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Classic Wings: P-47 Thunderbolt

'The Jug' was a juggernaut in two theaters

Quick: can you name the American fighter plane built in the largest numbers?

With a wingspan of just under 41 feet and a maximum speed of about 435 miles per hour, the P-47 never exuded the glamour of a P-51.

The answer: the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, a robust, heavily-armed fighter of World War II that could handle itself in combat against another fighter or at treetop altitude providing close support to Allied troops. Because of its milk-bottle shape, troops and pilots called it the Jug.

P-47 Thunderbolt

The P-47 Thunderbolt, nicknamed “Jug.” The P-47 was one of the most famous fighter planes of World War II. Although originally conceived as a lightweight interceptor, the P-47 developed as a heavyweight fighter. U.S. Air Force photo

The Thunderbolt was the heaviest U.S. single-engine fighter of the war. With a maximum loaded weight of about 21,200 pounds, the final P-47N version weighed almost 10,000 pounds more than a P-51D Mustang.

It was also the most heavily armed. While most fighters carried six guns, the Thunderbolt packed eight .50-caliber Browning M3s, each with 480 rounds of ammunition in belts that were 27 feet in length, possibly the source of the term “the whole nine yards.”

“It was like stepping out of a racing car and climbing into a two and a half ton truck.”

“It was like stepping out of a racing car and climbing into a two and a half ton truck,” said air ace and former Capt. Clayton Kelly Gross, who is better known as a Mustang pilot in the 354th Fighter Group in Europe and is one of the few pilots who flew the P-47 after the P-51. “If we were going to escort a bomber to Berlin, you wanted a P-51. If you were going to fight a German supply convoy at 15 feet of altitude near the front lines with a lot of metal flying around, you wanted a P-47.” Other pilots found the P-47 cockpit unusually comfortable and spacious. One used the cockpit air vent introduced on the P-47N model to keep a bottle of Coca-Cola cold.

American industry produced 15,683 of the pugnacious and practical Thunderbolts, compared to 15,486 elegant Mustangs and 10,037 sleek P-38 Lightnings.

P-47 Thunderbolt

A Republic P-47 from the 8th Air Force attacks an anti-aircraft (or “flak”) tower. U.S. Air Force photo

Thunderbolts flew in every combat theater of the world, producing many air aces, battling and defeating Tiger tanks, and pioneering air-ground coordination techniques still used today.

A Thunderbolt pilot felt comfortable behind the P-47’s 2,600-horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp 18-cylinder twin-row radial engine driving a four-bladed propeller. On low-level strafing missions, pilots saw the big, round R-2800 as a solid steel block of armor that protected them from small-arms fire.

The Thunderbolt fought well against famous enemy fighters, including Germany’s Focke-Wulf Fw 190 and Japan’s Mitsubishi A6M5 Zero.

With a wingspan of just under 41 feet and a maximum speed of about 435 miles per hour, the P-47 never exuded the glamour of a P-51, yet was a top performer among World War II fighters. “It was a stable and steady fighting machine,” said former Capt. Frank Luckman, who flew Thunderbolts in the 365th Fighter Group in Europe. “Almost always, you could count on it getting you home.” Today’s Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II, named for the P-47, carries on the tradition of being a survivable and formidable air-to-ground weapon, but lacks its predecessor’s air-to-air prowess.

After World War II, the few remaining Thunderbolts made a Hollywood appearance in the movie Fighter Squadron (1948) starring Edmond O’Brian and Robert Stack. They were retired from Air National Guard units in the 1950s.

F-47 Thunderbolt

A mechanic of the 104th Fighter Squadron, Maryland National Guard tests the engine of a Republic F-47 Thunderbolt. Note the civilian light aircraft in the background. At the end of World War II the P-47 ( P for Pursuit) was redesignated the F-47 (F for Fighter) and relegated to Air National Guard units. U.S. Air National Guard photo

The Thunderbolt fought well against famous enemy fighters, including Germany’s Focke-Wulf Fw 190 and Japan’s Mitsubishi A6M5 Zero. Still, its forte was strafing and bombing. That made it ideal for supporting Pacific island invasions, slugging it out on the European continent in 1944 and 1945, and assaulting the Japanese home islands in the final weeks of the war. The Thunderbolt would have been ideal in Korea, where air-to-ground action predominated, but by that time the Air Force simply didn’t have enough of them. The nation’s most numerous fighter had been put out to pasture too early to participate in its second war.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...