'Eight ballers' risk lives for WWII reconnaissance

  • Published
  • By Jim Malachowski
  • 71st Flying Training Wing historian
On Jan. 23, 1942, Japanese forces invaded the island of Rabaul, crushing the small Australian garrison protecting the peacetime capital of New Guinea. The Japanese rapidly developed it into a massive base, complete with more than 300 miles of tunnels, underground storage and hospitals. Soon it became the home of the Japanese Naval Headquarters in the South Pacific.
The Japanese Air Force had four airfields with more than 200 fighters and bombers in the Rabaul area. American intelligence officers needed to know what was happening.
In the age of satellite photographs and real-time video imagery from unmanned Predator aircraft, it is easy to forget the courage and skill it took for aviators to fly unarmed airplanes into harm's way for photo reconnaissance. Accurate information was crucial to Allied battle plans and the 8th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron had the men and aircraft to get that information.
The Japanese knew the tactical and strategic value of shooting down American reconnaissance planes. One Japanese general wrote home that "enemy reconnaissance planes fly over us and report the 'splendid target' to the forces waiting ... and then comes the swarm of enemy aircraft upon us."
The 8th was the first reconnaissance squadron to leave the states following the outbreak of World War II. By 1943, the squadron could be found deep in the South Pacific flying photo missions against enemy airfields and ship movement. Before long, the Eight Ballers earned the nickname "Eyes of the 5th Air Force."
The squadron flew a stripped-down variant of the Lockheed P-38 "Lightning" known as the F-5. The airplane carried no armament, very little armor protection and a lot of photographic equipment. It was also lighter and faster than enemy fighter planes. Pilots used this to their advantage when flying over enemy territory.
Today they are the 8th Flying Training Squadron, and the heritage of the P-38 can be seen in the lightning bolt on the squadron's patch. Helping showcase their proud heritage, Navy Cmdr. Brian Osborn, 8th FTS commander, unveiled a new painting depicting a P-38 F-5 flying over enemy ships near Simpson Harbor, Rabaul. The painting, by aviation artist Paul Wentzel, was nominated to hang in the U.S. Air Force Art Collection.