New Guinea Skies is the personal story of a World War II fighter pilot stationed in the South Pacific. Built around the framework of the author’s 1943-44 war diary, this book chronicles his life from boyhood on an Indiana farm through pilot training and into wartime action as a member of the 39th Fighter Squadron–the first squadron equipped with the P-38 Lightning aircraft that could challenge Japan’s Zero for air supremacy.
The 39th became the first squadron to shoot down a hundred Japanese planes, and Lieutenant Rothgeb’s account is filled with harrowing clashes, including a fiery crash and a raid on Rabaul. New Guinea itself posed a challenge to pilots as well, with its menacing jungles, fetid swamps, and sudden storms closing in around the impassable mountains.
Inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, it was Wayne Rothgeb’s dream to become a pilot. For his 16th birthday, he went on his first airplane ride. During that 15-minute, $2 flight, he decided he would join the Army Air Corps when he came of age. After working his way through two years of college at Purdue University, he was accepted as an aviation cadet in July 1941. The following December 8, the United States entered World War II. Wayne was called to serve on that Christmas Eve, reporting to Baer Field in Fort Wayne.
Rothgeb hadn’t planned to write a book about his World War II days, but New Guineans had found a P-38 in a swamp, and records said that he was its last pilot. His own logook and diary confirmed it. The plane is now in a Port Moresby museum.
My mother’s family lost the three youngest brothers during WWII. Dale Wilson, the one never found, was Missing in Action off the north coast of New Guinea, so I was interested in much of the terrain Rothgeb mentioned in the book. Danny Wilson, who also flew the the P-38, was Killed in Action in Europe.
Rothgeb’s book helped me in early research for what happened to Dale Wilson. He described island-hopping from the West Coast to get to Australia, just as in Dale Wilson’s logbook (sent home after his was MIA), named landing strips that Dale had mentioned (Tsili Tsili, Nadzab, Gusap, Dobodura, and Wewak–where Dale and crew were lost).
Rothgeb didn’t fly the P-38 until he got to New Guinea. He wrote, “We are going to fly the P-38, the cadillac fighter! Happy day.” (Dale Wilson had called the P-38 “a man’s dream.” His younger brother Danny got to fly it in combat.)
The author crashed on takeoff with belly tanks, which exploded, and flames even got to the machine guns. He was burned and hospitalized for a month. After recovery leave in Australia he was soon back in combat with the 39th Fighter Squadron, in the same unit as ace Dick Bong.
Wayne P. Rothgeb later became a local celebrity and well known farm broadcaster for WKJG-TV and WOWO Radio in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
New Guinea from the sky-view, sure sounds interesting to me. Thanks, Joy.
What a hero! What a story! All I can say is, “wow!”
It sounds as though he was lucky to have survived that crash.
Sounds like a great read. Sometime back I read about the real Greg “Pappy” Boyington! Great story. I will definitely have to check this one out too! 👍
I do have to admit, I also liked the shoe Baa Baa Black Sheep with Robert Conrad! 😎
I need to get acquainted with the Pappy Boyington story.
Joy, those were your three uncles lost to war?! Your poor grandparents! Thanking your family for their sacrifice. How terribly sad. Thanks for the review.
That’s why I needed to make sure the family is never forgotten–my book about them, Leora’s Letters, will be ready on Amazon by the end of the month! Grandpa Clabe died of a stroke and a broken heart in October 1946, so Grandma Leora lost three sons and her husband within a three year period. Mom, her sister, and two older brothers lost their dad and younger brothers during the same few years. They never got over it.
Yes, I can sort of (obviously not fully) imagine how profoundly it affected all their lives. It seems almost beyond comprehension. I know that my grandfather lost his grandfather (very close to him and lived with him), father, and mother within a three year period–and it had a big effect on the rest of his life and on his personality. The only thing that saved him I’m sure was that he dated and married my grandmother just before the 3rd one passed away. But to lose THREE CHILDREN all at the same basic time! Through war yet.
And they never talked about it. At the end of the war, there was still hope for two of them–both MIA at that point. But when the telegram arrived–the day the second atomic bomb was dropped, well. . . . https://joynealkidney.com/2017/03/14/august-1945/
My father-in-law went in with the ground troops in New Guinea to mop up there. I’m sure it must have been a big adjustment to a small-town boy from snowy Maine. I’m so glad more stories are coming out to preserve war memories.
Kokoda Track? I guess that was a brutal trail of razor-sharp kunai grass, mosquitoes of ever size, downpours every day, heat and humidity. It must have been awful for the ground troups.
My dad contracted malaria and felt the effects of it for decades afterward.
My dad also did mop-up duty in New Guinea.