Golden Gate Wing Guest Speaker Archive

Presentation Date: June 26, 2008

Capt. Bill Behrns Army Air Force (Ret.)

Speaker Photo

P-38 pilot Capt. Bill Behrns.

Bill Behrns was born 1920 in French Camp on dairy farm
Schooled in Stockton, attended Univ. of Pacific and UC Davis
Worked briefly for Standard oil and the Benicia Arsenal
Enter the Army Air Corps - graduated class 43F
Combat and Gunnery Training at Muroc
Assigned to the 459th Fighter Squadron formed in Olympia, WA
Deployed with P-38s to the China-Burma-India theater
Shot down once - the squadron lost 28 of its initial 32 pilots
Awarded 3 DFCs, 3 air medals,, etc. Credited with 4+ victories Born 1920 in French Camp on dairy farm
Schooled in Stockton, attended Univ. of Pacific and UC Davis
Worked briefly for Standard oil and the Benicia Arsenal
Enter the Army Air Corps - graduated class 43F
Combat and Gunnery Training at Muroc
Assigned to the 459th Fighter Squadron formed in Olympia, WA
Deployed with P-38s to the China-Burma-India theater
Shot down once - the squadron lost 28 of its initial 32 pilots
Awarded 3 DFCs, 3 air medals,, etc. Credited with 4+ victories

Surviving with the ‘Expendable Squadron’

Capt. Bill Behrns, USAAF

P-38 pilot, 459th FS, 10th AF, China/Burma/India Theater

Bill Behrns was one of 32 USAAF pilots sent to Burma to keep the Japanese from invading India. Some of his 459th Fighter Squadron’s original P-38s were –E models, sent to Chittagong, India after heavy use in North Africa.

Of the 32 pilots sent to fly with the 459th, four returned home at war’s end. Two of the men who had been shot down on missions came back to their base, having survived the Burmese jungle, and Bill was one of those two. Six times Bill returned to base with a P-38 with an inoperable engine from enemy gunfire.

"I was born and raised on a ranch in French Camp out of Stockton. I thought I was always going to follow in my family’s footsteps and continue with the ranch."

After attending the College of the Pacific for a couple of years, he transferred to U.C. Davis. Bill’s introduction to flying came when he was home from school early in May of 1940 to work on the farms. One Sunday, a friend invited Bill to an airshow in Modesto.

"I was sitting in the stands and they introduced two of the participants. One of them was a fellow named Roscoe Turner and the other one was a fellow by the name of Tex Rankin. I didn’t know them any more than I did what we called the"tramps walking up and down the railroad tracks behind the ranch."

Behrns says he was mesmerized watching the two pilots, aerobatic performer and racer, put their aircraft through their paces. He first recalled Rankin performing in his Waco:

"Taking off from the field, doing an abrupt turn and flying inverted, his head was possibly three feet off of the ground, the full length of the runway. They had a little stand there with an arm sticking out and a handkerchief on it. And at that low altitude— and it’s very difficult to maintain altitude in an inverted position like that— he was able to dip a wing and pick up that handkerchief with his wingtip.

"Roscoe Turner was very flamboyant in a white racing plane, white leather jacket, white helmet and a silk scarf flying out the back. They did things with airplanes that probably nobody should try doing even today."

Behrns said, right then and there, he was going to fly… join the Air Corps and become a pilot.

"True to my word, the next morning I went in and signed up for the Air Corps. You have to take a physical, and at that time I was just shy of 5 feet, 10 inches. And I was just shy of 110 pounds and they refused me. They said I was too skinny."

Behrns went to work for Standard Oil for a short while, then took a civil service exam which got him placed in charge of a huge munitions warehouse at the Benecia Arsenal. He says the pay of 240 dollars a month was pretty good for those days.

War, and Learning to Fly

A notice to report for the draft, which came after December 7th, 1941 offered Behrns his next step towards becoming a pilot. He says the arsenal’s commanding officer told him not to worry about the draft because he was already working in an essential position. But Bill relented, and soon found himself drafted and in training camp in San Diego, then to Kern County Airport in Bakersfield, although he wasn’t yet an aviation cadet.

Behrns says when he saw four "flying sergeants" landing P-38s at the airfield, he set his sights on flying that aircraft. He soon had taken the Air Force exam, without telling his commanding officer, who soon found out and called Behrns to his office.

"He chewed me out. Apparently I had acted—which I knew—without orders or authority and embarrassed him. When he finished chewing me out he stood up and said, ‘Behrns, very few people ever take the Air Force exam cold turkey and pass it. But you did. You are now assigned to the Army Air Corps cadet program.’ And he handed me my orders."

Santa Ana and the Hancock School of Aeronautics was Behrns’ next stop, followed by Merced County Airport (Castle AFB). He kept insisting on flying P-38s and ultimately, was sent to Muroc, California as a member of the Class of 43F.

Before he could complete his training there, he was sent to Olympia, Washington as a member of a special squadron flying ‘red alerts’. It was formed after a Japanese submarine lobbed a shell onto the Oregon coast, the shell containing leaflets announcing an impending invasion, which never came.

Expendable Squadron

Instead, after six months of patrol duty, Behrns and 31 other pilots were assembled into the 459th Fighter Squadron and sent to Chittagong, India.

By this time in the war, the Japanese had conquered most of China, French Indochina, Burma and Siam, and were poised on the Bay of Bengal to invade India. Military engineers had hastily built an airbase to handle U-S fighter planes. The mission was to reduce Japanese airpower to a point where it posed no threat to India.

"They put us on the shore, 90 miles from their closest base, so we had to watch over our shoulders for a few days there. We kept attacking them down there until… they didn’t really desert the field, but it was rare to catch anybody on there."

Behrns says his squadron had 25 P-38s holding that thin line, and frequently they were significantly outnumbered.

"Every place we attacked we got jumped by double and sometimes by triple that number. It’s kind of rough when eight of you take off and you fly 200-250 miles or so and get over some Japanese airfield and they put up 20 to 25 airplanes against you.

"It would be real nice to say, ‘there’s too many of them, let’s turn around and go back home.’ Our orders said we had to take them on. So that’s what we did and that’s why we lost the number of men we did lose."

Flying with Terry & the Pirates

Captain Flip Corkin was the hero of the fictional Terry and the Pirates cartoon strip. Yet many of his exploits were based on those of the actual Col. Philip Cochran, commanding officer of the 5318th Air Unit (later re-designated 1st Air Commando Group). The unit was equipped with a P-51C squadron, B-25s bombers, C-47 transports and gliders, in support of the British Chindits, an allied Special Force led by General Orde Wingate. The Chindits and the 1st Air Commandos combined on deep penetration raids to eventually rout the Japanese from Siam and Burma.

Bill Behrns recalls a week’s worth of operations from Cochran’s airstrip near a mountain range. The Japanese Air Force had been flying daily low-level strikes through a mountain pass and attacking Cochran’s P-51s. So, Behrns and three other pilots volunteered to fly "red-alert missions" to protect the P-51s.

"The Japanese had good warning systems, and they would get just a few miles in. They knew we were there, and they turned and flew back out of there. The day we left, the Japanese hit the field again."

Behrns and his fellow pilots flew their crew chiefs in with them.

"Unfortunately, my crew chief was six feet-two and about 150 pounds. You sit on your parachute, unless you have somebody with you and then you have to sit on half of it, with half your tail-end on the window. And you have to lace his legs through yours to get to the rudder pedals.

"Every half an hour at the field, our crew chiefs cranked our engines, kept them ready to go. Each of us got a jeep, and when we got our alert we all went to our planes and jumped in. My crew chief had my plane all set, and was holding my harness and I could just step in. He could have one engine fired up by the time I got up on it."

Within seconds, Behrns says, he would be ready to pour the coal to his Lightning, and be off the ground within 600 feet.

"The thing it does after it takes off up is you can stand it on its props and it just goes right on up."

Cochran’s P-51 pilots teased the P-38 pilots, asking them what they were going to do with their big twin-engined "sleds".

"But the first time we took off on a red alert we were sitting at 23,000 feet and they were at 16… because we could just go right up with it."

Back on the ground, the Lightning pilots got in their own good-natured digs.

When the 459th FS contingent left after its week of special duty, Behrns says they planned to form up in tight echelon for a buzz job. It was a fine plan, except for two huge pine trees on either side of the runway.

Behrns says each P-38 was carrying the pilot and crew chief as they dived down to the airstrip from 10,000 feet, with Behrns the "tail-end Charlie" in the formation. As they dived, the leader apparently thought the pine trees were narrower than the formation and he edged in, which caused a ripple effect among the other three P-38s. Behrns made his own adjustments to keep distance from the P-38 next to him.

"Your hands are on the throttle and your eyes right on his wing and your wing, and you sit there and just control it, and set it right there, within inches. Now I’m released and I look up and, wow, there’s that pine tree!

"All I could do was horse back on it. The spinner on my port engine hit it and popped the Dzus fasteners loose on the hood. They were flapping, broken. It smashed the prop back in and did a pretty good job on my plane. It sounded like a shotgun, it was such a crashing noise. And the whole top part of that tree just went back over the wing."

To this day, Behrns doesn’t know why the collision didn’t bring the P-38 down.

But, it was still flying. The two men in the fighter’s cockpit, both white as a sheet, shared a parachute for the two-hour flight over solid jungle back to Chittagong.

When the Lightning was repaired, Behrns told his crew chief to hop in for a test ride. The crew chief responded, "No sir. You don’t ever get me in another P-38!"

Attack on Meiktila

Meiktila was a major Japanese Army stronghold in central Burma, and home to an enemy airbase. The 459th FS targeted that base for a raid by 20 aircraft on June 6, 1944. Behrns says 18 P-38s were assembled for the raid, but a couple of them had to turn back.

"The Japanese knew we were coming. They took off and it was just like a beehive. If we had 18 airplanes they had 30. And it was just like a beehive, in a very small area. They were good pilots, and the Zero was a good aerobatic plane. They were doing loops and rolls and everything.

"We came in at 400 miles an hour out of that drop, went right under them and they couldn’t catch us. The orders were to strafe, knock out everything at the airport, so they couldn’t use that facility. Take it away from them so they would have to go somewhere else."

Behrns said after the first strafing pass, the Lightnings pulled up. Behrns was flying the wing of his friend Burdett Goodrich, and in the strafing pass the two were separated. Not only had the P-38s expended most of their ammunition, but they also had come out on the China side of the airfield, and would have to pass back near the beehive to return to Chittagong. Fortunately, Behrns and Goodrich reformed for the pass back through.

"Now I’m in the lead and Goodrich is following me along. And this one Japanese… (an Oscar) looked like a pretty good shot. I just peeled off and had to lead him a way, because he was in a tight turn. At that time I was flying a P-38J, and we didn’t have aileron boost in that.

"I had to lead him and fire, and he flew right into my fire. It just blew his cockpit out, and him."

Behrns says as they headed home Goodrich came on his radio to verify he’d seen the victory. Behrns was pleased with the day’s events, but says he didn’t pay much attention to his wingman, and lost track of Goodrich.

Nobody in the squadron saw Goodrich get shot down, nor did they know he had bailed out, been captured and taken to a prisoner camp where he died. A Burmese farmer had shot the downed pilot in the neck and then handed him over to the Japanese for a reward.

The Road to Mandalay

Behrns faced his greatest personal risk on another of the 459th’s dive-bombing and strafing missions.

When an F-5 photo reconnaissance plane spotted a Japanese installation southeast of Mandalay with an estimated 25,000 troops and equipment, the 459th was sent to work it over. Behrns led eight P-38s, each loaded with two 1,000-pound bombs on the mission.

"We went over at about 14,000 feet. All through that country, there were no anti-aircraft guns, no weaponry, except at anything that needed guarding. And then they concentrated everything there.

"I didn’t want to excite them, so what I tried to do was to fly like we were going to miss them. I knew they’d probably be tracking us but they wouldn’t cut loose because it looked like we were going to keep on going.

"Just as their area disappeared under my left wing… I rolled over and went straight down. I was looking right down the barrel of an antiaircraft gun and all of a sudden it hit me. Everything went. My engines, both of them… all the electrical, just went completely out. All I was, was dead weight, going straight down."

Behrns’ squadron mates who followed him, estimated he had to be flying at an airspeed of 550-575mph, as he passed through more flak bursts towards the ground. When he dared not dive any further, he reached down, jerked the manual jettison lever and released the bombs.

"And then you have to get away from the bombs because they’ll follow your plane down and you don’t want their fuses to go off while you’re still close. I had to get down close to the trees and go on out. They (the Japanese) followed me but they couldn’t get their antiaircraft gun down far enough to lead me."

While none of the other seven planes were hit in their dives, Behrns’ Lightning was dead, yet hurtling at high airspeed over the jungle. Preparing to bail out, Behrns jettisoned his canopy, but stayed in the cockpit.

"I thought, ‘Okay, you don’t want to bail out with very much altitude, because the Japanese had a habit of shooting you in the chute while you’re coming down.’

Behrns figured 300 feet might be the right altitude to get out of his P-38, after it slowed down. He could roll the plane over and drop out. He says he was already to pull up and drop out when he saw a grey streak ahead.

"I knew that was the Burma Road. This was just south of Mandalay, and the Burma Road was kind of a grey dirt. All during the monsoon season these ox-carts, 12-15 feet long and maybe five feet high are loaded with sacks of rice. All winter long, with the heavy weight on the carts, those wheels dig way down, making trenches over a foot deep in that stuff.

"When it gets around to the good weather, this dries up and they’re still rolling on the same roads, they chew that all up and it’s just powder. When I saw that I thought, ’That’s a soft landing for bellying in with the P-38’."

Behrns says he got the Lightning down to the road and bellied it in. When it hit, the P-38’s tail section ripped loose and one engine tore off, giving him the realization that under the dust there were still deep ruts. But he left the airplane without a scratch.

His squadron mates flew a low-level circle overhead, strafing the area around the pilot to dissuade anyone from bothering Behrns as got into the jungle.

"A P-38 has four .50 caliber machine guns and a 20mm cannon, all in the nose and firing at the same time. And then I understood why anybody on the ground, when we started firing, they started running. That was noise, and when you multiply it by seven, it was noisy going around that circle!"

"I never saw anybody. I think they probably figured my plane was destroyed and they figured I didn’t get out of it."

Behrns spent the night in the dense jungle, never lying down but instead standing by a tree. His biggest concern was snakes, from pythons to smaller, poisonous varieties. But there were also tigers and water buffaloes.

From his survival kit, the next morning, Behrns produced a mirror, and used it to signal to four P-38s and an AT-24 (USAAF version of the Navy SBD dive bomber) which arrived overhead. The P-38s circled and strafed the area again, while the AT-24 floated down with its big dive brakes to land on the road.

Thus, Behrns made it safely back to base at Chittagong.

He says that when he landed and stepped out of the attack bomber, the flight surgeon checked him over and then told him, "There’s a flight taking off right over there and that end P-38 is yours. You’re on it."

To which Behrns replied, "I’m just coming home from yesterday’s mission."

And the flight surgeon said, "Yeah, you’re going on today’s."

Behrns says that, psychologically, it was probably best that he immediately flew, and the mission was relatively easy.

Captain Bill Behrns was awarded 3 Distinguished Flying Crosses, and 3 Air Medals for his service in the China/Burma/India Theater during World War II. He was also credited with more than four aerial victories. He does not have official confirmation for shooting down that Ki-43 "Oscar" on June 6, 1944, but has received information from a Japanese source that the pilot of that plane was a Japanese Army Air Force ace with 27 confirmed aerial victories.

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The P-38

Lockheed’s P-38 Lightning was a big airplane. Cecil Kramer, Behrn’s friend and P-38 historian, notes: the Lightning had a 52 foot wingspan, weighed 15,000 pounds empty of fuel or ammunition, and could takeoff and climb to 15,000 feet in less five minutes, compared with the P-51’s rate of climb, about 6 ½ minutes.

The P-38’s range was 2600 miles in 1941, enabling it to fly with bombers across the Atlantic to England, then on to North Africa. In 1944, P-38s were flying missions of 2,700 miles. By the end of the war, with the help of drop tanks, -J and –L models could fly 3,300 miles or be in the air for 12 hours.

Kramer notes that the P-38J with its two 1,400 horsepower Allison engines could carry an extraordinary payload of ordnance - -

* A 5,000 lb bomb load

* Up to16 rockets of different types

* Two full-sized torpedoes

* Depth charges

Lightnings carried a variety of gun armament. Most often the plane was equipped with a single 20mm cannon and four .50 cal machine guns in the nose. Some modifications replaced the 20mm with a 37mm cannon. Others included the installation of as many as twelve .50 cal machine guns; or .60 cal guns, with barrels that extended five feet beyond the plane’s nose.

Kramer says that Lightnings equipped with Norton bombsights in noses covered in Plexiglas, could drop bombs from 40,000 feet. "They were bombing Berlin for several months before the Germans realized where the bombs were coming from---a P-38. The Germans didn’t have a plane that could fly high enough to shoot it down, because the P-38 had a 50,000 foot ceiling on it.’