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T-Bolt! The Legendary P-47 Thunderbolt Broke All the Rules

P-47 Thunderbolt. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
P-47 Thunderbolt. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Not too long ago, I argued within the (virtual) pages of 19FortyFive as to why the P-51D Mustang should be considered not just the best WWII fighter pilot but indeed the G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time, of course, not the barnyard animal) of the fighter plane world, whether prop-powered or jet jockey.

However, in the spirit of being “fair and balanced” (to borrow Fox News’s slogan yet again), that article also acknowledged several other WWII fighter planes that could have conceivably laid claim to that title, and one of those candidates named therein was the P-47 Thunderbolt.

Continuing that same spirit of objectivity, let’s now play devil’s advocate and make the case for the P-47 aka “T-Bolt” aka “The Jug” aka “The Flying Bathtub” as the higher G.O.A.T.

Birth of the Bathtub ‘Bolt 

Don’t give me an old Thunderbolt. / It gave many a pilot a jolt. / It looks like a jug and flies like a tug, / Don’t give me an old Thunderbolt.” That is one of the many verses to the humorous Air Force traditional ballad “Give Me Operations,” most famously performed by folk singer Oscar Brand as well as “fighter pilot’s minstrel” Dick Jonas (Lt. Col, USAF, Ret.). But the smart-alecky tone of the song notwithstanding, the T-Bolt was quite loved by the pilots who flew it, and with damn good reason.

The P-47 was built by Republic Aviation (now known as M7 Aerospace LLC, in turn, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Elbit Systems of America LLC). The Thunderbolt made her maiden flight on May 6, 1941 – a mere 7 months before America’s entry into WWII – and was officially introduced into U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) service in November 1942. 

The warbird definitely merited those sobriquets of “Jug” and “Flying Bathtub,” as the damn thing was huge by WWII fighter plane standards. The P-47D variant in particular had an empty weight of 10,000 pounds (4,536 kg) and a max takeoff weight of 17,500 pounds (7,938 kg). For a basis of comparison, the P-51D had an empty weight of 7,635 pounds (3,463 kg) and a max takeoff weight of 12,100 pounds (5,488 kg) whilst the RAF’s Supermarine Spitfire weighed 5,065 pounds (2,297 kg) and 6,700 pounds (3,004 kg) respectively. Meanwhile, over on the adversarial Luftwaffe side of the ledger, the Messerschmitt Bf 109 weighed a mere 4,954 pounds (2,247 kg) empty and 7,496 pounds (3,400 kg ) maxed out, whilst the Focke-Wulf FW 190 weighed in at 7,055 pounds (3,200 kg) and 10,803 pounds (4,900 kg) respectively. Despite the heavy weight, the “Jug” had a very respectable max airspeed of 426 mph (686 kmh).

Thunderbolt Zaps the Axis

What’s more, the “Flying Bathtub” definitely had some metaphorical “muscle” to go with the “fat,” to the tune of eight Browning M2 “Ma Deuce” .50 caliber machine guns, with four, mounted on each wing. The plane could also tote up to 2,500 pounds (1,100 kg) worth of bombs or M8 4.5-inch (115mm) rockets. P-47 pilots would wield these weapons to deadly effects against Axis aircraft and ground targets alike.

The top two American aces of the European Theater, Lt. Col. Francis “Gabby” Gabreski and Capt. Robert S. “Bob” Johnson, with 28 and 27 air-to-air-victories respectively, obtained all their kills in T-Bolts; Bob Johnson in particular was the first USAAF pilot in Europe to top the previous record of 26 victories held by America’s First World War ace of aces, Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker. Gabby and Bob’s unit, the 56th Fighter Group, was the only 8th Air Force unit still flying the Thunderbolt instead of the Mustang by the end of the war, and this was by choice; this choice was vindicated by their 677.5 air-to-air kills and 311 more Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed on the ground. The big Jugs even performed well against Hitler’s then-newfangled Wundwerwaffen (“wonder weapon”) jets, downing 20 Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe (“Swallow”) jet fighters and four Arado Ar 234 Blitz (“Lightning”) jet bombers. 

Meanwhile, over in the Pacific Theatre, T-Bolt drivers got more than their fair share of kills against the Imperial Japanese Air Force. Particularly noteworthy was Col. Neel E. Kearby of the 5th Air Force, who tallied 22 aerial victories and was awarded the Medal of Honor for downing six enemy fighters in a single engagement. 

But it wasn’t just the Luftwaffe that felt the wrath of the P-47’s power, as the Wehrmacht was heavily victimized by this massive warbird as well. Units such as the 365th Fighter Group and the 405th Fighter Group rained absolute hell upon the ground components of Nazi Germany’s war machine, destroying a staggering 86,000 railroad cars, 9,000 locomotives, 6,000 armored fighting vehicles, and 68,000 trucks. 

Bathtubs Could Take a Beating

More so than any other Allied fighter of WWII, the “Flying Bathtub” was legendary for its ability to take punishment in addition to dishing it out. Luftwaffe ace Oberstleutnant (Lt. Col.) Oskar-Heinz Heinrich “Pritzl” Bär, who ended the war with 220 victories, observed that the P-47 “could absorb an astounding amount of lead and had to be handled very carefully.” 

In his autobiography (co-authored with the late great Martin Caidin, arguably the most prolific aviation author of all time), Bob Johnson gives an absolutely harrowing accounting of his plane absorbing a withering storm of machine gun and cannon fire from an FW 190, Unbeknownst to Johnson at the time, that particular Focke Wulf was piloted by German ace Oberstleutnant Egon Mayer, who ended the war with 102 kills. 

Mayer only broke off the attack when he ran out of ammo. As noted by aviation writer Alexander Hamer, “Mayer scanned the length of the Thunderbolt before shaking his head in astonishment that the thing was still in the air. Making eye contact with Johnson, Mayer waved his hand before peeling away.” Thus Johnson made it back to base to live to tell the tale. Mr. Hamer continues, “Slivers of lead from bullets and cannon shells were embedded deeply in both hands and two .30-calibre bullets had inflicted flesh wounds on his right thigh … Johnson initially tried to count the number of bullet holes but gave up after the tally passed 200 – without even moving around the plane.”

Where Are They Now?

A total of 15,636 P-47s were built from 1941 to 1945. The U.S. Air Force retired the plane in 1949 and the Air National Guard (ANG) followed suit in 1953. However, the Peruvian Air Force kept the big fighter in service until 1966. A substantial number of T-Bolts survive today as static museum displays and airworthy specimens alike. Among the survivors falling into the latter category is “Balls Out,” owned by Lewis Air Legends in San Antonio, Texas. 

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).