The P-38 was the most successful USAAF fighter in the Pacific War. It served with four separate air forces, spread out from Australia to Alaska. The most successful American Ace of the Second World War, Major Richard Bong, scored all 40 of his victories flying the P-38 Lightning over the Pacific.
The 11th Air Force was allocated the task of defending the Aleutian Islands, in the far north of the Pacific. There the extra reliability provided by the twin engines of the P-38 was essential, with missions being flown over long distances and in poor weather. The first P-38 victories of the war fell to pilots of the 11th Air Force. On 4 August 1942 two Kawanishi flying boats were claimed by Lt. Kenneth Ambrose and Lt. Stanley Long of the 54th Fighter Squadron. The Aleutian islands did not retain their importance, and by the middle of 1943 the 11th was something of a backwater.
The 7th Air Force covered the Central Pacific. Its P-38s saw little combat, but flew endless hours of patrols over waters whose importance ended with the battle of Midway. The only exception was the 531st FS, which joined the force escorting bombers attacking Truk and Iwo Jima.
The two main uses of the P-38 in the Pacific were the 5th and 13th Air Forces. The 5th Air Force had been formed in Australia during 1942, and was soon active over Papua. The 13th was activated at the start of 1943, in the South Pacific. Its first HQ was on Espiritu Santo (now part of Vanuatu), in the New Hebrides. Its early duties took its aircraft into the Solomon Islands, and most famously onto Guadalcanal. As the war developed the areas of operations of the two air forces slowly came together, until on 15 June 1944 they were combined as part of the Far East Air Forces.
The 13th Air Force contained two P-38 Fighter Groups, the 18th and the 347th. In November 1942 aircraft from the 339th FS of the 347th FG were sent to Guadalcanal. They also operated against Japanese island bases in the Solomon Islands. They came together with the 5th Air Force during the Allied advance west along Papua and New Guinea, eventually taking over responsibility for neutralising Rabaul.
The 5th Air Force was the biggest user of the P-38, with four fighter groups (8th, 35th, 49th and 475th). During 1943 and the first part of 1944 they were engaged in the campaigns in Papua and New Guinea, first helping to repel the Japanese attempts to capture Port Moresby, and then in the long counter-attack that eventually pushed the Japanese off most of the island. They also had early responsibility for the campaign to neutralise the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul.
The P-38 was the primary American fighter during the invasion of the Philippines. It was able to operate from bases too primitive for the P-51D Mustang, which was thus unable to play a significant role in the early fighting in the Philippines. It would be P-38 units that were first to move back onto the Philippines, where they played a crucial role in destroying the Japanese air force on the islands.
The P-38 could generally out-climb and out-dive any Japanese fighters (other than the Kawasaki Ki-61 “Tony”, which was better armed and heavier than most Japanese fighters). It could not out-turn or out-manoeuvre the more nimble Japanese fighters, so successful American pilots learnt not to try. A formation of P-38s flown well could cope with just about any Japanese aircraft.
The P-38 was popular amongst American pilots for other reasons. Many pilots of single engined aircraft learned to dread flying over the sea – if the engine failed over land, at least you could bail out and walk away, even if it was into captivity, but that option was not available hundreds of miles out to sea. In contrast, in a twin engined P-38 a single engine failure posed only a minor problem, generally only delaying its return to a friendly base.
The Lightning was involved in the single most famous fighter mission of the Second World War. On 18 April 1943 a flight of P-38s from the 339th Fighter Squadron, based on Guadalcanal, flew a long range mission to intercept an aircraft carrying Admiral Yamamoto. His itinerary on a morale boasting tour of Japanese bases had been intercepted, and the code broken four days earlier. It was decided to make an attempt to intercept his aircraft. However, in order to prevent the Japanese realising that their codes had been broken, the intercepting units had to fly a winding 400 mile route, making it look like the attack on Yamamoto’s aircraft had been a chance encounter. Only the P-38 had the range to carry out this long range mission. Yamamoto’s aircraft was successfully found and shot down, and the Admiral killed. The long range P-38 had inflicted a telling blow on Japanese morale.