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.

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