68 years ago: Gardelegen gets hit by the 362nd Fighter Group

On April 29, 1944, the 362nd Fighter Group provided withdrawal escort for bombers returning from Berlin, but on take-off, Capt. Thurman Morrison’s P-47 failed to get airborne. “I recognized at the ‘go-no go’ point along the runway that he was not going to make it off the ground,” said Bob McKee, his wingman, who was also taking off at the time. “I clicked on my throttle’s water injection switch to give me extra power and eased off the PSP runway, to the right and over the sod area as I began to overrun Morrison’s aircraft.” McKee got off the ground in time to see Morrison’s plane skid into a gasoline dump containing 400,000 gallons of fuel, stored and camouflaged by the RAF right at the end of the runway. The dump erupted in a titanic fireball.

McKee’s plane was flipped onto its right side at 50 feet of altitude and very little speed, and only some frantic flying saved McKee from going in, too. Even more shocking than this accident was Morrison’s appearance back at the operations tent later. “He walked in carrying his parachute, utterly unscathed,” said “Andy” Anderson, the 379th’s S-2. “Memphis Rebel,” P-47D 42-75142, had skidded through a sheet of flame, then pivoted on its belly around 180 degrees, keeping its pilot safe until it emerged on the other side. The stunned but uninjured Morrison was cut out of his plane by two British anti-aircraft gunners.

The 379th’s Blue Flight escorted a crippled B-17 from the Ruhr to the English Channel. The 378thfailed to find any American planes to rendezvous with, but spotted German planes on the airfield at Gardelegen. Red and Yellow flights were initially ordered to strafe while the other two flights provided top cover, but Yellow Flight had several hung tanks and Green Flight took its place. “The field came into sight as we lifted up over the crest of a hill,” Capt. Tom Chloupek reported. “I opened fire on one Fw 190 and three Ju 87s. I observed many hits on these planes and claim them probably destroyed. As I passed over the planes I strafed a large hangar with many, many hits. As I pulled up over the hangar I realized there was a second field on the other side with eight to 10 Gothas (Go 242s) on it. I had not observed these previously due to cloud cover. I could not bring my guns to bear on the gliders and, unfortunately, my second flight had already moved to the other field, so I could not direct them.” Chloupek had only encountered light flak during his first pass, but as he turned for a second pass large-caliber flak began firing at him and he decided to reform the squadron and avoid the potential for heavy losses.

Lt. Floyd Mills did spot the gliders. “I fired on a Gotha 242 glider dispersed on the east side of the field,” he said. “I began firing from 350 yards, 20 feet above the ground. I noticed strikes on the tail and back of the canopy and fuselage. I did not notice any indication of destruction.”

Lt. Joseph J. Maucini spotted an Me 410 in the center of the field, then sighted a Ju 88 directly ahead of it. “I opened fire on the first at 700 yards and closed to about 50 yards,” he said. “I didn’t see tracer strikes as I had no API ammunition, but the hits were going right into the plane. I passed over this plane and opened fire on the second from about 500 yards. This was smoking as I passed over it.”

Lt. Ken Skeen spotted an Me 410 in a dispersal and “opened fire at 600 feet,” he reported, “observing hits on the left wing, engine and fuselage. As I closed I observed smoke and then flames coming from the left engine.” The total for the day was two Me 410s destroyed, four probables and two damaged.

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This Day in 1944: Morrison’s Miracle

On April 27, 1944, the 362nd Fighter Group provided withdrawal escort for bombers returning from Berlin, but on take-off, Capt. Thurman Morrison’s P-47 failed to get airborne. “I recognized at the ‘go-no go’ point along the runway that he was not going to make it off the ground,” said Bob McKee, his wingman, who was also taking off at the time. “I clicked on my throttle’s water injection switch to give me extra power and eased off the PSP runway, to the right and over the sod area as I began to overrun Morrison’s aircraft.” McKee got off the ground in time to see Morrison’s plane skid into a gasoline dump containing 400,000 gallons of fuel, stored and camouflaged by the RAF right at the end of the runway. The dump erupted in a titanic fireball.

McKee’s plane was flipped onto its right side at 50 feet of altitude and very little speed, and only some frantic flying saved McKee from going in, too. Here’s a photo of the crash scene:

Even more shocking than this accident was Morrison’s appearance back at the operations tent later. “He walked in carrying his parachute, utterly unscathed,” said “Andy” Anderson, the 379th’s S-2. “Memphis Rebel,” P-47D 42-75142, had skidded through a sheet of flame, then pivoted on its belly around 180 degrees, keeping its pilot safe until it emerged on the other side. The stunned but uninjured Morrison was cut out of his plane by two British anti-aircraft gunners.

The 379th’s Blue Flight escorted a crippled B-17 from the Ruhr to the English Channel. The 378th failed to find any American planes to rendezvous with, but spotted German planes on the airfield at Gardelegen. Red and Yellow flights were initially ordered to strafe while the other two flights provided top cover, but Yellow Flight had several hung tanks and Green Flight took its place. “The field came into sight as we lifted up over the crest of a hill,” Capt. Tom Chloupek reported. “I opened fire on one Fw 190 and three Ju 87s. I observed many hits on these planes and claim them probably destroyed. As I passed over the planes I strafed a large hangar with many, many hits. As I pulled up over the hangar I realized there was a second field on the other side with eight to 10 Gothas (Go 242s) on it. I had not observed these previously due to cloud cover. I could not bring my guns to bear on the gliders and, unfortunately, my second flight had already moved to the other field, so I could not direct them.” Chloupek had only encountered light flak during his first pass, but as he turned for a second pass large-caliber flak began firing at him and he decided to reform the squadron and avoid the potential for heavy losses.

Lt. Floyd Mills did spot the gliders. “I fired on a Gotha 242 glider dispersed on the east side of the field,” he said. “I began firing from 350 yards, 20 feet above the ground. I noticed strikes on the tail and back of the canopy and fuselage. I did not notice any indication of destruction.” Lt. Joseph J. Maucini spotted an Me 410 in the center of the field, then sighted a Ju 88 directly ahead of it. “I opened fire on the first at 700 yards and closed to about 50 yards,” he said. “I didn’t see tracer strikes as I had no API ammunition, but the hits were going right into the plane. I passed over this plane and opened fire on the second from about 500 yards. This was smoking as I passed over it.” Lt. Ken Skeen spotted an Me 410 in a dispersal and “opened fire at 600 feet,” he reported, “observing hits on the left wing, engine and fuselage. As I closed I observed smoke and then flames coming from the left engine.” The total for the day was two Me 410s destroyed, four probables and two damaged.

66 years ago: The 362nd FG in combat over Celle

On March 8, 1944, while providing penetration escort for B-24s to Brunswick, the 378th Fighter Squadron of the 362nd Fighter Group claimed four destroyed: one in the air and three on the ground at the aerodrome at Celle. Just after handing off escort to another group, Capt. Vernon Boehle saw firing from some of the bombers and took his squadron over to take a look. A box of bombers that had just completed the bomb run was under attack by about 30 Bf 109s. A half a mile from the bombers, Boehle saw a single P-51 being chased by eight Bf 109s about 4000 feet above him.

“As I turned toward them the P-51 came down in a dive and leveled off and headed straight for us,” Boehle said. “As he passed under my nose I fired a very short burst at the nearest Bf 109 chasing him. The other enemy planes that were following passed underneath us. I had no opportunity to observe whether I hit him or not, but I doubt whether I did as it was only a split-second burst. I did a turn with my flight following, but the enemy aircraft were too far away. I again headed for the bombers but saw two 109s endeavoring to bounce us, but when we turned toward them they hit the road.”

The Mustang group by now was present in full force, and on three occasions when Boehle tried to line up a German fighter, Mustangs would get into position first. Meanwhile, Maj. Charles Teschner and Lt. George Askew spotted an airfield with about 30 planes on it. At 14,000 feet, they spotted a lone Ju 88 flying at 2000 feet. “We started down on it and closed fast on its stern,” said Askew. “I was 50 yards astern and to the left of Red Leader.” “I immediately dived down and opened fire slightly out of range,” reported Teschner, “then gave two more bursts in closer. There were many hits on the fuselage and the Ju 88 gave a jerk to the left as I pulled up and called my wingman to fire.” Askew opened fire at 200 yards, closing in to 50 yards. “There were strikes all over the plane as I fired,” he said. The Ju 88’s pilot was apparently hit, as the Ju 88 made a sudden diving turn and hit the ground and exploded. No one bailed out.

Meanwhile, other members of the 378th worked over the airfield. Lt. Joe Matte flew directly over the wreckage of Teschner and Askew’s Ju 88, then made a left turn to go back to the field. Captain Tom Chloupek led this flight back to the field; Matte realized that Chloupek, Wilton Crutchfield and Floyd Mills were lined up on the left side of the field, leaving the right side all to him. “Lining up on two planes I saw there (both Me 210s), I fired a long burst into the first from about 350 yards to 50 yards, observing many hits all over the plane,” Matte said. “I pulled up just in time to avoid hitting the parked plane and turned to shoot the second aircraft. I was traveling so fast I hardly had time to fire, but I did manage to get in a very short burst before being forced to pull up. At this moment I observed a truck coming toward me on a road to the right of the airfield. Again I tried to pull around into position to fire, but this attempt was futile. I did see several soldiers leave the truck, though, and they seemed to be in a very great hurry.”

Crutchfield and his two fellow pilots attacked the other side of the field. Crutchfield lined up two Me 210s “and opened fire on the first as soon as possible and continued to fire,” he said, “observing a multitude of hits until I was forced to pull up to keep from hitting it. I pulled up slightly and pressed a short attack on the second plane, but was also forced to pull up to keep from hitting it. I stayed down among the trees and fields as closely as possible until I was away from the field for about two miles, then pulled up to join Capt. Chloupek. I looked back and observed the first ship I fired at burning and the fire seemed to be growing. This one I claim destroyed.” Chloupek and Mills damaged three more Me 210s. “We came across them from east to west and observed many hits on the first three,”

Chloupek said. Mills was right behind Chloupek, so “I skidded to the right to line up three 210s as one target and to keep from shooting Capt. Chloupek. I observed hits on the enemy aircraft, but wouldn’t swear that I hit all three.”

Also during the mission, Lt. George Kelly of the 377th bagged an Fw 190.

At the afternoon briefing, the pilots were informed that 70 trains were moving from Arras to Rouen. The found only seven, but shot them up just the same. The 379th made repeated passes, with Capt. Thurman Morrison, Lt. Kent Geyer and Lt. Vernon Ligon knocking out one locomotive and Lt. Clough Gee and Lt. Jim Ashford destroying a second. Attacking a train required a bit of technique, said Ashford. “Ideally, you want to be fairly low so that your angle of dive on the train is quite low,” he said. “You don’t want to be coming down at a 45-degree angle because that means you have to start pulling out earlier so that you don’t smash on into the train, and if you’re coming down at a 45-degree angle it takes you more airspace to get that beast turned around,” so you had less time to shoot, he said. “We inevitably took more of them from the side rather than going right down the track.”

Unfortunately, flak hit Lt. Ken Kitts’ Thunderbolt “Loko,” P-47D-15 42-75624, at 1500 feet. Kitts’ flight leader, Col. Morton Magoffin, radioed a warning to Kitts, who called back that his oil pressure was dropping, and he asked his wingman, Gordon Larsen, to accompany him home. “We flew toward the French coast for about five minutes when Lt. Kitts called me and said he would not be able to make it,” said Larsen. “We were flying at 5000 feet and just below a cloud layer. In about a minute, I observed that his engine had cut out. He immediately started to get ready to bail out. He left the ship at about 2500 feet. As he bailed out, he hit the horizontal stabilizer. I followed him down until he hit the ground.” Kitts was probably knocked unconscious, because his never made any attempt to open his parachute. He fell to his death in the St. Saens area.