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Joel D. Thorvaldson
USAAF, 5th Air Force, 49th Fighter Group, 8th Fighter Squadron P-40 Pilot

In Memory: Joel D. Thorvaldson passed away on November 5, 2014

My relatives are from Iceland, that is where my surname 'Thorvaldson' comes from.  I was born at Spanish Fork, Utah. My relatives made the trek over to Utah in the 1880s and settled in that place, known as "Little Iceland". I grew up in Utah. I had a sister, she married a man who worked in the silver mine there, but then instead he decided he was going to fly airplanes. He became one of the first pilots for Northwest, delivering the mail. They ended up getting divorced, but he would send me his cloth flying helmet and I would wear it to grade school, quite to the envy of all the other kids!

Later, I moved up to Spokane, Washington. That is where I met my wife, in junior college. WWII was starting to come up, and they had a civilian flying program at Feltz Field in Spokane. I actually learned to fly before the war. I had 60 hours in PT-13 up there and in Ontario, CA. Because I was in that program, 2 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, I was told to report to Fairchild Airbase.

Flight training
They told me: "We are going to sigh you up as a pilot. We want you back here tonight." Then, it was "Stand up, hold up your hand, your an aviation cadet." I told them, "I can't I have a job." They would not listen, they told me to report to Bakersfield, CA for cadet training. I told them I already knew how to fly, they did not care about that either!  Six months la term, I was flying combat.  I did my final training at Luke Airbase, and I was flying out of Tampa, learning to fly P-40, P-39s. I lost 26 teammates during that time. They were all crashing! "One a day in Tampa Bay", that was what they said!  Because they were flying the B-26 Marauder. I was in fighters only thankfully!

I got married to my sweetheart from Spokane on August 10, 1942 in Tampa, just before we went overseas, I when to check out, and then got married! We have been married ever since!  While my wife & I were downtown, I ran into some of my buddies, buying up all  the toothpaste in a store and saying "We are going overseas - better be ready, get your toothpaste!"  I had to say goodbye to my new wife, I left her for a couple years right off the bat, then again for Korean and Vietnam later!  We were loaded on trucks with secret orders. Someone opened them up, and it said we were heading to Sacramento, CA.

We going overseas on the ship HMS Torance. This was the first troop ship overseas! I remember eyeing my team mates, your in stateroom C. I thought, great! We are all in the same room, how nice!  It ended up we were all in the same state room, all the way to the back poop deck, down to the bottom, all full of hammocks, along with hundreds of other men! Two battleships, four cruisers escorted us all the way to Australia, zigzagging all the way and shooting for practice. It took us 26 days to get to Townsville. We all wanted to get up to combat, but had no planes! We went to Charters Towers, to do more training with the P-40s. They had some B-25s and A-20 around too. They asked me if I would rather fly a bomber, but I didn't not want to do that.

While we were there, at Charters Towers, a B-17 landed a high ranking officer came out and said he was to pick up some P-40 pilots to go up to Port Moresby in New Guinea in a hurry. We had only an hour to get ready, then flew up to Port Moresby and reported to the General! General Kenny! When we got there, he said "I don't want pilots, i want crew chiefs!" So, the B-17 took us back took back and loaded up with crew chiefs instead. So we had to wait around at Charters Towers for a while. Later, we got sent up again, and took twenty of us pilots up.  We went in to see General George C. Kenney again.  He lined us up, and asked "Five of you came up about six months ago, step forward". We were all nervous, but did as he said.  He told us: "I was impressed with you.  We are up her flying with nothing, eating SPAM, and you wanted to come up here when life was better down in Australia. So, you can take your pick about what unit you want to be assigned." We all wanted to fly the P-40 and picked the 8th Fighter Squadron of the 49th Fighter Group, and we were shooting at Japanese airplanes five days later!

Click For EnlargementP-40 Warhawk
All my combat was in the P-40. It was a good airplane, maneuverable. We would make a fast pass at the enemy, break loose and come back, reverse turn with the Zeros, come over top, that is how we would get them. We could out run the Zero, make one pass then come back around, and get more on the 2nd pass. That is how we got most our kills. We started out with the model "K" it was heavy and clunky. 

Then, we got the model "N" it was lighter weight, but had this initial starter, so the crew chief had to turn crank to start it - to "Wind it up!". P-40 would loose control in high wind during a landing, cartwheel around, and it had no tail lock. The P-47 Thunderbolt was better, wider gear, and a tail lock, wouldn't let loose control. My plane i shared with another pilot and we each painted on side his was "Mr. Five By Five" and mine was "Punkins", my wife's nickname.

Also, there was the P-38 Lighting in New Guinea. Richard Bong was in the 49th, but another Squadron. They were faster, and they would go in ahead of us, way ahead of us and get the first crack at the fighters! They would make head-on pass at the Betty bombers. Bong's thing was to come in from behind, at close range to shoot them down.  He was cleaning house with that plane! And, there was the P-39 Airacobra. That plane had a very high wing loading. It could not turn, and reversed on you and spin, it was very bad. We didn't like, it just wasn't good. It had those two30 cal, and a cannon out the nose. Those guys didn't get many kills, and got their asses shot off in the air.

Life In New Guinea
Buna was captured by the Australians and US Army. We flew from there for a while [from Dubodura]. There were thousands of dead Japanese still around, I wandered around there looking at them, they were just skeletons inside a uniform. I found a sword and bayonet there, I still have them. A Zero was abandoned at the airfield, so we climbed all over it to see what one looked like up close. One person got a 20mm shell out of its wing, but while sawing after it, it exploded in his hand. That put an end to that exploring.

We flew any plane that was available, if yours available you would fly it.  I did have my 'personal' airplane, shared with another pilot, but I would say I only actually flew it 25% of the time. But, the crew chiefs stayed with a specific airplane, it was just the pilots that moved around. Pilots had to have rest and everything else so that is why you would rotate planes.  Sometime also we flew 2-3 missions a day. Every three months or so, they sent us to Australia in a C-47. We would stay a week, then go back, that was our only R&R time.

In New Guinea, the weather is  beautiful on coast. The Owen Stanley Mountains, the clouds build up. If you had to cross them, you better do it in the morning because thunder storms happened all afternoon and you didn't go in there.  We didn't know how to fly instruments, we had no training in that. Rabaul one time, we went to a strip on New Britain, gassed up for flight up there. They wanted us to cover the bombers, the Navy went in there that day too. We had drop tanks 265 gallon ones I think. Wewak, I flew over there, that is all I can remember, no time on the ground there, luckily! That was Japanese territory! Tsilli-Tsilli was dusty and hot, level, wide open runways.. we not there very long before we moved up farther. I would get malaria, go to the hospital, and when I got out, we had already moved twice further up the Ramu valley!

We did occasionally drop bombs mounted on our wing racks. We were not taught how to bomb!  The first time, my bombs fell 2 miles short! No one told me you had to drop them at 45 degrees. We didn't do too much bombing, it wasn't effective. Left that work to the B-25s and A-20s!

September 13, 1943 Force Landing
I took off piloting P-40N "Mr. Five by Five" / "Punkins" 42-104977. We scrambled and the bombers were already coming in to bomb our base. We saw them, and tried to maneuver into position. There were about a dozen bombers in a 'V' and forty fighters ahead and behind them. We saw them way out, cut them off, got a head on pass from 3,000 above them, rolled in. There were seven of us, in echelon, i was #7 i was right in the back, and had to pull really hard to keep up!  I lined up, zeroed in on one of them. I picked #4 bomber on left side of the V put a bunch of 'sparklers' in the front of a bomber.  Know why we called them 'sparklers'? Because they sparkled when they hit the plane, because of the high explosive shells, and you knew you were going to get them. Then, you get chased by the zeros. My plane was bad plane, I thought there was a problem with the engine because it started smoking, but now I know from your photos of the wreck they must have hit my engine, the Zeros nailed me! I never knew it!  I thought it was a maintenance malfunction, and crash landed in a grass field.

Click For EnlargementWhen I got on the ground, the kunai grass was so high, I fired a flare to burn the grass. When we did that paratrooper drop over Lae at Nadzab, they did the same thing, they dropped flares the night before, burned all the grass and had a parade ground when they landed.  They knew i was out there. A friendly plane spotted me on a river bank and dropped me a raft that I used to go down the nearby Ramu River.

There were about five crocodiles at every bend of the river. The local people beat their drums each evening until about 11pm. Only saw a few of them moving through the jungle foliage, they tried to avoid me which was okay with me!

Click For EnlargementIt took me nine days to get back. At the mouth of the River, the Australians picked me up. They had only taken Lae two days before they picked me up. I had gotten credited for one kill before I even got back, because everyone had seen me shoot this plane down over the strip.  I was the first rescue for the squadron too, they did a victory roll for me when I got back. I claimed 2 and a bomber.  I was supposed to get a purple heart for my wounds but they said my plane crashed from mechanical failure, not enemy fire, so I didn't get it. Now, from your photos of the wreck, it looks like it will finally get my purple heart! I did see a piece go by in the air, but had no idea they even hit me.

P-40 Wreckage Today
Click For Enlargement
Its unique that my old plane is still there!  The wreck should stay as is I feel. It is very visible from the air. In fact I have a copy of of a photo taken in 1943 which is almost a copy of the aerial photograph that John Douglas took. It could remain a source of history and tourism there. Nobody ever talked to me about recovering it, I wish they would tell me something about it, send some photos or ask me about my feelings. I heard about it from Pacific Wrecks that was the only news I got about it.

Air Combat in New Guinea
I continued to fly over 200 combat missions in in WWII, I shoot down three confirmed Zeros: No. 1: September 13, 1943, No. 2: November 7, 1943, No. 3: November 15, 1943. My first confirmed kill was on the mission when I force landed, and I got two more after that.

My 2nd confirmed kill I remember there were four zeros, but we overshot them.  I came up pulled up and turned back around, and hit in. I came across, he made an immelmann, and I caught him at the top.   I really poured it into him!  Nine guys had been firing at this plane before, and all claimed it,  but I was the guy who finally got him. My third confirmed, i really do not remember too well.

I also claimed four probable Zero's, 2 Probable Betty bombers, 1 Probable Lilly Bomber, and 1 probable Ki-46 Dinah.  The Dinah, that was at Port Moresby on their big 100 plane raid, the last time  they hit us there in force. We cleaned house on Japanese. I chased a Dinah that morning trying to take photos. I am sure I knocked it down. See, not only did a pilot have to report it, but someone else had to confirm it too! MacAurthur didn't like us aviators I guess!  We had to double prove our kills! Film plus another confirmation, both were hard to get!

Returning Home
I came back home to the States in 1944. I kept getting malaria, recurring from when I crash landed and spent those nine days by myself. The attacks of malaria were bad sudden chills and heat.  They would have you take Quinine, but the only way to beat it was let your body build up immunity , which mean getting attacks every 3-4 months. My wife met me at the airport, she had moved back to Washington State to wait until i came back from the war. They sent me back to the states, to Washington State where I flew fighters for the rest of the war.

At March field, first jets landed at the base, i was chief of maintenance. At that time, the jets were highly classified airplanes. Some P-80s landed and were put into hanger and the doors locked. I checked out in one. Then the P-59 came in, i check out in that too, i was base test pilot. At March, Tex Hill and all the big aces started showing up when they were forming the first jet fighter wing I was only a maintenance officer there! That was "Project Comet " touring around with the P-80, doing air shows. During that time, I also went to college. I was in air force a regular officer, but also went to University of Oklahoma. did that for 24 months, graduated 3.96 GPA!

Korean War
I flew in the P-80. I was the one that knew all about it when i got back from college, also I was maintenance control officer of the 5th AF, we had to get these planes out of there when we started loosing the north. I had to go to the bases, find out what is wrong, fly them out of there, get them out of there. We got 17 planes out of 49th wing at Pyongyang before the Chinese came in the next morning. We were blowing up everything in town.  i was told to set fire to the hangers and all the planes that were left, so we poured napalm in there and lit it. When the General saw the fire he said, Jesus Christ.  We were the last plane out of there, our tanks were crossing the runway. I had to get general's jeep go down there and tell them to move so we could take off. I think we were the last plane out of North Korea! I also flew over 300 combat missions in Korea.  I helped convert our wing from P-51 to P-80 while were were in combat, that was a major feat!  All of the maintenance we did in Japan, I had that idea, and just up to Korea to stage for the combat while the rear echelon maintenance was safe in Japan.

Click For EnlargementVietnam
I flew 264 missions in Vietnam. I flew the F-4 with 12 TFW at Caron Bay, the biggest base in all of Vietnam, all kinds of planes were there. I was base commander of the 41,000 people there, that was in the late 1960s for two year. 620 combat fighter missions total in all three wars! I wrote paper on close air support, which spawned the idea for the A-10.

Mr. A-10
Chyenne Helicopter got money to build A-10. They asked me to work for them, that was about 1969.  I was in charge of it all, looked at the designs, and requirements that it had to survive all this stuff for the close air support requirements. It had 4 hydraulic systems and cable, you could loose an engine, change to another one, or change to another or even fly it just on cables.  We were competing about the Grumman A-9. We won the contract, we had to build the A-10 in a hurry! They ordered 10 aircraft for development, then for 100 right off the bat, we ended up building them for 17 years! I worked all over the map, I had to go to build up our Air Force bases, get them ready for the plane and servicing its engines and gun. That was 15 years of going around as the chief of that task force. am still employed by the same Defense Contractor that built the P-47/P-84/F-105/A-10. My car's license plate reads "Mr-A-10".

Life Today
Click For EnlargementEveryone wants me to write a book about my 64 years of uninterrupted work with the military. My answer is: "Why should I write it now when I have twenty more years to go!" I, and my wife of 64 years, are in almost perfect health And as the originator of the A-10 Warthog I continue to be employed as a Consultant to the same company that built the A-10. I have flown all the fighter aircraft, including the P-36 P-39, P-38, P-47, P-59, P-63, and jets Including P-80, F-86D, F-102, F-106, F-84, F-4, F-105, F-15. Also I have a few combat missions in B-25, C-47, A-20, L-4, AT-6, T-33. I have not changed much. I still weigh the same. 142 pounds, and still am very, very active. I'm 85 now, and my birthday is next week I'll be 86! I have one son, and two grandsons!

NARA World War II Army Enlistment Records - Joel D. Thorvaldson
P-40N 'Mr. Five by Five / Punkins' 42-104977 pilot Thorvaldson crashed September 13, 1943
Thanks to Joel D. Thorvaldson and Eric Thorvaldson (son) for additional information

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