66 years ago: The 362nd FG in combat over Celle

On March 8, 1944, while providing penetration escort for B-24s to Brunswick, the 378th Fighter Squadron of the 362nd Fighter Group claimed four destroyed: one in the air and three on the ground at the aerodrome at Celle. Just after handing off escort to another group, Capt. Vernon Boehle saw firing from some of the bombers and took his squadron over to take a look. A box of bombers that had just completed the bomb run was under attack by about 30 Bf 109s. A half a mile from the bombers, Boehle saw a single P-51 being chased by eight Bf 109s about 4000 feet above him.

“As I turned toward them the P-51 came down in a dive and leveled off and headed straight for us,” Boehle said. “As he passed under my nose I fired a very short burst at the nearest Bf 109 chasing him. The other enemy planes that were following passed underneath us. I had no opportunity to observe whether I hit him or not, but I doubt whether I did as it was only a split-second burst. I did a turn with my flight following, but the enemy aircraft were too far away. I again headed for the bombers but saw two 109s endeavoring to bounce us, but when we turned toward them they hit the road.”

The Mustang group by now was present in full force, and on three occasions when Boehle tried to line up a German fighter, Mustangs would get into position first. Meanwhile, Maj. Charles Teschner and Lt. George Askew spotted an airfield with about 30 planes on it. At 14,000 feet, they spotted a lone Ju 88 flying at 2000 feet. “We started down on it and closed fast on its stern,” said Askew. “I was 50 yards astern and to the left of Red Leader.” “I immediately dived down and opened fire slightly out of range,” reported Teschner, “then gave two more bursts in closer. There were many hits on the fuselage and the Ju 88 gave a jerk to the left as I pulled up and called my wingman to fire.” Askew opened fire at 200 yards, closing in to 50 yards. “There were strikes all over the plane as I fired,” he said. The Ju 88’s pilot was apparently hit, as the Ju 88 made a sudden diving turn and hit the ground and exploded. No one bailed out.

Meanwhile, other members of the 378th worked over the airfield. Lt. Joe Matte flew directly over the wreckage of Teschner and Askew’s Ju 88, then made a left turn to go back to the field. Captain Tom Chloupek led this flight back to the field; Matte realized that Chloupek, Wilton Crutchfield and Floyd Mills were lined up on the left side of the field, leaving the right side all to him. “Lining up on two planes I saw there (both Me 210s), I fired a long burst into the first from about 350 yards to 50 yards, observing many hits all over the plane,” Matte said. “I pulled up just in time to avoid hitting the parked plane and turned to shoot the second aircraft. I was traveling so fast I hardly had time to fire, but I did manage to get in a very short burst before being forced to pull up. At this moment I observed a truck coming toward me on a road to the right of the airfield. Again I tried to pull around into position to fire, but this attempt was futile. I did see several soldiers leave the truck, though, and they seemed to be in a very great hurry.”

Crutchfield and his two fellow pilots attacked the other side of the field. Crutchfield lined up two Me 210s “and opened fire on the first as soon as possible and continued to fire,” he said, “observing a multitude of hits until I was forced to pull up to keep from hitting it. I pulled up slightly and pressed a short attack on the second plane, but was also forced to pull up to keep from hitting it. I stayed down among the trees and fields as closely as possible until I was away from the field for about two miles, then pulled up to join Capt. Chloupek. I looked back and observed the first ship I fired at burning and the fire seemed to be growing. This one I claim destroyed.” Chloupek and Mills damaged three more Me 210s. “We came across them from east to west and observed many hits on the first three,”

Chloupek said. Mills was right behind Chloupek, so “I skidded to the right to line up three 210s as one target and to keep from shooting Capt. Chloupek. I observed hits on the enemy aircraft, but wouldn’t swear that I hit all three.”

Also during the mission, Lt. George Kelly of the 377th bagged an Fw 190.

At the afternoon briefing, the pilots were informed that 70 trains were moving from Arras to Rouen. The 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 Lt. Jim Ashford destroying a second. Attacking a train required a bit of technique, said Ashford. “Ideally, you want to be fairly low so that your angle of dive on the train is quite low,” he said. “You don’t want to be coming down at a 45-degree angle because that means you have to start pulling out earlier so that you don’t smash on 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.”

Unfortunately, flak hit Lt. Ken Kitts’ Thunderbolt “Loko,” P-47D-15 42-75624, at 1500 feet. Kitts’ flight leader, Col. Morton Magoffin, radioed a warning to Kitts, who called back that his oil pressure was dropping, and he asked his wingman, Gordon Larsen, to accompany him home. “We flew toward the French coast for about five minutes when Lt. Kitts called me and said he would not be able to make it,” said Larsen. “We were flying at 5000 feet and just below a cloud layer. In about a minute, I observed that his engine had cut out. He immediately started to get ready to bail out. He left the ship at about 2500 feet. As he bailed out, he hit the horizontal stabilizer. I followed him down until he hit the ground.” Kitts was probably knocked unconscious, because his never made any attempt to open his parachute. He fell to his death in the St. Saens area.

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65 years ago: Gene Martin scores a double

On April 5, 1945, the 362nd Fighter Group flew nine eight-plane missions, but ground controllers had no targets, allowing the group’s planes to range north and east of Kassel. The Germans were making a great effort to evacuate by rail, and the result was a huge number of locomotives and rolling stock. One mission claimed eight locomotives destroyed and three damaged. The 377th and 378th Fighter Squadrons separately attacked the airfield at Kolleda, destroying eight aircraft on the ground plus nine damaged. Kent Geyer led the 377th’s eight-plane attack, which destroyed six and damaged two on the ground and knocked down a single plane in the air, which fell victim to Lt. Robert Sowers.

“We were bounced by 25 to 30 Fw 190s and Bf 109s in the vicinity of Birkungen” reported Lt. Joseph Mullen. “In the ensuing dogfight, I observed Yellow Three (Lt. Charles Everett) in a diving turn to the left with two 190s on his tail and two more closing in on him from the left. I pulled up into the 190s firing on him and shot at the lead 190, observing strikes. Yellow Three was still diving with two 190s on his tail.” Everett and P-47D-30-RA 44-33152 (B8*J) went down nearby, but Everett was able to evade and made it back to allied lines.

Lt. Duane Knos’ was leading Green Flight of the 379th in his Thunderbolt “Kathie,” P-47D-30-RE 44-32954, and the flight set its sights on a group of trucks on the road south of Gottingen. Knos “encountered intense, light, accurate flak and was hit on the second pass,” said Lt. Clifford Dugan, Knos’ wingman. “He was smoking pretty badly, and headed for our lines. When over the town of Hedemunden, Germany, his engine quit. He bellied in southeast of the town.” Knos was seen running from the wrecked plane, and also evaded capture to return to the group safely.

A later mission by the 379th netted aerial victories by Lt. Orville Hagen, who scored two, Lt. Gene Martin and Lt. Alvin Lieberman. Several Fw 190s appeared out of some ground haze 30 miles east of Kassel, and the two groups of startled pilots began to tangle. “I actually got two on that flight,” but the second one was not confirmed, Martin said. “By that time, the Germans’ training really wasn’t what it had been – although you could get the occasional good pilot mixed in,” said Martin. In this case, there was no “hot rock” among the Germans; Martin lined his first target up and dispatched him with a few rounds, sending the Luftwaffe fighter slanting down trailing smoke. As the fight swirled around him, he climbed for altitude and found a second plane ahead of him and fired, overshooting as the German fighter staggered into a stall. “They didn’t confirm it with the gun camera film – I think everyone was too busy waiting for the war to end,” lamented Martin.

This week, in 1945: SAR, 357th FG style

It wasn’t often that USAAF forces were asked with flying SAR cover for an extended period, but this week in 1945 saw the 357th Fighter Group attempt to do just that. Lt. Daniel N. Myers of the 363rd Fighter Squadron suffered an engine failure over the Channel on April 1, when the coolant system on P-51D 44-72328 failed. Myers was forced to bail out four miles northwest of Schiermonnikogg Island in the West Frisian Islands. The USAAF Air Sea Rescue Service and the Germans both raced to recover the pilot, who had made it into his dinghy. An OA-10 Catalina piloted by Lt. John Lapenus landed near Myers, but then suffered an engine failure. A covering flight led by Capt. John Stern headed out from Lieston but was forced home by darkness and weather before they realized the flying boat was stuck.

The next morning, Maj. Leonard “Kit” Carson was alerted to scramble to cover the downed Catalina, with the intended purpose of keeping the Germans from getting to the plane. Wind and waves were pushing the Catalina toward shore, but the one good engine was allowing the plane to taxi north for brief periods and keep from coming ashore. After a low pass was met by waves from the side blisters of the Catalina, Carson sent one plane to higher altitude to report the situation and began to orbit with his three remaining planes. A few minutes later, a pair of Me 262s came racing toward the Catalina at just 1000 feet.

“Both the 262s were firing at the Catalina by the time I could get my sights on the lead ship,” said Carson, who fired a long-range shot anyway with hopes he could distract them. The Me 262s’ cannon shot a chunk of the Catalina’s tail off and punctured the hull; the flying boat began to list to port and the men aboard scrambled into three large dinghies. Luckily, the Me 262s, turned back and raced toward the shore and out of sight. An RAF Warwick arrived a little later and dropped a lifeboat, but the drop damaged it; five hours later, a B-17 dropped a second boat and the men in the water were able to climb aboard.

Eventually, after five days of effort, the Catalina crew was picked up by boats from the Royal Navy. Unfortunately, Myers was not with them; his dinghy had been blown ashore and he was captured. He was not the only pilot lost during this rescue attempt; on April 1, the 362nd Fighter Squadron lost David T. Perron, who went missing in bad weather while flying “Little Bitch,” P-51B 43-6792. At the same time, Lt. Elmer Rydberg disappeared in 43-6629; the two pilots may have collided. Two days later, while over the English Channel, Lt. Jacob Giel was hit by a drop tank from another Mustang, and he and P-51D “Winnie Gal,” 44-14682, went into the water. Giel was not rescued.