69 years ago: Back to Berlin with the 4th and 357th FGs

On March 4, 1944, the Eighth Air Force made its second attempt to reach Berlin. At takeoff time, weather was poor, but even so 500 B-17s pressed on. While racing to rendezvous with the bombers, the 357th Fighter Group saw other Mustangs returning to England. Much of the force – bombers as well as fighters – had heard a recall signal, the authenticity of which historians still debate. Just 29 B-17s pressed on for Berlin, and shielded by cloud, they hit the target without seeing German fighters. After bombing, however, the Germans appeared – and out of the clouds, so did the Mustangs

Southeast of Kassel, the 363rd’s White Flight spotted a Bf 109 to the right and behind them. F/O Charles Yeager broke into it; the enemy fighter, sporting a large red and black devil’s head logo on its side, turned right and went into a 50-degree dive. “I closed up fast and opened fire at 200 yards,” Yeager said. “I observed strikes on the fuselage and wing roots, with pieces flying off. I was overrunning so I pulled up and did an aileron roll and fell in behind again and started shooting at 150 yards. The enemy aircraft’s engine was smoking and windmilling. I overran again, observing strikes on the fuselage and canopy. I pulled up again and did a wingover on his tail. His canopy flew off and the pilot bailed out.” Robert Wallen downed another German fighter, but Capt. John Medieros was bagged by flak and bailed out to become a POW.

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 covering fighters of the Fourth Fighter Group. 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 (back row, left) with Duane Beeson, John Godfrey, James Goodson and Don Gentile.

Megura (back row, left) with Duane Beeson, John Godfrey, James Goodson and Don Gentile.

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, the 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.  

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