Pappy Gunn and the A-20 Strafer

“Build a fire under anybody that can do us any good in getting the planes put together and sent up here…If you can catch any A-20’s coming up from the South marking time in Brisbane kick them [the pilots] in the pants for me and tell them we need those A-20’s. Do anything you think best to get planes assembled and tanks and guns installed…Every plane we have is today out on a mission. More planes — more missions…Sure glad that you are down there to get that job done.” —Col. John Davies to Capt. Pappy Gunn

It was with some resignation in May 1942 that the 89th Squadron C.O., 1/Lt. Donald P. Hall, surveyed the reassembled Douglas A-20A bombers and came to grips with the reality that these were the same ones they trained on in the U.S. and had been flown in four maneuvers. Their attack bombers were old. At least one of them had come from the Douglas factory in late 1939. They were all worn with plenty of mileage and some were beyond their peacetime service life of 273 days.

Unfortunately, factory-new aircraft would not be forthcoming over the next year of war, as all new production of the speedy light bomber were destined for the fight against Germany in the fronts of North Africa, Europe and as lend-lease for the Soviet Union. 3rd Bomb Group crews would have to “make do” with their old A-20As, a practice that many of the men were familiar with, having grown up during the Great Depression.

Their bombers lacked the range necessary to reach the combat front and their frontal armament of four .30-caliber machine guns lacked the firepower needed to cause enough damage and destruction. The planes would receive a series of modifications to turn them into fearsome attack bombers. These improvements and the tactics developed in 1942 and 1943 would go on to impact the air war strategy of the entire theater.

First up was the limited range of the aircraft. Depending on the bomb load, the A-20 had a combat radius of 260-337 miles, not far enough for a flight from Port Moresby to the Japanese bases of Lae and Salamaua on the other side of the Owen Stanley Mountains. That modification was straightforward: each A-20 was eventually outfitted with two 450-gallon fuel tanks in one of the two bomb bays.

B-25 Pappys Folly
Paul I. “Pappy” Gunn in the cockpit of one of his early B-25 strafers “Pappy’s Folly” in early 1943. (G. John Robinson Collection)

The other modification was to the A-20’s light defenses up front, which consisted of four .30-caliber machine guns along the bottom of the nose. Captain Paul I. “Pappy” Gunn was convinced that a heavier armament could be installed inside the nose section of the bombardier’s compartment. The person who allowed him to realize this vision was an Army Air Force pilot and engineer who Gunn had known from his pre-war days in the Philippines, Capt. Frederick G. Hoffman. Their paths crossed again in Australia on April 28, 1942 when Hoffman was overseeing the assembly of aircraft in Brisbane and Gunn was down there to begin work on a strafer prototype. They discussed the project and Gunn was introduced to engineer 1/Lt. Tom R. Tompkins, who would facilitate the installation. First, Capt. Bob Strickland and Pappy Gunn had to go see Army Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. George H. Brett to receive the go-ahead for the project.

After an OK from Gen. Brett, a prototype was put together. It made a successful first test, leading to Pappy Gunn declaring that he wanted to see all of the 3rd’s A-20s modified with the four nose guns. Once the planes were assembled, serviced and flight-tested at Eagle Farm, they were flown to Amberley for fuel tank and strafer modifications. There was an ample supply of .50-caliber machine guns that had been salvaged from dozens of P-39 Airacobra and P-40 Warhawk fighters that had crashed by new pilots learning to fly the powerful Allison-engine pursuit planes during training and ferry flights from January through April 1942.

A-20 strafer installation
This is a frontal view of the Douglas A-20A-1 with four .50-caliber machine guns installed inside the bombardier’s compartment. The metal tubing is part of the hydraulic system for charging the guns. Officers of the 3rd Bomb Group, engineers at Amberley Field as well as enlisted men of different service units around Brisbane contributed ideas and helped design and fabricate this successful weapon system. The five men who were most responsible were Capt. Pappy Gunn, Capt. Donald P. Hall, Capt. Fred G. Hoffman, 1/Lt. Tom R. Tompkins and T/Sgt. Victor J. Mitchell. Prior to the installation of the forward-firing heavy machine guns, the A-20A’s forward armament consisted of four .30-caliber guns, two on each side of the fuselage. (William J. Beck Collection)

Pappy Gunn took Col. Davies’ urging to get the planes done and ready for combat as quickly as possible. This required the acquisition of myriad aircraft parts and supplies. He was rumored to have drawn a gun on one supply officer which got him banned from the Brisbane area for several months. Just a few months later the successful strafer modification was adapted to the B-25 Mitchell by Pappy Gunn and Jack Fox, the senior “tech rep” of North American Aviation.

In early 1943, the pilots of the 89th and 90th Squadron began to develop their own low-level bombing technique, similar to skip-bombing that had been successfully established by Maj. William G. Benn with the B-17 crews of the 43rd Bomb Group in 1942. (For that story, read Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Volume I.) This technique combined with the strafer modification turned the A-20s and B-25s of the Pacific Theater into low-level powerhouses that helped drive the Japanese out of New Guinea and the Philippines.

Any records and photographs documenting this modification process were never created, did not survive the past 80 years or possibly remain undiscovered. The story is told here for the first time using the personal diaries, memoirs, correspondence and interviews with the 3rd Bomb Group pilots and officers who were there.

For the full story of the A-20 strafer modification, read Chapter 9 of Harvest of the Grim Reapers, Volume I.