P-38 "Florida Cracker" flown by Joe Forster
This painting presented with permission from Artist Troy White. Visit his web site at Star Dust Studios.
Joseph M. Forster was born in Gainsesville, Florida, in 1919 and enlisted in the Army in June 1940 at age 20. He made sergeant before being accepted for pilot training, being commissioned at Williams Field, Arizona in June 1943.
Lt. Forster rotated through three fighter groups before reporting to the 475th in October. Assigned to the 432nd Fighter Squadron, he began flying combat missions from New Guinea with 330 hours total time. He flew the P-38H, J, and L, all named Florida Cracker.
Joe’s first claims were two Zekes in November 1943, both credited as probables. His first confirmed kills were two Tonys and an Oscar over Hollandia on April 3, 1944 (by then a first lieutenant).
His next victory was a Zeke over Borneo October 14. He made ace with an Oscar over Leyte on November 2, followed by another on the 8th. On December 7, 1944 he downed a Zeke and Dinah (plus a Dinah probable) and finished with a confirmed Zeke and a damaged over Mabalacat on Christmas Day.
His total was nine confirmed, three probables, one damaged, becoming one of ten aces in the 432nd FS and 34 in the group.
Joe was promoted to captain in January 1945 and returned to US at end of the year.
Subsequently he served with the United Nations in Palestine, commanded a training squadron at Williams AFB, became an advisor to the South Korean Air Force, and commanded the 21st Tactical Air Support Squadron in Nha Trang, South Vietnam, 1968-69.
Joe retired as a lieutenant colonel in January 1971. His decorations include two DFCs and seven Air Medals.
Today he lives with his wife, Jan, in Arizona.
You flew with a lot of talented pilots. Who stands out?
I really admired Elliot Summer (a double ace) for his flying ability. He was my mentor without knowing it. But I went through training and combat with PJ Dahl. (Perry John Dahl joined the squadron with Joe, having logged 330 hours, the same as Joe. He scored his first victory on same day as Joe, and also finished with nine kills. He flew two tours in Vietnam 1970-75, and retired 1978.)
Cy Homer of the 8th Group was really good—but he practiced a lot. I used to see him out practicing when I was slow-timing an engine or just flying around the area. He would do Immelmanns or something until he could do them perfectly.
(Capt. Cyril F. Homer was a triple ace in the 8th FG. He died in 1975.)
Tommy McGuire (431st FS) was the best P-38 pilot I ever saw. He was a natural--he just got in and flew the airplane. Many times I’ve seen him come back single-engine, and while the book said you should make a straight in approach and lower your gear a couple miles out, he’d make an overhead approach just like normal. Other times he’d slip that Lightning until it was almost crossways, and I’ve never heard an airplane make a sound like that.
He was really good but didn’t brag about it. A lot of people thought he was a cocky little guy, and maybe he was, but he cared about his people and looked after them as best he could. That’s how he was killed.
Captain Joe Forster, P-38, Philippines, 1945
I don’t remember a lot being made of it, though we all had grown up with stories of World War I. I’d say that very few pilots
really wanted to be aces. If it happened, great, but if not, the important thing was to come home. Most of us wanted to get to the fight, mix it up by making a couple of passes, and take whatever shots we could, then go home so you could do it again another day. When you got that fifth confirmed, somebody might buy you a drink and say, “Congratulations, ace”, but otherwise that was about it. There seems to be more interest now than there was back then.
You didn’t judge most guys by their victory score. Mainly you wanted to fly with people you trusted, who were good pilots and would be there when you needed them.
I don’t think there’ll be many more aces, if any. I know there’s talk of fighting in space but that’s unlikely unless we come up against aliens or something. It’s just too damned expensive today, let alone in the future. So I don’t think there’ll be any fighting in space until this planet is ruled by one country or group of countries that can organize things.
You made the longest single-engine flight in P-38 history. How did that occur?
On October 13, 1944, our group and a couple of others were assigned to escort bombers in a big attack on the Japanese oil refineries at Balikpapan in eastern Borneo. We were based on Biak, near New Guinea, which was a long way from Borneo, let me tell you. I think it was about 1,200 or 1,300 miles. Anyway, we couldn’t get there on one load of gas so we staged through Halmahera in the Celebes. Today nobody knows about the Celebes but there was a very crude base there. It had hardly any facilities—mainly fuel and pierced steel planking (PSP) for a runway.
Colonel Mac (Charles H. MacDonald) was on stateside leave so the 475th was led by Lt. Col. M.M. Smith. We flew out to Halmahera and stayed overnight. The 49th Group was also there plus a P-47 outfit. We had no way to take our crew chiefs so the pilots had to service their own planes.
We had brand new P-38L-1s, bare metal instead of the camouflaged J models we’d been flying. My airplane had about 30 hours on it.
On the 14th we arrived at 22,000 feet with the others at about 18,000. We took the bombers over the target and they did a really good job. On the way out, a Zeke crossed 90 degrees in front of me, chased by a lone P-38. I just dropped my nose and Brrrrt. I fired a very short burst, maybe one second. The damn thing just blew up. I guess the other P-38 pilot must’ve been mad as hell!
(On that day 5th Fighter Command claimed 38 victories over Borneo: five by the 475th.)
Heading back out over the water there was a thin overcast at about 22,000; we were at 20. I was looking around for something more to shoot at when I saw a little guy come out through the thin overcast. I called in to Col. Smith that the Jap was about a mile and a half from us but Smith said, “Joe, I can’t see a thing. Pull out and make one pass.” We didn’t have much fuel to spare.
I was with the second flight behind Smith and saw the Zero go down on him, firing but he didn’t touch Smith. Then he looped back up. I was turning right as quick as I could but the little SOB came around in the tightest turn you can imagine. He hit me in the left engine. I pushed everything to the firewall, going straight down to the right. I hit terminal velocity at about 180 degrees in the turn. It seemed like everything was coming apart, it was shaking so much. I couldn’t even read the instruments.
I remembered that we had dive brakes in the new planes so I hit the switch. Boy, everything worked just like it was supposed to. It slowed the plane and I leveled off right on the water. I had never been so close to crashing. But I feathered the engine and looked around. I was completely alone. Colonel Smith was a pretty good guy but he didn’t take care of his people like Colonel MacDonald did. Smith said that I should go to the nearest island or submarine rescue station or ditch and wait for an amphibian. That last suggestion did me no good at all. There was a strong wind and nobody could have landed in the water that day.
Well, I wanted to get rid of all the weight possible so I shot up all my ammunition. I started climbing but I was a little upset and nervous. I wanted at least 2,000 feet so if the other engine quit I could still bail out. I had my oxygen mask on most of the time, and when I took it off I could smell the salt spray and the smoke in the cockpit.
As I remember, it was about 790 miles from Balikpapan to Halmahera. But my route back was probably over 800 because I wanted to avoid anyplace that would shoot at me. About an hour out I called for a radar steer but got no answer. I kept calling for about 30-40 minutes and nobody answered. Then I heard from one of our squadron, Lt. Rats Ratajski, a nice guy from Milwaukee. (2ndLt. Charles J. Ratajski, 4 victories.) He had some extra fuel so he waited for other planes to land and he heard me. He said, “I hear you, Joe.” He offered to be my radio relay to the base. I told him I was probably west-southwest and they should look for me in that area.
In no more than two minutes he said, “Joe, they want you to turn 90 degrees right for one minute.” That was the hardest turn I ever made in my life, because I was headed away from base. But almost immediately he said, “They got you!” I followed the vector and in about 40 minutes they brought me right over the field but I was high as hell—about 2,000 feet.
By then I was exhausted. I was completely dehydrated but I still had to get down. The book says that on one engine you make a two-mile straight-in approach but because of my height I was still fast, about 150 mph. Even with gear and flaps down, that airplane just wouldn’t slow down. I looked out and saw revetments and airplanes going past. It was a 7,000-foot strip but the end was coming up so I slammed down on the PSP and got on the brakes.
There were two B-24s on the right side with a little space between them. I must’ve been doing 75 mph under the wing of a ’24, made a 180, and came around to align myself with the fighters. They were from the 49th Group.
When I parked and shut down, I was so tired that I couldn’t get out at first. Finally I eased my way down and the next thing I knew I was face down with dirt on my face. I rolled over on my back and looked up. There was McGuire. He said, “You made it, Joe!” He was like that—he looked out for people even though we were in different squadrons. Then a bunch of other guys came over and congratulated me.
When I felt better, I looked over my plane. A 20mm shell had hit the leading edge of the left wing, hit the diagonal brace on the engine mount, and exploded. It destroyed the oil cooler but that was about all. You could’ve put in a new cooler and flown the plane out of there. But we had no mechanics and no spare parts.
I needed a ride home to Biak so I scrounged around and found a C-47 pilot who was unloading fuel and bombs. I offered to help him so we could get out of there a little faster but we needed more people. He talked to a truck driver who said that wasn’t his job. That captain pulled his .45, chambered a round, and said he needed some help. Believe me, he got it!
In retrospect, I think I could’ve flown that new airplane home. I could’ve put in enough oil to run the left engine long enough for takeoff, then shut it down and come back single engine. But I didn’t think of that at the time. For weeks afterward I’d hear from guys who saw my plane sitting there. Finally it was pushed into the sea. By then I had a new one when we went to the Philippines.
My total mission time on 14 October was 8 hours and 20 minutes. I’d guess my return flight was about 4 hours and 15 or 20 minutes. Far as I know, it was the longest flight by a P-38 on single engine—at least the longest over water!
Southwest Pacific Map showing Joe's route for the longest single engine P-38 Flight
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