68 years ago: the 362nd FG’s mission of mercy

In a change of pace, the 379th Fighter Squadron flew a mission of mercy on December 9, 1944. The 90th Infantry Division had crossed the Moselle River, but had then been cut off by the Germans in a small woods shaped like a horseshoe, according to Lt. Robert Searl, and they were unable to move up supplies, most importantly much-needed blood plasma. Volunteers were requested from the 379th; four P-47s carried plasma and medical supplies in modified drop tanks, while a second flight provided cover. “The weather was lousy with barely enough visibility that our mercy mission leader, Capt. Charles Brokaw, could find the exact spot (for the drop) and we could keep each other in sight,” wrote Searl. “Brokaw led the blood plasma flight, which had to pinpoint their drops in the open end of the ‘U.’” Brokaw and his wingman, Lt. Brandon Nuttall, planned to go in first while Searl waited with his wingman, Lt. Charles Everett, just across the river with the cover flight. “The drop had to be made as close as possible to the tree line so that our infantrymen would have the least exposure while retrieving the medical supplies. Brokaw got his tanks right on target and (Nuttall’s) were just a little out from the forest edge.” After Red One and Two got back across the Moselle, the second element made its drop pass. “Obviously our infantrymen didn’t expect a second pass as my tanks almost hit some of them who had come out to get Red One and Two’s drop,” Searl said. “After release, we’d hug the ground and make a turn away. Luckily for us, the Germans did not have much anti-aircraft artillery to shoot at us. However, they began shooting up a barrage of mortar shells over the open field which we had to pass over on our way out of the drop zone. It looked like the field was a volcano erupting before us. My wingman’s tanks would not release when he pulled the lever, so we went back four or five times with no success. Brokaw and I knew from experience that it was almost certain they would never release, but (Lt. Everett) was so committed to getting those emergency supplies to the troops that we let him try at least 10 passes, still passing through mortar barrages, to no avail. The flight leaders were awarded distinguished flying crosses, and the wingmen the air medal for this mission.”

Officially, confusion remains about this mission. A commendation sent by Major General J.A. Fleet, commander of the 90th Infantry Division, and further endorsed by Headquarter, Third U.S. Army, the 100th Fighter Wing and the 362 FG, to the Commanding Officer of the 379th FS lists the participants as Capt. Brokaw, Lt. Dwayne Thwing, Everett and Lt. James W. Nance. Undoubtedly, some of these men were in the cover flight,

The 377th Fighter Squadron was unable to see targets because of the overcast, and they fired 12 rockets and dropped eight bombs blindly through the clouds near Zweibrucken.

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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.

Gone West: Dwaine Thwing, 379th FS, 362nd FG

Last year, I spoke to Dwaine Thwing about a mission of the 379th Fighter Squadron, 362nd Fighter Group that was rather out of the ordinary. In a change of pace from the constant bombing and strafing missions of the previous weeks, the 379th flew a mission of mercy on December 9. The 90th Infantry Division had crossed the Moselle River, but had then been cut off by the Germans in a small woods shaped like a horseshoe, according to Lt. Robert Searl, and they were unable to move up supplies, most importantly much-needed blood plasma. Volunteers were requested from the 379th; four P-47s carried plasma and medical supplies in modified drop tanks, while a second flight provided cover. “The weather was lousy with barely enough visibility that our mercy mission leader, Capt. Charles Brokaw, could find the exact spot (for the drop) and we could keep each other in sight,” wrote Searl. “Brokaw led the blood plasma flight, which had to pinpoint their drops in the open end of the ‘U.’” Brokaw and his wingman, Lt. Brandon Nuttall, planned to go in first while Searl waited with his wingman, Lt. Charles Everett, just across the river with the cover flight. “The drop had to be made as close as possible to the tree line so that our infantrymen would have the least exposure while retrieving the medical supplies. Brokaw got his tanks right on target and (Nuttall’s) were just a little out from the forest edge.” After Red One and Two got back across the Moselle, the second element made its drop pass. “Obviously our infantrymen didn’t expect a second pass as my tanks almost hit some of them who had come out to get Red One and Two’s drop,” Searl said. “After release, we’d hug the ground and make a turn away. Luckily for us, the Germans did not have much anti-aircraft artillery to shoot at us. However, they began shooting up a barrage of mortar shells over the open field which we had to pass over on our way out of the drop zone. It looked like the field was a volcano erupting before us. My wingman’s tanks would not release when he pulled the lever, so we went back four or five times with no success. Brokaw and I knew from experience that it was almost certain they would never release, but (Lt. Everett) was so committed to getting those emergency supplies to the troops that we let him try at least 10 passes, still passing through mortar barrages, to no avail. The flight leaders were awarded distinguished flying crosses, and the wingmen the air medal for this mission.”

Officially, some confusion remains about this mission. A commendation sent by Major General J.A. Van Fleet, commander of the 90th Infantry Division, and further endorsed by Headquarter, Third U.S. Army, the 100th Fighter Wing and the 362 FG, to the Commanding Officer of the 379th FS lists the participants as Capt. Brokaw, Lt. Dwaine Thwing, Everett and Lt. James W. Nance. Undoubtedly, some of these men were in the cover flight.

I have the official report because Mr. Thwing was kind enough to send it to me. I’d sent him a note and he was kind enough to call me, out of the blue, several weeks later. We had a brief chat, and as it turned out, he lived in Paso Robles, California, not far from my in-laws. I thanked him, and planned to call him when my schedule permitted to further clarify the story of the Moselle plasma drop. At Christmastime, I even entertained the idea of paying him a visit when we went to visit the folks, but dismissed it to spend more time with Elizabeth’s family.

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from Fern Mann, the keeper, organizer and guardian angel of the 362nd FG Association. She’d received a note from Gene Martin that Dwaine had passed away.

My sympathies are with Dwayne’s family – losing a man who had been a presence in a family for so long can never be easy. In the meantime, I’m kicking myself for a missed opportunity. I could have called or visited Dwaine at any time in the last several months, but never got around to it. It makes me sick and disappointed in myself that I squandered this opportunity.

No more. I’m not going to quit my job and go at this stuff full time, but I am going to resolve to get these men on the record as soon as I am able. No more fitting things into my schedule when I have a chance – the priority list has changed.

Dwaine, I am sorry I missed a chance to have a longer conversation – but I thank you for your service and for your object lesson to me as a historian.