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.