Pacific Northwest Lightning: Portland's P-38 Lightning Flying Training Program of 1944 - 1945

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Fighter Wing History Office
Many today may be familiar with the Portland Thunder professional arena football team, but how many are familiar with the Portland Lightning's?  Of the P-38 variety, that is.

Twin-engine fighter planes have a long association with Portland Air National Guard Base, from the Northrop F-89 Scorpion in the 1950's and 1960's, to the McDonnell F-101 Voodoo in the 1970's, McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II in the 1980's and in the modern era, the McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F-15 Eagle.  But twin-engine fighters actually figure in the base's history going all the way back to World War II, in the form of the famous Lockheed P-38 Lightning.

The P-38 Lightning was one of the U.S. Army Air Force's primary fighter aircraft during World War II, and was the aircraft of America's top fighter aces.  It was the only AAF fighter aircraft in production throughout the war, from Pearl Harbor to Victory over Japan Day. 

With the P-38 operating in combat theatres around the world, there was a steady demand for replacement pilots to compensate for the fielding of new units, to replace battle losses, as well as allow for the rotation of combat-experienced pilots from the overseas theatres.  Portland Army Air Base (PAAB), as it was designated at the time, played an important role in the USAAF's P-38 program, and was responsible for training hundreds of P-38-qualified pilots during late 1944 and early 1945.

The 432nd Army Air Force Base Unit (432nd AAFBU) assigned to Portland Army Air Base was established in early 1944, and replaced the 372nd Fighter Group which had accomplished fighter pilot training at Portland with the Bell P-39 Airacobra from November/December 1943 to March 1944.  The flying training mission for fighter pilots at Portland continued on with the 432nd AAFBU, which transitioned into use of the Bell P-63 Kingcobra fighter. 

On September 9, 1944, the 432nd AAFBU (Fighter) was re-designated as the 432nd AAFBU (Combat Crew Training Station-Fighter); it then underwent conversion from the P-63 to the P-38 Lightning.

Headquarters Fourth Air Force, under which PAAB belonged, then directed the move of flying training program operations for the autumn and winter seasons of 1944-45 from Portland to the east, due to better flying conditions in central Oregon at the Redmond and Madras sub-bases of PAAB.  Thus, the flying portion of the program ceased at Portland on September 15, 1944, as instructors, front echelon maintenance personnel and equipment were prepared for transfer to Redmond. 
From September 15 to October 2, 1944, the 432nd AAFBU's aircraft transition and movement plan was accomplished.  On September 16, P-38 pilot trainees reported in for duty at PAAB, also on that day, famous Lockheed test pilot Mr. Milo Burcham gave an impressive P-38 flight demonstration over PAAB which was exciting as well as inspiring to trainees and bystanders alike.  

On September 23, 1944, the 432nd AAFBU split into three components to carry out the flying training.  In this month, the majority of flying training had shifted over to Redmond Army Air Base and Madras Army Air Field, 200 miles from Portland with much mountainous terrain in between. 

The three base set-up worked well, though it called for significant efforts in supply by air, rail, commercial and government trucking resources.  Some 1,500 personnel were at Redmond (over 900 belonged to the 432nd), and from dawn-to-dusk they conducted flying operations.  A shortage of some Military Occupational Specialties led to long days for personnel.  There were some 300 personnel at Madras, with the primary mission to perform production line maintenance including 100-hour and subsequent inspections on the unit's P-38 aircraft.

By the end of September 1944, 154 pilot trainees arrived for the new P-38 class.  On September 30, there were 77 P-38 fighters at Redmond; all P-63s were transferred out to 2nd Air Force.  But also on the last day of the month, 25 of the 77 aircraft were out of commission for parts.

By October 1944, PAAB was practically deserted except for daily shuttle flights from the two sub-bases and fairly frequent arrivals and departures of transient aircraft that needed servicing and fuel.  However, the base and the 432nd AABU retained administrative responsibility for the P-38 pilot training program in Oregon, as well as third echelon maintenance for aircraft needing more substantial repair work.

Present with the staff of the 432nd AAFBU were a pair of ace fighter pilots, veterans of overseas combat who brought their experience to Portland to help train new P-38 pilots.  There was Lt. Col. James B. Morehead, with eight aerial victories in the Pacific and Mediterranean, who served as Air Inspector from December 1944 to April 1945. 

At least one other ace pilot served as an instructor pilot with the unit from April 1944 to March 1945, Capt. Cyrus R. Gladen, with five aerial victories in the Solomon Islands of the South Pacific.  This kind of combat experience was valuable in both the instruction and the administration of training for new pilots preparing to go overseas to the combat zones. 

Another notable member was the Commander, Portland AAB, Col. Samuel B. Knowles Jr., who had previously commanded the 51st Fighter Group in China in late 1943 to early 1944 as part of General Chennault's Flying Tigers of the 14th Air Force.

Also present was Lt. Col. Charles W. Sawyer, an original "Flying Tiger" of the American Volunteer Group with credit for two aerial victories, who was on the staff of the 432nd AAFBU during this training program.

The 432nd's Flying Training Program resumed flying operations on October 2, 1944, after the transition with the start of the first class in the P-38.  Some 4,684 flying hours were accrued in October, despite the newness of the P-38 in the unit, and the program was running well by November.  Unfortunately, there were seven accidents in October, including one fatal mishap on October 25, 1944, 10 miles south-southeast of Madras, Oregon, involving 2nd Lt. Jack R. Kirby and P-38 L 44-24809.  Five of the other six accidents were prior to October 15, and were attributed to pilot error due to the unfamiliarity with and speed of the P-38.

After attrition, there were 68 aircraft assigned to the unit in October, with only about 50 percent operational due to the continued shortages of spare parts and maintenance personnel.  Cannibalization was used to compensate for the lack of parts, which then affected the operational rate for aircraft.  Add to that, men were constantly being shipped off from the 432nd AAFBU for advanced specialist schools or for a port of embarkation enroute to overseas duty.

A major change in the three-base system occurred in November, when full-scale operations were abandoned at Madras AAF and all personnel and equipment returned to Portland to carry out production line maintenance in support of the P-38 training program.  An added benefit was the proximity of third echelon maintenance shops which expedited the repair of aircraft.

Another change took place at Redmond in November when the flying schedule was changed from launching flights all through the day to launching three missions per day; with a one hour interval between mission periods to allow maintenance personnel to service aircraft.  A seven day per week flying schedule was also implemented from November 19 to allow more flying time for the pilots in training.  To compensate for the shortage in maintenance personnel, the two shifts of work per day were consolidated into one shift, which improved the manning situation a bit and enabled the daily in-commission rate for aircraft to reach 58 percent.

December was a difficult month for the training program due to unfavorable weather, even on the east side of the mountains at Redmond.  Six days were complete losses for training, and on many other days, portions of the flying schedule were curtailed. 

In another efficiency effort, two classes of P-38 pilot trainees were consolidated into a single class of 131 pilots.  Despite the weather setback, these pilots and their instructors completed a total of 4,547 hours of flying training.

January 1945, marked the tenth month of the 432nd AAFBU's existence serving as a flying training unit.  There wasn't much to celebrate at the time, as the operational rate for aircraft from January 1-18 was down to a rough 37 percent, a figure which did not include the operational aircraft at Portland which were delayed in returning to Redmond due to inclement weather.  Parts shortages continued, mainly supercharger regulators, coolant pumps, hydraulic pumps and valve springs.  Priority for supply was given to combat units serving overseas, and this sometimes had an impact on the home front.

By the latter part of January, all aircraft were taken out of commission for inspections as the flying training schedule was completed.  Shortages of personnel continued to affect operations. But despite these constraining factors, the icy runways, snow, rain and low ceilings, PAAB successfully fulfilled its mission of training P-38 fighter pilots for overseas replacement duty. 

On January 27, 1945, 131 P-38 pilots with a minimum of 120 hours of flying time each, graduated their training in ceremonies held at the PAAB theater.  By 8:00 p.m. the same day, they were on their way to Hammer Field in California (Fresno ANG Base today), the first step in the journey to overseas destinations.

This was quickly followed on February 1, 1945, when a class of 59 officer and flying officer trainees completed their training as P-38 pilots and graduated in ceremonies held at PAAB. 
Unfortunately, there were several more fatal accidents in the P-38 training program following the September 1944, loss of Lt. Jack Kirby, and at least three more P-38 pilot trainees gave their lives in service to our country. 

2nd Lt. Byron R. Greenway died in a crash of P-38 L 44-24781 about 10 miles west of Bend, Oregon on November 6, 1944.  On January 20, 1945, 2nd Lt. Richard J. Trienen in P-38 L 44-24759 was lost in a mishap 33 miles southwest of Bend, Oregon.  P-38 L 44-24838 flown by 2nd Lt. Max P. Clark was lost on February 11, 1945, while on a gunnery training flight about 60 miles southeast of Bend, Oregon. 

In 2007, the Bureau of Land Management officially declared the location of 2nd Lt. Clark's mishap as a Federal government historical site during a Flag Day ceremony on June 14.  An interpretive plaque placed there remembers Lt. Clark.

But most of the pilots who began their P-38 transition training completed it safely and effectively; they soon went overseas to join combat units in action in the Pacific, Europe, Mediterranean and the China-Burma-India theatres. 

Portland's training with the P-38 continued into March 1945, when early in the month another 145 P-38 student pilots graduated.  After that class, Portland AAB was placed on a reduced operational status, with remaining operations primarily related to the servicing of transient aircraft.  The majority of enlisted men were shipped out for other wartime locations, thus concluding the chapter of Portland Army Air Base's association with the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. 

Although the period of Portland's P-38 training was relatively brief, these graduates went overseas and into action at a critical time of the war, as the primary Axis powers were teetering on defeat.  They were able to contribute to the final offensives in Europe and in the Pacific, which achieved victory over fascism and militarism in World War II. 

One of the Portland graduates, who went to war overseas, was a local man from Vancouver, Washington, 1st Lt. Walt Sykes.  He completed his P-38 training at Portland in early 1945 and went overseas to join the 35th Fighter Squadron of the 8th Fighter Group in the Pacific. 

Unfortunately, Lt. Sykes went missing in action in the last week of the war, on August 12, 1945, just days before Japan surrendered.  During a glide bomb attack on the Kurume Railway Bridge across the Chikugo River in Kyushu, Japan, his P-38L, serial number 44-25242, was hit by anti-aircraft fire.  He was still able to fly the damaged machine and decided to try and make it back to his base at Ie Shima, Okinawa, a distance of over 400 miles. 

But after successfully flying for two and a half hours, the remaining engine failed and the plane suddenly crashed.  No trace of Lt. Sykes was found in the waning daylight after the crash or on the next day by search planes.  He is remembered on the Tablets of the Missing at the Honolulu Memorial in Honolulu, Hawaii.  Lt. Sykes was awarded the Purple Heart and the Air Medal for his service and sacrifice.

Portland Army Air Base made an important contribution to the war effort with the P-38 pilot training program, among other wartime accomplishments achieved by the personnel and units assigned to the base during World War II.  On this 70th anniversary of the P-38 flying training program, we salute the men and women who served in the 432nd Army Air Force Base Unit for their terrific work at Portland AAB and its sub-bases at Redmond and Madras.