Mother Nature couldn’t claim this streak of Lightning; it was created by Lockheed’s celebrated designer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson and proved to be one of the best American fighters of World War II.
The P-38 Lightning was a twin-engine, twin-boom aircraft with a single central nacelle for the cockpit and instruments. Normally armed with four machine guns and one 20mm or 37mm cannon, the Lightning’s strange design made her silhouette unmistakable to friend and foe.
It was nicknamed “Lightning” by the British; the Germans called the P-38 “der Gabelschwanz Teufel,” meaning “The Forked-tailed Devil.”
In the Pacific, the Japanese implied P-38s were “Ni Hikoki Ippairotto” which meant “two planes, one pilot.”
Lt. Gen Jimmy Doolittle flew a P-38 over the Normandy landings on D-Day to assess the air offensive. He called the Lightning “the sweetest flying plane in the sky.” America’s top two Aces, Richard Bong and Thomas McGuire, became National heroes in P-38s.
The first time a young lieutenant named Wilbur Hattendorf saw a P-38, it was love at first sight.
“We thought it was awesome,” Hattendorf said. By “we” Hattendorf meant himself and his younger brother, Rich. The Hattendorf brothers joined the Army Air Corps together, trained together, and flew into combat together in North Africa and Italy.
“That’s unheard of today,” he said. “But back then I flew into combat with my kid brother as wingman.”
The brothers escorted medium bombers, strafed and bombed shore guns on Sicily, dive-bombed, skip-bombed (skipping a bomb into ships or other targets by “skipping” the bomb on water from low altitude), and engaged in kill-or-be-killed dogfights.
Hattendorf recalled, “Several pilots made ‘Ace’ (five kills) by intercepting the slow and vulnerable Italian tri-motor airplane. They would break formation to go for an easy kill. As flight leader it was my responsibility to protect my men, so that meant the rest of us had to pour on the coal to engage the German escorts, usually Messerschmitt Bf-109s.”
During his tour of duty Hattendorf was credited with three confirmed kills, but records indicate he took “big chunks” out of several enemy aircraft that most likely went down.
Unofficially, Hattendorf probably downed seven or eight enemy fighters. Rich scored two confirmed kills, but almost didn’t make it home.
Hattendorf said, “We were escorting B-26s one day and got jumped by dozens of German fighters. They got on my brother’s tail and shot up his P-38 like you wouldn’t believe. His tail boom hung by a thread and his canopy was shot to pieces. He lost hydraulics, 80 percent of his instruments, and had shell fragments in his head.”
Rich blacked out. Hattendorf watched as his kid brother spiraled out of control.
“I thought he was a goner,” he said.
Perhaps the Grim Reaper had taken the day off – Rich regained consciousness less than 500 feet from the ground, pulled up, and babied his P-38 home.
Rich spent four weeks in a field hospital. It was the first time the brothers had been separated since joining the Army Air Corps.
Both brothers completed their 50 missions and returned home safely.