On this date in 1944: Chuck Yeager’s easiest victory ever

On the 357th FG’s mission to Bremen on October 12, the 363rd FS was tasked as the rover squadron, ahead and to the right of the first box of bombers. Above Steinhuder Lake, 22 Bf 109s crossed directly in front of the squadron. “I was coming out of the sun and they were about 1 ½ miles away at the same level,” said Lt. Charles Yeager. Before he could open fire, two of the German pilots simply rolled over and bailed out! “I was the closest to the tail end of the enemy formation and no one but myself was in shooting range. I dropped my tanks and then closed up to the last Jerry and opened fire from 600 yards. I observed strikes all over the ship, particularly in the cockpit. He skidded off to the left and was smoking and streaming coolant and went into a slow diving turn to the left. I closed up on the next Bf 109 to 100 yards, skidded to the right and took a deflection shot of about 10 degrees. I gave about a three-second burst and the whole fuselage split open and blew up after we passed. Another Bf 109 to the right had cut his throttle and he was trying to get behind. I broke to the right and quickly rolled to the left on his tail. I got a lead from around 300 yards and gave him a short burst. There were hits on the wings and tail section. He snapped to the right three times and bailed out.”

“My element leader, Lt. Richard Roper, was shooting at two Bf 109s when I told him to break left into a Bf 109 that was coming in from 7 o’clock high,” said Lt. Frank Gailer. “Being about 300 yards behind, I tried to pull up under the enemy aircraft – I pulled up sharply, fired one burst and snapped onto my back as I went above the enemy aircraft. I saw him do a wingover and head down from 18,000 feet.” Roper scored two kills, giving the three pilots eight victories in all. In exchange, Oberstleutnant Josef “Pips” Priller of JG.26 bagged Lt. Herschel Pascoe; he ended up as a POW.


68 years ago: the 357th raises hell on the way to Halle

On the 357th Fighter Group’s September 13’s mission to Halle, the 364th Fighter Squadron was east of Frankenhousen when about 40 enemy planes burst out of a haze and flew head-on through their formation. Only one German plane was able to get off an inaccurate burst. “I broke and came in on the tail of the last ship,” a Bf 109, said Lt. Merle Allen. “He broke into me and we started a tight Lufbery to 9000 feet, where I got hits on the engine and cockpit in a deflection shot. The plane began burning and the pilot bailed out at 8000 feet.”

After the initial gaggle went past, Maj. John Storch spotted four Bf 109s about a mile behind their comrades and turned Red Flight into them. “When we got within range they broke left and went into a turning circle,” said Storch. “We turned three or four times with them and they began to break up. I followed one of them, firing, but I do not believe I got any strikes as he was taking evasive action and I was shooting poorly. He finally straightened out and went for an open field, and I got some strikes just before I overshot. He bellied in and caught fire when he hit.”

The other element of the flight, made up of Lt. Horace Howell and Lt. Paul Hatala, spotted some other stragglers, which went into a Lufbery to the left. Howell picked out a Bf 109 and turned inside him. “I pulled up until I could only see the spinner of the enemy aircraft and gave him a long burst at a close range in a steep bank. The enemy aircraft straightened out, started smoking and streaming oil, then went into a dive. I saw him in a vertical dive at approximately 2000 feet, still smoking, when I had to break it off. I turned to the left and got on another enemy aircraft, giving him a short burst but observed no strikes. He straightened out and I gave him a long burst, observing numerous strikes on the empennage and wings. Parts came off and he started smoking. I closed in and gave another long burst, observing many more strikes. My canopy became covered with oil and coolant so I had to break off. He was last seen burning and spinning at approximately 2000 feet.”

As Storch and wingman Robert Schimanski re-formed, another Bf 109 came toward them. Storch broke into him, “and turned with him a couple of times, firing while on the deck. As we got into a pretty nice position on the enemy aircraft’s tail, I saw tracers all around us and then noticed we were above a camouflaged airfield. We broke off the enemy aircraft’s tail and got up to about 3100 feet and circled around.  The Bf 109, meanwhile, circled on the deck within the perimeter of this airfield. Suddenly he made a break for a larger field about a mile north of this airport. We dove on him and he started to belly in. As he hit we fired and he slid into a tree and exploded, throwing debris 50 feet into the air.” Storch and Schimanski shared credit for this fighter.

Capt. John England was leading the 362nd when he spotted a single Bf 109 below him. “I immediately dove toward him,” England reported. “The enemy pilot then saw me and started a break into me and was headed for a large aerodrome. I was traveling at approximately 400 mph and made a very tight turn into him and closed to about 500 yards. I placed the enemy aircraft properly within my K-14 gunsight and squeezed the trigger. I got strikes all over the engine and cockpit. The enemy aircraft, burning and smoking, went out of control and crashed into a river 1000 feet below.

“About 20 minutes after my first encounter I was leading my squadron up to escort the last box of bombers. We were jumped by eight-plus Bf 109s at 15,000 feet. I tacked on to three that were spiraling toward the deck. I lined up on the leader’s wingman and closed to about 300 yards and started firing. He tried both left and right evasive turns but his efforts were in vain. Finally, he made a tight pull-out on the deck and cut his throttle. I cut my throttle and finished him off. I closed to 100 yards. His canopy came off, smoke and pieces flew by, and he rolled over and exploded in some woods below. Immediately after this Jerry exploded I made a 180-degree turn and caught another Jerry who was very aggressive. We spent about five minutes in a tight Lufbery at tree-top altitude. I finally got into position for my first burst. I observed strikes around his tail section and one of his wheels dropped. I overshot him and pulled up sharply. My wingman, Lt. Fuller, came in and got some good strikes on him and the enemy aircraft started smoking. My wingman overshot and I came back and was getting strikes on him when he crashed into the side of a hill and exploded.” The 362nd’s F/O Otto Jenkins and Lt. John Kirla each downed a plane and shared a third, and other planes fell to Lts. Erle Taylor and John S. Templin.

The 363rd was also in on the fun. Lt. Charles Yeager spotted a Bf 109 near Kassel. “I rolled over and I caught the enemy aircraft on the deck. I closed up fast and started firing around 300 yards. I observed strikes on his engine and fuselage. The engine started smoking and windmilling. I overshot. Lt. (Frank) Gailer fired at him until the enemy aircraft attempted to belly in. The enemy aircraft exploded when it hit the ground.” Lt. Harold O. Hand added another victory.

In all, 15 German fighters fell to the group, but five P-51s failed to return, including Lt. Kirby Brown’s. Brown succeeded in bailing out, only to be captured and murdered by a Sturmabteilung officer.

67 years ago: “Kit” Carson goes to town, and Frank Gailer makes ace but goes down

On November 27, the 357th Fighter Group, and especially Leonard “Kit” Carson, had a huge day at the expense of the Luftwaffe. Near Magdeburg, two large formations of German fighters were reported; records show this was JG.300 and JG.301. “One of the formations made a turn and came toward us at 8 o’clock,” Carson said. “We dropped our tanks and turned to meet them. We tacked onto the rear of the formation, which consisted of 50-plus Fw 190s. I closed to about 300 yards on the nearest one and fired a medium burst with no lead, getting numerous strikes. He started to burn and went into a turning dive to the left. I believe the pilot was killed. He never recovered, but crashed into the ground and exploded.”

Leading the second element in Carson’s flight was Lt. William Gilbert, who came around on a group of Fw 190s, selected one, and began firing. “I observed numerous strikes all over the enemy aircraft and pieces flew off,” Gilbert said. “He burst into smoke and flame. The ship went into a spin and went straight into the ground. The pilot did not bail out.”

Carson returned to the main formation, again closing on the last plane. “I opened fire at about 300 yards, firing two short bursts, getting strikes all over the fuselage. He started to smoke and burn. He dropped out of the formation and turned to the right until he was in sort of half split-S position, never recovering from this attitude. I saw him crash and burn. The pilot did not get out.

“Closing again on the main formation, I pulled into the nearest man. At about 400 yards I fired a short burst, noting a few hits. He broke violently to the left and I broke with him. I picked up a lead on him and fired two more bursts, getting strikes on the cockpit and engine. He started to smoke and burn badly. The pilot jettisoned his canopy and bailed out. The Fw 190 crashed about 50 yards from a house in a small town.

“I could still see the main formation about a mile ahead of me. Starting to catch them, I saw a straggler on the deck. I dropped down to engage him, but he saw me coming. He turned left away from me and I gave chase for about three minutes before I caught him. I opened fire at about 400 yards, getting strikes on the right side of his fuselage. He turned sharply to the right and I picked up a few degrees of lead, firing two more bursts, getting more strikes on the fuselage. The pilot jettisoned his canopy and bailed out.

“I pulled up and set course for home base when another Fw 190 came in at my wingman and me from seven o’clock high. We broke into him and started a zooming climb. I chased him, gaining slowly. Suddenly, he dropped his nose and headed for the deck. I gave chase and caught him in four or five minutes. I opened fire at 400-450 yards, but missed. I closed further and fired another burst, getting several strikes on the fuselage. The plane started to smoke. I fired again as he made a slight turn to the right, observing more hits on the fuselage. Then the pilot jettisoned his canopy and I broke off my attack to the right. I waited for him to bail out but he didn’t, so I turned back to engage him again. I was still about 700 yards away when the pilot pulled the nose up sharply and left his ship. His chute opened a couple of seconds later.”

Maj. Andy Evans saw an Fw 190 turning in an attempt to flee. “I turned as tight as I could, rolled to the left and down, firing as I came out of the turn. Before I could fix my sights on him and get off a good burst, he rolled into the ground from 1500 feet, exploding as he hit.”

John Sublett was flying on the wing of Capt. John England when they spotted 40 to 50 Fw 190s at about 10 o’clock to them at just below their altitude. “I pulled up behind the rearmost enemy aircraft to within 600 yards, opened fire and saw strikes around his cockpit and smoke and fire coming out around his engine nacelle,” said England. “This enemy aircraft flipped over and the pilot bailed out.”

England was still closing on the gaggle and picked out a second Fw 190, closed to 300 yards and fired again. “He broke, but I got good hits on his wings and cockpit while he was breaking and during one or two turns immediately after this break, his canopy and pieces of his wings came off. The pilot bailed out, but I believe he was seriously injured.”

Sublett saw England cull the first two Fw 190s from the formation and “was busy covering his tail expecting the Jerries to break into us, but thet just kept going and stayed in formation,” he said. England continued his murderous work as the gaggle dove for safety, picking off another Fw 190. “He flipped over and went straight into the ground. The pilot was definitely killed. Then I pulled up behind another Fw 190 and went through the same procedure, starting to fire from 800 yards and closing to 150 yards, observing strikes on his cockpit. The plane dove straight forward, went into the ground and exploded.”

“Capt. England finally called me and said that he only had three guns left and instructed me to shoot them,” said Sublett. “I pulled up on the tail of one Fw 190 and fired a short burst from about 800 yards and missed. Another Fw 190 cut across between us and I tacked on to him because he was closer. I fired from about a 10-degree angle from about 400 yards, observing strikes all over the ship. Pieces started coming off and the pilot jettisoned his canopy, pulled up and went over the side.

“I pulled over to dead astern (on) another Fw 190 and fired from about 600 yards, closing to about 500 yards, observing strikes at the wing roots and fuselage. Many pieces started flying off and the canopy went under my right wing. The pilot pulled up and sailed over the side.

“I broke to the right, just in case anyone was on my tail, and fell in behind another Fw 190. I pulled up to approximately 500 yards and fired a long burst which went under him. I raised my sights and fired another long burst. The enemy plane just disintegrated. I had to pull up to avoid the flying debris.”

“This was one of the best shows I have ever seen,” England gushed. Carson downed five, England four, Sublett three, Capt. Alva Murphy and Lt. Chuck Weaver two, and Lts. Clifford Anderson, Herman Delager and William Gilbert one apiece.

Lt. Robert Schimanski was leading the 364th; flak diverted the group slightly, resulting in their somewhat late arrival to the fight. Even so, Schimanski soon “dove into five enemy aircraft circling around 15,000 feet, losing my own flight,” he said. “I pulled in sharply on a Bf 109, spanned him, and gave him a short burst, hitting at the wing root. On the second burst I cut the left wing off and the enemy aircraft snapped over on its back as I overshot.”

Capt. Charles Yeager heard another group call the bandits and the 363rd turned left and spotted two “gangs of enemy aircraft,” Yeager said, “one (with) 50 plus and the other (of) approximately 150 plus. I passed in front of the little gang and climbed over the back end of the large bunch to 32,000 feet. I jumped the last enemy aircraft, which was an Fw 190. He went into a rolling dive to the right. I shot a deflection shot from his right and got hits from around 200 yards. He snapped and the tail flew off and I saw no chute. I pulled back up into the bottom of the gang and another Fw 190 jumped me. I broke into him and got a deflection shot from 90 degrees at around 100 yards. I got many strikes on the fuselage and the enemy aircraft started smoking and went into a dive. I followed it down to about 15,000 feet and the enemy aircraft flew apart. I climbed back up to the tail end of the gang and jumped another gaggle. The enemy aircraft started a circling turn with me and I turned inside and closed up to within 100 yards at around 40 degrees of deflection. I fired a short burst concentrated on the cockpit; a sheet of flame came out of the cockpit and the enemy aircraft nosed down in a dive on fire. There was no chute.”

In the same melee, Lt. Frank Gailer of the 363rd was lost. He had downed two Fw 190s, making him an ace, when two planes made a head-on pass at him. He thought they were Mustangs, but in any event they opened fire, knocking off his canopy, cutting his oil lines and wounding him in the shoulder. “I heard Lt. Gailer say that he was shot up and oil was coming over his windshield,” reported Yeager. Gailer was last seen about 15 miles southwest of Magdeburg; he was captured and spect the rest of the war as a POW. “Bud” Anderson also scored two, while Lts. Ray Wolf and James Sloan each shot down one. In all, 31 German fighters fell to the group this day.

Next Northern California Aces Symposium: Two-War Aces

The next event on the Northern California Friends of the Aces schedule is an interesting topic: aces who flew in two wars (not guys who scored five in one conflict and then five more in another, but pilots who made ace and continued to fly long enough to see combat again in another conflict). The four fellows on the panel are quite interesting.

Perhaps most unique is Lt. Col. William Wescott, who spent World War II in the A-24 Banshee and A-20 Havoc. He stuck around long enough to find himself piloting the F-86 Sabre when Korea became hot, scoring five victories with the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing. His best-known mount for these kills was the Sabre “Michigan Center/Lady Frances,” which he shared with Francis Gabreski.

Col. Perry Dahl knocked down nine Japanese planes with the 475th Fighter Group, flying the P-38 (inlcuding one Lightning called ” 23 Skidoo”). He stayed in the Air Force, holding a number of training and staff positions, but went to Vietnam with the 19th Tactical Air Support Squadron, flying as a Forward Air Controller.

Lt. Col James Empey also flew FAC missions – in the O-1 Birddog, no less – when the Vietnam War needed him. When his career started, he flew Spitfires with the 52nd Fighter Group and, after the transition to Mustangs, shot down five German planes in a month to become an ace.

Finally, there’s a name that I found very familiar – Gen. Frank Gailer, who scored 5.5 victories with the 357th Fighter Group, then went on to fly the F-100 Super Sabre in Vietnam as commander of the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing. I couldn’t quite place Gailer until I realized that there’s a profile of his P-51B “Jeesil Peesil Mommy” in my book on the 357th – which really makes me eager to meet the man! Here’s the real plane in its photographic form:

The event is on Feb. 27 at the Vacaville Performing Arts Theatre. You can find out more through the Northern California Friends’ new website.

66 years ago: Peterson, England and Gailer score

On October 6, the 357th Fighter Group was back over Berlin. Capt. Richard Peterson’s flight saw a large group of German fighters attack the box of bombers behind them. “We immediately dropped our tanks and turned to engage them,” said Lt. Gilman Weber. “I spotted an Fw 190 and gave chase. He was quite a bit below me and I got too damned eager. I closed in on him as he leveled off at about 5000 feet. I realized I was overrunning him and lowered flaps as I pulled alongside of him. The 190 started a sharp turn to the left and evidently saw Pete coming in, because he immediately jettisoned his canopy and bailed out,” said Weber.

The 362nd scored the bulk of the day’s kills, with Capt. John England scoring two kills and single victories falling to F/O Otto Jenkins and Lt. William Gilbert. Lt. Thomas Martinek aborted with a rough engine, but then turned back to follow the group and soon encountered 100 enemy fighters closing on some bombers. Martinek went after the Germans, shooting down two Fw 190s before wisely turning for home.

The next day over Liepzig, the 363rd Fighter Squadron spotted enemy fighters 17,000 feet below them and the squadron spiraled down to gain position. Lt. Frank Gailer was trailing his leader, Capt. Thomas Hughes, when an Fw 190 made a pass at Hughes. “I told Capt. Hughes to hit the deck and as the enemy aircraft passed in front of me I gave him one very short squirt,” Gailer reported. “As I turned to follow him he jettisoned his canopy and bailed out before I could fire again. I couldn’t have fired more than 20 rounds on this one pass.” Lt. Martinek of the 362nd downed another enemy plane.