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Broadcaster's book tells wartime story

By BOB CAYLOR of The News-Sentinel

Almost 50 years after his fighter-plane missions over the South Pacific, former farm broadcaster Wayne Rothgeb has remembered those days in a book due out next month.

Rothgeb will throw a party Oct. 17 to present "New Guinea Skies" to friends and associates from his long career at WKJG - first the radio station and later the television station, Channel 33.

He began broadcasting in 1951, and for most of the years until he retired in 1985, he was host of the half-hour "Wayne Rothgeb Show" at 6:30 a.m. daily. Rothgeb, who began working on "New Guinea Skies" years before he retired, said he began thinking much more about his World War II days in 1979. That was the year his P-38 Lightning was found, amazingly well-preserved, in a New Guinea jungle. He opens his book by detailing the day in 1943 when he lost that plane.

In March 1943, Rothgeb joined the Army Air Corps 39th Fighter Squadron, which flew fighter planes based at Port Moresby in New Guinea. He was still a rookie, just 22 years old, and flying as a wingman in a formation of P-38s on May 14. He remembers he had to push the twin-engine, twin-fuselage plane as hard as he could to keep up with the other planes.

"I was climbing like the dickens, climbing as fast as I could. I had to really fire-wall my engine," he said.

He was still climbing, somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 feet, when metal began rocketing through the cockpit in front of him. At first he thought a Japanese fighter got the drop on him. Soon he realized that one of his engines had blown a supercharger. He was left to limp through the sky on a single engine.

He made his way back to a dirt airstrip near Port Moresby, landed safely and went back to his air base - without his crippled plane.

"All I can figure out is that it was damaged so badly they just pushed it off into the jungle," he said.

In 1979, he learned that the P-38 he flew that day was being restored by the Aviation, Maritime and War branch of the National Museum and Art Gallery in Papau, New Guinea. That rekindled his World War II memories.

In his book, to be published by Iowa State University Press, Rothgeb recounts his experience as a fighter pilot, from flight school to the dogfights in which he shot down one enemy Zero and helped to down another.

Although he had close calls, he said the excitement of flying - particularly fighters, with their single-man crews - kept him from ever getting scared of combat.

"You lived or died by yourself," he said. "You can't blame anybody else."