The Lockheed P-38 saved from an icy tomb is now the star attraction in a previously quiet Kentucky town.
- By Carl Hoffman
- Air & Space magazine, March 2004
(Page 2 of 6)
By now, Glacier Girl’s story is mythic. It was July 1942, seven months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and U.S. factories were cranking out hundreds of aircraft a day. Getting them to the war wasn’t easy. They could be shipped by sea, but Nazi Germany’s submarines were sinking Allied vessels at an alarming rate. The obvious solution was to fly them, but in those days fighters didn’t have the range to make the journey non-stop. So the U.S. Army Air Forces came up with Operation Bolero, a bold plan to ferry aircraft in stages, refueling at four newly constructed bases: Presque Isle, Maine; Goose Bay, Labrador; Narsarsuaq, Greenland; and Reykjavik, Iceland. Flying to these bases was tricky, though. The high latitudes played havoc with compasses and radios. And when the weather closed in, landing at airstrips in long, mountain-ringed fjords like Narsarsuaq was impossible.
On July 7, in the second flight of Operation Bolero, two formations, each consisting of four P-38s and a B-17, left Goose Bay, bound for Narsarsuaq (code-named Bluie West One), Reykjavik, and then Scotland. Over the next few days, weather separated the two formations, named Tomcat Green and Tomcat Yellow, but on July 15 they rejoined in Greenland and took wing for Reykjavik, minus two P-38s suffering mechanical failure. Once again, fierce storms blocked their way, so the eight airplanes headed back to Greenland, but by now their intended base was hidden by a heavy overcast. The pilots of Tomcat Green and Yellow had to land while they still had fuel to do so, through whatever hole in the clouds they could find. One by one, the airplanes came down on the ice cap that covers most of Greenland.
Brad McManus was the first to touch down. His P-38 flipped over after his landing gear made contact with the ice (McManus was uninjured), so the other pilots made wheels-up belly landings. Harry Smith’s airplane was the last Lightning to land. In his logbook, a relieved Smith wrote of his P-38: “Best damn crate I ever damn saw.” The airplane was 62 days old and had flown a total of 72 hours.
The pilots had plenty of food and even a case of clandestine whiskey—and that was fortunate because it took more than a week for a rescue party to arrive and lead them to safety. Harry Smith destroyed his top-secret Identification Friend or Foe radio with a few shots from his .45-caliber pistol, and he and the rest of the men hiked 10 miles to the coast and a waiting boat while dog sleds carried their gear. Their adventure was over, the airplanes abandoned and forgotten. The lost squadron, it seemed, would be a minor footnote in a long war.
By the time the war ended, the United States had manufactured 300,000 aircraft. Slightly more than 10,000 were P-38s, a fighter that, in the years after McManus and Smith landed on the ice, became a legend. Lockheed’s first military aircraft to go into production, it was also the first single-seat, twin-engine fighter. In 1937 the Army Air Corps had sought designs for an interceptor that could reach 360 mph at 20,000 feet in six minutes. Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson and Hall Hibbard had designed a radical machine: a big all-metal airplane with twin tailbooms, each housing a liquid-cooled turbo-supercharged Allison V-12 engine powering counter-rotating propellers. In the nose, four .50-caliber machine guns and a 20-millimeter cannon gave the “fork-tailed-devil,” as the Germans called it, a devastating punch. Capable of slightly more than 400 mph, it was the fastest Allied airplane in the skies at the beginning of the war.
“Boy, was it a sweet airplane,” says Bud Holecheck, 78, who flew Lightnings in low-altitude strafing and dive-bombing runs during the 1944-45 Battle of the Bulge. “If you got hit and lost an engine, no problem. You could do aerobatics on one engine. When we returned from a combat mission, we’d show off. We’d come in at 350 feet and instead of peeling up, we’d peel right in a snap roll and put it on the ground in 30 seconds. Some guys could do it in 20. You couldn’t do that in a P-51 or P-40. And you had so much firepower. When we’d come in on a locomotive, all five guns would hit at the same time. For pure aerial combat, the -51 has to be known as the best, but you put it together and the Lightning could do it all.” (At the end of the war, Holecheck flew a loop around San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge in a P-38.)
The lost squadron’s Brad McManus, now 85, echoes Holecheck. Two years after his rescue from the ice he finally made it to Europe, where he flew 85 missions, first in P-38s, then in P-51 Mustangs. “Everyone who ever flew a -38 loved it,” he says. “It was very smooth because the counter-rotating props eliminated torque, so you could roll and maneuver much better than [in] a Mustang. When it came time to transition from the -38 to the -51, no one wanted to.” But in combat, McManus admits, “the -51 was better. After we transitioned, our ratio of victories went up.
“If I had to fly one just for the pleasure,” says McManus, “I’d fly a -38, but if I had to fight the Germans, I’d want to be in a Mustang.”