P-51B Mustang Shangri-La Nose Art Panel
Flown by Cpt. Don Gentile
Dimensions: 40″ x 18"
Gentile denied Pilot training at the USAAC, he would do the same as fellow enlistees and join the RCAF. The first aircraft he shot down was in a Spitfire with Eagle Squadron. Gentile went to the USAAF with the rest of his fighter group in September 1942. He ended the war with more than twenty-seven victories. Nineteen of those were in the P-51B Mustang Shangri-La.
The P-51 Mustang became the best long-range fighter aircraft in aviation history. Dominating the skies over Europe and Japan, the Mustang outmaneuvered our enemies aircraft.
Don Gentile and Saga of "Shangri-La"
One of the most famous P-51B aircraft is "Shangri La", flown by the 4th Fighter Group ace, Don Gentile. Gentile totaled 30 kills during the war, breaking Eddie Rickenbacker's WWI record of 26. Incredibly, he scored two-thirds of his kills in a short 6-week period in March and early April of 1944 -- right after he started flying his new P-51B.
Don Gentile was a seasoned veteran by the time the P-51B arrived on the scene. He had originally enlisted in the Royal Canadian AF before the U.S. entered the war. He was posted to England in 1941, flying the Supermarine Spitfire with the famed "Eagle Squadron". He claimed 2 kills in his time with the squadron. In September 1942 the Eagle Squadron was
transferred to the USAAF, becoming the 4th Fighter Group. Having been Spitfire pilots, Gentile and many other pilots of the 4th were skeptical of the heavy P-47 Thunderbolt they were now given to fly. After a year of flying the P-47, they were eager to get the new Merlin-powered P-51 Mustangs they’d heard about. Finally, in February 1944 they got their wish, as brand new P-51B Mustangs began to arrive at their air base in Debden, England.
The 4th Fighter Group’s “Debden Ponies” quickly launched into a new phase of the air war. General Hap Arnold, commander of the USAAF, unleashed his new long-range fighters with these instructions; “My personal message to you - and this is a MUST - is to destroy the enemy airforce wherever you find them, in the air, on the ground, and in the factories.” Defending the bombers wasn’t the only objective anymore -- it was now a mission of seek and destroy!
Don Gentile's Amazing 6-Week Record With His New P-51B “Shangri-La”
March 2, 1944 -Logs his first flight in “Shangri-La".
March 8, 1944 -Scores 4 Me-109s (kills #10, #11, #12, #13)
It’s a big day for the new P-51Bs on the outskirts of Berlin! Gentile teams up for the first time with a new wingman, John Godfrey, who also shoots down two ME-109s this day. They go on to become the greatest fighter duo in history! Some of their tactics are still being taught to today’s jet fighter pilots.
Gentile’s 4 kills on this day brings his total to 13, and puts him in a tie with veteran Duane Beeson for the title of “Top Ace” in the USAAF. This starts a very public "Ace Race" between Gentile and Beeson to see who will be first to break Eddie Rickenbacker's record. The eager press follows every mission. Both men forego leaves they were due to continue their battle. A series of photos are taken of Gentile and Beeson and sent to the states to publicize the competition between the two.
March 18, 1944 -Scores 1 Fw-190 (kill #14)
Beeson gets 1 Me-109 - they’re still tied at 14 kills each!
March 23, 1944 -Scores 2 Me-109s (kills #15 and #16)
Beeson also gets 2 Me-109s - tied at 16 kills each!
March 27, 1944 -Scores 2 Me-110s (kills #17 and #18)
Beeson gets 2-1/2 kills and goes slightly ahead for now!
March 29, 1944 -Scores 2 Fw-290s & 1 Me-109 (kills #19, #20, and #21)
A big day for Don Gentile and “Shangri-La”, giving him the lead in the “Ace Race”.
April 1, 1944 -Scores 1 Me-109 (kill #22)
Beeson also scores a Me-109 but gains no ground on Gentile.
April 5, 1944 -Scores 5 kills ground strafing
The USAAF considers ground kills as important as air kills in the war effort. Today pushes Gentile’s total to 27, breaking the record of 26 set by Captain Eddie Rickenbacker during World War I. On this same day, Duane Beeson is brought down by German ground fire while strafing. He is captured, thus ending the “Ace Race”. Beeson would spend the rest of the war as a POW. He scored 22 victories.
April 8, 1944 -Scores 3 Fw-190s (kills #28, #29, and #30)
These three kills fill out the final total of 30 crosses applied to “Shangri-La”. Don Gentile is the top scoring ace in the 8th AF, and the press cannot get enough of him and the colorful “Shangri-La”. April 11, 1944 -General Eisenhower comes to Debden Airfield to award Don Gentile the Distinguished Flying Cross. He remarks to Don; "You are a one-man air force!".
April 13, 1944 -Returning from a mission to Schweinfurt, which was to be his last mission before a stateside publicity tour, Gentile crashes "Shangri-La" while making an extra low-level pass for the assembled press reporters and movie cameras. The airplane is a total loss. His commander, Col. Blakeslee, immediately grounds Gentile as a result. By the end of April, he was back in the U.S. selling War Bonds.
One of the ground crew gave this account of the accident; "The press was there - this was to be his last mission before a short break back to the States, and everybody was out in full force to watch him come back. He gave the dispersal a real rattling on his first pass, but after spotting the rather large crowd, he decided to make his next one something nobody would forget. Circling around ... Don lined up, put his nose down and leveled off just feet off the ground. ... Don was so low at the beginning of his run that he disappeared from view ... he reappeared just before he crossed the southern part of the runway.
He crossed the runway right on the deck, and the plane seemed to settle and Shangri-La's prop struck the grassy area about 100 yards in front of the dispersal area. They later found numerous chop marks where the prop had dug into the ground. After he felt those first unmistakable jolts, Don immediately pulled the kite up, and sailed right over the heads of the assembled crowd and the squadron's dispersal shacks, nearly hitting them. ... His prop was slowly windmilling and horribly bent as he flew/glided west-southwesterly for almost a mile, gently arcing slightly right as he spotted and aimed for ... a good flat set of open fields. ... He manages to squeak his glide just barely over ... a large stand of trees then hit hard and slid to a stop. ... Shangri-La broke her back when she "landed", and was a total write-off. ... 'Well', he said, 'I think I flubbed up!'.This stunt forever ended Don's combat days - Blakeslee almost literally kicked him out of the 4th Fighter Group, and he never again saw combat - ever."
After his War Bond tour, Don Gentile was assigned to Wright Field in Dayton as a test pilot. He tried but was never able to get reassigned to combat duty before the war ended. After surviving all the Germans could muster, Don Gentile was killed in the crash of a T-33 jet trainer on January 28, 1951, at the age of 30.