68 years ago: the 362nd FG loses Lt. Conatser

After several days of rain, each squadron in the 362nd Fighter Group flew two armed recces around Saarbrucken, Kaiserlautern, Marzig and Koblenz on September 27, 1944, destroying a total of 22 locomotives and three damaged, plus lots of torn-up track and a number of motor vehicles destroyed. Flak was exceptionally intense. “We had just reformed after strafing a convoy or armored cars and were headed out when suddenly Lt. (Jack) Conatser did a wing-over and started down on some vehicles,” said Lt. Robert Clees of the 377th Fighter Squadron. “I saw him strafe and pull up. I then strafed, and when I pulled up I saw Lt. Conatser’s plane burning in the belly. He was at about 500 feet at the time. I called and told him his plane was on fire and to get out of it, but received no answer. I saw the plane slide off on a wing and head down. It looked as though at the last minute he tried to pull out of it but he stalled and snap-rolled into the ground.” Conatser’s plane, P-47D-28 42-28658 “Eunice-Louise II,” crashed in the Ruckert District of the town of Wendel and exploded, killing the Oklahoman.

The 379th Fighter Squadron sent 12 planes to the Saarbrucken area, where they bombed tracks and destroyed two locomotives by strafing and a third by dive-bombing. A later mission sent 16 Thunderbolts of the 378th Fighter Squadron back to the same area, where they strafed and destroyed seven locomotives and four cars.

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68 years ago: the 357th FG slugs it out with JG 11 over Arnhem

The 357th Fighter Group fought an epic battle covering the Market Garden landings on Sept. 17, 1944; the next day, things got even hotter. The group fought three distinct squadron-sized actions to cover transports dropping supplies and men into the Arnhem area. The 364th Fighter Squadron was southeast of Arnhem when White Flight, an understrength group led by Capt. Bryce McIntyre and including Lts. Jerome Jacobs and Howard Moebius, became separated from the rest of the squadron, according to McIntyre, who claimed a Bf 109 for the mission but was himself shot down and made a prisoner. The three were engaged by three Bf 109s, and went into a Lufbery with them, the Bf 109s going one way and the Mustangs going the other. After about three turns, the Bf 109s broke off, and the P-51s gave chase; one wheeled around and came head-on at Jacobs, who fired and watched his target explode violently. Jacobs turned to watch the debris and saw 15 more enemy aircraft going the opposite direction. He tried to reach the safety of some clouds, but suddenly his Mustang exploded. He clambered from the flaming cockpit, burned on the face; dazed, he thought he would wait to emerge from the clouds to pull the rip cord, then came to his senses and yanked it. His chute opened and he immediately hit the ground. He was captured by some German soldiers and taken to a hospital.

Moebius found himself in a turning circle with 12 to 14 fighters, and scored hits on the fighter in front of him, but couldn’t take time to watch when it fell away toward the ground. He tightened his turn and caught a second plane, scoring hits until it burst into flame. Meanwhile, an element of German fighters circled the fight and made diving attacks on Moebius; one burst struck his wing, blasting open the ammunition doors and setting the wing on fire. Fearing a fuel tank explosion, Moebius jettisoned the canopy and jumped; he found himself spinning wildly, but by putting out his arms he slowed down. At 1500 feet, he opened his chute, only to be lined up by two Bf 109s that began firing at him. He dumped some air from the chute; the bullets hit the shroud, but missed the pilot.

Moebius landed in plowed field and hid in a rhubarb patch for a few minutes, but his tight G-suit caused cramps in his legs and he started to get up. Suddenly, he saw a little boy motioning him to stay down. The boy pointed in the direction of a German soldier, and Moebius slowly crawled into a ditch behind the rhubarb patch. That night, a member of the resistance found the pilot, who ended up with the Dutch for the next five months.

Although White Flight had been wiped out, it took out five planes in the process. Lts. Dwaine Sanborn, Chester Maxwell and Byron Braley also added fighters to the 364th’s haul.

The 362nd heard frantic transmissions that indicated a fight was under way and headed for it. They ran across a melee between German and U.S. fighters several miles away in an arena-like opening in the clouds. Capt. Arval Roberson took his four planes to the edge of the fight. He spotted a Bf 109 below him and banked over, then fired; flames began pouring from the cockpit and it fell away toward the ground.

Roberson and his wingman, Lt. Charles Goss, spotted another Bf 109 that had just made a pass at a P-51. Roberson fired a short burst and saw the bullets tear into the Bf 109’s tail, then pulled more lead and let fly a burst that punched holes in the German’s nose, letting loose a stream of coolant and smoke. Roberson kept firing, but felt a stall coming on; he pushed the plane to the left and leveled out, but when he turned back toward his target it was gone. At Roberson’s 10 o’clock was another Bf 109 in a steep climb; Roberson called for Goss to take him, but the pilot didn’t respond or move toward the German fighter, so Roberson banked after it and tried to turn hard enough to get a shot. Suddenly, strikes exploded all over the Bf 109; another P-51 had cut across the turn and taken the fighter. Roberson broke hard right to avoid the other Mustang. Later, Goss confirmed the second Bf 109, giving Roberson six kills and making him an ace.

The 363rd encountered 12 Bf 109s coming toward them from their 3 o’clock position. Unknown to the Mustang pilots, these aircraft, from 7./JG 11 and 8./JG 11, had spotted a single F-5 Lightning reconnaissance aircraft and had dived to intercept it. In turn, the 363rd turned and dove to intercept them. Lt. William R. Dunlop became separated from his flight; “A few seconds later I spotted a lone Bf 109 pull up over the rest of the flight. I closed in from 30 degrees low and fired a quite long burst into the area of his cockpit, getting many strikes. He immediately caught fire and white and black smoke started pouring out. The Bf 109 then rolled over and went straight in, many pieces coming off en route.”

Dunlop’s flight leader, Lt. Donald Pasaka, found himself on the tail of another German fighter. Three bursts sent the German fighter crashing to earth. Pasaka surveyed the air battle and spotted another Bf 109 diving for the deck. “I made a sharp turn, half-rolled and got on his tail. He pulled up and I did likewise. As he did, I gave him a couple of short bursts. I could see strikes hitting his engine and a little smoke came out. He half-rolled and headed for the deck again. I closed up on him once more, giving him a couple of short bursts. He pulled up once more and rolled his plane from side to side, climbing all the while. As he was going into a sharp left turn again I shot and this time I scored a lot of hits all over the plane. The plane burst into flame. As it did, the pilot bailed out. The plane hit the ground and exploded.”

Maj. Ed Hiro, on the last scheduled mission of his tour, dove into a swirling Lufbery of 25 planes. A Bf 109 broke from the circle, with Hiro on its tail; F/O Johnnie Carter followed and saw the 109 crash and burn. The Mustangs turned back toward the Lufbery, but Carter became separated from Hiro, who called on the radio asking where the rest of his flight was. Leutnant Richard Franz of 7./JG 11 saw Hiro destroy another Bf 109, but closed on Hiro and almost immediately hit the P-51D in the engine and cockpit. Lt. “Ted” Conlin had seen the attack on Hiro, and had gained position on Franz just too late; as the German pilot watched his victim go in, Conlin stitched Franz’s Bf 109G-14/AS across the engine and left wing, forcing Franz to crash-land in a wooded area. Hiro’s Mustang descended gradually until it slammed into the ground; Hiro was killed as a result.

Lt. Richard Roper’s flight engaged the German fighters head-on. “A Bf 109 came in from one o’clock high and I managed to get on his tail,” said Roper. “I opened fire at 500 yards and closed to 100 yards, going straight down. His engine caught fire and parts flew off. The pilot bailed out at 2000 feet. I saw the plane crash and burn. I pulled up in a steep chandelle to the left into the flight when a Bf 109 came in again from 10 o’clock high. He turned away from me and I got him at 600 yards at about 60 degrees deflection. His engine caught fire and I saw the pilot bail out.” A Bf 109 tried to get on Roper’s tail, but it was engaged by his wingman, Lt. Edward Carr.

The 362nd soon ran across this swirling dogfight. “As we neared the fight, we circled slowly to the right, awaiting an opportunity to bounce any Bf 109s,” said Lt. James Sehl. “Suddenly, I saw a P-51 followed by another P-51, followed by a Bf 109. I called the flight leader and did a wing-over on the trio. I fired two short bursts from out of range and apparently hit the 109. He broke down and to the right. I closed to approximately 60 yards, firing many bursts and hitting him with each burst as we rolled straight down. He began streaming white smoke, then black smoke came from the ship and I saw some flames. When I was certain he couldn’t pull out, I reefed back on the stick at about 550 mph and below 1000 feet.”

Lt. Otto Jenkins and Lt. Walter Perry were approaching the fight when two Bf 109s flew past their noses in neat formation. “Lt. Perry took the one on the right and I went after the one on the left,” Jenkins said. “I closed and began to fire, I saw many hits on the wing roots, canopy and wings. The plane exploded and went into the ground. I saw no parachute.”

Jenkins and Perry, now at low altitude, then spotted a single Fw 190 flying parallel to a railroad track and they dove to intercept. Before Jenkins could fire, the Fw 190 pulled up, did a roll, clipped a stand of trees and crashed into the ground in a ball of fire. In all, the squadron claimed eight kills, with additional victories going to Lt. John Kirla and Weaver, but Lt. James Blanchard was shot down by Leutnant Georg Wroblewski of 7. /JG 11 and was killed.

68 years ago: the 357th raises hell on the way to Halle

On the 357th Fighter Group’s September 13’s mission to Halle, the 364th Fighter Squadron was east of Frankenhousen when about 40 enemy planes burst out of a haze and flew head-on through their formation. Only one German plane was able to get off an inaccurate burst. “I broke and came in on the tail of the last ship,” a Bf 109, said Lt. Merle Allen. “He broke into me and we started a tight Lufbery to 9000 feet, where I got hits on the engine and cockpit in a deflection shot. The plane began burning and the pilot bailed out at 8000 feet.”

After the initial gaggle went past, Maj. John Storch spotted four Bf 109s about a mile behind their comrades and turned Red Flight into them. “When we got within range they broke left and went into a turning circle,” said Storch. “We turned three or four times with them and they began to break up. I followed one of them, firing, but I do not believe I got any strikes as he was taking evasive action and I was shooting poorly. He finally straightened out and went for an open field, and I got some strikes just before I overshot. He bellied in and caught fire when he hit.”

The other element of the flight, made up of Lt. Horace Howell and Lt. Paul Hatala, spotted some other stragglers, which went into a Lufbery to the left. Howell picked out a Bf 109 and turned inside him. “I pulled up until I could only see the spinner of the enemy aircraft and gave him a long burst at a close range in a steep bank. The enemy aircraft straightened out, started smoking and streaming oil, then went into a dive. I saw him in a vertical dive at approximately 2000 feet, still smoking, when I had to break it off. I turned to the left and got on another enemy aircraft, giving him a short burst but observed no strikes. He straightened out and I gave him a long burst, observing numerous strikes on the empennage and wings. Parts came off and he started smoking. I closed in and gave another long burst, observing many more strikes. My canopy became covered with oil and coolant so I had to break off. He was last seen burning and spinning at approximately 2000 feet.”

As Storch and wingman Robert Schimanski re-formed, another Bf 109 came toward them. Storch broke into him, “and turned with him a couple of times, firing while on the deck. As we got into a pretty nice position on the enemy aircraft’s tail, I saw tracers all around us and then noticed we were above a camouflaged airfield. We broke off the enemy aircraft’s tail and got up to about 3100 feet and circled around.  The Bf 109, meanwhile, circled on the deck within the perimeter of this airfield. Suddenly he made a break for a larger field about a mile north of this airport. We dove on him and he started to belly in. As he hit we fired and he slid into a tree and exploded, throwing debris 50 feet into the air.” Storch and Schimanski shared credit for this fighter.

Capt. John England was leading the 362nd when he spotted a single Bf 109 below him. “I immediately dove toward him,” England reported. “The enemy pilot then saw me and started a break into me and was headed for a large aerodrome. I was traveling at approximately 400 mph and made a very tight turn into him and closed to about 500 yards. I placed the enemy aircraft properly within my K-14 gunsight and squeezed the trigger. I got strikes all over the engine and cockpit. The enemy aircraft, burning and smoking, went out of control and crashed into a river 1000 feet below.

“About 20 minutes after my first encounter I was leading my squadron up to escort the last box of bombers. We were jumped by eight-plus Bf 109s at 15,000 feet. I tacked on to three that were spiraling toward the deck. I lined up on the leader’s wingman and closed to about 300 yards and started firing. He tried both left and right evasive turns but his efforts were in vain. Finally, he made a tight pull-out on the deck and cut his throttle. I cut my throttle and finished him off. I closed to 100 yards. His canopy came off, smoke and pieces flew by, and he rolled over and exploded in some woods below. Immediately after this Jerry exploded I made a 180-degree turn and caught another Jerry who was very aggressive. We spent about five minutes in a tight Lufbery at tree-top altitude. I finally got into position for my first burst. I observed strikes around his tail section and one of his wheels dropped. I overshot him and pulled up sharply. My wingman, Lt. Fuller, came in and got some good strikes on him and the enemy aircraft started smoking. My wingman overshot and I came back and was getting strikes on him when he crashed into the side of a hill and exploded.” The 362nd’s F/O Otto Jenkins and Lt. John Kirla each downed a plane and shared a third, and other planes fell to Lts. Erle Taylor and John S. Templin.

The 363rd was also in on the fun. Lt. Charles Yeager spotted a Bf 109 near Kassel. “I rolled over and I caught the enemy aircraft on the deck. I closed up fast and started firing around 300 yards. I observed strikes on his engine and fuselage. The engine started smoking and windmilling. I overshot. Lt. (Frank) Gailer fired at him until the enemy aircraft attempted to belly in. The enemy aircraft exploded when it hit the ground.” Lt. Harold O. Hand added another victory.

In all, 15 German fighters fell to the group, but five P-51s failed to return, including Lt. Kirby Brown’s. Brown succeeded in bailing out, only to be captured and murdered by a Sturmabteilung officer.

69 years ago: the 4th FG’s Vernon Boehle loses an engine – literally

On Sept. 9, 1943, with the Fourth Fighter Group in escort, more than 30 enemy fighters went after B-17s near Elbeu. 334 and 336 Squadrons broke up their attack, reformed, and broke up another group of 16 German fighters. Unfortunately, at least three B-17s went down, and two planes from the Fourth were lost. Frank Fink suffered an engine failure and bailed out over Paris, where he became a POW. Lt. Vernon Boehle also didn’t come back with the rest of the unit. “I dove after an Fw 190 that was attacking a Fort,” he said. “I followed, but pulled up unable to get into firing range. Climbing back up, another Fw 190 dove to attack me.” This was the aircraft of Oberleutnant Artur Beese of I/JG.26, who would score 22 kills before his death. “I took evasive action, ending up in a spin and dive, coming out at 10,000 feet. The Fw followed, firing at every opportunity as I maneuvered. I was able to get in a short burst at him, but saw no strikes. I then dove for the deck. He followed, still firing, until, apparently out of ammo, he broke off and climbed.”

Vernon Boehle

Boehle headed for home, nursing the P-47, when suddenly there was a terrific vibration; the engine broke loose and fell away. “With some difficulty, I bailed out at about 15,000 feet,” said Boehle. “I landed in the water about 30 miles off Dieppe.” He released his dinghy, inflated it and climbed in, getting “as comfortable as possible,” he said. After midnight on his second night adrift, Boehle heard MTB boats and flashed the torch on his Mae West. “They finally saw me and picked me up after 43 hours in the water.”

Boehle was not a big fan of the P-47 – in fact, when he heard that the 354th Fighter Group of the Ninth Air Force was the first to receive P-51s, he requested a transfer to a Ninth Air Force unit. He got his wish and went to the 362nd Fighter Group – after the decision was made to make the Ninth a primarily P-47-equipped unit! Meanwhile, the Fourth switched to Mustangs in March 1944. Just the same, Boehle had a distinguished career with the 362nd Fighter Group.