68 years ago: the 357th FG downs 19 on a mission to Liepzig

The 357th Fighter Group had gone through a long dry spell before a mission to Liepzig on 29 June 1944, but they would make up for lost time this day. About 20 miles southwest of the target, the 364th’s Red Flight engaged a batch of Bf 109s, with the lead element attacking the German fighters while the second element provided top cover against an ambush. The ambush came, and Capt. Rick Smith was shot down and killed in the ensuing dogfight.

“Bud” Anderson was leading the 363rd, riding herd on the second box of bombers between Brunswick and Magdeburg. After combat began ahead of the squadron, “we dropped our tanks and started forward when eight Fw 190s went under me,” said Anderson. “They crossed in front of the low squadron of bombers and turned left flying our formation, mocking escort. It looked like a trap as eight more came down and bounced our second section. They turned into them and seemed to be doing OK, so our section went down on the ones below. I picked the leader, gave him a short burst from about 350 yards dead astern, got quite a few hits. He did a roll to the right and straightened out, skidding violently. The canopy flew off and he snapped over on his back, bailing out.

“I then saw another one heading for the clouds. He ducked in, but it was thin and I could see him once in a while, so I followed. He came out in a clear spot and I attacked from the rear, closing to 150 yards and getting quite a few hits. The canopy flew off, the pilot started to climb out, but settled back into the cockpit. I flew alongside and saw fire break out in the cockpit. He slowly rolled over and went straight in from about 8000 feet, making a huge explosion.

“My wingman came alongside and we started to climb back when another Fw 190 came out of the thin overcast 90 degrees to our course and behind us and above. We circled around on his tail, climbing after him. I cut him off, closed in and started firing. I didn’t get hits at first, so I slid around dead astern and got a few good hits. He then took his first evasive action, pulling up through the clouds. I followed, firing. He went down through it again, I got some hits in the cockpit area. The Fw 190 then did a violent snap roll to the right followed by a tight spin. Streamers were coming off his wingtips and tail surfaces and he spun right in, exploding. No chute came out.”

Blue Flight, with Don Bochkay leading, was flying just above Green Flight, and just after the four Mustangs dropped their tanks and started to turn, Bochkay looked into the sun and spotted “four Fw 190s coming down on us followed by four Bf 109s,” he said. “They went past us and broke into Green Flight, dead astern.”

“They fired and passed over the top of my flight, making a turn to cut us off,” said Capt. Robert Foy, who was Green Leader. “I called for (Blue Flight) to break right and I put 20 degrees of flaps down and cut my throttle, maneuvering to the rear of the enemy aircraft. I pulled up on the tail of the rear Fw 190. I fired at him (and) observed strikes all over the fuselage and wing, at which time he straightened out and bailed out in level flight.”

At the same time, Bochkay lined up the lead Fw 190 and fired; the German pilot split-S’ed and fled. Foy saw a P-51 being chased by a Bf 109 “just off at about 3 o’clock to me and low,” he said. “I pulled up and dived, pulling up below his tail. I followed him for about 15 seconds in close trail with him. I pulled up and fired two short bursts, observing strikes on his right wing and beneath the fuselage. The Bf 109 immediately broke to the left, did one rather fast roll, and (the pilot) bailed out.”

Foy called to his wingman and received no answer, then radioed his element leader, who replied that he’d lost Foy when he went after the Bf 109. “I pulled into a sharp left turn and saw a ship on my tail. I pulled into a tighter turn and started to spin into the overcast, recovering after about two turns. I pulled my flaps down, cut my throttle and continued turning to the left. I had completed about three-fourths of a 360-degree turn when a Bf 109 cut across in front of me at a fast rate of speed. I gave it full throttle, pulling up on his tail. I fired one burst, observing strikes on the right wing. The enemy aircraft did a split-S and I followed him. He pulled out of range in a vertical dive; I glanced at my air speed, which indicated well over 550 mph. The Bf 109 was still pulling away from me. I pulled out at 3000 feet and the Bf 109 was still in a vertical (dive). I climbed up to 6000 feet and circled the immediate area. I did not see the enemy aircraft hit the ground, but there was a spot on the ground that looked as if either a bomb or an airplane had gone in.”

Bochkay had spotted another Bf 109 trying to dive to safety, and this time he stuck to his quarry. When he fired, “(the Bf 109’s) ammunition started to explode, tearing bits and pieces from both wings. The pilot then bailed out doing close to 600 mph; he delayed his opening. At 4000 feet the ship caught fire and crashed.”

Lt. William Overstreet found himself behind an Fw 190 and opened fire; “when I started getting hits he flipped over and bailed out,” he later wrote.

In all, the group scored 19 victories. In addition to the kills by Anderson, Bochkay, Overstreet and Foy, additional single scores went to Capts. John Pugh, Fred Smith, John Howell, and Mark Stepleton and Lts. Raymond Staude, and Gerald Tyler. Lts. Merle Allen and William Fennell shared a kill, and Capts. James Browning and Charles Summer each scored two


68 years ago: the 362nd FG puts an umbrella over Cherbourg

On June 22, 1944, the 362nd Fighter Group bombed targets around Cherbourg in the face of ferocious anti-aircraft fire. The 379th Fighter Squadron strafed flak guns; Art Wilcke’s plane picked up flak damage and he force-landed on the beach. The 378th’s Major Sherwin Desens was hit by flak and bailed out of P-47D-16 42-76125 near St. Mere Eglise, returning to the group 24 hours later. Yellow Flight of the 378th dropped its bombs and headed out of the area at low level to try to dodge some of the flak. “Lt. (Carl) Haering called in and said, ‘Yellow Three headed south,’” reported Lt. Wilfred Crutchfield. “He pulled up over us about 50 feet and was heading south toward our lines on the deck when I last saw him. When he pulled up, they started firing at him, but as far as I could tell he got back down on the deck before he was hit again.” Haering’s plane was in fact crippled; he bailed out of P-47D-16 42-76523 near Brix and evaded capture with the help of the underground.  2ndLt. William Hamlin bailed out over friendly territory from P-47D-15-RE 42-76266.

In the afternoon, the 377th returned to the rail bridge at Mantes, the 378th to the airfield at St. Andre del ‘Eure, and the 379th to the railroad line at Epernon. William King of the 377th didn’t get to make the trip; he suffered an accident during takeoff and damaged P-47D 42-75582. During the missions, the group disposed of three enemy fighters. Lt. Gordon Larsen of the 379thdowned a Bf 109, swooping in and dispatching it without dropping his bombs, and Jim Ashford almost got a second – but it would have come at a cost. “We were always told that, if you were all ready to start shooting at a guy you’d better check your six o’clock before you started shooting because there’s likely to be a guy back there getting a bead on you and getting ready to shoot you,” he said. “I had this guy nailed. It was only about a five-degree deflection shot, I was in range. Everything was just perfect. I would have hammered this guy. Just before I pulled the trigger I looked behind, and there was a guy I could see who had me in his sights. I know that because I could see his belly and that means he had a little lead on me! I did an immediate break, but I heard his guns go off. I picked up two holes, but that was all. So the guy out in front of me got off scot-free, but by the same token so did I!”

Later, Lt. Crutchfield’s flight from the 378thwas flying top cover for the dive-bombers while they attacked road traffic. A 20mm battery opened up on the bombers, so Crutchfield dove on the position and put a short burst into the gun pit. “This quieted the 20mm down, so we pulled up again and started climbing out covering the squadron while they formed again,” Crutchfield said. At about 6000 feet, “I saw three ships climbing up in the opposite direction at about the same altitude. At first I thought they were P-47s, but they started to turn to be in a bouncing position and I recognized them as Fw 190s. I started to break to get onto their tails, but they broke up hard and my No. 3 man (Lt. Richard Law) called them as Fw 190s at the same time. One of them broke down as the other two broke up so I was leery of a trap.”

While watching the low Fw 190, Crutchfield lost some ground on the high pair. When he lost the low Fw 190 in the undercast, he looked ahead and saw that Law “was slightly inside of me shooting at the No. 2 Hun. I observed good hits on the fuselage and saw the Hun break out of the Lufberry and start down with Lt. Law right after him.”

“The Jerry then reversed his turn and back to the left toward the cloud layer, and I got another deflection shot,” reported Law. “He was streaming black, thick smoke when I last saw him, and he was going straight down through the clouds, which were at about 3000 feet on top. I was indicating over 400 mph when he flipped over and went down. As I had no wingman, I pulled up and back into the area of the flight, but no one was in sight, so I hit the road for home.”

Meanwhile, Crutchfield reefed his P-47 in, pulled the nose up and in about three quarters of a turn almost had his guns on the other Fw 190 when the German fighter rolled inside the turn and broke down, toward St. Andre Airfield. “As my nose was high at the time the Hun got about 600 yards away before I could get on him again, but I closed to 500 yards,: said Crutchfield. “He was taking evasive action by kicking rudder, but was doing the same thing all the time so I picked out a spot on the left of his pattern and fired a long burst and, sure enough, he fell right into it. I observed seven or eight hits around the cockpit and immediately he started taking a different kind of evasive action, but still in a pattern. I picked out another spot and let him have another burst, observing more hits, but this time he quit jumping around and his nose fell down into a steep dive. My wingman had stayed with me until I straightened out to chase the Hun but, as he didn’t have a paddle prop, I ran off and left him. I gave him a call but I couldn’t get an answer so I broke off hard to the left and spotted him at around 1500 feet. I was practically on the deck at the time. When I last saw the Hun he was at 500 feet and was going down to the ground in a 50-degree dive. I lost sight of him for a second, but when I turned around I saw that the plane had hit the ground and was on fire. I then pulled up to join my wingman and headed for home.”

Crutchfield was providing cover for P-47s carrying an unusual mix of three 250-pound bombs. Blue flight dropped its bombs, then began strafing ground targets. “I was giving cross cover to Lt. (Alva) Bessey, who was flying Blue Three,” said Lt. Howard Kelgard. “(He) called in that he had been hit. Suddenly, I observed an explosion in the ground relative to his position.” Bessey was killed in the crash of P-47D 42-68179.

On his return home, Lt. William Boughton ground-looped P-47D 42-75188, creating additional work for the harried ground crews. The 379th’s Lt. Robert Kelso had his Thunderbolt peppered by flak during the evening mission and crash-landed in an orchard at High Halden, England when his engine failed, bringing an end to the combat career of P-47D 42-76235 (B8*R).


The Battle of Midway, plus 70: five great reads

Today marks the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Midway. On this date, the U.S. destroyed four carriers and cut the heart out of the Japanese Kido Butai. It would be two more years before the Japanese Navy was completely defeated, and another year after that before Japan would surrender, but Midway was the event that signaled the turning of the tide and the end of the period of perceived Japanese invincibility.

There are several books that deal with Midway that are well worth reading and which can fill you in on the details of the battle:

1. A Glorious Page in Our History, by Robert Cressman, Steve Ewing, Barrett Tillman, Mark Horan, Clark Reynolds and Stan Cohen

Assemble a team of aviation history all-stars and this is what you get: the authoritative overview of the battle, focusing on the American side. This book is comprehensive, down to rosters of every American unit participating in the battle (except VB-8 and VS-8, a minor omission) including crew names and aircraft numbers. Modelers seeking to build American Midway planes should find this invaluable, but it’s also an exciting narrative, with many personal stories and first-hand accounts – plus, plenty of good photographs of the battle.

2. Shattered Sword: the Untold Story of the Battle of Midway, by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully

Any holes left by A Glorious Page are filled by this remarkable book, which explores the battle from the Japanese point of view and explodes myths about the decisions made by Admiral Nagumo. The image of bombs bursting on flight decks crowded with Japanese planes is familiar to us – but totally incorrect. Likewise, the delay in launching Tone’s No. 4 scout is viewed as the reason the Japanese failed to launch a strike against the American carriers before the Kaga, Akagi and Soryu were hit, but an analysis of the times of launches and reports shows otherwise. This book gives a detailed description of what happened aboard the Japanese carriers, from the locations of bomb hits to the agonizing deaths the carriers suffered. It also outlines Japanese carrier landing procedures, attack strategies and the personal stories of the Japanese participants in the battle.

3. The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway, by John Lundstrom

The comprehensive book on early-war U.S. Naval fighter action, Lundstrom captures the small-town nature of the navy and how roughly 320 fighter pilots held off the Japanese Navy, culminating in the actions of Jimmy Thach’s section at Midway and the ferocious defense of the Yorktown by the American combat air patrol. Minutely detailed and intensively researched, the book also includes an exhaustive examination of the development of the Beam Defense Maneuver (or “Thach Weave”), which was employed for the first time in combat at Midway. The Midway section also includes rosters of the Japanese attackers, and there’s a very nice section covering Japanese combat tactics and formations.

4. No Higher Honor: The USS Yorktown at the Battle of Midway, by Jeff Nesmith

A very readable history of the ship, focusing largely on its final battle, casts a light on the humanity and the character of the crew of the Yorktown. Although it repeats some of the great Midway myths – probably from taking Mitsuo Fuchida’s deeply flawed Midway: the Battle that Doomed Japan at face value – the stories of the crew and their heroism under fire is well worth the read. The tale of the battle to save Yorktown is well told here; ultimately, it took three Japanese attacks to sink her.

5. Beyond Pearl Harbor: The Untold Stories of Japan’s Naval Aviators, by Ron Werneth

There are plenty of books about American aviators, but Ron Werneth’s tome is one of the few with long-form accounts of Japanese aviator’s careers in their own words. The book includes the stories of Zero ace Iyozo Fujita, D3A1 pilots Kiyoto Furuta and Zenji Abe, Akagi maintenance officer Hiroshi Suzuki, B5N2 pilot Taisuke Maruyama and mechanic Kaname Shimoyama, and A6M2 pilots Kaname Harada and Yoshio Shiga. There are many other accounts as well. It’s worth reading to compare the Japanese airmen’s accounts to those of American flyers’ because, other than the sides they were on, the accounts have haunting similarities. These lucky survivors of the war were few when Werneth, a fluent Japanese speaker, went to Japan to record their words, and there are far fewer now, making this book a priceless contribution to the history of the Pacific War.