Adventures in modeling: S-38 “Osa’s Ark” in 1:72, part 1

We take wildlife documentaries for granted today. Anyone with basic cable can flip on the television and see something about wild animals virtually any time of the day. But in the 1920s and 1930s, motion pictures themselves were a new thing, and so the first wildlife films were unlike anything anyone had ever seen.

African animals, of course, held the most appeal to American audiences, and the first people to capture images of these animals on film were the Osa and Martin Johnson. Martin Johnson was one of five members of Jack London’s often-harrowing 1907-1909 voyage across the Pacific, and, as something of a natural showman, took to the road with a collection of photos and artifacts from the expedition. While on tour in Chanute, Kansas, he met Osa Leighty, who was singing at the theatre where Martin was showing his travelogues. Even though she was only 16, the two eloped and for the next five years travelled the country with Martin’s South Seas show, now embellished by Osa singing Hawaiian songs dressed in native costume.

In 1917, the couple travelled to some of the destinations in the South Pacific that the London expedition had been unable to explore (the crew had all fallen ill with a skin ailment). During the nine-month trip, the footage they shot during the trip became the film Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Seas. They returned there in 1919-1920; they visited a tribe that had detained them on their previous visit (they were rescued by a British gunboat), this time with an armed escort, which proved unnecessary because the tribe was so completely disarmed at seeing themselves on film!

Martin and Osa Johnson during one of their African expeditions.

After two more films about the Pacific, the Johnsons set their sights on Africa, visiting the continent for four expeditions (1921-1923, 1924-1927, 1927-1928 and 1929-1931). The last film made during these tours, Congorilla, was the first film made with natural sound in Africa.

The Johnsons’ long trips were part of an economic formula that drove their lives: travel first, then earn enough for the next trip. “When Martin and Osa did return to the States, it was usually because of finances, or rather, no finances,” wrote Kenhelm W. Scott in Exploring with Osa and Martin Johnson. “These visits lasted only long enough to accrue sufficient funds for another expedition. As soon as possible, the Johnsons were off to the wilds on a well-planned trip that would last until their last dollar had been spent.”

In 1932, the Johnsons had an idea for a new way to explore Africa. Sikorsky had scored its first major success with the S-38, a twin-engined amphibian nicknamed “the Explorer’s Air Yacht” in the press. Back home in Chanute, the Johnsons learned to fly, then ordered not one of the Sikorsky planes but two of them: a zebra-striped S-38-BS named “Osa’s Ark” and a single-engined giraffe-spotted S-39-CS dubbed “Spirit of Africa.” They also hired Vern Carstens, an experienced pilot (and later the chief test pilot for Beechcraft), and, for the first weeks of the expedition, flight instructor Boris Sergievsky, who was helpful in teaching the Johnsons how to fly their new airplanes. Osa and Martin made their first water landings in Africa!

S-39 “Spirit of Africa” and S-38 “Osa’s Ark” airborne together in 1934.

“Both husband and wife displayed boldness, a good understanding of the material, and a strong desire to work on their piloting technique,” Sergievsky later wrote. “Mrs. Johnson, especially, showed herself to be a thoroughly able young pilot, quickly and easily absorbing all that I showed and explained to her.” Three film crew members, a mechanic and a pet monkey also embarked with the party for a two-year flying expedition across Africa in 1932-1933.

Though endangered by inadequate maps, unpredictable weather, and the generally primitive nature of aviation, the expedition met with remarkable luck. On one training flight, the gust lock was left on the control surfaces, and Osa and Sergievsky survived by using their combined strength to land the plane; on another occasion, Osa slammed the hatch just as a lion lunged at her. All in all, the planes completed 60,000 miles with no mishap more severe than the wheels sinking into a damp airfield’s surface at an overnight stay.

The Johnsons took “Spirit of Africa” on another expedition, this time to the area that would become Indonesia (the words “and Borneo” were added below the plane’s original name). They were planning further adventures in May 1937 when the Western Air Express Boeing 247D they were aboard crashed into a mountain near Newhall, California. Five people on the plane died, including Martin; Osa suffered back and leg injuries, but soon continued the tour and by October 1937 she was back in Africa on yet another expedition. In 1940, she published her autobiography, I Married Adventure, which was the best-selling book of that year. She continued to travel and write, and started her own clothing line. In 1952, she oversaw the use of expedition film to create television’s first wildlife series, “Osa Johnson’s the Big Game Hunt.” One of the century’s most influential women and a fashion icon, Osa Johnson died in 1952 at the age of 58.

But what became of their planes?

S-38 “Osa’s Ark.”

According to historian Mitch Mayborn, after returning to the U.S. in 1936 “Spirit of
Africa” “remained idle until late 1937 when it was sold to Charles H. Babb,
Glendale CA. After that it was owned by G&G Airlines Co., Ltd. of Tucson,
AZ, in 1939-1941.” During WWII, S-39CS was repainted in Civil Air Patrol colors, flying from the Beaumont, TX CAP base. On Nov. 11, 1942, it was
dispatched to a crash of a CAP Fairchild 24-C8F in the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, the S-39 was damaged on landing in rough waters
and the engine could not be restarted. It sank while being towed by a U.S. Coast Guard vessel.

The fate of the S-38BS “Osa’s Ark” is less certain. The plane was owned by Danny Dodge (son of John Dodge of the Dodge Motor Co.) at the time of his drowning death in Lake Huron on August 15, 1938. The S-38 was used to aid the search and to eventually transport his body − possibly the only time an S-38 was used as a hearse.

From there, the track gets fuzzy. One story holds that the S-38 was purchased by Floyd Foren Flyers in Detroit just prior to World War II and sold to the Royal Canadian Air Force a few months later. Mayborn wrote “Osa’s Ark” was “reportedly destroyed in a take-off crash in Canada during 1941-42.” An alternate story is found in
P.J. Capelotti’s book Explorer’s Air Yacht. Capelotti wrote that “Osa’s Ark” was “reported damaged by a windstorm in Cuba in February, 1945, while operating for Expreso Aereo Inter-Americano, S.A.” Whatever the case may be, “Osa’s Ark” lives on in the form of Kermit Weeks’ restored S-38, painted in the familiar zebra stripes of the Johnsons’ famous flying boat.

Kermit Weeks’ beautiful S-38 at Fantasy of Flight in Kissimmee, Florida.

My first exposure to the S-38 came when I saw a photo of “Osa’s Ark” in a magazine article long ago. The Johnsons’ list of firsts was impressive, but so was the S-38, which looked to me like a collection of airplane pieces flying in formation, held together with a few struts and wire. And those stripes!

When CMK’s 1:72 model came out, it posed a thought problem: how could you make a structurally sound 1:72 S-38 using resin parts? When I finally screwed up my courage to build the model, I realized that you couldn’t – but there are ways to make this model work.

Strategy one: treat it like it’s five different models: hull/fuselage, engines, tail, wing, and the connection of the various subassemblies. Strategy two: if resin’s not the best material for a particular job, go for something made of metal.

But first, I wrestled with whether to build “Osa’s Ark” in the first place. It’s the most famous example of the S-38, which served so admirably for numerous airlines. The kit has decals for Pan American and New York-Rio-Buenos Aires Lines planes, as well as a Navy example – plus “Osa’s Ark.” Of all S-38s, I thought, “Osa’s Ark” is the most overdone. Then I came to my senses: how many built-up S-38s have you ever seen? I can count them on the fingers of one hand while wearing mittens. Overdone? Horsefeathers! With such a great story, why not take on “Osa’s Ark?”

Well, one good reason is a lack of documentation. The exterior is well covered, but I knew from my reading that the interior was a custom layout built specifically for the Johnsons, and no photos of that arrangement were handy. Thus, while I did some research, I figured, I’d start with the windows.

The windows? Yes! The kit provides vacuformed windows for the side of the plane, which insert between window frames. I didn’t like the somewhat rounded edges of these windows and their unimpressive degree of clarity, so I cleaned all the frames away and inserted carefully-cut lengths of clear plastic, one on each side. These clear panels fit tightly, but I still gave them a bit of super-fine CA glue around the edges, then sanded them and polished them back to clarity. The frames would be painted in much later.

The kit provides a floor with the front cockpit bulkhead and instrument panel and the bulkhead separating the pilots from the cabin both molded in place. It took little effort to clean the basic parts up. Explorer’s Air Yacht said the floor was generally unpainted wood, so I airbrushed a coat of Testors beige on the floor areas, and once dry spattered on a few tiny drops of Minwax cherry stain – not because I had a plan, but because that’s what I use to stain my bases and it happened to be on my workbench. I quickly drew a clean cloth backwards across the floor, pulling the wood stain with it, and, miracle of miracles, I obtained a really convincing wood grain look! Once dry, it was durable and the stain didn’t react with the enamel base paint coat.

The floor after the accidental/miraculous wood grain experiment.

The S-38s were real art deco masterpieces; the interiors were trimmed in hardwood, with the structural formers in the cabin accentuated by decorative flourishes. I masked the floor and painted the bulkhead between the cabin and cockpit burnt sienna to replicate the hardwood. I also made the small built-in wet bar from styrene card, drilling holes to accept glasses and a pitcher. This was also painted burnt sienna and attached to the cabin side of the bulkhead.

The cockpit in the kit has a very cursory instrument panel, consisting of a collection of fairly deep and uniformly-sized holes filling in for instruments. The front bulkhead also has a hole where the access door to the nose compartment (home to things like lines for tying up the boat) should be. I was assisted in reaching these details by my three-year-old daughter, who snapped the front bulkhead/instrument panel off the floor. To her credit, she came and alerted me immediately, and I couldn’t be too unhappy because now I had much better access to these areas!

First came the nose compartment door. I made a new oval door from styrene sheet and CA-glued it in place. After the bulkhead was airbrushed a dark gray, hinges were simulated with bits of brass sheet, as was the handle for opening and closing the door. A contemporary photo of an S-38 cockpit showed there was a large placard on the door; I simulated the plate with a small rectangle of lead foil, and the placard was created from a re-purposed decal.

A view of two important things: the cockpit and the wet bar.

I cut out a styrene shape that replicated the instrument panel and used it as a template for a second panel shape. I marked out the locations of the instruments with a pencil, then pressed the two panels together hard, transferring the locations to the back of the second panel. To the first, still-white panel, I applied Reheat instrument decals, using the photograph to get the right instruments in the right places. I then drilled holes in the second panel for the openings for the instruments and applied Reheat photoetched bezels around the holes. Once the front panel was finished, it was airbrushed black, then given a heavy dry-brushing. The rear panel with the instruments was coated with Pledge with Future Shine and the front panel was dropped into place and allowed to dry. It was subsequently glued over the kit panel. Similar detail was added to the instrument cluster below the panel, and in keeping with the photos, a map case (swiped from a color Eduard set for the P-51D) was added below the panel center.

The center console in the kit was unlike any in my references, so I made a new one from styrene strip. The throttle and mixture lever openings were created from some 1:700 ship railings; styrene and wire made the large brass instruments at the front of the console. Wire and styrene details were added as appropriate, and I cut a rectangular opening at the back of the console to create the space through which the control wires ran to the cockpit roof. After the console was painted, a decal was used to create the placard on its center, and I used fine steel wire to replicate the control wires. Later, I added throttle/mixture handles made from short lengths of stiff wire. White glue was touched to the tops of the wire, resulting in a round bulb handle; once dry, these were painted black or red as appropriate.

Another view of the cockpit, showing the control cables running up to the roof from he throttle assembly.

The kit provides eight fairly generic resin seats. I picked the two that looked the most like pilots’ seats and painted them gray, the outfitted them with some likely-looking photoetched seat belts. I could find no photos of the seats themselves, but reasoned that landing on water, you’d want belts, lest you make an unplanned exit via the windscreen in the event of a hard landing!

The kit control column was wholly inadequate. I made a new one with two lengths of .035 rod, with the swing-over joint covered by a pair of keystone-shaped styrene plates. A piece of braided thread was run from the joint to the top of the column and covered with a .005 styrene sheet plate to mimic the control cable and the anti-fouling plate that protected it. The wheel itself came from a PART detail set for a 1:72 Tatra T-87, a pre-war Czechoslovakian car!

The control column, complete before painting.

I improvised a radio set for the right side of the cockpit based on photos from the instructions for the Little Fokkers 1:48 kit, complete with telegraph key! The rudder pedals were made with styrene rod and Reheat pedals; the pilot’s side had wooden footrests, which were also fashioned from styrene strip and painted the appropriate shade.

A view of the cockpit, showing the rudder pedals and the throttle quadrant to good effect.

Now came the cabin, which remained a mystery. I emailed the Osa and Martin Johnson Safari Museum in Chanute, Kansas, and from there I picked up an ally in the project: Conrad Froelich, the museum director. It’s not every day that an airplane nerd asks about the interior of the Johnsons’ S-38, and Conrad was sure he had something, somewhere in the museum that could help. His search went into gear – first, he found some written descriptions of the interior, but the trail seemed to go cold. Then, six days later, stuck in the back of a filing cabinet, Conrad found them: four large photos, two taken front-to-back and two taken back-to-front, showing the cabin of “Osa’s Ark!”

This was an interior very different from any I’d built before! There was a three-cushion sofa on the left side of the cabin, and two leather recliner-like seats to the right. These seats folded down into a second sleeping area, and below them was room for storage. Back aft on the left side was an equipment rack made of a metal framework and metal mesh. In the very back was the rear bulkhead, with an opening to the restroom area; a silver boarding ladder was also kept in the rear.
Never having made furniture, I started with the sofa. Measuring carefully against the side of the model’s interior, I cut a robust piece of styrene strip for a base, then added the front, sides and back from styrene sheet. The cushions were also styrene, but I applied a fine layer of Apoxie Sculpt putty to them and gently shaped some creases and folds into them with a No. 11 blade. Less was definitely more here – too many folds made them look cartoonish. Subtle was better.

The right-side recliners came next. They were again made with styrene strip with a base, cushion, back and sides. The sides were carefully sanded to capture the contours of the real things, and I was careful to replicate the different seat backs needed for the fold-down bed arrangement. The leather backs and cushions were also given the Apoxie Sculpt treatment.

The seats, with their Apoxie Sculpt cushions. I made an extra, just in case…

Once the leather furniture was done, I gave it all a coat of Testors leather. At Bill Bosworth’s suggestion (he’s built a 1:32 S-38, so he should know!), I dry-brushed with raw umber, which made all the contours and folds really pop.

The cockpit elements all in place, just before the cockpit was sealed.

The rack was a real challenge. The frame was made from .015 by .020 styrene strip; it took several attempts to get the right proportions so that it would fit into the interior properly. When I had it together and the right size, I painted it black. The mesh came from an aquarium net I just happened to be retiring – small squares were cut to size and applied with CA glue. Once fully assembled, the rack was remarkably strong, considering its size.

The rack in place inside the fuselage.

The kit doesn’t provide anything for the bulkheads and openings at the rear of the cabin, so I made one myself. The forward-most bulkhead was most important, since it world show any seams around its edges if it was cut poorly. Once the shape was roughed out from styrene sheet, I cut out the center and added the sides. A second middle bulkhead was also cut out (it could be less precise than the first!) and its center was also opened in proportions that mirrored the first bulkhead. From there, I added the floor inside the center opening and boxed the opening with thin styrene strip, then added the rearmost bulkhead to create a small vestibule-like effect. The whole thing was painted raw sienna, and then I painted some fine lead wire beige and lined the two openings with it to re-create the art-deco trim on these areas.

The rear bulkhead in its very rawest form…

The boarding ladder was fashioned from styrene strip and two bits of bracing wire. It went into the fuselage just ahead of the rear bulkhead.

The rear bulkhead, with its art deco touches, and the boarding ladder.

With all the interior equipment ready to be installed I painted the interior – gray below the windows, beige above. The art deco flourishes carry up to the cabin ceiling, with black cross beams complimenting four mahogany beams that stretched the length of the ceiling. I made the lengthwise beams from styrene strip, but for the crossbeams I cheated – I used lengths of wing walkway decal instead! They were much easier to align at the top of the fuselage, and they snuggled down nicely over the lengthwise beams.

The detail on the cabin ceiling, replicated with black decal walkway strips.

At this point, the furniture was secured to the floor, which was glued into one fuselage side, and the rear bulkhead assembly was pushed into place. It was time to join the fuselage, if only to protect the interior!

I knew the fit would be a little sloppy, so I was ready with the shims, especially along the centerline at the bottom of the plane but also at the very rear “duckbutt” area. The result was an S-38 on a stick – or at least a set of small styrene sticks, all of which were trimmed away and sanded until the S-38’s beautiful contours returned.

Shims, anyone?

This process introduced another problem: my energetic sanding uncovers a host of tiny air bubbles in the resin, especially on the right side of the hull. Dave Parks was nice enough to loan me his bottle of Mr. Surfacer 500; this was applied to the problem areas and gently sanded, curing the bubble rash once and for all.

That’s all for now – next time, I’ll restore the detail on the fuselage and start work on the power eggs!






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.


Dammit, Gannet! Building Sword’s AEW.3, part 2

The Gannet AEW.3 build continues at a deliberate pace, with the holidays and various other things taking a bite out of my modeling time. I also paused to build this for my father-in-law’s N-gauge railroad layout as a Christmas gift:


Who wants a teeny, tiny, itty-bitty, teeny-weenie, little Blizzard?


Then I was able to get back to work on the Gannet!


The floor and bulkheads were joined by the overhead duct in the Sword set to create a single radar observers’ compartment. To keep the compartment in place, I added lengths of styrene strip in one side of the fuselage. This gives a positive location for these parts and a way to ensure that they stay glued in place; nothing is more painful than having to crack open a model after a cockpit breaks loose inside a sealed fuselage!

The completed radar observers' compartment, held in place by styrene strip guides

The completed radar observers’ compartment, held in place by styrene strip guides.


The extra overhead detail panels from the Sword kit fit poorly, and I thought I could add the detail easier on my own, anyway. The extra detailing in the radar observers’ compartment was accomplished fairly quickly, because I did something I rarely do: I stopped to figure out what would actually be visible. Although I had some good photos to work from, they were taken of an aircraft with the seats and much of the radar equipment removed. Put the seats back in, and you can’t see a lot of the detail. I added some structure from styrene strip and rod, made a couple of small black boxes from styrene card and Reheat photoetched instrument faces, and gave it all a wash to pop out the detail. The final touches were the emergency egress handles above the hatch openings; these were made from bits of styrene painted yellow and glued in place. The black stripes were drawn on with a .005mm Rapidograph pen.

Let side of fuselage, with extra detail...

Let side of fuselage, with extra detail…

...And the right side. Note the small emergency egress handle above the door.

…And the right side. Note the small emergency egress handle above the door.


The next item of interest was the nose gear bay roof. The kit provides a good approximation of the basics, but omits the jungle of hydraulic and electrical wires so typical of 1950s wheel wells. Using photos, a copious amount of fine solder of three sizes, styrene bits and even a piece of stiff steel wire here and there, I added additional detail.

The strut was set in place to make sure my added detail didn't make fitting the strut impossible later.

The strut was set in place to make sure my added detail didn’t make fitting the strut impossible later.

Detail in the form of hydraulic lines added to the nose gear bay.

Detail in the form of hydraulic lines added to the nose gear bay.


Then, the whole thing was painted, given a wash and dry-brushed. And it looked great, except for the fact that I painted it the wrong color (interior gray-green). I painted over my work in the correct medium gray color and repeated the wash/dry-brushing routine. A bit of detail painting followed, and the nose wheel compartment was complete and ready to add to the model.

Why do they call it a wash? It only makes the parts look dirtier! I mean, come on!

Why do they call it a wash? It only makes the parts look dirtier! I mean, come on!

At this point, a person not suffering from AMS would glue the interior parts in, join the fuselage halves, and get on with it. Not me! Next steps (pun intended) are the boarding ladder compartment and opening up the intakes in the nose (and creating a new compressor section for the Double Mamba engine to go behind it). Stay tuned for more gruesome details!

71 years ago: the 362nd goes train busting

On May 17, 1944, the 362nd Fighter Group attacked the marshalling yards at Busigny. 27 planes bombed, with 16 providing top cover; the load of 54 500-pound bombs was split between two areas in the yards. Lt. Bill Moore of the 379th noted in his log that the bombs “caused “railroad cars to be blown into the air.” Four planes strafed the second area but were dissuaded from this activity by a flak tower in the woods northeast of the target, which threw up an intense barrage. One P-47, 42-76199 flown by Lt. Bernard J. Elson, was damaged by its fire; his fellow pilots heard him radio that he had been hit and didn’t know if he could make it. After five minutes, Elson radioed, “Sorry, I can’t make it. I’m losing altitude. I’ll have to go down.” A response from one of his flight members came back: “OK boy, hurry back!” Elson was last seen near Quant, west of Cambrai. No one saw a crash or a parachute and his status was listed as missing in action. Lt. Ed MacLean had to force-land P-47D 42-26113 at High Halden when his engine failed; the Thunderbolt was a complete write-off.

70 Years Ago: the 362nd’s Billy Reed and his Close Call

Ten armed recces were flown on March 23 by the 362nd Fighter Group, most of them north of Frankfurt. The Germans continued their desperate evacuation of rail equipment, and two trains loaded with armored vehicles were strafed and heavily damaged by the 379th Fighter Squadron, which hit them with 260-pound fragmentation bombs. Yellow Flight of the 377th went after a small factory, attacking it with rockets. “As the second element of Yellow Flight started to go in on its run, the enemy started to put up a concentrated flak barrage of 20, 40 and 88mm,” said Lt. Crosby Noyes. In the process, “Lady Linda,” the P-47D-30 44-33234 of Lt. Billy Reed, was hit. “Following, I noticed his plane was smoking,” said Noyes.

“Something told me ‘I had it’ as soon as I was hit,” Reed wrote friend Henry Pochily in 1945. “I figured I could ride it across the Rhine at least, smoke or no smoke, but when she started spitting flames I changed my mind. I nearly clobbered myself good and proper getting out. The fact is I came darn near not getting out at all. I was plenty high when I started to get out, but I made two mistakes. First of all, I didn’t slow her up at all. Then I loosened the belt and stood up on the seat. It’s pretty breezy when you’re moving over 200 mph. I got my head and arms out and I was stuck. My goggles and mask blew off and I couldn’t get back in and I couldn’t get back out. It was a very demoralizing position, to say the least. I still don’t know whether I got back in or just rolled over and fell off the side. For a split second I sweated the tail. Then I pulled the joy cord and opened my eyes and saw the plane burning on the ground. The plane had been diving while I was trying to get out and I know I was under 1000 feet when I finally did get out. I floated only 30 seconds or so before I landed. The Jerries were waiting for me as if they were expecting me.” Reed was in captivity for a week before being liberated by the 4th Armored Division. Lt. William McKain was also hit and bellied in, but returned to the group safely.

The 378th sent out an 11-plane mission to the area, putting 22 bombs into rail targets and destroying four locomotives, four box cars and a flat car, a flak car and 15 passenger cars. A strafing pass added two light flak positions, two locomotives and a truck to the carnage. Near Wettlar, Lt. Milton Mannick gave chase to an Fw 190, damaging it but not bringing back conclusive evidence of a kill.

The next mission was another big one, let by Capt. Darwyn Shaver, striking a marshalling yard south of Schulctern. The toll was 20 box cars, a flak car and five locomotives destroyed by bombing and strafing. This was followed by the dispatch of 16 P-47s to rail targets near Breberan, where they dropped 27 general-purpose bombs and five napalm bombs. A total of 30 cars was destroyed, and half of them were loaded with armored vehicles. Strafing added a locomotive and 15 more boxcars to the tally. The next mission, to the same area, racked up eight flat cars, two trucks and a light flak position. Adding to the day’s tally was Capt. Kent Geyer, who shot down his second enemy plane.


70 years ago: Col. Joe sinks a Battleship

Four squadron-sized missions were flown against Brest on August 25 by the 362nd Fighter Group, two by the 377th Fighter Squadron. The principle target was the harbor, which could be used to evacuate troops to Crozon. Col 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, as Laughlin led the 377th’s evening mission, he peeled off to bomb the cruiser again when it suddenly exploded with such force that Laughlin felt it at 8000 feet.

“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.”

“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 French battleship Clemenceau, which the Germans were planning to use to block the harbor.

Laughlin and Chodor

Laughlin added the “cruiser” to his scoreboard – it’s right next to John Chodor’s knee in the above photograph – and it was officially recorded as a cruiser for many years. The reasons seem obvious – as the allies were liberating France, it would have seemed a bit unseemly to celebrate the destruction of one of their battleships. But that was indeed what it was; no German cruisers were in Brest at the time, and there were few of them anyway. The Clemenceau had been damaged recently by a Lancaster raid (the RAF still claims its destruction), and would certainly never be useful to the Germans as anything but a hulk to prevent the allies from using Brest.



70 years ago: Joe Matte gets four for the 362nd FG

On August 20, 1944, the 362nd Fighter Group launched six eight-plane missions to support ground forces around Dreux. During the 378th Fighter Squadron’s first mission of the day, Lt. Stanley Stepnitz’s P-47 was hit by flak and he bailed out. “I was flying Blue Three on a dive-bombing mission near Laval when I developed oil pressure trouble at 10,000 feet,” Stepnitz recalled. “When I looked it was at zero. I wanted to head for the channel to bail out; she started bucking a few minutes later and subsequently froze entirely. I glided down to 3000 feet, stalled it and jumped out. It was a delayed jump and I was only in the air a few seconds. Captain (Wilfred) Crutchfield came by and I threw my ripcord at him. I missed as I didn’t lead him enough. I saw my plane blazing in the woods toward which I was heading. I landed in the trees and fell on my back to the ground.” Stepnitz hid from German soldiers and French gendarmes, sometimes by climbing trees, before some French civilians helped him with clothes and a rendezvous with the French Underground, which delivered him back to American forces.

The 377th attacked a small town as ordered by the ground controller, then were vectored toward a group of tanks, which they strafed and bombed, killing six tanks. On the 378th’s second mission of the day, Lt. Joe Matte was flying as Firebrick Yellow Leader, which was acting as top cover for Red Flight. “We were vectored to Etampes, and then north to Paris. Red Flight shot up two trucks on the way to Paris at 1545. I was at 5000 feet covering Red Flight at 2000 feet and going down slowly, so I started to climb. Red three called eight (bogies) in to Red Leader and Red Leader acknowledged the call. Evidently, the planes, which were Bf 109s, did not see me as I climbed above them because every one of them was going after Red Flight. I tried to warn Red Leader but some controller cut me out on the R/T. Red Leader saw them in time to start turning to the left. The leader and his wingman wasted no time on Red One and Two, so I went down to break this attack up. The two Huns saw me and started to climb in a left turn with me in perfect position to shoot. As I fired at 200 yards, the No. 2 Hun went inside the turn of his leader. Every round seemed to hit him as he flipped to the right directly into his leader. Two explosions resulted and sent two Huns to earth. No one bailed out. I started another climbing turn to the left when I observed four Huns firing on another P-47, so I went down. The number two and three men broke to the right, the leader pulling up to the left in a steep climb. As he did a roll and ended up in my gunsight about 200 yards away, just a short burst blew him to pieces. I flew through the debris and picked up a little blood on my canopy.”

Matte looked to the left and saw a Bf 109 trying to make a deflection shot on him. “I pulled around straight into him, but I didn’t have enough time to shoot so I started to turning to the left with him. In three turns I was almost in position to shoot, so I fired a short burst behind him. This seemed to make him loosen up his turn so I easily pulled a deflection shot at him and let him have a short burst at 300 yards which cut off a part of his left wing. He flipped over on his back and bailed out immediately. The ship continued spinning upside down and one Bf 109 started after another P-47, so I started after him and he broke away to the right. I let him go so I could climb back for cover. My wingman was still with me at this time. As I reached 5000 feet, a 109 overshot me without firing, so I started after him in a slight dive. It was at this time that I spied 20 plus Fw 190s (from JG.26) coming down from approximately 10,000 feet. I then told my number two man (Lt. James W. Pettit) to wait until I gave the signal to break. I was chasing the 109 and was almost ready to fire when I looked around for my number two man and he wasn’t in sight. I looked too long for him, allowing the Fw 190s to catch me. When I hit 1000 feet, two Fw 190s were firing, one each from the left and the right. The third ship that fired on me shot above (me) but hit the prop and came above me, breaking to the left and up. I turned to the right and down, and as I made a 180-degree turn I saw two large explosions on the ground, but I can’t claim this to be the two 190s because I didn’t have time to look. I hit deck for home and managed to get away from the Fw 190s, but without my wingman.” Pettit, in P-47D-20 42-76469, had in fact been shot down; his Thunderbolt crashed near Poissy sur Seine, and the Germans buried the pilot nearby.

Lt. Howard Kelgard saw three Bf 109s make a pass at him and his wingman, then turn away with the P-47s in hot pursuit. “Two 109s broke away and up,” he said. “The other headed for the deck when he realized I had got on his tail. I fired a 30 degree deflection shot. He started violent evasive actions heading for Paris proper. I closed to 100 yards, giving a long burst and observing many strikes about the wings and fuselage. He continued on, but looked as though he was crippled. I expended my ammunition, then called to Red Four, who was right with me to take over, but his radio was faulty. Then I had to break away.”

Lt. Laurie Greenleaf was flying in the number four position in the cover flight. When the enemy planes were spotted, “We reversed our turn and started down to the left,” he reported. “I was about 200 yards behind my lead man (Lt. Gordon L. Struchen) and looking for enemy aircraft as we went down. The first Bf 109 I saw came by me about 25 yards off my right wing, bottom up, and at the same time I saw one high to the right. There were P-47s and Bf 109s going around in a Lufbery to the left. In the confusion I was uncertain which ship was my lead so I started to pull up and saw a ship which looked like his and was in the logical place for him to be. I started towards him and a Bf 109 came in on him firing and seemed to be getting strikes. I opened fire on the Bf 109 from about 1500 feet and 30 degrees. My bullets went behind at first, but I pulled my lead and got strikes around the cockpit and the Bf 109 broke left and seemed to glide. I broke with him and fired a short blast and he started to turn right. He at once broke left again in a near roll and I followed and fired a long burst at him at about 80 or 90 degrees. At first my bullets went behind him, but I pulled my lead up and saw strikes on both wings and either side of the cockpit. As he was in a vertical bank he then flipped to the right and started a long gliding left turn towards the ground with smoke pouring from the plane. I started to go in for another burst, but we were outnumbered and I thought I might be needed in the fight. I started back up looking for the others but could not see a single aircraft, friend or foe. I looked back at the ship I had hit and saw it had crashed to the ground and gone up in smoke.” The final Bf 109 fell to Maj. Richard Harbeson, the group executive officer. The leader of Matte’s flight went missing from this fight; Greenleaf heard Gordon Struchen, who was flying P-47D-22 42-26045, yell “They got me!” over the radio; Struchen bailed out but later returned, albeit injured. The victors was 44-kill ace Oblt. Wilhelm Hofmann of 8./JG 26 and 23-kill ace Leutnant Hans Prager of 7./JG 26. The victims came from 4./JG 77 and 5./JG 77.The 377th bombed two tanks later in the day.

Finally, late in the day, the 379th sent 12 planes to the bend in the Seine southwest of Rouen and dumped six-hour delay fuse bombs on three ferry landings to hamper German movements during hours of darkness. “I could see five or six planes on the bomb run at one time,” remembered Lt. Robert Searle. “(The leader) pulled out of the dive on a heading toward the base at Rennes and we all formed up and came home, most of us landing in the twilight. One of the most impressive things about the mission was the almost total lack of radio chatter, with most commands given by a dip of the wing as taught in training but seldom seen during the real thing.” Air and radio discipline aside, the delayed fuses made it impossible to gauge the success of the mission. The 378th caught a convoy of seven trucks in the open and destroyed them.