73 Years ago: Col. Joe bags a “German cruiser”

The 362nd Fighter Group flew four squadron-sized missions against Brest on August 25, 1944, two by the 377th. The principle target was the harbor, which could be used to evacuate troops to Crozon. Col. Joe Laughlin scored two hits on what was identified at the time as a German light cruiser during the 378th’s mission. The 378th’s 12 planes also hit another large ship in spite of intense flak. The 379th’s 16 planes in the morning mission bombed a collection of small boats in the harbor and managed to miss all of them, although they scored several near-misses. Later, Laughlin led the 377th’s evening mission, when the group bombed the cruiser again.

Joe Laughlin applies victory markings in a staged photo. Note the large “German cruiser” marking below the flags.

“As the flight dove down, I could see a blanket of white puffballs below and a blanket of black puffballs above,” said John Baloga. “They were exploding shells and sparks were flying from each burst. Those darn shells are programmed to explode at a specific height. The Germans were making us fly through them. Hot sharp steel was flying all over the sky. It was hellish.

“The sky was black and white from ack-ack fired from the ships as we dived from 8000 feet and released our bombs,” Laughlin told reporters. “I dropped a bomb on the stern of a light cruiser and a tremendous explosion followed, with black smoke billowing into the sky.”

“As I came in line to dive, I saw the cruiser starting to smoke badly. Someone was calling over the radio that the cruiser was sinking. Thank You Lord! I immediately veered off from my dive. I saw that the other planes were forming up. This particular attack was written up in the papers and was noted on the BBC. Sinking a cruiser with a fighter-bomber was a big deal. Colonel Laughlin had given that cruiser its deathblow. I will always be grateful for that. I truly believe he saved my life. If he hadn’t sunk it, I would have been sunk because as Green 4, the last plane in the flight, I truly believe the enemy would have shot me down.”

The 377th went on to score two hits on another ship and near misses on other shipping in the harbor. In reality, the vessel that exploded and sank was the incomplete (and already damaged) French battleship Clemenceau, which the Germans were planning to use to block the harbor.