The Loss of Lt William “Bill” Pridham
By Bob “Driver Mac’ McNeese 80FS Association Historian and Gerry Asher Korean War Historian
At 1415 on 8 November 1944, 1st Lieutenant William Pridham and his wingman, 2nd Lieutenant Lloyd Johnson, departed the island of Biak in two P-38’s headed to Morotai, a distance of approximately 450 miles. It was the last time that Lt Bill Pridham would ever be seen.
The Headhunters had been very busy the previous several months, as the 5th Air Force supported US Army and Naval forces moving north towards the Philippine Islands. The summer of 1944 saw the final missions flown against the Japanese in New Guinea, as American forces island-hopped towards their next objective. The 80th operated from numerous primitive island airstrips during this time, including Biak, Wakde, Owi, and Morotai. Combat missions were mostly bomber escort, ground attack, and strafing and dive bombing attacks against enemy shipping. Japanese aircraft sightings became few and far between.
It has recently been discovered what led to Pridham and Johnson’s mission on that November day. An initially filed ”incomplete” Missing Aircraft Report only states ”Ferrying”, without any details or explanation. Notably missing were the serial numbers of the two P-38Js being transferred. 2Lt Clarence ”Wogy” Wolgemuth was Pridham’s tent mate at the time. He remembers returning to Morotai from R&R in Sydney on 7 November. He also recalls that nightly Japanese bombings of Mama airstrip were taking a toll in aircraft damaged or destroyed on the ground. The 344th Services Squadron, located back at Biak, was responsible for providing replacement aircraft to squadrons throughout the South Pacific. It is likely that Pridham and Johnson had been transported to Biak with orders to pick up two replacement aircraft for the 80th Squadron. This is substantiated by the fact that on 17 November, the 8th Fighter Group forwarded a request to the 344th Services Squadron to finish the Missing Aircraft Report, which, since the aircraft was lost while under their command, would have been their responsibility.
Morotai and it’s airstrip, Mama, were secured in early September 1944. Although this put most of the Philippines in range of the P-38, missions involved hours of flight over the open ocean, with the chance of rescue from the sea a risky proposition.
According to wingman Johnson’s official statement written on 9 November, Lt Pridham briefed a heading of 286 degrees from Biak to Morotai. They departed with 1-3 miles visibility and flew above a solid undercast for most of the flight. Johnson noted that his compass showed that they flew a heading of 295 degrees vice the 286 as planned. Of course, his (or Pridham’s) compass could have been in error. To complicate things further, Lt Johnson’s P-38 had an inoperative transmitter, so he had no way to query his leader regarding the difference.
Also of interest is Lt Johnson’s statement that they had no belly tanks, although the distance between islands was well within the P-38’s internal fuel range of 1000 miles (4 1/2 to 5 hours). Colonel Charles Lindberg had visited Pacific fighter units during the spring of 1944, and his fuel savings techniques had taught P-38 pilots how to extend the range of the Lightning to as much as eight to ten hours with external tanks. Fuel should have been no issue on this flight.
There must have been some break in the undercast, as Johnson states they passed over the Asia Islands at approximately 1600. This would have been a bit past the halfway point, with about 220 miles to go. Fifteen minutes later, Lt Pridham spiraled down to see some ”peculiar disruption in the ocean”. Again more questions than answers. Was Johnson’s receiver working, so that he could hear Pridham’s transmission? Or did he see the ”disruption” also?
At this point Lt Johnson notes that he had a problem feeding fuel from his outboard (wing) tanks. No mention of actual fuel remaining, only that he was unable to follow Pridham down to stay with him and he never saw him again. He continued on to Morotai alone and landed safely.
What then happened to Bill Pridham?
An interesting twist in this story is also contained in the 17 November 8th Fighter Group letter. SCR-270 Early Warning Radars had been available in New Guinea since the first one was deployed to Port Moresby in September 1942. The 8th Fighter Group’s Fighter Control Sector, now located on Morotai, employed this system, and also had the capability to provide direction finding (DF) steers to aircraft. At 1730 on the day he was lost, they received a request from Pridham for a DF steer to Morotai, but for unknown reasons were unable to provide one. At 1848, an anti-aircraft position (radar) picked up a distress call from Pridham, and estimated his position at 25 miles northwest of Morotai. By this time he would have been quite low on fuel. The last radio contact with Lt Pridham was made at 1925 by a flight of 35th Fighter Squadron P-38’s.
Search and rescue efforts were made on 9 November by members of the 80th. At 1320, Captain Paul Murphey led a 5-ship of P-38’s south of Morotai, then north along the coast. They then zigzagged across the ocean north and west with no sighting of Bill Pridham. Also at 1320, Captain Louis ”Screwy Louie” Schriber led a 2-ship flight south, west, and north-west of Morotai, finding no trace of Pridham or his aircraft.
Wogy Wogemuth describes being involved in one of these 3-hour search missions in his book ”World War Two Memoirs of a Fighter Pilot.” (Available at the Headhunter Store: https://80fsheadhunters.org/2011/12/17/world-war-two-memoirs-of-a-fighter-pilot/ It’s an excellent read!
The final Missing Aircraft Report on the loss of 1st Lt William Pridham in P-38J-15 serial number 43-28487 wasn’t completed and signed until 16 February 1945, over three months after the loss. This was one of many operational losses of Headhunter pilots throughout the war that didn’t involve combat. Wogy notes in his book that these operational losses were greater in number than combat losses, but not less hard to take. He remembers that 8 November 1944 was a sad day for the 80th Fighter Squadron.
A special thanks to your (now former) Association Historian Bob “Driver Mac” McNeese and your Korean War Historian, Gerry Asher for this great, but lamentable, bit of Squadron history.
Remember, as Kirby said so many times that “if it ain’t written down, it never happened.” If you have any memoirs or know of anybody who does about their time in the 80th, we will pay to have their stories/memoirs/photos professionally reproduced as long as we can have a copy. Just contact us for details.