith and the Group, the 15th was not needed for that operation due to the availability of the 5th and 13th Air Forces fighters. All returned to Bellows and the Group took on a very dejected mood.

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Col. Beckwith’s P-47 – this aircraft was used in a competition between the group’s new P-51s and the P-47s to help convince the skeptics in the group the Mustang was a superior aircraft.

The despair didn’t last long though, word came that the 15th Group and the 21st group would indeed be moving forward. The 15th would go first after a very quick transition to P-51D Mustangs. Although only a few people were informed that the destination was Iwo Jima, a renewed excitement reigned. The P-40’s and P-47’s had a very restricted radius of action; when word came that the Group was getting a long range all around performer like the P-51 it sent a signal that something big was coming.

In November the first P-51’s arrived. The Group was provided with 10 of these new aircraft which were used in an intensive training program to get all the pilots checked out and given some experience in formation flying, gunnery and bombing. The Group was equipped with nearly its full complement of aircraft before loading on the aircraft carrier Sitkoh Bay on the 2 February.

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Upon arrival at Guam on 14 February, the 15th FG seventy-nine embarked aircraft had to be lightered ashore; here a 45th FS aircraft is loaded.

Upon completion of the transfer ashore, the Group immediately flew to East Field on Saipan and bedded down with Col Lew Sanders’ 318th Fighter Group while waiting for the Marines on Iwo Jima to secure the South Field.

On 6 March 1945 Brigadier General “Mickey” Moore, the commander of the 7th Fighter Command, led the 47th Fighter Squadron to Iwo. The following day Colonel Jim Beckwith, the 15th Fighter Group CO, led the 45th and 78th Fighter Squadrons to the island. The 548th Night Fighter Squadron’s P-61s with a detachment of the 6th Night Fighter Squadron also came in with the 15th Group to provide night time air defense support.

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The island of Iwo Jima, lying about half way to the Japanese mainland from Saipan and about 750 miles from Tokyo, was invaded on the morning of 19 February by 60,000 Marines. The 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions were involved. The 22,000 Japanese ground forces dug in on Iwo turned out to be more tenacious than expected.  The Marines took heavy casualties and the airfield didn’t become available until D + 15 instead of D + 5 as was planned, though an advanced party of the 15th FG Ground Crew did get ashore on D + 5

Iwo, as the 7th Fighter Command found it was the “hell hole of creation”. The months of shelling and bombing by the Navy combined with the 7th and 20th Air Forces had laid all vegetation and structures to waste. Shell and bomb craters were everywhere, including unexploded ordnance of all types. Hulks of landing craft and ships fouled the beaches. At various places there were even ponds of boiling sulfur with the attendant odors. Japanese bodies were everywhere too since the Marine graves registration people were have a tough time keeping with their own dead. A consequence of this was flies by the million. C-47’s sprayed DDT to control them. Initially, mortar, artillery and rocket rounds were flying everywhere.

The P-51’s and P-61’s of the 548th Night Fighter Squadron immediately began an intense air defense effort anticipating heavy air attacks by the Japanese. Interdiction of Chichi Jima began to preclude the Japanese from using its airfield for attacks on Iwo Jima, 165 miles to the southwest. The need to provide ground support to the Marines was not planned, as this support was being provided by the carrier forces offshore. Almost immediately however the Marines asked for help from the 7th Fighter Command and ground support began.

This remarkable video below shows the arrival of the 15th FG Mustangs (specifically 47th FS aircraft) and some of their ground support action.

The use of napalm delivery by fighters had been developed but the Group had been told to leave that capability behind since the island would be secured by the time the they arrived – now evidently not the case. Consequently, the ground support was restricted to the far less effective use of the P-51’s six 50 caliber machine guns and two 500 pound bombs per aircraft. On 11th March the 15th FG reached out for its first strike on enemy territory. Led by Major Piper and accompanied by General Moore and Colonel Beckwith, seventeen P-51s attacked enemy ground troops on Chichi Jima, 147 miles north of Iwo Jima. Beckwith was awarded a Purple Heart following the mission having been wounded in the leg.

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“Squirt”, flown by Col. Beckwith at Iwo Jima.

Preparations were made for the first B-29 VLR (Very Long Range) escort mission to Japan scheduled for the 7 April. A practice run down to Saipan and back on 30 March was somewhat discouraging. Several aircraft had to land at Saipan unable to make the return trip nonstop. The trips to Japan would not afford such a luxury and plans were amended accordingly.

Now, each squadron would fly 16 airplanes. Designated squadrons would provide spares that would go along with the main force of P-51’s, their B-29 navigators and P-61 supports until just short of the P-61’s point of no return. The P-61’s would provide navigation aid to the P-51’s forced to return early to Iwo Jima. Anyone having problems was to abort and the spares fill in. In addition, 8 aircraft were to provide top cover for the rescue submarine and aircraft, as well as the B-29 Navigators at the rally point just off Japan.

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Operations begin; Col. Beckwith leading part of the 15th Group in P-51 “Squirt”

Early on the morning of 7 April the 15th and 21st Groups were poised ready for the signal to start engines. The briefings of the day before and that morning had everyone eager to get the operation underway. Since there were a large number of aircraft to get off in as short a time as possible, there could be no delay once the first aircraft were airborne. At about 0700 the signal came;  all aircraft got airborne promptly and proceeded to the assembly point at Kita Iwo Jima, just north of the main island, where the navigation escort B-29’s were waiting. The rendezvous went smoothly and the 7th Fighter Command was 750 miles away from an opportunity to settle an old score.

More remarkable footage of 15th FG Mustangs in action;

Various aircraft had problems, including Col. Beckwith’s P-51 which developed oxygen system problems and he had to turn back. Spares filled in as planned, the last one of which, flown by 2nd Lt. Charles Heil, took off so late that he flew 600 miles on solo navigation. When he finally caught up with a formation he was dismayed to find no other escorts as it was a formation of B-29s on a mission to Nagoya.  Undaunted, he then assumed a protective stance over his new charge of 153 bombers!

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An interesting view of “Squirt”. Note, it appears to have a replacement spinner (or not yet painted – the stripe seems to be missing from the wing also) and an unknown [to me] type of blade antenna under and behind the forward cowling.
Due to a complex rotation formula that included time spent in Oahu as deployed service, Col. Jim Beckwith along with the rest of the 15th Fighter Group commanders rotated home after the second VLR mission and took no further part in combat operations.

Very Long Range Missions

The following account of VLR missions is taken from Major James Tapps’ “7th Fighter Command History”.  I am honoured that permission for its use was granted to me directly by Major Tapp himself.

As the formation neared Japan there were scattered, puffy clouds at 10,000 feet. A climb was also initiated in order to get to escort altitude and to join with the 73rd Bomb Wing which the 7th was to escort over their target in the Tokyo area. It soon became apparent that one of those clouds was the snow capped Fujiyama. This helped get the adrenaline flowing. The timing of the rendezvous was just about perfect and the 15th Group slid into position above and to right of the bomber formation while the 21st Group did the same thing on the left side.

The bomber formation was supposed head toward the target area and make land fall further to the west than it did because of high tail winds. This caused the ground track to proceed over Yokusuka and the Yokohama which drew a lot of Flak. The fighter pilots were happy to be where they were instead of flying down what looked like an asphalt highway in the sky due to the flak bursts as the B-29’s had to do. Contrary to the way later escorted bomber formations were flown, the 73rd was all together in one contiguous formation. They seemed to be around 16,000 to 18,000 feet.

The escorting fighters had spread out into their mutual support formation and began to realize it might be a busy day, since the sky ahead was full of contrails formed by the waiting Japanese fighters who were obviously expecting the B-29’s to be at a much higher altitude. The two fighter groups were flying their most experienced pilots feeling that they deserved the opportunity to participate in the first mission. This experience gave them a sense of concern however, since they expected that the Japanese would react as they would. Probably they did not because they didn’t believe that the B-29’s could have escorts because of the great distance involved.

As the bombers neared the possible target areas along their track the Japanese fighters started their attacks and were engaged by the P-51’s.  During the following engagement, Major Jim Tapp leading the second section of the 78th Fighter Squadron shot down four enemy aircraft. Following the engagement, Major Tapp ordered the Squadron to proceed to the Rally Point to return home. As he took up a heading for the rally point the 78th Squadron merged back together with all 16 aircraft accounted for.

The squadron had split up into flights for the action, but obviously had stayed in the same general airspace. All the aircraft but one arrived at the rally point at about the same time. The missing aircraft was being flown by Lt. Robert Anderson from the 531st Squadron, 21st Group who was seen to go down burning shortly after he released his external fuel tanks. Captain Frank Ayers, a 47th Squadron pilot, P-51 was siphoning fuel and had to bail out near the destroyer standing guard north of Iwo and was recovered. Witnesses and gun camera film confirmed that the P-51’s destroyed 21 Japanese fighters, probably destroyed 6 and damaged 6. The Command was told that 2 B-29’s were lost to antiaircraft fire and one was knocked down by a Ta-Dan bomber.

The next mission was on 12 April. It was also an escort mission. Major Jim Tapp did flame another Tony to become the 7th Fighter Command’s and therefore the 20th Air Force’s first fighter ace. It was noted that many of the airfields that were over flown had lots of aircraft on them. The Fighter pilots wanted to be given the freedom of going after them when there was no air action. This of course was not adopted as a policy but instead a fighter airfield strike was planned. The first of these was against the Atsugi airfield on 16 April. The 21st Group was to strafe the airfield while the 15th Group gave them top cover. This mission was quite successful. Twenty-one aircraft were shot down in the air. Twenty-six were destroyed or probably destroyed on the ground. Thirty-five were damaged in the air and on the ground. The fighter strikes came quite frequently from then on. Escort missions continued as well.

In May, the 78th Squadron aircraft were modified to carry the 140 pound 5 inch High Velocity Aircraft Rockets (HVARs). This added a new dimension to the P-51’s capability. On the first use of the rockets against Matsudo airfield northeast of Tokyo, Major Jim Tapp and his wing man Captain Phil Maher set the whole hanger line on fire.

The HVAR carried a modified 5 inch Naval gun projectile. The fighter sweeps were so devastating to the Japanese that they started evacuating their aircraft from southern Honshu as they got warning. They also towed them off into the “woods” some distance from the airfields. The intent presumably was to save them for the anticipated invasion of Japan. This action, of course, took considerable pressure off the B-29’s In May the northern most field on Iwo was completed and Col. Bryan B. Harper flew in with his 506th Fighter Group and their 85 P-51’s to join in the fray. The 457th, 458th and 462nd Squadrons formed the Group. After a few missions to Chichi Jima they made their initial VLR effort against Kusumigaura Airfield on 28 May. They made a good showing too. They were credited with destroying or damaging 50 aircraft on the ground and destroying one in the air. They lost two aircraft and one pilot. The fighter strikes were almost always directed toward aircraft on the ground. Secondary targets on these missions were usually transportation. Having seen the beating the Marines took on Iwo a lot of pilots hated to bring home any ammunition. As a consequence, small ships, boats and the railroad running stock took a beating. Strikes against airfields were not everybody’s favorite past time. Quite the contrary, no other action that the fighter pilots engaged in was more dangerous. In spite of this, the P-51’s were out after ground targets until the very end.

Copyright Maj. James Tapp, used by permission.

 


Tamiya 1/48 Scale NA P-51D-25 Mustang

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NA P-51D-25 #44-63423 “Squirt” Piloted by Col. James O. Beckwith 15th FG, 7th Fighter Command, 20th USAAF at Iwo Jima, March – May 1945.

Construction

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I built this model a very long time ago, my best guess is sometime in the summer of 2001, about eighteen months after I returned to the hobby following a twenty year break. So, forgive me if the description of the build is a little sketchy!  The description of its assembly and marking that follows was written in circa 2006 and posted on the first version of Making-History.ca.  I must admit that it’s still one of my favourites.

As best as I can recall, construction went smoothly. I knew I had to be careful as I wanted a good build on which to paint the NMF. It is, after all, a Tamiya P-51 so how hard could it be? I don’t recall using any filler, but I must have because I use it on all my kits.

Paint and Decals

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As I recall, I used SNJ for the NMF on this kit. It was my first use of this paint and I liked it very much. At the time, I didn’t believe too much in the patchwork painting technique of multi-shaded panels – and actually I still think that it is tremendously overdone in a lot of cases (just my opinion, your mileage may vary). I did attempt to make the steel section around the exhaust stacks a darker colour, but it didn’t come out as dark as I would have liked.

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A view of the 47th Fighter Squadron ID stripe configuration – veterans of the squadron all say the darker colour was purple or dark blue while references all say black. 

Following the NMF painting, I masked the ID stripes with Tamiya tape and painted them. Veterans of the 47th FS say, to a man, that the darker portion of the stripe was dark blue or purple. Most references said the colour is black. If I had known about the blue/purple at the time of painting, I would have done it that way because it would have looked cool; but alas I chose black. Col. Beckwith took a machine of the 47th FS as his personal aircraft, hence the markings on “Squirt”.

Upon further review of photos in comparison to my model, I think the triangle on the fin should have come further down, level with the bottom of the trim tab and I think I should have made the black portion of the spinner wider, particularly forward, as it is a little narrow on my model. I chipped the paint a little on the stripes to simulate wear. Finally, I hand painted the rear of the wheel well with YZC as the main spar on the Mustang was generally painted this colour while the rest of the wheel well was painted with aluminum lacquer.

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“Squirt” sitting in the flight line

The decals were from the kit and I cobbled the numbers for the serial number and squadron from the spares box. It wasn’t until months later when I learned how to make decals that I was able to finally add the “Squirt” to the port side cowling.

Following correspondence with Mark Stevens (see References section below) in the course of putting this article together, I learned that “Squirt” was actually painted on both sides of the cowling, as well as having a repetition the ID number on the main undercarriage doors. I dug around in the decal spares box and was happy to find some more of the “Squirt” decals I had made a year previously – one of which I applied to the starboard side cowling – and then with addition of the small “15” to each undercarriage cover (parallel to the ground per the reference photos) I finally completed the decaling.

Weathering, Final Assembly and Completion

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Final assembly comprised of the undercarriage and antenna post. When first deployed, the P-51s of the 15th Fighter Group had the standard single post antenna arrangement. Later, the post was removed and replaced with two posts plus another installed on the forward underside of the fuselage to work with the DU “Uncle Dog” directional radio beacon homing system.  “Uncle Dog”  allowed a pilot to follow a radio signal transmitted from a navigator B-29, rescue submarine, or home base and saved many pilots’ lives. The model is built as it was with the initial configuration.

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Antenna configuration known as “Uncle Dog” and an illustration of the paint chipping that occurred.

I kept weathering to a minimum. There is some chipping on the theatre stripes and slight exhaust staining and addition staining from the oil overflow vent on either side of the engine which I applied with the airbrush using Tamiya Smoke. I used pastels to dust up the undercarriage and undersides – though that is a little difficult to make out in the images.

Gallery

 


References and Credits

Printed Sources:

“The Pineapple Air Force” by John w. Lambert. ISBN 0-9625869-0-5
“P-51 Mustang” by William Newby Grant. ISBN 0-8536845-4-5

Web Sources:

http://www.7thfighter.com/
As a condition of the use of some of the materials from this site, the following disclaimer is included.  Permission to use, copy and distribute documents delivered from this Worldwide Web server and related graphics is hereby granted, provided that this notice appear. All other rights reserved. The name of “7th Fighter Command Association” may not be used in advertising or publicity pertaining to distribution of this information without specific, written prior permission. Mark Stevens and the 7th Fighter Command Association makes no representations about the suitability of this information for any purpose. It is provided “as is” without express or implied warranty. Mark Stevens and the 7th Fighter Command Association disclaim all warranties with regard to this information, including all implied warranties of merchant-ability and fitness. In no event shall Mark Stevens or the 7th Fighter Command Association be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of this information.

Individual Correspondents:

Mark Stevens; the 7th Fighter Command Association webmaster for his correspondence, provision of many of the pictures used in this article and some invaluable help in refining this piece.

Dana Bell; for provision of the first photo I saw of “Squirt” – that photo isn’t included in this piece as it was provided on condition it was not published.

Tom Tullis – http://www.tullisart.com/; Tom posted an image of his profile art of “Squirt” on Hyperscale many years ago. Tom pointed me to Dana Bell as the source image for the artwork.

 


Copyright:  As usual, I make no claim of original work in this article except for the photos of the models and text describing their construction and painting.  Except where noted otherwise, I sourced all images and photos from the internet and are used under fair-use.  Any copyrighted material will be removed or credited forthwith upon request by its legitimate owner.

 

2 comments

  1. Great article on the build and the historical account of VLR. I applaud you on unearthing the Uncle Dog system description; what a deep dig! It reminds me of air-to-air TACAN we used in the SH-60B, although that was for figuring out where the P-3 or S-3 was so we didn’t hit each other.

    Like

    1. Thanks for the comments. Subsequent to this model, I built James Tapp’s P-51 and installed the Uncle Dog on that one. One day I’ll get around to putting that one up here too.

      Like

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