70 years ago: the heroism of Grover Siems and the loss of Ralph Hofer

On July 2, 1944, the Fourth Fighter Group found itself on strange ground. Most of the group was in Italy after the second leg of a shuttle raid mission, far from its usual base at Debden in England. While there, the group was “volunteered” to fly a fighter sweep in advance of the 15th Air Force’s strike on Budapest. The 332nd Fighter Group had just received its Mustangs and was familiarizing itself with them, so the presence of the veteran Mustang jockeys in Italy was fortuitous timing.

When the 45 Mustangs of the Fourth reached the target, a swarm of 80 German fighter and 18 Hungarian Bf 109s greeted the group, and a swirling dogfight erupted that resulted in the destruction of eight Axis fighters, including three by Capt. Howard Hively.

After destroying his first victim, a 20mm shell exploded adjacent to Hively’s canopy, sending fragments of glass into the right side of his face and injuring his right eye. Despite these wounds, he pressed on with his attack and destroyed two more, in part because Hively’s squadronmate, Lt. Grover Siems, spotted a Bf 109 on Hively’s tail and dove in to attack it, sending the fighter down in flames. Siems was then attacked himself, and was badly wounded in the shoulder, neck and chin, forcing the bleeding flyer to return to Foggia. Upon landing, and unable to open the canopy because he was so weak from blood loss, he was ignored by airfield personnel until he fired his guns! Several mechanics removed Siems from the cockpit, but he was so weak he could not move. The medics covered him with a sheet and sent him to the morgue, and only when Siems was able to wiggle his finger did an orderly notice him and give him a life-saving blood transfusion.

In addition to the victories by Hively and Siems, Capt. William Hedrick destroyed a Bf 109 and destroyed another, while Capt. Frank Jones and Col. Don Blakeslee achieved single kills (although Jones’ went uncredited). Capt. Joe Higgins of the 486th Fighter Squadron and Lt. Don Emerson shared another Bf 109.

All did not go the group’s way, however. Lt. George Stanford’s wing tanks refused to drop when the 98-airplane gaggle was spotted, but instead of aborting, he and wingman Lt. Ralph Hofer pressed home their attacks. The extra throttle Stanford used to compensate for the drag of the tanks cause the engine to throw a rod. He radioed to Capt. Frank Jones to take the lead, then bellied into wheat field in Yugoslavia. Hofer buzzed him to make sure he was all right, but when Stanford looked up he saw a Bf 109 trailing Hofer. Hofer apparently shook his pursuer, but records unearthed in 2003 revealed that he then strafed Mostar-Sud Airfield, where 4.Batterie/Flak Regiment 9 “Legion Condor” hit Hofer’s P-51B and the ace crashed to his death. Stanford became a POW, as did Lt. J.C. Norris. Lt. Thomas Sharp had also been unable to release his tanks and was killed when shot down by a Bf 109.

69 years ago: the 4th Fighter Group’s aces score

James Goodson was in command of the 4th Fighter Group on 28 May, 1944 for an escort to Ruhland. About 20 German fighters attacked the bombers before the target, and in the ensuing fight 334 Squadron bounced the enemy planes and destroyed eight of them. “Our squadron used its superior height and followed them in the turn in a shallow dive,” said Mike Sobanski. “We managed to split up the enemy formation, and I found a single bluish-gray 109 flying perfect line abreast formation with a P-51 at some 150 yards distance. They both didn’t seem to realize their mistake, and only caught on when I attacked the 109. He dove straight down and momentarily I lost him in the haze, finding him again when he started pulling back up. I fired a few short half-second bursts closing in, and was just going to position myself better on him as I saw no strikes. Much to my surprise, he jettisoned his canopy and bailed out.”

Winslow "Mike" Sobanski

Winslow “Mike” Sobanski

Ralph “Kidd” Hofer scored his 15th victory, knocking down the Bf 109G-6 of Uffz. Heinz Kunz of 6/JG.11 near Magdeberg. The day’s other victors were Maj. Michael McPharlin and Lts. Grover Siems, Mark Kolter, Dean Lang and Robert Kenyon. In return, Lt. Aubrey Hewatt was hit by a Bf 109 and bailed out just before his plane exploded. Lt. Richard Bopp became separated from the group and, like Hewatt, ended up as a POW.

The Fourth Fighter Group in the Mediterranean Theatre

The Fourth Fighter Group was “volunteered” to fly a fighter sweep in advance of a 15th Air Force strike on Budapest on 2 July, 1944, primarily because the 332nd Fighter Group was occupied in transitioning into P-51s. The Fourth was in Italy, conveniently, on the second leg of the shuttle mission, having flown from Britain to Russia earlier in the week, then escorting bombers to Italy.

When the Fourth’s 45 Mustangs reached the target, a swarm of 80 German planes and 18 Hungarian Bf 109s met the group and a swirling dogfight erupted. The group destroyed eight fighters, including three that fell to Capt. Howard Hively. After destroying his first victim, a 20mm shell exploded just outside his canopy, sending fragments of glass into the right side of Hively’s face and injuring his eye. He pressed the attack and destroyed two more, in part because Lt. Grover Siems spotted a Bf 109 on his tail and dove in to attack it, sending it down in flames, only to be attacked himself. Siems was injured in the shoulder, neck and chin and was forced to return to Foggia. He landed there, unable open his canopy, and was ignored by the airfield personnel until he fired his guns. Several mechanics removed Siems from his plane, but he was so weak from blood loss he couldn’t move. The medics covered him with a sheet and sent him to the morgue, and only when Siems was able to wiggle a finger did an orderly notice him and give him a blood transfusion.

Capt. William Hedrick destroyed a Bf 109 and damaged another, while Frank Jones and Don Blakeslee destroyed single planes. Capt. Joe Higgins and Lt. Don Emerson shared another Bf 109.

George Stanford’s wing tanks refused to drop when the 90-plane gaggle was spotted. Instead of aborting, he and wingman Ralph Hofer pressed the attack, and the extra throttle Stanford used to compensate for the tanks caused his engine to throw a rod. Stanford radioed Frank Jones to take the lead, then bellied into a wheat field in Yugoslavia. Hofer buzzed him to make sure he was all right, but when Stanford looked up he saw Bf 109 trailing Hofer. Hofer apparently shook his pursuer, but records unearthed in 2003 revealed that he then strafed Mostar-Sud airfield, where 4.Batterie/Flak Regiment 9 “Legion Condor” shot down and killed Hofer. Stanford became a POW, as did Lt. J.C. Norris; Thomas Sharp, who also had trouble releasing his wing tanks, was shot down and killed.

The group provided escort for heavy bombers hitting a marshalling yard at Arad, Yugoslavia on 3 July. The next day, Blakeslee led the rest of the group back from Italy by way of an escort to the marshalling yard at Beziers, France and then back to Debden. All the planes that embarked from Italy returned to England safely, many laden with souvenirs for the men who remained at Debden during the group’s foray afield.

It wasn’t until 6 July when the last nine late arrivals from Russia returned to England. Of the 65 planes that started the trip, 52 made it back.

This day in 1944: the 4th and 357th FGs in Action Over Brux

On 12 May, the First Air Task Force received an escort to Brux. Lt. William Reese of the 357th Fighter Group was flying on Capt. John Carder’s wing when he spotted two Bf 109s coming in on Carder’s tail. “I called (Carder) to break right,” said Reese. “We came around on the two enemy aircraft’s tails. I followed the enemy aircraft from 8000 feet to the deck, firing short bursts at 400 yards and was unable to close. Finally after a 10-minute chase I observed strikes on the enemy aircraft’s engine and it began to smoke. I then closed to within 100 yards and observed strikes all over the enemy aircraft.”

“At this time, Capt. Carder passed over me from my right to the left and this was the last I saw of him.” Suffering from a balky engine, Carder bellied in and the 7-victory ace became a POW.

During the run in to the target, eight Bf 109s from JG.27 tried to attack the bombers, and three of them were destroyed by Lts. Ralph Hofer, Joseph Pierce and Grover Siems and Capt. Howard Hively. In another attack, Lt. Thomas McDill and Maj. James Goodson each bagged a Bf 109, and four pilots later combined for six more victories. George Stanford was among the last group of victors. “At 10,000 feet, we spotted three Bf 109s below us and went down to attack them from the rear. I picked the one in the middle, and he broke right and down onto the deck. I fired at him continually, starting at about 350 yards. I observed only one group of hits on his starboard wing. For some reason, however, he seemed to think his jig was up, for he pulled up in a steep climb, started to roll over, and jettisoned his canopy.”

Lt. Eliot Shapleigh dove for the same three Bf 109s, his section weaving to lose speed so as not to overshoot. “I opened fire, getting strikes on the wings and fuselage,” he said. “I pulled up as the enemy aircraft went into the deck and exploded.” At that point Shapleigh made a starboard turn and found himself on the tail of Stanford’s Bf 109. Shapleigh opened fire, and the Bf 109 completed his roll and went into the ground on its back.

Lost during the mission was Lt. Roger A. Hilsted, who was shot down by a German fighter. In exchange, the group accounted for 14 enemy aircraft. Lt. Thomas Norris shot down one and shared a second with Lt. Aubrey Hood, while single kills went to Maj. Irwin Dregne, Capts. Maurice Baker, “Bud” Anderson, Paul DeVries and William O’Brien and Lts. Joseph Pierce, Thomas McKinney, Richard Smith and Robert Smith. Shares of victories went to Capts. John Storch, Richard Peterson and Fletcher Adams and Lt. Arval Roberson.

Elsewhere above the bomber stream, the 4th Fighter Group was in action as well. Lt. Ted Lines and his wingman spotted a pair of Bf 109s and the two dropped their tanks to pursue. “They split up and headed for the deck,” said Lines. He saw his wingman destroy one Bf 109, “and just then the other Bf 109 cut right in front of me. I got on his tail and started firing. I followed the enemy aircraft for about 20 miles, and he led me into a flak area. By that time, I was out to get him. I cleared my tail and just as I faced forward I saw this Bf 109 hit the ground and blow up.” Other German fighters fell to Capt. James Happel and Lt. Robert Homuth.

During the run in to the target, eight Bf 109s from JG.27 tried to attack the bombers, and three of them were destroyed by Lts. Ralph Hofer, Joseph Pierce and Grover Siems and Capt. Howard Hively. In another attack, Lt. Thomas McDill and Maj. James Goodson each bagged a Bf 109, and four pilots later combined for six more victories. George Stanford was among the last group of victors. “At 10,000 feet, we spotted three Bf 109s below us and went down to attack them from the rear. I picked the one in the middle, and he broke right and down onto the deck. I fired at him continually, starting at about 350 yards. I observed only one group of hits on his starboard wing. For some reason, however, he seemed to think his jig was up, for he pulled up in a steep climb, started to roll over, and jettisoned his canopy.”

Lt. Eliot Shapleigh dove for the same three Bf 109s, his section weaving to lose speed so as not to overshoot. “I opened fire, getting strikes on the wings and fuselage,” he said. “I pulled up as the enemy aircraft went into the deck and exploded.” At that point Shapleigh made a starboard turn and found himself on the tail of Stanford’s Bf 109. Shapleigh opened fire, and the Bf 109 completed his roll and went into the ground on its back.

On 12 May, the First Air Task Force received an escort to Brux. Lt. William Reese of the 357th Fighter Group was flying on Capt. John Carder’s wing when he spotted two Bf 109s coming in on Carder’s tail. “I called (Carder) to break right,” said Reese. “We came around on the two enemy aircraft’s tails. I followed the enemy aircraft from 8000 feet to the deck, firing short bursts at 400 yards and was unable to close. Finally after a 10-minute chase I observed strikes on the enemy aircraft’s engine and it began to smoke. I then closed to within 100 yards and observed strikes all over the enemy aircraft.”

“At this time, Capt. Carder passed over me from my right to the left and this was the last I saw of him.” Suffering from a balky engine, Carder bellied in and the 7-victory ace became a POW.

During the run in to the target, eight Bf 109s from JG.27 tried to attack the bombers, and three of them were destroyed by Lts. Ralph Hofer, Pierce and Siems and Capt. Hively. In another attack, Lt. McDill and Maj. Goodson each bagged a Bf 109, and four pilots later combined for six more victories. George Stanford was among the last group of victors. “At 10,000 feet, we spotted three Bf 109s below us and went down to attack them from the rear. I picked the one in the middle, and he broke right and down onto the deck. I fired at him continually, starting at about 350 yards. I observed only one group of hits on his starboard wing. For some reason, however, he seemed to think his jig was up, for he pulled up in a steep climb, started to roll over, and jettisoned his canopy.”

Shapleigh dove for the same three Bf 109s, his section weaving to lose speed so as not to overshoot. “I opened fire, getting strikes on the wings and fuselage,” he said. “I pulled up as the enemy aircraft went into the deck and exploded.” At that point Shapleigh made a starboard turn and found himself on the tail of Stanford’s Bf 109. Shapleigh opened fire, and the Bf 109 completed his roll and went into the ground on its back.

Lt. Ted Lines and his wingman spotted a pair of Bf 109s and the two dropped their tanks to pursue. “They split up and headed for the deck,” said Lines. He saw his wingman destroy one Bf 109, “and just then the other Bf 109 cut right in front of me. I got on his tail and started firing. I followed the enemy aircraft for about 20 miles, and he led me into a flak area. By that time, I was out to get him. I cleared my tail and just as I faced forward I saw this Bf 109 hit the ground and blow up.” Other German fighters fell to Capt. James Happel and Lt. Robert Homuth.

Also lost during the mission was Lt. Roger A. Hilsted, who was shot down by a German fighter. In exchange, the group accounted for 14 enemy aircraft. Lt. Thomas Norris shot down one and shared a second with Lt. Aubrey Hood, while single kills went to Maj. Dregne, Reese, Capts. Maurice Baker, “Bud” Anderson, Paul DeVries and William O’Brien and Lts. Joseph Pierce, Thomas McKinney, Richard Smith and Robert Smith. Shares of victories went to Capts. John Storch, Richard Peterson and Fletcher Adams and Lt. Arval Roberson.

They actually dared to print it…!

Last Friday, I came home to a nice surprise: a single advance copy of my new book (seen here, in all its Amazon-based glory). The cover art, by Mark Postlethwait, is pictured above in its full form; it’s cropped a little horzontally to fit the book cover. Mark did a great job – it really has an illusion of motion to it. That’s Grover Siems shooting a Bf 109G off of Deacon Hively’s tail, by the way.

I have one copy so far, so please don’t feel bad you haven’t received one, if you’re one of the people who helped me out – I’ll be sending yours shortly, when I get a few more from Osprey.

Here’s what I think about the book: I like it a lot more than when I turned in the photos and manuscript! The design is very good, and there are a few extra photos plugged in that address specific incidents mentioned in the text ( a couple of which are “via Roger Freeman,” which are interesting since Roger’s died a little while ago and I have certainly not spoken to him since then). Chris Davey’s profiles are really nice; I compared them to profiles of some of the same planes that appeared in “P-51 Mustang Aces of the Eighth Air Force” and these are far superior in accuracy of markings and weathering. It’s impressive how much better the artists have gotten in the 15 years or so since Osprey started doing books of this ilk; you can thank the readers and their constructive criticism for that.

A couple of observations about this book:

1. There are a lot of dogs in the photos – Kidd Hofer’s Alsatian Duke is most prominent (he’s even labeled in a shot of personnel gathered at Debden, right next to Don Blakeslee), but there are others – Ken Peterson’s dog, Johnny Godfrey’s dog… The book is crawling with dogs.

2. There is no photo of “Shangri-La” after Don Gentile pranged it, but there’s a photo of it immediately before that mission, thanks to Wade Meyers.

3. There are a lot of photos of people who are mentioned in the text – which I think is a very good thing. It helps to humanize the stories, and I used a lot of contemporary accounts this time around, so putting a face with the words helps make things more involving.

It comes out for real on Nov. 18. Now, I just have to get the next book okay’ed by someone who doesn’t mind paying for it to be printed…

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