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Commemorative Air Force Headquarters

COL. Jim Morehead USAF (Ret.)

Dinner Speaker for January 24, 2002

Jim and his squadron mates fought in the very first battles of the Pacific, in Java, Darwin, ... , in the deadly, terrible time period from December 7th, 1941 to mid-1942, which Sir Winston Churchill called "The Hinge of Fate". On 25 April 1942 he personally led the first decisive USAAF victory over the Japanese forces--11 Japanese aircraft destroyed by 8 P-40s, for the loss of only 1 P-40. Jim personally destroyed 3 Japanese warplanes that mission, to become an ACE, receiving the 1st of 2 DSCs (Distinguished Service Cross) in short order!

Jim represents the best of "The Greatest Generation", starting from a destitute boyhood in the parched fields of Oklahoma to become a superior air warrior in WWII and Korea, then to a key role in Taiwan with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek training Nationalist Chinese fighter pilots.

Author of book: "IN MY SIGHTS, The Memoir of a P-40 Ace" available from Presidio Press.


In My Sights

"I wasn't much of a pilot. But I was a tough customer when it got to my sight."

James B. Morehead has a rugged quality about him that belies his upbringing on an Oklahoma farm during the Great Depression. He's a survivor, with grit and a willingness to learn the lessons necessary to stay alive and succeed. He's a man who learned as a child to hunt, and who continues to have a great passion for both hunting and fishing continue.

Morehead came to California to continue a college education he had started at Oklahoma University. His brother seek Walton was already in Hollywood, looking for acting work. While living with his brother, Jim signed up in the Army Air Corps Flying Cadet Program, and went through primary training flying "out of an alfalfa patch at Newhall," California. Basic training, in the BT-13 "Vultee Vibrator", came at Moffett Field. But when fog, clouds and rain all but shut down Moffett in the winter of 1940, training moved south to Bakersfield.

One of the cadets who had flown with Morehead in primary was a young man named Longmeyer. By virtue of the Army's alphabetical grouping of cadets, Morehead's bunk was next to Longmeyer's. The two young men spent a good amount of time together, mainly as Jim and another cadet tried to help Longmeyer become a better flyer.

Longmeyer was from a well-to-do Palo Alto family, and Jim and another cadet visualized when they transferred to continue training at Moffett Field, there might be a car available for the three of them to drive around in and impress girls.

"But, you know, when we got to Moffett," says Jim, "Longmeyer didn't know us. He showed up at the local bar with a couple of his high school buddies." Morehead says Longmeyer was assigned to the defense of the Philippine Islands. There, he was captured by the Japanese and died on the Bataan Death March.

After Moffett Filed, came advanced training, in AT-6s at Stockton. Upon graduation, Morehead was the only pilot of 120 cadets in his class to be assigned to fighter training at Hamilton Field. His commanding officer was Ira C. Eaker, who would later become one of the most influential proponents of the strategic daylight bombardment of Germany. And it was the beginning of Jim's harrowing experiences with the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk.

"At that time, the P-40 was the latest airplane we had. It was an economic advantage," says Morehead, referring to the mating of the Curtiss P-36 airframe to the Allison inline engine. That decision was made at the expense of earlier adoption of the North American P-51.

"When you think that we turned down the opportunity to buy an airplane that's 100 miles an hour faster than the one you're going in, you get serious about it." Jim says that for many pilots, the P-40 proved to be a liability to training.

"When you landed it, you couldn't use the rudder to control your landing. You had to put your foot off the rudder sleds onto the brakes and then control the movement. We had ground loops at Hamilton Field almost daily, so the maintenance rate of P-40s was severely affected, and our flying time was almost zero."

From April, 1941 until December 7th, there was very little productivity in flying advanced fighters at Hamilton Field, much less any aerial gunnery practice. "I never had one opportunity to fire at a moving target in a fighter plane until I saw a Zero."

While stationed at Hamilton Field, Jim also have the misfortune of having to bail out of a plane, following a midair collision. Though his injuries from that incident were only a few nicks and scratches, he was hospitalized. And he hadn't been released by the time his squadron left by ship for the Philippines.

The attack on Pearl Harbor got things moving once again. Sent to catch up with his 21st Fighter Squadron, Morehead boarded the ocean liner USS Polk, which set sail on December 21st. Via New Zealand, Morehead finally disembarked in Brisbane, Australia.

By this early date in America's war, the Japanese Army and Navy were an undefeated juggernaut, rolling up victory after victory on a southward campaign through Asia and the Pacific Ocean. Winston Churchill described those early, dark days of the war just after Pearl Harbor in the fourth volume of his WWII history, "The Hinge of Fate".

The British battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk by Japanese aircraft (with only eight IJN planes lost), the British Army was to lose 150,000 troops in Far East defeats, and the US Army was to suffer its greatest ever defeat and the loss of 40,000 American troops and another 100,000 Filipino soldiers in the Philippines.

In Brisbane, Morehead says, "We were put up in the horse sheds of the Ascot race track. The P-40s were taken over the Amberly Field, and we joined the maintenance folks and armorers in assembling these fifty-five P-40s which were in boxes..."

Flying training started again, but accidents caused fatalities and injuries which thinned the ranks of pilots and aircraft. Morehead notes, "Twice as many aircraft in World War Two were lost due to an accidents, as (were lost) in combat."

By February, 1942 Jim and his squadron mates had been ordered north to the Philippines. Because the P-40 had a relatively short range, that trip, by what had become the 17th Provisional Pursuit Squadron, was an island hop through the Dutch East Indies. Twenty P-40s had arrived in Java, and they operated there into the month of March.

Morehead's first taste of war came when he took off in a flight of four P-40s to intercept 36 Japanese bombers. Jim says there were probably as many Zeros in escort, flown by the Japanese Navy's top flyers, as there were bombers. "The airplane I had... was a real dog. It couldn't keep up with the flight and the other three were gradually rolling away from me. And what a good leader would have done was to circle, so I could cut across the circle to catch up with them. But I didn't much blame him. he was trying like crazy to get a little altitude, at least equal to the height of the enemy."

Morehead ended up by himself, about a half mile behind his three wingmen. "I was so green at this job - - it was one of my first incidents in combat - - that when pulled in to fire at the enemy planes, my tracers went about two hundred yards behind the airplane." Morehead described the fine art of aerial gunnery - - shooting bullets to intercept a moving enemy airplane - -

"Aerial gunnery is a matter of interception. You cannot look at the target, shoot at the target and ever hit the target. A bird, say a pheasant, flying at fifty miles an hour, travels about eight feet in about a tenth of a second. It takes a tenth of a second for the signal to go from your brain down your arm to your finger, which is on the trigger. You pull the trigger and the hammer goes forward and strikes the primer. The primer ignites and fires the powder, which forces the shot or the bullet down the barrel of the gun. This is seemingly instantaneous, but not quite. So, you're going to hit eight feet behind that pheasant if you point right at him. You've got to aim out in front of him, so they (bullet and bird) intercept."

With an aircraft, going at 300-400 miles an hour, Morehead continued, instead of eight feet of lead requirement, you need about eighty or ninety feet.

Morehead believes the gun handling and hunting abilities of America's youth were keys to turning the war around on the militarily experienced nations of Germany and Japan. In addition to experience shooting at moving targets, young hunters were exposed to and learned to overcome "buck fever" - - the burst of adrenaline which causes a "greenhorn" hunter to freeze on the trigger. Or, in the case of a pilot, to freeze on the stick when the pilot has sole responsibility to fly his aircraft.

Jim points to Joe Foss and Audie Murphy (both holders of the Congressional Medal of Honor) as two examples of young hunters whose ability to handle firearms served them exceptionally well in combat.

Though there were some hunters (notably, a few of Germany's elite fighter pilots), neither Germany nor Japan had the number of youth with access to firearms or hunting experience as in the United States. Countless American boys learned at least the basics of marksmanship with BB guns. Morehead carried a .22 cal rifle behind the seat of his P-40. "It doesn't take long to learn your lessons and learn 'em good, in experiences like that. The next enemy aircraft I shot at, that sucker was down. I knew the principle. I was able to conquer the adrenaline, as I say "buck fever".

Jim says he also furthered his experience in getting the most out of the P-40 in these early combat experiences. "The P-40 could out dive the Japanese Zero. So if you had the height to do it, you could dive and get away. Otherwise, you're a little white star on a Japanese airplane."

"The last mission I had on the island of Java, I was intently interested in firing on the enemy and seeing him leap in the air and clutch at his throat, after what had happened at Pearl Harbor. That's not a very good testimony... for mankind. But that's the way I felt, and I was an eager soldier. And, this last mission on Java, every single ship (of the 17th FS) was either shot up or shot down."

Morehead was assigned to fly to meet the carrier Langley , carrying thirty-three P-40s and thirty-three new pilots to reinforce the US effort in the Pacific, Java. When he got to the port at Jogjakarta, Java, he discovered the Langley had been sunk, with those airplanes and all the pilots but two lost, among them a good friend of Jim's.

Morehead escaped Java as a passenger in a B-17, along with a few other Army pilots who represented the only pilots with combat experience. Arriving back in Australia, they were folded into the new 49th Fighter Group. Flying from Darwin the 49th was instrumental in turning back Japan's planned invasion of that continent. Then, the unit became the spearhead of aerial operations that began systematically reclaiming New Guinea and other islands the Japanese Navy had captured.

By the end of 1942, Morehead had been brought back to the United States to command a replacement training squadron in P-38s. He was then told there was a combat squadron for him to command, a squadron of P-39s. "I said, 'Got anything in P-38s?"

Jim took an assignment as an operations officer for the 1st Fighter Group, and served a tour in Italy flying P-38s, in which he shot down a Me-109, on June 6, 1944. On the way to the Ploesti oil fields, Jim was leading a squadron of 16 P-38s. "Up ahead I spotted these two enemy aircraft. So I simply advanced the throttle ... and outdistanced my 15 wingmates, caught up with the two Germans and shot one of them down."

"Now the irony of this fact was that, I'd been home for years, when some guy who wants to write a book calls... and asks me how many victories did I have. I said eight. Then two or three weeks later, he calls back and says... 'you claimed you had eight victories and you only have seven. I checked with the Air Force victories records department... Was I embarrassed! But I said, 'how can this be?'

Jim said after some correspondence back and forth with the records department, he discovered that on its movement from Bari to Naples, the Headquarters of the Fifteenth Air Force had lost six days of records, including those from June 6, 1944. "That's kind of easy to understand when you read about a mailman in Chicago dumping a whole bunch of mailbags in the river," Morehead chuckled.

When the Korean War broke out, Jim was pegged as an F-86 interceptor pilot. But the pipeline from America was effectively plugged when pilots already with jet fighter airtime were asked to stay for further tours of duty. Jim transitioned instead to fly fighter-bombers and ended up going to train the Taiwanese Air Force, to help Chiang Kai-Shek's pilots fly jets.

"I had hoped to bag an enemy plane in each theater - - the Southwest Pacific, the Mediterranean... If I had bagged a plane in Korea, I would have been one of the only pilots who bagged a plane in each theater he flew in."

Jim Morehead was awarded two Distinguished Service Crosses for his selfless role in helping stem Japanese advances in the Southwest Pacific. He was also one of the very early inductees to the Commemorative Air Force's Combat Airmen Hall of Fame. Today, Jim remains an avid hunter and sports fisherman.

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