Flying the P-47N Thunderbolt
The final missions at war's end still extracted a price
“It was a beautiful specimen of the great Thunderbolt fighter, almost factory-fresh in the Pacific sunshine, resplendent with an all-yellow tail assembly including fin and elevators, and a yellow ring around its engine cowling. I’d been a Mustang pilot. People knew me as a Mustang pilot. But when I saw the long-range P-47N Thunderbolt on that Pacific island, I wondered why we hadn’t had these capabilities sooner.”
On Aug. 14, 1945, 1st Lt. Urban L. “Ben” Drew was the pilot of a P-47N Thunderbolt (44-88492), coded 892, named Detroit Miss II of the 413th Fighter Squadron, 414th Fighter Group. Drew was better known for having shot down two German jet fighters in Europe. Now, with no way to know that this was the final full day of fighting in World War II, Drew was “ready to kill Japs,” he said, and “eager to fly into combat in a new, long-range fighter with that ‘new car smell.’” In a 2009 interview, Drew provided an unusually graphic description of the final version of the fighter many pilots called the “Jug.”
“I was the only ace on Iwo Jima,” said Drew. “The other pilots in the 414th group respected what I had accomplished but were cautious around me. I had a pretty good relationship with Hank Thorne [Col. Henry G. Thorne, Jr], the group commander.
“I took to this big, heavy, round airplane immediately. A beefed-up fighter built explicitly for the Pacific, the P-47N was a heavyweight at 19,880 pounds on takeoff. Even though I was accustomed to a tail wheel, I decided that the P-47N was more demanding, and with less favorable visibility, when taxiing or working in the airfield pattern. The P-47N had 93 US gallons of fuel in each ‘wet’ wing with a slightly greater span than earlier models; it was the first time a Thunderbolt carried gas in the wing. The new, square-tipped wing introduced larger ailerons for better control in a turn. When maximum external tankage was carried [four external fuel tanks], this brought the total fuel load of the P-47N up to a remarkable 1,266 U.S. gallons, which gave the aircraft a range of 2,350 miles. The P-47N was really a ‘long ranger.’”
The P-47Ns that reached the Pacific used the 2,800-horsepower, 18-cylinder radial Pratt & Whitney R-2800-77 Double Wasp engine driving a larger CH-5 turbo supercharger and 13-foot diameter Curtiss Electric propeller with narrow style paddle blades.
Ben Drew did not go to school to learn the P-47N. “I learned the P-47N by sitting in the cockpit with the manual and studying. I decided when to make my first flight. After a few hours in the cockpit I fired it up. The crew chief told me not to use water injection on the first flight. Having forgotten the lag in the turbocharger, I shoved the throttle up to 45 inches manifold pressure and started down the runway. Then the turbo caught up and I had 55 inches and the water cut in. Scared hell out of me, but off I went. When I got back I got my butt chewed out by the crew chief.”
On the rock-solid, ash-strewn island of Iwo Jima, operating from a short, crowded strip called Field No. 2, Drew was respected by most, but some “saw me as just another f****** new guy.”
“I was new to the P-47N, new to the concept of prolonged over-water flying, new to the idea that my wingmen and I might soon be flying cover for an invasion of the Japanese home islands. Before arriving on Iwo, I’d been told that when the amphibious landings in Japan began, my squadron’s Thunderbolts would go ashore to the first Japanese airfield liberated by Allied troops and fly close air support missions within a few miles of the enemy.”
On the penultimate day of the war, Drew launched on a marathon mission to the industrial city of Nagoya, with 1st Lt. Harold E. Regan flying his wing in another yellow-trimmed P-47N. “I told him, ‘when we do strafing, spread out. Don’t tuck in behind your flight leader. We want our two P-47Ns to be two targets, not one big one.’”
“For what happened that day, you need to remember two things about the P-47N – It had the glide characteristics of an anvil and it was hard to escape from, unless you were in complete control.
The fighters cruised toward Japan at 21,000 feet and at about 350 miles per hour, carrying no bombs or rockets but loaded with 3,000 rounds of .50-caliber ammunition, consisting of 350 rounds each in the six outboard Browning M2 machine guns and 450 rounds in the two inboard guns.
Over Nagoya’s Akenagohara airfield, with fuel for 25 minutes over target, Drew peeled off to strafe Mitsubishi G4M1 “Betty” bombers. His two-plane element was the only one to depart formation. “I always believed if you’re going to fight the war, fight the g******ed war,” he said.
Drew saw tracer fire. Contrary to Drew’s advice, Regan stayed close to his element leader. The Japanese gunfire missed Drew but slammed into Regan’s P-47N. “The ‘Jug’ could handle a lot of damage, but this was too much.”
Regan: “I’m hit, I’m hit!”
Drew: “Can you climb, two?”
Regan: “Yeah, doing okay. Shaking pretty bad, ‘though.”
Drew: “C’mon, buddy, let’s nurse that airplane to the beach. Get off shore.”
With Drew eyeballing him, Regan climbed to 11,000 feet before his R-2800-77 coughed, sputtered, and began to lose power. Barely across the shoreline, Regan fought to trade altitude for distance. Another 414th group pilot, Capt. Frank Johnson, remembered: “Regan was scared. He was in serious trouble. He was flying a ten-ton airplane that suddenly possessed the flying qualities of a rock. He continued talking to Drew on the radio and seemed businesslike, but he was in a very bad situation and he knew it.”
The two Thunderbolts left the Japanese coastline and flew toward a U. S. submarine, guided by a B-29 Superfortress with a radio bearing on the fighters. Regan said over the radio, “I can’t hold her any longer. I’ve got to get out.”
“Regan waited too long. He held the Thunderbolt’s nose up too long,” said Drew. When Regan went out of the aircraft, the left elevator of his P-47N slammed into him. He appeared to bounce before he fell free and his parachute opened.
Drew felt blessed by the P-47N’s generous fuel load, but was running low on gas. Nonetheless, he remained overhead while Regan splashed, wriggled out of his chute, and struggled to climb into a dingy. His movements were sluggish, suggesting to Drew that his injuries were serious.
Alone, far from home, obliged to navigate toward a tiny island he could easily miss, Drew spent hours struggling back to Iwo, initially missing the island, and finally landing on Field No. 2 with so little fuel he could not taxi in to park. The next day, 413th squadron commander Maj. Paul R. Wignall, a well-liked Texas Aggie who’d survived a similar shootdown and bailout, told Drew that a submarine had brought Regan to Iwo and that Regan was “sitting up in bed and talking” in the hospital. Other sources say a destroyer rescued Regan. Either way, the news seemed good.
Less than 24 hours after the final P-47N Thunderbolt mission of the war, hours after the Japanese surrender, Paul Regan suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage. The doctors who’d fixed his legs had never noticed a head injury caused by his collision with the stabilizer.
Said Drew: “I got a lot of flak from Regan’s family,” who blamed Drew for attacking the Japanese airfield. “But I always believed if you’re going to fight the war, fight the g******ed war.” Urban L. “Ben” Drew and others say they had 100 percent confidence in the P-47N, and that no other fighter would have been a better performer or more survivable.