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JBER HOME TO UNIQUE P38 LIGHTNING

By Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Barnett  |  JBER Public Affairs  |  October 03, 2012

Created 11/18/2016  08:05
JOINT   BASE   ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON,   Alaska   --      Flying   through   a January   sky   in   1945,   U.S.   Army   Air   Forces   2nd   Lt.   Robert   Nesmith   was piloting   a   P-38G   Lightning   -   one   of   the   Air   Force's   best   aircraft   during World   War   II.   The   plane,   equipped   with   two   engines   and   relatively   long wings,   was   a   beautiful   sight,   and   Nesmith   worked   hard   to   be   in   a position to get to fly it across the Pacific.    The   U.S.   Army   Air   Forces   accepted   the   P-38G   from   the   manufacturer, paying   $98,441.00   for   it.   The   plane   arrived   at   Elmendorf   Field,   Alaska, and was assigned to the 54th Fighter Squadron.    "It   was   one   of   the   most   significant   aircraft   in   World   War   II,"   said   Joe Orr,   673d   Air   Base   Wing   senior   historian,   67   years   later.   "The   Germans hated   it;   the   Luftwaffe   called   it   the   'fork-tailed   devil,'   and   the   Japanese called   it   'two   planes,   one   pilot.'   It   was   small   enough   to   be   very   agile.   It   had   two   engines   so   it   had   the   power   to   go really   fast,   and   once   they   put   turbochargers   on   the   engines,   they   could   go   higher   and   faster   than   most   enemy aircraft."  That isn't the only advantage possessed by the P-38.    "They   had   long   range   as   well   because   the   wingspan   was   big   enough   to   put   drop   tanks   with   more   fuel   on   there   and get   some   distance,"   he   explained.   "They   were   used   all   over   the   Pacific,   from   island   to   island,   because   of   their reach.   Some   of   the   other   planes   were   not   as   reliable   in   going   over   longer   distances.   That   made   the   P-38   desirable for   Air   Force   operations,   and   especially   here   in   the   Aleutians   where   a   1,200   mile   mission   was   the   norm.   They   got them   up   here   in   the   summer   of   1942   and   by   September   of   1945,   they   were   planning   to   begin   using   them   to   escort the bombers to Japan."    After   the   Japanese   left   Attu   Island   and   U.S.   forces   recovered   the   islands,   the   land   was   used   to   fly   missions   into northern   Japan.   Nesmith   was   returning   from   a   training   mission,   crossing   over   Attu   Island,   when   something   went wrong. The aircraft's left propeller fluctuated while flying low in Temnac Valley.    "I   was   getting   -   not   serious   -   but   a   little   fluctuation,"   Nesmith   said.   "I   had   really   pushed   things   down   and   it   was   real low."  Both propellers contacted the ground.  "It was coming down and there was no way to make it to the base," Orr said. "He had to put it down."    The   plane   bounced   back   up   approximately   100   feet   before   Nesmith   managed   a   successful   wheels-up   landing   on the snow-covered valley.  Thankfully unharmed, the pilot surveyed the damage. It was well beyond repair.    "It   was   not   in   an   accessible   area,"   The   historian   said.   "In   order   to   get   to   it,   you   had   to   hike   to   it.   They   didn't   have heavy-lift helicopters that could pick it up and bring it back.    "So   maintenance   crews   just   stripped   it   of   what   wasn't   damaged   and   left   the   rest   there,"   he   said.   "They   essentially just abandoned it in place; it sat there for more than 50 years."    Due   to   the   circumstances,   the   Air   Force   was   required   to   work   with   the   U.S.   Fish   and   Wildlife   Service   to   get   the   P- 38.    "It   was   abandoned   in   the Aleutians,   and   the Aleutians   belong,   property   wise,   to   the   U.   S.   Fish   and   Wildlife   Service," Orr   explained.   "It's   the   federal   agency   that   administers   property   out   there.   We   had   to   get   permission   from   them   to go   get   it,   even   though   it   was   an   Air   Force   plane,   because   anything   that's   been   abandoned   out   there   belongs   to   the Wildlife   Service.   In   the   1990's   a   group   of   people   here,   under   the   direction   of Air   Force   Lt.   Gen.   David   McCloud,   who was the 11th Air Force commander, went out and got permission to restore it."    Orr   said   the   process   of   getting   permission   to   have   the   last   P-38G   Lightning   on   JBER   was   almost   as   difficult   as restoring the one-of-a-kind aircraft's outside appearance.    Air   Force   Capt.   Steve   Morrisette,   a   54th   Fighter   Squadron   pilot   in   1998,   contacted   Don   Delk   and   Ed   Lamm,   3rd Wing   civilian   employees   with   a   combined   experience   of   70   years,   to   head   the   team   that   actually   went   to   the   island and brought the plane back.    Lamm   -   considered   the   expert   on   structural   repair   -   was   responsible   for   restoring   all   the   base   static   displays.   Delk had   the   expertise   of   management   and   recovery   of   aircraft,   and   resources   as   the   maintenance   squadron   officer.   He'd previously   been   part   of   recovery   projects   for   crashed   F-15   Eagles   and   the   E-3   Sentry   that   crashed   on   Elmendorf Air Force Base in September of 1995.    "[The   P-38]   was   in   sad   shape,"   Delk   said.   "But   for   the   number   of   years,   it   wasn't   in   bad   shape.   Even   though   it   had been   beaten   up   pretty   severely   by   the   salvage   crew   and   chopped   up   with   crash   axes   to   remove   components   and such;   it   had   a   good   bit   of   corrosion,   but   not   as   much   corrosion   was   we   would   expect   being   this   close   to   the   ocean as it was. So for the number of years it laid out there we thought it was in pretty fair shape."    They   worked   in   'The   P-38   Shop'   in   Hangar   Four   in   1998.   McCloud   died   that   year,   leaving   many   concerned   that   the project   would   die   with   him.   Air   Force   Brig.   Gen.   Scott   Gration,   3rd   Wing   commander   at   the   time,   picked   up   the direction and supported the work.    "I   estimate   between   the   trip   to   Attu   and   the   whole   works,   the   recovery   and   restoration,   we   probably   spent   on   the order   of   a   couple   hundred   thousand   dollars,"   the   restoration   expert   explained.   "That   is   cheap,   dirt   cheap   for   this type of restoration; downtown probably would have taken me at least $500,000 and two or three years."    In   March   of   2000,   the   3rd   Wing   awarded   a   $223,256.70   contract   to   build   the   McCloud   Memorial   site   where   the   P-38 was to be mounted. In July, the plane was put in its current resting place.    "Yeah,   there   was   a   lot   of   work   to   restore   the   exterior,"   the   673d   and   3rd   Wing   history   expert   continued,   "but   a   much larger   amount   of   work   went   into   getting   an   agreement   with   them   that   basically   states   that   we   are   using   it   here.   We have   a   memorandum   of   agreement   here   signed   by   General   McCloud,   the Alaska   State   Historic   Preservation   Officer, and   the   regional   director   of   the   U.S.   Fish   and   Wildlife   Service.   According   to   the   agreement,   any   movement   to another location requires a renegotiation of the agreement, so it essentially cannot go anywhere else."    "A   P-38   was   the   first   airplane   in   Alaska   to   score   an   aerial   victory   over   a   Japanese   plane   in   World   War   II,"   he   said proudly.    After   the   war,   thousands   of   aircraft   were   melted   down   and   recycled.   Because   it   had   been   left   on   the   island,   the plane that Nesmith flew avoided that fate.    The   world's   last   example   of   a   P-38G   Lightning,   though   incapable   of   ever   flying   again,   rests   by   the   3rd   Wing headquarters as a reminder of the power it and other P-38Gs were able to wield during World War II.
(Text & photo courtesy of Joint Base Elmendorf/Richardson (JBER), Anchorage, AK)
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