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  P-38G-5-LO Lightning Serial Number 42-12849 Tail 72
USAAF
5th AF
49th FG
9th FS

Pilot  1st Lt William D. Sells, O-337325 (KIA)
Crashed  April 14, 1943

Aircraft History
Built by Lockheed Aircraft Corporation (LAC) in Burbank, California. Delivered to the U. S. Army. Disassembled and shipped overseas and reassembled.

Wartime History
Assigned to the 5th Air Force, 49th Fighter Group, 9th Fighter Squadron. No known nose art or nickname. Tail number 72.

Mission History
On April 14, 1943 took off from Gurney Airfield near Milne Bay piloted by 1st Lt William D. Sells on a mission to intercept attacking Japanese aircraft. Caught by A6M Zeros, this P-38 was severely damaged by gunfire. Escaping into the clouds, Sells attempted to bring his crippled P-38 to land at Gurney Airfield, but during finals his right engine seized and a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) P-40 Kittyhawk entered the landing pattern ahead of him, forcing him to swerve away to avoid a collision, and caused him to crash into the jungle at the eastern edge of the runway in in a fireball. Sells was killed in the crash.

Memorials
Sells was officially declared dead the day of the mission. Postwar, buried in Arlington National Cemetery at section 12 site 4031.

References
History 49th FG frame 476
Nationwide Gravesite Locator lists Sells date of death (incorrectly) as April 4, 1943
PNG Museum Aircraft Status Card - P-38G Lightning 42-12849
Serial Number from 9th FS 49th FG mission report dated 14 April 1943
Protect & Avenge page 140
Fork-Tailed Devil The P-38 by Martin Caidin Chapter 20 (mentions this loss)
"Lieutenant William Sells was assigned to Port Moresby as a P-38 pilot of the Fifth Air Force. Until taking off on his last mission he had been in combat several times and had shot down one Japanese airplane, with this kill confirmed. The mission started without preamble as to what lay ahead. Sells apparently was making a test flight to check out the engines of his P-38, which had been giving him trouble earlier. He climbed out through scattered clouds, running through different power settings until he was satisfied with the results, and then prepared to return to the field.

And then he saw them. Riding through the clouds. Good God! Dozens and dozens of bombers with a heavy escort of Zero fighters. Unnoticed by Allied radar, they were rushing in a wide sweep against Milne Bay, hidden in their approach behind a storm front. They had every chance of hitting the Allied fields without warning.

Sells shouted his alarm by radio. On the ground pilots raced for their planes. But there wasn't enough time for an effective"intercept; before the fighters could clear the deck the bombers and Zeros would be on them. Sells, of course, was little more than a bothersome gnat facing a huge swarm. He didn't hesitate. He advanced his throttles, jockeying for additional altitude, then pushing forward into a dive that took him straight for the bombers. Sells made it to the first bomber formation before the Zeros could cut him off. He bored straight at the Mitsubishis and his thumb stabbed the trigger on the yoke. Sells's aim was true. A flaming bomber tumbled through the clouds, shedding debris as it fell.

Sells had the momentary advantage and it was clear he pressed it as hard as he could. The Lightning raced straight at the lead bombers and the formation broke up as Sells plunged through, with Zeros now in pursuit. Sells needed time, enough time to disrupt the flow of the attack, to break up the bomber formations, if possible, so the fighters below might get into the air in time to follow his initial passes. Sells went through the first formation, dove and rolled into a turn and came around
beneath a second formation, the bombers lined up before him like geese.

His second kill left no doubts; the concentrated buzzsaw fire of the P-38 sliced a wing from a fuselage and the bomber spun flatly through the clouds. That made two. Sells's initial dive, his diving, rolling turn and up-and-down tactics unquestionably saved his life. The bomber gunners were tracking him, but he was rolling and skidding wildly and the Zeros were so close the bombers had to hold their fire for fear of hitting their own pilots. Again, it was a desperate measure of relief, but it added up to precious moments. Sells went up through the bomber formation in a zoom climb to take advantage of his speed, the Zeros hard after him. Their own numbers became Sells's ally as the Zeros rolled away from collisions. But there were too many and the Lightning was taking a battering. Sells gave the P-38 everything it had, he ran the gauntlet of fire and he was through. For the moment he raced ahead of the Zeros.

Sells dove straight into another formation. Perhaps the Japanese believed he was going to ram, or they thought more than one P-38 was in their midst. Whatever were their thoughts there was no questioning their actions - an-other formation began to break up as the P-38 rushed against them, and set a third bomber aflame. Three down.

Sells stayed in tight, risking the burst of fire from a Zero that could be the last thing in life for him. He kept snapping out short bursts. Far below, explosions tore the jungle. Some of the bombers were jettisoning their loads and breaking away from their course. Sells didn't see this, of course. Zeros came at him in a head-on pass. A short burst and one fighter exploded. Four down. But the P-38 was taking it from all sides. The fighter shuddered as bullets and cannon shells ripped the metal. The canopy cracked. Blood pulsed through Sells's flying suit.

They watched other Zeros come at Sells head-on. A longer burst this time from the P-38, then the thin smoke stopped trailing behind. Sells' was out of ammunition. But ahead of him a sudden explosion. The third Zero, gone. That made six. No more ammo.

Sells shoved forward on the yoke and the Lightning dove. Away from the fight. The Zeros followed briefly, turned back to the bombers. Sells eased out of his dive and headed for. Sells shoved forward on the yoke and the Lightning dove. Away from the fight. The Zeros followed briefly, turned back to the bombers. Sells eased out of his dive and headed for the nearest field. He was weak now from shock and loss of blood and his airplane was punctured from nose to tail and through the wings, and the engine was still burning. He asked for an immediate landing. But the ground controllers didn't realize how badly he was hurt.

There were still those bombers in the sky, and on the airstrip Aussie P-40s were running for sky. Sells saw a red light flash at him from the ground. Go around. The crippled P-38 banked into a wide turn for a second approach to the field. What happened then we will never know. Perhaps by now Sells had lost too much blood. He may have blacked out. Or maybe the battered fighter just gave up the ghost. It could have been the engine, or the control cables. It could have been anything.

Beyond the edge of the field something happened. The fighter fell off on one wing. When it hit the ground it exploded."

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Last Updated
January 5, 2018

 

Tech Info
P-38
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