Catherine Lynch couldn't imagine what in the world was going on.
At noon, as she walked home from Catasauqua High for lunch that fateful day in 1944, the street outside 426 Walnut was packed with cars.
So many people were on the front porch that she went in the back door. The house was abuzz with activity. All her mother's friends were there. So were the Catasauqua police chief and the parish priest, Father Munley of St. Lawrence the Martyr Catholic Church.
A family friend, who was washing dishes, told Catherine she should go talk to her mother in the living room.
"They told us we lost your brother," Alice Lynch said to her stunned teen-aged daughter, "but we don't believe it."
Catherine Lynch Pirog, now 76 and retired in Florida, said her parents went to their graves believing that their high-flying son, 26-year-old World War II fighter ace Tommy Lynch, would someday return.
"When Tommy was shot down, my father sat by the radio for hours and hours listening for any news of him," Pirog said of William Lynch. "Eventually, it caused him to have a stroke."
Lt. Col. Thomas J. Lynch was one of the top three fighter aces when, 60 years ago today, he went down in his P-38 Lightning in the southwest Pacific off New Guinea.
He had shot down 20 Japanese planes, mostly fast-moving Zeroes. The twin columns of tiny Rising Sun flags on the P-38's hull were like notches in a gunslinger's pistol.
Ironically, Lynch wasn't shot down by a Japanese fighter pilot. On a routine mission with Maj. Richard I. "Dick" Bong, the all-time No. 1 American ace with 40 kills, Lynch spotted barges loaded with weapons. He swept down upon them, only to be hit with a surprise barrage of flak.
Bong flew into then Allentown-Bethlehem Airport to personally tell Alice Lynch the details of her son's death.
One engine on fire, one of the plane's two propellers gone, Lynch struggled to bail out. He was poised to jump, Bong said, when the plane exploded.
Eagle Scout, fighter ace, hero
In some ways Tommy Lynch was a likely hero.
An Eagle Scout, he had always shown leadership qualities.
At the University of Pittsburgh, where he received a degree in chemical engineering in 1940, he was an undefeated boxer and member of the military Scabbard and Blade Society.
"He was always a go-getter," recalled his brother, 78-year-old Daniel Lynch of Ormrod.
When William and Alice Lynch went to commencement at Pitt, their up-and-coming son stunned them with the announcement he had joined the Army Air Corps. It was before Pearl Harbor, and the United States hadn't entered World War II.
"My parents couldn't understand it," said Catherine Lynch Pirog. "He said he wouldn't be gone very long, and that he'd get back to his studies later."
Interestingly, the boy who would become one of the top World War II aces had never ridden in a plane before joining the corps.
"When he flew for the first time, he just fell in love with flying," Pirog said. "He had such a knack for it, he was so good at it."
Tommy Lynch was assigned to the 39th Fighter Squadron, which trained at Selfridge Field near Detroit.In late January 1942, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor still ringing in the nation's ears, Lynch's squadron was sent to Australia. He was among the first Americans to be sent "down under," and arrived while Gen. Douglas MacArthur was making his stand in Bataan.
Lynch, who was 26 when he died, was a bona fide World War II superstar.
The Morning Call and the Evening Chronicle tracked his airborne career from 1942 to 1944, as they would a local sports standout who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Every time Lynch was promoted or downed another Japanese plane, there was an article in the newspaper.
"Catasauqua Flyer Shoots Down Pair of Zeroes, Now In Hospital Nursing a Broken Arm," the headlines screamed on June 23, 1942.
"No sooner had he got up into the clouds than he ran smack-dab into a whole squadron of Zeroes," the paper reported. "All alone, he was cornered by four of them and tried to shoot his way out."
Lynch is quoted as saying the escape hatch jammed and broke his arm when it suddenly flew open. He bailed at 1,000 feet and was pulled out of the sea by New Guinea natives.
In "Fork-Tailed Devil: The P-38," Martin Caidin suggests that Lynch could have been the top ace had he not been sent home on leave in the fall of 1943.
"Had it not been for this incredible freak of circumstance, Tommy Lynch would have been on top of the heap," Caidin wrote. "Of the early leading aces, Tommy Lynch was unquestionably the best."
It was on that leave that Lynch married his college sweetheart, Rosemary Fullen, in the Pittsburgh suburb of Swissvale.
Catasauqua air ace marries his "Prom Girl," the papers reported when Lynch, then a major, tied the knot on Oct. 23, 1943. They were married only five months when he was shot down. The couple had no children.
On Nov. 11 that year, the newlyweds were guests of honor at the Armistice Day dinner at American Legion Post 215 in Catasauqua. The post gave Lynch a medal, but he spoke little of his aerial triumphs.
Lynch's exploits were dramatized in "Wings for Victory," a WSAN broadcast on Jan. 20, 1944. Actors from the Civic Little Theatre took time off from rehearsing "The Little Foxes" to do the voices in a production written by Cpl. Letitia Tracy, a Women's Army Corps recruiter in Allentown.
The final days
Historians differ on Tommy Lynch's temperament in the months after his marriage.
Gen. George C. Kenney, commander of the 5th Air Force, suggested Lynch was out to become No. 1.
In his book "Dick Bong," Kenney wrote that Lynch led the 39th Fighter Squadron with 16 kills when he sent him stateside on leave. When Lynch returned, he needed four kills to catch Lt. Col. Neel Kearby and five to catch Bong. Lynch, Kearby and Bong, the general wrote, were the "buzz" in the southwest Pacific in February 1944.
"Tommy Lynch was anxious to go after the top score," Kenney wrote. "I told him to take it easy, don't get in a race with anybody. He left for New Guinea promising to behave himself."
Lynch was assigned to a unit under Gen. Paul "Squeeze" Wurtsmith, who commanded the 49th Fighter Group. Lynch was Wurtsmith's operations officer; Bong was his assistant.
By March 4, 1944, four days before his death, Lynch had 19 kills, and Kearby and Bong had 23 each.
Kearby, a Texan who received the Medal of Honor, died when his P-47 was shot down three days before Lynch.Bong shot down 27 enemy aircraft before being sent stateside. He returned to the southwest Pacific as a training instructor but volunteered for combat missions and shot down 13 more. His 40 kills are a record. He died when his P-80 jet crashed in Burbank, Calif., in 1945.
In "Outcast Red," William Brevard Rogers offered a different assessment of Tommy Lynch.
As a squadron commander in "the glory days of the P-38," Rogers wrote, the Catasauqua ace put the squadron's welfare ahead of his own record of kills.
"Tommy Lynch set a high standard for integrity in the use of a flight, or the squadron, rather than build up his own score," Rogers wrote. "His death seemed only to heighten the tradition."
A brother remembered
On the antique piano in Dan Lynch's living room, there's a photo of him with his older brother Tommy. Dan, the shorter of the two, is in his Navy uniform. Tommy is wearing his Army Air Corps dress uniform. A third brother, Phil, not pictured, also was in the Army Air Corps.
"Everybody went to war in those days," recalled Lynch, who quit school to join the Navy in July 1943.The Lynch brothers were both home on leave, and the whole town turned out for a big celebration in Tommy's honor at St. Lawrence, the Irish church in Catasauqua.
"Everybody in Catty was there," recalled Lynch, a retired Lehigh Portland Cement Co. chemist. "It was hosted by the mayor of Allentown."
Dan Lynch, eight years younger than his famous brother, recalled a story from their youth. They were playing stick ball on Walnut Street, and Dan had to go home. He complained that "the old man" would be angry if he didn't get home on time.
"Tommy kicked me in the pants," he said. "He was always my older brother."
The tide of history pulled the Lynch boys apart before they really had a chance to know one another as men. Six decades later, Dan Lynch laments his brother's passing in words similar to those of the Irish ballad "Johnny, I hardly knew ye."
"I wish he could have lived a little longer," Lynch lamented, "so I could have found out what he was really like."