US, P-51D-20-NA, 44-72218, Big Beautiful Doll, Lt. Col. John D. Landers, 78 FG, 84 FS
Cmdr Officer of 78th FG, flew 90 missions in the Pacific Theater; served also with the 55th FG and 357th FG/ Had over 1039 hrs in flying time and 174 total missions.
3 Silver Stars/4 DFC/ British DFC/21 Air Medals/Purple heart/Croix de Guerre and various theater/campaign medals
34 1/2 total of which 20 were ground, 14 1/2 air
78th FG. Lt Col John D Landers , of Joshua Texas, assumed command of the 78th Fighter Group at Duxford on February 22nd 1945 and became the Group’s sixth Commanding Officer. A graduate of Cleburne, Texas, High School and Arkansas Teacher’s College at Conway, Arkansas, John Landers enlisted in April 1941 and received his wings and commission at Stockton, California, a few days after Pearl Harbour. In January 1942 he embarked for Darwin, Australia, and checked out in a P-40, going into combat with less than ten hours pursuit time.
“On his second operational mission, Lt Col Landers had what he still calls his biggest combat thrill. Enemy planes had been reported north of Darwin, and twelve American planes, including the colonel’s, took off to intercept them. The Texan’s Warhawk developed engine trouble, and he was soon flying alone behind the others, halfway between Darwin and Melville Island. He sighted the Japanese aircraft – seven bombers with three escorting Zero fighters – and with 2000 feet altitude superiority, dived to attack. Finding a bomber dead in his sights, he blew the Jap plane apart for his first aerial victory.
The escorting Zeros punched holes in the American’s plane from wing to tail and knocked his radio out, so he dived away and waited for them to come back on the return route. From a distance, he saw the remainder of his squadron shooting down other enemy planes. When the Japs returned, only three bombers and no Zeros were left. Lt Col Landers attacked from the rear and sent the remaining three bombers crashing into the sea, to complete a 10-0 victory for the Yanks. As two of the last three bombers had already been shot up by the other flyers, the Texan received full credit only for the two that were in perfect shape when he attacked.
A short time later, Lt Col Landers was moved with the squadron to New Guinea, near Buna. He was now flying a P-38 Lightning. The American field was frequently bombed and strafed by Japanese planes, and the colonel shot down four Zeros on intercepted missions.
After his sixth victory, the pilot himself was shot down and bailed out o9n the wrong side of the Owen Stanley mountain range. Friendly natives helped him out of the jungle, and seven days after he had joined the Caterpillar Club he returned to his home base. A leave and a 43-day tour of Australia followed, and then the pilot returned to his squadron, flew a few missions, and was “rotated” back to the States. He received a Purple Heart for his jungle ordeal.
In the States, he met acclaim and publicity, and appeared on the Ginny Sims radio program among others. Seven months later, bored with routine flying at Santa Ana, California, he applied for further combat and was immediately sent to England and to the 55th Fighter Group, then commanded by Colonel George T Crowell, of Chicago, Illinois. That was in April1944. The 55th Group was then flying the P-38 Lightnings and later changed to the P-51 Mustangs.
The Texan’s chief combat with Nazi planes occurred when he led his flight of Lightnings against 20 German planes threatening B-24 Liberators near Bernburg, Germany. He said that the enemy pilots stayed in tight formation throughout the fight and only broke loose to crash or jump. He saw nine Me 410’s crash and three chutes open. He was credited with three of the victories. None of his squadron’s planes were lost.
On a mission shortly after that action, Lt Col Landers demolished two Junkers 88’s at an airfield southwest of Berlin. He swept in on the parked fighter-bombers with a flight of five Mustangs, and the Americans left six of the enemy planes burning.
His most exciting bit of combat in this theatre occurred when he led his flight of Lightnings over a truck convoy behind the battle lines in France. The American fighters were carrying two 500 pound bombs each, one under each wing. On a country road, Lt Col Landers and his squadron found a truck convoy moving along. He led two passes, dropping one bomb on each pass.
The convoy was hit, but some trucks still moved, so the Texan roared up and down, strafing with his 50-caliber guns and 20-millimeter cannon. Col Landers said that the gunners must have been killed, as no shots were fired at the Americans in the last pass. The gunners had done their work well, as the colonel returned to his base with his plane torn from Nazi fire. Jagged hoes were all over his plane, and a wing had to be changed.
The pilot’s eagerness in combat was dramatically shown when he was assigned to lead the longest mission ever flown by fighter planes, a 1600-mile round trip escorting heavy bombers to Gydnia, Poland. He took off and developed engine trouble a short way out. He radioed back to the field to have another plane ready. On landing, he hopped into a waiting Mustang, then took off and caught his group just before it rendezvoused with the bombers. His plane was in the air more than seven hours.
Joining the 55th Group as a captain and squadron operations officer, the Texan left it in October 1944, a squadron commander and Lieutenant Colonel. He left to temporarily command the 375th Fighter Group at Leiston, while the group was awaiting the return of Colonel Erwin H Dregne, of Viroqua, Wisconsin, former deputy commander of the group on leave in the States at this time, who was slated to succeed Col Donald W Graham of Oakland, California.
Lt Col Landers' ability to be in the right place at the right time was demonstrated when he and other pilots of the 375th Group barged into the middle of an Me 109 landing pattern. The leader polished off a Me 109 over the snow-covered field and then dived to the deck, riddling another. The 375th Group pilots, flying low enough to scoop up snow, wrecked a total of 13 Nazi planes on the ground and shot four out of the air.
The colonel left the 375th on November 18, 1944, for a second leave in the United States. He returned to England in February,1945, and took command of the 78th Fighter Group on the 22nd of that month.”
Lt Col J D Landers’ victories up to March 1, 1945:
Destroyed – Six Japanese planes, all in air. (Two bombers, when he was flying P-40’s from Darwin, Australia, and four Zeros, when he was flying P-38’s from New Guinea.)
Probably destroyed – Five Japanese planes, all in air.
Destroyed – Five in air. (One Me 109 and three Me 410’s with the 55th Group and one Me 109 with the 357th Group. Six on ground. Five German planes with the 55th,
Damaged – One in air and one on ground.
“Change in commanding officers came as a surprise to the base […] Soldiers who first saw the new commander reported a tall, burley, easy speaking individual with enough ribbons (Silver Star with two cluster, DFC with two clusters, Air Medal with eleven clusters, Purple Heart) to fashion a Joseph’s coat of many colors.
The colonel, who is the third Texan to command the group, plunged into missions with the zest of one who love them and flew on four of the group’s last six combat flights of the month. One of these was the Berlin mission of February 26th, on which he led the group. [..] The colonel boosted [his] score by two Messerschmitt 109’s ten days after joining the group (March 2), when he caught two dozen enemy fighters forming up over Burg airfield near Madgeburg.”
“No, I don’t carry any kind of luck charm.” Lieutenant Colonel Landers said. “I don’t know where my luck in finding enemy planes comes from. Some of the other group commanders claim that if they dropped me into a barrel of lard, I’d bump into a Nazi plane.”
Whether it is luck or whether the 78th Group’s commanding officer can “smell the rats” (as some have claimed) is beyond the scope of this history. The fact remains that within one month after assuming command, the colonel had led the group into two luscious gaggles of German planes, both of which were apparently forming up in preparation for attacks on American bombers. The P-51 Mustang pilots destroyed 45 of the enemy fighters, 32 of them in one day for a new group air record.”
“Lt Col John D Landers, 24, of Joshua, Texas, commanding officer who bagged eight on the ground a week previously, topped that record by destroying nine planes at Prague-Kakowice airdrome. The victories boosted his total score to 36.5 German and Japanese aircraft destroyed, of which 14.5 were shot down in aerial combat.
‘When we arrived at least 80 planes were scattered around the field,’ the colonel said. ‘When we left there were 80 funeral pyres. A dozen anti-aircraft gunners put up some light flak at first, but it didn’t bother us much and we simply set up a traffic pattern. German aircraft were blowing up and burning all over the place. We made eight to nine passes. I scored doubles on each of my first three passes, two of the six planes blowing up.’”
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