7th December 2021 (Last Updated 2nd January 2022) | Winter Haven, Florida, USA. Not long ago a Curtiss P-40, this one a ‘Warhawk’ bearing the moniker ‘American Dream’, and a North American P-51D Mustang spent a peaceful night at the world-renowned Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base. The following morning our daystar sleepily rose over the eastern horizon..
Today, exactly 80 years ago sunrise had just taken place over the beautiful Hawaiian island of Oahu, and a nightmare soon ensued as naval forces of the ‘Rising Sun’ (Imperial Japan), conducted devastating attacks on the unprepared U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbour and nearby military facilities in the then-U.S. Territory of Hawaii. Most military veterans who were posted to Pearl Harbour that day have now nearly all passed away. But one Pearl Harbour vet, a flying machine (Curtiss P-40B Tomahawk Bu No. 41-13297), lives. ‘She’ resides within The American Heritage Museum at the Collings Foundation, and on 4th December 2021 the ‘International History Institute (IHI) / American Heritage Museum Symposium – Pearl Harbor: Inevitable or Infamy?’ was held at the facility. The P-40B fittingly served as the backdrop for the event. This flying machine endures and reminds the generations who view her of the terrible conflagration that took place on 7th December 1941.
P-40B Bu No. 41-13297 is one of 131 P-40B models constructed at the Curtiss-Wright Corporation’s factory at Buffalo, New York. In March of 1941 this fighter plane was transferred from Curtiss to the U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC) and in April 1941 was sent to Wheeler Army Airfield on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. After arrival, the Tomahawk was furnished to the 19th Pursuit Squadron of the 18th Pursuit Group.
Seven months after the USAAC accepted Bu No. 41-13297, in October 1941, the aeroplane was landed with undercarriage retracted. Afterward, she was moved to a maintenance hangar to undergo major repairs. The plane was still being repaired when the Japanese attacked on 7th December. She survived the aerial onslaught.
Not long afterward P-40B Bu No. 41-13297 returned to flight status, but tragically, on 24 January 1942, in another ironic twist of fate, after only 56 hours of logged flight time, and while on a routine training flight, Bu No. 41-13297 entered a spin, from which the pilot, Lieutenant Kenneth Wayne Sprankle, was unable to recover. Sprankle and Bu No. 41-13297 crashed into a mountain, and as a result the officer was killed. The crash site was in a relatively inaccessible area of Oahu, and this being the case once Kenneth Sprankle’s body was removed whereas Bu No. 41-13297 was abandoned and forgotten for decades. During 1985 the crash was remembered and located by restoration experts who were of the opinion that Bu No. 41-13297’s airframe was restorable. Through their efforts the P-40B would fly again.
In 1985 some parts and components were recovered from Bu No. 41-13297’s resting place, and during 1989 the remainder of the forlorn Tomahawk components were trucked down the mountainside. That same year, in Torrance, California, the Curtiss Wright Historical Association was formed and the rebuilding of the priceless fighter was undertaken. The venture was referred to as ‘Project Tomahawk’ and whenever possible parts from Bu No. 41-13297 were utilised. When original items were too badly damaged or corroded 2 other P-40B wrecks (39-285, which also crashed in Hawaii during 1941, and 39-287, which went down in the Sierra Nevada mountains in October 1941) were cannibalised.
Upon completion, Bu No. 41-13297, sporting the same livery she wore while serving with the 18th Pursuit Group, became one of the featured aircraft belonging to the ‘The Fighter Collection’ at Duxford, England. Eventually a financial sponsor enabled the airplane, which again bears the large, white fuselage numbers (284) she wore at Wheeler Field, to be repatriated to the United States.
In 2020 aluminium from the old ‘skin’ of her wings was sold in the form of ‘Plane Tags’. For those who were fortunate enough to acquire these products the metal mementos represent tangible links to the “Day of Infamy”.
The records from the attacks on 7th December 1941 indicate that the USAAC force was large and modern enough to mount a concerted defence. According to statistics cited within Volume III: The Rising Sun in the Pacific 1931 – April 1942 of Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison’s multivolume History of the United States Naval Operations in World War II (page 124), the U.S. Army had 94 airworthy ‘Pursuits’ (the U.S. Army designation for fighter planes) on strength near Pearl Harbour that fateful morning. This total consisted of 64 Curtiss P-40B and P-40C Tomahawks, 20 P-36 Curtiss Hawks (a design that predated the P-40) and 10 totally obsolete Boeing P-26 Peashooters. Morison further indicated (page124) that the number of ‘usable’ (and modern) USAAC fighters, P-40s and P-36s, before the attack was 84 and the post-attack inventory consisted of 52 aeroplanes.
Although Bu No. 41-13297 was resting in a hangar and unable to fulfil the task for which she had been built, a number of her companion Tomahawks did urgently venture into the air and fight on 7th December 1941. Despite the crippling losses suffered at the U.S. Army’s Wheeler and Bellows fields, a few (4 P-40s and 1 P-36) fighters temporarily based at Haleiwa, a small auxiliary airfield on Oahu’s north coast, were able to get airborne and they conducted a spirited and meritorious defence over the course of two sorties: In total the pilots claimed a number of Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft shot down while incurring 1 loss to the group of intrepid interceptors. Combined, these USAAC pilots shot down at least 5 Japanese planes, including four credited to Second Lieutenant George S. Welch of the 47th Squadron, 15th Pursuit Group. It is believed that Welch downed 2 Nakajima B5N2 torpedo bombers, 1 Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter and an Aichi D3A1 dive-bomber. In his 1966 book The Ragged, Rugged Warriors, author and historian Martin Caidin included an account of the Haleiwa pursuit pilots’ sorties.
The USAAC aircraft present on the island were primarily tasked with the protection of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet. The USAAC failed, perhaps largely due to command decisions that left the Army airfields and fighters extremely vulnerable to aerial attack. Vice Admiral Homer N. Wallin, in his 1968 book titled Pearl Harbor: Why, How, Fleet Salvage and Final Appraisal, summarised (page 102) the net result of the morning. He wrote, ‘Although the Army Air Forces and Naval Air acted heroically when the true nature of the attack was comprehended by the personnel, the fact remains that only a token air force was able to resist the Japanese . . . .’
Over Oahu the P-40, the third-most numerous American-designed fighter of World War II, had its baptism of fire in the Pacific Theatre of Operations. The P-40 would soon become legendary.
The pilot of the P-40 Warhawk ‘American Dream’ pointed out that at low altitudes the P-40 was a competent fighter. In fact, he said, ‘The P-40 could out-perform the Mustang [which was one of the premier fighters of the Second World War and often replaced P-40s in squadron service] below 10,000 feet’ (3,048 metres).
Pilots Taylor and Welch, through their exemplary flying and fighting methodology, demonstrated that the P-40 could combat the vaunted Mitsubishi Zero (and other Axis fighters) if the Curtiss design’s strengths were utilised in addition to prudent tactics.
Several decades ago, in the 1990s, a tour guide stated to his charges on Oahu that Kaneohe Bay (aka ‘Hammerhead Bay’), “Is one of the largest breeding grounds for Hammerhead sharks in the world. Therefore, swimming in those waters is prohibited. Remember, when a human enters the ocean that person is entering their world and are at the sharks’ mercy”. In a comparable vein, a South African Air Force pilot of the Allied Desert Air Force put on an extraordinary demonstration on 13 April 1941 of this truism for personnel of No. 260 Squadron, RAF, who were watching the spectacle as it transpired. Over an Allied aerodrome (El Adem), and while piloting his Tomahawk, the side silhouettes of which resemble that of a Great White shark, of 4 South African Air Force Squadron Captain Harrison notched a pair of victories. The combat is recorded on page 42 in J.P.A. Michael Lavigne’s book ‘Kittyhawk Pilot’. Lavigne recorded RCAF retired Wing Commander J.F. Edwards’ recollections: ‘Attacking the 109’s, he [Harrison] shot one down right over the field at low level and took after the other. He was right on its tail at ground level. The 109 did everything to shake him off, but Harrison’s Tomahawk hung on. He closed the gap and chewed the tail off the 109 with the propeller’. Lavigne then comments on the saga by writing the following: ‘As Jim [Wing Commander Edwards] and his friends on the ground watched the display, they were witnessing the Tomahawk at its best – at low level altitudes‘. Thus, in this instance the Luftwaffe (Nazi Germany’s air force) Bf-109s, superior performers at altitude, had made the fatal mistake of entering the Tomahawks’ domain and as a result paid the ultimate price.
Unfortunately, American and Allied pilots in several theatres of operation would not learn the above tactical facts for months and in the interim suffered high loss rates in combats. They had also forgotten First World War German ace Baron Manfred von Richthofen’s truism: ‘The quality of the box matters little. Success depends upon the man who sits in it’. Knowledge almost always trumps ignorance.
Early in the conflict the Japanese pilots were combat-experienced, and contrarily the Allied aviators were novices. The P-40 was often viewed as totally inferior, except in diving speed, to the Zero. This perception was false. One prototype model of P-40 was the first USAAC fighter capable of attaining a top speed level flight speed of 483 kilometres per hour (300 miles per hour). Subsequently, a Curtiss P-40B was tested by the USAAC’s Matériel Division at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, on 26th April 1941. Testing showed that the P-40B’s highest level flight speed at 1,524 metres (5,000 feet) was 513 kilometres per hour (319 miles per hour), and at an altitude of 4,572 metres (15,000 feet) at full throttle was 566 kilometres per hour (352 mph). In comparison, the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero’s maximum level flight speed was 533 kilometre per hour (331 mph) at 4,550 metres (14,930 feet).
After the end of the war legendary Royal Navy combat and test pilot Eric Winkle Brown test flew the A6M2. He stated in his autobiography (Wings On My Sleeve, page 226) the following about the plane’s performance and handling characteristics: ‘In the air the lightweight Zero was remarkably nimble, with a high rate of climb of the order of 4,500 feet-per-minute [1,372 metres-per-minute] and superb manoeuvrability.’ But, importantly, Captain Brown added, ‘The handling characteristics were somewhat marred by the imperfect harmony on control, which gave only a moderate rate of roll and with a rather sensitive rudder to deal with considerable directional control changes with power and speed. Also the acceleration in the dive was rather slow . . . . ‘ Brown further stated, ‘. . . the Zero always sought to fight in the horizontal plane where its remarkable turning circle gave it the advantage.’
As stated on the WW2 Aircraft.net website (see the ‘P-40 vs. Zero’ webpage), maintaining an airspeed of over 402 kilometres-per-hour (250 miles-per-hour) was the best tactic to even a fight between a P-40 and a Zero. The Zero’s agility was feared by Allied aviators at low airspeeds, but above 402 Kilometres-per-hour (250 miles-per-hour) the Japanese type’s larger ailerons degraded performance during manoeuvres; rolling a Zero at higher speeds was difficult. Additionally, another fact is that for every successive Zero model, the contemporary P-40 version was swifter. The Curtiss fighter, a combat-experienced pilot contended, enjoyed at least a 48 kilometre-per-hour (30 mile-per-hour) speed advantage in level flight, and, of course, the P-40 pilot could always break the engagement off because the Tomahawk and Warhawk had an even greater advantage in diving speed which eventually could exceed 644 kilometres-per-hour (400 miles-per-hour). In contrast, Zero pilots could not attain 563 kilometres-per-hour (350-miles-per-hour) without risking structural damage.
The American Heritage Museum’s immaculate Curtiss P-40B serves as a winged memorial to those who died during the 7th December 1941 attacks.
P-40B Bu No. 41-13297 , like the poster above did during the conflict, reminds all to ‘remember Pearl Harbour’. Decades have passed since British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill noted that, ‘Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’ In a similar vein, the Virginia Tech webpage History Repeating informs readers that, ‘Lessons from the past may not always ward off doom, but they can provide insights into the present and even the future.’ The Pearl Harbour attack will forever remain relevant.
The author (John T. Stemple) is an Aerospace Education Member (AEM) of the Civil Air Patrol (the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary).
Sources and Suggested Readings
Aircraft at Pearl Harbor WW II Pacific, Dec 7, 1941
Brown, Eric. Wings on My Sleeve. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2006.
Curtiss P-36A Hawk
Curtiss P-36 Hawk
Curtiss P-40 Warhawk: The Flying Tigers’ plane
Curtiss P-40B: The American Heritage Museum at the Collings Foundation
Curtiss P-40 Warhawk: One of WW II’s Most Famous Fighters
Curtiss P-40 Warhawk Performance Figures
Curtiss P-40 Warhawk Variants
Eric Melrose “Winkle” Brown
George Welch (pilot)
Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base
Kenneth M. Taylor
Lavigne, J.P.A. and J.F. Edwards. Kittyhawk Pilot. Battleford, Saskatchewan: Turner-Warwick Publications Inc. 1973.
Mitsubishi A6M Zero
Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Rising Sun in the Pacific 1931 – April 1942. History of the United States Navy in World War II: Volume III. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1988.
P-40 Performance Tests
Prange, Gordon W. Donald M. Goldstein and Katharine V. Dillion. At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor. Penguin Books Ltd, 2001.
Prange, Gordon W., Donald M. Goldstein and Katharine V. Dillion. Dec. 7 1941: The Day the Japanese Attacked Pearl Harbor. New York: Wings Books, 1991.
Prange, Gordon W., Donald M. Goldstein ,and Katharine V. Dillion. Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986.
Remembering Test Pilot Eric Melrose “Winkle” Brown
Samuel Eliot Morison
Samuel Eliot Morison
Sam Morison’s War
Si vis pacem, para bellum (‘If you want peace, prepare for war’)
The Mitsubishi A6M Zero
Tora! Tora! Tora!
United States Army Air Corps
Wallin, Homer Norman. Pearl Harbor: Why , How, Fleet Salvage, and Final Appraisal. Supt. of Docs., U. S. Govt. Print. Office Naval History Division, 1968.
World War II Symposium at the American Heritage Museum
Zero Model 21: unraveling the performance data