When it comes to the Lockheed F-5 Photo Lightning version of the famous P-38 Lightning fighter, it can be a challenging venture to look for serial numbers for these aircraft, as they were conversions of P-38 Lightning fighters fresh off the production line at Burbank, California. Such is the case in trying to establish the serial numbers of the F-5s which the 35PRS took into China and operated in the last year of the war.

Some information on this conversion from P-38 fighter to F-5 photographic reconnaissance aircraft at the Dallas Modification Center at Love Field, Texas can be found in the 19 March 2014 posting “F-5E at Yunnanyi,” at:
https://35prs.wordpress.com/2014/03/19/f-5e-at-yunnanyi/

All that discussion aside, 35PRS records do contain information, partial data, which can be used to establish the serial numbers of the aircraft the squadron flew in China. The unit’s October, 1944, history report included a matrix showing the missions accomplished that month. Across the top of the matrix is a series of three digit “Plane” numbers.

35th PRS Plane numbers, October, 1944 (35PRS History for October, 1944)

35th PRS Plane numbers, October, 1944 (35PRS History for October, 1944)

Subsequent months’ reports continued this mission matrix with three-digit plane numbers. However, the June, 1945, mission summary contained two sets of numbers; one set indicates “Ser. No.” is for USAAF Serial Number of the aircraft from the production line and the other set is for “A.F. No.” or Air Force Number, essentially the number the squadron painted on the tail of the aircraft. Whether these AF Numbers were directed by 14th Air Force, the 35PRS higher headquarters in the absence of a parent photo group in its chain of command, is unknown.

35th PRS Plane numbers for June, 1945 (35PRS History for June, 1945)

35th PRS Plane numbers for June, 1945 (35PRS History for June, 1945)

Using the June 1945 plane listing with two sets of three-digit numbers and associations for each aircraft as a template, and using the October, 1944, single set of three-digit plane numbers, it is possible then to identify the 14 aircraft the squadron had on hand in October, 1944.

In this October, 1944, history report, are the dates of arrival in China for 11 of these 14 aircraft. Arrival information in China for the other three aircraft is not presently available (N/A). In summary fashion, are the 14 original F-5E tail numbers the 35PRS started operations in China with:
3-Digit # / F-5E Full Serial Number / 35PRS 3-Digit # / In China Date
081 / P-38J-15-LO 42-104081 became F-5E-2-LO / 801 / 08 Sep 44

291 / P-38J-15-LO 43-28291 became F-5E-2-LO / 802 / 09 Sep 44

294 / P-38J-15-LO 43-28294 became F-5E-2-LO / 803 / 09 Sep 44

296 / P-38J-15-LO 43-28296 became F-5E-2-LO / Prob 804 / 09 Sep 44

297 / P-38J-15-LO 43-28297 became F-5E-2-LO / 805 / 07 Sep 44

301 / P-38J-15-LO 43-28301 became F-5E-2-LO / 815 / 11 Sep 44

312 / P-38J-15-LO 43-28312 became F-5E-2-LO / 806 / 03 Sep 44

315 / P-38J-15-LO 43-28315 became F-5E-2-LO / 807 / N/A

325 / P-38J-15-LO 43-28325 became F-5E-2-LO / Prob 808 / N/A

599 / P-38J-15-LO 43-28599 became F-5E-2-LO / Prob 809 / 09 Sep 44

610 / P-38J-15-LO 43-28610 became F-5E-2-LO / 810 / 09 Sep 44

615 / P-38J-15-LO 43-28615 became F-5E-2-LO / 811 / N/A

622 / P-38J-15-LO 43-28622 became F-5E-2-LO / 812 /09 Sep 44

968 / P-38J-15-LO 43-28968 became F-5E-2-LO / 814 / 07 Sep 44

The squadron incurred operational and combat losses in these original aircraft in CBI operations, and additional aircraft entered squadron service. Multiple sources indicate the following four of the original aircraft were lost or destroyed in operations:

42-104081 (801) was lost in a takeoff accident on 09 November 1944 at Chanyi; pilot James K. Kerr survived.

43-28325 (808) was destroyed in a takeoff accident 29 January 1945 at Luliang; pilot Estal Behrens survived.

43-28599 (809) was lost on 13 November 1944 at Lung Tan Hsiang with pilot 1Lt Kenneth E. Shafer was killed in the bailout from his aircraft.

43-28615 (811) went missing during a recon mission on 05 November 1944 with pilot 1Lt Franklin H. McKinney MIA. There is a single source Royal Thai AF report, undated, this the aircraft and his remains were found in a wooden area in Ban Mae Gua, Sobprab Sub-District, Lampang Province, southeast of Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Of note, Joe Baugher’s serial number listing indicates at least three survivors amongst these original 14 F-5E-2-LO aircraft were transferred to the Chinese Air Force, presumably after the war. Known serial numbers include the following:

43-28291, old 802, to Chinese AF
43-28312, old 806, to Chinese AF
43-28968, old 814, to Chinese AF

For more on the Chinese Air Force use of the F-5 Photo Lightning, see the article ”P -38 Lightning and Chinese Air Force Reconnaissance” written by Jude BK Pao, on the P-38 Association website at:
http://p38assn.org/pao.htm

References:

35PRS History for October, 1944 and June, 1945

Information on P-38J converted to F-5E, from Joe Baugher Lockheed P-38J Lightning page:
http://www.joebaugher.com/usaf_fighters/p38_13.html

Joes Baugher USAAF Serial Numbers for 1942 and 1943, at:
http://www.joebaugher.com/usaf_serials/usafserials.html

P-38 National Association and Museum website, “P-38 Photo Reconnaissance” page, at:
http://p38assn.org/photo-recon.htm

Databases at the Aviation Archaeological Investigation and Research (AAIR) website, at:  http://www.aviationarchaeology.com/

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