Five-Gun Fury .
Flight Journal|March - April 2021
Lt. Floyd Fulkerson: Wingman to the Aces
JOHN DEJANOVICH

There are no great aces without great wingmen, and young Lt. Floyd Fulkerson from Little Rock, Arkansas was one of those wingmen. Although he had four confirmed victories, so he was nearly an ace himself, he saw his primary contribution to the war effort to have been the protection of his lead pilots, some of whom were America’s leading aces. During his time with the 475TH Fighter Group in the Pacific, Floyd flew with such notables as Major Richard Bong, Major Tommy McGuire, and even the much-celebrated “Lone Eagle,” Charles Lindbergh. Cover the shooter, that’s what wingmen do. They protect the shooter from surprise attack. In this role, Fulkerson helped some of our great aces achieve their successes.

A bomber pilot, but not for long

“I was 21 when I finished training on the B-25 Mitchell and was shipped overseas. I arrived in the South Pacific in June 1943, and immediately started flying missions out of Port Moresby in New Guinea, including one low-level strafing run on the Japanese airfields at Rabaul. That early in the war, that was an extremely risky endeavor. “Not long after arriving, and quite by chance, I ran into an old college classmate while visiting Base Ops on a nearby field. My friend Alec Guerry was in an administrative position and involved in the forming of a new P-38 fighter unit. After some catching up on old times, I let it be known that as much as I loved strafing the enemy with the Mitchell, I would rather be dicing it up in a ‘38.’ Alec took my suggestion to heart and set about pushing the right buttons to make my dream a reality.”

In another time and place, the probability of making a bomber-to-fighter transfer happen would have been bureaucratically nil. However, in the fast-moving dynamics of front line warfare and thousands of miles from Command Headquarters scrutiny, his friend did some paper-shuffling magic and somehow managed to change Floyd Fulkerson, bomber pilot, into Floyd Fulkerson, P-38 fighter pilot.

A new fighter group with a new airplane

At this point in time, General Kenney had completed the formation of the 475th Fighter Group. This was Kenney’s pet outfit and was comprised of mostly handpicked personnel. It was built around the revolutionary new Lockheed P-38 Lightning. By the time Fulkerson arrived, the 475th FG had just been organized, trained and deployed at forward bases around Port Moresby.

Fulkerson remembers, “In January 1944, I was 22 years old and was assigned to the 431st Fighter Squadron. I began my fighter pilot career operating out of Dobodura. From that point on, I would fly combat missions continuously for a year with only an occasional ten-day rest and recuperation break. We ranged as far away as Ceram, Indonesia, all over the New Guinea countryside, the surrounding waters and ultimately to the big shootout in the Phillipines.

“From the beginning I flew the new ‘J’ series Lightning and I served my entire tour of duty as a member of the 431st squadron.” This was significant because the 431st was the first to be equipped with the P-38 and would produce a multitude of aces including the top two American aces, Bong and McGuire.

The 431st, along with its sister squadrons the 432ndand 433rd went on to exceed Gen. Kenney’s expectations by a wide margin and former bomber pilot Lt. Fulkerson was right in the thick of things. In particular, he witnessed history being made while flying wing on Maj. Bong when he made his last four kills, starting on December 7, 1944 over Ormoc Bay in the Phillipines .

Watching the master at work

The mission was to fly top cover for the Leyte invasion. The flight also included number two ace, Maj. Thomas McGuire, and Maj. Jack Rittmayer, an old flying mate from Headquarters. Together they comprised “Daddy Green Flight” and their assignment was to orbit the landing beach area at about 4,000 feet. It was late in the afternoon and shortly after arriving on station, Bong spotted a Betty bomber making a run on the invasion fleet below. With Floyd as witness, it would become kill number 37. Fulkerson says, “Maj. Bong suddenly rolled out of formation and began a descent. As I watched him, I could see a bomber low on the water in the distance lining up for a run on the landing area. For a second or two, I was angry. As wingman, my job was to cover him during our mission. Combat procedure required him to call out the target location and then initiate his attack. Don’t get me wrong, I have great respect for Maj. Bong. He was a very important part of the war effort, but it was my job to cover his six and I didn’t want anything happening to him on my watch. I took a quick look around and breathed a little easier: there were no more enemy aircraft in sight. Just the same, I rolled in on his tail and shoved the throttles up to catch him. As I approached, I was a little higher and just behind him, as he began his attack on the Betty. From my vantage point I could see it all quite clearly.

“Richard was a good fighter driver, but his real forte was gunnery. I had a ringside seat and watched a master at work. Approaching to about a 150 yards, he was a little high and behind the bomber, when he snapped offa quick burst. Just that fast, the tail gunner position turned into a shower of metal and glass shards. With no tailgunner to worry about, he moved into about 50 yards and, with about 3 degrees of skid to the left, began to work the left engine area. I could see the hits sparkling, pieces coming away and in seconds smoke began to trail from the engine. I scanned the area again and, as I looked back down, he started rolling the nose of the ‘38’ to the right.

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