Lt. Col. Thomas J. Lynch

What is it that makes one man stand out above others as a leader? Perhaps it is a clear grasp of the job at hand and possessing the eagerness and dedication to duty to go forward regardless of the odds. Perhaps it is the will to literally lead, not asking others to exceed the efforts or risks he himself is willing to shoulder. All of these things were embodied in

Tommy Lynch and much more. Looking at his background, as a young man Tom was a Boy Scout Leader at Saint Lawrence Parish in Catasauqua, Pennsylvania and advanced to become an Eagle Scout. After High School he enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in chemical engineering. He was in the ROTC program. While attending college he was elected a member of the Scabbard and Blade Society, an honorary military group at the University of Pittsburgh.
In June of 1940 Tom entered the US Army Air Corps and was selected for flight training. By 1941 he was a part of the 39th Pursuit Squadron at Selfridge Field, engaging in maneuvers flying the P-39 Airacobra during the summer and fall. He was among the double handful of 39th Squadron pilots that left the United States aboard the SS Ancon bound for Australia in January 1942. After arriving at Brisbane the squadron manpower requirements were met with new pilots and ground personnel being assigned while an intense training program was developed for all hands. Airplanes coming off of the ships had to be assembled and tested. Pilots had to be checked out in them and ground crews had to be trained. It wasn’t until the first of June ’42 that the squadron was ready to take on combat duty.

A select group 39th Squadron pilots were sent TDY to New Guinea in mid-May, something of a “forward echelon” to gain experience before the main body of the squadron arrived. Lt. Tom Lynch and Lt. Ralph Carey were in good company as they flew up to Port Moresby, New Guinea on 16 May. The official 39th Squadron Combat Dairy records that Lynch and Carey were accompanied by Lt. Donald “Joe” Green, who had been flying Spitfires in defense of England with the remnants of the Polish Air Force prior to Pearl Harbor and the US involvement in the war. Lt. Frank Adkins and Lt. Gene Wahl had been flying P-40 Warhawks against the Japs over Java just prior to the Jap invasion and their forced evacuation. These five men arrived at Port Moresby on the evening of 16 May and immediately reported for duty. Contact with the enemy was not slow in coming.

The Combat Diary records:

17 May 1030 hrs Interception. Lt. Green Leading. Flight of 4 in 2 ship elements took off on intercept mission. When at altitude of 11,000 ft 5 Zeros were sighted at the same level 90deg. left, flying in Luffberry. Our flight maneuvered for position and attacked head-on. Enemy executed an Immelmann giving them a position to the rear of our A/C and attempted pursuit. The result of the engagement was nil. Enemy aircraft had cowlings painted red.

18 May 0940 hrs Interception. Lts. Wahl and Lynch went on mission of interception climbing to 22,000 ft. The enemy was sighted 80deg. left, at same level – 30 bombers in two V formations and 15 Zeros flying in Luffberry. Our pilots dived out of the sun at 4 Zeros. This action was observed late by the enemy and they attempted to turn into the attacking formation. The main enemy force continued on their course. Each pilot made contact and scored hits on the enemy.

Enemy casualties = 2 Zeros probable

Our casualties = nil.

Comments: 4 escorting fighters remained in Luffberry below the main body of bombers.

20 May 0755 hrs Interception. Lts. Wahl, Lynch, Adkins, flying in 5 ship flight in cooperation with 35th Sqdn., 8th Grp., intercepted 6 Zeros at 15,000 ft. When first sighted enemy was 45deg. left, at same level. The attack executed was head-on and observed by enemy who were flying in loose echelon. Lynch reported hits on an enemy aircraft, but no result determined. After attack enemy aircraft pulled around on our planes’ tails and our pilots dived away. Lt. Wahl and Adkins reported no results.

Enemy casualties = 2 Zeros damaged.

Our casualties = Lynch’s plane was shot up but he landed safely. Lt. Carey bailed out of plane and was injured when he hit the ground.

Comments: Lt. Atkins = “Could have done better with a truck. It’s more maneuverable and will go higher”. Lt. Wahl = “Could have done damn good with an altitude ship”.

It was immediately clear that they faced an enemy with more experience and who was flying a much more maneuverable airplane. Tom Lynch proved to be an excellent pilot and was quick to learn the tactics needed to defeat these experienced Japanese pilots that were so easily defeating the Allies in those early days of World War II.

After another two months of combat duty, the 39th Squadron was selected to be the first squadron in the SWPA to be equipped with P-38 Lightnings. After a period of familiarization and “shake down” flights in Australia, the 39th Squadron once more moved up to Port Moresby and the war. Now they had the “altitude ship” that Lt. Wahl had said they “could have done damn good with”. Now aces were being made while the Jap pilots were taking a beating. Tom Lynch came into his own with this airplane and soon became an experienced leader and brilliant tactician. When Major George W. Prentice was taken from the 39th Squadron to form the new 475th Fighter Group, Capt. Tom Lynch was tapped to command the 39th. Under his hand the squadron continued to excel and build an enviable record. By March 1943 the 39th Squadron was the top ranked squadron in the SWPA with well over 100 kills on its scoreboard.

It was in December 1942 that Lt. Richard I. Bong was assigned temporary duty with the 39th Squadron while his 9th Squadron waited to be equipped with their P-38s. On 27 December for the first time the enemy was encountered and the P-38 was tested against the Japs. Lt. Bong was flying Capt. Lynch’s wing that day. The 39th Combat Diary is quoted verbatim below:
“27 Dec. ’42 Our first patrol patrolled Buna beginning at 1145 hrs. At 1210 hrs Capt. Lynch and his Red Flight consisting of Lts. Bong, Sparks, and Mangas were warned of “Bandits” in the near vicinity. When locating the enemy planes (they were) 20 or 30 Zekes and Oscars with 7 or 8 Val Dive Bombers. Capt. Lynch led his flight of only 4 planes in to attack the enemy of approximately 35 airplanes. During the combat his flight claimed 7 victories. Capt. Lynch = 2 Oscars; Lt. Bong = 1 Zeke and 1 Val; Lt. Mangas = 1 Oscar; and Lt. Sparks = 1 Zeke and 1 Val.

During all this ensuing combat White Flight, led by Lt. Eason, were on the way and got there in time to add more victories to the Squadron’s record. Lt. Eason, Andrews, Flood and Widman dived on the enemy and Lt. Eason bagged 2 Zekes; Lt. Andrews = 1 Zeke; Lts. Flood and Widman claim no victories.

Yellow Flight was led by Lt. Gallup and with him were Lt. Bills, Planck and Denton. While at 20,000 ft Yellow Flight was preparing to attack the enemy below and was dived upon by two flights of Zekes – the first of 4 and the second of 6 planes. In the ensuing combat Lt. Gallup claimed 1 Zeke certain; Lt. Bills = 1 Zeke certain; Lt. Planck = 1 Zeke certain; Lt. Denton = 1 Zeke possible. All of these planes returned home except Lt. Sparks, who had to land at Dobadura. All pilots are safe and unharmed. 13 planes to our credit. Pretty good hunting.”

So this was the beginning of the combat career of Lt. Dick Bong, who would go on to become the Ace of Aces, the top scoring Allied fighter pilot in all theaters of World War II with 40 downed enemy planes. Tom Lynch and Dick Bong quickly became close friends. Later each of them were relieved of duty within their respective squadrons and were assigned to Headquarters Squadron where they were given carte blanche to initiate their own combat flights, joining other squadrons on their assignments or splitting off and making fighter sweeps of their choice. It was on one of those sweeps that tragedy struck.
By March 8, 1944 Bong held the rank of Captain and Lynch had just become a Lieutenant Colonel. The book "Ace of Aces" by Carl Bong and Mike O’Conner, page 74, records the following account of that fateful day:

"Three luggers and three barges were sighted in Aitape Harbor. One lugger was strafed and left on fire." "On the second pass over the luggers the P-38 piloted by L/Col. Lynch was hit by small caliber fire from one of the luggers. No explosive shells were seen. The planes were at approximately 20 feet at the time. The whole nose section came off (of the engine) and the right engine caught fire. Col. Lynch pulled up to 2,500 feet, made a left turn and called Capt. Bong on the radio and asked if he could see him. Capt. Bong called him back and told him his right engine was on fire and to bail out. At this time both planes were about a mile apart."

"Lynch was seen trying to get out of the left side of the cockpit. Finally at about 100 feet the whole canopy flew off and Lynch was seen to fall out of the plane. The plane exploded below Lynch. His parachute came out of the pack but did not have time to open. Bong circled the area but could see no sign of the 'chute in the trees."

Bong had been hit, too, and was forced to feather his right engine, landing at Gusap, now the forward base of the 39th Squadron. Having "cut his combat teeth" with the 39th and knowing that Tommy Lynch was one of several men in our squadron that was absolutely revered, it seemed appropriate that Dick Bong passed the devastating news of Lynch’s death to us directly, rather than our learning of the loss "via the grapevine". This was a "Black Day" for the 39th Squadron.

Far too many of my heroes were left behind in the jungles of New Guinea, on South Pacific Islands and in the waters surrounding them. I mourn them. I will always mourn them. May this account serve as a tribute to Lt. Col. Thomas J. Lynch and to all of the heroes that were left behind in foreign lands at the merciful close of World War II.