THE WEIRD STORY OF A MYSTERY PLANE
COMPLETE FOUR PAGE ARTICLE AS FOUND IN
THE READER'S DIGEST: JANUARY 1945; VOL. 46, NO. 273
CONDENSED FROM THE BOOK
DAMNED TO GLORY
BY COLONEL ROBERT L. SCOTT, JR.
OVER THE tiny air field of Kienow, it's an hour before dark, rain was falling. The eight P-40's on the runways showed their shark-noses through the haze.
Flight-leader Johnny Hampshire peered out from the operations cave, looking for a break in the weather. His squadron of the China Air Task Force had come from Kunming to this field in eastern China ready for quick action --- and now they had lived through a week of stinking weather with nothing to do but gripe. At that instant the alert came. Then telephones began to ring "What the hell is this, Captain Chow?"
The Chinese officer stuck a red flag on the map "Don't know R-15 reports one unidentified plane, coming this way, flying very low."
Japs never came this far inland in this kind of weather. And a single ship! They didn't do that, either, because they had learned long ago that they'd never return. Still, it might be a trick. So Johnny said, "Get the alert shack. Tell Costello to get on my wing and stay close. Keep the other six planes on the ground unless I call."
HAMPSHIRE'S P-40K WARHAWK. MOST LIKELY THE SAME PLANE USED TO MEET THE GHOST P-40
(for more please click image)
Two planes nosed down the runway, red mud splashing back into the slip stream, then wet, gray clouds seemed to engulf them. In the radio cave they could hear Johnny asking for the position of the unknown plane. Now it was reported only 20 miles to the east. Johnny explained later what happened. He was about ten miles from the field, he said, when he saw the plane 200 feet below. He maneuvered to attack. This was an unidentified aircraft, coming from enemy territory. Orders were to shoot it down. Johnny and Costello both fired at once. The attack brought them so close that they could see the plane's marking. Costello screamed over the radio, "That's the American insignia --- it's a P-40." But they still suspected a trick. It was the old American insignia --- blue background with white star and red center. The United States hadn't used it for nearly a year, because the red center looked too much like the Rising Sun. Johnny said he and Costello must have put a hundred rounds into the ship before they realized there was no use firing. The P-40 had been literally shot to pieces before they ever saw it, the cockpit had been nearly shot away, the fuselage was a sieve. Then as he moved closer he saw that the deep wells into which the wheels fit when retracted were empty. Bullets couldn't have done that. It had never had wheels.
Now Johnny and Costello, flying close beside the P-40, could make out the pilot behind the jagged glass of the windshield, his head slumped forward on his chest They could see the long, dark hair and the bloody face. Costello said later he was sure the man had been dead for some time.
Seconds afterward they saw the ghost plane hit the ground and explode. They marked the spot in their minds.
Later, taking along the doctor, they navigated a truck around the rice paddies to the wrecked plane.
The P-40 had been really shot to hell. It was riddled with bullets which had come from below and above, from behind and in front, proving that enemy planes as well as ground fire had destroyed the ship. None of the men could understand how the pilot had lived to fly the plane as far as it must have come. There wasn't much left to identify him, but in his leather jacket were letters, parts of which were legible, and a notebook diary partially destroyed.
People who knew him called him "Corn" Sherrill.* They said it was because he liked corn likker so much back in South Carolina. He went to Manila in 1937 --- first assigned to a pursuit squadron, later becoming an officer in charge of constructing a chain of auxiliary airfields.
Corn could really fly. He could navigate to any point in the islands, he could tell by the color of the water whether he had let down through the clouds to the Sulu Sea or the Sea of Visayan. He built airfields up and down the islands, and he knew where they were. In time his fields were completed, and Corn became a Deputy Squadron Commander.
After the fateful December 8, 1941, Corn flew reconnaissance and strafing missions with the dwindling air forces, retreating step by embattled step to the little emergency fields that he himself had built in the jungles. On May 5 he found himself part of an outfit at Miramag on Mindanao, isolated from the rest of the world. Bataan hid surrendered. So far as he knew, the entire American might on the islands consisted of 11 mechanics who had escaped to the southern island by devious routes and one cracked up P-40.
He figured that their one plane, rebuilt with odds and ends from wrecks in the vicinity, would keep him in the war for a while. Except for a bent prop and a buckled fuselage, it was in pretty fair shape. For the next two weeks they scouted every wreck in the neighborhood. Finally, four miles from the base, they found a P-40 with a salvageable fuselage. Forty Moros helped them carry it, using ropes and poles, inch by inch, yard by yard, to Miramag --- a ton or more of hull. Whenever an enemy plane appeared overhead, they hastily covered their load with palm leaves. By August they had the good wings from the old ship attached to the fuselage. Then they rigged a tripod and swung the engine into place. One wing tank was leaking, so they replaced it. They removed the radio and dynamotor, and mounted a 50 gallon tank in the baggage compartment. In the tanks of a crashed B-17 nearby they found gas. They straightened the prop by hammering it with a heavy mallet on the stump of a hardwood tree.
The problem of a retractable landing gear stumped them. One of the sergeants said jokingly, "If it would only snow, we could use skis," and everybody laughed. But suddenly Sherrill remembered that once he had taken off and landed a P-6 with skis on wet grass.
The more they thought of it, the more they wanted to try it.
They figured out how to attach the skis, made of bamboo, and also how to "retract" them --- which was simply to drop the skis by jerking a control wire after the plane had taken off. Once that ship got off the ground there would be no return. And only one of them could go.
So they got out the maps to see where their plane could do the Japs the most damage. They decided on Formosa. It was 1000 miles to the great Jap naval station at Taihoku. On the China Coast, 250 miles farther, was the airfield of Kienow. With careful nursing of his gas the pilot might be able to reach it. By December 6 the 5000-foot grass runway had been cut with knives and everything was ready for the take off. The P-40 looked weird on skis. But she was complete, with four 300 pound bombs and six 50 caliber machine guns
Sherrill said, "How about making it an anniversary party of the day those bastards struck us? I'll leave here on the morning of December 8." At nine o'clock on December 8 the men hustled the fighter out of her cover to the top of the runway. Her nose pointed downhill to the place where the cut swath in the cogon grass ended at the edge of a cliff.
Corn shook hands with each of the men. As he climbed into the cockpit he saw tears in their eyes. He knew he was looking at them for the last time. Over the din of the engine he shouted that he would put the bombs where they'd hurt the Jap most. The men saw the fighter bounce along the runway, teetering like a sandpiper on the unstable bamboo skids. But with every bounce she gathered speed. Then with a higher whine and a bigger bounce the queer-looking ship was in the air and out over the cliff. At 1000 feet, Corn leveled the plane and dropped the guy wires of the landing gear. He brought her back once over the field, so that the cheering men could see the success of their months of labor. Then he headed for Formosa.
Corn Sherrill reached the Japanese island five hours after his takeoff --- the enemy affirmed that later. The Jap had boasted that no Occidental had looked upon Formosa for 40 years. Well, one was looking down this day --- and the airfield he saw must have made Lieutenant Sherrill lick his lips --- with its neat rows of parked fighters and bombers. He strafed them row on row, and he cut the Jap flag from the headquarters building with his wingtip. He laid his first wingbomb right in the enemy offices. Enemy ships began to smoke, burn and explode.
Now the P 40 was rocking with ack-ack bursts. All Corn could do was keep low, where the gunners could not spot him too long at a time. He continued strafing every plane he could force his sights on.
Then the Zeros caught him. Dropping his last bomb into a hangar, he fired into the attacking fighters in a desperate effort to blast his way out. And between them, in some unknown way Corn Sherrill's heart and the P-40s sturdy body pulled away into the clouds on the correct course for China --- without benefit of instruments. Straight as a die from Tuhoku, to Foochow, to Kienow --- the warning net of the Chinese showed that.
Out of the mist there came a plane, and then two others. A sharp clatter of machine guns, and a ship and a pilot already mortally wounded were hit again. Sherrill's bloody face turned to peer through the shattered canopy at the shark-nosed American fighter, flying so close to him in formation. This was the life, all right coming home. Mission complete. Corn Sherrill's work was done.
*The name is fictitious, as are place names wherever necessary for the sake of military security --- The author.
Shortly after Pearl Harbor, pilot Robert Lee Scott's application for combat duty was rejected --- he was too old, at 34 he was informed, to fly a fighter plane. Assigned to transport service in the Far East he talked General Chennault into letting him have a P-40. In 1942 Colonel Scott, famous as the 'One Man Air Force' was given command of the American Army's first pursuit planes in China. Besides many medals and citations, he held the Army record for enemy planes downed.
His book God Is My Co Pilot was called by the New York Times the most fascinating personal story of the war. Damned to Glory is a collection of little known stories, brought together as a tribute to his courageous fellow fighter pilots and their long suffering planes. The title is taken from a line in a poem Mr Scott wrote about the P-40s: Damned by words, but flown to glory.
John Hampshire, credited with 13 kills, died in action flying his P-40 on May 2, 1943.
The link below will take you to a complete, free, unabridged PDF version of Colonel Scott's four page article as printed in the original 1945 Reader's Digest:
THE GHOST SHIP (PDF)
THE WEIRD STORY OF A MYSTERY PLANE
THE READER'S DIGEST: JANUARY 1945; VOL. 46, NO. 273
GHOST P-40: LORE, LEGENDS AND HER WHEREABOUTS
PEARL HARBOR P-40 GHOST SHIP
CAPTAIN JOHN HAMPSHIRE, CURTISS WRIGHT P-40K WARHAWK, 23FG 75FS, W161, CHINA 1943
(for additional photos and source click image)