70 Years Ago: the 362nd Pursues the Fleeing Werhmacht

On July 28, 1944, the 362nd Fighter Group worked overtime to continue the momentum started by Operation Cobra three days earlier. The 378th Fighter Squadron was sent to the Domfront-Alencon-Laval area and attacked two railroad bridges, scoring 14 near-misses. The 379th Fighter Squadron bombed and strafed in the same area, claiming seven boxcars destroyed and 70 more damaged, along with a damaged locomotive. Another 378th mission saw Red Flight knock out two trucks and damage 10 more. Yellow Flight scored hits on two self-propelled guns and five trucks, and Blue Flight destroyed a pair of trucks and strafed a tank, an armored car and five trucks. The 377th Fighter Squadron flew an armed recce, strafing and destroying eight trucks and a staff car. The 378th returned again, flying a similar mission, destroying 10 trucks, an armored car and six tanks, but luck was not with was. Robert Piper of the 378th, on his first mission. Flying wing for Red Leader, Piper was about 200 yards behind him in P-47D 43-25592 when the lead’s bombs dropped on the road near Cherence-le-Heron. “Red Leader’s bombs exploded directly in front of Lt. Piper’s plane,” reported Lt. Stan Stepnitz, the No. 4 man in the flight. “The ship flew through the bomb blast and about a quarter of a mile beyond before it rolled over on its back and crashed to the ground.” Piper did not survive the impact.

As the Red Flight of the 378th was climbing after bombing a road junction, the flight’s leader, Capt. Richard Cline, saw two Bf 109s break through the overcast at about 3000 feet. “(They) saw our squadron and pulled back into the clouds,” Cline reported. “At that time, four Fw 190s broke through directly in front of us, three of which turned sharply to the right and pulled back into the clouds. The fourth, apparently the leader, remained slightly below the clouds at approximately 200 yards. I opened fire at 5 degrees deflection and observed strikes along the wing and canopy. The right gear was seen to come down as he pulled into the overcast. My No. 3 and I hosed the clouds where he was just disappearing. From the strikes observed, I believe the enemy aircraft to be seriously damaged.”

The 379th was next in the area, bombing an underpass and scoring six near misses. The 378th then launched a dive-bombing mission to the Brehal-Hombye-Villedieu area, cutting four rail junctions and destroying a tank and a command car. The 379th returned to this area later. Red flight scored six hits on a railroad junction, then destroyed two trucks and damaged 10 more by strafing; Yellow Flight scored four bomb hits on a weapons carrier and five trucks. Blue Flight knocked out two trucks and strafed a tank. A third mission by the 379th scored several hits on road junctions, knocked out a command car and strafed two Tiger tanks. Finally, the 377th flew another recce, destroying eight motorcycles, four trucks, five tanks and some horse-drawn artillery.

 

70 years ago: Operation Cobra

July 25 was slated as the date of Operation Cobra, the breakout from the Normandy area. Although it was now 49 days after the landings, allied troops were only to where planners had envisioned they would be five days after D-Day. As a result, allied air power would be tasked with blasting a hole in German defenses to allow the allies to use their mobile forces to throw the Germans off balance. For the 362nd  Fighter Group, that meant 34 planes were loaded with 250-pound fragmentation clusters and 100-pound white phosphorus bombs; these followed other group’s planes and dropped on a narrow strip of enemy defenses. More missions followed; the 377th Fighter Squadron bombed a German officers’ quarters with fair results, then the 378th Fighter Squadron bombed a road junction in an effort to disrupt communications wires there (they missed a small house being used as a communications center). The 379th Fighter Squadron bombed the reported location of an ammunition dump, with no observable results. The 378th returned to the communications center and pelted it with 500-pounders, one of which was seen to go through the house before exploding. The 379th went after a group of German holdouts west of St. Lo; the target was well marked and the bombing was accurate. The 378th finally was dispatched to attack a small town that contained the command post and ammunition dump of the German 14th Fallschrimjager Regiment. They were rewarded with at least two good secondary explosions. All bombing was done at a very low level.

 

This day in 1944: the 362nd bombs and gets bounced

On the morning of June 24, the 362nd Fighter Group bombed railroad tracks along the Epernon line. Green Flight of the 377th Fighter Squadron was flying top cover, and Green Leader, Lt. Frank Peppers, spotted 10 aircraft climbing over Evreux, above the 362nd’s formation. Peppers moved his flight to counter the still-out-of-range aircraft, but soon had to turn back to keep the bomb-laden planes in sight and lost contact with the 10 unidentified planes. “Green Flight made several orbits over the target (Mantes-Gassicourt),” said Peppers. Lt. (Robert) Clees, who was flying Green Four, had apparently fallen in trail. I glanced down to check the position of the dive bombers. I looked up again (and) I took a quick look in the rear view mirror and saw Fw 190s coming in on our tail. I looked back and called a break to the right. It was too late then; Lt. Clees had already been hit. I saw strikes over both wings. The rest of Green Flight broke into the enemy aircraft and they hit the deck. I watched Lt. Clees’ aircraft spin into the edge of the overcast near Bueil, and (and) about 30 seconds later I saw a white chute drift out from under the overcast. We did not go to the deck to check if Lt. Clees landed safely because there were still more enemy aircraft in the area. About 10 minutes later, we were bounced by 16-plus Bf 109s, but got away safely.”

Clees’ Thunderbolt, P-47D-25 42-26657, crashed and exploded, but the pilot came down safely near Coigneres, and was helped by a local woman, Agnes Knocker, and her daughter, who hid the pilot and helped him on his way to the French Underground’s evasion system. He would later return to England and safety. The 378th bombed a bridge embankment at Epernon, but all seven planes missed the target. In the afternoon, the 378th, led by Capt. Richard Cline, returned and scored three hits. The 379th bombed Cherisy, destroying six rail cars. Later, a 15-plane mission from the 379th led by Capt. Carroll Peterson attacked a bridge, but missed it with eight bombs. The day’s third mission for the 379th, led by Capt. George Rarey, attacked a bridge at Cherisy, striking it with four bombs.

 

This day in 1944: the 362nd smashes the Wehrmacht at Point L’Abbe

On June 12, German troops made a stand at the village of Point L’Abbe. The entire 362nd Fighter Group bombed the village, smashing Wehrmacht resistance. This mission was significant, because it was the first time the group worked in close association with ground troops. Aiding the situation was the complete absence of German flak. While the 377th and 379th struck troop positions, the 378th under Capt. James Harrold sent 15 planes to the town’s marshalling yards, causing significant damage. In the evening, the 377th and 379th bombed radar stations on the headlands near St. Malo using 500-pound bombs; the 379th mission was led by Capt. Bill Flavin, and the target at Cap Frehelder was flattened. The 377th’s target was also put out of action. The 378th attacked some woods near Vire where German vehicles and an ammunition dump were thought to be hiding, but achieved no visible results. Lt. William S. Matusz in P-47D-11 42-76605 was forced out of formation by a misfiring engine; Lt. James A Clark escorted him home. “His engine then failed completely,” said Clark, “and he took up a heading of north trying to reach our beachhead. We hit a layer of clouds and I lost him.” Matusz was rescued by the underground and returned to England two months later. Lt. Harry Kraft also suffered an engine failure, and crash-landed at Penshurst. P-47D 42-76102 was a write-off. Also destroyed this day was P-47D 42-75073, which suffered a take-off accident with Lt. Alva Bessey at the controls.

This day in 1944: the 362nd battles the Buzz Bombs

V-1 sites were again the target for the 362nd Fighter Group on May 24, 1944, this time focusing on Campneuse-ville, Le Mesnil-Allard and Beaulieu Ferme, with 35 P-47s carrying 500-pounders and 19 P-47s from the 379th Fighter Squadron providing top cover. Because of the small size of the sites, the group assumed it did little damage; the targets could be seen, but they were well-camouflaged, and flak was intense.

The group took a personal interest in destroying the V-1 sites, or as one man in the 379th termed them, “those damned non-union airplanes.” V-1s routinely made loud fly-overs at Hornchurch on their way to targets nearer to London. “Ack-ack fire shot them down regularly, and Spitfires and Tempests took a great many of their number,” recounted Pvt. Earl Johnson in his memoir. “Some of our own pilots in off-mission flying pasted several of them. They certainly played hell where they hit, but we were lucky enough to not be greeted with any of them in our own area. I remember how one landed in a quiet English village near our field and dismantled almost everything standing.”

 

70 years ago: the 362nd FG loses Russell Adams – and the Wehrmacht lose some bunkers

On May 23, 1944, the 362nd Fighter Group flew a fighter sweep in the Reims area. 2nd Lt. Russell Adams of the 377th Fighter Squadron, in P-47D-10-RE 42-75167, suffered a sudden drop in oil pressure. With Lt. John L. Hill as an escort, he made a 180-degree turn and headed for home. Hill saw “black puffs of smoke coming from the exhaust pipes of his plane caused by the engine skipping,” Hill said. “The engine stopped and the prop froze. I observed Lt. Adams belly land his ship near a small woods and three pillboxes.” Although Germans fired at him from their bunkers as he was landing, Adams scrambled out of the plane safely and ended up as a POW. Once he was away from his plane, Lt. John Hill destroyed the P-47 to prevent it from falling into enemy hands, then expended the rest of his ammunition on the pillboxes.

 

Gone West: the 362nd FG’s Jim Ashford

While I was away on business last week, I received word that Jim Ashford had passed away on April 9. Jim was very helpful to me in my efforts to write about the 362nd Fighter Group, perhaps because I located a photo of his plane “Okole Maluna” for him. I’ll never forget the phone call he made to me after getting a print – “I haven’t seen that plane in 62 years!” he exclaimed.

Later, we got a chance to talk at the 2006 362nd FG Association Reunion in Portland, where he was very pleased to see the little model  display we staged in the reunion’s hospitality suite. Later, Obscureco sponsored a decal sheet that was given away in the IPMS/Journal featuring Jim’s “Okole Maluna” in three scales. (Want a sheet? Send me a note – we bought about 10,000!)

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Jim Ashford and Chris Bucholtz at the 2006 362nd FG Reunion, Portland, OR

Jim was earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and several Air Medals for his service. He was a member of the Hawaii Air National Guard and a jet pilot for 26 years. Jim retired as a Colonel and the Commander of the Hawaii Air National Guard in 1978

Jim met Anne Landon, a Navy Wave, during the war and they married on January 5, 1946. They raised three daughters and spent much of their leisure time deep sea fishing in Hawaii.

After Anne’s death in 2003, Jim moved to Independence, Oregon to pursue his passion in flying and he built three experimental airplanes – naming them “Okole Maluna,” the same name his P-47 wore.

In 2008, we ran the following article in the Journal to accompany the decal sheet – it gives you an idea of the self-deprecating, friendly nature Jim blessed his friends and acquaintances with:

Few units in the Ninth Air Force can claim the sort of record that the 362nd Fighter Group amassed, destroying thousands of trucks, hundreds of locomotives and even sinking a captured French battleship. But the Ninth Air Force is often overshadowed by the Eighth Air Force, which went to war not only with hundreds of four-engine bombers but with a hand-picked cadre of ace public relations people. This short profile of one pilot is intended to show that bravery in the air was not limited to those who fought over German cities but also to those who fought the Germans on and near the front lines.

Jim Ashford entered the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1942, and, unlike many of his fellow airmen, he had already been overseas – as a native of Hawaii, he had spent all of his life overseas. Coming to the U.S. for training was his first exposure to many things most Americans took for granted. For example, “After I graduated from flight school, I had a train ticket to go all the way to Springfield, MA to go to P-47 training,” he said. “I wanted to stop somewhere and I didn’t know how to do that, so I had to ask some of the guys – ‘how do I arrange this? How do I handle the tickets? How do I arrange to stop and get back on the train again?’ Those kinds of things!”

After a month of training at Bradley Field in Connecticut, on the first two days of August, 1943, the 378th and 379th Fighter Squadrons traveled by convoy to the Army Air Base at Groton, Connecticut, giving the squadrons a bit more rom to train. On Sept. 16, the group moved to Suffolk Air Base on Long Island for gunnery training, and three months later, in preparation for deployment, the group moved to Mitchell Field on Long Island. November 10 saw an advanced echelon of three officers depart for England. Two days later, the entire group loaded equipment, tools, files and personal gear and departed by truck for Camp Shanks, New York, its port of departure.

While personnel were able to steal away into New York for evening adventures during their first week at Camp Shanks, an order finally came restricting them to base and on November 21, the group departed for Hoboken, where they boarded the Queen Elizabeth for the trip across the Atlantic.

After an eight-day voyage, the Queen Elizabeth pulled into Greenock in the UK. The men of the 362nd lugged their equipment off the ship and marched to the train station. After a long trip through Doncaster, Lincolnshire and Cambridge, the train finally came to a stop. From there, it was a truck convoy to Station 159, Wormingford, the group’s new home.

It took exactly a month for the group’s P-47s to arrive. The 379th Fighter Squadron was lucky enough to have a pilot named George Rarey, who had been a commercial artist in New York before the war. Rarey drew portraits of the men and added a study intended as the basis for nose art for their P-47s. One of them was Ashford’s. Rarey picked a phrase in Hawaiian that he thought would be appropriate for Ashford – “Okole Maluna.”

George Rarey’s original sketch for Okole Maluna

“The original study that Dad Rarey did was a “Rarey Bird’ flying upside down over an island,” said Ashford. “’Okole Maluna’ means ‘bottom’s up.’ When Dad Rarey came to paint the cowling, I said, ‘You know, Okole is what you sit on – it’s your ass. So it can mean, your fanny’s up.’ So he said, ‘Well, how about a can-can girl?’”

Profile of Okole Maluna, by Jack Morris

Profile of Okole Maluna, by Jack Morris

With that, P-47D-10-RE 42-75075 received its unique nose art, with the can-can girl’s skirt intruding into the white identification stripe on the nose. The plane lasted until July with the 362nd FG, then was sent for an overhaul and later transferred to the 512th Fighter Squadron, 406th Fighter Group. It was involved in an accident on August 31, 1944, but was repaired, only to be lost when it suffered an engine failure on March 9, 1945, over Belgium.

"Okole Maluna," photographed in April 1944 by "Andy" Anderson

“Okole Maluna,” photographed in April 1944 by “Andy” Anderson

While in Ashford’s hands, “Okole Maluna” saw considerable action in the run-up to D-Day. On April 8, the pilots were informed that 70 trains were moving from Arras to Rouen. They found only seven, but shot them up just the same. The 379th made repeated passes, with Capt. Thurman Morrison, Lt. Kent Geyer and Lt. Vernon Ligon knocking out one locomotive and Lt. Clough Gee and Ashford destroying a second. Attacking a train required a bit of technique. “Ideally, you want to be fairly low so that your angle of dive is quite low,” Ashford said. “You don’t want to be coming down at a 45-degree angle because that means you either have to start pulling out earlier so that you don’t smash into the train, and if you’re coming down at a 45-degree angle it takes you more airspace to get that beast turned around.” So you had less time to shoot, he said. “We inevitably took more of them from the side rather than going right down the track.”

As D-Day approached, the Ninth Air Force ratcheted up the pressure on the German railroad network. On June 2, the crews loaded two 500-pounders per plane and the group attacked three different rail lines leading south and west from Amiens. Two locomotives were destroyed and other bombs were dropped on some small rail yards and a tunnel. The 379th did especially good business, putting seven bombs on the tunnel and strafing the yards northeast of Formiere, Ashford spotted a rail trestle in the woods outside Poix and put two bombs on it.

The invasion saw pilots flying as many as six missions a day, and the 362nd lost 30 planes during the month of June. On June 22, the 379th was sent off on a typical mission, to bomb the railroad line at Epernon. “We had many missions where we’d just go out to dive-bomb railroad tracks,” said Ashford. “The idea was to split the tracks. It was an easy mission to do, because if you had a straight stretch of track, you just lined it up with the track. You didn’t have to worry about fore or aft elevation, just sideways correction. You just had to make sure you were on line. If it landed a little short or a little long, it didn’t matter because you hit the track anyhow. But the Germans got very good at repairing these.”

After bombing, the squadron was jumped by German fighters but quickly turned the tables on their attackers. Lt. Gordon Larsen downed a Bf 109, and Ashford almost got a second – but it would have come at a cost. “We were always told that, if you were all ready to start shooting at a guy you’d better check your six o’clock because there’s likely to be a guy back there getting a bead on you and getting ready to shoot you,” he said. “I had this guy nailed. It was only about a five-degree deflection shot. I was in range. Everything was just perfect. I would have hammered this guy. Just before I pulled the trigger I looked behind, and there was a guy I could see who had me in his sights. I know that because I could see his belly and that means he had a little lead on me! I did an immediate break, but I heard his guns go off. I picked up two holes, but that was all. So the guy out in front of me got off scot-free, but by the same token, so did I!”

In July, the group moved to France to a field so close to the front lines that it lost two aircraft on the ground to German shelling. “When we first moved over to Normandy, our field was real close to the front lines,” said Ashford. “The strip ran roughly parallel to the lines, so whenever we were in the pattern for landing we always made our pattern to the north so we would be out of the range of their 40mm. We did one mission in close support of the troops, and I think it was in the realm of 20 minutes from takeoff to landing!”

On August 22, the 379th sent a 12-plane mission to the area around Chartres. During the first mission, after bombing and destroying a tank and 15 other vehicles, the squadron stumbled across a gaggle of 20 Bf 109s around Nantes. “That’s exactly what it was – a gaggle,” said Ashford. “It was like a hive of bees. There’s no question in my mind that there might have been one very well trained man in that whole lot who was probably leading the gaggle, but the others were not very well trained.” In the resulting furball Ashford and Lt. Ronald Hamby each destroyed one fighter, with Lt. L.O. “Doc” Savage claiming a probable. Ashford downplayed his achievement because of the obvious inexperience of the German fliers; “it didn’t take any skill to get one of them.”

While the Luftwaffe began to suffer a shortage of trained pilots, the USAAF faced a glut of hem. “Somebody assumed that the loss ratios in the squadrons would be higher than they were,” said Ashford. “We started to get replacements in. A normal squadron was around 26 pilots. Pretty soon we had near 50 per squadron – double the pilot strength. So what they did was to offer some of the guys – the original pilots in the squadron who were about halfway through their tours – they’d send you home on 30 days’ R&R and then you could come on back. I’d guess about half the pilots took it up. I wasn’t interested in that option. That meant going all the way back to Hawaii. By the time I get all the way to Hawaii, take my 30 days and get back, the war will be over! So I stayed on, and in October my tour was up. At the time, the tour for a fighter pilot was 250 combat hours. And for me, that worked out to 99 missions.”

I am very glad to have met Jim and spent time with him. His was a life well-lived and well-shared. Fair skies and following winds, Col. Ashford!

69 years ago: Stewart, Mann score for the 362nd FG

On March 17, weather prevented any operations by the 362nd Fighter Group until after 1300, but the group sent six missions aloft in the limited hours it had to fly. Flying at 3500 feet in heavy cloud conditions near Bad Kreuznach, the 378th ran into 12 Bf 109s coming head-on. Six of the fighters veered to the right, and Lt. Walter C. Stewart turned his flight into them only to see them disappear into the clouds. “I then saw three in echelon streak across the sky from 12 o’clock to about 4 o’clock,” reported Stewart. “I broke sharply to the right and up, placing myself on their tails as they sought to gain the cloud protection. I let go a three-second burst at the middle aircraft at about 350 yards range. The empennage shattered and the pilot bailed out.” To prove his victory, Stewart filmed the pilot as he floated by in his parachute. Once the Bf 109s were chased off, the 378th went to work on road traffic; four trucks, a half-track and a trailer were strafed and destroyed. During the second mission, Capt. Joe Hunter’s eight planes strafed and destroyed 11 trucks, eight half-tracks and 15 horse-drawn vehicles near Birkenfeld. The 378th’s third mission to the Mainz area took out 18 trucks, a motorcycle, a van and a steamroller, in addition to 10 horses.

Later, the 377th ran into six Fw 190D-9s and Chuck Mann destroyed one, although he was wounded in the ankle during the fight by a piece of flak. The toll taken on ground targets was impressive: 116 trucks, 19 horse-drawn vehicles, and two tanks destroyed by the 377th’s rockets.

 

69 years ago: The 362nd’s Robert Clees evades escape

On the morning of June 24, the 362nd Fighter Group bombed railroad tracks along the Epernon line. Green Flight of the 377th was flying top cover, and Green Leader, Lt. Frank Peppers, spotted 10 aircraft climbing over Evreux, above the 362nd’s formation. Peppers moved his flight to counter the still-out-of-range aircraft, but soon had to turn back to keep the bomb-laden planes in sight and lost contact with the 10 unidentified planes. “Green Flight made several orbits over the target (Mantes-Gassicourt),” said Peppers. Lt. (Robert) Clees, who was flying Green Four, had apparently fallen in trail. I glanced down to check the position of the dive bombers. I looked up again (and) I took a quick look in the rear view mirror and saw Fw 190s coming in on our tail. I looked back and called a break to the right. It was too late then; Lt. Clees had already been hit. I saw strikes over both wings. The rest of Green Flight broke into the enemy aircraft and they hit the deck. I watched Lt. Clees’ aircraft spin into the edge of the overcast near Bueil, and (and) about 30 seconds later I saw a white chute drift out from under the overcast. We did not go to the deck to check if Lt. Clees landed safely because there were still more enemy aircraft in the area. About 10 minutes later, we were bounced by 16-plus Bf 109s, but got away safely.”

Clees’ Thunderbolt, P-47D-25 42-26657, crashed and exploded, but the pilot came down safely near Coigneres, and was helped by a local woman, Agnes Knocker, and her daughter, who hid the pilot and helped him on his way to the French Underground’s evasion system. He would later return to England and safety. The 378th bombed a bridge embankment at Epernon, but all seven planes missed the target. In the afternoon, the 378th, led by Capt. Richard Cline, returned and scored three hits. The 379th bombed Cherisy, destroying six rail cars. Later, a 15-plane mission from the 379th led by Capt. Carroll Peterson attacked a bridge, but missed it with eight bombs. The day’s third mission for the 379th, led by Capt. George Rarey, attacked a bridge at Cherisy, striking it with four bombs.

 

 

69 years ago: Bombs claim two 362nd FG Pilots

Armed with 500-pound bombs, the 362nd Fighter Group went after road traffic on the highway leading south from Argentan the morning of June 13, 1944. The planes bombed an assortment of railroad tracks, small bridges, box cars and a few trucks. Strafing, however, was much more profitable. The 377th claimed 21 military vehicles left in flames, and an additional 10 damaged. These vehicles were tough to see because the Germans had taken to hiding under trees when allied planes were around. The 378th’s 16 P-47s destroyed two staff cars and four trucks and damaged two trains, a command car and several more trucks, but while attacking traffic early that morning the squadron lost Lt. Ken Skeen. “At 0705, we made an attack on two trucks on a road lined with trees,” said Lt. Charles Naerhood. “We made one pass, then Lt. Skeen made another. He pressed the attack too close and crashed into the trees on the side of a road.” The plane slapped down into a nearby field, and Skeen climbed from P-47D-11-RE 42-75441 relatively unhurt; before he was taken prisoner, he destroyed his P-47 with the incendiary grenade in the cockpit carried for that purpose.

The day’s second mission wasn’t launched until 2000, but it also resulted in good hunting for the strafing P-47s once they had dropped their bombs. The planes scoured the roads leading from LeMans for traffic. The 378th destroyed eight flat cars, a box car and four trucks and strafed 15 trucks. Sadly, 2nd Lt. Leon Bentley of the 378th was killed by his own bomb while attacking a rail target at low altitude. Bentley’s bomb struck the top of a boxcar and bounced before exploding, catching his P-47D, 42-26114, in the blast. A similar fate befell Lt. Burleigh Curtis of the 377th in P-47D 42-75227; caught in his own bomb blast, his damaged P-47 tumbled out of the air, hit the ground and exploded. His squadronmates accounted for 31 military vehicles and 10 more damaged in the area around St. Andre de Briouze. The 379th sent two missions of 16 planes and 15 planes to the area around Argentens and “left trucks burning all over the area,” according to squadron records.

 

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