THE HISTORY OF P-39-41-6951
BY CHARLIE FALLETTA, COLONEL,USAF

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By June of 1941, World War II was expanding rapidly in Europe, and it was becoming evident that the United States of America was destined to soon enter the war. In preparation for this eventuality, the Eighth Pursuit Group, equipped with the P-40 Kitty Hawk fighter, was ordered to participate in complex joint war training maneuvers.

Five months later, the Bell Aircraft Company, builders of the P-39 Cobra, began to deliver the aircraft to Mitchel Field Long Island, New York, the home base of the Eighth Pursuit Group for more than a year. Called back from maneuvers in the south, the Group, returned to Mitchel Field with orders to convert to the new P-39 aircraft, one of which was P-39-41-6951.

Subsequent to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on December 8, 1941, the Eighth Pursuit Group and two other squadrons were re-assigned to Bridgeport, Conn. Since the pilots and mechanics were still undergoing conversion training at the time, P-39-6951 joined other aircraft on day and night submarine combat patrol along the United States' eastern coastline.This mission, of course, was not a typical one for pursuit pilots, but a necessary one because of the prior departure of all observation and patrol bombers for overseas locations.

The rapid escalation of the war on the Pacific and European fronts quickly ended the submarine patrol missions for the aircraft and on January 8, 1942 all aircraft were flown to Wright-Patterson Field in Ohio for crating and shipment to unknown destinations. The excess of pilots and mechanics created by this move formed new groups and squadrons which were dispatched as needed to different war zones. The pilots and enlisted men remaining with the Eighth Pursuit Group returned to Mitchel Field to prepare for a permanent move to a war zone unknown to all personnel at that time. Since destination would naturally depend on the day-by-day progress of the war, clothing and supplies appropriate for all climate extremes were issued.

On January 26, 1942, the entire group, less aircraft and equipment, boarded a train at Mitchel Field, Long Island, for a long, three-day journey across the United States to San Francisco, Calif. The group's destination remained a guarded secret, as did the destiny of their aircraft.

After a delay of several days because of shipping problems, the Group left the United States aboard the USS Maui on February 12, 1942, and arrived in Brisbane, Australia three weeks later. After a memorable and friendly greeting by the Australian people they were housed temporarily in tents at the Ascot Race Track, and then transferred to Lowood, where they received their aircraft assignments on March 17. Aircraft Number 41-6951 was assigned at that time to 2nd Lt. Charlie Falletta, flight commander of D Flight.

While brief training programs were conducted for displaced pilots who were diverted to Australia from areas taken by the Japanese, the 36th Squadron received orders to accelerate its deployment to the war zone in order to replace the famed Australian 75th Squadron which at the time was fighting a courageous battle of attrition against a numerically-superior Japanese force of bombers and fighters.

Six pilots were selected to join the Australian 75th Squadron to briefly observe combat operations in progress in order to minimize problems in transferring the responsibilities for the air defense of New Guinea and Australia from the 75th Squadron to the 36th Squadron. These pilots, the most experienced available, included 1st Lt. Bill Meng, acting squadron commander; Lt. Charlie Falletta, "D" Flight commander; Paul G. Brown, "A" Flight commander; Bob Harriger, "B" Flight commander; Carl Taylor, "C" Flight commander, and Hoot Bevlock, element leader.

The flight left from Lowood for Port Moresby, New Guinea on April 5, with brief fuel stops at Rockhampton, Townsville, Cooks Town and Horn Island enroute. Upon arrival at Port Moresby, Lt. Meng, as was customary for the leader, "drug the field" to observe landing conditions on the strange field. Lt. Falletta, however, was the first to complete a landing on the field, thereby making his craft, P-39-41-6951, the first known American fighter plane to land in New Guinea during World War II.

During the next five days, aircraft 41-6951 flew seventeen combat missions under the leadership of Australian Squadron Leaders Jackson and Peter Turnbull, veterans from the African campaign. During engagements with Japanese Betty B-1 bombers and "zero" fighters, the Aircobra destroyed two bombers and one "zero" in addition to probable "kills" and damages to other enemy aircraft.

On April 11, 1942, the flight returned to Australia to rejoin their group which had moved in the interim to Antil Plain, near Townsville, Australia. The six recently-returned pilots immediately began training pilots and mechanics on the combat techniques they had observed.

With the training completed, the 35th and 36th Pursuit Squadrons advanced to New Guinea on April 27. The first flight, commanded by Maj. B.J. Greene, encountered severe weather and several aircraft became displaced and crashed. Lt. Falletta remained at Antil Plain with five other pilots -- Lt. Walter Harvey, Lt. Carl Taylor, Lt. Bob Yundt, Lt. Cook and Lt. Love -- awaiting repairs on the final aircraft to be deployed to Port Moresby.

On May 1, the flight of six aircraft, commanded by Lt. Falletta, departed for Moresby. After a final fuel stop at Cook Town, they headed for Horn Island with very sketch weather information and extremely poor weather conditions enroute. Long past the point of no return and in sever tropical storms, the flight managed to locate the base at Horn Island, but after landing could be committed, all radio communication was completely lost.

After several unsuccessful attempts to land, because of weather, the flight proceeded south in a desperate search for a place to land. The flight's objective, although contrary to military regulations, was to land all aircraft on the beach or inland, and attempt to salvage them for a later flight to the combat zone.

Lt. Falletta chose an inland turkey-brush-covered field on which he presumed the aircraft could land safely on with minimum damage.

As the craft slowed to a stop after landing, the right wheel struck a small ditch, causing the wheel to fold. Lt. Falletta completed the landing on the remaining wheels and the right wingtip.

Lt. Harvey, flying Lt. Falletta's wing, made a safe, wheels-up landing nearby. The four other aircraft in the flight made emergency landings on the beach. Lt. Love was killed, but the other pilots survived the war.

 

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This page first produced 24 November 2000

This page last updated 24 November 2000