This day, 67 years ago: the 357th wreaks havoc over Gutersloh

On March 24, 1945, the 364th Fighter Squadron was prowling the area west of Gutersloh when it spotted bandits airborne over an aerodrome. “We made a 180-degree turn and dove on their tails,” reported Capt. Paul Hatala. “The enemy aircraft saw us and broke up to fight. I picked out a Bf 109 and started turning with him. I got strikes in the wing. Pieces came off and it went into a dive from 3000 feet. The pilot bailed out and his chute opened.”

Hatala dove on another Bf 109 and sent it careening into the ground. “I looked at my tail and saw another 109 firing away at very close range. I immediately went into a steep turn to the right and dropped flaps. The 109 couldn’t stay with me, so he dropped out. When I leveled out he came in on me so he was set up for a 90-degree deflection shot. I got good hits on his wings and in the cockpit. Hits in his right wing knocked part of the wing off and he dished out and dove into the ground at about an 80-degree angle.”

Hatala spotted a Bf 109 on the tail of a P-51. “I got on the tail of this enemy aircraft and started shooting. I got some strikes on the wing and fuselage. He then leveled out and I gave him another burst. Pieces came off the enemy aircraft and the pilot bailed out.”

Lt. Robert Schimanski was leading White Flight; as the gaggle flew below him, he positioned his flight for a bounce. “I picked out one for myself, put the pipper on him and waited for him to blow up, but I couldn’t wait long enough to put the finishing touches on him,” Schimanski said. “I started turning with another Bf 109, finally catching him on the top of a climbing turn. I hit him in the cockpit and he snapped on his back and tumbled into the ground from about 2000 feet.” Additional victims fell to Lt. Col. Andy Evans, F/O Charles Schneider, Maj. John Storch, and Lts. Stephen Waslyk, Lawrence Westphal, Roland Wright and Gilman Weber.

The 362nd Foghter Squadron heard the radio chatter and headed for the action. “The fight was at 12 o’clock low and we immediately started towards the engagement,” said Capt. Charles Weaver. He entered into a Lufbery, but lost the advantage and dove away. “Finally, I singled out a lone Jerry making haste from the scene of action; I turned and gave chase. My first burst, of three seconds, was at 650 to 700 yards. I observed strikes on the nose and engine cowling. The Bf 109 pulled up in a chandelle to the left and I closed very rapidly, firing a long second burst at 200 yards, noting strikes on the nose, engine, cockpit and all other parts of the enemy aircraft. Pieces were flying thick and fast. The pilot jettisoned his canopy and tried with some difficulty to get out. I gave several short bursts at 50 to 70 yards, at which time the pilot popped out of his cockpit. The Jerry’s chute did not open until he was about 80 feet from the ground. It did not have time to blossom.”

White Flight jumped into the same Lufbery. “I singled one out and got on his tail,” said Lt. William Gruber. “After a few deflection bursts at close range, I closed to about 100 yards dead astern. I put the pipper on the cockpit and fired a long burst of at least six seconds. Flames and black smoke enveloped the whole plane. The Bf 109 turned on its back and plummeted straight into the earth. A large, brilliant red flash followed.”

“I spotted a Bf 109 directly below at 9 o’clock to us and called it in to my flight leader,” said Lt. John Duncan. “He S’ed to the right and came in behind the enemy aircraft, which was turning to the left. Just then I sighted a P-51 with a Bf 109 on his tail shooting like mad. I called my flight leader and broke down on the Jerry’s tail. He pulled in to the left and made a 270 (degree turn). I opened fire at about 400 yards and he started streaming smoke. Then the pilot bailed out, making a delayed jump. I fired on him before his chute opened and believe I hit him.”

The 363rd was flying its own segment of the sweep not far away when they heard about the hunting around Gutersloh. Maj. Robert Foy soon spotted two Bf 109s hugging the deck. “I alerted the squadron and started to dive onto the tail of the enemy aircraft. They apparently saw us diving to attack and one enemy aircraft on the right side of the two-ship formation broke right and I lost sight of him. The lead ship broke left and I continued on to his tail, pulling into range, giving him a short burst. He obligingly straightened out at about 600 feet. I closed in rapidly, giving him short bursts. The last burst clobbered him squarely and he began streaming smoke. He headed toward the deck and made a feeble attempt to crash land. He hit upon his right wing and cartwheeled, tearing the plane to bits.” Foy circled and saw the German pilot running from the crash. He strafed the pilot and killed him, but when he tried to pull up he hit a tree with is left wing, then bounced off a second with his right wing. Foy managed to fly his battered Mustang home.

The day was marred by the death of Otto Jenkins who was killed when his Mustang crashed while returning to base.

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67 years ago: the 362nd goes after the German brass

After the weather grounded the group for almost a week, each squadron in the 362nd Fighter Group flew two full-strength armed recces in areas across the Rhine from Coblenz and Mainz on March 9. All bombs were dropped on rail targets with only fair results. That afternoon, the 377th Fighter Squadron was singled out for a mission attacking German commanders. Intelligence revealed that the German commander in the area had a conference scheduled between 1600 and 1700 in a large building on the island Ziegenburg near Bad Kreuznach. When the 377th arrived in the area, they found clouds and rain; Maj. Loren Herway went down to take a look and discovered a ceiling of only 300 feet, rain, and a large hill next to the target. The squadron ended up dropping bombs and firing rockets on rail targets north of Worms. The 378th conducted an armed reconnaissance around Limburg, destroying one truck after shooting up a 15-car train. Lt. Walter Stewart led a second mission to the rail yard at Diez, where they destroyed three box cars, and Elz, where no results could be observed. The 379th bombed a marshalling yard at Siegen with 500-pounders, but results of the 16-plane strike could not be observed other than the demolition of what was believed to be a power house.

68 Years Ago: The Fourth Fighter Group’s First Trips to Berlin

On 3 March, Don Blakeslee commanded an escort to Berlin, the group’s first trip to the German capitol. Flights from 335 and 336 Squadrons broke off from the main body to fend off enemy aircraft. With nine planes, 336 Squadron got into a battle with 60 enemy fighters and claimed eight victories, but in turn lost Lts. Vermont Garrison, Glenn Herter and Philip “Pappy” Dunn. Herter was lured down by the low element of German fighters and was bounced; he died when his Mustang crashed. Dunn got lost on the way home, and with his radio out and no way to get a vector to cross the Channel he headed for Spain. Dunn had already destroyed an Me 210 during the mission, and eight miles from the border he spotted an He 111. Unable to resist, Dunn shot down the bomber, then ran out of gas as he circled to watch it crash, ending up a POW. The same fate befell Garrison, who managed to destroy two enemy planes with three of his four guns jammed. Unfortunately, his P-51B was hit by flak. Lt. George Barnes was last seen off the Dutch coast on his way home with his engine cutting out badly. He was never seen again.

The next day, the group returned to Berlin. Just before the bombers reached the initial point, 20 Bf 109s and Fw 190s swarmed in to attack, eight from head on in two sections with the others as top cover. After the first eight made their attacks, the top cover dove on the Fourth. Lt. Hugh Ward of 335 Squadron gave chase to a Bf 109 in a dive. “I opened fire as he started a slow turn to the left. I observed strikes on his wing root. He realized the situation and flicked over, and he dove straight down with me on his tail. I gave him a three-second burst with good strikes. He continued straight down, heading for heavy clouds as I began to overrun him. I pulled back on the throttle and gave him another blast. I got a heavy concentration of strikes all over his cockpit and engine covering. I kept firing as the Bf 109 started to come apart. I attempted to back off but was too late. A large section of the enemy aircraft smashed my canopy and windscreen, and it must have sheared off most of my tail section. My plane began to snap viciously, end-over-end, and my right wing snapped off. I was stunned momentarily, but I managed to jettison my canopy. I pulled my harness release, which threw me out of the cockpit. I delayed opening my chute because of the speed, and I fell through the cloud layer. I opened my chute just in time. I landed in the suburbs of Berlin and I was captured by civilians.”

Nicholas “Cowboy” Megura was behind Ward. “At 18,000 feet, the P-51’s wing came off at the root and disintegrated. The canopy and tail came off as I dodged past. Pieces carried away my antenna and hit my stabilizer.”

Megura’s controls were frozen by compressability, and he had to use trim to pick up the nose. “The only evasive action taken by the enemy aircraft was a weave to right or left. I barrel-rolled and positioned myself 1000 feet above and to the side of him. I dropped flaps and dove astern. This engagement brought us down to 2000 feet. Just as I was about to fire, the enemy aircraft pulled up sharply 3000 feet and jettisoned its canopy. The pilot bailed out. The enemy aircraft crashed and burned.” Clearing his tail, Megura discovered he was over a grass aerodrome, and he strafed and set fire to a Ju 52, then strafed a locomotive pulling 10 or 12 cars. “Seeing that it was time to ‘leave out,’ I set course for home.”

Don Gentile had what he described as a “hairy” day. “I took off with my wingman Johnny Godfrey, and the rest of the flight was to join me, but due to weather we never met,” he wrote in an account found on the back of his log book.

They broke overcast at 33,000 feet after flying instruments for an hour. “After being on course for a couple hours still no one joined us, so we decided to continue on alone. When we were approximately 100 miles from the target the weather seemed to clear up as if you would take a knife and cut it. In the distance I spotted approximately 50 Do 217s in formation climbing for altitude and above them were about 100 Fw 190s. They were getting ready to attack the ‘Big Boys’ head on. I called Johnny and asked him if he wanted to go ahead and attack knowing there were no other friendly fighters in this area. So, as usual, Johnny said ‘You’re the boss.’”

Gentile went for the Do 217s, hoping to disrupt their formation so the bombers could unload before the German fighters could get reorganized. “I began firing at tail end ‘Charlie’ and the Do’s started diving for the deck. About this time Johnny started screaming that the 100-plus Fw’s were coming down on us The Do’s were cross-firing on us at the same time. I had one Do smoking badly when I had to break away due to the 100+ coming in on us. Johnny and I met them head on going through the complete German formation; from then on all hell broke loose,” said Gentile.

“Planes were going up and down and every which way. I thought this was it. In the midst of twisting and turning I managed to get on an Fw, who overshot me, and was lucky enough to get him. Johnny started to scream (that) 50 more were coming in at 6 o’clock, so I started to aileron roll for the deck. I had to pull up in a vertical climb into the Fw’s. At this time I noticed a brightly-painted Fw on my tail blazing away and Johnny screaming for me to break. I broke so hard that my plane started doing snap-rolls; when I got the aircraft under control the Fw was slightly ahead and above with me on his tail diving and twisting, which lasted a good 10 minutes. I managed to get his aircraft on fire and noticed he had it, so I broke away.” With their ammunition gone, the two headed for home. “We had to dive for the clouds with them on our tail, skidding at the same time. By the grace of God we reached the cloud bank, and after flying instruments for a while we let down through (the bottom of the cloud deck). During the combat I lost my maps so I didn’t know my position, and Johnny didn’t know either so we took the general direction home.”

Gentile and Godfrey landed at Hurn Airdrome, all but out of gas. “Thank God for a good wingman, or I wouldn’t be able to write this today.”

During the mission, Paul Ellington suffered an engine failure and bailed out; he became a POW. On the return home, Lt. Robert Richards was killed in a crash-landing at the advanced base at Framlingham.