The beautiful blue water of Aitape Harbor on the northern coast of New Guinea sparkled not far below them as Lieutenant Colonel Tom Lynch and Captain Richard Bong made tight turns to bring their twin-engine P-38 “Lightning” fighters around. They had just made a strafing run on a group of six Japanese barges and left one on fire.
By this date, March 8, 1944, Lynch (20 victories) and Bong (24 victories) were two of the leading aces among US pilots who were vying to become the first to best Eddie Rickenbacker’s 26 victories in WWI. With Bong flying as his wingman, as he had often done, Lynch had fruitlessly searched for enemy aircraft to attack earlier that day. Seeing the Japanese barges below, he had ordered Bong to follow him down to attack them.
(Left: Lynch posing by his P-38.)
They set at least one of the barges on fire, but as they turned out over the water, Lynch decided to make one more pass at them. On a first strafing run, some gunner might be surprised and not get their weapons ready in time. They would all be ready for a second run, making it fare more dangerous. In this case, the Japanese anti-aircraft forces in the harbor had recently been reinforced by a naval force with two 7.7mm and three 13mm antiaircraft machine guns. As Lynch and Bong came zoom back in toward the land, the air was filled with tracer rounds.
Before they could close in on the barges, both Lynch and Bong took serious damage. The damage to Lynch’s P-38 was far worse than Bong’s. With a section of the nose shot off and his right engine on fire, Lynch pulled out of the attack and up, desperate for altitude. Trailing smoke, Lynch managed to get up to about 2500 feet on one engine. Bong was following, but he was also losing power from one engine, though luckily his was not burning.
(Right: Richard Bong.)
Lynch called to Bong on the radio, “Dick! Can you see me?”.Bong could see him, and what he saw terrified him. The fire from the right engine had spread along the wing. “Yeah. You’re on fire, bail out!” Bong screamed over his radio. But the climb had dissipated Lynch’s airspeed, and the plane began to spin back toward the ground.
Bong was screaming “BAIL OUT!! .. BAIL OUT!!” as he watched the plane descend. Bong knew that Lynch had already survived being shot down once before as well as a crash on take-off once. Bong watched and prayed his best friend and mentor could survive one more time.
Thomas Joseph Lynch was born into an Irish Catholic family on December 9, 1916, in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Tom’s father worked in the office at the Bethlehem Steel plant in Allentown. His paternal grandfather, also Thomas, and grandmother, Susan Sweeney Lynch, were born in Ireland, as was his maternal grandfather, Daniel “Big Dan” McGeehan, who was a policeman.
Young Tom showed leadership early in life, becoming an Eagle Scout. He was also an excellent student. After graduating from Catasaqua high school, he entered the University of Pittsburgh, where he received a degree in chemical engineering in 1940. He was an excellent athlete, going undefeated on the university boxing team. He was also described as having movie star good looks.
While he was at Pitt, he met the young woman whom he would one day marry. At the senior prom of nearby at Seton Hill College, he was introduced to Rosemary Fullen, a senior and native of Swissville. It was a case of “love at first sight,” but Lynch’s immediate post-graduation plans and then the war would interfere with any immediate marital plans.
(Right: Lynch and Rosemary Fullen, during the war.)
Lynch’s original plan, and the one his family thought was still his plan, was to join in father in working for Bethlehem Steel. But there may have been a hint in his change of plans in the fact that he had become a member of the military Scabbard and Blade Society.
On commencement day, Lynch announced to his shocked family that he would be entering pilot training in the Army Air Corps. Though he has never flown in his life, somewhere along the line he had acquired a desire to fly, and perhaps he was anticipating the coming ware, as many were. Whatever the reason, once he had a goal, he pursued it tenaciously. "He was always a go-getter," recalled his younger brother, Daniel Lynch.
After months of basic training and ground training, Lynch began flight training in March of 1941 at Selfridge Field just outside of Detroit. He was assigned to the 35th Fighter Group and 39th Fighter Squadron. As the year went on, watching the event in Europe and the far east, Lynch and his fellow trainees must have realized their country would soon require combat fighter pilots.
On December 6th, the squadron was relocated to Baer Field at Fort Wayne, Ind. The following afternoon they found out that they would soon be putting their long months of training to practical use. On January 29, 1942, the 39th left San Francisco onboard the "USS Ancon" bound for Australia. They arrived in Brisbane on February 25, 1942. No amount of training could ever determine for sure who would or would not be a great combat pilot; that could only be determined when they got into combat. Tom Lynch was about to prove himself to be one of the best combat pilots the United States ever produced.
(Left: The shoulder patch of the 39th Fighter Squadron.)
The fighter plane that Lynch and his 39th Squadron comrades were assigned to fly was the Bell P-39 Airacobra. This earned the squadron the nicknamed “Cobra in the Clouds,” which sounds very fierce, but in time was likely even ridiculed by some of them. The Airacobra, along with the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, also used by the Army Air Corps, and the Grumman F4F Wildcat, used by the Navy and Marine air wings, were the front line fighter planes of the US armed forces at the start of the war. All three would be replaced by more efficient models before the war was much more than a year old.
The P-39 would prove to not be the equal of Japan’s best fighter, the Mitsubishi A6M "Zero.” (right) Once in combat, the pilots of the P-39 found that the decision to remove the turbo-supercharger had rendered the fighter less and less effective as altitudes increased. At anything above 15,000 feet, its performance was tremendously reduced. That deficiency made the fighter nearly useless in the European Theater. With more combat occurring at lower altitudes in the Pacific Theater, it performed better there but it was clear that Army Air Corps needed to replace it.
In the meantime, American pilots would have to fight with the aircraft they had, so Lynch his comrades trained to use these inferior fighters to their full capacity. The one edge the P-39 had in air combat was a 37-millimeter cannon that fired through the propeller hub, but first, you had to get the enemy in your sights. In May the 39th was sent to Port Moresby, New Guinea to enter the fight against the Japanese forces attempting to capture that island, which was all that stood between the Japanese and a possible attempt to capture Australia.
In mid-May, the squadron had their first encounters with the Japanese. They immediately realized that the P-39 could not match the performance of the Zero, especially at higher altitudes. Some of their pilots were not shy in expressing their disappointment in the Airacobra. One complained that he, “Could have done better with a truck. It’s more maneuverable and will go higher.”
(Left: A Bell P-39 Airacobra.)
Still, some of the pilots had success against the Japanese flying the P-39, and Tom Lynch was one of them. During the two months that the 39th flew the P-39, Lynch managed to score three air combat victories against Japanese aircraft. This was quite an accomplishment when we consider that only one US pilot ever became an ace (five air combat victories) in the P-39. After two months flying the P-39, the 39th was withdrawn back to Australia to become the first squadron to fly the new twin-engine P-38 fighter.
Lynch very nearly didn’t live to fly the P-38, however. It was just past noon on June 15, high over Buna, New Guinea, when he pulled his Bell P-39 Airacobra into a tight turn, trying to catch sight of four Zekes, Japanese Zero fighter planes, that were after him. Lynch had been desperately trying to evade the Zekes, which had already seriously damaged his P-39.
In a month of combat against these veteran Japanese pilots, Lynch had learned that they were very good pilots and that they were flying planes that could easily outturn and outclimb his P-39. Despite that, he had shot down three.
(Right: Lynch in a P-39, note the door.)
As he turned and saw them closing in for the kill, he tried to take advantage of one of the few things the P-39 could do better than the Zero’s, dropping into a high-speed dive. Lynch managed to lose them with his steep dive. Like most American fighters, the P-39 could take much more damage than any of Japan’s fighters and keep flying. Lynch had made it back from some previous mission with heavy damage, but as he pulled out of his dive his engine was dying, he knew his aircraft wouldn’t stay in the air much longer.
Lynch was now too low to bail out, so he ditched the plane in the ocean. He survived the impact, but then found himself trapped inside the sinking Airacobra. Unlike most WWII-era fighters, which had sliding canopies for entry and exit, pilots got in and out of the P-39 through a door. The impact had jammed the door shut. As the water got deeper and deeper inside the cockpit, Lynch slam himself into the door so frantically that he broke his arm. But he finally banged it open, barely escaping an excruciating death with the help of his “Mae West” lifevest.
By the time Lynch returned to duty with the squadron in August, they had been pulled back to Australia. While the pilots and ground crews were happy for the respite from combat, they were also happy that the 39th would become the first squadron on the Pacific to be equipped with the twin-engine Lockheed P-38 Lightning. The P-38 would eventually be so successful in combat that the Japanese nicknamed it the “Two Planes, One Pilot,” base on its twin tail configuration.
(Left: A P-38J over California in 1944.)
It continued to perform so well as the war went on that it would be the only US fighter that was in production at the beginning of the war and remained in large-scale production until the end of the war. Three of the top six scoring US aces of the war flew the P-38: Richard Bong, who was #1, Tom McGuire, #2, and Charles McDonald, #6.
The P-38, unlike the P-39, had turbocharged engines, allowing it to operate well at high altitudes. The Army Air Corps in the southwest Pacific had many brilliantly talented pilots, as subsequent events would prove, but those pilots lacked a fighter whose performance would allow them to use that talent to its fullest. The P-38 would be that fighter.
In straight, level flight, it could his speeds of around 400 mph. It had a very good rate of climb and like most US fighters, could take a lot of damage and keep on flying, and had good armor protection for the pilot. And if it got a Zero or other Japanese aircraft in its sights, its four .50 caliber Browning machine guns, and one Hispano 20 mm cannon could quickly blow it out of the sky.
(Below: Kneeling, left to right: Captain Charles P. O'Sullivan, Captain Thomas J. Lynch, 1st Lieutenant Kenneth C. Sparks. Standing, left to right: Captain Richard C. Suehr, 1st Lieutenant John H. Lane, 1st Lieutenant Stanley O. Andrews.)
The P-38 was still no match for the Zero or other Japanese fighters in a turning dogfight, but its high rate of climb made it perfect for what became known as a “boom and zoom” attack. This was an attack from high above and enemy aircraft during which you dove on them at very high speed, fired on them (the boom), then immediately used the kinetic energy of the dive to “zoom” back up to high altitude at a speed the enemy plane can’t possibly match from level flight.
By August, Lynch’s arm was healed and he was back with the squadron in Australia, training to fly the P-38. He had a crash while talking off barely over a week after starting that training, but he walked away from it and it didn’t seem to affect him at all. By late fall they had moved back to Port Moresby.
That fall something happened that would affect all of the top U.S. pilots in the Pacific Theater. In November a celebrity arrived in Port Moresby. It was Eddie Rickenbacker, America’s “Ace of Aces” from the First World War. He very nearly didn’t make it. The B-17 he was flying had a malfunction of navigation equipment and got lost and had to ditch in the Pacific in October. Incredibly, all eight men on the plane survived the sea landing, and though they were not resued for 24 days, they lost only one man during that ordeal.
(Below: Rickenbacker, center, after he rescued.)
After he recovered, Rickenbacker toured US airbases around the southwest Pacific theater. He had downed 26 German aircraft in WWI. At the moment the highest-scoring Army Air Force pilot, Buzz Wagner, had just 8 victories, and he was back in the states now. When some pilot commented that it would be a long time before any Army Air Force pilot beat Rickenbacker’s 26, Kenney remarked that “Eddie, I’m going to give a case of scotch to the first one to beat your old record.” Rickenbacker replied that he would match that. Kenney took note that the mood of the pilots in the room brightened immediately. Kenney quickly realized that this contest was something he could use to motivate his pilots.
This race to replace Rickenbacker as the “ace of aces” would do more than motivate his, and other pilots as the war went on, it would captivate the American public as well. As the 39th when back into combat with their improved aircraft, Lynch would find himself in the middle of this race.
By late in the year the Lynch and the rest of the 39th were ready to test themselves, and their new aircraft, against the Japanese. On December 27th, the 39th flew a combat patrol over Buna. Lynch led a flight of four P-38s that day, leading pilots Ken Sparks, John Mangus, and flying as his wingman, a new pilot by the name of Richard Bong. Lynch would become a mentor to the younger Bong and one of rather introverted Bong’s few good friends.
(Below: A group of P-38s in flight.)
Lynch quickly got his flight up to 18,000 feet. And so, when they encountered a huge flight of Japanese fighters and dive bombers over Buna, Lynch and his flight were several thousand feet above them. After months of the frustration of constantly having the Japanese pounce on them from above while flying the P-39, the American pilots finally had the advantage. Over 40 Japanese fighters were escorting the dive bombers below them, but Lynch did not hesitate, ordering his comrades, “Drop tanks (their auxiliary gas tanks), and let’s go.”
It was a wild melee, with the Americans using their screaming dive to scatter the Japanese. Before they ran out of ammunition, Lynch and Bong both brought down two Japanese planes. Lynch was so excited by the combat that he landed and got into another P-38 and went back up.
For Lynch the two victories gave him 5 total, making him an “ace.” For Bong it was his first two on the way to 40, making him the all-time leading American ace. It was Lynch who groomed and mentored Bong to accomplish that. Lynch got two more victories on the last day of the year, giving him 7 going into 1943.
Lynch, who was promoted to captain in January, was become one of the most admired and respected pilots in the squadron. Another pilot in the 39th, Capt. Curran Jones, said of him, “Tommy Lynch was our leading ace. He was cold-blooded. I think he was the best fighter pilot in the Pacific.” And pilots that flew under his command appreciated he was less reckless than some other top pilots. “Skill and cunning had to be combined with aggressiveness. Tommy Lynch never forgot he was responsible for the three guys along with himself," said Jones.
In January 1943, Lynch became something of a celebrity as one of the P-38 aces of the South Pacific, and the race to pass Rickenbacker became one of the more positive stories on the home front. Some called him the “champion zero killer.” It had appeared that Joe Foss, Marine pilot engaged in the Guadalcanal campaign would top Rickenbacker some time in early 1943, but after shooting down three Zero fighters to tie Rickenbacker on January 15th, he was pulled out of combat and did not return until 1944.
Lynch got one more victory in early January before the Japanese shifted the focus of their air assets toward their withdrawal from Guadalcanal, leaving few targets for the American pilots in New Guinea. Lynch would have no chance for more victories until March. His friend Bong, who was on temporary assignment with the 39th, was returned to the 9th Squadron in January, but they would one day fly together again.
In March, Lynch shot down two Zeros during the Battle of the Bismark Sea and its aftermath as the Japanese attempted to reinforce their army in New Guinea. That brought his total to ten. On March 24th he was appointed the commander of the 39th Squadron.
(Below: Lynch posing with his P-38 with 16 victory flags.)
All through the summer Lynch and his good friend, Richard Bong, were neck and neck in the race to beat Rickenbacker. In July, Lynch was promoted to Major. On July 26th, they were tied with 11 each when Bong had his biggest day, knocking down 4 Japanese planes in one day. But when Lynch knocked down a Kawasaki Ki-48 Lily bomber over the Huon Gulf on September 4th, they were tied for the lead with 16 victories.
It would be five months before Lynch would record another victory, however, not through any reduction of skill, but because from October through January 1944 he would be out of the fight. The first part of that would be spent on leave in the United States. He was given a hero's welcome home in Pennsylvania, where he married his college sweetheart, Rosemary Fullen.
(Below: Lynch kissing his mother while home on leave in the fall of 1943.)
He returned in late November. Bong had scored 5 more victories while Lynch was gone, putting him ahead of Lynch, who was still 2nd. Now Bong was the one on leave, but Lynch was put on a desk job under the order of Neel Kearby, who just happened to be another of the hot-shot pilots trying to be the first to pass Rickenbacker. As Lynch sat behind a desk, Kearby, whose squadron flew the P-47 Thunderbolt, caught him with 16, then passed him with his 17th victory. It appeared at this point that Marine pilot “Pappy” Boyington would beat all Army Air Corps pilots in passing Rickenbacker, though there was some dispute over the 6 victories he claimed to have had in China with the “Flying Tigers.” But on January 3rd, after shooting down his 26th to tie Rickenbacker, he was shot down and captured. The way was clear for one of the New Guinea pilots to break the record.
Whether Kearby “grounded” Lynch to intentionally hold down a rival we’ll never know, but it was an indication that this competition was not always bringing out the best in the American pilots. Holding one of the theater’s best pilots and superior leaders out of combat was harmful to the US war effort.
Fighter pilots tended to be extremely competitive, and Kearby began to take chances in the air in his obsession to be the man who beat Rickenbacker. Tommy McGuire, an ace pilot who was also rapidly rising the list of aces was another who seemed obsessed with ending as the pilot “on top.” Both had grown up idolizing Rickenbacker and other WWI pilots, and were consumed with the goal of being WWII’s “Ace of Aces.”
(Below: Neel Kearby in his P-47, showing 17 victories, in Feb. 1944.)
Bong and Lynch, on the other hand, seemed unconcerned with the race. In February the 5th Air Force decided to form a unit of elite ace pilots, nicknamed the “Flying Circus” after Baron von Richthofen’s famous WWI group. Kearby had come up with the idea, no doubt having himself in mind to lead it, but ironically, Bong and Lynch would be the first members. The two friends flying together would be reunited in as formidable a fighter team as the war would see.
Targets were not plentiful around New Guinea, so being allowed to freelance was a big advantage. In February, they each knocked down one enemy plane. As March began Bong and Lynch began to find more targets. Bong and Kearby were tied with 22 victories and Lynch had 17. On the 3rd, over Tadji, they both downed two.
Two days later, early in the day, Lynch downed another, giving him 20. When word of that reached Kearby he grabbed two other pilots and flew a spur of the moment patrol, desperate for a kill. Now trailing Bong by two and only two ahead of Lynch, a frustrated Kearby was determined to find targets.
Over Wewak he decided to sacrifice their 22,000 of altitude to attack low-level Japanese aircraft. A “boom and zoom” attack might have succeeded, but Kearby stayed at low level, swinging back to try to finish off a bomber he had damaged on the first pass. It was a fatal mistake. One could certainly make the case that “the race” caused his death. His mother would later tell Gen. Kenney that she believed it had. As passionate as Kearby may have been with “winning” that race, he was an excellent pilot and an inspirational leader. His loss was a blow to the men of the 5th Air Force.
On the 7th, Lynch was promoted to Lt. Colonel. The good-looking, amiable Irish-American was hugely popular among the pilots he flew with, as well as the ground crews, and everyone he’d worked with at the 5th’s HQ. There was a big party that night in his honor. For most of the attendees, it would be the last time they would see him.
The next day, Lynch and Bong launched the attack on a group of Japanese barges described at the beginning of this article. There was no glory in such an attack; it could not bring them closer to the recognition of being the man who beat Rickenbacker. This attack showed that both these men understood that helping save the lives of the allied soldiers fighting in the jungle below and ultimately winning the war was their goal.
As Bong look down on his friend’s plane, with the right-wing on fire, he knew it could not fly much longer. Lynch’s P-38 fell into dive with the canopy still on. Bong knew Lynch must be struggling with either his seat belt or the canopy. One can only imagine the terror Lynch felt as he struggled to get out of his doom fighter. Suddenly Bong saw the canopy fly off and Lynch fly out with his chute starting to deploy, but it was too late. He was barely more than a hundred feet off the ground. Bong saw his friend’s body crash into the jungle, knowing there was no chance he survived.
Bong’s damaged plane barely made it back to the airbase at Nadzab. He was devastated by the loss of Lynch in a way the ground crews had never seen from him before. Lynch was virtually the only close friend the introverted Bong had made among other pilots. News of his loss rapidly spread around the 5th Air Force. Coming so soon after the loss of Kearby, it was an enormous blow to their morale. Bong would later call it the hardest blow of the war for him.
(Below: Richard Bong with Tom Lynch's mother.)
Barely over a month later, Bong would score three victories on a patrol and be the first to pass Rickenbacker. He would end the war as the “Ace of Aces” with 40 victories. Later in 1944, while on leave in the US, he would honor his late friend by flying a P-38 on a special side trip into Pennsylvania to meet Tom Lynch’s mother. Bong survived combat, but he died as a test pilot of one of the new jet fighters on August 6, 1945. In a tragic irony, though it was caused by malfunction rather than combat damage, he died in nearly the same way as Lynch, having to bail out too low to survive. And he died on the same day the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
Lynch’s body was never found, and for years his family refused to believe he was gone. He technically remains “miss in action” to this day. A newspaper article about his death at the time noted that after his wife got the telegram about him bing MIA, she received two letters from him, which remained unopened. During his service, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross with oak leaf cluster, and a Purple Heart.
For a short time, Thomas Joseph Lynch was one of the most well-known war heroes in America; now that has all faded away and few know his name. He was the tip of the spear for his country in the airwar in the Pacific for a year and a half, and Richard Bong and other ace pilots he helped train continued to be that for nearly as long after he was killed. He’s a shining example of the kind of warriors the Irish in America have produced for over two centuries.
“Aces High: The Heroic Saga of the Two Top-Scoring American Aces of World War II” by Bill Yenne
“Race of Aces: WWII's Elite Airmen and the Epic Battle to Become the Master of the Sky,” by John R. Bruning
“Dick Bong: America's Ace of Aces,” by George C. Kenney