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The Thunderbolt Revisited

By Tom Cleaver


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Enough has been written about the P-47 Thunderbolt elsewhere to create a not-so-small technical reference and historical library for anyone who likes this airplane. Over the years the available models have gotten more and more correct, and here I am going to suggest some possibilities in 1/48 scale. For a more detailed account of building a P-47 model, I refer you to my article "Dad Rarey's Razorback" in the September 1998 issue of Internet Modeler

The Airplane

The Thunderbolt was a controversial fighter from the beginning. It was the biggest, heaviest single-seat fighter to see combat in the Second World War. When it arrived in England, RAF pilots chided their American counterparts that they could always unstrap and dodge around the (comparatively) enormous cockpit when taken under fire by a Bf109 or Fw190. Informed that the airplane had the best dive performance of any USAAF fighter, Don Blakeslee replied, "It ought to - sure as hell it can't climb!" Pilots loved or hated the Thunderbolt, depending on their previous experience. The pilots of the 56th Fighter Group, the first unit to fly the P-47 and take it into battle, swore by the airplane so strongly that when they had the opportunity to switch to another airplane with greater range and more capability in fulfilling the role of escort fighter, they turned it down flat. On the other hand, the men of the 4th Fighter Group seemed to overwhelmingly hate the airplane as the polar opposite of the beloved Spitfire they had flown in the RAF, and as soon as they could find a Spitfire-equivalent with the range to do the job, got rid of their P-47s with alacrity.

The Seversky P-35 and Republic P-43 ancestors of the Thunderbolt were distinguished by their exceptional range in comparison with their contemporaries. The Thunderbolt, however, was designed as a short-range interceptor, and was forced to become a long-range escort fighter when the concept of the self-defending daylight bomber formation was smashed against the Luftwaffe over Germany in 1943. Even carrying drop tanks on three pylons, the Thunderbolt was hard-pressed to make it all the way to Berlin, and if the Germans attacked early, forcing the escorts to drop tanks and enter combat, the bombers continued to suffer from lack of adequate long-range escorts. However, the Thunderbolt acquitted itself far better in aerial combat than anyone had originally expected.

When the Thunderbolt went into combat with the Ninth Air Force in the ground support role, its heavy armament and ability to take hits that would down another aircraft and keep flying, turned the P-47 into the "juggernaut" it was originally claimed to be merely by its size.

Kits of the Thunderbolt have always been popular, in 1/72, 1/48 and 1/32 scales, with new kits appearing over the years from different manufacturers. Surprisingly for such a popular airplane, getting the shape right has eluded several of these attempts and modelers have been forced to accept what was available as "looking close enough."

Hasegawa's Razorbacks

I like that Hasegawa now does limited-run sub-sets of kits with a different part or two to get the particular "look" right. In the case of the P-47D series Razorbacks, the P-47D-1 and D-5 sub-types were widely used by Eighth Air Force units in 1943-44. The aircraft are distinguished from the P-47D-11 and later Razorbacks by the fact that all the cowling flaps were the same size; there was not the "notch" for the bottom two flaps. It's a small item, and not one many modelers have worried about, but given the fact that the "South Pacific" release of the Hasegawa kit provides a cowl with these flaps, it's now an easy point to take into consideration. Additionally, the P-47 did not get the underwing pylons until early 1944, so the fact that Hasegawa has molded their wing with the pylons separate makes it easy to do this earlier Thunderbolt. The standard-release kit allows you to make the later Razorback with pylons for bombs or drop tanks. One thing to take into consideration with the later version is that the prop as provided in the kit is wrong, since the hub is a Curtiss-Electric type, and the airplane flew with the Hamilton Standard paddle prop. If you have the older Monogram kits, the proper prop is found in the bubble-top versions.

Other than a bit of a gap in the connection between the one-piece lower wing and the fuselage, which is common to all of Hasegawa's Thunderbolt kits, and easily solved with gap filling C-A, a bit of putty, and some judicious filing, the kit presents no problems to an average modeler, allowing you to worry more about the markings of the airplane you want to make. Here are some models I had fun with:

"Reggie's Reply" - Lt. John T. Godfrey; 336th FS, 4th FG

John T. Godfrey is to me one of the more interesting aces of the 4th Fighter Group and the Eight Air Force as a whole. It probably has something to do with my ten-year effort as a screenwriter to figure out this interesting and complex character for a screenplay I'd love to see produced. At any rate, Godfrey was one of the youngest of the early-period aces. He'd just turned 21 when he and Don Gentile became famous as a result of the 8th Air Force press office's "ace race" in March and April 1944. Born in Canada, the youngest son of English immigrants who settled in Rhode Island, Godfrey was raised as a "mother's boy," but refused to go to college after graduation from high school in 1941, and instead headed north to Canada to join the RCAF. His mother notified the FBI both times, and he was twice arrested for violation of the Neutrality Act. Faced with his obstinate desire, his parents gave up; he joined the RCAF in November 1941, taking his initial flight training in Canada in 1942.

In 1943, before seeing combat with the RAF in England, Godfrey transferred to the USAAF, where he took operational training in the P-47, and was assigned to the 4th Fighter Group - the former RAF "Eagle Squadrons" - that November. Shortly after arrival, he took in a little stray terrier he met on the base, and named the dog "Lucky." Lucky was shortly thereafter immortalized on the cowling of Godfrey's P-47D-1, along with the standard name of all Godfrey's airplanes: "Reggie's Reply," memorializing his beloved oldest brother Reg Godfrey, who joined the merchant marine and was lost when a U-boat sank his ship in February 1941. Godfrey used to take "Lucky" flying with him around England; when he would land at a strange base, he would put on dark glasses, take out a white cane, and have his "seeing eye dog" show him down from the cockpit.

On December 3, 1943, Godfrey had what he later called his most terrifying experience of the war when his aggressiveness led him to leave the group formation and dive on a pair of Fw190s he saw far below; he was shot up by the Germans, and lost his gyro instruments. Escaping into the heavy clouds, he constantly experienced vertigo, which would lead to stalling out and spinning down from the clouds; three times he was spotted by German fighters and had to fight his way back into the clouds to get away until the next bout of vertigo. He got home, but the airplane was badly shot up and took a few weeks in the base repair shop. This story and many others are told in Godfrey's unusually-frank autobiography, "The Look of Eagles," and is well worth picking up if you ever run across it; it is long out of print.

The markings come from Aeromaster 48-392: "4th Fighter Group - The Early Days - Pt. III." The kit was built using the KMC resin cockpit, which does have more detail that the parts provided by the kit, though the Hasegawa cockpit is certainly adequate for a modeler who doesn't use a resin aftermarket set.

"Spirit of Atlantic City NJ" - Major Walker M. "Bud" Mahurin, 63rd FS, 56th FG

Bud Mahurin is one of the nicest of the aces; a long-time supporter of the Air Museum, "Planes of Fame," in Chino, he has no trouble telling anyone that "I've crashed every airplane I ever flew." Rather than a monument to ham-handedness, this statement is rather a self-deprecating way of talking about the fact he was one of the most aggressive pilots in the U.S. Air Force, constantly flying his airplanes to "the edge of the envelope" and putting himself where danger was. He joined the USAAF in late 1940, and was one of the first pilots assigned to the 56th Fighter Group in late 1941 when it was still equipped with P-40s. The group was destined to become the premier exponent of the P-47 Thunderbolt from the day they took their first one on charge in the summer of 1942 to the end of the war in Europe. The 4th Fighter Group may have destroyed more enemy aircraft in total, but the 56th Fighter Group was the #1 air combat unit of the USAAF in the Second World War, with a greater number of aces than any other group, including the two top-scoring USAAF aces of the European Theatre, Lt. Col. Francis S. Gabreski and Capt. Robert S. Johnson. Bud was the first pilot of the 56th to win the Silver Star, and had scored triple victories on three occasions in his tour. Newly promoted to Major, he had 21 victories on March 27, 1944, when he was shot down by the rear gunner of a Do217 he was attacking. After evading the Germans with the help of the French Resistance, he returned to England on May 7, 1944; in line with the policy of not allowing a man who had escaped through the resistance to fly combat over Europe again because he could be shot down again and captured, Mahurin was sent home to help form the 3rd Air Commando Group. He went with it to the Philippines, and scored one additional victory. In the Korean War, as commander of the 4th FIW, Mahurin shot down three MiG-15s before being shot down himself during an experimental dive-bombing mission. He spent nearly two years in Chinese Communist POW camps, where he was tortured to make him confess to flying germ warfare missions.

"Spirit of Atlantic City NJ" was a P-47D-5-RE presentation aircraft bought with war bonds and assigned to the 56th Fighter Group in August 1943. Mahurin flew it from then until he was shot down in it the following March. The airplane's markings are well-known, since the P-47G at the Planes of Fame Air Museum, has carried these markings for the past 20 years. A Micro-Scale decal sheet for the Thunderbolt from the 1970s reiterated the mistake made by the museum in its markings, i.e., that the individual aircraft code letter, "M," was the same size as the squadron code letters. Aeromaster corrected this in their first anniversary sheet, "U.S. Air Force Top Guns," which is the sheet that was used for this model. Other than the incorrect-size "M" the Micro-Scale sheet, re-released by Super-Scale, is accurate, and the "M" can be replaced from other sheets. As with most 8th Air Force P-47s of the period, Mahurin's airplane carried the oversize underwing national markings on both wings, an attempt to get the bomber gunners to recognize that the airplane was not an Fw190. As Mahurin once remarked to me, "Any fighter pilot who flew within range of the bomber stream deserved what he got." And then he proceeded to tell me about two Focke Wulfs he bagged chasing them during a head-on attack by the Germans through the bomber formation he was assigned to protect. That's the kind of fighter pilot Bud Mahurin was.

"Penrod and Sam" - Major Robert S. Johnson, 62nd FS, 56th FG

Robert S. Johnson decided to become an Army pilot at age 8, when he saw "The Three Musketeers" perform at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. An interesting side note to that story is that the Musketeers were formed and led by Captain Claire Chennault, later of Flying Tiger fame. Not only did Johnson decide that day to be an Army pilot, he decided he would be the best Army pilot; when he returned to the United States from England on June 6, 1944, he was the top-scoring USAAF pilot in the ETO, and tied at the time with Dick Bong with 27 victories. His score was later revised to 28, making him the fourth-ranking USAAF ace after Bong, Tommy McGuire, and Johnson's squadron commander, Francis Gabreski. In a group filled with aggressive aces Johnson was a standout on that score. Most of his career with the 56th saw him flying with the 61st Fighter Squadron, but when he was promoted to Major in May 1944, he moved to the 62nd FS, as Operations Officer. His autobiography, "Thunderbolt!" is highly-recommended reading.

"Penrod and Sam", a P-47D-21-RA, was Johnson's last airplane, in which he scored his last three victories. The kit is essentially built straight out of the box. The Booth Tarkington schoolboy characters referred to crew chief Sgt. J.C. Penrod, and "Sam" Johnson, the nickname he was known by to friends and family. As a late-production "razorback," the kit is the standard Hasegawa release, with the "notched" cowl flaps. The decals came from the same Aeromaster "USAAF Top Guns" sheet that provided "Spirit of Atlantic City NJ."

Hasegawa's Bubble-Tops

The bubble-top P-47D series was the first Thunderbolt released by Hasegawa in 1997. The first was a P-47D-25, followed by a later P-47D-30; the major difference being the extended vertical fin on the latter version. Both suffer from the same problem the razorbacks do so far as the propellers are concerned. The Curtiss-Electric hub is fine with the Curtiss-Electric blades, but incorrect with the Hamilton-Standard blades. This primarily involves the P-47D-25 airplanes. Fortunately external differences in P-47s up to the N are not that great, and a modeler can make virtually any P-47D or P-47M with these kits. When the kit first came out, I was convinced that the windscreen was too small, until I did some careful checking in Roger Freeman's definitive book, "P-47 Thunderbolt." I then realized that Hasegawa's kit was the first to get the smaller windscreen right; it's the Monogram kit and the Academy P-47N which are wrong. With all that in mind, here are two bubble-tops I've done:

HV-A - Lt. Col. Francis Gabreski, CO, 61st Fighter Squadron, 56th Fighter Group

Francis "Gabby" Gabreski was the top scoring USAAF ace of the ETO, the third-ranking USAAF ace of history, and today is the top-scoring surviving American ace. Born the son of Polish immigrants in Oil City, Pennsylvania, he joined the USAAC in July 1940 and was serving with the 45th Fighter Squadron at Wheeler Field, Hawaii, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. When the 56th arrived in England in January 1943, Gabby was detached to 315 (Polish) Squadron, RAF, where he flew 13 combat missions and formed friendships with the Polish pilots that led to there being an almost-constant stream of Polish "lodgers" in his 61st Fighter Squadron as men who had no mission in life other than to fight Germans stopped by when the RAF took them off ops for a "rest." He became 61st FS CO in June 1943, and became Group Executive Officer and Operations Officer in January 1944 before returning to command of the 61st that April. He crash-landed near Bassinheim airfield on a "last mission" he wasn't supposed to be flying on July 20, 1944 and spent the rest of the war as a POW. As CO of the 4th FIW in Korea, he scored 5 MiGs and became one of very few men to become an ace in two different wars.

None of Gabreski's airplanes carried nicknames, and all were coded HV-A. He flew this P-47D-25-RE from June 3, 1944 until he was lost in it that July. The airplane's markings have been a source of controversy for years, since the only two published pictures did not give sufficient detail to definitively figure them out. Many modelers have assumed the airplane had natural metal undersurfaces, and there has been constant argument as to what shade of grey the upper camouflage was. I was privileged to once meet Colonel Gabreski at a meeting of the American Fighter Aces Association, and asked him about it. He said it was painted in RAF paints, in RAF style, other than the green was applied "German style." I have taken that to mean it was painted Ocean Grey/RAF Dark Green upper camouflage, with Sea Grey Medium lower camouflage. Gabreski also told me that the D-Day ID markings on the upper surfaces did not include the black stripes, a fact which has been borne out by later photographs of the airplane, most recently published in the Osprey "P-47 Thunderbolt Aces of the Eighth Air Force." While no one can say for certain exactly how the airplane was marked and camouflaged, since it was constantly undergoing change during the six weeks of its operational existence, I think that what you see here in these photos fits both Gabreski's memory and the available photos. Gabreski's markings on this model also came from the Aeromaster "USAAF Top Guns" decal sheet.

"Five-by-Five" - LCOL Joe Laughlin, CO, 362nd Fighter Group, 9th AF

Joseph L. Laughlin joined the USAAC in 1939 and received his wings and commission in June 1940, where he was assigned to the 14th Pursuit Squadron at Wheeler Field, Hawaii that September. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Laughlin flew combat against the Japanese in the Central Pacific, ending his tour as CO, 45th FS, 18th FG. He returned to the US, where he took command of the newly-formed 379th FS, 362nd FG. He became Group Commander following the Normandy Invasion. During his tour in the ETO, where his primary duties were ground support, he managed to shoot down three German aircraft and destroy a light cruiser in 1945.

The 362nd FG was fortunate to have among its assigned pilots one George Rarey, called "Dad" by the others because of his having reached the advanced age of 25 when he joined the USAAF in 1942. A successful commercial artist before the war, he was responsible for the group's nose-art from their arrival in England in November 1943 until his death in combat in June 1944. For those who would like to see one of the finest Second World War websites, I strong recommend you visit Dad Rarey's Sketchbook, which is a compilation of George Rarey's diary and his cartoons and other artwork, put together and maintained by his son, Damon Rarey - you'll be glad you did.

Following Captain Rarey's death, his role as Group Artist was undertaken by his former crew chief, who maintained Rarey's distinctive style. P-47D-30-RA, 44-33287, was the last of 12 P-47s flown by Colonel Laughlin, all named "Five-by-Five," and all carrying Rarey's distinctive painting of a pink elephant. The markings shown here are for the airplane as it was at the end of the war, when based at Straubing, Germany; the red, blue and yellow checkerboard are the individual squadron colors.

The decals come from the special sheet made by Aeromaster for the 1998 IPMS-USA National Convention. Those of you unlucky enough to miss the Nationals last year can still obtain this sheet, which has the markings in both 1/48 and 1/72, from IPMS Silicon Valley by e-mailing IM's Aviation Editor, Chris Bucholtz.

ProModeler's P-47N Thunderbolt

When ProModeler brought out their P-47N in the summer of 1997 (several months after Academy released their version and only weeks after Hasegawa released their P-47D), there was a lot of criticism of the kit. It was faulted for bad engineering of parts, particularly the main gear wells and landing gear legs, and the overall fineness of the mold which it was claimed did not result in a smooth surface when painted. While it required more putty than the Hasegawa P-47D, I was happy with the end result, which was basically done out of the box.

The ANG Thunderbolt

I have always liked the photographs I've seen of Air National Guard Thunderbolts of the postwar period, 1947-54, and have wanted to do one if at all possible. Thus, when ProModeler released a sheet of three Air National Guard F-47Ns, circa 1948-50, I had no trouble picking it up when I saw it. Looking over the sheet, the one that caught my eye was the F-47N-25-RE flown by Lt. Col. Ollie O. Simpson, C.O., 128th Fighter Squadron, 116th Fighter Wing, of the George Air National Guard at Marietta Air Base in the late '40s. It was colorful and to me, it had "the look."

The Project

On opening the box, there are four large sprues of grey plastic. As I looked this one over, I saw that a number of the complaints about production quality had been dealt with, since I saw no sink holes in the moldings, and the sprues were flash-free. The only problem was a warped upper right wing, which was easily solved with a quick dip in hot water.

The ProModeler instructions are easy to follow. The painting recommendations are right, with the instructions calling for dull dark green as the cockpit color, yellow zinc chromate for the wheel wells and gear door interiors, and olive drab for the main gear legs. The cockpit goes together easily, and a little dry-brushing with ModelMaster "Aluminum Non-Buffing" pops everything out detail-wise. A dry brushing of flat white over the instrument panel brought out all the nice raised detail there.

Overall, fit of the components is good. I used only a little putty on the fuselage centerline, the joint between lower wing and fuselage, and the upper wing to fuselage join. Things sanded out easily and with a polish from automobile rubbing compound to hide any scratches from the metal paint scheme, the kit looked good.


I am now an SnJ convert for natural metal finishes. After painting the olive drab non-glare strip down the top of the fuselage and masking it off, the base coat of SnJ Aluminum went down without a problem. I let it dry for two hours in the high humidity of a Southern California heat wave, then masked off some panels and shot those with ModelMaster non-buffing Aluminum; I then sealed them and did a few other panels with the SnJ buffing powder, brought out to differing degrees of shininess. The drafting tape came up without a problem, and there was an F-47N in multi-hue natural metal finish, ready for the decals. I let everything dry overnight, then set about the decal work.


The ProModeler sheet is designed to be used with the kit sheet for details like stenciling, etc. I replaced the medium blue nose flash with decals cut from a Micro-Scale Medium Blue decal sheet to insure uniformity, and used a Micro-Scale Red decal sheet for the tip of the vertical fin and the wingtips. Decaling wherever possible when doing a natural metal finish is in my experience the best way to go since you don't have to paint and mask off everything. The rest of the markings went down well using Micro-Sol, and the model was left to dry overnight.


The peacetime ANG airplanes were well-maintained, so I kept everything clean other than a bit of exhaust stains. I attached the prop and the open-position bubble canopy, and the model was complete.

And Just Because It's Old Doesn't Mean It's Bad

Prior to the arrival of the Hasegawa Thunderbolts, 1/48 modelers had two options: the P-47Ds by Monogram, and the P-47D razorback produced by Otaki/Arii.

The Monogram bubbletop is pushing 30 years on the model shelves in and out of production over the years, while their razorback is only a few years younger. Basically, what is wrong with the airplane is that the fuselage is too narrow and the cockpit is too small. As long as the models aren't sitting near the Otaki kit, or any of the Hasegawa kits, this narrowness isn't that apparent, and the cockpit looks all right for all but the super-detailers. The fact that the underwing pylons are molded integral to the lower wing part makes doing early Thunderbolts not so equipped a bit difficult, but it is nothing beyond the ability of the average modeler. For those modelers who want to introduce their sons (or daughters) to the joys of modeling, the Monogram kits are excellent value, and can be turned into good-looking models, as shown here with "Hun Hunter XIV," the P-47D razorback flown by the commander of the 57th Fighter Group in Italy in 1944.

Prior to the arrival of the Hasegawa kits, the Otaki Thunderbolt was overall the most accurate kit available in 1/48, its only faults being that it was a bit too wide in the rear fuselage (again, only noticeable set next to an accurate kit), and the lack of a detailed cockpit. Being the right width, the Otaki kit can use the resin cockpit sets made for the Hasegawa models. Additionally, since the underwing pylons are molded separately, early P-47s - like this model of Bob Johnson's "Lucky," the airplane in which he scored 22 of his 28 kills - are easy to do.


There are a wealth of aftermarket decals available for the P-47 in almost all versions, as seen in nearly every theater of war in which the airplane served. Those shown here are merely a sampling of what is possible. It wouldn't be all that hard for a modeler to get himself a Hasegawa Thunderbolt, get a Monogram kit for his son (or daughter) and make a father-and-child project out of building Republic's Juggernaut. Just remember: in all the horrific events we've heard about over the years that make us wonder about our role as parents, nobody ever claimed Jeffrey Dahmer or any of the others were modelers before they became known otherwise. Bond with your kids - build yourselves some models together!

Thanks to

The Hasegawa kits were provided by Squadron, Greatmodels, and MarcoPolo. Additionally, Greatmodels supplied the KMC resin cockpit used on the Godfrey model.

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