This day in 1944: The 379th FS loses Hugh Houghton, and Bob McKee makes a narrow escape

The 362nd Fighter Group paid a visit to the rail yards at Valenciennes on the morning of May 10, 1944, bringing along an ample supply of 500-pound bombs. The 378thwas led by Capt. Sherwin Desens, but his plane was hit by flak over St. Omer at 11,000 feet and his engine quit. He jettisoned the canopy, “getting a face full of oil in the process,” and he bailed out 3000 feet over the English Channel. When he hit the water, he quickly located his CO2 bottle and dinghy and inflated it. Seeing Spitfires overhead, he fired his flare pistol and they started circling him. Soon, he was rescued by an RAF Walrus flying boat and brought back to England. Capt. Thurman Morrison’s plane was hit by flak over Dunkirk and he was forced to return to base.

After that rough morning, the group executed an afternoon attack on the Champagne airfield near Reims using its own tactics and dropping a combination of 500-pounders, fragmentation bombs, smoke bombs and phosphorus incendiaries. The phosphorus bombs were impressive but they made it impossible to asses the damage to the target. The 379th flew as top cover, and after the other squadrons had bombed it dropped down to  strafe the remaining planes; Lt. Gordon Larsen damaged a Ju 88 and Lt. Madison Putnam damaged a Do 217 during their attacks. Capt. Hugh Houghton and Lt. Ken McCleary went down to strafe; “we started a left turn after strafing a hangar when I noticed a glow in Capt. Houghton’s cockpit, which I realized was a fire,” McCleary said. “His aircraft rolled into a vertical bank and slipped into the ground.” Lt. Gerald Major saw Houghton’s P-47D-16 42-75867 “Curtain Call” (B8*5) hit the ground with “a big flash, and it continued burning on the ground.”

Robert McKee was also in Houghton’s flight. As the shaken McCleary joined up with McKee’s wingman, “I remained on the deck in an attempt to avoid the continuing intense flak as I slowly began a turn to the northwest,” McKee later wrote. “About three miles from the airfield, I flew over a small hill and discovered a long train of boxcars moving northward, almost perpendicular to my course. I still had some ammunition remaining for my eight .50 caliber machine guns. With my gun switches and gun sight still on, I waited until I was 1000 feet from the train before I commenced firing from about 200 feet of altitude.

“Simultaneous with my opening fire, all side panels on each side of this train dropped open with their 20mm and 40mm antiaircraft guns firing on our three aircraft. Their opening salvo hit the leading edge of my right wing root and another round hit the right lower side of my engine. I continued spraying my gunfire at these boxcars while inbound, hoping to quiet them down somewhat. After passing over the train, I quickly managed to hide behind another low hill, still being fired upon but not hit. I soon noticed that I had lost some engine power and after getting out of the range of this train’s guns, I began a slow climb to a safe bailout altitude, if that became necessary.

“I eventually managed to level off at 1500 feet but was only able to maintain 155 mph maximum airspeed,” McKee wrote. “The remaining aircraft rejoined squadron formation and continued on without me. I flew on towards England alone with my canopy open, climbing to 2000 feet in case I had to make a quick exit.

“The slower airspeed extended my flight time home for rest of my return flight to England and caused me concern about my fuel supply. It was going to be close. It seemed to take forever, but eventually I had our home base in sight. As I made plans for a long straight-in approach to the runway, I descended to 1000 feet.

“Life is full of surprises and now I faced another one! The engine quit and I was still two miles from the runway. I tried switching fuel tanks with the help of the fuel booster, to no avail. Within a few seconds I was down to 500 feet and flying over many wooded sections of British countryside. I selected two small adjoining fields, about 45 degrees to my left. They were separated by a hedgerow that I hoped I would be able to plow through while making a belly landing into the first one. As I approached the field, I found that the approach side had a row of 70-foot trees that seemed to quickly loom up and above the nose of my aircraft.”

McKee recalled a conversation he had with a civilian instructor many years before involving a pilot intentionally cartwheeling a plane to avoid an obstacle like a fence, with the thinking being that the impact would be distributed around the pilot. Because the P-47 was just above stall speed, McKee knew that if he pulled to miss the fence he’d stall and crash. “Without hesitation, I moved my flight control stick to the left, dipping my left wing about 45 degrees. I then crossed both arms in front of my head and held tightly to the top of the instrument panel. I heard the crunching of tree branches as I felt the sudden deceleration of the aircraft. I sneaked a peek to my left and saw the left wing fold up and inwards as it impacted the ground. I felt the engine’s ground impact force, which threw my head against the right side of the canopy. At this point I closed my eyes and held on tight, feeling a lot of tumbling going on.”

The plane did not catch fire; when McKee opened his eyes, he saw no flames but instead “saw blood everywhere,” he wrote. “It seems that, when I hit my head against the canopy, I had received a long cut above the right eye that had spurted blood around as I turned my head to look about. I tried to slide the canopy open, but found it to be jammed by the fuselage’s twisted metal and would only open about six inches. I almost panicked at this point because I could also see that a lot of red hydraulic fluid had splashed throughout the cockpit and, being concerned that I was going to lose consciousness due to loss of blood, I was afraid of fire erupting before I could get out. I grabbed the control stick with both hands and, squeezing it hard, said aloud to myself, ‘now, hold onto yourself, Mac!’”

Five British antiaircraft gunners raced to the scene and extricated McKee from his smashed Thunderbolt. He suffered the gash on his eyebrow and a broken ankle, probably caused the by the rudder pedal when the tail of his plane was torn off.

Lt. Gerald Majors’ plane was also hit by flak, but he was able to nurse the plane home. On return to base, one of the 378th’s planes had a hung fragmentation bomb, which detonated on landing. The pilot escaped but the plane was a write-off, and it blocked the runway; only Col. Morton Magoffin was able to land. The rest of the squadron flew to Woodchurch, where Lt. John R. Lovett’s hung-up smoke bomb detonated, flipping the P-47D 42-75246 on its back and inflicting a broken back and cuts on Lovett’s face, under his arms and on his legs. Even so, once the fire-fighting crew jacked the plane enough to allow him out of the cockpit, his first request was for a cigar. Lovett was evacuated to the U.S. for recuperation from his injuries. Lt. Robert Kennedy was unhurt when his plane, P-47D 42-22773, crashed at Headcorn on his return from the continent; Lt. Joseph Lane of the 377thbanged up P-47D 42-76442 in a ground loop on his arrival.

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