70 years ago: Magoffin scores, Sunter shot down and escapes

The 378th Fighter Squadron flew two missions in the vicinity of Vire on July 31, bombing one Tiger tank and setting a second ablaze through strafing. Flak was vicious, however. Lt. Andrew Sunter recalled that he followed his wingman, Lt. Charles Naerhood, to strafe a truck. “On pulling off the target, I felt three distinct flak hits on my plane, my right foot was knocked off the rudder pedal and either pieces of flak or floor (started) rattling around the cockpit. I recovered control and thought I was all right until flames started spewing up around my legs and it got unbearably hot. I rolled my trim tab back, pulled the plane up to approximately 1000 feet, opened the canopy and dove out the right side. I cleared the plane and pulled the ripcord. I glanced at my watch, it was 2015. Then I heard popping noises and glanced down over my right shoulder. I could see German soldiers firing at me with rifles. All I could do was swing my chute as much as possible and swear at the Germans. I was too angry to be afraid. After what seemed like minutes to me, but no doubt was only a few seconds, my chute drifted into a tree while I hung two feet off the ground. I could hear the Germans yelling at one another behind a hedgerow and knew they were after me so I quickly unhooked myself.”

Sunter ducked the Germans by hiding in a haystack; the farmer in whose field the stack was gave him some civilian clothes and took him to his house to dress his leg wounds, walking him right past the German patrol. Hiding with the farmer’s family, Sunter endured American shelling of some nearby Panzers by taking shelter in the farmer’s cellar, where he was joined several times by German soldiers. Eventually, a German officer tried to question Sunter, but the farmer explained that Sunter was a deaf mute. Finally, the officer ordered the family out of the house in order to set up a machine gun position in the upper floors. The next morning Sunter stumbled across some American infantrymen advancing toward his former hiding place. They had orders and couldn’t stop to cater to the pilot, so they gave Sunter some grenades and he brought along a captured German Schmeisser machine-pistol and went with them. Only after several hours of combat was Sunter returned to regimental headquarters and eventually back to the 362nd.

Lt. Naerhood, in P-47D-22 42-26244, was also hit by flak. “Flame and smoke were trailing from his engine,” said Ken Placek, another member of Naerhood’s Blue Flight. After Naerhood radioed that he had been hit and was on fire, he tried to make a crash landing. His P-47 hit the ground and skidded for a long distance before coming to a stop north northwest of Percy, but, sadly, Naerhood was killed.

The second mission for the 378th was equally eventful. Col. Morton Magoffin was flying with the squadron on an armed reconnaissance, and near Beaumont-sur-Sarthe he “sent Yellow Flight into a patch of woods to scare something out,” reported Lt. Donald Stoddard. At about that time, Magoffin spotted an Fw 190A-8 “blue 20” flying north on the deck, piloted by Fw. Rudolph Rauhaus of Stab.I./JG1. “We were at about 10,000 feet,” Stoddard said. “The flight got into a string formation and went down on the Fw 190. I made one pass at the Fw 190 and overshot.” Stoddard chandelled to the left to get on the German fighter’s tail, but by this time Magoffin had the Fw 190 in his sights. “The Colonel, from about 200 to 300 yards to the rear, fired one long burst, giving it some deflection,” said Lt. Arthur Staples, Magoffin’s wingman. “He secured strikes all over the cockpit and the engine, The plane broke into flames, rolled on its back and went down.” Rauhaus was killed in his plane’s crash.

Stoddard, meanwhile, had spotted a second Fw 190. “I made two turns with him to the left, giving him a couple of bursts, but observed no strikes. I pulled in a little more and gave one good burst from about 250 yards and saw strikes all over the fuselage. He straightened out and was rocking. About this time the canopy came off and the Hun bailed out. The Fw 190 crashed and was burning when I left. The Colonel took pictures of the Hun pilot in his chute and the burning plane.” This was probably Ofhr. Karl-Heinz Schaper of 2./JG6; despite bailing out, Schaper later died of his wounds.



70 Years Ago: the 362nd Pursues the Fleeing Werhmacht

On July 28, 1944, the 362nd Fighter Group worked overtime to continue the momentum started by Operation Cobra three days earlier. The 378th Fighter Squadron was sent to the Domfront-Alencon-Laval area and attacked two railroad bridges, scoring 14 near-misses. The 379th Fighter Squadron bombed and strafed in the same area, claiming seven boxcars destroyed and 70 more damaged, along with a damaged locomotive. Another 378th mission saw Red Flight knock out two trucks and damage 10 more. Yellow Flight scored hits on two self-propelled guns and five trucks, and Blue Flight destroyed a pair of trucks and strafed a tank, an armored car and five trucks. The 377th Fighter Squadron flew an armed recce, strafing and destroying eight trucks and a staff car. The 378th returned again, flying a similar mission, destroying 10 trucks, an armored car and six tanks, but luck was not with was. Robert Piper of the 378th, on his first mission. Flying wing for Red Leader, Piper was about 200 yards behind him in P-47D 43-25592 when the lead’s bombs dropped on the road near Cherence-le-Heron. “Red Leader’s bombs exploded directly in front of Lt. Piper’s plane,” reported Lt. Stan Stepnitz, the No. 4 man in the flight. “The ship flew through the bomb blast and about a quarter of a mile beyond before it rolled over on its back and crashed to the ground.” Piper did not survive the impact.

As the Red Flight of the 378th was climbing after bombing a road junction, the flight’s leader, Capt. Richard Cline, saw two Bf 109s break through the overcast at about 3000 feet. “(They) saw our squadron and pulled back into the clouds,” Cline reported. “At that time, four Fw 190s broke through directly in front of us, three of which turned sharply to the right and pulled back into the clouds. The fourth, apparently the leader, remained slightly below the clouds at approximately 200 yards. I opened fire at 5 degrees deflection and observed strikes along the wing and canopy. The right gear was seen to come down as he pulled into the overcast. My No. 3 and I hosed the clouds where he was just disappearing. From the strikes observed, I believe the enemy aircraft to be seriously damaged.”

The 379th was next in the area, bombing an underpass and scoring six near misses. The 378th then launched a dive-bombing mission to the Brehal-Hombye-Villedieu area, cutting four rail junctions and destroying a tank and a command car. The 379th returned to this area later. Red flight scored six hits on a railroad junction, then destroyed two trucks and damaged 10 more by strafing; Yellow Flight scored four bomb hits on a weapons carrier and five trucks. Blue Flight knocked out two trucks and strafed a tank. A third mission by the 379th scored several hits on road junctions, knocked out a command car and strafed two Tiger tanks. Finally, the 377th flew another recce, destroying eight motorcycles, four trucks, five tanks and some horse-drawn artillery.


70 years ago: Operation Cobra

July 25 was slated as the date of Operation Cobra, the breakout from the Normandy area. Although it was now 49 days after the landings, allied troops were only to where planners had envisioned they would be five days after D-Day. As a result, allied air power would be tasked with blasting a hole in German defenses to allow the allies to use their mobile forces to throw the Germans off balance. For the 362nd  Fighter Group, that meant 34 planes were loaded with 250-pound fragmentation clusters and 100-pound white phosphorus bombs; these followed other group’s planes and dropped on a narrow strip of enemy defenses. More missions followed; the 377th Fighter Squadron bombed a German officers’ quarters with fair results, then the 378th Fighter Squadron bombed a road junction in an effort to disrupt communications wires there (they missed a small house being used as a communications center). The 379th Fighter Squadron bombed the reported location of an ammunition dump, with no observable results. The 378th returned to the communications center and pelted it with 500-pounders, one of which was seen to go through the house before exploding. The 379th went after a group of German holdouts west of St. Lo; the target was well marked and the bombing was accurate. The 378th finally was dispatched to attack a small town that contained the command post and ammunition dump of the German 14th Fallschrimjager Regiment. They were rewarded with at least two good secondary explosions. All bombing was done at a very low level.


Today in 1944: 11 Downed by the Tuskegee Airmen

On July 18, 1944, Lee Rayford led 66 Mustangs from all four squadrons of the 332nd Fighter Group to the briefed rendezvous point over southern Germany, but the bombers of the 5th Bomb Wing, scheduled to strike the Luftwaffe base at Memmingen in Austria, were nowhere to be found. Rayford decided to orbit the Undine-Treviso area, which was already known to be a hotbed of Luftwaffe fighter activity, and as the bombers finally approached, the Mustang pilots spotted a swarm of 30 to 35 Bf 109s to the right of the formation. The enemy fighters attacked in groups from three o’clock high and five o’clock low, then split-S’ed away. Twenty-one of the Mustangs rushed to break up the attack, destroying 11 of the German fighters.

Once this threat had been dealt with, the formation continued to Austria, but over the target 30 to 40 enemy aircraft – mainly Bf 109s, Fw 190s and Me 410s – were sighted. Eventually, four Fw 190s swooped in to attack, and two were shot down.

The tally for the day was impressive, with Clarence “Lucky” Lester bagging three, Jack Holsclaw two and Lee Archer, Charles Bailey, Walter Palmer, Roger Romine, Ed Toppins and Hugh Warner one apiece.

Palmer’s victim was a Bf 109, which he hit with several short bursts after it made a pass at the bombers. “On the second of third burst I noticed his engine smoking badly, so I broke it off because there were others to shoot down,” Palmer later wrote. He closed in on a second Bf 109 but is guns jammed. Her considered chopping off the enemy fighter’s tail with his propeller, but the Bf 109 headed into a cloud bank shrouding the tops of the Alps, convincing Palmer to break off the pursuit.

Toppins destroyed his opponent by diving at him at a speed so high that when he pulled out, he warped the fuselage of his fighter – the Mustang had to be scrapped after the mission. Two more P-51s were lost in the fray, with Lt. Gene Browne surviving to be taken prisoner and Lt. Wellington Irving being killed. Oscar Hutton was also lost when his Mustang was hit by a drop tank jettisoned by another P-51.

70 years ago: the heroism of Grover Siems and the loss of Ralph Hofer

On July 2, 1944, the Fourth Fighter Group found itself on strange ground. Most of the group was in Italy after the second leg of a shuttle raid mission, far from its usual base at Debden in England. While there, the group was “volunteered” to fly a fighter sweep in advance of the 15th Air Force’s strike on Budapest. The 332nd Fighter Group had just received its Mustangs and was familiarizing itself with them, so the presence of the veteran Mustang jockeys in Italy was fortuitous timing.

When the 45 Mustangs of the Fourth reached the target, a swarm of 80 German fighter and 18 Hungarian Bf 109s greeted the group, and a swirling dogfight erupted that resulted in the destruction of eight Axis fighters, including three by Capt. Howard Hively.

After destroying his first victim, a 20mm shell exploded adjacent to Hively’s canopy, sending fragments of glass into the right side of his face and injuring his right eye. Despite these wounds, he pressed on with his attack and destroyed two more, in part because Hively’s squadronmate, Lt. Grover Siems, spotted a Bf 109 on Hively’s tail and dove in to attack it, sending the fighter down in flames. Siems was then attacked himself, and was badly wounded in the shoulder, neck and chin, forcing the bleeding flyer to return to Foggia. Upon landing, and unable to open the canopy because he was so weak from blood loss, he was ignored by airfield personnel until he fired his guns! Several mechanics removed Siems from the cockpit, but he was so weak he could not move. The medics covered him with a sheet and sent him to the morgue, and only when Siems was able to wiggle his finger did an orderly notice him and give him a life-saving blood transfusion.

In addition to the victories by Hively and Siems, Capt. William Hedrick destroyed a Bf 109 and destroyed another, while Capt. Frank Jones and Col. Don Blakeslee achieved single kills (although Jones’ went uncredited). Capt. Joe Higgins of the 486th Fighter Squadron and Lt. Don Emerson shared another Bf 109.

All did not go the group’s way, however. Lt. George Stanford’s wing tanks refused to drop when the 98-airplane gaggle was spotted, but instead of aborting, he and wingman Lt. Ralph Hofer pressed home their attacks. The extra throttle Stanford used to compensate for the drag of the tanks cause the engine to throw a rod. He radioed to Capt. Frank Jones to take the lead, then bellied into wheat field in Yugoslavia. Hofer buzzed him to make sure he was all right, but when Stanford looked up he saw a Bf 109 trailing Hofer. Hofer apparently shook his pursuer, but records unearthed in 2003 revealed that he then strafed Mostar-Sud Airfield, where 4.Batterie/Flak Regiment 9 “Legion Condor” hit Hofer’s P-51B and the ace crashed to his death. Stanford became a POW, as did Lt. J.C. Norris. Lt. Thomas Sharp had also been unable to release his tanks and was killed when shot down by a Bf 109.