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.

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