INDEPENDENT PHOTO: LARRY COONROD - John Mangas' nephew Gary Smith (left) accepts the Distinguished Flying Cross from Sen. Ron Wyden during a Sept. 4 ceremony at Lenhardt Airpark in Hubbard. The medal recognizes the bravery that cost Mangas his life on Jan. 8, 1943 while flying a P-38 fighter over Lae, New Guinea.
More than 73 years after his plane disappeared somewhere over New Guinea, World War II fighter pilot and Portland native 1st Lt. John H. “Johnny” Mangas has finally received recognition for saving a B-17 bomber crew and turning back Japanese troop transports at the cost of his own life.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, on behalf of the United States Army, presented the Distinguished Flying Cross to the Mangas familyCOURTESY PHOTO - Lt. John H. Mangas in 1942.
on Sept. 4 inside a hangar at Lenhardt Airpark in Hubbard. With about 70 Mangas family members and friends present, Wyden praised the courage, valor and selflessness “of one of Oregon’s greatest heroes.”

“My guess is, having been told a bit about Mr. Mangas, if he was here today, he’d probably wonder what all the fuss was about,” Wyden said. “He’d probably say, ‘I’m just a humble guy. I was doing what I thought was right.’ And of course that is the hallmark of the greatest generation.”

Mangas grew up Northeast 31st Avenue in Portland. He attended Columbia High School and then the University of Portland. It was the age of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, and Mangas developed a keen interest in aviation and earned his civilian wings.

He joined the U.S. Army Air Corps five weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After completing advanced flight training, the Army sent Mangas to San Bruno, Calif., to train on its most advanced fighter, the P-38 Lighting. While at San Bruno, Mangas and two other pilots infamously violated regulations by looping the Golden Gate Bridge in their P-38s.

Fifth Air Force commander Gen. George C. Kenney handpicked Mangas and 49 other P-38 pilots to spearhead the defense of Australia. Assigned to the 39th Fighter Squadron, Johnny arrived in Brisbane, Australia in mid-September 1942. After assembling their planes, the 39th moved north to Port Moresby, New Guinea.

John’s squadron mates included Richard “Dick” Bong, who would shoot down 40 enemy planes with the P-38, finishing the war as America’s all-time leading ace. John flew daily with Bong, Tommy Lynch (20 victories) and Kenneth Sparks (11 victories).

On Dec. 27, 1942, Johnny, Bong, Lynch and Sparks intercepted 35 Japanese planes. Outnumbered nine to one, the four P-38 pilots went on the attack, downing seven enemy aircraft. A second flight of four P-38s joined the melee, sending six more Japanese planes to the ground for 13 victories and zero American losses. Johnny scored his first aerial victory and received the Silver Star for his gallant actions.

Back home, the Oregon Journal chronicled the battle with a photo of John Mangas, recounting how he flew a “bullet fast P-38” in “a series of screaming scrambling dogfights.”

 - Lt. Mangas stands on his favorite P-38, No. 27. Mangas scored two confirmed victories over Japanese fighters and several more probable kills. On Jan. 6, 1943, Mangas scored his second confirmed kill while attacking enemy over Huon Gulf. As the air war in the Southwest Pacific heated up, so too did the race among the 39th fighter pilots to achieve ace status by scoring five aerial combat victories. On the day Mangas disappeared, he reportedly told his crew chief that, “If I don’t get two today, I won’t be coming back.”

On the afternoon of Jan. 8, 1943, Mangas was flying his second combat mission of the day, providing top cover for B-17 bombers targeting enemy ships in Lae harbor. Japanese fighters were already swarming the heavy bombers when Mangas and six other P-38s arrived. The P-38s engaged at least 15 Japanese army and navy fighters. During the battle, another pilot reported seeing Mangas shoot down an enemy plane. Heavy cloud cover prevented the bombers from striking Japanese transports unloading thousands of troops, and the planes were ordered back to base.

From witness reports pieced together decades later, on the return back to Port Moresby, Mangas noticed a crippled B-17 under attack. He broke formation and returned alone to protect the bomber. The bomber crew later credited him with saving their lives.

Soon after, his P-38 was observed strafing three transports at Lae harbor while under heavy hostile fire from enemy warships and shore batteries. Observers reported that three transports turned away from shore because of Mangas’ attack.

Mangas and his P-38 were never seen again.

He was the first P-38 pilot killed in action in the South Pacific theatre of operations. More than 60 years would pass before his family learned the details of his final hours, and it would take another decade before the Army officially recognized his valor and ultimate sacrifice.

“I think what happened is John saw that after doing all this dogfighting and top cover that they had failed and not stopped them (the Japanese ships), so he took matters into his own hands and he went in there and attacked the troop transport ships,” said his nephew, Gary Smith, of Beaverton.

The military officially credited Mangas with two aerial victories and several probable victories. Add the eyewitness account of the third kill and the probability he dispatched more fighters attacking the crippled bomber, and it’s likely Mangas died an ace.

In 1946, the Army issued a finding of death and in 1949 closed the file, declaring Mangas’ remains as unrecoverable. And there the story might have ended had it not been for Smith.

Growing up, Gary heard that his uncle was a war hero shot down in the Pacific. He knew his grandmother, Laura, never gave up hope of Johnny returning.

“Grandma never moved, and she never changed her telephone number and kept her name in the telephone book, just in case — so Johnny could find his way home,” Smith said.

Smith’s mother only spoke about her brother to him once, when he was 6 years old and the family was driving though San Francisco to Disneyland.

“I remember my sister and I in the backseat and my mom turned around and said,’ My brother flew his plane under the Golden Gate Bridge.’ That’s the only thing she ever said about her brother too me,” he said.

It wasn’t until around 2005 that a friend’s trip to Australia prompted him to dig out an old wooden box containing love letters his mother had written his father during the war — and one letter from Johnny to his sister written from New Guinea.

“I don’t know why, but I knew I had to go to that old wooden box,” Smith said.

Finding his uncle’s letter launched Smith on an odyssey to find what happened to Uncle Johnny. He spent a decade tracking down documents in the national archive, attending reunions of the 39th Fighter Squadron and speaking to pilots that knew his uncle. Slowly, he pieced together the story of that final battle. Joining him in the quest was friend Lee Cundiff, a pilot who felt a special connection to Johnny. Cundiff owns a Stearman bi-plane similar to the one Johnny learned on in the Army.

Today, an entire wall of Cundiff’s hangar at Lenhardt Airpark serves as a memorial to John Mangas and the 39th Fighter Squadron. Since 2006, Cundiff has been leading an annual missing man fly over formation during the Beaverton American Legion Post 124’s annual Memorial Day program in their honor.

After learning how Mangas gave his life, the family pushed the Army for years to award him the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for bravery. Unfortunately, that medal requires an extensive amount of eyewitness documentation, something that wasn’t available until decades later. When the Mangas family turned to the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs and Wyden’s office for help last fall, the wheels of bureaucracy begin to turn.

President Obama signed the order posthumously awarding 1st Lt. John Mangas the Distinguished Flying Cross in May. Mangas’ Distinguished Flying Cross is now displayed at the hangar memorial, next to his Silver Star and his mother Laura’s World War I service medal. Smith plans to take the DFC medal to the 39th Fighter Squadron’s annual reunion in San Antonio, Texas next week.

With the medal in hand, Smith led family and friends in a final toast to his uncle.

“Johnny flew with legends—some of the most successful fighter pilots in our nation’s history,” he said. “Today he is recognized as one of them.”

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