Thunderbolts to Ie Shima

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P-47N Thunderbolt Bubbletop of the 333rd Fighter Squadron, 318th Fighter Group Ie Shima.

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The first of the army air force fighter groups to arrive on Ie Shima was the 318th Fighter Group under Col. Lew Sanders. Having gained combat experience at Saipan, Tinian, Rota, Pagan, Truk and Iwo Jima, the pilots were ready for their new mission. The ground echelon left Saipan 6 to 7 April 1945 on board the liberty ship S. Hall Young 479 and Kenmore AK 221 and headed for Ie Shima. As this excursion was beginning, a skeleton crew remained behind to prepare the group’s new fighters for action. New model Thunderbolts, the long-range P-47N, had just arrived to replace the older model P-47Ds that the group had been flying. Pilots tested them out on runs over Truk and Marcus islands for about two weeks before deeming them ready for the flight to Ie Shima.

Kenmore and S. Hall Young arrived in Okinawan waters at the end of April 1945. The ground echelon of the 318th landed on Ie Shima on 30 April, and had to stand by as demolition men cleared mine fields all around them. The next evening, a kamikaze hit S. Hall Young, burrowing into her number 5 hold and setting off fires. Fortunately the fires were extinguished before the 530 tons of ammunition and rockets were set off. A dozen trucks and various other supplies and equipment were lost in the attack.

The first of the group’s squadrons took off for Ie Shima and arrived on 13 May. The 333rd Fighter Squadron completed the 1, 425 mile flight in seven hours, making it the longest over- water flight up to that point. A B-29 flew navigation for the Thunderbolts but, three hours into the flight, encountered bad weather and the fighters had to continue on to Ie Shima using their clocks and compasses as a guide. Reports indicate that one plane and pilot were lost.12 The 73rd Fighter Squadron arrived on the 14th and the 19th Fighter Squadron arrived on the 15th. On 16 May, the 29th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron arrived.

The “Jugs” were quickly put to work at a variety of duties, including bomber escort missions and fighter sweeps from their base up to Kyushu and westward to Korea. On 14 May 1945, only one day after landing, they participated in the combat air patrol. Their primary responsibilities involved flying patrols near Radar Picket Stations # 5, 7, 9, 15, and 16.13 A few days later, they became the first of the ADC fighter planes to attack the Japanese mainland, hitting targets on Kyushu. From this point on, they would fly regular CAP and attack missions from their base at Ie Shima. Designed for long range missions, the P-47Ns were not seen over the picket ships as frequently as were the marine and navy planes. Army air force pilots found this agreeable, since there were those who felt that radar picket patrol could be unnerving at times. Lieutenant Durwood B. Williams, of the 333rd Fighter Squadron on Ie Shima, had been in the first group of army air force fighters to arrive at Okinawa. He recalled:

I flew 7 CAP missions during May and 6 CAP missions during June. Several were protecting the pickets. I do not recall how many. I do recall, however, that the duty was hazardous. One could peaceably orbit the pickets as long as no hostile aircraft were reported to be in the area. Once hostiles were reported, you could depend on every Navy gun in the group to fire on you. For Army pilots, undisciplined navy gunners were more feared than were the Japanese. At least, we could shoot back at the Japanese.

Pilots had been given fair warning. In an Operations Memorandum of 15 May, Col. Lew Sanders had warned pilots that “Planes must not fly within automatic weapon range of surface craft nor engage in any maneuver near surface craft which might be interpreted as hostile.”

Additional fighter groups arrived on Ie Shima in June 1945. Black Widows of the 548th Night Fighter Squadron landed on 8 June. The 34th Fighter Squadron of the 413th Fighter Group flew in on 14 June and three days later was joined by the 1st and 21st Fighter Squadrons. On 27 June the 463rd and 464th Fighter Squadrons of the 507th Fighter Group arrived and the next day the 465th arrived as well.

By this time, the need for their presence over the radar picket ships was minimal, and most of the Thunderbolts were used to the north of Okinawa to escort bombers in attacks on the main islands and to patrol in barrier CAPs near Amami O Shima. The fighter squadrons also headed west and northwest to attack Japanese bases in China and Korea.

From the time of their arrival on 14 May 1945 until 14 July 1945, the army air force units were under the command of the Tenth Army Tactical Air Force. After that date, they were once more back under the commanding general of the Seventh Air Force, a part of the Far Eastern Air Force (FEAF).

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The P-47N Thunderbolt

Weighing in at 9, 950 lbs. empty, the Republic P47-N Thunderbolts were the heaviest of the fighters over the radar picket stations. Their primary mission involved long-range attacks on the southern islands of Japan; however, on many occasions they flew combat air patrol over the picket ships and barrier CAP north of Okinawa. Eight .50 caliber machine guns and a top speed of 440 miles per hour made the Thunderbolt a deadly adversary. It could catch whatever the Japanese put in the air with the exception of the Oka and, with all eight guns blazing, could demolish anything that flew. With its high speed and heavy weight it was no dog fighter, and so relied on hit and run tactics to make the best use of its attributes.

Technical Air Intelligence Center comparison tests of the Thunderbolt and Zeke 52 had similar findings to other American aircraft such as the Hellcat and Corsair. In turns, the advantage was to the Zeke with one-half to three-fourths of a turn at 10, 000 and 25, 000 feet respectively.

Thunderbolts were significantly faster than Zekes at all altitudes. For example, the difference in speed at 10, 000 feet was 70 miles per hour. In zooms from both level flight and dives, the P-47D was far superior. Aileron roll for the Zeke was a higher rate at lower speeds, but once the aircraft hit a speed of about 250 miles per hour they were equal. At higher speeds Thunderbolts had a significant edge.

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