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Lighning Strikes Seven Times   by Stan Stokes

     

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The Lockheed P-38 Lightning, called the “Fork-Tailed Devil” by Luftwaffe pilots in Africa, was one of the largest fighter aircraft to see service during WW II. Flight-testing of the YP-38 prototype was completed in 1941. The first P-38s put into service were dedicated to the defense of the West Coast following the attack on Pearl Harbor. In the spring of 1942 plans were laid to deploy P-38s in Europe. By adding drop tanks the maximum range of the Lightnings were increased to a whopping 2200 miles, making ferry trips to Europe possible. All three P-38-equipped fighter groups in Europe (82nd FG, 1st FG, and 14th FG) were transferred to North Africa in late 1942. These P-38 fighter groups were soon seeing serious combat action in the Mediterranean & North African theaters. The experienced Luftwaffe pilots learned that the P-38s should be attacked at altitudes below 15,000 feet, where they had difficulty maneuvering with the Bf-109s they frequently encountered. Despite these limitations the P-38s had tremendous climbing capabilities and were very effective gun platforms against German and Italian bombers. The Allison engines on the early P-38s were somewhat temperamental and actually caused more difficulties and aircraft losses than enemy action. Most problems related to an inadequate engine cooling system and the lack of cowl flaps. At altitude, gas problems could cause the Allison engines to burn out their valves, backfire through the intercooler ducts, and throw rods. Such problems could often result in the loss of the aircraft. Another problem was “compressibility” that was encountered during high-speed dives. During this problem the controls might seize up causing the aircraft to go into an uncontrolled dive. As a result P-38 pilots early in the War would often choose not to pursue Axis fighters into a high-speed dive. Both the engine cooler and compressibility problems were eventually solved by the time the P-38J variant was introduced. The large size of the P-38 was both an asset and a liability in combat. The large size made the aircraft easier to spot at distance, but provided a more effective gun platform for downing bombers. Col. William Leverette was a P-38 ace with the 14th FG, attaining 11 confirmed aerial victories. Leverette was born in Florida in 1913, and earned an engineering degree from Clemson University in 1934. He joined the U.S. Army in 1934, and was accepted for aviation cadet training in 1939. Earning his wings in 1940 he was initially based at Selfridge Field in Michigan with the 31st Pursuit Squadron. When War came to America, Leverette was sent to North Africa with the 337th FS of the 14th FG. Flying the P-38, Leverette broke into the scoring column in a most spectacular manner when he managed to splash seven Ju-87s on a single mission on October 9, 1943. Leverette’s flight of six aircraft rushed to the defense of a British Cruiser and several destroyers that were under attack by a large group of enemy Ju-87s and Ju-88s. In an exciting 15-minute air battle, the P-38s managed to down sixteen Stukas and one Ju-88. Leverette received credit for seven. Later during his combat tour he would down two Bf-109s and two Me-110s. Leverette remained with the Air Force after the War, rising to the rank of Colonel prior to his retirement to Florida in 1965. Col. Leverette passed away in April 2003 at the age of 89.

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