Chapter 1: Flight Leader (DR1)
Chapter 1: Flight Leader
The day was hazy and hot. August 13, 1944. Even at 4000 feet it felt warm and a little muggy with a haze that made me uncomfortable and seemed to hold the heat in like a warm blanket. As heavy as it was it did not stop the sun from creating an oven under that clear canopy over my head. Maybe I was just sweating a little extra that day, which would be understandable since this was my first mission as flight leader. There were twelve of us from the 429th Fighter Squadron of the 474th Fighter Group attacking the enemy that day. Three flights of four planes each. Our group of four P-38 Lightning fighter planes was given the call sign for the day of “Censor Red.” That made me “Censor Red Leader.”
I kept cranking my eyes around. Tough to do all jammed up into that cockpit with flight suit, anti-gravity suit, leather helmet, goggles, and oxygen mask. I sat on an inflatable dingy with a parachute strapped onto my back. It was tight quarters with not a lot of freedom of movement. But a good set of eyes constantly scanning the skies above, below and all around was the best protection a fighter pilot had. Invariably, it is the enemy you don’t see that will get you. So when the adrenalin is flowing, and it certainly was now, you found a little stretch in all that leather and fabric that otherwise wasn’t there.
Sharp eyes were certainly a necessity on bomber escort missions. Today’s flight was my 44th combat mission and many of these flights had been bomber escort missions. In our twin engine fighters we often flew at over 30,000 feet keeping a close watch on our big brothers below us bringing those explosive loads that we were confident were bringing this horrible war to an end.
Those flights were brutally cold. At 30,000 feet the temperatures are frequently far below zero and we would cruise at over 300 miles per hour. The P-38s had a bad reputation among many Allied flyers because of the lack of cockpit heat and the problem with the instrument panel and windshield fogging up from condensation, but I loved that plane and still do. In all those dangerous bomber escort missions I never got into a dogfight, in part because our twin-boom plane was a big fighter and very visible to the Germans who were struggling to keep as many of their fighters alive at this point in the war. They flat out avoided us.
Those numbing flights at 30,000 feet were a distant memory today and seemed a piece of cake now, compared to what we had been experiencing the last few weeks. What once got our hearts pounding like sprinters at the end of a race now seemed like a routine training flight. That’s because ever since D-Day—June 6, 1944—our primary mission had been close air support.
It sounds kind of simple and it might seem we had all the advantages. Our job was to seek out and attack almost any enemy target that looked like it might be helping the Germans keep their grip on the west of France. The Allies got on the beach that first day, but then it took weeks to make much progress. The Germans fought hard and brought up all the reinforcements they could. It was our job to disrupt this as much as possible. Anything that moved on the roads or rail lines was a target. The locals were keeping their heads down now as war raged around them and the trucks, trains, cars, motorcycles were almost certain to be enemy forces.
For the first few weeks after D-Day we flew from our base in Warmwell, England. And while we had the comfort of returning to the safety of England and our Army Air Force accommodations, not all of our group was so lucky. In fact, we had lost about one quarter of our squadron by the time this flight on August 13 came along—including our squadron Commanding Officer, Captain Merle Larson who was shot down on June 21. Captain Larson was a great officer and our most experienced pilot having flown many combat missions in North Africa. He had been shot down there but had made his way back to Allied lines and we were hoping the same for him now.
It was “flak” that brought the Captain down, as well as most of the others we had lost. Flak—anti-aircraft fire—was feared now more than the enemy fliers. Certainly, there was danger from the German Luftwaffe (Air Force) The Messerschmitt ME-109s and the Focke-Wolfe FW-190s were occasionally sent up against our bombing and strafing missions. But, it was the flak that was the most dangerous and what we feared the most now.
It was flak that was most on my mind as I scanned the ground for targets of opportunity, sweat running in ticklish streams down the side of my head beneath my worn leather helmet. Flak was a concern during our long bomber escort missions but even the much-vaunted 88 flak gun could reach no higher than 25,000 feet. We could put up with an awful lot of freezing up there at 30,000 as we watched the dirty, dangerous gray puffs about 5000 feet below us. How many times on those missions I considered how lucky I was to be safely above those bursts that sometimes were so thick it seemed you might be able to jump from one to the next.
We were about twenty minutes from our base near Isigny-sur-Mer. Our base was called Neuilly because it was close to a small village called Neuilly de Foret. I call it a base but it was not much more than farmland that had only a few days before been leveled and the beautiful hedgerows bulldozed out to make a landing strip for our fighters. Steel mat had been rolled out for the runway and we were in business. On August 6, just a week before today’s flight we had landed at this new farmland base and we were still in the process of settling in. It was great to be on the mainland and the days were filled with exciting reports of the now rapid Allied advance through France.
Our new base was very near the beaches that had now become famous around the world as Utah and Omaha. Isigny is just south of the bay or inlet that divided these two great battlefields. Two months earlier, our fellow soldiers from America, England, Canada and other places had landed on this ground and on Utah beach particularly, a great many of them had left their dreams, hopes and blood behind.
It had taken weeks for the Allies to get very far off the beaches. After miserably hard fighting through the farm fields and hedgerows of Normandy, the US First Army under General Hodges and Patton had finally broken through the tough defenses and started their big sweep east toward Paris. The breakout had occurred right at the end of July, and here we were in the first week of August landing our plants and planting our feet on this newly liberated farmland.
It felt strange and a little unsettling to be seeing France at ground level. Certainly we had seen a lot of it from the air, up close and personal in the days following D-Day as we bombed and strafed enemy targets. But now we were in France, living in tents on the land that only recently been some farmer’s home and livelihood. I thought about my family’s farm back in Ferndale, near the Canadian border in Washington State. How would I have felt to see the land I so loved torn up so that these noisy machines could land? But, the few French that we occasionally met after arriving made it very clear that they were most happy to see us and they were eager to rid their country of the much hated German occupiers.
The haze was heavy enough that even at 4000 feet, we could not see far ahead of us. I worried a little that it wouldn’t take much flying time for us to lose track of each other. Staying tight together was our best protection in these dangerous circumstances—both as protection against the German fighters and the flak. Our flight of four planes was organized into two groups, a leader and a wingman. The wingman’s job was to follow the leader down fairly tight behind and off to the right. It was a method that had been developed for most effective dog fighting because while the leader was engaged in attacking an enemy, the wingman would continue to search the skies for an enemy or two who might enter the fray and sneak up behind the attacking plane. But, it was also very important during these bombing and strafing runs. In part because if something happened to the leader, the wingman would know what happened, what the problem was, where it happened and could call for any help that was needed including letting the ground troops know where a flyer had gone down.
If I spotted a good looking target, I would call the attack and our four plane group would go down together. First me and my wingman, to be followed closely by the second group.
But, not too closely as Captain Glass had just lectured us. One of my squadron mates, Lt Moore had been killed not long before. He was flying wingman on July 14 and following his leader in for a bombing run on a bridge. The leader let the bomb fly when they were very low and the concussion from the explosion flipped Moore’s big fighter over and he crashed immediately into a stone building. A beautiful, powerful flying machine and another brave young twenty-one year old gone forever in a ball of exploding fuel and metal. There were all kinds of ways this kind of fighting could get you.
I was very aware of all the possibilities that morning at the pre-flight briefing. Our routine was pretty simple. In the afternoon the list would appear on the wall of the briefing tent naming the pilots who were assigned to fly the next morning. A full squadron had sixteen planes, but most days it would be good to get twelve in the air due to repairs, pilots needing rest, or other reasons. My name was on the list for the bombing and strafing mission on August 13. It was Sunday but there was no day of rest during this activity we called war.
At 6:30 in the morning, a sergeant would come through the tents waking up those of us who were scheduled to fly. I’m a farm boy so 6:30 was hardly early for me. We’d pull on our tan GI shirts and green GI wool pants. Over that went our flight suits—basically coveralls. Then we’d pull on our boots. But in this warm weather, we didn’t wear our big, heavy GI boots that went well up our calves, instead we wore our lighter ankle-length leather shoes. I stepped out of the tent and immediately felt that this would be one of those sweltering mid-August days. I scanned the sky and noted the haze.
Joe—according to Swindt breakfast was still being prepared over campfires as the mess equipment had not yet arrived:
Unlike at Warmwell, we were served breakfast out in the open with it cooked over campfires. Still powdered eggs and some black stuff they tried to get us to think was coffee. Sometimes the enlisted men doing the cooking had a hard time getting the fires going in the morning, so they fueled the flames with some French cognac which definitely got things heated up in a hurry. Food was on my mind almost all the time and I thought back later on all the complaints we made about the rations we were given.
To find out exactly what we were assigned, we headed to the briefing tent at 8:30. It was already approaching hot as we sat down for the briefing.
The briefing was done by Major Burl Glass. The major had been our CO, Commanding Officer of the 429th, since it was created in Glendale, California on August 1, 1943—a year earlier. He was a captain then and made major on a day I will never forget—on the return of our first fighter sweep as a unit over France. That was April 30, 1944. So long ago it seemed now.
The major was a respected pilot and a respected leader but frankly, we were scared to fly with him. He was a “natural” pilot in the sense that the plane just seemed to become part of him, and that is a tremendous advantage in a lot of flying circumstances. But, it was a big disadvantage when flying by instruments in bad weather. The simple reason is that the seat of your pants fools you in these conditions. You could swear you are flying straight and level, then you bust out of the clouds and you find yourself in climb that leads to a stall or a steep dive heading for the ground. And this is exactly what happened several times when the major was leading a flight. We’d run into bad weather and the next thing you know the whole flight was cockeyed and coming out of the clouds in a dangerous dive or other uncomfortable and dangerous attitudes.
But, he wasn’t leading this mission today and the briefing was so routine we could have almost repeated it from memory. Col. Wasem, CO of the 474th Fighter Group was leading the mission (according to Swindt) but I was to be flight leader of our group of four planes. When the major announced that I was to be flight leader that day, I found myself paying a little more attention than normal. I wasn’t taken by complete surprise because I had been told before that I might get this assignment soon. I had been promoted to First Lieutenant in July—an accomplishment which I attributed both to the fact that I had flown a lot of missions and sadly, because increasingly our squadron was being filled with new, less experienced pilots to replace those who had been killed or shot down. Sometimes success can be attributed to just surviving—a simple truth that became painfully clear to me in the months ahead.
My wingman was assigned by Major Glass and I glanced over at him. He looked straight ahead at the briefing map. I didn’t know him well as he was one of the replacement pilots and so I couldn’t read his reaction. Did he think, Oh great, this idiot is going to lead me into trouble? He had been in the unit for a couple of months but I had flown with him on escort missions and he seemed an OK pilot, but for some reason, I was a little uneasy. It wasn’t unusual for me to not know him well. I am a pretty quiet guy and tend to keep to myself a fair bit. There were a few pilots I considered good buddies, particularly Ernie Nobly from Minnesota. Ernie and I learned to fly P-38s together and we had stayed together all through training and into the war.
The mission was what was called “armed reconnaissance” or “armed recces.” Our general target area was Rambouillet, a good sized town just 10 miles southwest of Versailles and only about 25 miles from Paris. The German reinforcements being brought in to try to slow the now rapid Allied advance would be mostly coming from this direction. We would look for armored units, supply trucks or trains, officers staff cars or just about anything else that looked to be a likely military target.
“If it moves, smash it,” said Major Glass. The days of trying to determine first if the vehicles on the road were German or French countrymen were coming to an end. Now we had orders that anything that moved was German.
“Keep your eyes on patches of woods located near roads or rail lines,” the major said, as if we needed reminding. “Let’s find some more Tigers.”
On Friday, August 11, we had received word of several German Tiger tanks on a road nine miles east of Domfort. These were the big boys that could incredible damage to our own tanks and infantry. We were sent up at 1500 hours (3:00 p.m.) on a tank busting mission, loaded up with each plane carrying two 1000 pound bombs. There were thirteen of us on the mission with Captain Pappy Holcomb the flight leader. Pappy had taken over as Squadron Operations Officer for Captain Larson who was now Missing In Action. We found the tanks but they had been spaced out and were trying to hide in some trees. A few minutes later, the little forest where they hid received 26,000 pounds of high explosives and we flew back satisfied that by taking these big guys out we had saved some American lives.
I looked at the map carefully. Our flight would take us in the direction of Dreux. Several P-38s had met their doom in the Dreux-Chartres area—including Captain Larson’s. I wondered what had happened to him, if he made it out OK and if he would be one of the lucky ones helped by the French underground to get back to our unit. This is exactly what happened to Hugh Thacker who was shot down on May 7 but five weeks later called up from London. He had a harrowing trek through the Pyrenees into Spain, helped all the way by brave French men and women.
At ten that morning we had taken off. I never really got over the thrill of putting my hand over the twin throttles of the fighter and feeling the vibration and acceleration as the power of almost three thousand horses pulled me over the rough runway and into the air. We headed almost due east on a course that would take us toward our target close to Paris.
Now that picture of the map was in my mind as I searched the French country side below me. Many hours of briefing and studying the maps made the terrain and the towns below quite familiar. It seemed so quiet and peaceful. The fields were laid out in uneven patches, hardly ever square. They meandered through the countryside, separated by the impassable hedgerows in a way that seemed at once haphazard and still carefully ordered. We would pass over small villages and I thought of the French families below. I was always fearful that the two five hundred pound bombs that we carried under our silver wings would drop in their vicinity and yet so hopeful that they would do their worst and drive the Germans back to their own borders and out of the war. Much can be hidden even from trained eyes at four thousand feet and I scanned intently at every road, at every crossing and at every small patch of woods.
I saw a rail line and scanned up and down the line as far as I could see for any trains. Nothing. I was getting frustrated. I didn’t want my first day as flight leader to end without finding something worthy of receiving the load we were carrying. In the hot haze a few miles ahead and to my left I thought I caught sight of some trucks. I banked slightly north and my wingman and second group followed. We were a few miles north east of Dreux.. A convoy? I still couldn’t be sure. It was– and my heart skipped a beat. Trucks. Several of them. They were standing still on a road the led into Houdan. Standing out in the open. Well, that’s not smart, I thought. I didn’t stop to think that it might be too obvious. That a heavy anti-aircraft battery might be waiting for us.
“Censor Red Leader,” I called into the mike, adrenalin running high now. “Truck convoy on the road. I’m going in.” At that point all I thought about was my target. As I had done so many times before I centered the target in my windscreen and kept it there as the fighter picked up speed in the dive. A 40 degree dive would quickly get the craft flying at over 400 miles an hour and the trucks were coming up quickly. No doubt it was a German convoy now as the covering haze lightened as I screamed down. My fingers were on the bomb release and I hoped to see the satisfying explosion as German equipment, ammunition and fuel erupted.
Instead, what erupted was flak. Puffs of smoke were suddenly coming from guns on both sides of the trucks. “Oh shit,” I said, using the only swear words a Catholic farm boy could use. It was a trap and I had fallen right into it. Now explosions were bursting around me as I hurtled toward my target. I was down to nearly 200 feet, just ready to release my bombs when I felt a tremendous shudder as a 37 millimeter shell ripped into my left engine. Banking sharply left and beginning the pull out of the dive, I felt my zoot suit do its job, pumping with air and keeping blood flowing to my brain. I glanced at the engine. Fire was already streaming behind. Still the flak bursts continued and I turned the momentum of the heavy fighter into as rapid a climb to the north as I could manage.
I turned to look for my wingman, hoping he had escaped the unexpected barrage. No sign of him. I swiveled my neck left and right hoping not to see a burst of orange on the ground or a smoking fighter. Nothing. I looked for the rest of my flight. No sign of them. I was alone and my plane was on fire.
“Censor Red leader. My left engine is burning. Returning to base,” I called. It sounded routine though my heart was pumping wildly. I heard no answering call. Where were those guys? I was sure they saw me get hit, would follow me and see that I made it OK if I did have to jump. But the haze, it was thick. I couldn’t see them and I realized they could probably not see me. Why didn’t my wingman follow me?
Now I was all business. Training kicked in and I knew what I had to do. Shut down the left engine, and hope that the air flow over the still speeding plane would put out the fire. I feathered the propeller, stopping it from free wheeling to reduce drag. Full throttle on the right engine to get as much altitude as possible and head west.
I saw a road below me. I still had those 500 pound containers of high explosive beneath my wings and a raging fire a few feet above them. I had to drop those bombs and when I saw the road I knew it was safe to drop them so I wouldn’t hurt or kill any French kids in the process. Now, head west, back to the American lines. Do anything to get this bird past enemy territory. The fighter was straining to climb as I pulled back on the rams horn wheel and held heavy pressure on the left rudder to keep the ball centered and the plane flying on one engine. I looked at the engine, praying that the fire would die down or go out. It was growing. I kept up the steep climb. I wanted as much altitude as I could get so if I could get the fire out, or even slowed down, I would have plenty of time to get to the American lines or maybe even the base. A thousand feet, fifteen hundred feet. The altimeter was climbing steadily but now only fifteen hundred of those horses were working, and the fiery mess on my left was not helping at all, instead it was holding me down.
Still the fire grew. Just a little bit further I thought. I was shaking, but I knew I could make it back. I started thinking of a belly landing on one of those soft fields with American soldiers running up to me, pounding me on the back and personally thanking me for helping take out those tanks and ammunition trains. Two thousand feet, twenty five hundred. I was always confident, all through training, all through the war. Scared to death, yes, of course, but I was sure I would make it through each flight, each encounter, each flak burst. I would get home, see my family again. Now I could feel the heat from the fire getting stronger.
“Oh, come on,” I thought and prayed. Just a little further. A few minutes more and I can put this thing into a glide and get back to friendly territory. But the flames were not just engulfing the engine now, they were walking the wing right toward the cockpit.
Five minutes more. The altimeter showed three thousand. But I was starting to burn. How many times us young pilots had thought of burning up in our cockpits. It was a fate we hardly dared allow into our heads, but I knew that hundreds or thousands of brave young men had ended their lives just this way. And now I was burning. It shouldn’t be happening to me.
I reached up and pulled the canopy release. The plexiglass canopy blew off and a rush of hot air hit me. Now I thought about bailing out. How much heat can I take I wondered. Not much more. Bailing out of a P-38 was a very dangerous exercise and too many pilots had been killed. At high speed, you would fly up and over the broad tail plane that connected the twin booms. But at low speed, you had a very good chance of hitting the tail. More than one crashed P-38 was found with its pilot still caught on the tail. How many more had been knocked out by the impact so that no parachute opened? My speed was low now having done a maximum climb to over three thousand feet on one engine. There was only one way to get safely out of this plane, and that was to flip it upside down and fall out.
“Remember to unstrap your harness first,” the instructors told us. “But not your parachute.” I thought about all that now as I pulled the buckles loose from the straps that held me tight to my seat. Falling out without a parachute would be almost as bad as burning up in this plane, and burning up was very much a reality right now. Thirty two hundred feet. Five more minutes and I’d be over the lines.
With a loud crack the glass of the window on the left side exploded and bits of glass flew everywhere, including down my back. The searing piece found its way past my helmet, under my flight suit and burned a small hole in my back, but I never felt it. The scar I still carry is my reminder not only of a focused mind, but of the intense heat I was feeling at that time. With that last message, I knew I had no choice. The wild flames were at my elbow and I had to go. I turned the doomed plane over onto its back and dropped.