68 years ago: the 4th FG’s Kenneth Foster starts his escape story

On 31 March, during an escort to Hassel, Lt. Kenneth Foster o the 4th Fighter Group suffered an engine failure at 17,000 feet and began gliding toward friendly territory. Foster finally crash-landed near Ommen, Holland. Foster was greeted by Dutch civilians. One told him to hide in the woods; later, this man and two boys returned and brought food and clothing for Foster. In the late afternoon, one of the boys returned with another man, who pointed a gun at Foster and turned him over to the Germans. They put him in the local jail. Through a cell window, a boy brought him a worn hacksaw blade, and Foster and two RAF personnel took turns sawing the bars in the window. After their evening meal, the trio escaped and found a friendly farmer who hid them and managed to make contact with the local underground. They hid for a week while the allies advanced toward them, then traveled to the recently-liberated town of Meppel. He returned to the group on April 21.


69 years ago: the Fourth Fighter Group in Action over Munich

On 18 March 1944, Blakeslee led the Fourth Fighter Group’s escort mission to Munich. Eight Fw 190s were sighted 5000 feet below the group, just above the bombers, and four sections of Mustangs descended on them. “As we started down on them, they were darting in and out of the clouds,” said Duane Beeson. “I closed on one, and my second burst must have hit his belly tank, because the whole aircraft immediately blew up in my face and I was unable to avoid it. I had to fly through it, and I felt pieces of the Bf 109 strike my aircraft before I could break clear. I could feel the heat in my cockpit, and I immediately checked my instruments. I looked down and saw what was left of the 109 going down, covered in flame.”

Blakeslee and Don Gentile, his wingman, dove at the same time. “As we approached, the eight enemy aircraft split, with four diving line abreast, so we followed them to the deck,” Blakeslee said, “closing to 50 yards before opening fire. I took the No. 3 aircraft and Capt. Gentile took the No. 4. When I finally closed to within 200 yards of the No. 3 enemy aircraft I saw strikes all along the tail, fuselage cockpit and engine. The cockpit hood fell off and the engine started to smoke and burn and the left undercarriage fell down. I did not see him go in, but Capt. Gentile saw him hit the ground.”

Ralph Hofer opened fire on a Bf 109 and “saw strikes and an explosion as pieces flew off and black smoke poured out of the falling enemy aircraft,” he reported. “I fired on a Bf 109 which went into the clouds but popped out again as the canopy came off. The pilot bailed out.”

Hofer prepared to attack two 109s, but his prop ran away. He set course for Switzerland, and started to climb to bail out when his prop came back to normal. “I decided that with a little luck I could make it back home. I landed at Manston with six gallons of gas.”

Archie Chatterley, “Tom” Biel and “Cowboy” Megura also destroyed Bf 109s, but there were losses. Lt. Kenneth Smith and Lt. Edward Freeburger had taken up position on the lead box of B-17s when a gaggle of 20 Fw 190s wheeled around in front of the formation to make head-on attacks on the B-17s. “There were so many Huns around that I hardly knew which to go for,” said Smith. I called Lt. Freeburger to take one (while) I would take the other of the two just below us. I got on the Fw 190’s tail and opened fire. I closed in and gave him a long burst. I finally got strikes along the port wing root. The enemy aircraft went into a spin and white smoke started pouring out. Just then Lt. Freeburger called and said there were four of them on our tail. I broke and started climbing full bore. The four couldn’t climb and turn with me so they gave up and started for the deck; I immediately whipped over and started after them.

“These four Fw 190s were still running ahead of me at about 300 feet going east but I was catching them fast. When I cleared my tail before starting to attack, I saw six coming down at me, so I started climbing full bore in a slight turn. Those six behind me did not press their advantage. I was alone then, so I climbed back to the bomber formation. When I joined again, there were two Bf 109s making underneath attacks.” Smith drove them off. “I stayed with them for another 10 minutes and then started for home.” Smith made it back; Freeburger did not. His Mustang was shot down, crashing near Nancy. Lt. Woodrow Sooman of 336 Squadron was also shot down; he was taken prisoner by the Germans.

69 years ago: Back to Berlin with the 4th and 357th FGs

On March 4, 1944, the Eighth Air Force made its second attempt to reach Berlin. At takeoff time, weather was poor, but even so 500 B-17s pressed on. While racing to rendezvous with the bombers, the 357th Fighter Group saw other Mustangs returning to England. Much of the force – bombers as well as fighters – had heard a recall signal, the authenticity of which historians still debate. Just 29 B-17s pressed on for Berlin, and shielded by cloud, they hit the target without seeing German fighters. After bombing, however, the Germans appeared – and out of the clouds, so did the Mustangs

Southeast of Kassel, the 363rd’s White Flight spotted a Bf 109 to the right and behind them. F/O Charles Yeager broke into it; the enemy fighter, sporting a large red and black devil’s head logo on its side, turned right and went into a 50-degree dive. “I closed up fast and opened fire at 200 yards,” Yeager said. “I observed strikes on the fuselage and wing roots, with pieces flying off. I was overrunning so I pulled up and did an aileron roll and fell in behind again and started shooting at 150 yards. The enemy aircraft’s engine was smoking and windmilling. I overran again, observing strikes on the fuselage and canopy. I pulled up again and did a wingover on his tail. His canopy flew off and the pilot bailed out.” Robert Wallen downed another German fighter, but Capt. John Medieros was bagged by flak and bailed out to become a POW.

Just before the bombers reached the initial point, 20 Bf 109s and Fw 190s swarmed in to attack, eight from head on in two sections with the others as top cover. After the first eight made their attacks, the top cover dove on the covering fighters of the Fourth Fighter Group. Lt. Hugh Ward of 335 Squadron gave chase to a Bf 109 in a dive. “I opened fire as he started a slow turn to the left. I observed strikes on his wing root. He realized the situation and flicked over, and he dove straight down with me on his tail. I gave him a three-second burst with good strikes. He continued straight down, heading for heavy clouds as I began to overrun him. I pulled back on the throttle and gave him another blast. I got a heavy concentration of strikes all over his cockpit and engine covering. I kept firing as the Bf 109 started to come apart. I attempted to back off but was too late. A large section of the enemy aircraft smashed my canopy and windscreen, and it must have sheared off most of my tail section. My plane began to snap viciously, end-over-end, and my right wing snapped off. I was stunned momentarily, but I managed to jettison my canopy. I pulled my harness release, which threw me out of the cockpit. I delayed opening my chute because of the speed, and I fell through the cloud layer. I opened my chute just in time. I landed in the suburbs of Berlin and I was captured by civilians.”

Nicholas “Cowboy” Megura was behind Ward. “At 18,000 feet, the P-51’s wing came off at the root and disintegrated. The canopy and tail came off as I dodged past. Pieces carried away my antenna and hit my stabilizer.”

Megura (back row, left) with Duane Beeson, John Godfrey, James Goodson and Don Gentile.

Megura (back row, left) with Duane Beeson, John Godfrey, James Goodson and Don Gentile.

Megura’s controls were frozen by compressability, and he had to use trim to pick up the nose. “The only evasive action taken by the enemy aircraft was a weave to right or left. I barrel-rolled and positioned myself 1000 feet above and to the side of him. I dropped flaps and dove astern. This engagement brought us down to 2000 feet. Just as I was about to fire, the enemy aircraft pulled up sharply 3000 feet and jettisoned its canopy. The pilot bailed out. The enemy aircraft crashed and burned.” Clearing his tail, Megura discovered he was over a grass aerodrome, and he strafed and set fire to a Ju 52, the strafed a locomotive pulling 10 or 12 cars. “Seeing that it was time to ‘leave out,’ I set course for home.”

Don Gentile had what he described as a “hairy” day. “I took off with my wingman Johnny Godfrey, and the rest of the flight was to join me, but due to weather we never met,” he wrote in an account found on the back of his log book.

They broke overcast at 33,000 feet after flying instruments for an hour. “After being on course for a couple hours still no one joined us, so we decided to continue on alone. When we were approximately 100 miles from the target the weather seemed to clear up as if you would take a knife and cut it. In the distance I spotted approximately 50 Do 217s in formation climbing for altitude and above them were about 100 Fw 190s. They were getting ready to attack the ‘Big Boys’ head on. I called Johnny and asked him if he wanted to go ahead and attack knowing there were no other friendly fighters in this area. So, as usual, Johnny said ‘You’re the boss.’”

Gentile went for the Do 217s, hoping to disrupt their formation so the bombers could unload before the German fighters could get reorganized. “I began firing at tail end ‘Charlie’ and the Do’s started diving for the deck. About this time Johnny started screaming that the 100-plus Fw’s were coming down on us The Do’s were cross-firing on us at the same time. I had one Do smoking badly when I had to break away due to the 100+ coming in on us. Johnny and I met them head on going through the complete German formation; from then on all hell broke loose,” said Gentile.

“Planes were going up and down and every which way. I thought this was it. In the midst of twisting and turning I managed to get on an Fw, who overshot me, and was lucky enough to get him. Johnny started to scream (that) 50 more were coming in at 6 o’clock, so I started to aileron roll for the deck. I had to pull up in a vertical climb into the Fw’s. At this time I noticed a brightly-painted Fw on my tail blazing away and Johnny screaming for me to break. I broke so hard that my plane started doing snap-rolls; when I got the aircraft under control the Fw was slightly ahead and above with me on his tail diving and twisting, which lasted a good 10 minutes. I managed to get his aircraft on fire and noticed he had it, so I broke away.” With their ammunition gone, the two headed for home. “We had to dive for the clouds with them on our tail, skidding at the same time. By the grace of God we reached the cloud bank, and after flying instruments for a while we let down through (the bottom of the cloud deck). During the combat I lost my maps so I didn’t know my position, and Johnny didn’t know either so we took the general direction home.”

Gentile and Godfrey landed at Hurn Airdrome, all but out of gas. “Thank God for a good wingman, or I wouldn’t be able to write this today.”

During the mission, Paul Ellington suffered an engine failure and bailed out; he became a POW. On the return home, Lt. Robert Richards was killed in a crash-landing at the advanced base at Framlingham.  

69 years ago: weather spoils the first trip to Berlin

On 3 March, 1944, the Eighth Air Force made its first trip to Berlin escorted by P-51 Mustangs, but weather intervened to make the day less than spectacular. After  rendezvousing with the bombers, the 357th Fighter Group found its mission was aborted because of bad weather. The 4th Fighter Group was luckier; flights from 335 and 336 Squadrons broke off from the main body to fend off enemy aircraft. With nine planes, 336 Squadron got into a battle with 60 enemy fighters and claimed eight victories, but in turn lost Lts. Vermont Garrison, Glen Herter and Philip “Pappy” Dunn. Herter was lured down by the low element of German fighters and was bounced; he died when his Mustang crashed. Dunn got lost on the way home, and with his radio out and no way to get a vector to cross the Channel he headed for Spain. Dunn had already destroyed an Me 210 during the mission, and eight miles from the border he spotted an He 111. Unable to resist, Dunn shot down the bomber, then ran out of gas as he circled to watch it crash, ending up a POW. The same fate befell Garrison, who managed to destroy two enemy planes with three of his four guns jammed. Unfortunately, his P-51B was hit by flak. Lt. George Barnes was last seen off the Dutch coast on his way home with his engine cutting out badly. He was never seen again.

The 357th also lost a Mustang, but recovered the pilot thanks to the Fourth. On the way home, the engine of Lt. Robert Foy’s P-51B failed and Foy bailed out over the channel. Lt. Howard Hively of the Fourth Fighter Group, himself a survivor of a channel bail-out, heard the distress calls and made a low-level search, located Foy in his dinghy and circled until an RAF Air Rescue Service Walrus arrived. The Walrus directed a high-speed launch to the scene and Foy was rescued, unharmed except for a mild case of shock.


69 years ago: the Fourth Fighter Group bombs Gilze Rijen

On 30 January 1944, Capt. Raymond Care led the Fourth Fighter Group on a dive-bombing mission to the Gilze Rijen Aerodrome, with two sections in each squadron loaded with 500-pound bombs and the other two sections flying cover. The group hit a fuel dump and one of the runways. While the bombs were falling, the top cover was attacked by 15 to 20 Bf 109s. Lt. Raymond Clotfelter’s section had dodged four diving Bf 109s when he spotted a Bf 109 “coming in at 9 o’clock and when he started to pull deflection on me, I called a break and immediately flicked over into an aileron turn. I saw three other enemy aircraft off to my right approximately 1500 yards away. I decided I could catch them, so I pushed everything to the firewall and closed very quickly.” When the Bf 109s recovered from their dives, “I pulled deflection and opened fire,” said Clotfelter. “After a short burst, I pushed my nose through again and fired a longer burst. I closed to 100 yards, seeing strikes all over the cockpit, pieces falling off the tail and a fire. I had to break off to the right and as I did, I passed within a wing span of his plane.” The plane dove to earth and exploded.

Raymond Clotfelter

Raymond Clotfelter

Capt. “Mike” Sobanski was leading the top cover, and one Bf 109 made a pass at his section. “As he broke away, I saw another Bf 109 dive head-on past us, and I followed him down,” Sobanski reported. “I gave him a short burst in a 70-degree dive, observing no strikes, He started pulling up, turning left and I fired a 20-degree deflection shot. I observed strikes in the wings and near the cockpit. A large patch of white smoke came out after my last burst and he flicked left, smoking badly. Lt. (Howard) Moulton, my No. 2, saw him go down in flames after he flicked.”

Mike Sobanski (left) and James Goodson relax between missions.

Mike Sobanski (left) and James Goodson relax between missions.

While the top cover was engaged, another group of 109s appeared behind the planes that had just bombed. The Mustangs thought they were friendly and orbited to join up, according to Lt. Paul Ellington. “They turned out to be all Bf 109s, about six or eight in number. We engaged them immediately and three of them dived for the deck.”

Lt. Kendall “Swede” Carlson knocked down a Bf 109, the saw another P-47 with a Messerschmitt behind it. “Lt. Ellington cut inside of me and took him off the 47’s tail,” said Carlson. The 109 hit in a pall of smoke and flame on a mud flat.  Additional victories fell to Lt. Vermont Garrison and Lt. Duane Beeson.

69 Years Ago: “Goody,” Wherman and Garrison keep Blakeslee from buying the farm

On January 7, 1944, the Fourth Fighter Group covered bombers coming from Ludwigshafen, and the hard-flying Don Blakeslee was nearly undone by his aggressiveness. Near Hesdin, about a dozen Fw 190s attacked straggling B-17s from out of the sun. Blakeslee tried to bounce the enemy planes, but was cut off by some Spitfires and joined James “Goody” Goodson’s Red Section. “I had climbed up 12,000 or 14,000 feet when I saw more Fw 190s attacking straggling Forts,” said Blakeslee. “I went down on these, being covered by Capt. Goodson’s section, and chased one enemy aircraft down to between 2000 and 3000 feet.”

Goodson, with wingman Lt. Robert Wehrman in tow, followed Blakeslee line astern “to the best of my ability,” he said, although he admitted it was “a rough ride.” “Other 190s attempted to attack, but usually broke away down through the clouds when I turned into them.”

Suddenly, Blakeslee was jumped by three Fw 190s. One Fw 190 made a “determined attack, firing at Lt. Col. Blakeslee even after I started firing at him,” said Goodson. “When I started getting strikes on him, he broke hard port, but even though he pulled streamers from his wingtips I was able to pull my sights through him. He suddenly did two and a half flick rolls and then split-S’ed vertically through some light scud cloud. I followed in a steep wing-over and had to pull out hard to miss some trees as the cloud was lower than I had realized. As I did so, I caught sight of an explosion. Since the 190 had gone through vertically, I feel sure he could not have pulled out even if he had not been damaged.”

Goodson was soon able to join with Blakeslee again. “Before I could get close enough to prevent it, a 190 came in on Lt. Col. Blakeslee and commenced firing at quite short range,” said Goodson, The German scored hits – 71 by the count of Blakeslee’s ground crew. Goodson got on his tail and fired, “and was relieved to see strikes all over him, and see him peel away and crash in flames on the ground, which was quite close,” said Goodson. Lt. Vermont Garrison damaged Blakeslee’s third pursuer.

“The enemy aircraft I was attacking suddenly broke off the turn, straightened out and went into haze,” said Blakeslee. “I followed and as he came out I was dead line astern. I fired a three to four second burst, observing strikes on the enemy aircraft’s tail and starboard wing. Pieces came from the cockpit. The enemy aircraft then did a half-flick to the right and went in. My radio had been shot out and my aircraft was spraying oil badly.” Blakeslee nursed his damaged Thunderbolt home as he and his escorts were repeatedly bounced by Bf 109s, but by now only Wherman, on his first show, had ammunition. The two other pilots made mock attacks to throw off the Germans’ aim. Blakeslee landed at Manston, having survived the mission with his seventh kill.

Christmas, 1944: The 4th Fighter Group downs 12 but loses Don Emerson

On Dec. 25, 1944, the 4th Fighter Group escorted bombers to the Bonn/Trier area, where the Germans had a Christmas gift waiting in the form of 30 Fw 190s and Bf 109s. “Huns were reported at 12 o’clock to the bombers,” said Maj. Pierce McKennon. “ We spotted three Fw 190s at two o’clock, which we immediately engaged. All four of us ended up with 190s on our tails. I yelled at Lt. (Charles) Poage to break, but it was too late as the Fw 190 had just finished him off. His plane went down burning, but he succeeded in bailing out.” Poage had bagged two Fw 190s before a third one shot him down near Bonn. He became a POW. “The Fw 190 on my tail finally broke and dived to the deck,” McKennon continued. “I followed and shot quite a few bursts at him, getting occasional strikes. I pulled up to clear my tail, and Lt. (Tim) Cronin closed in and fired, getting numerous strikes. The Jerry pulled up rolled over on his back and bailed out.”

At the same time, Capt. Donald Emerson went after six enemy fighters on his own, and he shot down two of them. Lt. Victor Rentschler and Lt. William Hoelscher each destroyed a Bf 109 and teamed to knock down an Fw 190. Lt. Cronin downed an Fw 190 in addition to the one he shared with Maj. McKennon, and Maj. Fred Glover knocked down an Fw 190 of his own. Lt. Van Chandler destroyed a Bf 109 and an Fw 190. The day’s total was 12 kills. Sadly, ground fire claimed Emerson on the way home; he was killed in the crash of his Mustang.