Not all WWII fighter planes remained in use after WWII, and even fewer pre-WWII designs. One surprising exception was the 1930s-vintage P-26 Peashooter which was still in use in Guatemala as late as 1957.
(The P-26 Peashooter fighter in the colors of the 1930s US Army, and the 1950s Guatemalan air force.)
The Peashooter was developed from Boeing’s private Model 266 design. It arrived at a unique time in military aviation history; an unusual and brief period where bomber development was outstripping that of fighters. For example, the B-10, which equipped three US Army squadrons in the mid-1930s, was an all-metal, enclosed-cockpit, retractable-undercarriage monoplane bomber with a top speed of 180 kts. This compared to the wooden P-6 Hawk biplane fighter that flew alongside it, which topped out at 168 kts and likewise the P-12 mixed metal/wood biplane with a maximum speed of 165 kts.
(The B-10 bomber.)
(The P-26 Peashooter’s predecessors, the P-12 and P-6 Hawk fighters.)
The US Army Air Corps reasoned that bombers of other countries would progress on a similar scale, so clearly it was unacceptable to have fighters inferior to the bombers they were supposed to shoot down.
The Peashooter was the US Army Air Corps first all-metal fighter, the first with landing flaps, and the first with a low-mounted wing. It was the first monoplane fighter to achieve squadron-level service in the US Army and the first with a 200 kts+ combat speed.
At the same time, the Peashooter was the last US Army fighter with an open cockpit, the last with externally-braced wings, and the last with fixed landing gear.
(US Army Air Corps P-26 just before WWII, still with the 1918-style roundel. The red dot in the star was deleted in May 1942 as it was being mistaken for the Japanese rising sun. The current American “star & bars” insignia was introduced in September 1943.)
In some ways, the Peashooter was a step backwards. Other designs already had retractable landing gear and enclosed cockpits, and internal wing spars had already been developed to replace external struts and wires. The obsolescent features were mainly chosen for cost, as they would allow Boeing to quickly build and sell planes within the US Army’s Depression-era budget. The cost-cutting was successful, and each Peashooter was actually about $210 cheaper than the obsolete biplanes they replaced.
The P-26 was 23’7″ long with a 28′ wingspan. It was powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-1340-27 Wasp air-cooled piston engine. The plane weighed 2,196 lbs empty. The Peashooter had a top speed of 203 kts, which was roughly 20% faster than the fighters it replaced.
The odd name came from the tubular reticle-type gunsight in front of the cockpit. When the P-26 debuted, the general public was still used to seeing cockpit-seated guns in the World War One style, and wondered why this new fighter was armed with such a dinky little peashooter. (The actual armament was two belt-fed M1919 .30cal machine guns inside the fuselage, firing through the propeller area via interrupter gears.) US Army pilots were apparently amused enough that the name stuck and became semi-official.
(Detail of the Wasp engine’s streamlining cowling, and the ‘peashooter’ gunsight.) (photo by Mike Shreeve)
The two most distinctive features of the P-26 were the spatted undercarriage and the fuselage hump. The landing gear set-up was nicknamed “treadles” (the foot pedals of old manual sewing machines) by pilots.
(The “treadles” could be fitted with snow skis, a feature of little use in Central America.)
The fuselage hump was not an original part of the design. However the P-26’s landing speed (if the flaps were not used) was 83mph, the fastest ever at that time for an American fighter and considered obscene by airmen who had trained on fabric-winged biplanes. The P-26’s touchdown was both fast and “stiff”, and on several occasions planes summersaulted tail-over-nose during landings. After a fatality, the US Army ordered Boeing to develop a fix, and the hump (which functioned like a roll bar on a pickup truck) was introduced.
(Profile of the fuselage hump.) (photo via Planes Of Fame)
One odd feature was inflatable air bags in the wing roots, intended to keep the P-26 buoyant in a water landing. This feature was never actually used however one Peashooter crashed when the air bags accidentally deployed mid-flight.
The Peashooter’s first flight was on 20 March 1932. Deliveries to operational squadrons started during December 1933, and continued through 1936, by which time the Peashooters were already obsolete as they left the factory (consider that the Hawker Hurricane and Messerschmitt Bf-109 were entering service in Europe).
(A P-26 Peashooter with one of it’s replacements, a P-40 Warhawk, and in turn that type’s replacement, the P-51 Mustang.) (photo by Jake Peterson)
At it’s peak strength, six American squadrons flew the Peashooter. It’s tenure as the “king” American fighter didn’t last long, as the P-35 and P-36 were about to enter service even as Boeing was assembling the final P-26s; followed by the P-40 several years later.
(The Mitsubishi A5M “Claude” carrier-borne fighter of the 1930s Imperial Japanese Navy. This was a type the US Army considered comparable to the Peashooter, and one they expected the P-26 to meet in combat should the two countries go to war. As it turned out, Japanese fighter design progressed much faster than anticipated and the A6M “Zero” entered service during 1940.)
Other than the high landing speed, the P-26 was a successful design. It’s chubby shape hid responsive controls and excellent maneuverability. It was a pleasure to fly; and pilots of the era recalled a soothing whiny hum at high speeds which could be heard over the engine, coming from the bracing wires moving through the air. The P-26 was a fast climber and briefly held the military record for time-to-height.
The US Army’s 18th Pursuit Group at Wheeler Army Airfield, HI had just transitioned to the P-36 Hawk in 1941, but fourteen P-26s were still in Hawaii, lined up wingtip to wingtip, in December 1941. These inactive Peashooters were destroyed on the ground by the Japanese Pearl Harbor strike force.
The Philippine Army Air Corps, which had been created in 1935 as a precursor to the Commonwealth of the Philippines gradual steps towards it’s planned 1946 independence, had twelve Peashooters in it’s inventory when Japan attacked in December 1941. These Filipino-operated P-26s flew alongside sixteen US Army Peashooters of the 4th Composite Group at Clark Army Airbase. The Filipino planes amazingly scored three kills, a G3M “Nell” bomber and (almost unbelievably) two A6M “Zero” fighters. All P-26s in the Philippines were destroyed in 16 days.
(The P-26 in Filipino service.)
This left the last American unit still flying the P-26, the 16th Pursuit Group, flying out of the Canal Zone. Nine P-26s had been sent to the Panama Canal to beef up the 16th’s strength, flying alongside P-36 Hawks and P-40 Warhawks. These were still active at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and were the only American P-26s to see service into 1942. The Canal Zone was never attacked and they never saw combat in American colors.
(US Army P-26 Peashooters, the last in American service, in the Canal Zone in late 1941.)
By mid-1942, the US Army had increased it’s already-substantial air assets in the Canal Zone, adding additional P-40 Warhawks, and later P-39 Airacobra and P-38 Lightning fighters. The obsolete P-26 Peashooters were no longer needed, and in fact were a nuisance as airbases in the Zone were running out of space.
(An American P-26 Peashooter at the Rio Hato Air Gunnery Range in the Canal Zone during WWII. The handcrank for the starter is inserted into the plane.) (US Air Force photo)
At the time, there were nine P-26s still on duty in the Canal Zone, in fact, the last nine Peashooters in active American inventory. To dispose of them, it was proposed to “loan” them to the Panamanian Defense Forces with the unwritten understanding that they would never be returned.
During the 1940s, the PDF was probably the most pointless military on Earth. Panama had no real enemies, and in any case the gigantic American force in the USA’s Canal Zone which bisected Panama itself provided an umbrella of protection to the country, as the USA was never going to allow any foreign threat anywhere near the canal. Beyond that, Panama was an impoverished country and lacked the budget to service a fighter squadron or train pilots to fly the planes.
It’s not entirely clear if the US Army ever delivered the Peashooters to the Panamanians. Some sources state that the nine planes were, on paper, transferred then rescinded; while other sources (probably more accurately) state that the idea never took off at all.
In November 1942, an offer was tendered to Guatemala for the nine P-26s. At that time, Guatemala was still subject to pre-Pearl Harbor restrictions enacted by Congress, limiting the country to “non-lethal” American military aid. In the ambiguous American law “non-lethal” was it’s own world, and in the realm of military aircraft, armed trainers were acceptable but fighters were not. To keep the sale legal, the US Army invoices described the fighters as “Boeing PT-26A trainers” (there actually was a plane already using this designation, the Fairchild PT-26 Cornell trainer). The ruse probably didn’t fool anybody in Washington but in the midst of war, it was enough that both the Army and Justice Department could shrug their shoulders and say that rules were followed.
(Roundel of the Guatemalan air force.)
The cost of the sale was apparently not recorded, and it’s not clear how the Guatemalans made payment or to whom. The new cost of a P-26 during the Great Depression was $9,990 ($170,000 in 2016 money); and assuming the Army asked for 20% of it’s original price, each would have been around $1,990 (about $34,000).
Guatemala’s autocrat president, Jorge Ubico, had planned on keeping his country neutral after WWII started in 1939, and on 4 September 1941 it was made a formal policy.
After the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Ubico was faced with a dilemma as the American-owned United Fruit Company controlled a quarter of the country and had profits double the rest of Guatemala’s economy. With food now a national resource in the USA, Ubico had every reason to fear that the USA would simply occupy Guatemala if it remained neutral.
On 8 December 1941, Guatemala declared war on Japan, and then on 13 December against Germany and Italy. The latter was mostly self-serving, as it allowed Ubico’s cronies to expropriate German investments in Guatemala’s coffee industry. Ubico had no intention of his banana republic participating in an overseas war and the country was basically a useless ally.
Of the nine P-26s, two were deemed unsafe to try the journey to Guatemala and scratched. Of the remaining seven, one was sold as a spare parts kit, the other six as operational planes. The first batch of three Peashooters left the Canal Zone on 4 May 1943, arriving in Guatemala on 5 May. The last of the planes were delivered on 11 May 1943. Immediately upon receipt of the “spare parts kit”, the Guatemalans reassembled it into a seventh operational plane.
(The Guatemalan Peashooters at La Aurora airbase during WWII.)
(The initial color scheme of the Guatemalan P-26s was overall OD green with the national colors on the rudder and a conquistador on the fuselage. The wire running from the hump to the tail was the radio antenna, while the left-offset spike ahead of the cockpit was the mast for the wing bracing wires.) (photo via Wings Palette website)
The Peashooter was not entirely new to Guatemalan pilots. A pair of disarmed, well-used ex-US Army P-26s had been imported during the late 1930s, as a side order to a dozen Ryan STM basic trainers. It’s unclear if they were rearmed or what eventually happened to them. As for the STMs, they served in Guatemala until 1958.
(One of Guatemala’s long-serving Ryan basic trainers.)
The seven P-26s were assigned to the Escuadrón de Caza (fighter squadron), which didn’t need a number as it was the only one in the Guatemalan military. The squadron was based at La Aurora airbase in Guatemala City. Peashooters also occasionally deployed to Retalhuleu airbase near Guatemala’s Pacific coast. This facility was also the site of the Guatemalan air academy.
(A Guatemalan P-26 in 1946, showing the first postwar color scheme with the conquistador gone.)
(A Guatemalan Peashooter still later in the 1940s, with the serial numbers now black instead of white.)
Four T-6 Texan trainers were bought from the US Army with the Peashooters. This armed trainer had a top speed of 191 kts, only a bit less than the P-26 fighter; albeit much less maneuverable. As time went on and the P-26 became more and more laughable as a fighter, the T-6 became a de facto air defense asset as Guatemala was unable to source proper fighters after WWII. The four obtained during WWII were joined by another half-dozen in 1947 and then a slew after the 1954 coup. Guatemala flew the T-6 until 1988, being one of the last operators in the world of that WWII design.
(WWII-vintage Guatemalan air force T-6 Texan, which was used for every imaginable task during the Cold War era.)
Jorge Ubico’s dictatorship did not see the end of WWII. In 1944 he was ousted by the Guatemalan army who allowed free elections, won by Juan J. Arévalo, a socialist. The USA (at that moment anyways) considered the change of government irrelevant to WWII and support for the Peashooter squadron continued.
Guatemala, obviously far from the fighting in Europe and Asia, saw no combat during WWII. With the P-26 unit up and running, the country’s woefully obsolete Potez 25 biplanes were retired, leaving the seven Peashooters as Guatemala’s lone fighter type.
For the duration of WWII and thereafter, the obsolete P-26s remained Guatemala’s only fighter aircraft. A “perfect storm” of export refusals by the USA, budget shortfalls, and aircrew shortages prevented any replacements, even as other Latin American countries were snapping up Mustangs, Hellcats, Thunderbolts, and Corsairs being disposed of by the demobilizing American military.
The aircrew shortage was a particular problem. In post-WWII Guatemala, maintaining the military’s transport planes was considered of prime importance. The best pilots were assigned to the BT-13 Valiant, T-6 Texan, and Ryan STM trainers as instructors, with pupil priority given to C-45 Expeditor and C-47 Skytrain crews. The fighter squadron was chronically short-staffed. Rarely were all seven of the Peashooters fully maintained and manned, and by the early 1950s two or three were already being cannibalized for spare parts.
the “revolutionary” air war
Arévalo’s friendship with the USA began to unwind after WWII’s end in 1945. He had the misfortune of angering Nicaragua, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic; all at that time American allies. Meanwhile, the substantial American business interests in Guatemala were wary of his economic reforms, and discretely lobbied the Central Intelligence Agency to do something about “….the problem”. Arévalo was succeeded by Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, an even more leftist politician, in the 1950 election.
(Guatemalan P-26 in 1951.)
President Eisenhower was no fan of the Arbenz regime yet forbade the use of American military forces against him, but was open to the idea of CIA operations in Guatemala. Therefore the CIA’s “revolutionary air force” operated, with the exception of two small Cessnas, strictly WWII relic planes flown by contracted civilian “operators”. Eisenhower gave the go-ahead for the CIA effort in 1953, with an initial budget of $3 million.
The first types were C-47 Skytrain transports – one was open-market repurchased by the US government through a CIA front company inside the USA, and another two came from Civil Air Transport, a CIA-owned airline more famous for it’s clandestine work in Asia. The unit was set up at a WWII airstrip near Miami, FL; the former Naval Air Station Opa Locka, an offshoot of NAS Miami which had been converted to civilian use in 1947. During WWII this base was perhaps most famous as the final American facility flying the hated F2A Buffalo fighter. Now, it would be a convenient yet somewhat out-of-the-way spot for the CIA’s project, operation “PBSUCCESS”. A bogus charity was set up at Opa Locka as a means for financial transactions on further buys.
The next acquisitions were a lone P-38 Lightning obtained via means still unexplained, a PBY Catalina repurchased from a civilian owner, and three P-47 Thunderbolts quietly bought by Nicaragua (with CIA cash) from the Puerto Rico Air National Guard’s disposal lot, then immediately handed off to the project.
(P-47 Thunderbolt of the CIA’s self-styled “revolutionary air force”. These planes had no markings and every effort was made to completely remove all serial numbers.) (artwork by Tom Cooper via ACIG)
Now complete, the “revolutionary air force” moved to Nicaragua then to a jungle airstrip in Honduras. The “chief of staff” was Fred Sherwood, an American who had previously been a United Fruit Company freight pilot in Guatemala and had good knowledge of the country. The first two pilots recruited were ex-US Army aviators Carlos Cheeseman and Jerry Fred DeLarm, who had flown Thunderbolts against the Japanese during WWII. This duo also piloted the lone P-38 Lightning.
DeLarm was maybe the most colorful of the “operator” pilots. As a teen he had flown light aircraft. After hearing of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor he traveled to the Canal Zone and immediately enlisted in the US Army, qualifying on the P-47. He was credited with two A6M “Zero” kills during the war. After his honorable discharge he became a civilian pilot for Arévalo’s and Arbenz’s governments, until 1950 when Arbenz allegedly stiffed him on an owed invoice. Afterwards he harbored a personal resentment towards the Guatemalan leader. Besides (naturally) flying one of the “revolutionary air force”s Thunderbolts under the nom de guerre Rosbinda, he was already trained on the C-47 and learned the P-38. He modified one of the C-47s with some weight stripped off to make it faster, and a machine gun pintle in the cargo door plus another machine gun set vertically in the plane’s former toilet space, firing down out the belly.
(Jerry Fred DeLarm aka Rosbinda after PBSUCCESS, with a Lockheed Model 18 of SIDA, an airline he later operated in Latin America.)
The CIA’s plan was for the “revolutionary air force” to add punch to a “revolutionary army”, which in turn would hopefully cause panic inside the Guatemalan military and link up with anti-Arbenz forces inside Guatemala. This “army” never numbered more than 500 men, usually around 350, and was for the most part a ramshackle group of hooligans armed with WWII-vintage Bren guns and M2 mortars which the CIA sourced on the worldwide black market. In any case, in May 1954, the WWII relic warplanes began operations in Guatemalan airspace.
The only interaction between the “revolutionary air force” and Guatemala’s P-26 Peashooters came on 21 May 1954. An unescorted C-47 piloted by Cheeseman and DeLarm dropped propaganda leaflets over Guatemala City, and on their outbound leg the Guatemalan air force responded. Three P-26 Peashooters took off from La Aurora airbase to intercept the Skytrain. This was itself not an easy feat, as the P-26s had to be hand-started and made airborne before the C-47 vanished from eyesight, as Guatemala had no radars at the time.
(A Guatemalan P-26 in 1952, with the pilot in perspex eyewear which had replaced the WWII goggles. This plane still has the two-digit serial number but new paint scheme.)
In level flight the transport was only 8 kts slower than the open-cockpit fighters chasing it, and also did not need to climb. It’s unknown if the Peashooter pilots knew the C-47 was armed, but for certain they were aware of the “revolutionary air force”s Thunderbolts and perhaps wondered if they were being lured into a trap. After a brief chase they returned to La Aurora.
That was the end of the P-26’s participation in the conflict. The Guatemalan pilots were not suicidal and had no intention of flying their Depression-era Peashooters against P-38s or P-47s. The situation was not helped by the defection of two T-6 Texan trainers, and the loss of a third T-6 which crashed trying to dogfight the two defectors. Afterwards, pilots of the P-26s had to be personally vetted by Arbenz himself, further shrinking the pool of trained airmen.
(The final paint scheme was air superiority grey on the fuselage with grass-green wing tops and grey bottoms. In 1954, the serial numbers were changed to four digits.)
Now unopposed, the CIA-operated planes grew increasingly aggressive including airstrikes against Guatemalan army bases and a brazen napalm attack against a merchant ship delivering rifles to the Guatemalan army. Two of the three P-47s were damaged beyond repair by AA guns Guatemala had obtained from the USA during WWII, and the P-38 was repeatedly shot up, but none of the “revolutionary air force” planes were lost in air combat.
To a certain extent, the CIA’s plan worked, in that the “operator” pilots made the anti-Arbenz force look much more fearsome than it was. This was fortunate, because the land-based part of PBSUCCESS was a debacle; with the ragtag rebel army barely escaping destruction several times.
The two written-off P-47s were replaced by two P-51 Mustangs, perhaps the best fighter of WWII. Now for certain the Guatemalan Peashooters were going to stay hangared. With the rebels slowly gaining traction on the ground and the CIA-funded planes unopposed in the sky, the corrupt Guatemalan military began to see an opportunity to seize control from Arbenz, who (despite strong public support) appeared helpless to defend his presidency.
On 8 July 1954, Col. Carlos C. Armas overthrew Arbenz in a CIA-arranged coup and established himself as dictator. This was by no means the end of Guatemala’s problems. Armas lacked any popular support, and barely five weeks later the Guatemalan army attempted a failed mutiny. Armas was later assassinated in 1957 and replaced by another military junta which itself was overthrown in 1959, followed by the 30 year Guatemalan civil war. The country did not have another free election until 1996.
(The Guatemalan P-26s as they appeared after the coup. To put 1956 into perspective, Guatemala was still flying the 1930s-era P-26 while the USA was flying the supersonic F-102 Delta Dagger and the Soviets were a year away from orbiting Sputnik.) (artwork from Aviões Militares website)
PBSUCCESS remains a controversial CIA operation. This was the first time the USA had ousted a freely-elected government that posed no direct threat. From a practical standpoint, the operation (which actually barely succeeded by the thinnest margin) give the CIA a sense of hubris that “clandestine regime management” in Latin America via aging WWII-era weapons and local rebels was a great idea. This outlook came to a negative conclusion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.
the end of the Peashooters
After Armas took over, only two of the seven P-26s remained flightworthy. The USA delivered a trio of retired P-51 Mustangs from Luke AFB, along with the one remaining “revolutionary” P-47. Altogether, these six planes made up the whole of Guatemala’s fighter capability in late 1954.
(Guatemalan P-51 Mustang, which mercifully replaced the last P-26s in 1957. The Mustang was Guatemala’s last fighter type.)
By now, nobody in the Guatemalan air force wanted to be assigned to a P-26. The two Peashooters were reassigned as flight-hours proficiency planes at Retalhuleu air base, with an emergency role as artillery spotter aircraft if the country was invaded. They were really not suited for either role.
In 1957, Guatemala finally announced plans to phase out the P-26, fourteen years after it had left service anywhere else on Earth. In the USA, it was belatedly realized that these were the last two extant Peashooters in the world, and they were both imported back into the United States. One, which had worn the Guatemalan serial number 0672, was bought by the Planes of Fame flying museum and assigned the FAA civil registration N3378G. The other was bought by the Smithsonian; this had been the last delivered to Guatemala and the last in active American service during WWII.
Both planes were in poor shape and gradually restored. The Planes Of Fame P-26 was restored to operating condition and beginning in 1997, flown in airshows. In 2014, this Peashooter appeared at an airshow in Great Britain. This was the first time a P-26 had been in Europe’s skies since before WWII.
(photo via Planes Of Fame)
In Guatemala, the combination of political instability and long gaps inbetween fighter types permanently hobbled the air force’s interceptor wing. The P-26’s replacement, the P-51 Mustang (itself a WWII design obsolete by the late 1950s) was retired in 1973. Guatemala never again operated fighters.
In the USA, the P-26 remains a favorite among air enthusiasts, scale modelers, and the overall general public. The Peashooter’s continued popularity in the 21st century is far out of proportion to the design’s actual military importance in the 1940s.