69 years ago: the 362nd FG destroys the rail yards at Malines

On April 22, the 362nd Fighter Group attacked rail targets in Malines, France in advance of the invasion. The 378th Fighter Squadron used a variety of approaches and altitudes to throw off the flak gunners, scoring seven direct hits on the western-most engine shed. The 379th dived from 10,000 feet and pressed their releases to 2,500 feet, scoring six hits on an engine shed. “After the bomb run, I broke left for reform and saw a P-47 to my left and at about 6500 feet, throwing flame from the supercharger bucket,” reported Capt. Bill Flavin, the leader of Blue Flight. It was Lt. Vernon P. Ligon, who was flying as a spare the flight, but had followed the squadron in; light flak damaged his P-47D-10-RE 42-75041 as he was pulling off of the target. “The ship was evidently under control and the pilot tried to extinguish the fire by violent dives and zooms. Finally, the ship turned over and the pilot bailed out approximately three to five miles from the target.”  Ligon was seen running on the ground northeast of Brussels, but he soon became a prisoner of war. Ligon, who was flying his 26th mission, was sent to a camp but later escaped for a short period before being recaptured and interned in Moosburg. Ligon had the dubious distinction of also being held as a POW for five years during the Vietnam War.

In the afternoon, the group flew a sweep of the area around Lingen as part of a diversion for a larger raid on Germany, shooting up rail traffic. Col. Morton Magoffin destroyed a locomotive, and Lt. Robert McKee claimed another one in Gutersloh. Lt. George Rarey’s plane, “Archie and Mehatibel,” was damaged by flak during the attack. Red Flight of the 377th had a guest, Major Gene Arth of the 406th Fighter Group, flying a familiarization mission. “I saw a train running south on the track from Meppen to Lingen and took Red Flight down to strafe,” said Capt. Tom Beeson, who had Arth on his wing. “We made one attack from west to east and encountered no ground fire whatsoever. The train stopped and we turned back and strafed again, this time from east to west, and destroyed the locomotive. I encountered no ground fire on this second attack, but as I pulled up to the left I saw bursts of 20mm flak over the target area. At the same time, I saw a ship dive, crash into the yard of a farmhouse and explode. Then my Number Three man (Lt. Edwin Fisher) called that my number two man, Maj. Arth, had crashed. Nobody in the flight saw a parachute, and Number Three noted Maj. Arth’s closed canopy as he went down. I do not believe there is any possibility of his having lived through the crash.” Arth was indeed killed in the crash of P-47D-11-RE 42-75596.

 

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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.

68 years ago: The 362nd Fighter Group works on the railroads

On April 22, 1944, the 362nd Fighter Group was assigned a set of rail-busting missions around the rail yards at Malines. The 378th Fighter Squadron used a variety of approaches and altitudes to throw off the flak gunners, scoring seven direct hits on the western-most engine shed. The 379th dived from 10,000 feet and pressed their releases to 2,500 feet, scoring six hits on an engine shed. “After the bomb run, I broke left for reform and saw a P-47 to my left and at about 6500 feet, throwing flame from the supercharger bucket,” reported Capt. Bill Flavin, the leader of Blue Flight. It was Lt. Vernon P. Ligon, who was flying as a spare the flight, but had followed the squadron in; light flak damaged his P-47D-10-RE 42-75041 as he was pulling off of the target. “The ship was evidently under control and the pilot tried to extinguish the fire by violent dives and zooms. Finally, the ship turned over and the pilot bailed out approximately three to five miles from the target.”  Ligon was seen running on the ground northeast of Brussels, but he soon became a prisoner of war. Ligon, who was flying his 26thmission, was sent to a camp but later escaped for a short period before being recaptured and interned in Moosburg. Ligon had the dubious distinction of also being held as a POW for five years during the Vietnam War.

In the afternoon, the group flew a sweep of the area around Lingen as part of a diversion for a larger raid on Germany, shooting up rail traffic. Col. Morton Magoffin destroyed a locomotive, and Lt. Robert McKee claimed another one in Gutersloh. Lt. George Rarey’s plane, “Archy and Mehatibel,” was damaged by flak during the attack. Red Flight of the 377th has a guest, Major Gene Arth of the 406thFighter Group, flying a familiarization mission. “I saw a train running south on the track from Meppen to Lingen and took Red Flight down to strafe,” said Capt. Tom Beeson, who had Arth on his wing. “We made one attack from west to east and encountered no ground fire whatsoever. The train stopped and we turned back and strafed again, this time from east to west, and destroyed the locomotive. I encountered no ground fire on this second attack, but as I pulled up to the left I saw bursts of 20mm flak over the target area. At the same time, I saw a ship dive, crash into the yard of a farmhouse and explode. Then my Number Three man (Lt. Edwin Fisher) called that my number two man, Maj. Arth, had crashed. Nobody in the flight saw a parachute, and Number Three noted Maj. Arth’s closed canopy as he went down. I do not believe there is any possibility of his having lived through the crash.” Arth was indeed killed in the crash of P-47D-11-RE 42-75596.

This day 67 years ago: Tales of evasion, apprehension and escape from the 362nd FG

On June 17, 1944, despite a low ceiling between 1500 and 3000 feet, the 362nd Fighter Group flew a series of armed reconnaissance missions from Cherbourg to Laval, landing at the advance field A-6 after the first mission and flying three further squadron-sized missions. The 378th attacked a causeway at Buoneville, destroying docks, warehouses, trucks and horse-drawn carts loaded with ammunition. The 379th flew three missions, including a 12-plane mission that destroyed five trucks during their patrol; Bob McKee caught a truck full of troops and splintered it with a strafing attack. A second mission led by Lt. Bill Flavin destroyed three more trucks. Four planes pilots were lost during the day. Lt. Richard Gordon in P-47D-22 42-26117 ran low on fuel, possibly after a hit to his fuel system, and was conferring with Lt. Frank Lee in P-47D-22 42-26117 when the two pulled into some clouds and collided. Both men bailed out, and Lee’s P-47D-20-RE 42-25304 was seen to plummet to earth and impact in a cloud of dust. The two 379th FS pilots were spotted by a French woman, who also noted some German troops in the area; she distracted them and Lee and Gordon reached the ground about a mile apart without being spotted by the enemy. Lee hid out in the countryside, while Gordon was hidden by some townspeople in a barn for the evening. A few French civilians brought Gordon food in the afternoon, which he gratefully accepted and then tried to communicate his thanks despite the language barrier. All the while, the Germans were searching for both men, although their efforts were disorganized and hinted at the panic sweeping the Wehrmacht following the D-Day landings. Just the same, several people in the village were arrested and jailed by the Germans after being suspected of helping the two airmen.

Soon, Lee and Gordon were brought together and put in the custody of Commander Gilles (the code name of Rene Billaud), the leader of the local Maquis forces. They were moved to a safe house owner by a farmer, but the Germans were still on the lookout. Gordon and Lee stayed for two days, feasting on the farmer’s jam, until Commander Gilles arranged for their transportation aboard a motorcycle to the mansion of Mdme. Pean Ponfilly in Breffeillac Pommeret on the northern coast. A resistence member named Jaquemin made two trips to shuttle the men north, changing routes and ducking enemy patrols the entire time. The manor was host to some 80 men fleeing the Germans: Polish and Russian laborers, Italians, German deserters and a Czech RAF warrant officer, Robert Ossendorf. A radio message soon came to deliver Lee, Gordon and Ossendorf to the allies. The men traveled first to Pont D’Jour, then to allied lines on the night of 12-13 July 1944. Lee and Gordon traveled back to England about the British boat MGB 503. Their escape experience was such that they were transferred out of theatre.

A third 379th pilot, Lt. William R. Fredenberg, went down in P-47D-11 42-75593. His aircraft came skidding down in a field, sending troops from the 15th Fallschrimjager Regiment of Hitler Youth who were training there scattering, and he was quickly apprehended. Fredenberg was captured, interrogated and sent to first the manor at Lambeth, then to Frontstalag 133, a provisional camp near Rennes. On July 5, the 600 men at the camp were notified that they would soon leave this camp for another in Germany. The presence of trains attracted air attack; at one point in the day, some stray 20mm flak shells hit the camp and killed an American pilot. That night, the men were loaded onto “40 and 8” rail cars, with the guards in a separate passenger car, and they set out toward at about midnight, traveling to Redon on the west coast of France.

The next night, the train headed for Nantes. The food rations consisted of a loaf of bread per man every three days, plus a pair of large pitchers of water for each car every day. The train remained near Nantes until July 9, when it set out again along the Loire, arriving next in Angers, where the rail yard was a “scene of total destruction, with locomotives and cars thrown end over end as the result of Allied bombing,” wrote one of the prisoners later. The train paused only briefly before heading for Tours; when they arrived an air raid was in progress. The train stopped outside of town and on July 10, the locomotive was removed and sent to pull a cargo considered more important by the Germans.

The prisoners remained imprisoned in the 40 and 8 cars for 10 days, watching air raids near them but thankfully never becoming a target. On July 21, a locomotive was hooked to the train and started pulling the prisoners east, but that night an Allied plane strafed the locomotive. The guards fled to the surrounding fields, leaving the prisoners to their fates. A replacement locomotive had to be brought up, and at about 1 a.m., the train began to roll again. Lt. Fredenberg brought with him a small hammer, so he and a group of men decided to knock a hole in the already-damaged end of a car and make an escape. After an hour, they broke through and pushed aside the metal plates on the outside of the car. In groups of two and three, the prisoners squeezed through the hole and onto the tracks.

Fredenberg was in the third group; he and another man watched the train roll into the distance, then used a compass Fredenberg had also squirreled away and headed for the River Char. They hid at the river’s edge until the following day, when they saw French farmers working in the fields. With some difficulty, they asked one of them for food; when he was convinced they weren’t Germans, he sent his son running to fetch food and water. While waiting, they saw a long train come under attack by two P-38 Lightnings; the first pass stopped the locomotive, and the next saw bombs strike the cars, which were loaded with ammunition. Within minutes, the entire train was ablaze and Germans were fleeing in every direction. Fredenberg and his companion decided to hit the road to avoid this ruckus, but the farmer’s son arrived just then with a basket of food, and they paused to eat for the first time in 36 hours.

Their next action was to search the riverside for a boat. The effort was fruitless and at 2 a.m. the pair decided to catch some shuteye. Fredenberg was soon awakened by German voices; he clamped his hand over his sleeping buddy’s mouth as they marched within 20 feet of their hiding place, searching for the men. When an aircraft flew over, they took advantage of the noised to remove heir boots and blacken their faces with river mud. They crawled on their bellies away from the river into a cabbage field, which at its far end had a German soldier every few rows. Somehow, by crawling quietly and slowly, the two men eluded their pursuers. Abandoning the river as a means of escape, they doubled back to the rail line.

The next morning they headed through a thick wood, encountering two French civilians, who helped them orient themselves and tipped them off to the many Germans in the area. They promised to bring help, and that evening they were led to a Maquis camp and given civilian clothes. They were taken to Amboise, where on July 24 they were treated to a hearty meal, then taken by car to a Maquis camp, crossing a bridge that was guarded by two flak guns. To their relief, the German guards made no effort to stop them. Soon, they reached a Maquis camp in the Brouard Forest, commanded by Georges le Coz. They were met by two other men from the train. The Americans were folded into this group, going on forays into the country for food and hunting for collaborators and German patrols. After three days of this, the camp was moved, and the men learned of seven more Allied troops hiding nearby, all escapees of the same train.

After a few days, the Maquis realized the Germans were closing in on them. They abandoned their vehicles and much of the equipment and tried to melt through the German dragnet; they reassembled on a farm near Cusson. They continued their operations, adding more allied personnel to their ranks and adding them to their partisan army. In August, the Allies captured the area where Fredenberg and his fellow partisans had been hiding, and he returned to England.

The 378th was not immune to losses, either. Blue Flight was on an armed reconnaissance mission and had just broken below the overcast south of Rouen on the Seine when German gunners “laid an accurate barrage,” reported Lt. Howard Kelgard. “Blue Leader took us to the left of the town (Mantes-Gassicourt). Blue Three and Four were ahead of Blue Leader because of the flak. Through the overcast came a flight of 16 fighters, heading out. I called them in at two o’clock, then they started to break in on our rear. I told Blue Leader we’d better break into them. Blue Three (Lt. Frank Glover) was in the lead; he broke and I latched onto his wing. The Jerries’ flight had strung out considerably in an arc, for as we turned into one or two, they were in a position to shoot us from the rear. On the second Lufbery turn, I saw a P-47 heading for the deck in a 70-degree dive. The wings were level, but it never pulled out. It exploded when it hit. There was no chute seen.”

This was Glover’s plane, P-47D-22 42-26548; German fire ignited the fragmentation bombs on his right pylon. Glover was burned but he jumped just before the P-47 exploded in mid-air. On the way down, German infantrymen fired at him with their rifles, but missed; Glover used his compass and the maps provided for just such an occasion to head for friendly lines. Some French farmers provided hiding places and food; others were not so eager to aid the American pilot. Eventually, Glover ran into some American troops who greeted him by leveling their carbines and Thompson submachineguns at him. These wary troops were from the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, and their S-2 officer made sure Glover was on a C-47 back to Headcorn the next day.

At the day’s end, Lt. Robert Day damaged P-47D 42-75042 in a landing accident at Headcorn.

This day in 1944: The 379th FS loses Hugh Houghton, and Bob McKee makes a narrow escape

The 362nd Fighter Group paid a visit to the rail yards at Valenciennes on the morning of May 10, 1944, bringing along an ample supply of 500-pound bombs. The 378thwas led by Capt. Sherwin Desens, but his plane was hit by flak over St. Omer at 11,000 feet and his engine quit. He jettisoned the canopy, “getting a face full of oil in the process,” and he bailed out 3000 feet over the English Channel. When he hit the water, he quickly located his CO2 bottle and dinghy and inflated it. Seeing Spitfires overhead, he fired his flare pistol and they started circling him. Soon, he was rescued by an RAF Walrus flying boat and brought back to England. Capt. Thurman Morrison’s plane was hit by flak over Dunkirk and he was forced to return to base.

After that rough morning, the group executed an afternoon attack on the Champagne airfield near Reims using its own tactics and dropping a combination of 500-pounders, fragmentation bombs, smoke bombs and phosphorus incendiaries. The phosphorus bombs were impressive but they made it impossible to asses the damage to the target. The 379th flew as top cover, and after the other squadrons had bombed it dropped down to  strafe the remaining planes; Lt. Gordon Larsen damaged a Ju 88 and Lt. Madison Putnam damaged a Do 217 during their attacks. Capt. Hugh Houghton and Lt. Ken McCleary went down to strafe; “we started a left turn after strafing a hangar when I noticed a glow in Capt. Houghton’s cockpit, which I realized was a fire,” McCleary said. “His aircraft rolled into a vertical bank and slipped into the ground.” Lt. Gerald Major saw Houghton’s P-47D-16 42-75867 “Curtain Call” (B8*5) hit the ground with “a big flash, and it continued burning on the ground.”

Robert McKee was also in Houghton’s flight. As the shaken McCleary joined up with McKee’s wingman, “I remained on the deck in an attempt to avoid the continuing intense flak as I slowly began a turn to the northwest,” McKee later wrote. “About three miles from the airfield, I flew over a small hill and discovered a long train of boxcars moving northward, almost perpendicular to my course. I still had some ammunition remaining for my eight .50 caliber machine guns. With my gun switches and gun sight still on, I waited until I was 1000 feet from the train before I commenced firing from about 200 feet of altitude.

“Simultaneous with my opening fire, all side panels on each side of this train dropped open with their 20mm and 40mm antiaircraft guns firing on our three aircraft. Their opening salvo hit the leading edge of my right wing root and another round hit the right lower side of my engine. I continued spraying my gunfire at these boxcars while inbound, hoping to quiet them down somewhat. After passing over the train, I quickly managed to hide behind another low hill, still being fired upon but not hit. I soon noticed that I had lost some engine power and after getting out of the range of this train’s guns, I began a slow climb to a safe bailout altitude, if that became necessary.

“I eventually managed to level off at 1500 feet but was only able to maintain 155 mph maximum airspeed,” McKee wrote. “The remaining aircraft rejoined squadron formation and continued on without me. I flew on towards England alone with my canopy open, climbing to 2000 feet in case I had to make a quick exit.

“The slower airspeed extended my flight time home for rest of my return flight to England and caused me concern about my fuel supply. It was going to be close. It seemed to take forever, but eventually I had our home base in sight. As I made plans for a long straight-in approach to the runway, I descended to 1000 feet.

“Life is full of surprises and now I faced another one! The engine quit and I was still two miles from the runway. I tried switching fuel tanks with the help of the fuel booster, to no avail. Within a few seconds I was down to 500 feet and flying over many wooded sections of British countryside. I selected two small adjoining fields, about 45 degrees to my left. They were separated by a hedgerow that I hoped I would be able to plow through while making a belly landing into the first one. As I approached the field, I found that the approach side had a row of 70-foot trees that seemed to quickly loom up and above the nose of my aircraft.”

McKee recalled a conversation he had with a civilian instructor many years before involving a pilot intentionally cartwheeling a plane to avoid an obstacle like a fence, with the thinking being that the impact would be distributed around the pilot. Because the P-47 was just above stall speed, McKee knew that if he pulled to miss the fence he’d stall and crash. “Without hesitation, I moved my flight control stick to the left, dipping my left wing about 45 degrees. I then crossed both arms in front of my head and held tightly to the top of the instrument panel. I heard the crunching of tree branches as I felt the sudden deceleration of the aircraft. I sneaked a peek to my left and saw the left wing fold up and inwards as it impacted the ground. I felt the engine’s ground impact force, which threw my head against the right side of the canopy. At this point I closed my eyes and held on tight, feeling a lot of tumbling going on.”

The plane did not catch fire; when McKee opened his eyes, he saw no flames but instead “saw blood everywhere,” he wrote. “It seems that, when I hit my head against the canopy, I had received a long cut above the right eye that had spurted blood around as I turned my head to look about. I tried to slide the canopy open, but found it to be jammed by the fuselage’s twisted metal and would only open about six inches. I almost panicked at this point because I could also see that a lot of red hydraulic fluid had splashed throughout the cockpit and, being concerned that I was going to lose consciousness due to loss of blood, I was afraid of fire erupting before I could get out. I grabbed the control stick with both hands and, squeezing it hard, said aloud to myself, ‘now, hold onto yourself, Mac!’”

Five British antiaircraft gunners raced to the scene and extricated McKee from his smashed Thunderbolt. He suffered the gash on his eyebrow and a broken ankle, probably caused the by the rudder pedal when the tail of his plane was torn off.

Lt. Gerald Majors’ plane was also hit by flak, but he was able to nurse the plane home. On return to base, one of the 378th’s planes had a hung fragmentation bomb, which detonated on landing. The pilot escaped but the plane was a write-off, and it blocked the runway; only Col. Morton Magoffin was able to land. The rest of the squadron flew to Woodchurch, where Lt. John R. Lovett’s hung-up smoke bomb detonated, flipping the P-47D 42-75246 on its back and inflicting a broken back and cuts on Lovett’s face, under his arms and on his legs. Even so, once the fire-fighting crew jacked the plane enough to allow him out of the cockpit, his first request was for a cigar. Lovett was evacuated to the U.S. for recuperation from his injuries. Lt. Robert Kennedy was unhurt when his plane, P-47D 42-22773, crashed at Headcorn on his return from the continent; Lt. Joseph Lane of the 377thbanged up P-47D 42-76442 in a ground loop on his arrival.

67 years ago: losses as the 362nd FG works over the railroads

The rail tour continued  for the 362nd Fighter Group on April 22, 1944; this time, they attacked rail targets around the French town of Malines. The 378th Fighter Squadron used a variety of approaches and altitudes to throw off the flak gunners, scoring seven direct hits on the western-most engine shed. The 379th dived from 10,000 feet and pressed their releases to 2,500 feet, scoring six hits on an engine shed. “After the bomb run, I broke left for reform and saw a P-47 to my left and at about 6500 feet, throwing flame from the supercharger bucket,” reported Capt. Bill Flavin, the leader of Blue Flight. It was Lt. Vernon P. Ligon, who was flying as a spare the flight, but had followed the squadron in; light flak damaged his P-47D-10-RE 42-75041 as he was pulling off of the target. “The ship was evidently under control and the pilot tried to extinguish the fire by violent dives and zooms. Finally, the ship turned over and the pilot bailed out approximately three to five miles from the target.”  Ligon was seen running on the ground northeast of Brussels, but he soon became a prisoner of war. Ligon, who was flying his 26thmission, was sent to a camp but later escaped for a short period before being recaptured and interned in Moosburg. Ligon had the dubious distinction of also being held as a POW for five years during the Vietnam War.

In the afternoon, the group flew a sweep of the area around Lingen as part of a diversion for a larger raid on Germany, shooting up rail traffic. Col. Morton Magoffin destroyed a locomotive, and Lt. Robert McKee claimed another one in Gutersloh. Lt. George Rarey’s plane, “Archie and Mehatibel,” was damaged by flak during the attack. Red Flight of the 377th has a guest, Major Gene Arth of the 406thFighter Group, flying a familiarization mission. “I saw a train running south on the track from Meppen to Lingen and took Red Flight down to strafe,” said Capt. Tom Beeson, who had Arth on his wing. “We made one attack from west to east and encountered no ground fire whatsoever. The train stopped and we turned back and strafed again, this time from east to west, and destroyed the locomotive. I encountered no ground fire on this second attack, but as I pulled up to the left I saw bursts of 20mm flak over the target area. At the same time, I saw a ship dive, crash into the yard of a farmhouse and explode. Then my Number Three man (Lt. Edwin Fisher) called that my number two man, Maj. Arth, had crashed. Nobody in the flight saw a parachute, and Number Three noted Maj. Arth’s closed canopy as he went down. I do not believe there is any possibility of his having lived through the crash.” Arth was indeed killed in the crash of P-47D-11-RE 42-75596.

The 362nd Fighter Group against Brest: Part 1

The battle to take Brest was a hotly-contested and, sadly, totally unneeded adjunct to the Normandy campaign. Planners saw the need to take the city and its ports, but there was no real way to displace the Germans before the Germans could sabotage the port facilities, especially as the Germans put up a stiff resistance. Instead, it turned into a grinding campaign that cost many lives, American, German and French, before the then-useless port fell into Allied hands. After this campaign, German-held ports were largely bypassed, so in a way the experience of Brest save many more lives over the summer and fall of 1944.

Four squadron-sized missions were flown against Brest on August 25 by the 362nd Fighter Group, two by the 377th Fighter Squadron. The principle target was the harbor, which could be used to evacuate German troops to Crozon. Col. Joseph Laughlin scored two hits on what was identified at the time as a German light cruiser during the 378th’s mission. The 378th’s 12 planes also hit another large ship in spite of intense flak. The 379th’s 16 planes in the morning mission bombed a collection of small boats in the harbor and managed to miss all of them, although they scored several near-misses. Later, as Laughlin led the 377th’s evening mission, he peeled off to bomb the cruiser again when it suddenly exploded with such force that Laughlin felt it at 8000 feet.

“As the flight dove down, I could see a blanket of white puffballs below and a blanket of black puffballs above,” said John Baloga. “They were exploding shells and sparks were flying from each burst. Those darn shells are programmed to explode at a specific height. The Germans were making us fly through them. Hot sharp steel was flying all over the sky. It was hellish.”

“As I came in line to dive, I saw the cruiser starting to smoke badly. Someone was calling over the radio that the cruiser was sinking. Thank You Lord! I immediately veered off from my dive. I saw that the other planes were forming up. This particular attack was written up in the papers and was noted on the BBC. Sinking a cruiser with a fighter-bomber was a big deal. Colonel Laughlin had given that cruiser its deathblow. I will always be grateful for that. I truly believe he saved my life. If he hadn’t sunk it, I would have been sunk because as Green 4, the last plane in the flight, I truly believe the enemy would have shot me down.”

The 377th went on to score two hits on another ship and near misses on other shipping in the harbor. In reality, the vessel that exploded and sank was probably either the wreck of the incomplete French battleship Clemenceau, which the Germans were planning to use to block the harbor, or a flak ship; no German cruisers were lost at Brest. Just the same Col. Laughlin’s Thunderbolt was adorned with the red silhouette of a warship bristling with guns for the rest of the war.

Four missions returned to Brest on August 26, with the 378th taking two of them. The 378th attacked the harbor again with 16 planes, scoring a hit on the stern of a freighter and strafing artillery positions and destroying two trucks. The other two squadrons gave one flight to each of four controllers, who directed them toward strong points, artillery positions or troop concentrations. Lt. Charles Freeman of the 377th was hit by flak and forced to bail out over friendly lines; severely wounded, he was evacuated to the U.S. but later died of his wounds. On the 378th’s second mission, the airfield at Crozon was bombed by 15 planes, with barracks and gun emplacements getting special attention. The squadron also set fire to two planes on the field and strafed other gun positions. The 379th destroyed a gun position with two direct hits, then strafed the remaining German defenders.

On August 27, the group sent five 16-plane missions to the Brest area, again teaming with ground controllers to strike specific targets. The 379th hit two gun positions during its first mission of the day, and one flight bombed a 10,000-ton transport but failed to hit it, so they dropped down and strafed it, making three passes and leaving it burning at the stern. Lt. Robert McKee of the 379th had his plane, P-47D 42-28463, damaged by flak and made a belly landing back at Rennes. In the afternoon, the squadron sent 16 more aircraft to the area, striking a gun position and several German strong points plus a truck towing a large anti-aircraft gun. They met with intense anti-aircraft fire, which damaged one plane and forced the pilot to belly in. During its first mission, the 378th dropped bombs on troop concentrations; during its second, it bombed and strafed pillboxes and gun positions, and strafed two minesweepers during their egress from the area. During the second mission, Capt. Harry Stroh of the 378th dropped down to take a closer look at the target. “I saw him go down to a couple hundred feet and fly over the area and then climb back up to 3000 feet,” said Lt. Wilbert Edwards, who was flying Yellow Three in Stroh’s Yellow Flight. “At that time I was right back of him with the flight and thought he was trying to get back into position, but instead he went down again. He flew pretty low right over the same area for about three-quarters of a mile and then started to pull up again when something struck his ship and caused an explosion. Immediately the plane went out of control and crashed about 300 yards from where it was first hit, and exploded.” In a freak accident, Stroh’s P-47D-20 42-76597 had been hit by an American artillery shell. To compound the tragedy, the shell had come from a gun belonging to the 8th Infantry Division, commanded by Stroh’s father.

In happier news, Lts. Robert Clees and Fred Ford returned, having evaded successfully. Maj. Tom Beeson took over command of the 377th from Maj. Liston, who was relieved because of physical exhaustion.