This day, 67 years ago: The 332nd nails 11 over Bavaria

On 18 July, 1944, Lee Rayford led 66 Mustangs of the 332nd Fighter Group to their briefed rendezvous point over southern Germany, but the bombers of the 5th Bomb Wing, scheduled to strike the Luftwaffe base at Memmingen in Bavaria, were nowhere to be found. Rayford decided to orbit in the Undine-Treviso area, which was already known to be a hotbed of Luftwaffe activity. As the bombers approached, the Mustang pilots spotted a swarm of 30 to 35 Bf 109s to the right of the formation. The fighters attacked in groups from three o’clock high and five o’clock low, then split-S’ed away. 21 of the Mustangs rushed to break up the attack, destroying 11 of the German fighters.

Once this threat had been dealt with, he formation continued over Austria, but over the target, 30 to 40 enemy planes – mainly Bf 109s, Fw 190s and Me 410s – were sighted.”We must have spread them from here to Christmas in every direction,” said Stanley Harris, who was forced to dive for safety to elude four Fw 190s glued to his tail.”We must have spread them from here to Christmas in every direction,” said Stanley Harris, who was forced to dive for safety to elude four Fw 190s glued to his tail. Eventually, four Fw 190s swooped in to attack and two were shot down.

The tally for the day was impressive, with Clarence “Lucky” Lester bagging three, Jack Holsclaw two and Lee Archer, Charles Bailey, Walter Palmer, Roger Romine, Ed Toppins and Hugh Warner one apiece.

Palmer’s victim was a Bf 109, which he hit with several short bursts after it had made a pass on the bombers. “On the second or third burst I noticed the engine smoking heavily, so I broke it off because there were others to shoot down,” he later wrote. Palmer closed in on a second Bf 109, but his guns jammed. He considered chopping off the enemy fighter’s tail with his propeller, but the Bf 109 headed into a cloud bank shrouding the tops of the Alps, convincing Palmer to break off the pursuit.

Toppins destroyed his opponent by diving at him at a speed so high that when he pulled out, he warped the fuselage of his fighter – the Mustang had to be scrapped after the mission. Two more P-51s were lost during the fray, with Lt. Gene Browne surviving to be taken prisoner and Lt. Wellington G. Irving being killed in action. Oscar Hutton was also lost when his Mustang was hit by a drop tank jettisoned by another P-51.

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67 years ago: Ed Fisher of the 362nd FG bags three

The 362nd Fighter Group’s pattern of bringing bombs along on escort missions continued on July 5, 1944, when all three squadrons escorted B-26s to the ammunition dump at Senonches. About two-thirds of the P-47s brought 500-pounders with them, which they used on rail targets and targets of opportunity. The escorting P-47s were bounced by a gaggle of as many as 30 Bf 109s. Lt. William B. King was leading Blue Flight of the 377th, and over Senouches he noticed four enemy fighters behind his flight. King called the flight to break left. “Later I noticed Lt. (Robert) Day’s plane to be smoking, and when I flew alongside him I saw his plane had one wheel shot down, and the wing and tail shot up, especially the elevators,” King said. “At the time he was headed toward the beachhead with the bombers. Then, the elevator cables seemed to suddenly snap and his plane went into a dive and I saw Lt. Day bail out at 8000 feet. I last saw him go into the overcast at 4000 feet with his unopened parachute streaming above him.” Day’s plane, P-47D-20-RE 42-76442, crashed near the village of St. Evroult; Day’s parachute failed to open and he was killed.

The 379th was near St. Evrault when it encountered enemy fighters. One of them knifed through one flight; “the first realization I had that anything was wrong was when I looked over to see Lt. (Ken) McCleary, who had just rolled over and broke down without a word,” said Lt. Harold Welleck. “The Bf 109 had rolled and broke the other way. I called the flight leader and said that our No. 3 man had been bounced by a Spitfire or Bf 109 and had broken down. Evidently, my message was not received or understood. I called again and said that our No. 3 man was gone. We looked around but both ships had disappeared. The flight leader called Lt. McCleary, asking his position. Lt. McCleary answered that he was in the clouds and said something slese that was not quite clear. That was the last time we heard from him, although we called him again and again.” McCleary, flying P-47D-22-RE 42-25843, became a POW, but Lt. Edwin Fisher bagged one of the Messerschmitts in return.

After dinner, the group carried out an armed reconnaissance of the Argentan-Chartres area, bombing and strafing rail cars and cutting tracks. The 377th saw 15 Fw 190s tangling with a few blue-nosed P-47s and dove into the fray, with Lt. Fisher and Lt. Roy Barker knocking down three of the German fighters with no loss to themselves. Fisher’s kills were his second and third. The 378thconducted an armed reconnaissance around LeMans, Chartres and Evreaux, catching five trucks and a scout car in the open and destroying them.

The Fourth Fighter Group in the Mediterranean Theatre

The Fourth Fighter Group was “volunteered” to fly a fighter sweep in advance of a 15th Air Force strike on Budapest on 2 July, 1944, primarily because the 332nd Fighter Group was occupied in transitioning into P-51s. The Fourth was in Italy, conveniently, on the second leg of the shuttle mission, having flown from Britain to Russia earlier in the week, then escorting bombers to Italy.

When the Fourth’s 45 Mustangs reached the target, a swarm of 80 German planes and 18 Hungarian Bf 109s met the group and a swirling dogfight erupted. The group destroyed eight fighters, including three that fell to Capt. Howard Hively. After destroying his first victim, a 20mm shell exploded just outside his canopy, sending fragments of glass into the right side of Hively’s face and injuring his eye. He pressed the attack and destroyed two more, in part because Lt. Grover Siems spotted a Bf 109 on his tail and dove in to attack it, sending it down in flames, only to be attacked himself. Siems was injured in the shoulder, neck and chin and was forced to return to Foggia. He landed there, unable open his canopy, and was ignored by the airfield personnel until he fired his guns. Several mechanics removed Siems from his plane, but he was so weak from blood loss he couldn’t move. The medics covered him with a sheet and sent him to the morgue, and only when Siems was able to wiggle a finger did an orderly notice him and give him a blood transfusion.

Capt. William Hedrick destroyed a Bf 109 and damaged another, while Frank Jones and Don Blakeslee destroyed single planes. Capt. Joe Higgins and Lt. Don Emerson shared another Bf 109.

George Stanford’s wing tanks refused to drop when the 90-plane gaggle was spotted. Instead of aborting, he and wingman Ralph Hofer pressed the attack, and the extra throttle Stanford used to compensate for the tanks caused his engine to throw a rod. Stanford radioed Frank Jones to take the lead, then bellied into a wheat field in Yugoslavia. Hofer buzzed him to make sure he was all right, but when Stanford looked up he saw Bf 109 trailing Hofer. Hofer apparently shook his pursuer, but records unearthed in 2003 revealed that he then strafed Mostar-Sud airfield, where 4.Batterie/Flak Regiment 9 “Legion Condor” shot down and killed Hofer. Stanford became a POW, as did Lt. J.C. Norris; Thomas Sharp, who also had trouble releasing his wing tanks, was shot down and killed.

The group provided escort for heavy bombers hitting a marshalling yard at Arad, Yugoslavia on 3 July. The next day, Blakeslee led the rest of the group back from Italy by way of an escort to the marshalling yard at Beziers, France and then back to Debden. All the planes that embarked from Italy returned to England safely, many laden with souvenirs for the men who remained at Debden during the group’s foray afield.

It wasn’t until 6 July when the last nine late arrivals from Russia returned to England. Of the 65 planes that started the trip, 52 made it back.