2nd Lieutenant John H. Mangas

by Gary Smith

Of course, there's a story behind the picture but it was a long time in developing, with the help of a lot of people. Among them was Mary Morgan Martin who was born after her father 39FS Captain George Morgan perished in 1945 from injuries sustained while bailing out of his wounded P-38 over Okinawa during his second tour. Mary had been on a search for anything and everything related to his service ever since and has become one of the most gifted researchers associated with the 39th Squadron Association. The late Roy Seher, an officer of the Association asked Mary to help me with research concerning my uncle, 2nd Lt John H Mangas, MIA over Lae near the end of Mission #3 on January 8, 1943. Here is some of what she (and others) found.

It was a 5th AAF max effort / and bomber escort job by the 39th to protect B-17s and B-24s bombing the 10-ship Lae Convoy after it unloaded 4,000 troops and left Lae Harbor to return to Rabaul. Johnny flew flight leader 1st Lt Hoyt Eason's wing after 2nd Lt Andrew Kish dropped out with engine problems. This left seven P-38s for air combat and it was one hell of a dogfight. The combat fighter reports reveal that there were between 15 and 20 Jap Oscars protecting the convoy and Lae air drome, so the boys were outnumbered two to three to one. But the P-38s shot down seven, for certain, and four probables/possibles. Second Lt Dick Bong made ace (5 kills) on that flight while flying Uncle Johnny's favorite P-38, #27 (the one John flew when he scored his two "official" victories, one each on 12/17/42 and 01/06/43). On this mission, Eason scored his sixth and final victory (plus two probables), 2nd Lt Ken Sparks scored his seventh victory, as his sixth was already scored in the early morning mission that day in Capt. Bob Faurot's flight, and he had made "ace" the day before. Second Lt. James Walters scored one, 1st Lt and deputy flight leader Dick Suehr scored two, and 2nd Lt Tommy Thompson scored one.

After a 45-minute flight, the squadron was late in joining up with the B-17s who were already under attack. The Jap fighters were effective at breaking up the bombing runs, helped by just horrible weather, such that there were no bomb hits on the departing Jap ships. The P-38s attacked head-on, but in pincer fashion with Eason's 3-plane flight attacking from the right and with Suehr's 4-plane flight attacking from the left. Eason opened up early and sustained his machine-gunning for a longer time than usual. This would factor into the fight later on. His firing from great distance, all the way to close-in on his target and blew up the Jap fighter. He and Johnny and Tommy Thompson ended their dive down on the deck just south of the Lae airdrome to continue the attack. It is possible this flight did some strafing of the Lae airdrome. Thompson told his son years later that his only aerial victory of the war was scored with him a way back in rear-cover, behind his flight leader (Eason) and Eason's wingman (John Mangas). The story goes that while over the Jap-held Lae air field, a Jap fighter rose up right in front of him turning to attack his flight leader and wingman when Thompson opened fire into a full underside silhouette and shot him down in flames, thus saving Eason and Mangas. Suehr also noted that Bong shot a Jap Oscar off his nose, probably on the initial attack. The battle soon separated into a real hairball with screaming fighters attacking from all altitudes.


In the melee, Johnny, the wingman, became separated from Eason, and would soon join up with Suehr, who had begun the return bomber escort back to Moresby. At this point, Johnny either saw or heard something, and pulled off Suehr's wing to return into harm's way. The combat diary of the 39FS says that Eason called for his formation to come together at 1830 and return to base, and that Johnny was seen (1820) to continue making diving passes at an enemy plane. He disappeared into a cloud and was never seen again. There was no Missing Air Crew Report (MACR) containing details of this event because that form was not yet in use in the SWPA (Southwest Pacific Area). A Form 'A', located in 2006 in Johnny's IDPF, had a few statements that said Eason stayed behind by himself for 15 minutes (until 1845) searching for Johnny, but finding no signs assumed he was shot down, and so Eason returned to base. The air action where the fight took place was over territory held by the enemy in January 1943.


The 39FS combat diary notes the last plane to return to Moresby arrived at 1945, which was well past dusk and entering into twilight. It would be the latest mission of the war for the 39FS (other than a brief period of night-fighting by Captain Bob Faurot). Tommy Thompson's son, Frank Thompson, recalled that his father told him that he was the last and final P-38 to return from that mission and had he been just five minutes later, he most certainly would have failed to locate the field in the dark and would have crashed his P-38 in the jungle. When he landed they rushed over to him, including a general Officer (maybe Kenney, or Wurtsmith). Thompson asked "which one was he," and they said "you are number 6." And they asked, "are there any others behind you?" and Thompson said, "No. He was the last one." This meant that 22 year-old P-38 pilot 2nd Lt. Johnny Mangas was missing; the very first combat loss of the 39FS [and first P-38 loss of the 5th AAF in the SWPA]. It would not be until after January 15th that the 35th Fighter Group would even post this event to its diary.  It said "Mangas missing after third mission on January 8, 1943." It was like they never knew.


It was based on this that friend Lee Cundiff was so moved by the story of Johnny Mangas, that he and his buddies flew their old WW2 Stearman bi-plane trainers in a Missing Man Formation over the Beaverton, OR 2006 Memorial Day celebration to recognize and honor Lt John Mangas and the 39th Fighter Squadron.


Soon thereafter, I was very interested in learning if any pilot may have retained a logbook with information concerning landmarks Johnny was last seen over. This lead to research about 39FS pilot Hoyt Eason, and I soon learned he was one of the lost heroes of the Battle of the Bismark Sea. I searched for his extended family. John Stanaway's book "The History of the 39th Fighter Squadron" noted Eason was orphaned as a child and had no living family members. Thankfully, this turned out to be incorrect. A little Internet searching and phone calls found the wife of his oldest brother, and it wasn't long before I received a call from Alice Widgeon from Alabama, one of Hoyt Eason's nieces, along with her sister Hope Eason. This was an amazing find, and began a wonderful connection and friendship that continues to this day, even enjoying meeting each other at the 2006 39th Fighter Squadron Association reunion in Dayton, Ohio at Wright-Patterson AFB. The family did not have the log book of their lost uncle, although they did have other flight records which helped to isolate the duration of Mission #3 on January 8, 1943.

In 2006 and 2007, we tried to follow up with 39th ace pilot Dick Suehr, who it turned out couldn't recall any details of this matter, as he was getting along in age. We thought it strange that he could not recall anything about the one and only mission in which he claimed "two" Jap fighters in combat. Although, he did later note in a three-pilot conference call that Mangas may have been last seen from 15 to 25 miles from Lae to Salamaua - inland. With this information in hand, we stopped thinking Johnny went down "over water."

Around this time, fellow 39er and soon-to-be historian, Bill Adair, Jr., informed us that he recalled a video interviewing Dick Suehr in 1998 at a squadron reunion. He said he thought Suehr made some comments about my uncle in the video. Of course, we immediately obtained the videotape of the interview from him. In it, Suehr related his story, which was quite amazing and harrowing. But something strange occurred. Several times in the video - and fully unprompted - he brought up a story about the "only wingman he ever lost." He said he "lost this kid during one of the Bismark Sea battles... up there around Lae and Salamaua. Before the flight, this kid told his crew chief, 'If I don't get two today, I won't be coming back.' Suehr says, "Well, I already had him with "one," and this kid pulls off my wing and goes back. I  couldn't do anything about it. My mission was to escort the bombers, escort them back to Moresby, and that is what I did." He said, "We never did see him again." Because he kept bringing it up, it seemed as if Suehr was haunted by this matter, which he may never have disclosed to anyone previously (i.e. we think this because this information was not part of any official records or reports on this matter).


The Mangas family lore about their boy, Johnny, heard 63 years later, is a bit different. They claimed they were contacted in a letter by a pilot friend of Johnny's who had a friend that was a crewman aboard a B-17 that said Johnny came back to save their distressed bomber under attack by Jap fighters, and they saw him shoot down several Jap planes, before he was shot down. The letter is missing. The family never again heard from the military and assumed all of Johnny's pilot buddies died in the war (in fact, they did). The Mangas family and friends were always bothered that John never received any recognition from the military for his bravery and sacrifice.

Inspired by all of this history and the moving story about our uncle, and the fact that he was never recognized by the military for his bravery and sacrifice, we collected all the detailed information available about this event and wrote up a Recommendation for Award of the Medal of Honor for Lt John Mangas. We asked LTC-Ret Dick Suehr to sign it, which he did. Family immediately submitted it to JPAC at the 2007 family meeting in Phoenix, AZ. It was channeled to the Military Awards Branch. After six months, we received an e-mail reply denying the request based on a lack of several eyewitnesses. Suehr's eyewitness comments about Johnny "going back (into harm's way)" were not enough.


Several years ago, I attended the 2009 39th Fighter Squadron Association reunion at Randolph Field, Austin, TX. Sitting on the table in the hospitality room were many items of family memorabilia concerning Capt Bob Faurot - KIA and hero of the Battle of the Bismark Sea. Bill Adair, Jr. had brought these items to the reunion for others to view and enjoy in honor of one of the most legendary pilots of the 39th Fighter Squadron. Of course, that was the information provided by Bob's sister and Chockie's mother, Vera Faurot Burk. Sitting on the table was a computer printout report showing Bob's victory on January 8, 1943 (the morning mission, which Johnny also flew). Adjacent to the line of Bob's victory was some coding referencing the source document. I knew the printout report was from the work that IBM researcher Frank Olynyk had done in the 1970s on aerial victory credits of the AAF. It was unbelievable that I soon located Frank on an ArmyAirForces.com website.  From my bulletin board posting on the website, he replied to me and provided the detail on where he found the Combat Fighter Reports (CFRs) documenting his groundbreaking research into the aerial victory claims. He directed me to the national archives and explained that the coding on the printout was the microfilm reel number and sequence number of the CFR report. Eureka!! Knowing this information we could contact the national archives and obtain the combat fighter reports of the 39FS and find out what comments the other pilots reported about the mission that our Uncle Johnny was lost.

We did obtain a DVD of the CFRs and they were truly amazing. Unfortunately, there were no comments about Uncle Johnny that were posted in the CFRs by the other 39thFS pilots from Mission #3 on January 8, 1943, with one exception. On the January 10, 1943 date-stamped carbon copy of Lt Hoyt Eason's typewritten January 8, 1943 report we found that Eason went back two days later to the carbon copy of the report and added some additional hand-written comments in pen and ink. He posted two details: "One P-38 missing," and "Made three attacks without ammo defending a B-17 under attack, each time driving off 3-5 fighters until they ganged me and drove me off."

There we had it! All the pieces fell into place. Our theory is that near the end of the dogfight Johnny became separated from Eason's wing, at some point shot down a Jap fighter (his third victory never awarded to him because he did not return from the mission), he joined up with Suehr, who was beginning the return escort of bombers back to Moresby. He and Suehr probably heard Eason screamming into his radio that he was alone in defending a B-17 under attack and without ammo and desperately calling for help from his flight or formation to come to his assistance. Hearing this, Johnny pulled off Suehr's wing and went back into harm's way to help save the bomber AND his flight leader. A lone eagle. And he was never seen or heard from again. Eason's report noted there were six Jap fighters still in the vicinity when he departed Lae to return to Port Moresby after searching for Johnny for 15 minutes.

We badgered all members of the Mangas family again and again to search for the "missing" letter. Apparently, no one had it, and it was totally lost.

Roy Seher's diary had one comment on this day, and we copied it during a visit to see Roy just a few months before he died in 2011. Roy was the crewchief for 2nd Lt James Walters, who also flew Mission #3 on January 8, 1943. Roy had posted the following in his diary for January 8, 1943, "Mangas was lost while strafing, no one saw him."

When Uncle George Mangas, Johnny's younger brother, moved from his home near Phoenix for Palm Springs, he discovered his mother's jewelry box in an old box in the garage. Along with the final letters John wrote to his parents, was a November 30, 1943 letter from Lt. Ken Sparks, Johnny's tent-mate and buddy from Mission #3 on January 6, 1943. 

Back in November 2005, a business associate and friend had informed me he was taking a trip to Australia. For some reason that triggered a light bulb going on for me. I recalled that Australia was where my lost uncle had been sent during the War. And I knew that my mother had saved some old letters in an old wooden box from back during the War. The old wooden box had been in my garage, stored away for many years after we cleared out dad's things from the family home when he died in 1996. It was like the old wooden box was calling me. I knew I had to go to it. Dad had always said, "Oh, you don't want to get into all that. Just leave it alone." Well, it was time to open the old wooden box. And in it I found the love letters that my mother had written to my father during the War, that he had saved. Also in the box was a letter from Uncle Johnny written to my mother including the envelope postmarked from the 39th Fighter Squadron. I never knew anything about Uncle Johnny other than he was a pilot and a hero, lost in the South Pacific during the War, and he received the Silver Star. It didn't take long before a little Internet searching located the 39FS website and there it was... a little story about Tommy Lynch and how he lead the first big air battle of the war with P-38s on December 27, 1942 over Dobodura-Buna, and there was Uncle Johnny's name listed as one of the four pilots, along with Lynch, Bong and Sparks - four pilots that were at the point of attack against 35 enemy, shooting down seven in only minutes, with Johnny credited with one (although the Oregonian and Oregon Journal reported it was "two"). On the 39FS website, it was the first time I had ever seen my uncle's name in print.

A little more researching on the 39FS located a website named Aerothentic.com. The website described numerous books for sale written by an author that had grown up in New Guinea and was quite knowledgeable about the history of the 5th AAF. On the webpage was an e-mail address. I typed out a brief message and moved on. Several weeks later, in December 2005, I received a reply from a gentleman who was in England on a business trip who had some information about my uncle, and he would get back to me in a few weeks. And, boy! did he ever! Michael Claringbould, from Australia, contacted me by e-mail later that month and he had all the scoop and details about my pilot uncle and his loss over Lae in January 1943 and even the serial number of the P-38 that Uncle Johnny was flying on his final mission.

Needless to say, we became friends, and connected just a few times over the years since 2005. So, it was quite a surprise to receive that e-mail from Mary Martin with the picture attached showing the two P-38s. It is still a bit of a mystery to me why Michael chose to make that picture, "Last Call over Lae," which depicts the mission on which Johnny was lost. He must have been moved by the story. I am very pleased that he has honored my uncle in this way, freely providing recognition of Uncle Johnny for his final act of bravery and sacrifice.

And, that is the rest of the story.