68 years ago: Snag gets his B-26

On October 19, the 379th Fighter Squadron, 362nd Fighter Group launched an escort mission, but when the medium bombers were recalled because of weather, the fighters went on a strafing mission, destroying five locomotives and damaging a barracks area. The 378th Fighter Squadron bombed the village of Vehe; the pilots spotted seven or eight tanks in the town, and the spotter said their bombing was very accurate. One of the 378th’s planes was hit by flak but it returned safely.

The same could not be said for “the Plastered Bastard,” the group’s B-26 Marauder. The Marauder had replaced a Cessna UC-78 as the group hack; it had been left behind by a bomber unit when it moved, and Col. Laughlin was told by Gen. Otto Weyland that it was his if the group’s mechanics could get it working. That they did, and for several months the B-26 (less guns and armor) was a reliable transport, hauling parts from Britain and taking personnel to and from leaves in London, Paris and elsewhere. This speedy air taxi made the group the envy of other Ninth Air Force fighter groups, especially the 406thFighter Group, whose commander, Col. Anthony V. Grosetta, made a point of how he needed a B-26 “like Joe has” at every Tactical Air Command staff meeting.

Grosetta, known by his nickname “Snag,” contended that the 406th should get its turn with the B-26, or that the 362nd should at least share.

In late October, with Maj. Tom Beeson at the controls, the B-26 made another run to England and back, but on his return, Beeson found the continent socked in. Controllers gave him a steer to Reims, but it was completely covered in cloud; they then helpfully suggested that he head for Mourmelon le Grand, where a C-47 had felt its way out of the murk and made a landing 20 minutes earlier. Mourmelon just happened to be the base of the 406th.

Beeson headed for Mourmelon, still in the thick of zero-visibility conditions. When he finally spotted the runway, he was over the very end, and he’d have to go around again, but fuel would permit only one more pass. He radioed that he’d try one more time and, if that failed, all aboard would be bailing out. He lined up and descended through the clouds, and touched down on the PSP field – but again, well down the runway. With only a few hundred feet of runway left, the B-26’s crew pulled the emergency brake handle, and the three wheels locked and dug into the PSP, resulting in several hundred feet of steel planks dragging behind the skidding bomber. The fuselage was bent, PSP planks had fouled the propellers thanks to the violence of the landing, and the engines’ planetary gears were now shot thanks to the props’ sudden stops. Beeson sheepishly walked to the 406th’s control building which was nearly empty thanks to the weather’s adverse effects on operations; he found a phone and called Col. Laughlin, asking if he should travel into town to find someone from the 406th.

“Tom, find a jeep and get the hell back here as fast as you can,” said Laughlin. When Beeson was safely back at Reims, Laughlin called Grosetta. “Snag, this is Joe,” he said. “You know, we’re grounded today too, and I’ve been thinking about how well our groups have done by cooperating and backing each other up. You know that B-26 you’ve been asking me about for so long? Well… Maybe I’ve been unfair to you, so I’ve decided to let you have it.”

“Joe, that’s a fine gesture on your part,” said Grosetta. “I might even let you use it sometime if you need it. When can we get it?”

“Well, Snag, as a matter of fact we’ve already delivered it. That B-26 is sitting on your field right now.” Grosetta was effusive in his thanks and went to see his gift; Laughlin told his staff to wait 15 minutes and be prepared to see “smoke curl out of the receiver.” Sure enough, the phone rang. “Joe, you lousy sonofabitch! Don’t you realize my airstrip is destroyed? How the hell am I going to explain to General Weyland why we can’t fly any combat missions?”

Luckily, the runway damage was less severe than originally thought and the engineers had the field repaired before the weather cleared enough for flying. The B-26 was hauled to the scrapyard; the next 362ndutility plane was a more sedate C-47A.

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68 years ago: the 357th FG nails 7 – including two by a would-be abort

On October 6, the group was back over Berlin. Capt. Richard Peterson’s flight saw a large group of German fighters attack the box of bombers behind them. “We immediately dropped our tanks and turned to engage them,” said Lt. Gilman Weber. “I spotted an Fw 190 and gave chase. He was quite a bit below me and I got too damned eager. I closed in on him as he leveled off at about 5000 feet. I realized I was overrunning him and lowered flaps as I pulled alongside of him. The 190 started a sharp turn to the left and evidently saw Pete coming in, because he immediately jettisoned his canopy and bailed out,” said Weber.

The 362nd scored the bulk of the day’s kills, with Capt. John England scoring two kills and single victories falling to F/O Otto Jenkins and Lt. William Gilbert. Lt. Thomas Martinek aborted with a rough engine, but then turned back to follow the group and soon encountered 100 enemy fighters closing on some bombers. Martinek went after the Germans, shooting down two Fw 190s before wisely turning for home.

68 years ago: the 362nd FG demolishes traffic in the Saar

The three squadrons of the 362nd Fighter Group each conducted armed reconnaissance missions in the areas around Trier, Saarbrucken, Sarrebourg and east toward the Rhine on October 2. Though weather was poor, 11 locomotives and 50 boxcars were located and destroyed, along with 40 trucks; four railroad yards and adjacent factories, bridges and roundhouses were shot up and bombed. The 377thknocked out four locomotives, 23 trucks and a tank, plus 18 light guns shot up, but they lost a pilot in the process. Lt. William Ort, flying “The Sooner,” P-47D-27 42-27363, spotted a German truck on a road near Puttlingen and dove to strafe it. “The instant he passed over the truck a streak of fire came from the plane,” reported Lt. Robert Berggren, who was orbiting with Blue Flight as Ort’s Yellow Flight was strafing. “He struck the trees if a forest bordering the road and crashed in flames. I saw no sign of enemy ground fire near his plane when he was on the pass,” leading Berggren to speculate he hit the truck or a nearby power line during his pullout. Ort was killed in the wreck of his plane.

Although there was no serious ground fire directed at Blue or Yellow Flights, both Red and Blue Flights were peppered by flak. One of the P-47s returned with three cylinders shot off its R-2800. The 378th tried to bomb an oil pipeline junction but missed; later, the squadron hit the Saarbrucken marshalling yard and destroyed numerous buildings, then strafed and destroyed two locomotives. On the way home, the 378thspotted a jet aircraft above Metz.

Some losses were not combat related. The 379th’s Gustave Plochere suffered an engine failure in P-47D 42-8399 and crashed into a field where a French farmer was working, hitting so hard his Thunderbolt broke in half. When the farmer, Marcel Jonoux, reached the plane, it was on fire. Plochere was slumped in the cockpit, a severe gash on his head. Jonoux cut the straps holding Plochere in the cockpit and summoned a friend to help pull the pilot to a wagon, which they took to Lavannes, arriving just as American troops marched into the town. Plochere came to in a British hospital, covered in a full-body cast; the crash had also broken his back. To this day, he has no memory from two weeks before the crash to two weeks afterward.