This article, which originally appeared in the MEMORAIL MILITARY MUSEUM News Letter in May of 1983 caught our attention. We thank the author, John Denehy of Bristol, Connecticut, for allowing us to share it with our members. Thomas Harrigan served in the Pacific and flew P-51s from the island of Iwo Jima as a member of the 458th Fighter Squadron, 506rd Fighter Group. His story is not unlike many of his comrades in all theaters of operations, and we would hope that it would serve as a tribute to all those who fell. “HAP HARRIGAN’S LAST MISSION” By John Denehy On July 8,1945 at approximately 10:26 a.m. , 1st Lt. Thomas Harrigan of Bristol, Connecticut, lifted his P-51 “Mustang” fighter off the dusty runway of Iwo Jima Island and headed north toward Honshu, the main island of Japan. Lt. Harrigan’s flight was to be the 12th Very Long Range (VLR) mission flown by the 458th Fighter Squadron of the 506th Fighter Group.
The approximate distance was 790 miles one way, and ninety percent of the flight would be over water. Tom, or “Hap” as he was known to his squadron mates, had made the grueling eight-hour journey a number of times before on VLR missions to the Japanese homeland, either escorting B-29 “Superfortress” bombers, or participating in ground strafing of airfields, coastal shipping, and other military targets. The target for July 8th would be the Tokorozawa airfield near the capital of Tokyo. “Hap” Harrigan’s fighter was one of twenty-four representing the 458th Squadron on that day. He was number two fighter of Yellow flight, or “Yellow2.” The P-51 “Hap” was flying was, without a doubt, the very best fighter plane to come out of World War II-an ideal machine for the long-range escort missions it had been assigned. At high altitudes the P-51 was the master of the Japanese skies, but today’s mission would involve low-level action against very heavily defended Japanese airfields where one’s odds of coming back would be considerably reduced.
Harrigan had defied the odds before but, luckily, returned to his squadron. On June 1,1945, the 7th Fighter Command had dispatched 148 “Mustangs” on a VLR B-29 escort mission to Osaka, Japan. The 506th Group had been on operations for only two weeks on that fateful day. The armada of P-51’s ran into an unexpected cold front which led to the loss of 27 Mustangs due to extreme turbulence, zero visibility, and driving rain. The June 1st storm was a pilot’s nightmare: groups, squadrons, flights, and elements lost contact and scattered. Traffic on all radio channels was so heavy communication was nearly impossible. Some pilots lost control completely, stalled, spun, recovered , and spun again. Some recovered in time; some did not. Fifteen airplanes and twelve pilots of the 506ht failed to survive the storm. One of the survivors on that day was "Hap” Harrigan. Approximately two-and-one-half hours after take-off, Harrigan experienced mechanical trouble and was forced to bail out over the Pacific. The following is from an official 506th FG report: At 0950, Lt. Harrigan, Blue 2 escorted by Blue 4, turned back toward base. His selector valve jammed on fuselage tank, and the valve handle was broken by his last futile attempt to switch tanks. It was a matter of time until his available fuel was gone. At 1100, 200 to 250 miles from base, he bailed out. Lt. Phillips circled, emergency IFF on, until Harrigan had inflated and boarded his dinghy. After 50 hours at sea, Lt. Harrigan was picked up by the destroyer U.S.S. Fanning at 1300 on 3 June, 1945. While aboard the destroyer, Hap was given the red carpet treatment by the Navy. Again from the official 506th report: “Hap” complimented the Navy on their excellent cuisine and thanked them for their “room service.” “They even did my laundry in fresh water and I got to sleep in the Captain’s bunk.”
Now, just one month later, at about 2:00 p.m. Tom Harrigan and his squadron approached the mainland of Honshu Island. The narrative of the 506th Fighter Group vividly describes the turmoil of air combat which engulfed “Hap” an his squadron mates. This was the dog-faced, shaggy-eared, murderous old grand-pappy of them all. Flak came up by the carload, more than the squadron had ever seen before. It was the first visit paid to Tokyo’s Happy Valley, and the reception was eloquently unfriendly. The squadron flew at 15,000 feet at landfall, and dived gradually as it cruised north to Mt. Fuji, and then turned northeast towards the western suburbs of Tokyo. Airfields were scattered below like stamps in a catalogue; the target could not be immediately found. The squadron circled and circled, and finally, as heavy flak got heavier and more accurate, peeled off and attacked the nearest targets. In the melee of ackack and crossing strafing runs, three airfields were strafed. Pilots swear that everything but the dunghills were thrown at them for four solid minutes. Planes were on the deck, indicating 350 mph, shooting at everything, and the flak came up. It came up from 120mm batteries, with instantaneous fuses that laid the bursts in the middle of the formations. The ugly black puffs of the heavy stuff were as thick as grass at 50 to 100 feet. Lt. Kuhn, Blue 4, was strafing a factory in the middle of the valley when he took a hit in his left wing in his ammunition bay. The 50 caliber he had left exploded. The wing stayed on but its permanency was questionable.
Kuhn started for the RP with Lt. Lee, Harrigan, and Starin. Then Harrigan was hit. His engine began to smoke as he lost coolant. He stayed with his plane as long as possible, in a desperate attempt to reach the sea, but the smoke got worse. Finally, Harrigan slowed down and bailed out at 4,000 feet over a deserted valley in the western foothills of the Tokyo Plain. His engine exploded soon after. Lt’s Eddie Kuhn and Quaterman Lee stayed with “Hap” and observed his bail out. In letters written by both pilots to Tom’s mother, they expressed confidence that Lt. Harrigan’s parachute jump was completely successful and that he was, most likely, a prisoner of war. A month later, when the war ended, Tom was not among the P.O.W.’s liberated by the victorious Allies. The worst was feared, and Tom was then officially listed as Killed-in-Action on July 8,1945. In 1947 Toms mother received a letter from the Army informing her that an unknown serviceman's remains in the American cemetery in Yokohama, Japan, had been positively identified as those of her son. The remains had been originally recovered from a grave not far from the wreckage of Lt. Harrigan’s plane. 1st Lt. Thomas Harrigan had joined the ranks of the 139 sons of Bristol, Connecticut, who had made the supreme sacrifice in the service of their country in World War II.
Recently, three pilots who flew with Tom responded to a request which was placed in the Retired Officer magazine by this writer. The retired Air Force officers remembered Tom well. Colp. Nolen C. Johnson recalls, “Lt. Harrigan was a replacement pilot in our fighter group and was assigned to my flight. Lt. Harrigan flew my wing on his first combat mission and a few missions thereafter. My recollection of Tom is very favorable; in fact, I selected him to become my regular wingman because of his flying ability and obvious enthusiasm for his job. I don’t know if Tom came to us with is nickname, but the entire squadron called him “Hap” short for “Happy” because of his willing approach to any detail he was given and his very bright outlook on each day.”
Colonel Robert W. Klump reminded me that Tom rated the Air Medal, with cluster, and two battle stars to the Asiatic Pacific Theater medal. Col. Klump went on to say that “Hap” had been a personal friend of his and his wife’s. “During our training at Lakeland, Florida, my wife worked in an insurance office. In this building also worked two young ladies. Dee introduced them to “Hap” and another pilot, Lt. Bernard C. Schlak. We had many memorable evenings and weekends together before we went overseas. I had the only transportation, a 1935 Ford V8 coupe. Yes, we all rode inside. Schlak laid across the rear window ledge and the rest just got in. We made trips to the Tampa area and many others.
“Hap” had a great sense of humor and he enjoyed life.” Major James Hinkle also knew Tom well and went through flight training with him. When the 506th Fighter Group was formed in Lakeland, Florida, Tom was assigned to the 458th Squadron and Major (then Lt.) Hinkle was assigned to the 457th. Major Hinkle recalls, “We went to the Pacific Theater and Iwo Jima together. I was on the July 8th mission with him, but I did not know he was shot down until we returned to Iwo Jima. At that time all of our missions were ground strafing and we were losing a lot of pilots to ground fire. I was shot down two missions later on July 22, but luckily I made it out to sea and was rescued by one of our submarines, the USS Silversides. I considered Thomas a good friend. He was truly a fighter pilot’s pilot and a super individual.”
One of out local casualties of World War II was 1st Lt. Tom Harrigan. We have a display honoring Tom's memory at the Bristol CT NG Armory.