As regular readers will know, at time of writing, AirCorps Aviation is in the final stages of completing a magnificent restoration of a rare razorback Republic P-47D Thunderbolt for the Dakota Territory Air Museum. It is one of several world-class efforts which the now-famed restoration shop in Bemidji, Minnesota has rolled out of their doors over the past decade or so. Not an organization to waste any time, they are already working on a number of other projects, one of which they began last year for the Wings of the North Air Museum of Eden Prairie, Minnesota. This latest project is based around the wreck of a rare, early-model Mustang, P-51B 42-106602, nicknamed Shillelagh, which has an extensive combat history. Two of those who flew the Mustang also have interesting histories; David O’Hara, Shillelagh’s regular pilot who also named her, and Kenneth H. Dahlberg, the triple-ace and former Prisoner Of War who was at the controls on the fighter’s final mission. As already noted, Shillelagh’s rebuild began in earnest at AirCorps Aviation last year, so we are a couple of restoration reports behind the present state of progress. We will therefore catch you up to speed over the next few days so we can take up the story as it sits now. So without further ado, here is Chuck Cravens’ second report on Shillelagh – this one being from last fall…
P-51B Shillelagh Wings of the North Air Museum Project – Fall 2021 Update
The restoration of Shillelagh honors Ken Dahlberg and his wartime story, as well as David O’Hara, to whom the Mustang was assigned. But a restoration like this also honors the entire squadron in which the Mustang served. It is interesting to not only follow Shillelagh’s mission history, but to also note how many different pilots flew this particular Mustang in combat.
The 354th Fighter Group was known as the Pioneer Mustang Group, because they were the first unit to fly P-51B Mustangs in combat; beginning with a mission on December 1, 1943.
That first mission was also historic because it involved the very first combat sorties for the Merlin-powered Mustang variants. The mission was over the Pas de Calais area in France, and led by Col. Donald Blakeslee, the legendary 4th Fighter Group pilot, formerly of No.401 Squadron RCAF and No.133 Squadron RAF (one of the so-called Eagle Squadrons due to the preponderance of American pilots). The RAF entered combat with the Mustang Mark III (RAF nomenclature for the P-51B and C Mustang variants) on February 15, 1944, when No.19 and No.65 squadrons flew a similar sweep over the enemy-occupied coast on the French side of the English Channel.
On April 15, 1944, just four months after the Pioneer Mustang Group’s historic first mission, David O’Hara flew his new Mustang’s initial combat mission. He named his new Mustang Shillelagh after a traditional Irish walking stick which could also double as a club or cudgel for personal protection. Historically, there are many styles of stick which could be described as a shillelagh; the earliest known reference dates back over a thousand years.
When the English established plantations in Ireland during the sixteenth and seventeen centuries, there naturally arose a fierce resentment amongst the local population; resentment which often spilled over into conflict. During this period, the traditional short shillelagh club was outlawed by English penal codes, so the Irish responded by lengthening the shillelagh into a walking stick with a heavy end that could still be used as a club. Clearly, the shillelagh has deep rooted associations with Ireland, the fighting Irish, and Irish folklore.
The newly named and painted P-51B-10NA which David O’Hara flew for the first time on April 15, 1944 is the subject of Wings of the North Air Museum’s latest restoration.
Although P-51B-10NA 42-106602, Shillelagh (in several different spellings), was scheduled to fly 99 missions over its remarkable wartime career, four of these sorties had to be aborted prematurely (three due to coolant issues, and one for unspecified reasons).
According to the 353rd Fighter Squadrons’ official Combat Mission Schedule1 Shillelagh flew a total of 95 missions over enemy territory in just 5 months of 1944. Broken down on a monthly basis, this warhorse flew 10 missions in April of 1944 (one aborted on April 25), 20 in May (2 aborted – May 2 and 8), 28 in June (1 aborted due to unspecified cause), 29 in July, and 12 in August; the fighter was shot down on August 16, 1944.
The Mustang’s longevity in the combat theatre and staggering mission count is an amazing record, a real tribute to the proficiency of the 353rd Fighter Squadron’s ground crews… and its pilots.
1 354th Fighter Group Combat Mission Schedules Running from 1 April 1944 to 4 April 1945, From the National Military Archives Copied 2-27- 2006, courtesy of the Ken Dahlberg family
Shillelagh (or more properly Shilellaugh) wore the above scheme from April through August 7th, 1944. It always carried squadron marking letters FT-P. The FT identified it as a 353rd Fighter Squadron fighter and the letter P was the individual plane identification.
While we have yet to find the specific date when Shillelagh received new paint and a different spelling of its name in official USAAF records, an examination of the squadron’s combat schedule gives us clues to when these changes likely occurred.
From August 7 through August 10, there were 5 days when FT-P (the aircraft’s squadron code) did not fly in combat. This period is the most probable time when Shillelaugh visited a repair depot for maintenance – and to have the upper invasion stripes removed from the wing and fuselage.
The original D-Day invasion stripes were clearly visible from the air and ground, and were intended to prevent friendly fire during the D-Day invasion. Two months after the invasion, the greatest remaining threat came from nervous Allied ground gunners, and from enemy fighters. The upper stripes also compromised camouflage when on the ground. Therefore, removal of the stripes on the upper surfaces was allowed by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). The upper stripes stood out when viewed from above, so they were removed to reduce the risk of enemy fighters spotting Allied planes and diving to attack from a position of altitude advantage. The lower stripes were retained so Allied ground gunners could easily recognize friendly planes. By August of 1944, most were gone.
By early August of 1944, 42-106602’s had completed 90 combat missions and needed a bit of refurbishment. Besides the maintenance and removal of the invasion stripes, the paint and nose art were also refreshed; the club being replaced with a mace, while the aircraft’s name changed from Shillelaugh to Shillelagh.