The 362nd Fighter Group against Brest: Part 1

The battle to take Brest was a hotly-contested and, sadly, totally unneeded adjunct to the Normandy campaign. Planners saw the need to take the city and its ports, but there was no real way to displace the Germans before the Germans could sabotage the port facilities, especially as the Germans put up a stiff resistance. Instead, it turned into a grinding campaign that cost many lives, American, German and French, before the then-useless port fell into Allied hands. After this campaign, German-held ports were largely bypassed, so in a way the experience of Brest save many more lives over the summer and fall of 1944.

Four squadron-sized missions were flown against Brest on August 25 by the 362nd Fighter Group, two by the 377th Fighter Squadron. The principle target was the harbor, which could be used to evacuate German troops to Crozon. Col. Joseph Laughlin scored two hits on what was identified at the time as a German light cruiser during the 378th’s mission. The 378th’s 12 planes also hit another large ship in spite of intense flak. The 379th’s 16 planes in the morning mission bombed a collection of small boats in the harbor and managed to miss all of them, although they scored several near-misses. Later, as Laughlin led the 377th’s evening mission, he peeled off to bomb the cruiser again when it suddenly exploded with such force that Laughlin felt it at 8000 feet.

“As the flight dove down, I could see a blanket of white puffballs below and a blanket of black puffballs above,” said John Baloga. “They were exploding shells and sparks were flying from each burst. Those darn shells are programmed to explode at a specific height. The Germans were making us fly through them. Hot sharp steel was flying all over the sky. It was hellish.”

“As I came in line to dive, I saw the cruiser starting to smoke badly. Someone was calling over the radio that the cruiser was sinking. Thank You Lord! I immediately veered off from my dive. I saw that the other planes were forming up. This particular attack was written up in the papers and was noted on the BBC. Sinking a cruiser with a fighter-bomber was a big deal. Colonel Laughlin had given that cruiser its deathblow. I will always be grateful for that. I truly believe he saved my life. If he hadn’t sunk it, I would have been sunk because as Green 4, the last plane in the flight, I truly believe the enemy would have shot me down.”

The 377th went on to score two hits on another ship and near misses on other shipping in the harbor. In reality, the vessel that exploded and sank was probably either the wreck of the incomplete French battleship Clemenceau, which the Germans were planning to use to block the harbor, or a flak ship; no German cruisers were lost at Brest. Just the same Col. Laughlin’s Thunderbolt was adorned with the red silhouette of a warship bristling with guns for the rest of the war.

Four missions returned to Brest on August 26, with the 378th taking two of them. The 378th attacked the harbor again with 16 planes, scoring a hit on the stern of a freighter and strafing artillery positions and destroying two trucks. The other two squadrons gave one flight to each of four controllers, who directed them toward strong points, artillery positions or troop concentrations. Lt. Charles Freeman of the 377th was hit by flak and forced to bail out over friendly lines; severely wounded, he was evacuated to the U.S. but later died of his wounds. On the 378th’s second mission, the airfield at Crozon was bombed by 15 planes, with barracks and gun emplacements getting special attention. The squadron also set fire to two planes on the field and strafed other gun positions. The 379th destroyed a gun position with two direct hits, then strafed the remaining German defenders.

On August 27, the group sent five 16-plane missions to the Brest area, again teaming with ground controllers to strike specific targets. The 379th hit two gun positions during its first mission of the day, and one flight bombed a 10,000-ton transport but failed to hit it, so they dropped down and strafed it, making three passes and leaving it burning at the stern. Lt. Robert McKee of the 379th had his plane, P-47D 42-28463, damaged by flak and made a belly landing back at Rennes. In the afternoon, the squadron sent 16 more aircraft to the area, striking a gun position and several German strong points plus a truck towing a large anti-aircraft gun. They met with intense anti-aircraft fire, which damaged one plane and forced the pilot to belly in. During its first mission, the 378th dropped bombs on troop concentrations; during its second, it bombed and strafed pillboxes and gun positions, and strafed two minesweepers during their egress from the area. During the second mission, Capt. Harry Stroh of the 378th dropped down to take a closer look at the target. “I saw him go down to a couple hundred feet and fly over the area and then climb back up to 3000 feet,” said Lt. Wilbert Edwards, who was flying Yellow Three in Stroh’s Yellow Flight. “At that time I was right back of him with the flight and thought he was trying to get back into position, but instead he went down again. He flew pretty low right over the same area for about three-quarters of a mile and then started to pull up again when something struck his ship and caused an explosion. Immediately the plane went out of control and crashed about 300 yards from where it was first hit, and exploded.” In a freak accident, Stroh’s P-47D-20 42-76597 had been hit by an American artillery shell. To compound the tragedy, the shell had come from a gun belonging to the 8th Infantry Division, commanded by Stroh’s father.

In happier news, Lts. Robert Clees and Fred Ford returned, having evaded successfully. Maj. Tom Beeson took over command of the 377th from Maj. Liston, who was relieved because of physical exhaustion.

Rationalizing the Model Room

When my wife and I moved in together, the converted garage was designated as my workshop and library. Over the last six years, my hegemony over this territory has been constantly usurped so that now about 40 percent of it is hers, and last week the edict came down that I needed to clean things up – pare down the book collection, unload a bunch of models and make more space for her.

I worked on it this weekend; it was more painless than you might think. While it’s not done, I did rid myself of a couple of boxes of books and started rationalizing the model collection.

What does that mean? Well, here’s an example: I bought the new Special Hobby Westland Whirlwind – so I don’t need my Pavla Whirlwind anymore. I bought an Accurate Miniatures RQ-1 Predator and immediately started scheming to add Hellfire missiles to it – and then the armed MQ-1 came out. Bang! The RQ-1 became surplus to my needs. And then there’s an Mi-1 from A-Model. I will build many, many helicopters before I get to the Mi-1, so I’ll let it go. If I get an Mi-1 obsession in the future, I’m sure I’ll be able to find one.

I’m not prepared to do what my friend John Heck says – “let the hobby shop store the kits I’m not working on yet for me.” I’ve got weird tastes and like resin oddities (like the TT-1 Pinto I picked up at the Nationals) that don’t stick around long. But I also need to be realistic: how many 1930s Soviet fighters will I build? Do I need all the late-war Japanese experimental subjects? How many Mustangs and Corsairs are too many? (I don’t ask that about Thunderbolts – you can never have enough of them!)

It’s rationalization. It’s not wholesale purging, though. For example, I discovered that the Airfix F-80 fits neatly into the Sword kit box, so that’s where it went; I may steal a part or two from Airfix when I do build my Shooting Star. Same for my MiG-15s – I’ll get one good kit out of the Airfix, DML and KP kits, so I’ve consolidated them into one box. The same is going for my aftermarket stuff – the loose things that have been gumming up the shop, like photoetched P-3 sets or A-7 flaps, have been put in the kit boxes.

Still, I can’t wait to build again. The cleaning process feels almost like destruction, and I greatly prefer construction!

This day, 66 years ago: Joe Matte’s big day

On August 20, the 362nd Fighter Group launched six eight-plane missions to support ground forces around Dreux. During the 378th’s first mission of the day, Lt. Stan Stepnitz’s P-47 was hit by flak and he bailed out. “I was flying Blue Three on a dive-bombing mission near Laval when I developed oil pressure trouble at 10,000 feet,” Stepnitz recalled. “When I looked it was at zero. I wanted to head for the channel to bail out; she started bucking a few minutes later and subsequently froze entirely. I glided down to 3000 feet, stalled it and jumped out. It was a delayed jump and I was only in the air a few seconds. Captain (Wilfred) Crutchfield came by and I threw my ripcord at him. I missed as I didn’t lead him enough. I saw my plane blazing in the woods toward which I was heading. I landed in the trees and fell on my back to the ground.” Stepnitz hid from German soldiers and French gendarmes, sometimes by climbing trees, before some French civilians helped him with clothes and a rendezvous with the French Underground, which delivered him back to American forces.

The 377th attacked a small town as ordered by the ground controller, then were vectored toward a group of tanks, which they strafed and bombed, killing six tanks. On the 378th’s second mission of the day, Lt. Joe Matte was flying as Firebrick Yellow Leader, which was acting as top cover for Red Flight. “We were vectored to Etampes, and then north to Paris. Red Flight shot up two trucks on the way to Paris at 1545. I was at 5000 feet covering Red Flight at 2000 feet and going down slowly, so I started to climb. Red three called eight (bogies) in to Red Leader and Red Leader acknowledged the call. Evidently, the planes, which were Bf 109s, did not see me as I climbed above them because every one of them was going after Red Flight. I tried to warn Red Leader but some controller cut me out on the R/T. Red Leader saw them in time to start turning to the left. The leader and his wingman wasted no time on Red One and Two, so I went down to break this attack up. The two Huns saw me and started to climb in a left turn with me in perfect position to shoot. As I fired at 200 yards, the No. 2 Hun went inside the turn of his leader. Every round seemed to hit him as he flipped to the right directly into his leader. Two explosions resulted and sent two Huns to earth. No one bailed out. I started another climbing turn to the left when I observed four Huns firing on another P-47, so I went down. The number two and three men broke to the right, the leader pulling up to the left in a steep climb. As he did a roll and ended up in my gunsight about 200 yards away, just a short burst blew him to pieces. I flew through the debris and picked up a little blood on my canopy.”

Matte looked to the left and saw a Bf 109 trying to make a deflection shot on him. “I pulled around straight into him, but I didn’t have enough time to shoot so I started to turning to the left with him. In three turns I was almost in position to shoot, so I fired a short burst behind him. This seemed to make him loosen up his turn so I easily pulled a deflection shot at him and let him have a short burst at 300 yards which cut off a part of his left wing. He flipped over on his back and bailed out immediately. The ship continued spinning upside down and one Bf 109 started after another P-47, so I started after him and he broke away to the right. I let him go so I could climb back for cover. My wingman was still with me at this time. As I reached 5000 feet, a 109 overshot me without firing, so I started after him in a slight dive. It was at this time that I spied 20 plus Fw 190s (from JG.26) coming down from approximately 10,000 feet. I then told my number two man (Lt. James W. Pettit) to wait until I gave the signal to break. I was chasing the 109 and was almost ready to fire when I looked around for my number two man and he wasn’t in sight. I looked too long for him, allowing the Fw 190s to catch me. When I hit 1000 feet, two Fw 190s were firing, one each from the left and the right. The third ship that fired on me shot above (me) but hit the prop and came above me, breaking to the left and up. I turned to the right and down, and as I made a 180-degree turn I saw two large explosions on the ground, but I can’t claim this to be the two 190s because I didn’t have time to look. I hit deck for home and managed to get away from the Fw 190s, but without my wingman.” Pettit, in P-47D-20 42-76469, had in fact been shot down; his Thunderbolt crashed near Poissy sur Seine, and the Germans buried the pilot nearby.

Lt. Howard Kelgard saw three Bf 109s make a pass at him and his wingman, then turn away with the P-47s in hot pursuit. “Two 109s broke away and up,” he said. “The other headed for the deck when he realized I had got on his tail. I fired a 30 degree deflection shot. He started violent evasive actions heading for Paris proper. I closed to 100 yards, giving a long burst and observing many strikes about the wings and fuselage. He continued on, but looked as though he was crippled. I expended my ammunition, then called to Red Four, who was right with me to take over, but his radio was faulty. Then I had to break away.”

Lt. Laurie Greenleaf was flying in the number four position in the cover flight. When the enemy planes were spotted, “We reversed our turn and started down to the left,” he reported. “I was about 200 yards behind my lead man (Lt. Gordon L. Struchen) and looking for enemy aircraft as we went down. The first Bf 109 I saw came by me about 25 yards off my right wing, bottom up, and at the same time I saw one high to the right. There were P-47s and Bf 109s going around in a Lufbery to the left. In the confusion I was uncertain which ship was my lead so I started to pull up and saw a ship which looked like his and was in the logical place for him to be. I started towards him and a Bf 109 came in on him firing and seemed to be getting strikes. I opened fire on the Bf 109 from about 1500 feet and 30 degrees. My bullets went behind at first, but I pulled my lead and got strikes around the cockpit and the Bf 109 broke left and seemed to glide. I broke with him and fired a short blast and he started to turn right. He at once broke left again in a near roll and I followed and fired a long burst at him at about 80 or 90 degrees. At first my bullets went behind him, but I pulled my lead up and saw strikes on both wings and either side of the cockpit. As he was in a vertical bank he then flipped to the right and started a long gliding left turn towards the ground with smoke pouring from the plane. I started to go in for another burst, but we were outnumbered and I thought I might be needed in the fight. I started back up looking for the others but could not see a single aircraft, friend or foe. I looked back at the ship I had hit and saw it had crashed to the ground and gone up in smoke.” The final Bf 109 fell to Maj. Richard Harbeson, the group executive officer. The leader of Matte’s flight went missing from this fight; Greenleaf heard Struchen, who was flying P-47D-22 42-26045, yell “They got me!” over the radio; Struchen bailed out but later returned, albeit injured. The victors was 44-kill ace Oblt. Wilhelm Hofmann of 8./JG 26 and 23-kill ace Leutnant Hans Prager of 7./JG 26. The victims came from 4./JG 77 and 5./JG 77.The 377th bombed two tanks later in the day.

Finally, late in the day, the 379th sent 12 planes to the bend in the Seine southwest of Rouen and dumped six-hour delay fuse bombs on three ferry landings to hamper German movements during hours of darkness. “I could see five or six planes on the bomb run at one time,” remembered Lt. Robert Searle. “(The leader) pulled out of the dive on a heading toward the base at Rennes and we all formed up and came home, most of us landing in the twilight. One of the most impressive things about the mission was the almost total lack of radio chatter, with most commands given by a dip of the wing as taught in training but seldom seen during the real thing.” Air and radio discipline aside, the delayed fuses made it impossible to gauge the success of the mission. The 378th caught a convoy of seven trucks in the open and destroyed them.

Messtang – now not as bad as it was…

After about an hour of remedial work last night – masking off ID stripes with Post-It notes, fixing flaws in the metal finish by spraying through keyhole masks, etc. – I brought what was a bit of a wreck back to this:

Which isn’t that bad. It won’t win any contests, but it ought to come out nice enough. This step puts me in the home-stretch stage; next up is the final painting of the spinner and the flaps and then the landing gear.

I do look forward to my next Mustang – I’ve figured out some things with this one (mostly about painting) and I can hardly wait to apply them.

Next Aces Event: Jolly Rogers in South San Francisco Aug. 28

The next Northern California Friends of the Aces event is coming up at the end of this month – August 28, to be precise – and it features seven members of the World War II-era “Jolly Rogers” (VF-17 and VF-18, thanks to number reassignments). I’m going to predict that the panel may feature some interesting debate over the merits of the F4U Corsair and the F6F Hellcat – the squadron took the Corsair to war, but then converted to the Hellcat when it finally went aboard ship. It’s a long story – many of you have probably read the Corsair part of the story as penned by Tom Blackburn in The Jolly Rogers, and I suggest F6F Hellcat Aces of World War II for the Hellcat side.

The panelists are scheduled to be:
CDR Bill Ambrosio (4 victories)
CDR Ted Crosby (5.25 victories)
CAPT Bob Coats (9.33 victories)
CDR Bill Hardy (6.5 victories)
LT Jim Pierce (5.25 victories)
LT Tilly Pool (6 victories)
LCDR Billy Watts (8.75 victories)

The event will be held at the Embassy Suites Hotel, San Francisco Airport, and it costs $35 for the general public. This is another great chance to connect with history; the Friends of the Aces always run a smooth and friendly show. I hope to see you there!

Making a mess out of a Mustang

My Tamiya P-51D-5-NA has received a lot of attention since I returned from the IPMS/USA Nationals in Phoenix – and unfortunately, not all of that attention has been good for the model.

Here’s the sequence of failures that has the model where it sits now:

1. I applied the decals, which I documented here.

2. I applied a coat of Testors metallizer sealer to the model – but my airbrush wasn’t yet cleaned thoroughly enough, so about two-thirds of the way through the process it laid down a metallic-tinged clear coat over the decals – not good.

3. I managed to save the decals by gently wiping the fouled clear coat off them with a cotton swab moistened slightly with lacquer thinner.

4. I cleaned the airbrush throroughly, cursing the entire time.

5. I applied another coat of sealer – and replicated the mistake completely.

6. More cursing.

7. More cleaning.

8. Some more cleaning.

9. I tried to remove the second fouled coat the same way as the first, but now the underlying paint started to show some problems. I haven’t fixed that yet, but I’ll probably carefully mask the decals and spray very small areas with fresh aluminum metallizer. This will probably lead to more of step 6.

10. I removed the masking on the anti-glare panel, and found a bit of metallic overspray. I made “keyhole masks” from post-it notes and applied a fresh coat of olive drab 613 to the affected areas.

11. The base of the windscreen was masked badly on both sides – one had too much aluminum, one had too much olive drab. Carefully, I masked these off again and re-applied the appropriate color. The mask was removed and it looks good (the first pleasant surprise I’ve had in a while).

12. I took off the masking on the identification stripes on the wings and tail and had considerable “underspray” on the bottom sides, and one tail stripe was too narrow. I’ll mask and paint them again.

So, in short, it’s been a frustrating couple of weeks. I just want to get the model done – but not at the expense of it looking good. I was tempted to strip it down and re-do it as a 357th FG plane (lots more green! Lots less metal! Probably nicer decals!), but I’ve come too far to give up now.

I’ve always said that a good modeler can be identified by how well he fixes his mistakes. Now, I’m kind of inclined to say that a good modeler can be identified by all the mistakes he avoids…

An awesome nationals – followed by the usual stupid complaining

I’m back from the nationals, and I can report that it was a fun show that was remarkably smoothly run by the guys from Phoenix. There were virtually no hiccups to be seen on their part, and as a result there was very little drama other than as a result of the contest.

A lot has been written about the show, and a lot of photos can be seen in the gallery section of the Silicon Valley Scale Modelers’ website  including almost every entered model. That’s a lot of photos! The people section shows many of the club’s members at their finest (I mean, in the bar), and the winner’s presentation from the banquet is there, even, so you can find out who won. This was the result of the hard work of John Heck and Vladimir Yakubov, who made sure the “slide show” went without an error. It was truly a smooth show.

There’s a lot of good things to said about this year’s nationals. From the tenor of some of the conversations on Hyperscale, ARC and other on-line sites, there’s also a lot of bad things to be said – criticism, indictments, suggestions posed out of ignorance, and outright falsehoods. It’s especially galling when people rip the show and weren’t even there. (I won’t dignify these morons with links to their posts; that would only give them the attention they hoped for when they launched into their antics.) For instance, over on Hyperscale some yokel tried to take the IPMS to task for not having results and photos up the night of the awards banquet. There are always angry rantings about some model or another that did not win, always posted by someone who has never judged anything, let alone the model in question. And there are oodles of suggestions that the “suggester” is sure that the IPMS will never take because the officers are aloof, arrogant and dictatorial. When you read them, you realize they’d never be employed because they would set in motion a series of unintended consequences that would lead to significant damage to the event.

The thing about the Internet is that it gives everyone a soapbox. It does not require them to do the research needed to inform their comments before they ascend that soapbox, nor does it require them to be intellectually honest. Even in the afterglow of this very successful nationals, I’ve seen the usual suspects take minute, supposedly negative details (like the length of the banquet – which timed in at a very reasonable 2 hours and 5 minutes this year) and use them to attack the elected officers. This sort of spiteful, stupid behavior is where the impression of the “IPMS attitude” of years gone by has its roots. Just think how it looks to non-members: even after an event that gets everything right, by all accounts, there is still a loud mini-minority carping about anything they can find to carp about.

Here’s my promise: if I see any of this behavior, I’m not going to allow those malcontent morons to become the de facto spokesmen for the IPMS. They’re going to get it right back, couched in facts and backed up with statistics. If you’re an IPMS member, I hope you do the same. I’ve had enough of the nitwit, crybaby, criticizing, know-nothing, do-nothing numbskulls trying to rain on our parade at every turn. Enough’s enough.

Except when it comes to shows like this year’s nationals. Enough was not enough – that show could have gone on for two weeks and every moment still would have been fun. Thanks to Steve Collins, Dick Christ, Mike Reeves, Jim Clark, Paul Bradley and the many other members of the organizing board. Remember, guys – if you see me on an Internet forum badgering some snarky naysayer in the next two weeks, I’m doing it for you!