Boxing Day, 1944: the 362nd tangles with Jabos and leads a mercy mission to Bastogne

On December 26, the 362nd Fighter Group flew nine missions in support of III Corps. The group destroyed 98 trucks, 40 of which were loaded with gasoline or ammunition, two armored vehicles, and six gun positions.

At dawn, the group attacked Remichampagne, which was held by the 14th Fallschirmjager Regiment, and devastated the town. They arrived just ahead of the 53rd Armored Infantry and the 37th Tank battalions, and there was no forward air controller, but the group was able to operate within a few hundred yards of American troops, and sent many of the Germans to flight before the ground forces moved in. The 378th  Fighter Squadron’s haul was especially impressive: three buildings in Donnage were flattened with bombs and 90 trucks were wiped out by bombing and strafing. “The Germans were retreating and didn’t have enough gasoline for their vehicles, so they were taking them out by train on flatbed cars,” said Duncan Morton. “We were strafing one of these trains and I picked out a large truck. On my strafing run I was coming in fairly low when I shot at it and it was an ammunition truck. It blew up the truck… A massive blow-up and I flew right through the flames of the explosion. Parts of that truck flew past me, especially one large fender off the truck. None of these things hit my airplane, fortunately!” Troops moved into Bourscheid immediately after the attack.

The 379th Fighter Squadron was “on our way to the area around Bastogne,” said Lt. Ralph Sallee, with Lt. Howard Sloan’s flight low and Sallee’s flight as high cover. Above the front, Sallee spotted 25 Fw 190s strafing American troops and called in the bandits. As Sloan’s flight moved to attack them, he ordered them to drop their bombs with the fuses set on “safe;” all did except for Lt. Forrest Fegan, whose bombs exploded, throwing a geyser of dirt and snow into the air. According to group lore, Fegan’s jettisoned bombs exploded and knocked down an Fw 190 that had been on his tail. However, “We were too high and had not engaged in the fight yet when we got rid of our bomb loads,” said Sallee.

Ralph Sallee and his P-47D

Ralph Sallee and his P-47D

With no hesitation, “Sloan dove straight into the mess to drive the FWs off our troops,” Sallee said. “My flight made head-on passes on the FWs to drive them off of both our troops and to help Sloan’s flight.  It was in trouble by the time my cover flight could engage. When I led my three pilots into that mess of FWs, it was like taking a gulp and saying to yourself, ‘well, here goes.’ If I ever asked for divine guidance, it was then.  Possibly that came” – Sallee had moved his flight over slightly, fortuitously putting the sun directly at his back and blinding the Germans to his Thunderbolts for a precious split second.

“In the short time that we took to lose altitude and get rid of our bombs, we were obliged to make head-on passes to help our men as the enemy turned to meet us. The ‘head-on pass’ is something that is suicide, as the cannon on the Fw 190 was lethal with its superior range – I was told that by Francis Gabreski.” Fortunately, the Germans’ aim failed them, and the P-47s turned into them.

“The Fw 190 that I had challenged broke off and started a Lufbery circle,” Sallee continued. “He was on my tail and me on his. He finally broke when he saw that I was gaining on him and he went into all sorts of acrobatics to lose me. At one point, he went into a spin. When he started a circle on me again, I gained enough lead to open fire on him. The gun camera did not verify any of the preliminary fight. It only operates for seconds while firing. However, the short bursts caused the camera to show me outrunning him, getting the lead to shoot. In fact, I believe that I started to pass him. My camera picked up the tremendous turning as the tracers made a tight arc pattern under my large cowling. I think I was actually shooting in front of him from the top, but I was blinded by my big cowling. He suddenly straightened out and cut his throttle, which threw me into the bad condition of passing him, thus making it possible for him to take a shot at me.

“I did everything possible to stop my overrun, even firing my guns, as that slows you 10 mph, and I ended up right beside him.” From just 40 feet away, Sallee could see the German pilot slumped forward in the cockpit, clearly hit by machine gun fire. “I shot no more and watched the FW head straight down and explode. I had no verification of a victory so I squeezed off a few rounds to turn on my camera as he exploded. The explosion is seen clearly in my film.”

Now, Sallee was low and clawing to regain speed after the turning fight with the Fw 190. “I was in a bad position,” he said, and just then, “another FW came down on me. I turned into him – the only defense I had was, again, a head-on pass. Then it started all over again. This time there were more aerobatics on his part while I chopped my throttle and waited; then, once again, around and around at full ‘war boost’ throttle with water injection. This is a deadly way to fight a FW according to the conversation I had with Gabreski after the war. In circling in a dog fight, the pilot must make the tightest turning possible. That is what is demanded. This requires that a P-47 must be kept at the very edge of a high-speed stall using full power. I found that it could be done by using the trim tab to help take pressure off of the stick so you could get the ‘feel’ back. There is too much horsing back on the control otherwise.”

The German pilot sensed that Sallee was dropping back a little and started a maximum climb.” I could only take one long burst to nail him. My only chance. The P-47 could never climb like an Fw 190.”

Sallee’s wingman, Lt. Louis Bauer, had steered away an Fw 190 angling for Sallee’s tail. “He had the presence of mind to call and say, ‘I am still with you, “Sally.”’ He did everything perfectly and I was so thankful. I was able to get enough long-range shots on the second FW to set him on fire while he gradually was outclimbing me, headed for home. Bauer confirmed my second successful shoot down and my film verifies this as you can see the flames. It was a bright white fire as I had probably hit his oxygen bottles. The Fw 190’s breathing oxygen system used high-pressure bottles whereas ours was 425 pounds max pressure in large stainless bottles. Bauer confirmed my second FW as pieces fell off of it.”

Lt. Ray Murphy was one of the pilots countering the first attack. He turned into them and opened fire with a deflection shot. “I started firing at 1000 yards and closed to 300 feet,” Murphy said. “My strikes sparkled behind his cockpit and set the fuel tanks aflame. I flew alongside and could see the pilot slumped in his seat. The Fw 190 then dove into the ground and exploded. Back to the fight, I got strikes on another Fw 190 but suddenly my P-47 was hit by 20mm ground fire that exploded in my engine.” Despite the hit, which was very likely from friendly fire, he nursed his plane “Chief Seattle” back to base. Murphy’s second kill was not confirmed until a review in September 1991.

Lt. Barton Williams bagged two as well. “B.T.’s film showed him on the deck shooting down one Fw 190, sliding over the hill into the next valley and downing another!” recalled Lt. Robert Searl. “The film was literally a fighter pilot’s dream come true – to see a whole valley full of enemy aircraft in full-throttle retreat just ahead at our 12 o’clock position.” Lt. Frederick W. Bly also downed one of the fighters.

There was one loss: Lt. Sloan was in hot pursuit of an Fw 190 strafing the troops and had mortally wounded the enemy Fw 190 when his P-47D-27-RE, 42-27256, was shot up badly by fire from the G.I.’s on the ground and he bellied in right on the front lines. His fate was unknown until he unexpectedly returned to the group three days later.

When Sallee broke off from his second Fw 190, he saw “an empty sky except for my wing man. Then the rest of my flight found me and tagged on, plus one from Sloan’s flight. With Sloan nowhere in sight, I led the five of us back to the base where Fegan and one other in my flight did victory rolls. I chose not to do so.”

“I think that the willingness of all of our squadron to take on these most dangerous head-on passes made this a successful mission.” Sallee said the entire mission took just an hour and 20 minutes, but the pilots of the squadron claimed eight kills and two damaged. The victims were Lt. Horst Ertmann of II./JG1,  Ofw. Georg Hutter of 5./JG11, Ofw. Reinhard Flecks of 6./JG11, and Uffz. Ferdinand Nusse, Fw. Johann Ruhberg, Lt. Heinz Fresia, Ofhr. Paul Bruhl and Helmut Bullenkamp, all of 8./JG1. None survived the battle.

While the 101st Airborne Division was pinned down at Bastogne, a group of pilots from disparate groups met at A-82, an airfield near Etain, France to discuss a special mission. They included the crew of a C-47 and two glider pilots. The surrounded paratroopers were in dire need of additional medical supplies and personnel, and the mission would call for a single C-47 to tow a CG-4 loaded with supplies and nine medics.

Initially, the plan called for four already-airborne P-61 Black Widows of the 425th Night Fighter Squadron to escort the glider and tow plane to Bastogne. A Lt. Colonel Halfinger, who had been flying L-4s into the area, found this idea ridiculous. “Hell, you’ll never see them and they’ll never see you.” Turning, he pointed at some men nearby and told them he wanted “four planes to escort these guys in – you can use those on alert.” The alert planes were a section from the 377th, among them the acting group commander, Maj. Berry Chandler, Lt. Bob Campbell and Lt. Chuck Mann. Halfinger told them to weave back and forth in front of the 130-mph glider/tow tandem and “take out anything that fires.”

The crews of the C-47 and the glider took off and headed for Bastogne. The P-47s took off afterward; the Thunderbolts were fast enough that Mann even snapped a photo of the C-47 and CG-4 as they lifted off and still had time to catch up with them. As they droned across the snow-covered landscape at 400 feet, “It was quite comforting to see those four Thunderbolts weaving around in front of us,” C-47 pilot Captain Raymond H. Ottomann wrote. “About halfway between the IP and Bastogne, we saw gunners swinging their guns onto us and expected a hosing of machine-gun fire, but they were apparently nervous about our escort and held their fire.”

Keeping the railroad that paralleled the route to Bastogne off their right wing, Ottoman soon spotted Bastogne ahead to the right, then spotted the perimeter panels marking the location of friendly forces. When the C-47 was nearly abreast of the town, Ottomann called to give the glider the green light to cut off. The glider cut loose and the C-47 went into a steep climbing turn. The glider landed inside the perimeter, and the medics and supplies helped save the lives of countless GIs at Bastogne.

The four Thunderbolts continued their mission, strafing German emplacements nearby. However, Major Berry Chandler, the recently appointed deputy CO of the Group, was hit while flying P-47D-26-RE 42-26545. “Flying number three position in the cover flight, I observed Red Leader and flight make their bomb run on a woods,” said Lt. Jack Taylor. “I saw Red Leader’s napalm bomb go off, but I did not notice his 500-pound G.P. bombs explode.” Flak hit Chandler’s Thunderbolt; before he crashed, he was heard to say over the radio, “I’m hit and going in – give ‘em hell!” The plane hit the ground a slight angle; Taylor “noticed a streak of fire about three or four miles from the target, which I at first thought to be someone else’s bombs.”  Upon Chandler’s death, Col. Jack Bradley, a former CO of the 354th Fighter Group, was named group deputy CO.

Berry Chandler

Berry Chandler

The 378th’s second mission of the day destroyed a tank, four 75mm guns, three trucks and a half-track south of Bastogne, then the third mission returned to the area to drop napalm and phosphorus bombs on a bivouac area. Five trucks were dispatched by strafing, but Lt. Edward M. Myers was hit by flak while strafing and bailed out northwest of Luxembourg City, breaking his ankle. He became a P.O.W.

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67 Years Ago: The 362nd’s Battle of the Bulge Begins

On December 17, the 362nd Fighter Group flew 10 missions in support of XII Corps and VIII Corps. Although weather prevented the results of bombing from being seen in many cases, the group claimed nine gun positions, four locomotives and 55 rail cars destroyed or damaged. The 378th Fighter Squadron caught a 100-vehicle road convoy moving north from Brenschelbach and repeated strafing left all of the vehicles burning. The group earned kudos from the ground controller by silencing mortar positions north of Sarreguimines and for strafing an artillery position in the woods nearby. Near Dahlen, 40 Fw 190s, probably of JG.4, attacked eight 377th FS planes “very aggressively” and, in the ensuing scrap, one Fw 190 was destroyed by Maj. Loren Herway who terrified the pilot by firing four five-inch rockets past him, resulting in the panicked German flying into the ground. One other Fw 190 was damaged at no loss to the Thunderbolts. However, flak claimed Lt. Col. Richard Harbeson, the deputy group commander, while he was strafing a train near Landstuhl. After fighting to keep the plane in the air, “He finally hit a steeple on a building and ended up upside down,” said Lt. Ralph Ellis. Harbeson brought P-47D-28-RA 42-28801 down atop the belfry of the Eichelscheider Hof farm, splintering the wooden roof and ripping off the wings of his P-47 in the process, and was able to get out of his plane and wave from the rooftop that he was okay before being captured. Maj. Berry Chandler was selected to replace him, and Carroll Peterson took over as the CO of the 379th. A second 378th train-busting mission destroyed a 15-car train and its locomotive with phosphorus, general purpose and napalm bombs.

Richard Harbeson’s P-47D “Barbara” atop the belfry of Eishelscheider Hof

On December 18, the group sent out planes loaded with the same ordnance mixture as the previous day’s last mission to the Nunschweiler area, where they put it to good use, destroying 53 trucks, 24 rail cars and a locomotive, 21 gun positions and three supply dumps. The group ran a second mission with 11 planes, dropping into the woods where tanks were reported but observing no results. On the way home, they strafed and destroyed two tanks on a nearby road.

The next day, the weather moved in again, limiting the group to one mission per squadron. Gun positions near Gersheim on the Blies River were silenced by general-purpose bombs and M-76 incendiaries dropped by the 378th. The squadron also bombed a gun position near Bliesdalheim, but the results were unknown. Meanwhile, the 377th went after a tank column near Oberstein, and flak was heavy. “We were orbiting over the target area when several bursts of heavy flak (went off) behind me,” said Lt. Robert Campbell, who was leading Yellow Flight. “Lt. (Stanley) Krzywicki was crossing under me and called he was hit.” Campbell told Kryzwicki, flying P-47D-28-RE 44-19783 “Nancy Jane,” to jettison his bombs and head for home, and Kryzwicki started back to base, but a few minutes later, with bombs still on board, he radioed his leader. “He called in and said he thought he was OK and wanted to bomb with me,” said Campbell. “I said OK. Smoke was coming out of his supercharger in large black gobs. He no sooner entered my flight when he said he couldn’t make it and headed out once more. He changed to a different radio channel and called ‘Ripsaw’ and headed out.” Kryzwicki bailed out of his plane a few minutes later, and watched it slam into the ground just east of Kirn. He evaded and was able to return to the group.

The 379th sent 12 planes out to hit the marshalling yard at Weilerbach. “We made our bomb run from east to west and found that the target was protected with intense light flak,” reported Lt. Barton Williams. “As I pulled off the target to the north, I noticed that some of the flak was coming from some gun pits just to the south of the tracks. I turned back south and made a strafing run on these pits. As I pulled away, I saw Lt. (James) Nance who was flying Red Four, coming up behind me trailing white smoke. Just then he called in that he had been hit and was heading out. I then turned around to pick him up. He was headed east and going down as I came around.” Williams watched Nance belly-land “Toochy,” P-47D-26 42-28389, in an open field. “I then circled to see if he was all right and saw him climb out of the plane and run towards a woods about a quarter of a mile from where he landed.” Nance successfully evaded to return to the group.

The 362nd Fighter Group against Brest: Part 2

The 377th Fighter Squadron traveled to Brest on August 28 but found it socked in by weather. Four days later, each squadron in the group flew two 12-plane missions to Brest, pounding targets under the guidance of ground controllers. The attacks were so effective that, after one pass by the 379th on a troop concentration, the controller radioed, “stop! They’ve had enough!”

In the first mission of the day, the 378th pounded a gun position on the Quimpel peninsula, then strafed enemy troops behind a concrete emplacement on a hill. In its second mission, the 378th destroyed 14 trucks and three other vehicles, but these had already been abandoned by the Germans. They also bombed a gun position and a troop dugout.

On September 3, each squadron flew two 16-plane missions over the city. Traffic was heavy, with B-26s and heavy bombers also bombing. “Hoptide,” the controller working with the 377th, ran out of targets and asked the squadron to dump its bombs on the city.

By September 4, the city was in ruins, and high-explosives had become of limited use, so the group switched to napalm for its next missions. Each squadron flew two 12-plane missions, and as the group pulled away after its last mission, heavy bombers returned to the city. The 378th bombed barracks and other buildings in the woods outside Brest. The 379th also dropped surrender leaflets on captured Russian troops who had been forced into service in the Wehrmacht.

Weather limited activity the next day to a two-plane propaganda leaflet mission, but the group squeezed in five missions on September 6, once again equipped with 500-pounders. The 378th bombed three gun positions, but in the process Capt. James Harrold’s plane was hit by flak and he was forced to make an emergency landing at Morlaix.

The group flew seven missions to Brest on September 7, with the 378th flying three. In the morning mission, the 378th bombed three gun emplacements; in its second mission it bombed two buildings under orders of controller “Hoptide;” in the third mission, 12 planes bombed three more gun emplacements. Maj. Berry Chandler was transferred into the 379th from the 31st Fighter Group, where he had flown Spitfires, to take over as squadron commanding officer.

The group flew seven missions to Brest again the next day, with the 378th again getting three missions, bombing a gun emplacement on each of the first two missions and a strong point in the afternoon. The group flew seven eight-plane missions on September 9, with the 377th getting three trips to Brest. The 378th bombed and destroyed two gun emplacements and strafed a third one. Later, eight 378th planes flew a leaflet mission south of the Loire River.

The group flew four 12-plane missions to the Crozon Peninsula on September 10, carrying a mixture of 500-pounders and napalm. The 379th flew two missions; during one, it set some minesweepers afire with strafing. Later, the 379th went after some guns on the southern tip of the Crozon peninsula with napalm. Flak was heavy, and one P-47 was damaged and forced to land at Merlaix. The 378th used its napalm on a gun emplacement, then strafed and destroyed a truck and a tank.

On September 11, each squadron provided four eight-plane missions over the Crozon peninsula, covering controller “Kleenex Able” for 12 hours. Flak knocked down the P-47 of Lt. Haugan W. Figgis of the 379th, but he crash landed on the friendly side of the lines and returned to the group a few days later. The 378th bombed three buildings and strafed gun positions during its first mission, them bombed and strafed pillboxes and gun emplacements during the second mission. During their third mission, the 378th knocked out several 105mm howitzers with bombs and then strafed two more gun positions. During the squadron’s fourth mission, 16 bombs fell on a gun emplacement and an ammunition dump, causing major secondary explosions.

All three squadrons launched before 7 a.m. on September 12, two to give close air support for the 80th Infantry Division near Nancy and the third, by the 377th, to carry out an armed reconnaissance in the same area. The distance was so great the planes had to land at Dizier for fuel, but the field there didn’t have enough fuel for all the planes and some were forced to go to Coulommiers for fuel. The 378th and 379th claimed an observation post and some gun emplacements near Nancy, while the 377th’s armed recce netted three locomotives. The 378th lost two planes to mechanical difficulties; Lt. Alfred Flater bellied in at Chartres and Lt. David Wright bailed out of P-47D 42-75420 near Etamps and was injured in the process. Lt. Darwyn Shaver in P-47D 42-26112 and Lt. Kenneth Weber in P-47D 42-75221 also suffered landing accidents to rack up two 378th Thunderbolts. The last plane landed back at A-27 after 9 p.m.

On a slow day, the 377th and 378th flew eight-plane missions to Brest on September 13. The 378th bombed gun positions, then strafed and destroyed an armed vehicle and two kubelwagens. The next day, the 378th and 379th flew eight-plane missions to Brest. The 378th bombed strongpoints and buildings on the order of controller “Stanza.” The pace picked up again on September 16. The 379th flew five eight-plane missions, the 377th four and the 378th two, all to Brest. The 378th sent eight planes to bomb a gun position, but all missed, and the results of the subsequent strafing couldn’t be seen. Later, four planes from the 378th bombed a strongpoint and strafed pillboxes, although these appeared to be unoccupied.

The 378th flew four eight-plane missions, the 379th three and the 377th two on September 17, all to Brest. Among the targets attacked were the old forts in the northwestern part of the city. During the 378th’s morning mission, four planes bombed an enemy strong point and four more bombed the sub pens, then all eight strafed the woods and buildings north of the aerodrome. The four planes in the second mission strafed and destroyed a 60-passenger bus, while the next eight bombed a mined area and some gun positions. The final mission of the day saw four P-47s dump bombs onto gun positions and enemy barracks buildings.

On September 18, five missions were sent to Brest, with the 378th flying just one to bomb enemy fortifications. Because of the grind on the aircraft, the 377th and 379th’s second missions could muster just four planes each. The ground controllers had to be very careful in assigning targets because of the rapid advance of the Allies. At about two in the afternoon, Brest capitulated, so the group worked over the deeply-emplaced guns on the southern tip of the Crozon peninsula. About 7000 Germans surrendered in Brest immediately after the group’s bombing. Crozon became the center of attention on September 19 as seven missions were sent to the area, with the 378th taking three of them. Their first four-plane flight dive-bombed a fortification to good effect, then strafed gun emplacements from Pointe Capucins north on the coast, destroying three trucks, including one loaded with ammunition. At 1420, the troops in Crozon surrendered and the 378th’s last two missions of the day were called off because of the Allies’ rapid advance. With Brest’s fall, the advance cadre of the 362nd departed for the group’s new home at A-79/Reims-Prosnes.