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.

69 years ago: the Fourth “Frantically” flies to Italy

On June 23, 1944, on the second leg of the “Frantic” shuttle mission, the Mustangs of the Fourth Fighter Group escorted bombers from airfields in Russia to the oil refinery at Drohobycz, Poland. Toward the end of the outbound leg of the mission, the group caught sight of 15th Air Force Mustangs, and landed at Lucrera in Italy.

Meanwhile, in Russia, Ralph Hofer, Bill Gillette, Joseph Lang and James Callahan, who had stayed behind with mechanical issues, took off for Italy to rejoin the group. Hofer took a different route than his three compatriots, and over the Mediterranean began to run low on fuel. Luckily, a flight of RAF Spitfires escorted him to Malta, where he refueled and then left for Foggia the next day. Callahan also ran out of fuel and crash-landed in Sicily.

69 years ago: the 4th FG’s Frank Speer begins his odyssey

On 29 May, Don Blakeslee led the 4th Fighter Group on a withdrawal support mission to Poznan, Poland. The Luftwaffe was up in force. “We dove on five Jerries attacking the lead box of the 2nd Combat Wing,” reported Lt. Robert Church. “I saw a Bf 109 open fire at the bombers and then climb up on the other side. I went after him. He saw me coming and started to wrack it in. About halfway through his turn, he suddenly reversed his turn and dove straight down. I followed him but did not fire. He jettisoned his canopy, but I did not see him bail out or see a chute. At about 4000 feet, we were both still going straight down at about 450 mph, so I started to pull out gradually. I saw his aircraft go straight into the sea about a half-mile southwest of Nysted.”

Other fighters fell to Blakeslee, Capt. Bernard McGrattan, Lt. Conrad Netting and Lt. Don Emerson. Lt. Orrin “Ossie” Snell was chasing a Bf 109 at high speed when its tail section came off in flight. After leaving the target area, 336 Squadron found a seaplane base on a lake and strafed it. In total, the squadron damaged 12 seaplanes and destroyed two.

Frank Speer

Frank Speer

Unfortunately, in the process Lt. Frank Speer’s plane was hit by flak. He set his plane down in a small field next to a village in Poland, then ran into the woods ahead of a mob of angry villagers. After eluding the villagers, he hid in some bushes and waited for nightfall, then used his knowledge of European geography to start an epic journey by foot. Speer traveled 400 miles, planning to walk to Denmark and stow away on a boat to Sweden. He  nearly made it, but his plans were foiled when he was awakened from a nap by a German soldier. He ended up in Stalag Luft III, then survived the winter “death march” to Nurnberg. When the prisoners were moved again, Speer and a fellow POW escaped and received shelter from some French laborers. As the war ground to an end, the pair received the surrender of 24 German soldiers.

69 years ago: the 4th Fighter Group’s aces score

James Goodson was in command of the 4th Fighter Group on 28 May, 1944 for an escort to Ruhland. About 20 German fighters attacked the bombers before the target, and in the ensuing fight 334 Squadron bounced the enemy planes and destroyed eight of them. “Our squadron used its superior height and followed them in the turn in a shallow dive,” said Mike Sobanski. “We managed to split up the enemy formation, and I found a single bluish-gray 109 flying perfect line abreast formation with a P-51 at some 150 yards distance. They both didn’t seem to realize their mistake, and only caught on when I attacked the 109. He dove straight down and momentarily I lost him in the haze, finding him again when he started pulling back up. I fired a few short half-second bursts closing in, and was just going to position myself better on him as I saw no strikes. Much to my surprise, he jettisoned his canopy and bailed out.”

Winslow "Mike" Sobanski

Winslow “Mike” Sobanski

Ralph “Kidd” Hofer scored his 15th victory, knocking down the Bf 109G-6 of Uffz. Heinz Kunz of 6/JG.11 near Magdeberg. The day’s other victors were Maj. Michael McPharlin and Lts. Grover Siems, Mark Kolter, Dean Lang and Robert Kenyon. In return, Lt. Aubrey Hewatt was hit by a Bf 109 and bailed out just before his plane exploded. Lt. Richard Bopp became separated from the group and, like Hewatt, ended up as a POW.

69 years ago: Four for the Fourth

On 1 May, the 4th Fighter Group covered the heavies’ egress from Saarbrucken, and a dozen Bf 109s were spotted east of Luxembourg. John Godfrey went after one and chased it to low altitude, where the German pilot bailed out. Now-Lt. Ralph Hofer knocked down another one; the pilot “bailed out in front of me so close I could see his dress uniform and his black shiny boots glistening in the sun,” Hofer said. “He waved as I flew by within 50 feet of him.”

Ralph Hofer taxis his famous P-51B "Salem Representative" at Debden in 1944

Ralph Hofer taxis his famous P-51B “Salem Representative” at Debden in 1944

Frank Jones chased a Bf 109 into a cloud, and when he pulled out he saw three enemy aircraft chasing a Mustang, he said. “I turned one and fired a good deflection shot as he turned into me. He rolled over on his back and went straight down. His canopy came off, but I did not see him bail out or a chute open. I followed him straight down and saw him hit and blow up in a great ball of flames. He crashed in a large town behind some houses.” An additional kill was scored by Lt. Bernard McGrattan.

68 years ago: the 4th FG scores its last victory of WWII

On 25 April, Col. Everett Stewart led the 4th Fighter Group on a fighter sweep to the Linz-Prague area, where Lt. William Hoelscher spotted an Me 262 and dove to attack. He scored strikes all over the jet, but while chasing it he was hit by a 40mm round over the Prague/Ruzyne Aerodrome that tore off the left elevator of his P-51D and had to bail out. Hoelscher landed amidst a group of Czech partisans, who hid him from the Germans. Hoelscher hitched rides on motorcycles, jeeps and airplanes to return to Debden on May 12. Hoelscher scored the group’s last victory and was its last loss of the war.

I mention this because this is the anniversary of the event – for a longer version, see this post featuring more detail. I have a couple of Mustangs on the workbench right now; one will become “Bunny”/”Miss Kentucky State” flown by Roscoe Brown of the 332nd FG, and the other will become Hoelscher’s machine. Stay tuned as the assembly line creaks into action…

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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