Von Spahr, an Englewood, Fla. retiree, was a 19-year-old armorer in 1943 attached to the 431st Fighter Squadron, 475th Fighter Group, 5th Air Corps based at Port Moresby, New Guinea during World War II. His company commander told him to take a Jeep and pick up a pilot flying into the local airstrip in a P-38 Lightning fighter plane and bring him back to the squadron’s ready room.
“The P-38 circled the field, made an approach and touched down. Once the plane stopped I climbed up on its wing, unlatched the canopy and pulled it back. The pilot appears a little older. He was wearing an old leather flying helmet and goggles. He was filling out the flight log and then he signed it: Col. Charles A. Lindbergh,” Spahr recalled more than 65 years later. “I was face-to-face with the ‘Lone Eagle’ himself! I probably caught my breath.”
Lindbergh was on a mission to the Pacific to teach P-38 pilots how to get more mileage out of their planes by reducing their RPMs and leaning out the gas mixture thus allowing them to stay airborne longer.
Because he was one of the principal speakers for the “America First” movement, aimed at keeping the United States out of World War II, Lindbergh was not a friend of President Franklin Roosevelt. The president’s intention was to keep the world-renowned aviator out of combat during the Second World War. He almost succeeded.
Lindbergh spent several months island hopping with the 475 Fighter Group. He was given his own P-38 for instructional purposes only. It wasn’t long before he got the fighter he was flying wing-man for Maj. Thomas McGuire, commander of the 431st Fighter Squadron, and ace of aces during WW II.
“On July 28, 1944 Lindbergh shot down a Japanese Ki-51 Sonia reconnaissance aircraft on a mission over the coast of Ceram. His first air-to-air combat almost became his last. He fired on the enemy plane head-on while the Japanese plane tried to ram him,” Spahr noted in a six-page article he wrote years after the war.
After that incident Lindbergh’s flying lessons for the P-38 pilots took on new meaning because they considered him to be a seasoned combat pilot. However, he was restricted from flying combat missions for the duration of the war.
The 431st Fighter Squadron had the two top aces in World War II – Maj. Richard Bong and Maj. McGuire. Bong was the hottest pilot in the service with 40 combat kills. He died while flying as a test pilot after returning home on Aug. 6, 1945 – the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. McGuire was second with 38 kills. He was killed on a combat mission over Negros Island on Jan. 7, 1945. Before their deaths they were both awarded the Medal of Honor by Gen. Douglas MacArthur for their flying skills against Japanese pilots.
Spahr was McGuire’s armorer all through the war. Each P-38 was assigned two mechanics and an armorer. It was his duty to make sure the 20-millimeter cannon and the four 50-caliber machine guns, mounted in the nose of the twin-tailed fighter, were working properly.
“I was a 19-year-old staff sergeant when Maj. McGuire picked me to be his armorer,” the 85-year-old Englewood man said. “I have no idea why he chose me.”
Spahr vividly recalls one incident involving him, the major and his P-38 he called “Pudgy.”.
“Our fighter group had gone on a mission. We’d listen to them as they called back and forth to each other on their radios while in combat,” he said. “When my major returned from the mission he jumped down from his plane and gave me hell because his guns had stop firing while he was still flying. He shot down five enemy planes that day and possibly three more that couldn’t be verified.
“We checked his guns and to my relief we discovered that McGuire’s plane had run out of ammunition. After the major’s crew chief told him his guns weren’t firing because they were out of ammo, he apologized to me. It made a big impression on me,” Spahr said.
Three years to the day after he went to war, Spahr sailed under the San Francisco Bridge on his way home from battle. He immediately went to work for the Post Office and became a post master up north before moving to Englewood Post Office. He worked as assistant post master until he retired in the 1970s after 34 years of service.
He and his wife, Dorothy, have lived in the same yellow and white house on East Perry Lane in Englewood for 50 years.
Hottest fighter group in U.S. Air Force in WW II
By the time World War II was over the 475 Fighter Group comprised of three squadrons the 431st, 432nd and 433rd flying P-38 “Lightning” fighter planes had racked up the most significant number of kills of any American fighter group during the war:
- 555 Japanese aircraft destroyed in the air.
- 2 Medal of Honor recipients—Bong and McGuire
- 2 Presidential Unit Citations.
- 3 Distinguished Service Crosses for extraordinary gallantry.
- 27 Silver Stars for gallantry.
- 130 Distinguished Flying Crosses
- 315 Air Medals for meritorious achievement.
- 26 Purple Hearts.
They were the most highly decorated American fighter group in history, according to Spahr.
Name: Von Spahr
Age: 87 (at the time of interview)
Hometown: Ohio City, Ohio
Address: Englewood, Fla.
Entered Service: Nov. 1, 1941
Rank: Staff Sergeant
Unit: 431st Fighter Squadron, 475th Fighter Group, 5th Air Corps
Commendations: Two Presidential Unit Citations, Asiatic-Pacific Theatre Ribbon with three bronze battle stars and the Philippine Liberation Ribbon with one bronze battle star.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on August 3, 2009 and is republished with permission.
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be republished without permission. Links are encouraged.
Click here to view the War Tales fan page on FaceBook.