‘Yesterday, December 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan ... As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense ... With confidence in our armed forces – with the unbounded determination of our people – we will gain the inevitable triumph – so help us God.’
President F. D. Roosevelt, 8 December 1941
Without doubt the most significant time in the life of the Mustang was its era within the Second World War. All three versions of the Mustang – the A-36, F-6 and P-51 – helped the Allied forces defeat Germany, Italy, Japan and their Axis powers cohorts. During its Second World War tenure, no fewer than thirteen versions of the Mustang were used in combat by the US Army Air Forces. These included the A-36A, P-51, F-6A, P-51A, F-6B, P-51B, P-51C, F-6C, P-51D, TP-51D, F-6D, P-51K and F-6K.
Besides fighting enemy aircraft in the air, this cadre of Mustang aircraft were used for ground attack (strafing enemy troops and equipment with gunfire and rockets), bombardment (bombing enemy positions and strategic targets with general purpose high explosive 250 lb, 300 lb and 500 lb bombs) and all-important tactical reconnaissance and mapping duties. Moreover, Mustangs were responsible for the creation of more USAAF fighter aces than any other USAAF pursuit airplane. In aerial combat, the Mustang proved to be a deadly foe with its agility, manoeuvrability and speed, not to mention its astounding range capability. It truly became a legend in its own time.
Mustangs in Action
Mustangs did not reach USAAF combat units until March 1943 when very small numbers of special camera-equipped and armed P-51-2-NAs began to arrive in the MTO. These Mustangs had been diverted to USAAF units from a 150-plane order placed by the RAF for Mustang Mk.IA airplanes.
The P-51 Mustangs, like all other USAAF single-engine fighter aircraft such as the P-39, P-40 and P-47, were assigned to combat groups that had three combat squadrons (four on rare occasions) made up of 111 to 126 airplanes (including spares). To operate these aircraft, a combat group had 108 to 126 combat crews (including spares) of 994 personnel: 183 officers and 811 enlisted men. Amongst the 183 officers in each combat group were the group commander, the pilots that manned the airplanes and three or four combat squadron commanders.
During the Second World War, the Inglewood factory manufactured 9,949 P-51s (138 delivered in 1941, 634 in 1942, 1,533 in 1943, 4,368 in 1944, and 3,276 in 1945); the Dallas factory built 4,552 P-51s (177 delivered in 1943, 2,540 in 1944, and 1,835 in 1945). This totals 14,501 P-51s built and these totals do include the single NA-73X, 322 NA-73s (Mustang Mk.I), 300 NA-83s (Mustang Mk.I), 500 A-36As or 299 F-6 airplanes.
The production of the 500 A-36A airplanes built in Inglewood was as follows: 142 delivered in 1942 and 358 in 1943. The factory-built F-6 airplanes were delivered by Dallas as follows: 74 in 1944 and 225 in 1945 for a total of 299 F-6 airplanes.
Thus for the war effort, NAA produced a staggering total of 14,787 Mustangs for use by the USAAF alone.
The China-Burma-India Theatre of Operations was first to employ Mustang light attack, reconnaissance and fighter airplanes beginning in late 1942 and early 1943 with 10th and 14th Air Force A-36As, F-6As, P-51s and P-51As.
The 14th Air Force was established on 10 March 1943, just nine days before the China Air Task Force (CATF) was discontinued on 19 March 1943. It was a big user of the Mustang, especially the 23rd Fighter Group and its three fighter squadrons: the 74th, 75th and 76th FS. The 23rd FG, nicknamed ‘Flying Tigers’, was initially equipped with P-40E Warhawks, but soon acquired P-51B Mustangs. The territory covered by 14AF stretched from the bend of the Yellow River and Tsinan in the north to Indochina in the south, from Chengtu and the Salween River in the west to the China Sea and the island of Formosa in the east. The 14th AF was commanded by Major General Claire L. Chennault and was appropriately nicknamed ‘Flying Tigers’ since he had also commanded the CATF previously and the famed Flying Tigers of the American Volunteer Group (AVG). The ‘Flying Tigers’ became part of the USAAF on 30 December 1941 but was dissolved by 30 April 1942. Chennault took command of the 10th Air Force in the CBI in August 1942.
An unidentified A-36A is prepared for another ground attack mission while it served in the CBI. For self defence and strafing purposes, all A-36As were armed with four .50 cal. machine guns, two in either wing. (USAF)
The Chinese-American Composite Wing (Provisional) or CACW (P) of the 14AF was activated on 1 October 1943 and disbanded on 18 August 1945. It was a joint USAAF and Republic of China Air Force operation commanded by both American and Chinese officers. It was partially equipped with Mustangs in 1944 and 1945. The 5th Fighter Group (Provisional) of the CACW (P) was equipped with P-51C, P-51D and P-51K Mustangs. The 5th FG (P) was comprised of the 5th, 17th, 26th, 27th and 29th Fighter Squadrons. The 3rd Fighter Group (Provisional) of the CACW was likewise equipped with these same models of the Mustang and had the 7th, 8th, 28th and 32nd FS.
The Mediterranean Theatre of Operations began to receive its Mustangs in mid-spring 1943 and in June, the 27th Fighter-Bomber Group (522nd, 523rd and 524th Fighter-Bomber Squadrons) began combat operations. The 86th FBG (525th, 526th and 527th FBSs) first entered combat during the following month. Both of these groups were exclusively outfitted with A-36A Mustangs. One squadron of the 68th Reconnaissance Group, the 111th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, was initially outfitted with early camera-equipped P-51-2-NAs at this time.
April 1943: The USAAF Mustangs did not earn their spurs until 9 April 1943 when the first combat mission was flown. This mission was performed by the 154th Observation Squadron of the 68th Observation Group, 12th Air Force, based at Sbeitla Landing Ground in Tunisia, North Africa. Some two months later on 6 June 1943, the 27th FBG flew the first A-36A mission from Ras el Ma airfield, French Morocco, in North Africa.
June 1944: On 2 June 1944, thirty Italy-based 15th Air Force B-17s and seventy P-51s headed northeast to attack marshalling yards at Debrecen, Hungary, after the aircraft went further north to land at airfields in Russia. From these airfields on 6 June, these same aircraft hit an airfield at Galatz, Romania. On their return to Italy on 10 June, they attacked an airfield at Focsani, Romania. Just two B-17s and two P-51s were lost during these missions. This was the beginning of Operation Frantic, designed to destroy German-held strategic targets in eastern and southern Europe and to help oust the Germans from their strongholds throughout these war torn areas.
The three airfields in Russia used during Operation Frantic were located near Kiev in western Russia (now Ukraine), and even though US engineers had improved upon them, they were not fully adequate. Of the three airfields used during this operation, only the ones at Poltava and Mirgorod could accommodate the heavy bombers: Poltava was the better of the two. The P-51s used the airfield at Piryatin.
The European Theatre of Operations (ETO) was by far the largest user of Mustang aircraft. In the ETO, operating with the 8th and 9th Air Forces, the USAAF employed the P-51B, P-51C, P-51D, P-51K, F-6A, F-6B, F-6C, F-6D and F-6K.
In April 1944, the 4th Fighter Group and its three fighter squadrons – the 334th, 335th and 336th – began to receive P-51 Mustangs which eventually replaced its P-47 Thunderbolts. During April and May 1944, the 52nd FG converted from P-40 Warhawks to P-51 Mustangs. Its three fighter squadrons were the 2nd, 4th, and 5th Fighter Squadrons. The 20th Fighter Group converted from P-38 Lightnings to P-51 Mustangs in early July 1944. It also had three fighter squadrons: the 55th, 77th, and 79th. Flying P-51Ds on a bomber escort mission to Kassel, Germany, on 27 September 1944, the 376th Fighter Squadron of the 361st Fighter Group, 8th Air Force, set an ETO record with claims of eighteen enemy aircraft destroyed in the air, plus seven damaged, and three destroyed on the ground, plus one damaged. First Lt. William R. Beyer became an ‘Ace in a Day’ when he bagged five Fw 190s and 1/Lt. Victor E. Bocquin destroyed three Fw 190s.
PTO and SWPA
The Pacific Theatre of Operations (PTO) included the Pacific Ocean Areas (POA) and the South West Pacific Area (SWPA). It was in the PTO that 20th Air Force Mustangs helped to close the Second World War while flying VLR B-29 bomber escort missions to Japan.
The South West Pacific Area (SWPA) was the name given to the Allied supreme military command in the South West Pacific Theatre of the Second World War. It was one of four major Allied commands in the Pacific theatres during 1942-1945. THE SWPA included the Philippines, Borneo, the Dutch East Indies (excluding Sumatra), Australia, the Territory of New Guinea including the Bismarck Archipelago, the western part of the Solomon Islands and some neighbouring territories. The supreme commander, General Douglas MacArthur, was in charge of primarily US and Australian forces. Dutch, Filipino, British and other Allied forces also served in the SWPA.
Mustang variants employed by the USAAF in the Second World War
A-36A-1-NA; F-6A; F-6B; F-6C; F-6D; F-6K; P-51-1-NA; P-51-2-NA; P-51A; P-51B; P-51C; P-51D; P-51K; TP-51D
A-36, F-6 and P-51 Mustang Units in the Second World War
FIFTH AIR FORCE (5th Air Force of 5AF) – SWPA; 35th Fighter Group; 39th Fighter Squadron; SEVENTH AIR FORCE (7th Air Force or 7AF) – PTO; 15FG; 45FS; 47FS; 78FS; 21FG; 46FS; 72FS; 531FS; EIGHTH AIR FORCE (8th Air Force or 8AF) – ETO; 4th Fighter Group (‘The Eagles’); 334FS; 335FS; 336FS; 5th Emergency Rescue Squadron (Air Sea Rescue Squadron); 7PRG; 13PS; 14PS; 22PS; 27PS; 20FG (‘The Loco Busters’); 55FS; 77FS; 79FS; 55FG; 38FS; 338FS; 343FS; 56FG (‘Zemke’s Wolfpack’); 61FS; 62FS; 63FS; 78FG (‘The Duxford Eagles’); 82FS; 83FS; 84FS; 339FG; 503FS; 504FS; 505FS; 352FG (‘The Blue Nosed Bastards of Bodney’); 328FS; 486FS; 487FS; 353FG (‘The Slybird Group’ aka ‘Bill’s Buzz Boys’); 350FS; 351FS; 352FS; 355FG (‘The Steeple Morden Strafers’); 354FS; 357FS; 358FS; 356FG; 359FS; 360FS; 361FS; 357FG (‘The Yoxford Boys’); 362FS; 363FG; 364FS; 359FG; 368FS; 369FS; 370FS; 361FG (‘The Yellow Jackets’); 374FS; 375FS; 376FS; 364FG; 383FS; 384FS; 385FS; 479FG (‘Riddle’s Raiders’); 434FS; 435FS; 436FS; 495th Fighter Training Group (TRG); 551st Fighter Training Squadron (FTS); 552FTS; 496FTG; 554FTS; 555FTS; Scouting Force SFX; 1SF; 2SF; 3SF; NINTH AIR FORCE (9th Air Force or 9AF) – ETO; 363TRG; 161TRS; TENTH AIR FORCE (10th Air Force or 10AF) – CBI; 1st Air Commando Group (ACG); 2ACG; 1st Fighter Squadron; TWELFTH AIR FORCE (12th Air Force or 12AF) – MTO; XII Air Support Command; 15th Bombardment Squadron (Light) – BS (L); 27th Bombardment Group (L) – BG (L); 16th Reconnaissance Squadron (Light) – RS (L); 17RS (L); 91RS (L); 27th Fighter-Bomber Group (F-BG); 522nd Fighter-Bomber Squadron (F-BS); 523F-BS; 524F-BS; 68th Observation Group (OG); 154th Observation Squadron (OS); 68th Reconnaissance Group (RG); 111th Reconnaissance Squadron (Fighter) – RS (F); 86th Bombardment Group (Dive) – BG (D); 309th Bombardment Squadron (Dive) – BS (D); 310BS (D); 311BS (D); 312BS (D); 86F-BG; 525F-BS; 311BG (D); 382BS (D); 383BS (D); 384BS (D); 385BS (D); 311F-BG; 383BS (D); 385BS (D); 311F-BG; 528F-BS; 529F-BS; 530F-BS; FOURTEENTH AIR FORCE (14th Air Force or 14AF) – CBI; Chinese-American Composite Wing; 3FG; 7FS; 8FS; 28FS; 32FS; 68th Composite Wing (CW); 23rd Fighter Group; 69CW; 51FG; 16FS; 311FG; 528FS; 530FS; FIFTEENTH AIR FORCE (15th Air Force or 15AF) – MTO; 31FG; 307FS; 308FS; 309FS; 52FG; 2FS; 4FS; 5FS; 325FG (‘The Checkertail Clan’); 317FS; 318FS; 319FS; 332FG (‘The Tuskegee Airmen’ aka ‘Red Tails’ aka ‘Red-Tail Angels’); 99FS; 100FS; 301FS; 302F; TWENTIETH AIR FORCE (20th Air Force or 20AF) – PTO; VII Fighter Command (‘The Sunsetters’); 15FG; 45FS; 47FS; 21FG; 46FS; 506FG; 457FS
The end of the Second World War came on 2 September 1945, and during that significant time in world history, the P-51 Mustang was serving in every theatre of operations. Whether it was in the CBI, ETO, MTO, SPO or PTO, this warhorse had come to fly and fight, and fly and fight it did. While it had been beaten into combat by its two main USAAF contemporaries, the P-38 Lightning and the P-47 Thunderbolt, it quickly equalled and surpassed them in some areas, especially its outstanding range.
The Mustang also served as a dedicated fighter-bomber. Shown here is Ferocious Frankie dropping two 500-lb general-purpose high-explosive bombs. (National Museum of the USAF)