Despite the level of expertise, seventeen pilots had to abort the long awaited first escort mission to Japan including Mission Leader Col Beckwith, and even 7th AF Fighter commander Brig Gen ‘Mickey’ Moore. The first USAAF fighter squadron over Tokyo was the 78th lead by its CO, Major Jim Vande Hey. Landing on a subsequent mission, Maj Vande Hey’s engine quit just as his wheels bumped down upon the runway and the Major had to be towed off the runway because of fuel exhaustion, a common occurrence after 8+ hours in a P-51. Just after 10.20 hrs the first attack was made when Mustangs of 46th FS, 21 FG damaged a Ki-44 Shoki “Tojo“. Shortly thereafter, a Ki-45 Toryu “Nick” was destroyed for the first kill by USAAF fighters over Japan, falling to Capt Bob Down and 1Lt Dick Hintermeirer of the 47th FS’s Green Flight, the flight Gen Moore had to quit with Maj Emmett Kearney. Theirs was the first of 26 confirmed kills that day, loosing two of their own. Only three B-29s were downed, two by flak and one by air-to-air bombing. The Sun Setter’s first ace was made on 19 April, Maj Jim Tapp.
Such is but a taste of the intricate details given in this book by 25-year fighter writer Carl Molesworth, Osprey ace with six previous titles. Mr. Molesworth packs the book with engaging descriptions, contemplative facts, and interesting details. The book offers 30 superb profiles of P-51s by veteran Osprey artist Jim Laurier.
The 128 page book’s first 32 pages bring the reader along the road of VII Fighter Command’s evolution from the Hawaiian Air Force, ruined by Japanese airpower on December 7 1941, to the ruiners of Japanese airpower in the summer of 1945. During these years the command prepared pilots for combat in the South West Pacific, even giving up their 18th FG to the Thirteenth Air Force on Guadalcanal. Along the way they trained, guarded islands in the vast Central Pacific, and engaged in combat in the Gilberts and Marshall Islands campaigns while flying the obsolescent P-39 and P-40. Eventually equipped with the P-38 and P-47, the command languished in dull duty until P-51s arrived in Hawaii in December 1944. Leaving for Guam in February, the initial plan was to launch the Mustangs off their CVE (escort aircraft carrier) conveyance, instead they were lifted off with cranes. By the end of Feb the 15th FG was on Saipan and the 21st based on Tinian. On March 6 Brig Gen ‘Mickey’ Moore lead his 47th FS onto Iwo Jima, the rest following in succeeding days. They flew strikes against the Bonin Islands as well as japan. It was from that ashen island that VII Fighter Command’s Mustang pilots would protect B-29s as they reduced Japan’s cities to ashes. Included is a detailed account of the horrific Banzai attack on the pilot’s quarters of the night of 26 March, when Mustang pilots found themselves fighting for their lives against rampaging Japanese soldiers.
The first mission over Japan is recounted over 11 action-packed pages. Mr. Molesworth presents the experiences of the Sun Setters by group, squadron, and even flight. The next 21 pages take us through the first two and a half months of grueling missions over barren ocean against a viciously desperate enemy’s homeland, operating from a primitive desert island, dangerous with the debris of war. Fuel was the perpetual problem (an old pilot joke is a fighter plane is in emergency fuel status the moment it leaves the ground) but fatigue and weather stalked the pilots threatening disaster on every mission. Additionally, the very reliable P-51 suffered from the pervasive grinding sand and ash of their base. Notes author Molesworth, “The cost was substantial, with 131 P-51s lost and 99 pilots killed, but it is worth noting that by far the majority of losses were attributable to ground fire and bad weather. Indeed, only a handful of VLR Mustangs was shot down in air-to-air combat.” Bad weather? They had to contend with typhoons and squall lines, Pacific thunderstorms that could exceed the ceiling of even the powerful Merlin engines of the superlative Mustang!
The final 47 pages conclude the final months of the war and post war activity of the USAAF’s VII Fighter Command – the 15th, 21st and 506th FGs, with 8 pages of appendices. These include the unit commanders, unit markings, aerial claims, color plate descriptions and source bibliographies. The unit marking section is particularly appreciated as colors are discussed: 45th FS pilots described their color as ‘dark apple green’, and the 458th FS blue probably having been obtained from the Navy.
Surprising to me, VII Fighter Command was not an ace-maker. The aerial victories list shows that while most every pilot had a kill, the 9 squadrons only produced three aces: Maj Moore with 11, Maj Tapp with 8 and Capt Aust Jr with 5. Perhaps this is not surprising as Japan’s air forces were pretty decimated by this time and what remained were being saved for a final massed kamikaze mission against the pending invasion of the Home Islands. What they did send aloft were effectively dealt with in the relatively few escort and fighter sweep missions.
I am a slow reader but I finished this book in three days. It is interesting and engaging. Photographs enrich almost every page. Oddly, my copy is different than the one shown on Osprey’s web page.
My contents are:
- Chapter1: The Long Road to Tokyo
- Chapter 2: Little Friends Over Japan
- Chapter 3: The Setting Sun
- Groups and Squadrons, with commanders
- Aerial Victories List
The website lists:
- Chapter1: Getting Their Feet Wet
- Chapter 2: Little Friends
- Chapter 3: Down To Earth
- Groups and Squadrons, with commanders
- Aerial Victories List
- Combat Losses
My copy does not include the advertised combat losses and features different cover art. Despite this, I find this to be a very interesting, detailed, informative and inspiring history of the Seventh Air Force’s fighter command operations against mainland Japan.
Those who made the flights were inductees of the elite “Tokyo Club”. Leaving the speck of Iwo Jima and out of sight of land except for hostile territory, these Tokyo Club Sun Setters flew what could be considered the most demanding, punishing flights of any single engine, single pilot mission of the war. In doing so they provided the cover so that the B-29s could bomb more effectively and ensured many more bomber crews got home safely. This is a tribute to their professionalism and efforts. I highly recommend this title.
I thank the wonderful people at Osprey Publishing for assisting me with this book to review.
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Fighter escort missions over Japan started on April 7, 1945 when 108 P-51s of the 15 FG and 21 FG set out to escort 107 B-29s to the Tokyo area. Self titled the ’Sun Setters’ VII Fighter Command Mustangs were flown by highly experienced pilots, none with less than 600 hours in fighters were allowed on this first mission! In the next 129 days 234.5 Japanese would be destroyed in the air by VII Fighter Command. They would smash another 219 on the ground. Though they took heavy losses, few were inflicted by the Japanese in aerial combat.
About Frederick Boucher (JPTRR) FROM: TENNESSEE, UNITED STATES
I'm a professional pilot with a degree in art.
My first model was an AMT semi dump truck. Then Monogram's Lunar Lander right after the lunar landing. Next, Revell's 1/32 Bf-109G...cried havoc and released the dogs of modeling!
My interests--if built before 1900, or after 1955, then I proba...