Chapter 13 A Fighter Among Fighters
My combat career as a fighter pilot began on April 25, 1944. It ended with a fiery crash and a way too short parachute ride on August 13, less than five months after it began. I had survived 43 missions, many of them the most dangerous kind of flying mission—low level attacks on key enemy positions. But I had not survived my 44th. Now I was in the company of other fighter pilots and other airmen in the prison camp east of Berlin. At last I had the time, and better, the ease of mind to think back on those incredible five months of my life. There are few pleasures in life greater than sharing terrifying and life changing moments with the very few people on earth who have survived the same kind of experiences and find the same kind of meaning and thrill in them. This special bond can be discovered, not just in a prison camp deep in enemy territory as I certainly found in those first days in camp, but even many years after the events as I found out one day in the early 1990s.
It was an early morning in mid-May, 1944 that a waist gunner by the name of Earl Thomas climbed through the tiny hatch underneath his B-17 bomber. Earl, a Native American from a Northwest Coastal Tribe, was a big man and didn’t fit into the confined quarters of the nose and tail gun positions and the waist gunner position was a tight fit too. It would be another long flight. Another in a long string of daylight raids over Berlin. Antiaircraft fire, called flak, was intense over strategic targets and as the Allied raids intensified deep into German, so did the flak. German fighter planes were also a constant menace and few bombing missions were completed without the loss of more valuable bombers and their much more valuable crews. Earl had already survived many missions and as he climbed into his position behind the twin fifty-caliber machine guns and felt the heavy bomber roll clumsily down the grass field, he wondered whether this would be the mission that would end his flying days and possibly his life.
The mission was to be protected against the German fighters by three different groups of American fighter escorts. One group, either the shorter range P-47 Thunderbolts or P-38s Lightnings would escort them on the first leg over western Europe on the way out to the target. One group, likely P-51 Mustangs with their longer range, would pick them up over their target. And one group, again shorter range fighters, would pick them up as they approached the North Sea over northwest Germany and escort them back through the English channel and back to base.
On the 11th of May, our squadron was on the second bomber escort mission of the day and I was flying in this one. We were escorting heavy bombers to Clervaux, France when the bombers came under attack by ME 109s. It was a hit and run mission, a flash attack from on high by about eight enemy fighters. One bomber went down in flames and one enemy fighter dropped down, smoking from return fire from one of the “Flying Fortresses.” By the time our group was in a position to engage them, they were gone and we were flying back to base protecting the remaining bombers.
Two days later I was up early for the mission briefing of the day. The next day’s missions were posted on a board in the operations building—a low brick building near the grass strip and parking revetments of our P-38s. This would be one of those long escort missions. Our cockpits were small, confined spaces, made smaller and less comfortable with all our combat flying gear. We literally had to sit on an inflatable rubber dinghy which was much harder than it sounds. Add to that our bulky parachutes, then the heavy flying overalls, leather A-2 jackets, leather helmets, oxygen mask and everything else that filled up the tiny space. The cold was fierce at 25,000 feet and the unheated cockpits were a source of misery for a lot of P-38 pilots. Our heavy leather flying coats and helmets could not adequately protect us against temperatures often 30 degrees below zero. But sitting on those hard dinghies in such confined quarters for hours and hours was the worst of it for alot of us. One of the duties of the medical crews back at base was helping pilots deal with the “angry anal apertures” as the squadron’s diary colorfully described the problem. Long escort missions were the worst for these problems as well as the strange mixture of long hours of adrenalin-filled boredom as we continually scanned for the sudden appearance of our enemy.
Our mission that day was to meet up with a group of B-17s returning from a daylight raid over Berlin. We were to pick them up east of Denmark over the Baltic Sea, then escort them back to England. Bombers that had been hit over the target or on the way back and who were slowed down by loss of an engine or engines were particularly vulnerable to fighter attack. The Luftwaffe, its flying resources stretched by strategic bombing of factories and oil refineries as well as repeated engagement with a rapidly expanding Allied fighter force, were saving their attacks for the easiest targets—those crippled bombers with the crews trying desperately to reach home one more time. It was 800 miles to our rendezvous area, much of it over water. We met up with the “friendlies” and were headed back over Denmark when we hit intense flak over the western part of that country. Flak, coming up at us from 88 millimeter German anti-aircraft batteries, brought down a great many fighters and bombers. The gunners had learned the right altitudes to set their shells for explosion and had also learned that many pilots would veer away from a close call so if one exploded to the left, the experienced gunners would shortly after place one to the right of a plane, hoping that the pilot would fly right into it. We learned to fly into close calls, not away from them—fighting our instincts all the way. Being hit by flak was partly a matter of skill on the part of the gunners, partly on the sheer volume on the angry, black puffs of exploding shells, and partly on plain old luck.
We were flying about 5000 feet above the returning bombers when the flak hit hard. It hit not only at the 20,000 feet where the bombers were flying but it rocked us flying 5000 feet above them. We did what we were told to do and scattered. No sense providing a single, tight target to the gunners below. The plan was to reform once the worst of it was over and then continue on our escort mission, protecting our big brothers below us from the slashing attack of single or groups of enemy fighters.
But when the flak lightened up and I looked around, I could see none of my squadron mates. I was all alone. A powerful sense of dread filled me—not fear exactly. But a dull foreboding. This was not good, not good. I set my course back to base rubber necking all the way to keep an eye out not only for my guys, but also to protect against a surprise attack on me. The enemy would try, as we did, at every opportunity to attack from out of the sun and from above to maximize their speed as they dived down on us. I didn’t like being alone out here and kept looking anxiously while calling on the radio to try and locate my flight.
Earl Thomas was scanning the sky for enemy fighters on the return flight from Berlin. The flight path took them over the Baltic, across Denmark, over the North Sea and back to base. The flak intensity mounted quickly and once again the multiple explosions bounced the big bomber violently, as it had on so many days before. Despite the now routine nature of the attack, it never failed to cause sweat to form on the gunner’s palms. Whoo, that was close, he thought. And then, one came much too close, kicking the plane wickedly and causing smoke to pour from two of the bomber’s four engines. The pilot feathered the props, locking them in place. That decreased the drag caused by props spinning freely but powerlessly in the 200 mile per hour airflow. The crippled plane, far from home, over the greatest concentrations of enemy fighter bases was now very vulnerable. Worse, the escort of friendly fighters was nowhere to be seen—they had been scattered by the flak and had apparently followed the main group of bombers which, having survived the flak, were flying on full power and making top speed back to base.
Earl knew they were in trouble. The circumstances added up to a nail-biting ride over the next few hours, circumstances that had left many of their fellow bombers hulking wrecks in the sea or smoking piles of metal on the countryside below.
I was scanning the sky anxiously in all directions. I didn’t like being in this spot one bit. Suddenly I saw below me the familiar shape of a Flying Fortress, the B-17. My heart skipped a beat. Although I was the protector of the bomber, it felt mighty good to have a friendly to fly home with. As I quickly closed the distance between us I noticed that two engines were shot out. The plane was slow and damaged, losing altitude as the pilot worked hard to maintain both maximum altitude and maximum speed with limited power. The faster they could get home the better, but speed meant losing altitude and if they lost too much, it might mean a cold watery landing in the English channel. I tried to reach them on the radio but that too might have been shot out as I got no response.
I now not only had a plane to fly home with, I had a purpose. Even a single P-38 flying near a crippled bomber was enough to discourage the Luftwaffe from trying to pick off the stricken plane—unless there was a whole group of them or someone young and foolish too eager for a fight. So I continued above the damaged bomber flying big figure eights in the sky. The figure eights did several things. They kept my speed up to over 300 miles per hour which was important if I suddenly had to engage in combat. Speed and altitude are the two advantages a fighter pilot desperately seeks in air-to-air combat. I wanted plenty of speed. The figure eights also kept me from flying past my big buddy below which was now flying at less 200 miles per hour. And with the sweeping motion I could constantly scan every part of the sky, including the blindspots below the long nacelle nose, and beneath the two wings. I knew through training and experience, that two good eyes constantly on the alert were my best protection against sudden death from an attacking enemy.
Earl spotted a P-38 up above and behind the plane. It was doing figure eights to stay in a protective position, and the sight made him want to shout for joy and relief. With even this one fighter flying in formation, their chances of making it home were much improved. But they still had to nurse the wounded bird over hundreds of miles of North Sea and English Channel.
Over the channel, their altitude almost gone, it became clear to the B-17 pilot that the plane was too heavy to make it home. I watched from above as the things started falling from the plane. Machine guns, ammunition, heavy flying jackets, extra equipment—anything that wasn’t needed to keep the plane flying was thrown out through the open hatches. I now knew how desperate things were on board that plane and how hard the crew was fighting to make it back. I was glad to be there. But, I couldn’t stay much longer. Following the plane with the figure eights and down to the heavier air on the deck had left me with almost no fuel. I wasn’t sure I could make it back to my base at Warmwell. That thought was not pleasant. Having to put down in some open field and get through an emergency landing, perhaps damaging the plane and myself, was not something I wanted to do.
“Come on boys, get ‘er on home,” I breathed.
The plane, relieved of extra weight, lumbered on, just above the ground. As we approached London from the north, the bird veered right. It was headed to base. I couldn’t follow it to see if it made it all the way. I was running on fumes and pointed my plane toward Warmwell, southwest of London on the southern English coast. Squeaking down about fifteen minutes later was an enormous relief, combined with a sweet and satisfying feeling that I had really done some good up there today.
Over fifty years later, I was enjoying a mid-summer barbecue at our church, St. Joseph Catholic in Ferndale. Fellow Catholics from some of the surrounding towns had joined us for this annual event. I sat on the end of a bench and started listening in to a conversation going on between a couple of men sitting in the middle of the bench. I recognized one of the gentlemen, a good-sized man by the name of Earl who lived on Lummi Island, a small island just across Gooseberry Point from Ferndale. I had seen him a time or two at other such church gatherings. But I didn’t know he was a WWII veteran and certainly didn’t know he was a fellow airman. Suddenly, I tuned in intently as Earl talked.
“We were flying back from a long mission over Berlin,” explained. “We had two engines shot out by flak over Denmark and I thought we were a goner. We were all alone, flying slow—easy target for the fighters. I was watching and waiting for them to hit us any minute,” he explained.
“When was this?” I asked casually. Earl had no idea I had been a fighter pilot as I had no idea he had flown in B-17s.
“May 44,” Earl said, and went on telling his story to his buddy.
“Suddenly I saw this plane up above and behind us. I thought ‘oh no, here it comes,’ when I noticed it had the twin tails that only belonged to one of our fighters, the P-38. I can’t tell you what a welcome sight that was. That guy followed us all the way back to England, doing figure eights behind us all the time so he could stay tucked in behind us. He saved our lives, I’m sure of it.”
Earl went on to explain how they had to throw almost everything overboard to lighten the ship and how they were ready to bailout if they couldn’t get all the way home. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any more. I stood up and extended my hand.
“Earl, I’m Joe Moser. I think I was flying that P-38.”
We compared further notes and while we can never be absolutely certain that that day, May 13, 1944, we were comrades in arms in desperate circumstances, it is far more likely than not that it happened just as we suppose. The joy, gratitude and amazement we felt for each other that day fifty some years afterward was nothing less than if I had landed behind that bird and had discovered that one of my fellow churchmen from right near my own town had been in that plane that I was protecting all the way over Europe.
Fighter pilots have earned a reputation, probably well-deserved, for being brash, bold and brave young men who seem to not have a care in the world but who live, eat and breathe for the opportunity to go out and prove themselves by tangling with the enemy. Certainly I knew a lot of fellow pilots who fit that category perfectly. But I am not that way and all fighter pilots are different, each with our personalities and our styles of how we fly and fight and deal with the stress and trauma of the circumstances we are in.
I was a quiet farm boy from a Swiss Catholic family. I ended up a fighter pilot because I had the dream of a great many young, adventurous boys of that time. Once I spotted a picture of the brand new P-38 Lightning, something in my clicked and deep in my gut I knew I had to fly that plane. There was no history of flying in my family and no great tradition of recklessness or risk taking. There was no great military tradition. Just dairy farmers who loved the land, and family, dancing, and our own unique way of life. I didn’t drink and rarely smoked. Most fighter pilots—as most military men—both drank and smoked a lot in those days. My unusual abstinence turned out to my considerable advantage. Cigarettes were better than hard currency for bartering—so I traded mine in camp for food and other items. Not drinking was also an advantage because I was always sought out by my fellow officers to hit the pubs in the English villages near our base at Warmwell. The English villagers by this time had a well established pattern of buying the “Yanks” in uniform a round of drinks whenever they would show up in the pub. Since I didn’t drink, it meant one more for the other guys. They took turns taking advantage of my distaste for booze. And that, in part anyway, was a secret of my popularity on these trips to the villages.
I came by this aversion quite honestly. My dad, like many of his fellow Swiss farmers, enjoyed making and drinking his own “hooch” or homemade whisky. They would mix it with a little orange juice to make it taste a little better. Any get together was an occasion to break out this powerful stuff and I did not enjoy seeing what it did to my uncles, cousins and other family members and friends. Particularly, I hated what it did to my dad. My distance from him as I was growing up was due in part to this unfortunate activity and his consequent harshness to me. He also tried to get me on many occasions to overcome my resistance and share in his enjoyment.
Homebrew beer was the beverage of choice of the farmers during the hot days of haying season. At this time, we still farmed with horses and the hay was cut, and hauled to the barn as un-baled, loose hay. It would be hauled up to the haymow using a rope and pulley with forks attached to the rope that would grip a load of the loose hay. This would be pulled up by hooking the rope on the pulley to the hitch of horses and then walking them away from the barn, hoisting the load of hay. The workers in the mow would then grab the load, pull it into the mow and spread it evenly for storage. My job was to tie the rope to the horse hitch and giddy up the horses away from the barn to pull up the hay. One of our neighbors thought it would be fun to see what a bottle of the strong homemade beer did to me, then barely a teenager. I tried to swig down the bitter stuff like I was a pro, but didn’t have even one bottle before it made me completely stupid to the point where I was walking the horses back and forth, toward the barn, away from the barn, without hooking the rope to the horses. My dad and neighbor and fellow workers greatly enjoyed my little stupor as I walked those horses back and forth thinking I was pulling the hay up to the mow all the time—and being a cool Swiss farmer all the while. That beer ended up making me sick and was one more reason why I just stayed away from any drink in those days.
I never drank in high school and this carried into my military days. I have no strong moral stance against alcohol and certainly enjoy an occasional glass of wine, but the lessons I learned from its abuse kept me from the all-too-common abuse I observed among my fellow fliers.
Aside from drinking and smoking too much, one common perception of fighter pilots is that they were always eager to get into a fight with the enemy and prove their stuff. It’s true, a good fighter pilot like a good athlete, has to have the confidence and eagerness of the baseball player who begs the coach to put them in the batter’s box in the bottom of the ninth when the game is on the line. It is also true that our training inculcated a fighting spirit that tended to make us eager to attack the enemy and prove ourselves in the process. A great many fighter pilots exhibited these tendencies. Some of this feeling was captured by Lt. L. C. Beck in a book called “Fighter Pilot” which he wrote during the weeks of hiding out with the French Underground. Beck was caught in the same net of betrayal that caught most of my fellows with me in Fresnes and Buchenwald and he was one of only two of the original 168 who died in Buchenwald. But his manuscript survived and contains a vivid account of this all-American proud and eager young fighter pilot. Beck wrote: “I often wonder just what everyone of us will do and how we’ll feel when we return to our homes to a quiet, peaceful life. To kill someone doesn’t really mean a thing over here, and after awhile one seems to enjoy doing it. I know that every time I turn and dive in for the kill my pulse quickens and I feel just as I imagine a real killer of the jungle feels. We all feel, of course, that it is right and that we are doing it for our country, but still I think it brings out a certain jungle instinct in us which seems to thrive on killing.”
But this was not my view. I never lacked courage, but I did not have the blood lust to kill as many enemy as I could, nor the unwavering confidence that I could and would survive any one-on-one encounter with Hitler’s finest. While I had many opportunities to strafe and attack targets at close hand, I did not have the occasion to attack individual soldiers or groups of them outside of their vehicles. Many of my squadron mates did and many a young German life was ended on the roadways of France with their last image in this world being the flashes from the fifty caliber machine guns in the nose of the P-38 from the “Retail Gang.”
I remember one day being disgusted by this aspect of the life I now had. Our fighters were assigned to us as individual pilots and so became a part of us it seemed. We were a single fighting machine—pilot and plane. But we also had to share our planes as there were more pilots than planes in a squadron—particularly when planes were being repaired. One pilot—a fairly new replacement to our unit—was assigned my plane for an early morning mission and on return, the pilot talked about strafing endless columns of soldiers. I used the plane on a mission later that day and found out just how much shooting he had done with it. The four fifty caliber machine guns, along with the single 20 millimeter cannon, were deadly in ground attacks. Tracer bullets were dispersed throughout the belts to enable us to more easily see if our bullets were hitting our targets. But tracers were notoriously less accurate than the high explosive and incendiary bullets that filled most of the belts and so I would watch for the hits on the ground or on my target to see if my aim was true. Our mission on that afternoon flight was to attack a rail yard and down we went in a screaming dive. To my amazement, I couldn’t see a single bullet hitting my target. As I zoomed up and leveled off I shot my guns to watch the tracers and see where they were going. They were making huge arcs in the sky. They were never accurate, but this was ridiculous. We didn’t make a second pass at the rail yards—we avoided back to back attacks on strafing targets because it took away our surprise and gave the enemy time to train whatever weapons they had on us. Even a well-placed or lucky rifle shot could take a fighter down if it hit in the right place—like between the eyes of the pilot. But we saw a truck convoy and swooped in to attack. Again, I could not see my bullets hitting at all. It was if I wasn’t shooting.
We returned to base and I asked my crew to check the guns. They taxied the plane to the gunnery range and shot the machine guns and cannon. My squadron mate had completely shot the rifling out of the gun barrels so indeed my bullets were flying wildly as if firing a 30.06 bullet out of a shotgun. All the barrels had to be replaced and I was not happy. When he bragged about taking out columns of enemy soldiers with my plane, I now knew what he meant. That kind of carelessness with valued equipment—perhaps driven by an extreme eagerness for the kill—was not something I understood or appreciated.
My flight instructor had criticized my flying and almost washed me out of basic training for being too “mechanical.” I’m not sure if this is what led me to my later career in heating and air conditioning systems or if that career came about because I am indeed mechanically inclined. I envied those pilots who flew with a sense of freedom and abandon that is the romantic picture of the “knight in the sky.” But there is something to be said about mechanical precision in flying as well. I most admired those pilots, like Captain Larson, who were technical, and precise, and disciplined. The more free wheeling, instinctive flying of a pilot and leader like Major Glass frightened me and caused many unnecessary dangers in my mind. But being mechanical did not at all mean emotionless.
That was clear on my very first flight into enemy territory. It was April 25, 1944 and we had been at our new base at Warmwell on the south coast of England since March 11. We had spent the six weeks since our arrival in increasingly rigorous training. We knew all that time that one day we would be called into combat and that finally came on April 25. Captain Glass led the entire squadron of 16 planes into the air. It was a Group fighter sweep, which meant that the 428th, 429th and 430 squadrons—all of the 474th Fighter Group would fly together. A fighter sweep meant that we would fly into enemy territory hunting for enemy fighter planes to engage. Our target area was Rennes, France. While it was tremendously satisfying to me and all the others to finally get into actual combat flying, our nerves were completely on edge.
“Bandit, three o’clock!” one pilot called shortly after we had crossed the channel into enemy territory. His voice was higher pitched that we had ever heard him before. We swore we would not be able to turn our heads to look around we were so encumbered with clothes, helmets, parachutes and dinghies, but the instant the call of “bandit!” we were all swiveling our necks like nothing was constraining us. It was see first or die first and we were intent not on dying—at least not on our first flight.
“Bandit, 10 o’clock high!” another frightened rookie called out. The entire two and half hour flight was punctuated by frightened calls of potential enemy aircraft but the only ones that appeared were the ones in the adrenalin-fed imaginations of the inexperienced pilots. We all returned to base, exhilarated, exhausted, and at least some who called “wolf” a little too eagerly, also embarrassed. But, we were no longer combat virgins. We had gone out looking for the enemy, ready to engage, ready to put our training, fighters and lives on the line, and we had come back. According to our squadron diary, written by our S2 or Intelligence Officer Karl Swindt, the pilots room where we gathered after a mission was a noisy place that day. “For fifteen minutes everyone talked at once, while Doc Carl rationed out two ounces of whisky to those pilots who wanted it. The place sounded and looked like a turkey pen at feeding time. Finally, from a few, we managed to get a report on the mission: fair weather, good flying, no enemy planes seen, no shots fired.”
I was, I knew, at last a real live fighter pilot. Confident, but not cocky. But as ready as I could ever be for the life and death challenges ahead. They would come soon.