Curtiss P-40B-CU Warhawk 41-13297 is a Pearl Harbour survivor operated by the Collings Foundation in the USA. Huw Hopkins and Elliott Marsh chart the history of this unique pursuit fighter.
One of only a handful of early P-40s currently airworthy, and the only B-model, 41-13297 was constructed at the Curtiss-Wright factory in Buffalo, New York in 1940-1941 in a batch of 131 examples constructed there. The P-40B was essentially the same airframe as the Curtiss Model 81A-1, keeping the same Allison V-1710-33 power plant, but with two extra 0.30 calibre machine guns in each wing in addition to a pair of guns in the nose, bringing the total firepower to six ‘thirties’.
The aircraft was delivered to the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) in March 1941 but by the time it reached its base at Wheeler Field on Oahu, Hawaii, the USAAC had become the United States Army Air Force (USAAF). Wheeler Field was home to the 18th Pursuit Group’s 6th Pursuit Squadron and it is with this unit that the aircraft served, at the time being used to train pilots transitioning from the Curtiss P-36 to the P-40. The markings at that time included the early war ‘red spot’ US stars as well as a typically large, white ‘buzz’ number – applied to aircraft in order to deter pilots from buzzing the locals, as they could be easly reported!
It was on Oahu in October that year when a strange twist of fate occurred that may in fact be what saved this P-40B from most of the carnage of the Pearl Harbour attacks. The incident in question, a wheels-up landing which, with 41-13297 requiring repairs, saw the aircraft placed on trestles and tucked away inside the relative safety of a hangar while awaiting attention.
Day of Infamy
7 December 1941 is remembered as a devastating ‘Day of Infamy’ in which over 2,400 Americans were killed by the surprise Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbour, and the USA was thrust into World War Two – the attacks remain one of the most infamous uses of aircraft in aviation history.
The aim of the Japanese attack was the paralyse the Pacific Fleet at port; the hope was that a minimum of four aircraft carriers and four battleships would be put out of commission by the attacks, thus neutering the fleet’s long-range fighting capability. The Japanese task force sailed for Hawaii on 26 November 1941, comprised of six aircraft carriers, pairs of battleships and cruisers, nine destroyers and three submarines, amongst other supporting vessels. The group reached their staging point some 200 miles north of Oahu, Hawaii, in the early hours of 7 December 1941. The first wave to launch from the carriers at 0600 comprised 200 aircraft, composed of approximately 50 Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighters, 100 Nakajima B5N “Kate” horizontal and torpedo bombers and 50 Aichi D3A “Val” dive bombers making up the initial strike force.
The attack commenced at 0755 as the large naval base at Pearl Harbour and the nearby USAAF airfield at Hickam Field came under attack almost simultaneously by the Japanese pilots who brought all their intensive training to bear on the US navy and army installations. The exact order of events remains extremely difficult to piece together even today but this first assault took the form of persistent attacks by 30 dive bombers, torpedo attacks at low-level by four waves of “Kates”, and horizontal bombing by further B5Ns from around 10,000ft. A short respite was followed at 0840 by a renewed attack as the second wave of bombers (totalling 130 aircraft, with a further 40 A6Ms as fighter escort) arrived overhead, with raids lasting for up to an hour. The battleships Arizona, California and West Virginia were sunk by the bombs and torpedoes with terrible human losses; the Oklahoma capsized, taking many men with it. The Nevada and several cruisers and destroyers had also received varying levels of damage in the attack. On-shore naval stations had been heavily hit, with 87 of around 170 naval aircraft on Oahu destroyed. More than 2,000 men had been killed, with almost 750 more wounded.
In order for the attack on the Pacific Fleet to succeed, the considerable USAAF force on Hawaii also had to be neutralised from the air, and that the Japanese did with brutal efficiency. Hickam Field was the first to be hit, with more than two dozen bombers and their fighter escort carrying out an initial ten-minute raid on the hangars and buildings at the airfield, before a second attack a quarter of an hour later by both high and low-level bombers damaged technical buildings, barracks and the numerous aircraft parked tightly wingtip-to-wingtip on the large apron. Hickam received a third hit at around 0900 by a smaller number of aircraft which further damaged and destroyed buildings and aircraft.
Further inland in the valley North of Pearl City, Wheeler Field, the home of our P-40B Warhawk, was attacked a little after 0800. For 15 minutes, approximately 25 dive bombers attacked the hangars and entered a counter clockwise striking pattern at high altitude, others diving in attacking from all angles to deposit their ordnance on buildings, aeroplanes and men. Further low-level strafing runs were carried out at around 0900, but throughout the attacks on Wheeler, the P-40B remained safe inside its hangar. Bellows Field escaped the substantial damaged that had befallen Hickam and Wheeler, though it suffered a sustained strafing attack mid-morning.
Indeed, contrary to the popular belief that just two USAAF fighters made it airborne on the morning of 7 December 1941, a raft of sorties were flown by the island’s resident USAAF units. 35 minutes after the initial attack four P-40s and two P-36s scrambled from Wheeler Field and from 0830 until 0930, USAAF pursuit fighters flew 25 sorties against the Japanese aggressors. One of the most famous sorties was mounted by six pilots of the 47th Pursuit Squadron at Haleiwa, a small coastal aerodrome far to the north of the island that had escaped attack. As the attack begun, the airmen drove to Haleiwa (an act which influenced scenes in Michael Bay’s 2001 motion picture Pearl Harbor) and flew their P-40s and P-36s against the Japanese from 0815 to 1000. Lt George S. Welch succeeded in downing four enemy aircraft, whilst Lt John L. Dains mounted three sorties in both the P-40 and P-36 before he was shot down.
The 44th Pursuit Squadron at Bellows Field on the east coast of Oahu, meanwhile, was bounced on take-off at 0855; one pilot was killed as he strapped into his P-40, another was shot down on take-off and a third aircraft was critically damaged and crashed into the Pacific Ocean, albeit its pilot, Samuel W. Bishop, dragged himself ashore despite a leg wound. Further, shortly before 0900 a quartet of 46th Pursuit Squadron P-36s had departed Wheeler Field during a lull and engaged a nine-strong formation of Japanese aircraft. Despite being at a disadvantage against the superior Japanese fighters, two enemy aircraft were shot down at a cost of one P-36. Adding to the melee, a flight of B-17 Flying Fortresses from the mainland also arrived over Hawaii during the fray, with one aircraft destroyed whilst a further three suffered severe damage during their landing attempts under fire.
Once the attack had subsided, the P-40s, P-36s, O-47s, A-20s, B-17s and other aircraft which had survived the morning began searching for the Japanese fleet, carrying out 48 sorties from 0930 to 1520, but their efforts were in vain. The cost to the USAAF on Hawaii was more than 60 aircraft destroyed of a total 231 present, with fewer than 80 aeroplanes remaining serviceable post-attack. The Japanese had achieved complete surprise, and wrought terrible damage and destruction to the US naval and army forces on the morning of 7 December 1941.
Hidden in a hangar
Of the 402 American navy and air force aircraft on Hawaii at the time of the attacks, 188 were destroyed and 159 damaged, leaving 41-13297 as one of only 55 that were wholly unscathed.
After Pearl Harbour the P-40B was repaired and flew again only to find itself involved in another, much more severe, accident in January 1942, after just 56 hours’ flight time. The P-40 came to grief when its pilot, Lt Ken Sprankle, was unable to recover from a spin whilst on patrol over the Koolau mountain range and the aircraft crashed into a forest with the loss of its pilot. This is where the wartime story of this particular P-40B ends and after lying undisturbed for over 45 years, save for the recovery of Lt Sprankle’s body, it was located by the Curtiss-Wright Historical Association (CWHA)’s “Project Tomahawk”. The team had been very active in Hawaii scouring the landscape for wartime P-40 wrecks to be restored.
With the wreckage being quite substantial it was recovered from the island in 1987 and transported to California, where the monumental task of restoring the early P-40 began under the care of the CWHA, with parts from two other P-40B airframes also recovered from Hawaii contributing. After some time the project was offered to The Fighter Collection (TFC) at Duxford, UK, which has a wealth of Curtiss fighter experience, as more resources were needed to progress towards flight.
So it was that TFC took charge of the project with continued support from the CHWA and the main bulk of the restoration was split between two locations – Murray Griffiths’ Precision Aerospace Productions of Australia took care of the wings and associated systems whilst Matt Nightingale’s California Aerofab dealt with the fuselage and a few other smaller sections – both well-respected P-40 rebuilders.
After many years of meticulous work all the components of the project were brought together at Chino, California, where the final assembly and finishing touches were taken care of by Fighter Rebuilders to bring to aircraft back to its former glory before Steve Hinton was able to get air under the P-40’s wheels for the first time in over 64 years on 12 January 2007.
Once flight-testing was complete the airframe was disassembled and placed into a shipping container for its long journey to its new home at Duxford, where it arrived in late June. Starring on the Flying Legends flight line that year, it was not until the 2008 event that it had its display debut, participating with a single flypast as well as flying in the finale ‘Balbo’ formation. The P-40B – later transferred to the UK civil register as G-CDWH – kept up its appearances at Duxford in subsequent years (once paperwork issues that kept it grounded from 2009 to 2011 were resolved) as well as venturing across the English Channel to the La Ferté-Alais airshow in France, continuing to remind the crowds of the Pearl Harbour attacks. During its time with TFC, the P-40B flew alongside the F and N variants of the Warhawk, as well as one of its forebears, the Curtiss Hawk 75, allowing Stephen Grey and co. to demonstrate a significant proportion of the Curtiss Hawk lineage to European audiences. Together, these aircraft represented the Curtiss Hawk’s exploits throughout various theatres of war, including the Battle of France, the Pacific and the Mediterranean.
The P-40B was acquired by a private buyer and donated to the Collings Foundation in late 2013, with news of its sale announced on the eve of the Pearl Harbour anniversary. After five years spent gracing UK skies, the Warhawk was going home to tell the story of the Pearl Harbour attack to the next generation of Americans. Commenting on the sale at the time Robert Collings, executive director of the Foundation, said, “The history that comes with it is pretty special. It was obvious that we needed to get this airplane back to America.”
The P-40B was shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to Gary Norville’s American Aero Services at New Smyrna Beach, Florida, for reassembly. Not too long after its return to flight, the aeroplane suffered a landing accident at New Smyrna on 29 October 2014.
As of early December 2015, the P-40B repairs have progressed well and it is undergoing reassembly. It is expected to fly before the end of the year and will then be maintained in airworthy condition in the USA by the Collings Foundation.
P-40B Warhawk 41-13297 epitomises the early US Army pursuit fighters and is preserved for future generations as a reminder of an important chapter in US military history.