The P-47 Thunderbolt was not generally welcomed in the Pacific theatre. It was seen as too clumsy to compete with the very agile Japanese fighters and it did not have the range for operations over the vast expanses of the Pacific. Worse, the P-47 was best at the high altitudes at which American bombers operated over Europe. However, in Japan most combat occurred below 20,000 feet, where the P-47 was at its least manoeuvrable.
Despite these problems, General George C. Kenney, commander of the Fifth Air Force in the south west Pacific, was determined to acquire as many aircraft as possible for his command. The Lockheed P-38 Lighting was popular with American pilots in the Pacific, but not available in sufficient numbers while the early Allison-powered P-51A Mustangs were not impressive. That left the P-47.
Fortunately for Kenney, the first Thunderbolt unit to reach him was the 348th Fighter Group, commanded by Colonel Neel Kearby. He was very enthusiastic about the P-47, and had put some thought into the best way to take advantage of the big fighter. One of its strengths was a very high speed in the dive. Kearby decided to take advantage of that. He had put some thought into the best way to take advantage of the big fighter. One of its strengths was its very high speed in the dive. Kearby decided to take advantage of that. Immediately after taking off his P-47s would climb to a high altitude. At that height they would head towards their target, normally a Japanese base. Once close to the base they would dive into the attack. By the time they reached the target, they would be travelling at very high speed. Having made their attack, they would then use that high speed to climb back to high altitude before the Japanese could react.
These tactics would have been familiar to many British pilots of the battle of Britain, having been used by pilots of the Messerschmitt Bf 109, who would reach high altitude over France, then swoop down on British fighters climbing to attack German bombers. They were particularly effective in the south west Pacific. Between August and December 1943 the 348th Fighter Group claimed over 150 victories while losing only 8 pilots. Kearby himself would become the highest scoring American P-47 Ace of the Southwest Pacific, with 22 confirmed kills.
The weak low level performance and limited manoeuvrability of the Thunderbolt was still a weakness. Kearby himself was killed on 6 March 1944 during a fighter sweep over Wewak, when he stayed at low level to confirm a probably kill and was caught by a Ki-43.
The P-47 was never popular amongst pilots who were used to the P-38 Lighting, although many were forced to fly it in early in 1944. The P-38 units had suffered relatively heavy losses in the fighting over Rabaul in November 1943, and P-38s were still in short supply. However, during 1944 the P-47 was slowly phased out in the south west Pacific. Suitable targets on New Guinea were in increasingly short supply. Those units that had converted from the P-38 were often able to convert back during the year. Early in 1945 even the 348th would move away from the Thunderbolt, moving onto the Merlin powered P-51D Mustang. By the end of the war the only Thunderbolt unit remaining in the Fifth Air Force was the 58th Fighter Group, a ground attack unit.
Just as the Thunderbolt was fading out in the south west Pacific, American advances in the central Pacific gave it a new lease of life. In the two years after Pearl Harbor the Seventh Air Force, originally based on Hawaii, had been operated a mixed bag of aircraft, including the P-36, P-40 and even P-39 Airacobra. For most of this period their fighters saw little or no combat, limited by the vast distances of the central Pacific.
In mid-1944 the Seventh Air Force finally received the Thunderbolt and the Mustang. This was just in time for them to take part in the invasion of Saipan, flying onto the island in June 1944. On Saipan the P-47 saw action in the ground attack role.
The capture of Iwo Jima and then Okinawa finally allowed the Seventh’s Thunderbolts to see air to air combat. The two islands were used as bases during the increasingly heavy strategic bombing campaign over Japan. Both Thunderbolt and Mustang units saw service in the high altitude bomber escort role at which the Thunderbolt excelled. The same period saw the arrival of the long range P-47N, which had a range of close to 2,000 miles with drop tanks.
In terms of victories gained, the Thunderbolt’s best moment in the Central Pacific came in late May 1945. Kamikaze attacks were threatening Allied shipping around Okinawa, and so the 318th Fighter Group was allowed to fly fighter sweeps over southern Japan, with the aim of intercepting potential Kamikaze aircraft far from their targets. In two sweeps, on 25 and 28 May, the Thunderbolts claimed nearly forty victories.
The career of the P-47 Thunderbolt in the Pacific is a good example of how important it was for the pilot to adjust their tactics to their aircraft. If a Thunderbolt pilot allowed himself to be dragged into a low level dogfight then they were in serious trouble. For pilots used to more manoeuvrable aircraft this was a major adjustment to make. However, if the pilot could adapt to the high level sweep and dive tactics needed with the Thunderbolt, then they had an aircraft capable of taking on anything the Japanese could put in the air.