69 years ago: the 357th’s Peterson makes ace

On April 30, 1944, while heading back to Lieston, the 363rd Fighter Squadron saw a box of bombers under attack by a swarm of German fighters. “Six Fw 190s came through my section head-on,” reported “Bud” Anderson. “Two broke down and the others turned right. By using 20 degrees of flaps and full throttle, I pulled around on their tails in one turn and started firing. It must’ve scared the hell out of them as they all hit the deck. I then picked out two together and followed, attacking the last man and getting three good bursts. I had to pull up as I was overrunning him. He straightened out and ran; I then rolled back and followed. As I closed in again, a blue-nosed P-51 came in very steep and fast in front of me. He pulled up and out, the Fw 190 pulled up and the pilot bailed out and the ship crashed. I don’t even know if the blue nose even fired.” Anderson’s victory was one of nine the group scored that day; the other victories fell to Capt. Joe Broadhead and Lts. Robert Becker, Gilbert O’Brien, Joseph Pierce and Lt. Richard Peterson, who downed two to make “ace.”

Bud Anderson recounts an air battle for ground crew

Bud Anderson recounts an air battle for ground crew

69 years ago: The 357th Fighter Group cleans up over Berlin

The 357th Fighter Group again went to Berlin on 6 March. Among the 15 aborts was the new group commander, Lt. Col. Don Graham, placing Maj. Tommy Hayes, the CO of the 364th Fighter Squadron, in charge. The continent was completely socked in by cloud, hampering navigation. At the designated time for rendezvous with the bombers, Hayes broke radio silence, asking Capt. William O’Brien, “Where’s Berlin, Obee?”

“I think Berlin is behind us,” O’Brien radioed back. The group executed a 180-degree turn within an opening in the clouds, and just as it completed the turn the bombers broke out of the clouds seven miles away and just off to the left. Before anyone could exult in the near-perfect rendezvous, another voice broke in – “Bogies, two and three o’clock level!” More than 100 German aircraft headed for the bombers, led by seven Bf 110s of III/NJG.5 commanded by Maj. Hans Kogler. Behind Kogler’s nightfighters were 41 Me 410s and 72 Bf 109s.

“The Bf 110 that I latched on to was easy pickings, which was O.K. with me,” said O’Brien. “I got him burning in his left engine area, and we were in a very steep diving right turn, when my machine guns started jamming.” As O’Brien tried to clear his guns, the Bf 110 dived vertically, smashing into what O’Brien described as a building resembling a factory. “You never saw such a fine explosion!”

William O'Brien

William O’Brien

Capt. Leroy Ruder was flying Lt. John Carder’s wing, and he also attacked a 110. “Carder overshot and I fired a burst from close range that blew the canopy to pieces and must have killed the pilot,” Ruder wrote in his diary. “The plane went into a steep dive from 20,000 feet and we followed it down to 5,000 feet where Capt. O’Brien fired at it until it burst into flames.”

Meanwhile, the 362nd Fighter Squadron’s Capt. Davis Perron and wingman Lt. Rod Starkey spotted a damaged B-17 under attack by two Fw 190s. The Germans turned and ran, but Perron caught one and opened fire. “His wing tank blew up and he caught fire and went into an inverted spin.” Perron broke off and the second Fw 190 inexplicably flew in front of him, only to meet a similar fate. Returning to the bombers, Perron spotted a twin-engined fighter he identified as a Me 210 and shot it down as well. Starkey added a Bf 109 of his own.

William O’Brien, his Mustang’s guns jammed, formed up with Leroy Ruder for the flight home. A few minutes later, Ruder called a bogey at two o’clock, another Bf 110, armed with rockets and still looking to get a shot at the bombers. “I attacked from dead astern at about 200 to 150 yards and hit the left engine,” said Ruder. “I next fired at the fuselage and right engine striking both of them. I had only one gun firing at the time but it did the job. Oil from the enemy aircraft covered my canopy and he started into a spin with both engines smoking badly.” The Bf 110, from III/NJG.5, managed to crashland and its pilot, Leutnant G. Wolf, survived the encounter.

As Hayes’ flight headed home, he spotted a single Bf 109 flying the opposite direction and a few miles to his right. Hayes reversed his course and held his fire until he had closed to 200 yards before opening fire. Strikes sparkled around the cockpit area and the Bf 109 lurched into a dive, exploding against the German soil. Uffz. K. Pelz of JG.302 was killed in the crash.

Shortly, another member of Hayes’ flight, Lt. John Howell, spotted a Bf 109, this one flown by Oberleutnant Gerhard Loos, a 92-kill ace and Staffelkapitan with JG.54. Howell opened fire and overshot Loos, but Carder closed in to finish the German ace’s plane off. Loos may have bailed out before this attack, but he fell out of his parachute and plunged to his death.

After each of them had downed a Bf 110, Capt. Glendon Davis and wingman Lt. Tom Harris were headed home when they spotted a B-17 straggler with an Fw 190 on its tail. “We dove down on the enemy aircraft but couldn’t close on him as the tail gunner of the bomber was firing at him,” said Davis. “We broke to the side of the enemy aircraft and at that time he saw us and broke into us. We turned into him and he started for the deck in a tight spiral. We followed him down, indicating from 450 to 500 mph. At 10,000 feet he dropped his belly tank. At 5000 feet his airplane appeared to be stalling as he tried to pull out. His canopy flew off but the plane went right into the ground without the pilot getting out.”

In all, the group scored 20 kills – including victories for Don Bochkay, Joe Broadhead and Morris Stanley and a half-kill for Arval Roberson – without a single loss, its first of what would be many big days.

66 Years ago: The 357th Fighter Group and the Big Day (part 2)

After reaching the fight, Green Flight of the 362nd Fighter Squadron moved in and Lt. John Kirla scythed through the enemy fighters. “I picked out an Fw 190 which was attacking the bombers and closed in to about 100 yards before I opened fire,” he said. “I clobbered him all over. I believe I killed the pilot. I watched him dive inverted into the ground and explode. My second Fw 190 was in a dogfight. I closed into range on him and started to fire from about 400 yards, closing to about 50 yards, getting strikes all over him. He began to tumble and I watched him go into the ground.”

Kirla’s wingman, Lt. “Jack” Dunn, was no longer with him; concerned about fuel, he had conserved the load in his fuselage tank and, when Kirla turned into his first victim, Dunn snapped violently and tumbled downward. When he reined the Mustang in, he spotted a single Bf 109 creeping up on him from behind; he turned into the fighter and again snapped, this time recovering just above the trees. Before the 109 could take advantage of him a flight of four more P-51s dove in and sent the German fighter crashing to earth.

Meanwhile, Kirla was still busy. “I looked around for another target and saw a Bf 109 shooting down a bomber. I went after him. I got on his tail and closed to about 30 yards. He went into a very tight barrel roll going straight down. I fired a short burst, getting strikes, and he straightened out. Then I really gave him the works, clobbering him all over. He flipped over on his back and started to burn. Pieces fell off the ship until, finally, just the framework remained. I laughed and commented to myself on the crazy contraptions they were sending up these days. There wasn’t enough of this ship left to crash into the ground.

“Looking around again, I observed two Bf 109s flying 180 degrees to the bombers and a P-51 chasing them. The P-51 closed in and got the first Jerry, but meanwhile the second one was sliding onto the Mustang’s tail. The Mustang was shot down. I was at close enough range by this time to get some revenge,” said Kirla. “I began firing at about 200 yards and played with him a while. He was badly scared. I got tired of that and adjusted my K-14 and opened up at about 50 yards. I filled him full of holes. Pieces started to fly off him and he went down like a falling leaf.”

Lt. George A. Behling in P-51D-15 44-15527 “Chi Lassie” was element leader in Kirla’s Dollar Green Flight, and when the 362nd dropped tanks and dove to attack, his wingman, Lt. James Gasser, blacked out because his “G” suit rubber hose connection had come loose. Behling took a bead on an enemy fighter, but another P-51 cut him off, “so close I still don’t know why I didn’t tear its tail off with my propeller,” he wrote later. The distracted Behling lost sight of his quarry, and as he tried to spot the German plane he realized an Fw 190 had slipped onto his tail. With no wingman, Behling went into a hard turn to the left to shake the Fw 190; he could see tracers and cannon rounds sailing past him. He recalled wondering to himself, “what am I doing here? A person could get killed!” Behling continued to reef the turn in when suddenly the stick went limp – he had spun the Mustang. He corrected the spin at 20,000 feet only to discover the German fighter was still on his tail, so he went into a dive and firewalled the engine. Sure enough, Behling quickly out-ran the Fw 190 – but then, just as he passed the Elbe River, his engine sputtered, then began streaming white smoke, then seized completely. Over a thick forest, he thought about bailing out but didn’t have enough altitude. Luckily, an open field parallel to a railroad track was to his immediate left; he lined up the field but then, at the last second, saw it was crossed by a set of high-tension electric lines. Behling’s Mustang hit the frozen ground, bounced up and over the power lines, and came back down, sliding to within 50 feet of some trees before stopping. When he opened the canopy, he heard the sound of an aircraft – it was the Fw 190 coming right at him. Panicked, he tried to leap from his plane, but the straps were tangled in the cockpit, so he crouched behind the armored seat plate. The Fw 190 did not fire and instead zoomed away. Behling managed to get out of the plane and headed for the tree line, but was soon captured and became a POW.

Lt. John Sublett was leading Yellow Flight when, at about 27,000 feet northwest of Berlin, “Someone called in a huge number of Huns coming from the south,” he reported. “I turned with the squadron and started in that direction. I saw them all at once. There was a long line of Bf 109s in no particular formation, except a sort of long column containing six to 10 abreast. They were to the left of me (at) about 300 yards, going 180 degrees opposite (to my course). They totaled at least 100. To my right and above were several Jerries doing snaps, rolls and spins. I called my wingman (Lt. William R. Gruber) and told him that when they finally got through passing by we would tack on to their rear end and start shooting. It seemed an endless procession, but finally they passed by and I tacked on to their tail end. The last four Bf 109s then broke into us. We started a honey of a Lufbery which went about six turns. I finally cut the butter and got a short burst into one of them. I was going straight down when I fired from about 100 yards, seeing many strikes right into the pilot through the top of his canopy. The plane went out of control and crashed into the ground. The pilot, who, I am sure, was dead from my fire, did not bail out.

John Sublett's "Lady Ovella"

 

“I reefed upwards and went after another Bf 109 who was at the tail end. He flicked over and started down. I followed. I opened fire from about 700 yards but saw no strikes. I continued to follow him straight down, expecting him to pull out, but he did not recover. He hit the ground and exploded. The pilot did not get out.”

The other two members of Yellow Flight, Lt. Jesse Frey and Lt. Herman Delanger, climbed to hit the cover flight. “Lt. Delanger, leading the element, decide to engage the two flights of top cover for the enemy gaggle,” said Frey. “These planes did a 180-degree turn and began flying southeast. Lt. Delanger climbed behind the first four; I believe he fired at them but I observed no strikes. Then I discovered that two Bf 109s were flying 1500 yards behind us, slightly above. I called Lt. Delanger and told him to turn left. We came around behind these two. One broke off to the left and Delanger followed, but could not get into position to fire. I called and told him to cover me as I went after the 109, continuing his turn to the left. I closed to maximum range and shot a burst of three seconds, observing strikes on the wings and cockpit. The enemy plane fell over, out of control, and hit the ground, exploding on contact. The pilot did not bail out.”

Meanwhile, White Flight of the 362nd (a six-plane flight, because Maj. John England and Maj. Joseph Broadhead had joined after their wingmen aborted) plowed into a “large gaggle of fighters which were preparing to attack the bombers,” said Broadhead. The enemy aircraft seemed to hesitate in making an initial attack,” said England. “They made several orbits as though they were sizing the situation up. This was to our advantage. While they were debating, I placed my squadron in the proper position while at the same time headed towards the enemy aircraft, hoping to break up the gaggle before they could attack the bombers. They did start and attack before I could get to them, but we interfered slightly and engaged the Krauts in individual dogfights.”

Lt. Harold Wyatt picked up one Fw 190, closed to 300 yards, and fired, :getting strikes all along his left wing and fuselage,” Wyatt said. “When the Jerry pulled up to the left I gave him another burst right in the cockpit. He started smoking and began tumbling earthward. I watched it hit the ground and burn.”

One Bf 109 slipped through the fighter cover and headed for the bombers. England got on his tail, but he was out of firing range. “The pilot displayed a little judgment by looking around,” said England; “then he put his ship in a 90-degree vertical dive from 32,000 feet. I followed him down. At about every 5000 feet during the descent, he would roll and do some very violent evasive maneuvers. I just did a tight spiral around him. At 8000 feet, he made a very tight pull-out and leveled off. Evidently, the pilot thought he had lost me, for he began flying straight and level. Maybe he didn’t realize the speed of the .50 caliber bullet and decided to take time out for a decision. I made a little tighter pull-out and started firing at 200 yards, closing to 50 yards. I got strikes all over the left side of the fuselage and left wing. Just before I released the rigger, about four feet of the left wing ripped off. The pilot did not get out as his ship went into the ground, making a big explosion. The pilot had been fair, but he had made the usual mistake which prevents fair pilots from becoming good pilots.”

John England's "Missouri Armada"

 

Broadhead had covered England all the way down. “While we were re-forming, an Fw 190 got on my tail, but Lt. Cheever came to my rescue and shot him off,” Broadhead said. The German pilot was so intent on Broadhead that he flew right in front of Cheever, who was leading Red Flight. “I pulled out to the left and let all the planes go by,” he said. “As the Fw 190 passed me, I slipped in behind him and began firing from about 100 feet, continuing to fire until I was forced to break away to avoid hitting him. I saw strikes on the tail, wings and fuselage. The enemy ship rolled and headed for the deck. He did not pull out of the dive but went straight into the ground.”

After Cheever dispatched Broadhead’s pursuer, White Flight re-formed and Broadhead spotted a lone Bf 109. “I attacked him from the rear, firing lots of ammo, hitting him in the tail, fuselage, wings, engine and the side of the cockpit. Pieces started coming off the enemy ship, then the canopy came off and the pilot bailed out. I almost rammed the pilot as I passed him. The ship crashed and burned.”