(Winkton Airfield ) ( 404th Fighter Group ) ( Aircraft of the 404th ) ( Links Books Contacts ) ( Author )
THE HISTORY OF THE HISTORY OF THE 404TH FIGHTER GROUP
About the time things quieted down at Stuttgart in the midsummer of 1945, the idea blossomed about preparing a Group history for our own guys. As the Group public relations officer, I seemed to be the appropriate designee. So when the train from Newport News dropped me off in Chicago (for Camp Grant discharge) I contacted the nation's biggest printer in Chicago, R. R. Donnelley, about handling our project.
In the meantime, money in the Group officers' club fund had to be spent before tile Group "deceased" or else it would revert to Washington, so a check for the balance was made out to Donnelley--some $2,500 or so. Donnelley told me they couldn't even touch the Group job for a year, and recommended a firm in Detroit, where I was headed to join my wife. While I was talking to the outfit in Detroit, the small cadre left to wind up Group affairs at Drew Field, Fla., went ahead and signed a contract to produce the Group history with a small school-yearbook publisher in San Angelo, Texas. There was a little comedy by-play (not funny at the time) about getting the check with Donnelley's name on it transferred to the Newsfoto Co. in Texas without having to go back through the military, but it finally worked itself out, and that money went to pay for the delivery of copies of the eventual "Leap Off" hard-cover volume to the families of 54 Group members who were lost overseas.
What I thought would be a three-month job took me three years to complete, and it wasn't until the end of 1950--the publisher had problems squeezing our work in--that the finished "Leap Off" went out to subscribers. The printer's final report (Dec.1, 1950) shows 487 copies printed, including 54 to "KIA" families.
This "soft-cover" reproduction is the result of suggestions generated by the several reunions that have occurred in recent years. It includes one improvement over the original--which cut all kinds of corners to hold down costs--it has a table of contents, and the pages are now numbered (!). We were quoted a price range of $25 (for quantities of 100 or more) to $35 (for 25 copies or less). We have received orders for 20 copies, and have gambled on a short overrun of a dozen copies. This determined our final "breakeven" price of 535, which includes packaging and postage.
Over the years there has been a trickle of "fan mail" from military history buffs. "Leap Off" received a footnote reference in Eisenhower's Lieutenants by Russell F. Weigley--p. 738. Novelist Herman Wouk sought a copy while preparing the second volume of his World War II epic, War and Remembrance).
Introduction to Leap OffThis book is designed to give those who were members of the 404th Fighter Group during the period 1943-1945 some basis of fact around which they can weave their own fairytales of personal wartime experience.
It it not an "official" history in the accepted meaning of the term. But it is as true and accurate a history as your editor could compile, based on the documents, notes and verbal testimony of those who prepared the "official" histories of the 404th Group and its squadrons, plus interviews by and personal notes of the editor which do not appear in any "official" history. It also includes a vast amount of photo graphic material organized to an extent that was impossible at the time the "official" histories of the Group were being prepared.
Scores of individuals in the Group contributed in one way or another to this book; it is the editor's regret that he knows only a few of the contributors by name, and virtually none of those who supplied the humorous anecdotes scattered through the sections devoted to the individual squadrons. The squadron material was compiled by squadron personnel, under the direction of the squadron intelligence sections, while we were stationed at Stuttgart.
An important part of the general Group narrative including the Battle of the Ardennes Bulge was written at Stuttgart by your editor and Al Gelders. Your editor completed the writing of the narrative, captioning of pictures and other associated editorial activities during the period September, 1945-December, 1948, while also engaged in expanding his family from one to three sons and pursuing normal peacetime employment in Buffalo, N. Y. and Detroit, Michigan.
We have tried to mention by name most if not all of the members of the Group, somewhere in the book. We have included certain unflattering nicknames and anecdotes of individuals as supplied by their squadron mates because they provide the authentic flavor of the crude but good-natured humor that entertained us while we were members of the 404th. We intended no embarrassment to anyone, and trust that none is occasioned by anything in this book.
Use of the officers' club fund accumulated by the Group in Europe has made it possible to send complimentary copies of this book to the families of those members of the 404th lost overseas. We trust the full account of the contribution toward victory in Europe made by their loved ones may compensate these families in some measure for the old sorrows which this book unavoidably will renew.
For those of us who returned safely, it is our hope that this book will prove to be a worthwhile souvenir of that period in our lives when we were bound together through the accidents of military organization for one of the most violent periods in world history.
Im grateful to Bob Williams, editor of the 404th associations "Poop Sheet" newsletter for sending me photocopies of the original pages from Leap Off which deal with operations at Winkton. Some of the content is duplicated elsewhere within the site, and some of the photographs did not reproduce too well. Those that did are used elsewhere on the web site. However I have also reproduced the text of chapters two to four of "Leap Off " verbatim as it also stands well as a contemporary record of those few months in 1944.
and why "Leap Off " ?
Leap Off" - to the tune of Amor, Amor 1944
Chapter Two "'OFF WE GO" ...
... Swollen arms, the red eye, chills and levers . . . First it was typhus, then cholera, then smallpox, tetanus, typhoid, and to top it off, yellow lever. Saluting was at a minimum; arms hung sore and heavy . - . "Open your mouth! Do you wear a prosthetic appliance? All right now, take a deep breath . . . Are all your clothes marked in accordance with AR 850-5? What do you know about censorship? Keep your mouth shut! Where's your paybook? Your Form 81? Have you stencilled all your baggage? Do you have two pairs of G. I. glasses? Have you 10,000 dollars insurance? Any allotments today? Want to make out a will or power of attorney? Have you been through the gas chamber? Have you fired all of the weapons? Report back in five minutes for another lecture on how to make a U-Pack!"
Warning orders placing the 404th Group on an alerted status for movement over. seas were issued January 20, 1944,. ten days later the actual movement orders were dispatched, under the cryptic military title, "Movement Orders Shipment Number 1404, AAF, OB-S-E-M, War Department". Private automobiles were sold at high wartime prices, wives and families were kissed and packed off in buses and trains. A final round of parties was held for officers and enlisted men, and Captain Dudley W. Conner, Group Intelligence Officer, followed soon after by Lieutenant Colonel James K. Johnson, Deputy Group Commander, Major Charles M. Hood, Group Operations Officer, and Captain Raymond M. Lucas, Assistant Group Materiel Officer, left for England in February as an advance party. After countless checks and inspections, Group personnel boarded a troop train bound for Camp Shanks, staging area for the New York Part of Embarkation, March 13.
Poker games highlighted the trip north, in dirty 1918-vintage coaches; one two-bit game in particular persisted throughout 22 of the 24 hours aboard the train.
We stepped off the train with our packs along the Hudson River, near Nyack, New York,
and started up a long curving camp street. The hill was steep and the crying was loud
before we reached our assigned block in the barracks-city that was Camp Shanks. There were
barren, dismal transient barracks, lectures, passes to New York City; censorship of mail
was started; it snowed. On the coldest day of our stay, the Group attended outdoor
lifeboat drill, descending a rope net from the top a ship's side, into a rowboat floating
in an artificial pool. In long lines we filed into big bare halls for physical
examinations; stripped down we wandered from examiner to examiner. If we successfully made
it all the way around the hall, we were physically fit and ready for shipment.
March 22 we moved off by train down the west bank of the Hudson, across to Lower Manhattan by the Weehawken ferry, and on to a 20,000-ton modern cargo liner. the British "Sterling Castle".
. . . . "Wakey, wakey, wakey! Latrine details will please report to B-deck aft." . . . Uneasy and cramped, slung in a bunk hung between framework of pipe, Four bunks vertically from steel floor to steel ceiling, no room to sit erect between bunks, aisles between rows barely an arms-length wide, hundreds of men with packs and barracks bags squeezed among a forest of pipes. Three hundred second lieutenants in a sardine-box known as compartment E-4. Breakfast and supper only, no noon meal, featuring unfamiliar English cooking, flat and odd to American tastes. Hungry enlisted men at night dickering with the ship's crew for tins of salmon and fruit from the ship's stores. Sandwiches, one dollar . . .
The "Starvation Castle", as we christened her a couple of days out, appeared to be in the center of a convoy of about 30 ships. A four-stacker American light cruiser appeared to be the flagship, and a British escort carrier hovered to starboard throughout most of the trip, its deck loaded with P-51 fighters. The majority of our pilots trained in P-51's in Florida, stared and smiled and hoped - "our planes, our planes!"
After several days of unusually warm weather, bright days and bare-chested sunbathing on deck, sighting of land-based birds, and rumors that we were off the Cape Verde Islands, the convoy took a generally northward bearing. First sighting of land was the North Irish coast, about April 2nd, and as the ships moved into the Irish Sea, the convoy split up into three lines, some heading apparently for a Scotch port, and our group heading south. Appropriately enough the waters of the Irish Sea were the greenest we ever had seen.
The evening of April 3rd we pulled into the mouth of the Mersey River, the water calm as glass and the air still but for the cries of sea-gulls and the banging of anchor chains. The Welsh mountains, peaks cloud-masked, bulked up an the southern shore. The following morning we moved upstream to Liverpool, passing miles of docks enclosed by crenellated walls like medieval castles. Every man lined the rails to inspect our flat unloading dock, cheering at a serenading British Army band, waving at first sight of English bobbies in their long blue coats and tall domed helmets, whistling at female lorry drivers, and loudly howling when American MP's appeared, spic and spotless in bright white helmet-liners, white gloves, and white leggings. An elevated train-line curved between a row of buildings two blocks away, and every now and then a three-car orange-painted train would go dragging by, very much like the old South Ferry "El" we had left two weeks before in Manhattan.
The ship was unloading all day, but we did not go down the gangplank till almost midnight. then we filed off into a covered, stone-paved, weakly-lit alleyway, struggling and grunting with carbines, tommy-guns, barracks bags and suitcases, huffed and heaved along for a few hundred yards into a dark railway station and right on to a waiting train. American Red Cross women and girls were there with very welcome refreshments, and after 14 days without seeing a woman, every man on the train was eager just to have the girls stop by the compartment windows and talk. A large masculine-looking woman in uniform and cap, with determination showing in the set of her chin, kept striding up and down trying to keep us all in our places. She finally caught Captain Bob Manss, assistant Group Intelligence Officer, hopping out of his compartment - and in a voice like a young bull she hollered, "GET BACK ON THAT TRAIN!" He got.
All night we travelled, past Manchester, Derby, Birmingham and Bath, straining our eyes to see as much of this new, strange land as possible. We marvelled at the smoothness of starting and stopping, unlike the jolting and jerking of American trains. It was daylight again when we reached Bath, and while we lingered in the railroad yards, a friendly conductor painted out the first signs of bomb-damage we had seen, holes in the station roof, and dwellings in nearby streets knocked to rubble. The word passed down along the train that we were going to a place called Christchurch, on the south coast of England. We wound along further south, heads sticking out of windows, necks craning for a look at every plane that passed by. "That's a Sunderland, There goes a Wellington ... Hey, Spits! Look, Typhoons"
We moved through Bournemouth to Christchurch, and there detrained. Trucks took us through narrow twisting streets and on out into the country, past a little village road junction, which we later learned was called Winkton, then off the main paved road onto a dirt road through a farmyard and out onto a bumpy driving strip, paved with chicken-wire and tree branches. We circled a grassy field and were finally dumped off at the edge of a clump of trees. English air bases, we had always believed, were all excellent permanent stations, with hard-surfaced runways, and comfortable buildings for quarters. Tired as we were, the realization that the tree-lined, empty cow-pasture was our operational field enlivened no one's spirits.
So - we got to work to make our areas liveable. All personnel cleared out underbrush, dispersed tents, dug foxholes, wove floor-mats from branches and twigs, and built clothes racks. We had our first experience with black iron buckets fitted with wooden seats and hidden behind roofless canvas shelters, which an old man in a dirty brown truck emptied daily. We had cold-water washes from bare pipelines in our tent-areas. Finest plumbing effort was produced by Captain Ed Petosky, Tech Sergt. Eldridge Maxey, Sergt. "Pop" Winters and Corp. Augie Sudekum of the 506th Squadron, ,who built a shower with an oil burning water heater and an auxiliary wing tank. Other showers were discovered at the nearby Royal Air Force station, Holmsley South, and "bath runs" were organized by truck daily to the American Red Cross at Bournemouth, ten miles away. Enlisted men were received at the Marsham Court, a swanky sea-side resort hotel on cliffs overlooking a smooth curving beach lined with barbed wire and steel anti-landing obstacles, while the officers were directed to another swank hotel, the Ambassador, about a block from the cliff.
To the chagrin of the P-51 Mustang boosters, the Group began to receive P-47 Thunderbolts a few days after our arrival; by April 16 the Group had some 75 aircraft, one-third of which were sub-types ranging from C-1 to D-20; the rest were all D-22's, brand new, the first all-silver Thunderbolt series. After deciding to concentrate all the older-type aircraft in one squadron, Lieut. Col Carroll W. McColpin, Group Commander, had the squadron commanders toss a coin to decide the partition. Major Harold G. Shook, commanding the 506th, was the loser, and his squadron received all the olive-drab older-model planes.
Until the end of April the pilots flew continuously on "check-rides" and familiarization flights, trying to get acquainted with the "Bucket of Bolts". Veteran P-47 pilots were brought in to lecture an the combat performance of the aircraft; its toughness and durability was emphasized, and the comparatively greater vulnerability of the liquid-cooled P-51 was brought out. In the end it was their own personal experience in the plane that "sold" every man in the Group on the Thunderbolt; after a year of combat, not a man would have traded it for any other fighter-type in tactical operations.
The Engineering sections were probably the busiest of all, running through
stripped-down inspections on every aircraft, manufacturing belly-tank and wing-tank
feed-lines, and sway-braces for bomb-shackles. By April 30, 90 per cent of the Group's
planes were operational, and ready for battle. Squadron staff officers were scattered all
over England in various indoctrination schools, flight leaders were sent to other Ninth
Air Force fighter units to fly a few operational missions. Everyone was riding a bike,
visiting pubs, comparing English pound notes rather indelicately with toilet paper,
getting used to censorship, enjoying American cooking again after the long session with
"kippers-for-breakfast" on the transport, and getting acquainted with the
species W. A. A. F.
. . . "Like everyone else, I had to have a bike, so I went downtown and got myself a second-hand job. As is the case with all new things, I had to give it a test hop immediately. 1 went out into the street and started racking it around, split-essing, riding no-handed, and showing off all over the place. I had just set course for home, when I spotted a WAAF on a bike pedalling up behind me. So I throttled back to what I thought was a nice ladylike cruise so she would catch up. The first thing I knew she was past me and practically out of sight up ahead. So I poured on the coal and started after her. Straight pedalling wasn't enough, so I stood up and pumped. After maybe a mile of this, I just managed to ease up alongside her. And do you know, by this time I was so pooped I couldn't even say hello" . . .
Chapter Three ....... INTO COMBAT
Date Mission No. AIC Off Type Attacking Results
30 April Fighter Sweep 54 P-38's 48 Successful
1 May Fighter Sweep 246 P-47's 235 Successful
104 P-38's 103 Successful
(Ninth Air Force Intelligence Summary, 4 May 1944)
Whether or not the Luftwaffe was aware of the fact, May 1st was an important day for the Ninth Air Force. Overnight, tactical fighter sorties tripled, as new fighter groups, recently added for the invasion of Europe, went into preliminary action. Among the newcomers was the 404th.
The first mission was just a shallow penetration sweep into Normandy. Weeks later, such a flight would have been laughed at as a cinch, a "training flight", but May 1st it was important and exciting. This was definitely IT. The briefing at Group took at least half an hour; Captain Conner, the Intelligence Officer, showed all his pictures of the French coast through the balopticon; Captain Crosthwait, the Weather officer, projected his weather charts on the screen; Lieut. Col. McColpin carefully covered the take-off, formation procedure, and flak evasion. And at the subsequent critique, the colonel, all smiles, had to reverse himself and caution the gang about over-evasiveness. According to Lieut. Russell S. Fredendall, "When we crossed that French coast, the sawdust really hit the fan. One minute we were flying along in perfect formation, and the next minute there were P-47's all over the sky. We were trying to throw the enemy predictors off before the guns opened fire-like the colonel told us. No, we never did see any flak!"
The course home brought the Group back right over Carpiquet airdrome, near Caen, at 20,000 feet. Lieut. Col. McColpin seemed surprised when no one else reported the "two Focke Wulf 190's" four miles straight down "in the corner of the field". Fly specks on canopies were "bogies". "bogies" were undoubtedly "bandits". The interrogation was a confusion of exuberant tales. But when the fast talk had cleared away, the mission finally was recorded as an uneventful fighter sweep.
Another uneventful sweep, deeper into France, was flown in the afternoon; like the first, all three squadrons were represented, in a 48-plan formation. Taking off and forming up, the Group flew what was called for no explainable reason, a "pansy" formation; four ships in a flight, in a shallow vee; flights arranged in trail, one behind the other, each succeeding flight lower than the one ahead. The four flights within a squadron were "stacked" close together, with a definite break between squadrons. In enemy country however, the Group broke out into "battle" formation, rear flights moving out to each side of the leader to form a shallow squadron vee, and the two rear squadrons moving up and out, forming the whole Group into a rough flat vee.
Obviously the first missions were studiously planned to be easy, for training purposes. But as each one grew more difficult, you kept wondering when trouble would come when some would fail to return. Weather closed in for five days, postponing our first dive-bombing mission till May 7. Target was the marshalling yard at Bethune, in northern France, obviously selected by higher headquarters as a good "operational training" target because of its relatively light defences, and modest importance. Lieut. Col. McColpin led the 508th and 506th on the dive-bombing runs, while the 507th Squadron, bombless, flew top cover.
Bethune seemed to be a very popular target with higher command; in the early weeks the Group was sent there no less than three times. The similarity between Bethune and Arras caused repeated argument at the post-mission critiques; the marshalling yard lay along the southern edge of town in each case, and each had a large roundhouse in the center of the yard. Bethune's best landmark was a small canal that made a slender U-curve north of the city. On the second Bethune attack, which the 508th Squadron insisted hit Arras, Major Moon and Lieut. Bob Johnson of that squadron cleared the target area of flak by dropping clusters of fragmentation bombs before the rest of the Group came in. They flew so low they had to break away sharply to miss a tall water-tower.
May 8, a day of rejoicing throughout the world a year later, was one of dismay for the 404th. In its first encounter with enemy aircraft, the organization suffered its first combat loss. The mission was a deep fighter sweep over the World War I Marne battlefields, southeast of Paris. From the start, things didn't go quite as planned. The first two squadrons hurried off on course early, and the 507th Squadron, last to form up, remained out of sight of the rest of the formation for the entire flight. "CASEY" (!X Tactical Air Command radio controller) called and warned that "many bogies were rising" ahead of the Group in the Chalons area. The formation passed Paris on the south, and made a left turn. Far to the rear and out of sight, the 507th saw a group of unidentified planes, specks in the sky up ahead.
Recognizable sounds broke in on the spitting static of head-phones 'Break right!" . . . Back to static, then in tones of triumphant excitement, got one of the b - - - - -- s!"
Out of the sky and out of the sun black tracer-streams flew among the Thunderbolts of the last flight of the 506th Squadron, following the 508th in a wide turn northwestward near Soissons. Lieut. Robert F. Bealle, flight leader, called for a "break" into the attack. Confused, Lieut. Chester L. Dunsmore broke left instead of right. In front of him three bullet-nosed Messehschmitt-109's flashed sharply down and away to the left. When the third passed his sights, he squeezed his trigger, and saw bright flashes and smoke as his 50-caliber bullets struck. Pieces flew and a body fell out and away from the plane. He shouted into his throat-microphone.
(I spoke to Robert F Bealle about this incident and he disagreed that Chester Dunsmore went the wrong way. He considered that Dunsmore set himself up for the attack and had positioned himself for a classic and successful deflection shot - John Levesley).
In a matter of split-seconds, the enemy aircraft were gone. But "Speedy" Bealle's "TUBA Yellow" Flight was one plane sort. Jimmy Jones in the next flight saw Yellow Four roll over on its back and start down in a long dive; Harvey Baker, Yellow Three, saw a plane spiralling aimlessly far below, which might have been a P-47. No drifting parachute, no evidence on which to base a forlorn hope. In the evening Lieut. John B. O'Rourke squadron adjutant, made out the first "Missing in Action" report on Second Lieut. Charles Clonts. Seven weeks later Lieut. Clonts walked back in on the Group, fresh and happy. newly-uniformed, on his way back to the States.
. . . The French, he said, the French saved me. I remembered those lectures and made a delayed jump close to the ground; that's why nobody saw my chute open. I landed a good distance from my plane, and lay on my back in a ditch all day, at the edge of a small woods. Later I approached a farmer working by himself in a field; he fed me and gave me some clothes for a disguise. I was lucky and finally made contact with members of the underground, who put me on a train heading into southern France. Near the Spanish border I joined a small party of evaders like myself, and with French guides, we walked across the Pyrenees, through snowdrifts and along the edges of steep chasms. One man slipped and was gone,, we couldn't stop. On we went, into Spain; then back to England ...
A terrain model appeared in the Group briefing barn. It showed roads, and tiny trees, a couple of simulated concrete buildings, one square, the other oblong, and two inclined skeletal structures, long and straight, with a gentle curve at one end. Secret documents arrived, describing it as a typical "rocket-gun" site, or "ski-site" (-from the shape of the two inclined runways). From site to site along the "rocket-gun coast" from Calais to Dieppe, the arrangement of the buildings and the ski-slides might vary, but the four components were the same. "NOBALL" targets they were called in code on our operations orders, and on May 9 the Group was dispatched against its first "NOBALL" target.
All three squadrons were airborne, each with a separate site in the triangle Dieppe-Rouen-Neufchatel, 20 miles in from the Channel coast. The 507th and 508th Squadrons reported good hits in and around the "ski-sites" with 500-pound semi-armor piercing bombs, carried with delayed-action fuses to pierce the heavy concrete of the target buildings. But because of an error by the briefing officers in reading a geographical co-ordinate, the 506th searched in vain for its target 15 miles east of its true location, finally dive-bombing the railroad yard at Serqueux, 20 miles northeast of Rouen. Flak was intense over the yard, and Lieut. Joseph C. Joyce Jr., received heavy damage on his plane. According to Capt. Harold W. Freemantle, leading a flight behind Lieut. Joyce, the latter's plane began to lose altitude and throw black smoke. Capt. Freemantle kept his flight over the smoking plane until Lieut. Joyce announced that his engine had cut out completely and he was going to jump.
At the interrogation everyone was confident that Joyce was safe; if not in the hands of the French, nothing worse than in a German "stalag luft". Three days later came a reassuring report from the 50th Fighter Group, flying fighter cover in the target area, that an opened parachute had been sighted. Eight months later a letter from higher headquarters, without details and in cold statistical language, announced a change in Lieut. Joyce's status from "Missing in Action" to "Killed in Action".
A second "NOBALL" strike took off in the afternoon, the 508th Squadron flying top cover for eleven aircraft of the 507th Squadron. Five of the bombing planes hit a site at Vacqueriette, in the Pas de Calais area, 20 miles northeast of Abbeville. Unable to locate their target, the last six planes bombed a heavily-defended woods near Lillers.
The first of five heavy-bomber escort missions came up May 11-a run to Saarbrucken in co-operation with the Eighth Air Force. The last heavy escort went in to Metz May 31. All five were long, tedious, and uneventful; planes were in the air anywhere from three to four hours, carrying two 110 gallon auxiliary wing-tanks for extra endurance. The heavily loaded Thunderbolts just staggered off our short pasture-runway, and there were two serious but luckily non-fatal accidents. Harry Nystrom of the 508th could not quite make it May 29th on the third heavy escort mission, crashed at the end of the runway, but escaped without a scratch.
Ray Longford of the 507th had an even worse experience. Bumps in the runway threw him into the air with inadequate flying speed. He wobbled and mushed across the treetops and finally crashed down out of sight. His wingtip had hardly disappeared when a huge column of bright flame exploded up. Nobody gave him one chance in a thousand. Lieut. Dike Pisegna from Group Headquarters hopped fences and ran across fields to the scene and found-two shattered gas tanks and a scorched area in someone's backyard bean-patch, a twin-row radial engine steaming in a backyard, an intact fuselage, nose down on top of a truck,. with the tail just clearing the side of a house in a small village and Ray himself sitting in the living room of a house his plane had just hurdled. He was badly burned about the face and wrists, and shocked, and ready for a long stay in a hospital, but he was still with us.
Though squarely into regions where our intelligence charts showed operational enemy fighter bases, the long escort missions never drew any attacks; in fact throughout the Group's year of combat, a good 90 per cent of all missions were flown without sighting any enemy aircraft. Capt. Tom Sherwood, then Operations officer for the 508th Squadron, summed up the attitude of the pilots by commenting:
"Where the hell is the Luftwaffe? If I have to wear out my seat for four hours, the least old Goering can do is to send up some of his boys to relieve the monotony."
May 13 the Group dive-bombed the marshalling yard at Tournai in southwestern Belgium, scoring good hits among sheds. The railroad yard was an important triple junction through which funnelled main lines from Germany to the Calais rocket gun coast, and from Holland to Northern France. After five days of bad weather, another dive-bombing mission was laid on against a fighter airdrome at Beaumont-sur-Oise, north of Paris. Weather prevented an attack, but the 508th had its first encounter with enemy aircraft and came out one Messerschmitt-109 to the good. Six 109's jumped Red Flight (second flight); and broke away without causing any damage. Lieut. Ben F. Kitchens caught one after a 13,000 foot diving chase, and shot it down.
"I saw one enemy aircraft half-roll and go down," Ben said "I chased him from 14,000 feet to about 500 feet before I got in range and shot about a two-second burst. Tracers converged directly into the fuselage and almost instantly he burst into flames; I flew through pieces of the aircraft and got some of his oil on my windshield." . . .
First crack at escorting our own Ninth Air Force medium bombers came up the next day, when the Group took 60 B-26 Marauders safely out and back, to Evreux-Fauville airdrome, south of Rouen. After several more runs with the mediums to Caen, Liege, and Chartres, sitting up above, watching the bulky twin-engined Marauders in tight "boxes" fly without deviation through clouds of black flak-bursts, Lieut. Jim B. White of the 506th expressed a unanimous opinion when he said:
"I sure give those bomber-pilots all the respect of the world; it takes plenty of guts to sit there on a bombing run and catch all that flak."
By the end of its first month of operations the Group had flown 25 missions, of which the 508th Squadron had participated in 22, the 507th, 21, and the 506th, 19. Four missions were fighter sweeps, five escort to heavy bombers, eight escort to medium bombers, and eight dive-bombing. From now on the Group was to become almost exclusively concerned with ground-attack missions-bombing and strafing. The first days of June highlighted the trend.
June 2 all three squadrons were up, operating individually, attacking transportation targets in a strip of Northern France 100 miles deep and 50 miles wide. The 506th penetrated farthest east, to Chauny, south of St. Quentin; the 508th went farthest north, to Hesdin, northeast of Abbeville; the 507th operated between the two from Bapaume, deep inland south of Arras, to Pavilly, northwest of Rouen. The Group attacked eleven different trains and marshalling yards, and the 506th for good measure took a crack at barges in the Oise Canal, important water-link between Western Belgium and Paris. Ten separate rail lines were hit, including main north-south lines to Paris and lateral east-west lines connecting the Channel coast with Germany. We weren't aware of the master plan at the time; but while the mediums and heavies were knocking down the Seine bridges to isolate Normandy on the east, we were helping to disrupt the lines over which the German Fifteenth Army would have to assemble and move from Northern France and the Low Countries to meet a Normandy Invasion.
June 3 the Group dive-bombed a highway bridge across the Seine River northwest of Paris, between Gaillon and Courcelles-sur-Seine. Good hits were obtained on the bridge and its approaches with 500-pound delayed-action general purpose bombs, but the bridge, a heavy concrete-and-steel structure, was still standing after the attack. Top cover was provided by the 507th Squadron.
After 20 operational days, the Group was respectful of flak but confident, still wondering where the Luftwaffe kept itself and ready for invasion. "I know just where they're going in", said Lieut. Floyd "Ramblin' Wreck" Blair. "They're going to land on both sides of the Cherbourg Peninsula and cut that thing off. There's all kinds of good beaches around there."
". . . There may be a time - I can't say any more than that - when some painting will have to be done on the planes, and done quickly. We will probably get the word to start, and exact details on what to do, some evening; when that happens, each squadron must finish painting its aircraft in 24 hours, even if it is necessary to work all night. This is vital, and I want all you Engineering officers to be planning to meet such a demand. . ."
Remarks by Colonel Carroll W. McColpin, Group Commander, to members of the Group and Squadron Staffs at a closed meeting on the night of June l.
The last plane touched down Saturday June 3rd at 1610 hours. Interrogations wound up in a hurry and everyone hustled for chow. After supper the boys stood inside the hangar gaping at the new and sudden activity. "I don't know what the hell to make of this," commented Staff Sergt. Clarence "Stubby" Kuhl, 507th armorer, as a dozen "wheels" (flight chiefs), "gears" (crew chiefs), and "wipers" (mechanics) swarmed over "Elsie", Major Clay Tice Jr's. plane with brushes, spray guns, and cans of paint. "Looks like a god-damned zebra to me," he added, as black-and-white stripes began to appear on the wings and fuselage, after much spraying by Corp. Jerome "Zombie" Catherwood, Squadron painter and daubing by Tech. Sergt. John W. Schaefer, assistant maintenance chief, and Staff Sergt. Charlie Snyder, "Elsie's" crew chief. We who knew what to make of it thought: "Twenty-four hours! Monday's the Day!"
Sunday the 4th came and brought rain; and the crew chiefs swore at brand-new paint washing off in streaks. In the dry spells they went back to work with brush and spray, and 48 aircraft - enough for a full-strength Group mission - were ready by Sunday night. About 9 p. m. pilots and intelligence officers from all squadrons were called to the Group briefing-room; and when we saw the covered maps on the wall, and our "bigoted" officers, Lieut. Col. James K. Johnson and Capt. Dudley W. Conner, standing at the head of the room with an armful of notes and official papers, we knew what was up. From them, and from Colonel McColpin, we received our introduction to Operation "Neptune" and to "J. A. P. E. 0." (Joint Air Plan and Executive Order - the invasion "bible" for air operations).
With our burden of information we fretted through the entire next day, a day of postponement, sweating out the weather, finishing the paint-jobs on the rest of the aircraft. waiting for the word to go.
Chapter Four .INVASION
. . The red-haired, red moustached colonel shifted slowly back and forth, his hands in his pockets, a cigar-stub in his mouth. He took it out of his mouth to talk, as he thought between words it moved erratically up and down. When he looked up, his small blue eyes seemed to look directly into yours, calmly, impressively.
.."The infantry will have trouble enough landing and getting inland," he said, "without being bothered by enemy aircraft. Sixteen Pilots and planes, or 32, or 48, would be a cheap price to pay, to keep the beaches free . . If your plane develops mechanical trouble, come home. If a fight develops you will stay there till the last enemy plane is driven away, even if you run out of gas and have to come down in the sea. If you run out ammunition, ram 'em . ."
Tuesday morning, June 6, at 0649 hours, led by Colonel McColpin himself, the Group took to the air to cover the most important military operation in all history. June 6 and 7 the Group flew eight full-strength missions for 381 sorties, each squadron alternating on patrol in areas "East", "West" and "Easy", covering the ships in the Bay of the Seine from Le Havre on the east to Pointe de Barfleur on the west, and the battle areas inland from Bayeux to Caen. Middle cover at 8,000 feet was our assignment, while British Spitfires flew far above us and P-38 Lightnings flew low cover over the shipping, probably because their twin-booms made them more readily identifiable as friendly. The Group's 191 effective sorties flown on the 6th set a record for a single day's operations that was equalled only once, nine months later.
After a briefing that took place while troop carrier planes and R.A.F. heavies filled the still-dark skies with the growling of Wright and Rolls-Royce engines, the first bunch of pilots settled into their cockpits at 0630 in the morning. The last bunch climbed out well after midnight. They reported U. S. gliders parked nose to tail and wingtip to wingtip in fields around Ste. Mere Eglise on the Cherbourg Peninsula, and white-colored parachutes scattered all over the countryside; they reported British Horsa gliders on both sides of the Orne River north of Caen, all looking rather beaten up, but like the American gliders jammed up like autos in a downtown Detroit parking lot. Major Clay Tice Jr. reported one lone Horsa cut in a field all by itself, at least a mile from the others.
"That crew must really have a story to tell," he said, "if they are still around to tell it."
North of Caen they saw the British battleship "Nelson" - a big clumsy thing with its three huge turrets all forward - throwing black billowing broadsides into fields a mile north of Caen. "Hell," they said, "you'd look out one side of the cockpit and see all this flame and smoke covering the battleship, and then you'd look quick out the other side of the cockpit and watch the flashing explosions on the ground where the shells hit." They reported lines of ships moving landward, and a possible warship sunk off the Isles de St. Marcouf; and objects like break-waters lining the beaches. "They're moving in things 'that look like floating docks," they reported the 7th. And later - "they've got about eight large ships lined up end to end offshore apparently to be used as unloading platforms, theyve got the cargo vessels anchored beyond this line up, with small boats flashing back and forth, and more small boats shuttling between the stationary line and the shore."
"I know where we can get some steaks," reported Lieut. Art Washburn. "I just saw em - dozens of dead cows all over Normandy."
They reported Caen and Bayeux and Grandcamp ablaze, and red ball tracer an the ground, streaking inland from the coast. They watched curiously as a large ship, possibly a tanker, slid slowly along the canal into Caen from the north, paused while a large bridge swung aside like a gate, and eased on into the Caen harbor basin. And they noted flatlands flooded by the Germans around Picauville at the base of the Cherbourg Peninsula.
General impression from the air was that the landing was a cinch; in fact according to Lieut. Russell "Freddie" Fredendall, "I watched one of these assault boats come in on one of the British beaches near Courseulles-sur-Mer, run ashore, and drop the nose. A whole bunch of infantry filed off, lined up an the beach as if they were calling the roll, and then marched away." In most cases the only movement seen on the ground was that of our troops pressing inland. Someone using the call-sign "TIVO" called the Group and all three squadrons by their proper call signs and said, "Ten trains on Omaha Beach, go down and attack." Colonel McColpin called the Group's home station, "DRAINSINK", to 'find out who "TIVO" was, and the strange calls ceased. The Group later received a commendation from Major General Elwood R. Quesada, commanding IX Tactical Air Command, for not answering an enemy attempt to interfere with our operations.
But no enemy reaction; meager flak north of St. Lo once, on the second morning mission Tune 7, but otherwise "nil" for flak. Most repeated comment was, "Where the hell is the Luftwaffe ?", and the daily teletypes from IX TAC reporting enemy sorties over the battle area caused great surprise and elicited remarks like "Well for Chrissake, we never get to see any!" The 508th alone glimpsed three Focke Wulf 190's attempting to dive-bomb landing craft at Cabourg, the third mission Tune 6th. Jack Tueller and Bill Abraham dove after them, but lost the enemy in the clouds before interception could be made.
The night of June 7th, Lieut. Joseph H. Vivian of the 506th disappeared over the Channel. He was last seen at 2330 hours, on the last patrol of the day, at 3,000 feet and losing altitude, apparently experiencing difficulty keeping his ship in level flight. The homing station received a call from him 25 minutes later and gave him a steer. After that, contact was lost; a year later, with the unit in the throes of re-deployment, no further information from any source had been received about him, and he remained on the rolls as missing in action".
The Group was relieved from the beach-cover the 8th, and went dive-bombing, running eight separate squadron missions, for a total of 16 missions in three days. The 506th bombed the St. Lô-Periers highway, and the Cherbourg--Brest Peninsula rail line on its first mission, the marshalling yard at St. Lô on its second, and the railroad and highway crossroads at Conde-sur Noireau, 25 miles south of Caen on one of the main highway arteries feeding enemy tank reinforcements to the front. The 507th hit Tour-en-Bessin, a village near Bayeux, cutting the principal lateral highway used by front-line enemy infantry opposing the American First and 29th Divisions on Omaha Beach, struck at the Bois de Molay, a small wood southwest of Bayeux, and took a final supper-hour crack at the St. Lô railroad yards. The 508th operated under the direction of fighter-controllers on board a ship off Omaha Beach in the morning, bombing a cluster of railroad cars in the yards at Montebourg, northwest of Utah Beach on the Cherbourg Peninsula, and nearby gun-positions, which were very hard to locate.
Bombing results were generally good. And while working with "BULLET", the shipborne controller, the squadrons used special authentication procedure, challenging the controller with codes like "APPENDIX ABLE 75" and receiving proper answers like "TARE JIG LOVE" before making any attacks. On the Tour-en-Bessin strike, Major Clay Tice Jr. tried a stunt he'd been thinking about for weeks; after his dive and peel-up he circled over the target taking pictures out of the side of his cockpit with a gun-camera rigged up with a pistol-grip and trigger by Sergt. Miltan Liberty, squadron photo technician. He ended up with 50 feet of good film, showing a string of dusty explosions down the center of town, marking the position of the arterial highway.
Following a system that was to last until the St. Lô breakthrough, the Group was released by higher headquarters on the 9th for "maintenance and training". On the 10th, the Group sent out 48 planes to find artillery positions in the Bois de Molay, which were shelling the Isigny-Tour-en-Bessin-Bayeux highway, now in our hands, and holding up the advance of the First Division. With Major Leo C. Moon and the 508th leading, the Group liberally sprinkled the mile square wood with 118 500-pound bombs. "You couldn't see anything down there but trees," the boys said when they returned. "There were a few clearings, but you couldn't tell whether the bombs were doing any good or not."
Apparently the bombing and concurrent strafing did do some good. for the following morning the assistant Ground Liaison Officer, Paratrooper Jack "Geronimo" Edak, came dashing down from Group Headquarters to the squadron briefing rooms to inform the Pilots that the First Division had pushed off immediately after the bombing, and had moved four miles, right on through and beyond the woods. It was the first time our attacks had exerted so direct an effect an the ground battle.
The early afternoon mission against the bridges at Pontaubault was one of those things you read about in the papers. Pontaubault is a small village on the south bank of the Selune River, about four miles south of Avranches, at the upper end of an estuary that swells out into the Bay of Mont St. Michel. Three main highways from the west, south, and east, converged there and crossed the river on a single bridge. The Brest-Cherbourg railway paralleled the hiqhway bridge on the west; east of the highway bridge, a second railroad bridge carried lines from Alencon and LeMans, east and south. Each squadron was assigned one-third of the triple bottleneck, the 507th designating one flight, led by Capt. Howard L. "Skin" Galbreath, to come in on the "deck" and sling their bombs into the highway bridge at zero altitude. While the rest of the formation circled into position for a divebombing run overhead, "Skin" sneaked down the valley of the Selune from the east; with his wingman, Frank Yeargin, he aimed at the north end of the bridge, released his bombs with the concrete roadbed dead ahead, pulled his nose up and over and broke away. Two bombs skipped off, two hit and exploded tearing chunks in the bridge surface. At the south end, Bob Green and Clarence "Yank" Wydner hit a supporting piling, which crumbled in a cloud of concrete-dust and flying chips of stone and steel.
"After we pulled up and over the bridge we zipped across a plowed field at about 50 feet," "Skin" said. "Some farmer was out in the middle of it with a rake or something, and hell, he never even looked up!"
Down came the dive-bombers, the 507th clustering its hits around the southern approaches of the highway bridge, in the village of Pontaubault itself; onto the eastern railroad bridge dropped the 506th, hitting the northwest end with one bomb, bracketing the southeast end with four more, hitting the tracks at either end with six to eight more bombs. To the west the 508th scored near misses in the water along the northern span of their bridge, a cluster of hits on the northern embankment. Drexel Morgan hit the steel girders squarely, and Capt. "Robby" Robinson quieted a flak position on the southern bank with his bombs. Flying spray, dust and the dun-colored smoke of tri-nitro-toluene gradually cleared; the bridges, though damaged, still stood. Five-hundred pound bombs, even direct hits, are not enough against heavily-constructed bridges, the boys decided and direct hits are hard to get.
. . . The Mark VIII Optical Gun-Sight has four main parts: light source; reticle - a ring and bead stamped from metal or etched on the back of a mirror; lens,. reflector plate - a transparent mirror on which the reticle image is projected . . . The reflector plate is a piece of glass about four inches tall and two inches wide,. in the center when the sight is on, you can see a circle of light about an inch and a quarter in diameter, and a pinpoint "bullseye" or bead of light, no bigger than one-sixteenth of an inch.... You start down at 8,000 feet, and you point your plane in the general direction of the target. Then you start watching your sight, and at first the bridge is like a pencil-line, that doesn't fill more than hall of the sight-ring. When it just about fills the ring and gets as thick as a chalk-line, you pull the nose of your plane up, and as the target disappears, you release. Sometimes you're a little short, sometimes a little long. Sometimes the bombs straddle the bridge. If you're lucky, you may get a direct hit . . .
Jerry Tullis called the last mission of the 10th a "field day". He strafed a cluster of barracks himself, while his squadron, the 508th, cut rail lines near Chartres in 14 different places, set 15 tank-cars on fire and damaged 12 freight cars. Major Moon got a locomotive, and Capt. Ernest "Tibbo" Tibbets destroyed a switch-house. Each squadron operated independently, the 506th hitting a highway bridge, a railway intersection, and a long stretch of track. Major Harold G. Shook destroyed a locomotive, and the rest of the squadron shot up 15 "goods wagons' . In the same area, near Auneau, northeast of Chartres, Capt. James A. "Hoss" Mullins leading the 507th in the 9:30 twilight, found something along the main line to Paris.
"The track was dark against a light roadbed," he said. "I saw the glow of engine boilers, then greyish-white smoke. There were two trains approaching each other from different directions, and Lad Lutman's flight dropped its bombs right an the track, stopping the two of them side by side." "My flight dropped six bombs either on the trains or right in between them," reported Freddie Fredendall. "Two box cars blew right up into the air onto the other train, As I peeled up I could see red tracers shooting past my left wing. That made me sore so I split-essed back down from 2,000 feet with Ed Grove, and the two of us each took a train and went right on down the line, all eight guns going. There was a hell of an explosion and we could see big fires when we left." Blair the "Wreck" commented, "That place was just covered with tracer," then added, laughing, "These milk runs are getting boring!"
Four squadron missions were dispatched on armed reconnaissance on the 11th, hitting bridges in the Normandy area. The 506th went back to Pontaubault and scored two more hits on the western rail-bridge. The 508th, off twice, found a concentration of tanks at St. Andre de Fontenay, four miles south of Caen, and dropped six bombs, when the tanks started releasing orange smoke signals. They broke off the attack, not knowing whether British patrols had pushed so far, but discovered on returning to base that the nearest friendly troops were seven miles away.
Luciano "Hiawatha" Herrera was hit in the oil-line by flak; escorted by Doc Williams, he headed for England but was forced to bail out over the channel about 10 miles south of the Isle of Wight. He successfully inflated his dinghy, broke out his sail, and was rescued by an R. A. F. "Walrus" seaplane. Eight hours later he was back with the squadron relating his experience.
Spotty weather hampered operations, but before it closed in completely, the 508th completed a second mission at noon, ranging from St. Gilles west of St. Lô, to Cherbourg, under a 3,000 foot overcast. Bill Kerr had his plane riddled by flak early, but he stuck with the formation and knocked out a gun-position. Jerry Tullis picked up a lot of holes from bomb-blast, but retained control of his aircraft and staggered home. Ed Pounds picked up a lot of damage, and over Valognes Ralph Smothers was hit and bailed out at 400 feet. Bill Abrahams saw his parachute open, and it looked like he was safe. We heard about it a month later. Smothers never rejoined the Group, but he successfully evaded capture, returned to England and paid the Group a one-night visit in Normandy before returning to the U. S. A.
". . . I was burned on the leg and neck, but I got out somehow," his story went. "I guess I was half-shocked or something, but it seemed to me I. walked for quite awhile before I met anybody. I passed a German sentry at a crossroads without being challenged, and a German cook pedalled by on a bicycle. We nodded at each other. I met several civilians who appeared frightened to see me and wouldn't have anything to do with me, but finally a couple of Frenchmen took me to a farmhouse, where an elderly lady and a young girl took me in ...
... Two Germans lived in the same house, but they never found me. Once one of them came to the door of my room, but the girl threw a quilt over my head. The women took care of my burns and fed me, and kept me for nine or ten days. Fighter-bombers dropped bombs awfully close once, and when the troops got closer, we were in the middle of an artillery duel. Bullets came whizzing around the house and I lay scared stiff on my belly on the floor, while the old lady kept buttering around the house doing her work. I felt pretty foolish . . . Our tanks passed by, and the girl who could speak broken English, told some of the troops about me. They promised to come and get me; then the Germans counterattacked and reoccupied the area. During the night the French family bundled me up and we all slept out in a field far from the house, while a terrific fire-fight went on . . . We went back to the house in the morning . . . I saw helmets moving along a hedgerow, I was really sweating them out, till a couple of Gl's appeared ... I was all right from then on ... Once the family gave me two thousand-franc notes, brand-new; one of the men in the village, they said, had a store of money received from the British, for helping Allied airmen. I tried to give the old lady the money, but she absolutely refused, said it was all taken care of . . ."
Armed reconnaissance assignments held out for the next three days, the three squadrons flying a total of nine reconnaissance missions and one uneventful four-ship escort. Forty-three planes covered the enemy communications zone west of the Vire River the 12th, from St. Lô as far south as Avranches; the 13th and 14th the Group was sent further east, behind the center of the enemy front, as far south as Vire and Domfront. Transportation was the main target, with 24 strikes against rail-lines and rolling stock, 11 against tanks and motor vehicles, and five against bridges. Joe Wilson created a vacancy in some Nazi general's staff by catching a speeding limousine alone an a highway; Ollie Simpson shot up a large canvas-covered truck which blew up as if it were loaded with ammunition. Denver W. "Smitty" Smith punctured a large oil storage tank which disappeared under clouds of thick black smoke and flame. "How the hell are those guys holding out?" Skin Galbreath wanted to know. "You have to look to hard to find any targets now, and I'm getting tired of plastering these railroads. Every railroad siding, every crossroad is just pockmarked. Their transportation is so crippled now they'll need crutches to move."
The 16th and 17th were spent on "submarine patrol" - uneventful shipping cover over the Channel. Back on dive-bombing the 18th, with two squadrons combining cover for B-26's with bombing; then something special. There was a hurry-call to load up with frags (fragmentation bombs) - one of those S. A. P. (soon as possible) missions - and a vague word drifting out of Group Operations about French guerrillas in open warfare with German infantry on the Brest Peninsula. All three squadrons got off. They arrived in the target area, about 20 miles northeast of Vannes, and carefully scouted all the roads leading to the triangle Serent-St. Guyomard -Malestroit, around a wooded ridge.
"All we saw there were two small fires burning in the woods," said Major Tice of the 507th, "so we went after the secondary targets we were briefed on. My squadron hit a chateau about three miles south of the ridge. We couldn't knock the thing down with frags, of course, but we dropped strings of clusters on it anyway. I never saw so many hits on a single target before in all my life; they just covered the place. Then we went back and strafed the woods just south of the ridge, found some long crates that looked like they might be some dispersed enemy supplies and strafed them too. They burned."
Major Moon led the 508th against two radio stations west of the target area, one a tall silo-like structure, then hit an ammunition dump further west. Large explosions and heavy black smoke were still billowing up from the dump when the planes left. Major Shook and the 506th dropped their frags on a bivouac of six tents and a dozen vehicles just north of the wooded ridge. Both the 506th and 508th beat up the railroad yard at Ploermel, 10 miles north of the target, starting a number of fires.
The following day, at a secret session in the Group Briefing Room, Capt. Michael R. D. Foot, a dark, slender, alert-eyed paratrooper of the British Royal Artillery, from Headquarters, Special Air Service Troops (Commandos), gave the "gen" to all the pilots who had flown the mission.
"Along about D-Day," he related, "we dropped some Fighting French parachutists on the Brest Peninsula, to organize the resistance groups there, and to push sabotage and guerrilla warfare. They wore the regular British battle dress, but they were all former French Army officers and non-coms. They all knew what to do when they hit the ground; for most of them were heading straight to their homes. They had trained specially for their job during the winter, living out in the mountains in Scotland. Their leader was an amazing fellow, a former flyer in the French Air Force who lost an arm in Africa. He was a big man who used to stride up and down swinging the stump of his arm when he got excited.
Anyway, apparently he had little difficulty recruiting personnel, for he suddenly found himself with a small army of 2,000 on his hands, with all the attached problems at supply and administration - can unenviable spot for a guerrilla leader, for guerrillas should never mass together. We gather that they had been shooting up a lot of stuff down there, for we had supplied them 450,000 rounds of ammunition by air, till finally yesterday the Germans sent a force down from their big camp near Rennes to investigate the disturbance.
They caught our one-armed friend on a woody ridge - which is usually fatal for guerrillas. We caught a brief radio transmission from him about noon, yesterday saying he didn't think he could hold out, and asking for help. Naturally he had to transmit on the run, so to speak, through irregular channels, so the location of his set couldn't be picked up and pin-pointed by German monitors. We started a call through Army channels for air support, but we didn't have much hope. In fact, it wasn't till we heard that your aircraft were on their way that we knew a Group had been allocated for the job, what with all the other demands for air at the main battlefront.
Now the reason you didn't see anything when you got down there is that the battle was over. It was about six hours from the first call for help until you arrived, what with delays in transmission and stops in the various headquarters, and by some stroke of luck or providence or whatever you want to call it the French fought so hard for four hours that the Germans left. After your attack, we got another message from our friend saying 'THANKS VERY GRATEFUL AIR SUPPORT BUT LAND BATTLE COMPLETED'.
We were interested, however, in the targets you actually hit. That silo that the 508th hit overlooked the very meadow where we had been dropping them supplies, which made things very ticklish. And the chateau that the 507th took care of was a local German headquarters: so all in all, we thought the material results were well worth while. But what is more important, you showed all the French in the neighborhood that we have command of the air, that we can and will give strong fire-support to our friends on the ground. That kind of thing is just what was needed to give heart to the resistance movement; in Brittany the French will flock to help; the news will be all over France, and in time, word should even penetrate to Belgium and Holland."
It shows that the Allies are definitely taking an interest in what goes on behind the lines, as well as the main battle. You are all to be highly commended for your part in the mission."
After Capt. Foot's visit, the Group received a formal commendation from General Lewis E. Brereton himself, Commanding General of the Ninth Air Force.
Weather stopped activity for two days, then three more days were spent on uneventful patrol over the beaches, marked only by our first eyewitness reports of conditions "at the Front". A special flight composed of Lieut. Col. Johnson and Major Hood of Headquarters, Capt. Freemantle of the 506th, and Lieut. Blair of the 507th, escorted General Ralph Royce of the Ninth Air Force Headquarters to Normandy in a C-47 transport, and landed near St., Laurent sur Mer on Omaha Beach. Blair's story:
"I spent a few hours roaming up and down the beach; foxholes all over the place, but not a casualty in sight. I passed a PW stockade, and saw a German in there that I swear didn't look over 14 years old. An MP was telling me that half of them were German, and the other half were Poles, French or Russians who had been told to either fight or be shot. They're either old men, or guys who were shot to pieces on the Russian front, or kids. The French don't seem to be too happy to see us - they look rather indifferent about the whole thing. They've got plenty to eat, but no clothes or shoes. They're all running around in wooden shoes. Anyway, I got my first good look at some Germans, and they sure don't look like supermen to me."
Flying with the 506th on the 22nd, Lieut. Charles E. Labno suddenly called that his engine was quitting and he was bailing out. But he never got out. His plane dove straight into the ground near Grandcamp on Omaha Beach; sad news announcing his death was swiftly forwarded to the Group by ground units in the vicinity.
June 24 was our biggest day since D plus One - eleven squadron missions and 168 sorties, reconnoitring the Britanny-Cherbourg corridor west of the Vire River; and south to Avranches. In an area 30 miles long and 20 miles wide, the Group dropped 388 general purpose bombs and 76 fragmentation clusters an 150 railroad cars, eight small bridges or overpasses, three artillery positions, and 20 scattered motor vehicles. Eight attacks were made against marshalling yards, Villedieu-les-Poeles catching it four times, three times from the 506th Squadron.
East of Granville two Messerschmitt-109's ran into a flight of the 506th an the sixth mission of the day. The Thunderbolts turned to follow the enemy, the 109's turned into the attack, and one of them passed over Marty Adams, leading the second element. Adams started a steep chandelle onto the German's tail; still on his back he saw the enemy aircraft half-roll, ready to dive for the deck, and opened fire immediately. He fell away in a steep dive after the 109, still firing, and after many hits, saw the pilot bail out. The other enemy fighter disappeared.
The encounter took place at three o'clock in the afternoon; little more than an hour earlier, Lieut. Ben Kitchens and Bert Espy of the 508th, flight leader and element leader respectively, had made two successful bombing and strafing passes on a string of vehicles near Periers. The flight was climbing to reform, at about 2,000 feet, when Espy's plane, apparently attempting a normal cross-over manoeuvre, chewed into the flight leader's tail. Both planes spun into the ground in a matter of seconds. Ray Gay and Chuck Viccellio, the wingmen, looked long and hard but saw no sign of parachutes. Major Moon, leading the squadron, refused to give up hope that Kitchens and Espy had escaped, until weeks later when the area was occupied by American troops, and their graves were identified. Even then, because of the incorrect spelling of his name on initial front-line reports, Lieut. Kitchens was still carried as "missing" on the Group rolls till March, 1945.
Only mission of the day taking off with a specific target was the seventh, led by Lieut. Col. Johnson against an ammunition warehouse at Auxais, six miles south of Carentan. "Best bombing mission I've been on!" the colonel exclaimed. "The roof went up, the walls fell in, and clouds of yellow smoke all over the place." The ninth mission of the day, flown by the 506th was mission number 100 for the Group; and Capt. Joe Nichols and his boys made it a good one, messing up the railroad yards at Vire and Villedieu-les-Poeles, cutting a rail junction at Avranches, and strafing a staff car.
The 507th Squadron arrived at the 25th of June with 57 missions and not a man lost. After the morning mission, the squadron intelligence officer started wading through the normal confusion of interrogation, extracting details from one pilot, then another; pinning down the facts that first; a huge supply depot south of Le Mans was left in flames; second: there was nothing moving on the roads between Le Mans and Tours; third: intense flak was received from the Foret de Cinglais, south of Caen. He reached First Lieutenant Buford "Steve" Courtney, checking on the location of the flak.
"It was right here;" Steve pointed to the map. "I was following Freddie
down when it came up around us and hit him."
"Hit him? How bad - is he all right?"
"He didn't come back."
. . . For units new to combat, no losses are easy to take; but the first one is always particularly hard Till it comes, you think to yourself, good flying discipline keeps those Jerry fighters away; they'll never surprise us. Or, a steep angle of dive, a last break away, smart evasive action, and the flak will never bother us. Days go by, flying hours pile up, and you begin to hope what maybe all of us will get through this thing; none of US will ever go down. Then comes the first one ... It's all very impersonal, the way they get it you see the last agony of the plane, rather than the man. First a plume of blackish smoke; a graceful, swooning descent; then hard ground intervenes and symmetry of form and beauty of movement disappear in jarring impact, chaotic splatter of silver metal, and fierce red flame darkened with thick smoke . . . You miss him first on the form-up, when you find only three planes in the flight; you miss him in the tent, in the sleeping-bag still rumpled where he crawled out of it this morning And a small chill shock of fear beneath the sadness reminds you in the darkness of your subconscious mind: it DOES happen! How will it be with me?
Clonts first, in the 506th; Smathers in the 508th; now Fredendall in the 507th - the friendliest, happiest, most good-natured boy in the squadron. He was a good pilot, too; before his promotion during the month, he was leading flights as a second lieutenant, with first lieutenants flying his wing. ("Freddie's got a pretty good dive-bombing flight; we'll put him on that pinpoint," the Major would say). He had a young wife, whom we all had seen at Myrtle Beach; we all knew her name was Joan because he had it painted in big letters on the side of his ship. On the cowling he had a new insignia designed by her: the words "Freddy-Hopper", with a happy grasshopper firing a machine-gun. We thought of her and "Freddy-Hopper" when they picked up his effects to send home - his footlocker, his uniforms, his wallet (filed away when he picked up his escape-kit), all his little odds and ends.
We watched Art Washburn, Freddie's tentmate and best friend, to see how he was taking it. He disappeared from view after the mission; the next day he appeared looking all right; a few days later he mentioned something about Freddie and flying in casual conversation, and the strain disappeared.
Courtney described what had happened: "We were coming back from Le Mans, when Freddie asked the Major if he could go down and get a truck he'd spotted in a town south of Caen. He got an okay, and dove down, with me on his wing. Then he lost the truck. 'I'm going to make another circle and come back over the town again.' He was down to 300 feet by this time, with me behind him at 1000 feet, and all these tracers were up at us. The Major called him, 'come back up out of that flak!' but Freddie kept cruising in a gradual turn. I saw hits on his cockpit, and followed him down as his ship hit in a field and exploded."
Courtney made an unsuccessful search by jeep for news of Freddie after the Canadians captured the area south of Caen; not for eleven months did we hear anything about him. After V-E day, Capt. Miller on a visit to the Graves Registration Section at Paris found records of his burial by the Germans at Caillouet, seven miles south of Caen.
The 506th ran a bombing and strafing mission against the silo-like radar tower near Plumelec, north of Vannes on the Brest Peninsula, previously hit on the 18th, and the 508th dispatched two armed "recces". The second was a genuine "sweat" mission; for after the planes took off the ceiling dropped almost to the ground and visibility fell off to one quarter of a mile. Joe Wilson flew underneath a string of telegraph wires on the way back, and the entire formation had to land in ones and twos at other airdromes in France and England. Bill Kerr and Denzil Lee stopped at the strip near Carentan while it was being shelled by German 88's a couple of miles away to the south. Weather or no weather, when the shelling ceased they crawled out of their foxholes and took off immediately for England.
Late in the afternoon Lieut. Clonts returned, and in an after-supper session restricted to pilots and intelligence officers, told as much as he could of his experience with the French underground, and his successful evasion. He then returned to European Headquarters for shipment home; for no "evader" who had contacted the French organizations was permitted to fly again against the German enemy, for security reasons.
The Group escorted G-47's to Normandy, took a third tour of beach patrol, or sat out the weather the next four days. The last day in June, each squadron ran a successful 12-ship reconnaissance across central Normandy to the Loire Valley, as usual hitting chiefly rail targets and some scattered road traffic. On the first, Bob "Senator" Johnson, now sprouting a handlebar moustache, got himself eight trucks with fragmentation bombs.
Coming back from the second mission of the day, Bob Green waited till the rest of the 507th was on the ground, then landed with a cluster of eighteen 20-pound frag bombs on one wing. When he hit the steel-plank runway, the cluster fell off and ten of the bombs exploded. The squadron medics, already on their way out in the ambulance saw Bob jump out of the plane, which began to burn; and as they ran to support him, he collapsed. Five minutes after the frags went off, he was in the Group Dispensary, receiving morphine and plasma. He was sent to the 95th General Hospital at Ringwood, and died there before dawn the next day. He was reported as a calm, smiling patient, who asked that letters be written to his mother, and to his girl friend, telling her he wished they had been married before he left the States.
Back on the landing strip after the accident, with eight live bombs still on the runway and no trained bomb-disposal men on the base, someone in a headquarters a safe distance away kept insisting that the runway be cleared. So Lieut. Warren L. Pell, Group Ordnance officer, with Lieut. Charles W. Young and Staff Sergt. Glenwood F. Moon of the 507th armament section crawled out on their stomachs, looked over the bombs, decided that three of them were "safe", then carefully picked up the five "live" ones and took them in a jeep half a mile over the bumpy perimeter track to a firing-in butt (an embankment where planes are test-fired on the ground to check the alignment of the machine-guns). The bombs were detonated there later by bomb disposal specialists. The three men were later awarded the Soldiers Medal for their act.
On the third and last mission of the day, the 506th was having a great time, bombing and strafing a cluster of 100 freight cars east of Orleans, and ranging far to the east of the battle area. Swinging north near Evreux, the formation saw 12 to 14 Me-109's and Focke Wulf 190's 2,000 feet above them and slightly ahead. Turning directly toward the enemy, the squadron started to climb; the Jerries climbed too, then a pair suddenly broke down on the Thunderbolts, followed by the others. The enemy ran true to form, using their normal hit and run tactics; a quick burst and a long dive for the clouds, 7,000 feet below. Ray Elledge's third flight reacted most effectively, Ray chasing a 190 which escaped before he could get any hits, followed by another 190 which his wingman, Don Miller, shot off his tail. -Don saw his own bullets score hits on the enemy, but lost him in the clouds.
Ted Welgoss, number four man in the third flight, found a Messerschmitt on his tail in the first seconds of the flight. His element leader, George McLaughlin, broke into the enemy head on, then dove as the German split-essed. Mac fired a long burst and saw pieces fly off the 109's wing, then the enemy plane disappeared in the clouds. Major Harold G. Shook's number four man in the first flight wasn't doing so well, however. Elledge and Harold Freemantle both saw the P-47 shudder from cannon hits as a Messerschmitt caught it from below. The plane, flown by Lieut. Charles B. Hochadel, slid off into a glide and disappeared through a hole in the clouds, smoking as it the cockpit were on fire. Like Clonts, everyone thought he was a goner. Like Clonts, he walked back in on us a few weeks later.
For seven days in a row, no missions were flown - the longest break in the Group's year of combat operations. The entire organization was moving to France.
... Prepared long before D-day itself, the schedule for movement of Ninth Air Force units to the Continent first reached the fighter groups in the form of a graph. There was a list of lighter groups and a column for the days D plus 1, D plus 2, on and on. Shaded blocks showed which day your unit was supposed to move, and which numbered airfield site was to be yours. Some of the field assignments changed, because every field had to be scooped out of the ground, and the ground first had to be captured. There were some delays . . . The 366th was the first of the Ninth Air Force's fifteen fighter groups to land; somewhere halfway down the list came the 404th . .
Orders arrived the evening of June 26 directing the Group's advance
party (named the "air echelon", though it never flew) to proceed to a
marshalling area near Southampton, for shipment to France. After getting rid of all excess
baggage, waterproofing vehicles and equipment, de-waterproofing, then finally
re-waterproofing again, the air echelon moved by truck the 27th to a staging area camp
north of Southampton, between Eastleigh and Romsey. They lingered there two nights and a
day; boarded ship June 29 at the docks of Southampton after being pelted by a two-minute
hail-storm on the way down by truck, and got under way for France that night. The
"vehicle party" with all the trucks and jeeps, and the "marching
party" with personnel only were separated at the staging area, the former embarking
on a Liberty Ship, and the latter on a California-built British Victory Ship, "Empire
Crossbow". They didn't get together for the rest of the trip. The vehicle party had
time to watch some of the heavy loading, and Sergt. Seely Hall Jr. and others saw a
Sherman tank converted to 30 tons of fine rusting junk when a wild swinging crane dropped
it over the boat-side into The Solent. The marching party set out freshly supplied with
K-rations, D-rations, one "Hot-Box" fuel tablet, a bottle of halazone tablets,
matches, a razor blade, a can of "Insecticide Powder for Body-Crawling Insects",
one box of "Motion Sickness Preventitive" and two strong paper bags, just in
case . . .
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