On New Year’s Day, 1945, 2nd Lt. Robert Nesmith crashed landed his P-38 Lightning during a training mission — a long, long way from home.
This wasn’t just an emergency landing in the local flight pattern. No, this was 2,000 miles west of Anchorage, Alaska, on the Aleutian island of Attu.
While Lieutenant Nesmith emerged from his duties unhurt and eventually returned home, aircraft No. 42-13400 sat untouched, except for a quick parts salvage, on that exact spot for more than half a century. Slowly being swallowed by layers of mud and decaying vegetation, called “muskeg,” and beat up by rugged weather.
Untouched, until recently that is. Last month, the aircraft completed an extensive transformation. What was twisted, rotting sheet metal on the arctic tundra, is now mounted at Elmendorf Air Force Base, as a memorial to former Alaskan Command commander, Lt. Gen. David J. McCloud, and to those who died in the Aleutian Campaign during World War II.
The P-38’s journey from Attu to Elmendorf and its transition were made possible by Project Lightning Save, a group of aircraft enthusiasts, visionary volunteers, flag officers, and state and federal agencies. They began work more than nine years ago to ensure the P-38 would remain poised in perpetual flight at Elmendorf.
Restoration and recovery team chief Don Delk and team leader Ed Lamm were involved almost from the start. Now retired, both served as civil service maintenance officers at Elmendorf until the project went into full swing last year.
The Lightning might have rested on Attu forever, but the rarity and history of the aircraft loomed in the minds of these retired bluesuiters, who spent their careers taking care of planes like the F-15 Eagle and F-15E Strike Eagle.
Mr. Delk compared the P-38’s status in 1939 to the F-22 of today.
“Its contemporary’s top speed was 230 miles per hour and had a service ceiling of 12,000 feet, while the P-38 had a top speed of 400 miles per hour and a service ceiling of 39,000 feet. The Lightning was the first turbocharged aircraft and was way ahead of its time when if flew in 1939.”
The aircraft topped the specs of its World War II-era rivals in every area and featured a revolutionary design.
The P-38 served in every theater of the war in a variety of roles. The wrecked Lightning on Attu surely saw combat during the struggle with the Japanese for control of the Aleutians, according to John Cloe, 3rd Wing historian at Elmendorf. It was also the only known G model in existence.
The significance of the plane coupled with the challenge of restoration piqued the interest of Messrs. Delk and Lamm when presented with the idea by Capt. Steve Morrisette, a maintenance officer at the time.
“Captain Morrisette was into heritage quite a bit. He learned about the aircraft and contacted Don to find out if it would be recoverable,” Mr. Lamm said. The pair accompanied the captain to the island and hiked to the aircraft location.
“It was just interesting to find an airplane over 1,200 miles from civilization, to try to recover it and bring it back, and then restore it,” Mr. Delk said. “It was a historical challenge.”
The two decided to take on the project, working on the administrative processes of getting the project authorized and accumulating parts, including wings, from other sites. The journey toward recovery and approval took several years.
Captain Morrisette retired and left Alaska, but Messrs. Delk and Lamm pressed on with the project.
“Don and Ed had no doubt they could recover and restore the Lightning,” he said. “Both were senior civilians with over 70 years of experience between them and a deep knowledge of how to make things happen.”
And both had a passion for the project. “I used to dream of how we’d dismantle the plane,” Mr. Lamm said.
The group, which now included Mr. Cloe, was building toward a recovery effort when the project hit an almost fatal snag in June 1996.
“We had received permission from the Fish and Wildlife Service, the state Office of Historic Preservation and then one week prior to going, the Air Force Museum denied us permission to recover the aircraft,” Mr. Delk said. The museum had decided not to accept any more aircraft into its field program.
“We basically gave up on the project,” Mr. Delk said. Then Mr. Cloe gained the interest of the man the aircraft would eventually memorialize. General McCloud arrived at Elmendorf to lead Alaskan Command in December 1997. After hearing of the P-38 project, he cleared a path for the burgeoning restoration team.
Then the leader who had championed Project Lightning Save perished in a private aircraft crash. General McCloud died in July 1998, flying his YAC-54 aerobatic plane. His successor and then-Col. Scott Gration ensured that the project would continue.
“Like General McCloud, he also had a vision and understanding of the importance of heritage,” Mr. Cloe said. “To him, the P-38 project symbolized the spirit of General McCloud. The P-38, ahead of its time when designed, was the product of daring and brilliance.”
The nonprofit McCloud Memorial Foundation was formed and began collecting donations for the project and planning the recovery.
After more than eight years of administrative toil, the group set out to accomplish the operational phases: plucking the aircraft from Attu and transforming it into an airplane again.
The P-38 that lay on Attu had problems beyond the original crash, which tore off both propellers, ripped out the engine reduction housings, broke the horizontal stabilizer and buckled the left nacelle. According to Mr. Cloe, the original salvage crew also extracted the armament, turbo superchargers and other recoverable items with a fire ax. As Messrs. Delk and Lamm, both now retired, put together an extensive group of mechanics, aircrew, pararescuemen and a documentation team.
In June 1999, they finally went for it.
What the team found on Attu was an aircraft in surprisingly good condition, considering what the more than five decades of harsh Aleutian environment had exacted on the fuselage. Wind conditions over the Temnak Valley had kept the salty ocean air from the aircraft, staving off severe corrosion.
Some digging and much disassembly were required before the P-38 could be transported by helicopter to the Coast Guard Station on Attu for a C-130 trip to Anchorage.
“It was the most excellent display of teamwork I’d ever seen. Every individual jumped in and helped. We had a lot of shoveling to get the nose gear out of the ground, and everyone got down and took a turn on the shovel,” Mr. Delk said. “That included General Gration.”
What was expected to take a couple days ended up taking about four hours, and the same evening they arrived, the crews and aircraft were transported to the Coast Guard station. Messrs. Delk and Lamm remained several days to prepare the aircraft for its final flight, the trip to Anchorage via Alaska Air National Guard C-130.
Hangar work begins
The aircraft was then shuttled to Elmendorf’s Hangar 4, where work continued. A series of other volunteers, some retired people, and some active duty from Elmendorf, joined in.
“In eight months we’ve taken it apart, repaired it and put it back together,” Mr. Delk said. “That’s smokin’. That’s record-breaking time. If we were trying to do it downtown or without Air Force support, we’d have to add another two years onto the project easy.”
The Lightning was to be restored piece by piece, prompting some doubt at the outset of the project.
“We broke everything down and rebuilt it,” Mr. Lamm said. “I think one of the most gratifying things about the job is Don and I looked at it in the beginning and determined that we could finish the aircraft by April 15.
“There were some folks who said, ‘Ain’t no way.’ But one-by-one as the project progressed, they came on board, and they began to realize we’re going to do what we said we were going to do. A lot of good people supported us.”
With the work done, the crew has mixed feelings about the end of this unique project. “April 15 was a bittersweet day, because we were glad to be done but also sad,” Mr. Delk said.
“We have other things in life we need to get doing — we’ve put our lives on hold. But we’re going to miss something not coming here every day.”
[Editor’s note: Unfortunately, Mr. Delk passed away shortly before the P-38’s dedication.]