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Veteran served as Lindbergh wingman

By Vincent Z. Whaley
Johnson City Press Staff Writer

(PUBLISHED Sunday, Aug. 6, 2000)

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — While stationed on the South Pacific island of Biak off the coast of New Guinea in the summer of 1944, 1st Lt. Joe Price was preparing to climb into his P-38 Lightning for another strafing mission when he was told he wouldn't be flying his trusty aircraft that day.

Someone else was.

Infuriated by his crew chief's declaration, Price headed straight for the operations tent. Once inside with his commanding and operations officers, Price dropped the subject once he discovered the temporary pilot for his No. 196 P-38 would be the legendary Charles A. Lindbergh.

"I wasn't too happy about it because Lindbergh was old enough to be my daddy," said the 79-year-old Johnson City resident, who served with the 433rd Fighter Squadron, 475th Fighter Group, 5th Air Force, during World War II.

"Lindbergh was a wonderful aviator, but he was a civilian at that time and had come over to help us extend the range of our P-38s for longer missions," he said.

For this particular mission, Price was ordered to serve as Lindbergh's wingman during a strafing mission on a Japanese airbase at Manokwari, located on another Indonesian island approximately 300 miles west of Biak.

"The colonel said to me, 'We cannot lose that man. He has to be taken care of, so you must be all right or they wouldn't have chosen you to be his wingman. You are to always look out 20 feet from your aircraft, and if you don't see that number 196, you might as well land on Manokwari at that Jap airbase,' " Price said.

Though somewhat disturbed, Price pressed on and joined three other P-38s for the mission. It wasn't long, however, before problems began to arise.

"We took off normally, but Lindbergh didn't pull up his landing gear, and he still had his flaps down," Price said. "He was still climbing, so I called him on the radio, but he didn't respond. Finally I said, '1-9-6, 1-9-6. You aren't flying the Spirit of St. Louis. Pull your damn landing gear up!' It wasn't long before I saw his landing gear disappear.

"Then we strafed the airbase from one end to the other, and Lindbergh flew so low that I thought he was going to land a couple of times. But luckily we only had some small-arms fire during that run. Just enough to keep you alert, but it was still more flak than we thought we would have," Price said.

Having flown 82 missions during the war, Price experienced more than one scary moment in the sky, including the time he crash-landed his P-38 after flying into a dark mass of clouds and running out of fuel.

"It was on April 16, 1944, and we called that day 'Black Sunday,' " he said. "That was the largest loss the Air Force lost in any one day other than in enemy action, because that day's losses were due to just the weather. There was a lot that went on that day, and I was lucky to live through it."

On another mission with Lindbergh — famous for being the first man to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Paris in 1927 — Price thought bad weather would give him major problems, but he said the "Lone Eagle" saved his squadron.

"We were flying with Lindbergh on another mission and were approaching a dark weather front," he said. "It was black from the water up, and we were all a little uneasy. Then Lindbergh's calm voice came across the radio and said, 'Boys, I believe if we fly due north for 15 minutes and look for a hole, we'll get out of this. If that doesn't work, we'll fly due south for 30 minutes.' But after 10 minutes, Lindbergh found us a hole, and the whole squadron flew straight through and away from the front. I was thankful to hear his voice and really felt like my daddy was with me then.

"Lindbergh was a great aviator, and I have a lot of respect for what he did for aviation. He was a great American," Price said.

Story Copyright © 2000-2004 by Vincent Z. Whaley and the Johnson City Press,
204 W. Main St., Johnson City, Tennessee 37605, 423.929.3111.
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596th Signal Support Co., 97th Signal Battalion
47th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division
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