339th Fighter Squadron (339th FS) "Sunsetters"
U. S. Army Air Force (USAAF), 13th Air Force (13th AF)
Assigned to the U. S. Army Air Force (USAAF), 13th Air Force (13th AF), 347th Fighter Group (347th FG) in the South Pacific (SOPA). This squadron operated the P-38 Lightning during the Pacific War and is most famous for their role participating in the "Yamamoto Mission".
On September 29, 1942 the 339th Fighter Squadron (339th FS) was established and activated two days later on New Caledonia. On October 5, 1942 eight pilots from the 70th Fighter Squadron (70th FS) including Captain John W. Mitchell were detached for service with the 339th FS on Guadalcanal.
During November 1942 Major John W. Mitchell became the Commanding Officer (C. O.) and the squadron equipped with the P-38G Lightning, the first squadron in the South Pacific (SOPA) to operate the twin engine fighter. The first unofficial nickname was the "Sunsetters" (also spelled "Sun Setters") because of their success in destroying Japanese aircraft. The unofficial nickname was "Gremlins" with the motif of a Gremlin creature holding a mace standing atop two eagles in flight.
On December 15, 1942
five P-38G Lightnings led by Captain William C. Sharpsteen to escort SBD Dauntless dive bombers over Munda. Returning from the mission, P-38G pilot Woods ditched and 2nd Lt. Eugene D. Woods was observed in his life vest but was not located again and declared Missing In Action (MIA).
On January 5, 1943 six P-38G Lightnings led by Major John W. Mitchell took off
from Fighter 2 (Kukum) on Guadalcanal flying in two elements of three P-38s each on an escort mission above and behind B-17 Flying Fortresses from the 11th Bombardment Group on a bombing mission against a Japanese "cruiser" off Buin and Tonolei Harbor on the southern coast of Bougainville and off Shortland Island. Over the target, they are intercepted by what the U. S. side claimed were twenty-five A6M Zeros and float biplanes and claimed three shot down. In fact, the Japanese force included two A6M2-N Rufes from the 802 Kokutai, six A6M Zeros from the 204 Kokutai plus F1M2 Petes from the 11th Seaplane Tender Division. The U. S. claimed three Japanese aircraft shot down and lost two Lightnings: P-38G pilot Hilken (MIA) and P-38G pilot Dinn (MIA).
On February 13, 1943 six P-38G Lightnings took off from
Fighter 2 (Kukum) on Guadalcanal on an escort mission for six B-24 Liberators flying in two waves for a bombing missions against Japanese ships in the Shortland to Buin area. The escort also included seven P-40F Warhawks from the 44th Fighter Squadron. The weather was good with clear visibility. Inbound to the target, two P-38s and three P-40s aborted the mission and returned to Guadalcanal, leaving four P-38s and seven P-40s to escort the bombers. Over the target area, the B-24s were attacked by 30 A6M Zeros and 15 float-equipped fighters (A6M2-N Rufes), with heavy flak fired by naval vessels below. Lost is P-38G pilot Rist (MIA), P-38G pilot Morton (rescued), P-38G pilot Lockridge (rescued) and P-38G pilot Cramer (rescued).
"Saint Valentines Day Massacre"
On February 14, 1943 ten P-38G Lightnings took off from
Fighter 2 (Kukum) on Guadalcanal on an escort mission for
nine PB4Y-1 Liberators. Lost is P-38G pilot White (MIA), P-38G pilot Finkenstein (MIA), P-38G pilot Huey (POW/MIA) and P-38G pilot Mulvey (rescued). Due to the severe American losses, this mission became known as the "Saint Valentines Day Massacre".
On February 23, 1943 officially redesignated the 339th Fighter Squadron (Twin Engine).
On April 1, 1943
P-38G Lightnings took off from
Fighter 2 (Kukum) on Guadalcanal on an intercept mission. Lost is P-38G pilot Young (rescued).
On April 18, 1943 P-38G Lightnings took off from Fighter 2 (Kukum) on Guadalcanal on the "Yamamoto Mission" led by Major John W. Mitchell flying with drop tanks over the open ocean at low altitude to minimize the chance of being spotted and made three course changes at specific times to reach the interception point over southern Bougainville. The formation was divided into two groups: one to provide cover and the killer group to attack the bombers. The P-38s intercepted and shot down G4M1 Betty 2656 Tail 323 with passenger Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto and G4M1 Betty Tail 326 with passenger Vice-Admiral Matome Ugaki. The U. S. pilots incorrectly claimed three bombers and escorting Zeros shot down. In fact, only the two bombers were shot down and no escorting Zeros were lost. Lost is P-38G pilot Hine (MIA).
On July 3, 1943 took off on an escort mission over Rendova Island. Lost was P-38G 42-13500
pilot 2nd Robert N. Sylvester (MIA).
On July 14, 1943 lost is P-39N Airacobra 42-18258 pilot Morris B. Pace
(MACR 79) and P-39N 42-18260 pilot Daniel R Wolterding (MACR 80).
On July 17, 1943 P-38 Lightnings took off from Fighter 2 (Kukum) on Guadalcanal on a mission to escort B-24 Liberators over Kahili Airfield on southern Bougainville. Over the target at 20,000', the formation was intercepted by Japanese fighters. Lost is P-38G 42-13361 pilot 1st James W. Hoyle (MIA) and P-38G "Matilda" 43-2206 pilot 2nd Lt. Benjamin H. King (rescued)
On August 20, 1943 officially redesignated 339th Fighter Squadron, Two Engine.
On September 23, 1943 P-38 Lightnings took off on a mission to escort bombers on a mission over Kahili Airfield on southern Bougainville.
23 B-24's, 16 P-38's, and 60+ USN dive bombers, covered by AAF including P-38s from the 339th Fighter Squadron, USMC, USN, and Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) fighters, attack Kahili; Allied aircraft claim at least 9 fighters shot down
On October 19, 1943 thirteen P-38 Lightning escorted twenty-four B-24 Liberators on a bombing mission against Kara Airfield on Bougainville. Returning, P-38H 42-66626 pilot 1st Lt. James L. Eubanks (MIA) and P-38H 42-66888 pilot 2nd Lt George D. Richards (MIA) suffered an aerial collision with both lost.
On December 29, 1943 the squadron moves from New Caledonia back to Guadalcanal.
January 15, 1944 the squadron moves to Stirling Airfield on Stirling Island.
On January 17, 1944 the squadron took off on a bomber escort mission over Rabaul. Lost is P-38J 42-67179 pilot 2nd Lt. Charles E. Black (MIA), P-38H 42-66680 pilot 1st Lt. Gifford G. Brown (MIA), P-38H 42-66897 pilot 1st Lt. Glen E. Hart (survived), P-38J 42-67171 pilot 2nd Lt. John E. Langen (MIA).
On June 15, 1944 became part of the Far East Air Force (FEAF) when the 5th Air Force (5th AF) and 13th Air Force (13th AF) were combined until the end of the Pacific War.
On August 15, 1944 the squadron moves to Sansapor Airfield on Sansapor Island.
On September 19, 1944 the squadron moves to Middleburg Airfield on Middleburg Island.
On February 13, 1945 the squadron moves to Wama Airfield on Morotai Island. On February 22, 1945 the ground echelon of the squadron moves to San Jose Airfield (McGuire Drome) on Mindoro Island.
On March 6, 1945 the squadron moves to Puerto Princesa Airfield on Palawan Island. By March 25, 1945 the entire squadron is operating from Puerto Princesa Airfield until the end of the Pacific War.
339th Fighter Squadron Known Aircraft
P-38F 43-2178 #143 pilot Chandler ultimate fate unknown likely scrapped
P-38G 42-12690 #100 ultimate fate unknown likely scrapped
P-38G 42-13361 pilot Hoyle MIA July 17, 1943, 1 missing
P-38G "Matilda" 43-2206 pilot King ditched July 17, 1943 rescued
P-38G 43-2238 #122 pilot Thomas Lanphier ultimate fate unknown likely scrapped
P-38G "Old Ironsides" 43-2239 #138 written off March 29, 1943
P-38G "Oriloe" 43-2242 #129 pilot Murray Shubin ultimate fate unknown likely scrapped
P-38G "Miss Virginia" 43-2264 #147 ultimate fate unknown likely scrapped
P-38G "Daisy 2nd" #125 ultimate fate unknown likely scrapped
Dinn MIA January 5, 1943, 1 missing
Hilken MIA January 5, 1943, 1 missing
P-38G piloted by Young crashed April 1, 1943 rescued
P-38G pilot Hine MIA April 18, 1943, 1 missing
P-38H 42-66626 pilot Eubanks MIA October 19, 1943, 1 missing
P-38H 42-66671 pilot Kincaid crashed January 7, 1944
P-38H 42-66680 pilot Brown MIA January 17, 1944, 1 missing
P-38H 42-66864 pilot Whistler MIA September 30, 1943, 1 missing
P-38H 42-66888 pilot Richards MIA October 19, 1943, 1 missing
P-38H 42-66897 pilot Hart crashed January 17, 1944 rescued
P-38J 42-67171 pilot Langen MIA January 17, 1944, 1 missing
P-38J 42-67179 pilot Black January 17, 1944, 1 missing
P-38J 42-67618 pilot Kelly crashed January 20, 1944, 1 missing
P-38J 42-67783 pilot McCloud ditched January 28, 1944 rescued
P-38 pilot Studley crashed January 20, 1944 rescued
P-38 pilot Woods MIA December 15, 1942, 1 missing
339th Fighter Squadron Commanding Officers (C. O.)
Major John W. Mitchell November 1942
347th Fighter Group Advanced Echelon APO 709 "Preliminary Intelligence Summary of Operations of Army Fighter Planes at Cactus - December 1, 1942 to February 17, 1943" February 21, 1943 pages 1-3
Guadalcanal and the Origins of the 13th Air Force page 182, 240 [PDF] via Wayback Machine May 20, 2006
History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II (1952) by Robert Sherrod page 135 (February 14, 1943)
13th Fighter Command In World War II (2004) by William Wolf
Operation KE (2012) by Roger & Dennis Letourneau pages 32-33 (P-38G Lightning, 339th arrives Guadalcanal), 86 (January 5, 1943)
Thanks to James Lansdale, Edward Rogers and Justin Taylan for additional research and analysis