U.S. World War II veterans are dying at the rate of 1000 a month. As they do, it is difficult to remember that they were once youthful men and women who patriotically at the risk of their lives took on the most soul-destroying regimes that the world has ever known and defeated them soundly.
But for all those who came back to live full lives in quiet suburbs with grandchildren at hand, many never did. And among their number was a bright, talented young man named Tom Lynch who grew up in Catasauqua, Pa.
Old photos show a boyish face, what the 1940s would have called “matinee idol” good looks. Lynch could have been a poster model for the Boy Scouts and in fact was an Eagle Scout and a highly decorated one.
Whatever his post-war fate might have been, it clearly would have been one of promise. But after a string of 20 aerial dogfights that put him high among the ranks of America’s aviation aces, Lynch was to meet his end heroically and tragically over the South Pacific.
Tom Lynch was born in 1916. His father started working at Bethlehem Steel as a laborer but by the 1930s had an office job. He looked forward to the day when his son, who had an interest in engineering, would join him there. From Catasauqua High School in 1937. Lynch went on to study engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. Here he met Rosemary Fullen, his future wife.
But such peaceful pursuits were out of joint with the times. By1940 the world was in flames. That summer Hitler’s army had goose-stepped into Paris. And in the Pacific, Germany’s Axis ally, Japan, despite American protests, was eyeing the resource-rich colonies of European powers that had fallen under the Nazis heel.
In the Lehigh Valley, where prosperity from government defense contracts had Bethlehem Steel humming again, ending the Great Depression, and where isolationist sentiment was strong, many feared American involvement was inevitable.
Against this background, Tom Lynch joined what was then the Army Air Corps. Flying, with its World War I era “knights of the sky” image, had an inevitable appeal to young men. In March, 1941, Lynch was assigned to the 31st Fighter Group of the 39th Fighter Squadron.
December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor day found Lynch at Bear Field in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He had spent most of that year in training flights and drills preparing for the war everyone knew was coming. Those who were with him later recalled that Lynch, who was a silent type, was deep in thought most of that day.
The men of the 31st Fighter Group were not too happy when the rest of the 39th Fighter Squadron left for England in early January, 1942 without them. But later that month they were put aboard the USS Ancon bound for the Pacific. It was February 25 before they arrived in Brisbane, Australia.
Lynch saw his first air action on May 17, 1942. Taking off from Port Moresby, New Guinea, he and fellow members of the 31st challenged a flight of Japanese planes. For unknown reasons the enemy fled without firing a shot.
On June 15, 1942 the sky over Port Moresby was buzzing with Zeroes. Rising to meet them, Lynch found four enemy planes attempting to corner him. “A cannon burst blew a huge hole in the side of my plane,” he recalled later. “The plane was loggy for a few minutes after that but it was still going when a second burst drilled my motor and put me out of the fight.”
Lynch knew his plane was doomed. Confronted by either plunging into the shark- infested Pacific or crashing on a beach, he saw a native fishing boat and took his chances. Smashing into the water he at first could not get the escape door to open. With a strenuous effort, he broke his arm in the process. Swimming for his life Lynch was picked up by the fishing boat.
His friends later recalled Lynch’s most outstanding day was December 27, 1942. As flight leader of 12 P-38’s, he managed to swoop down on 25 enemy planes that were trying to pounce on some US P-40’s ahead of him. “His enthusiasm was obviously high,” the official account notes. Lynch shot one plane almost in half and than shot down another.
Now out of ammunition, Lynch left the sky, jumped into a fresh plane and took off. “What was so unforgettable about that day,” recalled a friend, “was that Tommy went charging back to Port Moresby, leaped out of No.19 (his plane), ran to another in commission P-38, shouted to those standing by, open-mouthed: “The sky is full of Japs…maybe I can get back in time!”
Lynch’s last flight was on March 8, 1944. He had just returned from home where he had been married. Lynch and fellow ace Richard Bong, travelling about 300 mph, swept down over some enemy fuel barges.
Then Bong noticed that behind him, Lynch’s right propeller had blown off and his engine was smoking. Clearly hit by enemy fire from the barge, Lynch’s plane was falling. Bong saw his friend bail out and seconds later heard a bang as his plane exploded. “And that is the last I ever saw of him,” he said.
Several months later Bong, unannounced, flew into Allentown Airport and met Lynch’s family. After telling them what he knew of their son and brother’s passing, he took off circling the field and tilting his wings in salute to honor to his fallen friend.
Days later on August 6, 1945, Richard Bong was killed while testing an experimental plane for the military. The only thing that dwarfed the headlines of his death was the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the event that ushered in the end of World War II.