The Ghost Fighter Plane of Pearl Harbor
It was December of 1942, a year and a day after the Japanese sneak attack that launched the United States into World War II. The American Navy was on guard at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Published accounts say that radar contact was made with an incoming aircraft, and fearing another attack, fighter planes were scrambled to intercept it. But instead of an attacking Japanese bomber, they encountered a ghost fighter: a pre-war American aircraft, shot to pieces, with its pilot apparently dead at the controls. It lost altitude and crashed in a field, but rescue crews found no trace of the pilot's body. It is said to be one of the strangest mysteries from the war. Is it possible that something so bizarre actually happened, or could there be another explanation for the oft-repeated tale? Today we're going to find out exactly what did happen.
The story can now be found, in various lengths and with minor variations, all over the Internet. Here is one representative example, from an online article titled The 15 Strangest Unsolved World War II Mysteries, and this is #5, "The Pearl Harbor Ghost P-40":
As many long-suffering Skeptoid listeners know, I'm quite the aeronautics buff, so I had to learn more about this story. Some Google searches turned up essentially the same article on about a dozen sites, often with a lot of the same exact text copied and pasted (online journalism at its finest). Searchable official databases of aircraft incidents don't go much earlier than the 1980s, so I turned to old newspaper archives to see if any Hawaii newspapers had reported this. But I quickly learned a troubling fact: searching news archives for terms like P-40 and crash during history's largest air war is like trying to drink from a firehose. No luck there.
But further searching eventually yielded some results. Some retellings include commentary like this:
The complete lack of landing gear — which is very different than shot-up or damaged landing gear — posed the toughest puzzle and made this story unique. At one point I came upon a forum discussion where someone said he thought he once heard this story told about some POWs or someone cobbling together a plane out of spare parts and using it to escape. And it was this clue that finally led me to an obscure book written in 1945.
In order to present the original source for the story of the ghost P-40, it's necessary to introduce one of the great American aces of World War II. Colonel Robert Lee Scott, Jr. (later to become an Air Force brigadier general), began his career as a fighter pilot in the Flying Tigers, the unofficial American volunteer group flying against the Japanese from Chinese airfields. In mid-1942, the Flying Tigers were rolled into the American military as the 23rd Fighter Group, and at the personal request of Chiang Kai-shek, Scott was named the unit's commander. By 1943, Scott had 13 aerial victories, all in a P-40, making him one of the Pacific theater's double aces. Scott became best known for his 1943 autobiography God Is My Co-Pilot, which was made into a Hollywood movie in 1945.
Scott's second book was a collection of fictional stories inspired by people or places or tall tales from the war. Its title was Damned to Glory. The first chapter, "Ghost Pilot", turns out to be our little tale, only in much longer form. It opens with two 23rd Fighter Group pilots, Hampshire and Costello, scrambled from their base at Kienow Airdrome in China and intercepting the inbound P-40, which they were shocked to see bearing a pre-war American insignia. They were baffled by its missing landing gear, and by the fact that it was heavily damaged:
The pilot appeared already dead, his head slumped forward; and they followed him down to where the plane crashed and burned. His diary was recovered. The bulk of the chapter is told in flashback, narrated by that pilot, "Corn" Sherrill, and is offered as a possible reconstruction of events based on his diary and other papers found in the wreck. The Japanese had largely taken over the Philippines, and Sherrill with a small group of Americans found themselves isolated at a destroyed airstrip on the island of Mindanao, constantly dodging Japanese patrols. They spent months scavenging wrecked planes, and cobbled together a flyable P-40, but couldn't come up with any landing gear. So they contrived a set of bamboo skids with which the plane could take off, and then drop for flight. They loaded it with bombs and attached all the extra fuel tanks they could, and Sherrill took off to strike the Japanese naval station at Formosa about 1,600 kilometers away. His plan was then to make it to Kienow in China, another 450 kilometers. If he flew slowly, he could make it, at the cost of every drop of fuel he could carry. Sherrill's strike on the Japanese was successful, but he came under so much fire that he was mortally wounded, managing only to get his plane pointed in the direction of Kienow before succumbing.
Once all the versions of the story are put together and compared, the modern online version turns out to be reasonably true to the original, with the only substantial change being Sherrill returning from his raid into Pearl Harbor instead of Kienow. Setting aside the impossibility of this due to a P-40's short range, the error was not entirely unreasonable, as the stories did mention the aircraft bearing Pearl Harbor markings. What this referred to was the American insignia on the side of the plane. The familiar one is a white star on a navy blue circle. But before May 1942, the center of the star was filled with a red circle, and this is what the American planes at Pearl Harbor (and throughout the South Pacific) would have had at the start of the war. The red circle was removed to avoid confusion with the Japanese rising sun insignia.
But did Scott intend for "Ghost Pilot" to be taken as a true story? Well, it certainly took on a life of its own. Reader's Digest reprinted "Ghost Pilot" almost immediately, thereby immortalizing it in a mass market publication. Author and Flying Tigers historian Dan Ford tracked some of the history and found that Scott retold the story again in a Boston magazine called Yankee, only this time he made its hero a Boston native. Ford also found an online account written by a Dave Kight, who said he attended a live event where General Scott was asked about the story in an open Q&A forum. Kight wrote:
Imagine that: an urban legend found on the Internet, that turns out to be the fictional work of an imaginative author. Told, retold, copied, pasted, abridged, and distorted, it finds it way onto the "unexplained mystery" websites, where it is taken seriously by many readers. Why the misattribution as a genuine mystery? It's not like there aren't enough real mysteries; but perhaps more to the point, why not let it stand as a work of fiction? Scott's tale of men on the edge of an island and the edge of a war, beaten, alone, starved of resources, and yet still taking the offensive, ranks as fine adventure writing. I enjoyed the story. It deserves its rightful place. It does not deserve to be stripped of its dramatic elements and reduced to an artless error-choked paragraph on a clickbait website.
General Scott died in February, 2006 at the age of 97, in his home state of Georgia. He had earned two Silver Stars, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, and three Air Medals. He published twelve books, and in remembrance of his time with the Flying Tigers, hiked the entire 3,000 kilometer length of the Great Wall of China at the age of 72.
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