68 years ago: The Fourth Fighter Group’s biggest haul

On 16 April, 1945, the Fourth Fighter Group scored the biggest one-day bag in its history. Group “A,” commanded by Lt. Col. Sidney Woods, and group “B,” under Maj. Louis “Red Dog” Norley, flew an escort to Rosenheim and Prague, which was followed by a strafing mission around Karlsbad, Salzburg and Prague. 334 Squadron attacked Gablingen Aerodrome and devastated it. “All sections pulled up in line abreast,” said Norley. “We made the first pass from southwest to northeast. Maj. (Pierce) McKennon called and said that he could see no flak. We pulled up to starboard and came in for the second pass. On my third pass I observed several columns of smoke and several more beginning to burn.”

The carnage was impressive, with Lt. Kenneth Helfrect and Lt. William Antonides each destroying five planes, Norley and Lt. Gordon Denson each getting four, and Lt. Raymond Dyer, Lt. William Spencer, Lt. James Ayers, Lt. William O’Bryan and Lt. Arthur Bowers each destroying three. Three pilots each bagged a pair, and four more pilots, including Lt. Paul Burnett, destroyed one. However, Burnett did not return from the mission; Burnett’s target explode violently, and Burnett was flipped on his back. His plane was riddled with shrapnel, shredding the leading edge of one wing and bending the prop out of position so it vibrated furiously. Burnett could see a rivulet of oil running out of the engine across the left wing root. He righted the plane and struggled for altitude, and flew for a half an hour before the oil pressure reached zero and white smoke poured from the exhaust. Burnett had been ready to bail out, so he rolled the plane over and tried to drop out, but he was pinned half in, half out by the slipstream. He fought his way back in and righted the plane. He rolled the plane over again, and again was pinned against the headrest armor half-in and half-out. This time, he couldn’t wiggle back in, but something jerked him out of the plane just as it hit the ground. He came to six feet from his burning plane and crawled to a ditch, barely injured from this ordeal. Burnett was soon surrounded by German civilians, but they were not hostile. Soon, he was taken by Jeep to the American command post in Otterberg.

Meanwhile, at Prague/Kbely Aerodrome, 336 and 335 Squadrons worked over the field. “There were about 100 ships parked on the Prague/Kbely aerodrome,” reported Lt. Harold Fredericks. “There were also 15 parked at adjacent fields. It seemed to be a receiving point for all types of aircraft.”

“I was flying No. 3 to Col. Woods,” said Lt. Douglas Pederson. “After the first pass, I never saw the men in my section again.” Woods was hit during his third pass across the field; he radioed that he was bailing out and became a POW. The other two in the section, Lts. Ben Griffin and Ayers, were also hit by 40mm flak. “I had been flying Lt. (Don) Pierini’s former plane, ‘Jersey Bounce II,’ which I had renamed ‘Miss Marian,’” said Griffin. “The fifth enemy aircraft I destroyed exploded violently as I flew over it. Flying debris cut the coolant line to the after cooler, which sprayed coolant over my face. In spite of this, I made one more pass and destroyed another plane. I then made a terrible error. I pulled up to 300 feet. This gave the flak gunners on the top of the buildings an opportunity to zero in on me.” Griffin became a POW.

Fredericks also heard Capt. Leroy Carpenter report he was bailing out, but Carpenter was killed. “I saw a ship going south of the aerodrome losing coolant,” said Fredericks. “I followed it and identified it as Lt. (Carl) Alfred’s ship. In a turn, I lost sight of him for a few seconds. I then saw his plane in a shallow dive, streaming coolant, going into the deck and exploding on impact. Flying back to the aerodrome, I heard Lt. Ayers say he was bailing out.” Alfred did not escape his from P-51D and was killed; Ayers became a POW.

Edward McLouchlin opened fire on a Ju 188 on his first pass and set it on fire. “I found myself alone and made another pass. I got good strikes on another Ju 188 at the southeast corner of the field. I saw it burst into flame before I fired on the fourth Ju 188 in the middle of the field. I then fired into a hangar with no apparent results. I pulled up to 5,500 feet and headed out when I got hit by flak and my plane began to burn. I bailed and saw my kite explode on impact with the ground.”

Also downed and captured were Lts. Robert Miller and Edward Gimbel, making a total of eight pilots lost during the mission. Maj. McKennon’s plane was hit by a 20mm round that exploded in the cockpit and wounded him in the eye, but he nursed his Mustang home, as did eight other pilots whose planes suffered flak damage. However, the cost to the Germans was staggering. Lt. Pederson destroyed eight Ju 52s himself, while F/O Donald Baugh wrecked five Ju 88s. Lt. Kenneth Green, Lt. James Halligan and Lt. Loton Jennings each destroyed four planes. The total was 51 at the Prague airfields and 110 for the entire day.

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