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The 365th Fighter Bomber Group of Aces High II: Forums



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HGDan
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PostPosted: Fri Jan 07, 2011 8:00 pm Reply with quote Back to top

Echoes of a ThunderboltThe Hell Hawks took the war to the enemy on the ground, flying air-to-ground missions with their P-47 Thunderbolts during World War II.By Thomas D. Jones and Robert F. DorrFor the Hell Hawks, flying in World War II was nothing like the bright, blue, antiseptic realm depicted in aviation movies and recruiting posters. The Air Force sometimes is chided for living in comfort and waging war from a distance, but there was little luxury in living at dirt airstrips close to the front lines in Europe, and P-47 Thunderbolt pilots on air-to-ground missions often confronted their foes at close quarters. Although the group destroyed 150 Luftwaffe fighters in air combat, the Hell Hawks took the war to tree-top level, dive-bombing and strafing Adolf Hitler’s ground forces from before D-Day until the fall of Berlin.They were flying a plane that evoked fierce loyalty but never seemed to win much recognition. “People don’t know we were there,” says retired Col. James L. “Mac” McWhorter, now 84. “Air-to-ground action wasn’t glamorous.”Only a handful of the 15,683 Thunderbolts built — more than any other American fighter — are around today and not many more of their pilots and ground crews. But those who survived, now in their 80s, are energetic and full of memories of their combat experiences.Members of the 9th Air Force’s 365th Fighter Group met in San Diego last fall, most of a lifetime after the events that changed their lives forever. Six decades ago they were America’s best and brightest, and together they had flown their Thunderbolts through a bloody year of aerial combat.This was butcher’s work, a gritty, in-your-face war of attrition. One pilot reflects on how pilots pushed their Thunderbolts within a few hundred yards of their targets, close enough to see the faces of the gunners and soldiers below. “Imagine the impact of eight machine guns [the P-47’s wing armament] on an open truck packed full of German infantry. ... I still have nightmares about it,” says the veteran.On a missionThe 365th Fighter Group Hell Hawks were representative of the 15 fighter groups, 45 squadrons, and 14,000 pilots and maintainers who made up the Thunderbolt force on the continent. Their mission was to directly support the Allied armies in the cross-Channel invasion and the battles across France and into Germany. By D-Day, June 6, 1944, Thunderbolts were pouring from factories faster than pilots could fly them away. Arriving in the combat zone, they were decorated with caricatures and names — the term “nose art” had not yet been invented — that reflected the personalities of their pilots. McWhorter’s P-47 was named “Haul’in Ass.”The Hell Hawks’ Thunderbolts had been designed as high-altitude escorts for the Army Air Forces’ bombers, and the pilots had been trained to tangle with the Luftwaffe at 30,000 feet. But the arrival of the long-range P-51 Mustang fighter in Europe had freed the P-47 — with its eight .50-caliber machine guns and hefty bomb load — for low-level ground attack work. The “Jug,” a nickname earned by its milk-bottle profile, was superb in this role, its massive 2,000-hp radial engine and armor plate protecting its pilot front and rear. The Jug brought its pilots back time and again with battle damage that would have knocked a Mustang out of the sky.The Hell Hawks were overhead at dawn June 6, 1944, screening the GIs on the Normandy beaches from Luftwaffe fighters and pounding rail and road junctions that might be used by Wehrmacht panzers moving to crush the invasion. Retired Col. Donald E. Hillman, now 86, remembers the sight of the invasion fleet below: “My impression was that you could almost walk across the Channel on the Navy vessels down there.” But savage fighting was still under way; Hillman saw “a lot of explosions from German artillery” on the newly won beaches. On D+1, engaging the now-bristling German ground forces, the group suffered its heaviest losses of the war: seven planes downed, seven damaged, and three pilots killed. The Hell Hawks still had 11 months of combat ahead of them. For too many, that would prove a lifetime.Within weeks, the 365th was ashore in Normandy, flying ground support missions out of a dirt-and-wire mesh airstrip at Fontenay-sur-Mer behind Utah Beach. Today, it is convenient to think of the war as a straight-line march of victories that led to Germany’s defeat. In fact, P-47 pilots experienced successes and setbacks parallel to those of combat soldiers on the ground. The landings at Normandy, the closing of the Falaise Gap, the slugfest in the Hurtgen Forest, and the final victory in Europe saw ground soldiers and P-47 pilots fighting together.Through dogfights and dive-bombing runs, the Hell Hawks ran a daily gauntlet from enemy fighters and flak gunners. Plunging at the target through a hail of 20 mm tracer fire, pilots hunched for protection behind their big 18-cylinder Pratt and Whitney radials. One pilot referred gratefully to his Thunderbolt as “a foxhole in the sky.” Former 1st Lt. Gale Phillips, now 83, attacked a battery of the Germans’ high-velocity 88 mm flak guns hidden in woods. Shrapnel riddled his plane, and he pulled out of his strafing pass under emergency water-injection power. There were 27 jagged holes in his big Thunderbolt, and after landing, his fellow Hell Hawks ribbed him: “Hey, Phillips, those must have been instructors shooting at you.”Battle of the BulgeThe Hell Hawks pilots and hard-working ground crews faced their biggest challenge during one of the largest battles fought by Americans. A furious attack by German armies on Dec. 16, 1944, surprised Allied troops in the Ardennes, a forested plateau in northern France that had been the scene of earlier fighting in both world wars.The Germans opened the assault along a 50-mile front, initially with 21 infantry and armored divisions. They called it the Ardennes offensive; Americans called it the Battle of the Bulge. For the first two days of the battle, the Hell Hawks attacked enemy armored columns despite low clouds and mist. But on Dec. 18, the freezing weather and snow showers proved ideal for the Germans — the Thunderbolts were grounded by an icy fog.In desperation, the operations officer at 9th Tactical Air Command headquarters called the 365th and asked that they somehow get their planes over the battlefield: “The weather is down on the deck, and it will probably be suicide, but damn it, the Army says we’ve got to get something in there or the bastards will be in Liège.”Despite the thick fog, group commander Col. Ray Stecker asked Maj. George R. “Bob” Brooking to take a flight up. Brooking, now 86 and living in Austin, Texas, remembers arriving over Stavelot, Belgium, and finding nothing but a solid undercast — no targets. Leaving his flight circling above, he chanced a narrow hole in the clouds and broke out just above the treetops. The valley was empty, but he knew the enemy had to be close. Nosing back into the clouds to clear the neighboring ridge, he eased the big Republic fighter lower through the murk into the next valley.Risking a descent in the blind, he popped out of the clouds not 50 feet above a long, snaking column of Wehrmacht armored vehicles. Calling down the rest of his flight, Brooking remembers, “We broke out underneath and found those tanks.” Their first attack loosed eight 500-pound bombs among the panzers, blowing six of them down the hillside. The Jugs’ bomb craters blocked the road as Brooking’s flight strafed the trapped vehicles and troops. For the next hour, he recalls, “I stayed overhead and vectored arriving flights into the target until my fuel was just about gone.” He earned the Silver Star citation for his valor that day.The Hell Hawks’ determined assault on the German column destroyed 15 tanks and more than 100 other armored vehicles and trucks, forcing these attackers to suspend their westward thrust.Operation BaseplateTwo weeks later, on Jan. 1, 1945, the Luftwaffe launched Operation Bodenplatte (Baseplate), an air-to-ground effort against Allied airpower. More than 800 Luftwaffe aircraft struck about two dozen Allied airfields, including several where P-47s were based. By far the worst damage was inflicted at “Y34,” Metz-Frescaty airfield, where the 365th Hell Hawks suffered 22 P-47s destroyed and 11 damaged.For a brief, shining moment, the Luftwaffe apparently believed the New Year’s Day air attack had been a great success. Anyone would have agreed with the German fliers after seeing the twisted, smoldering wreckage of the Hell Hawks’ Thunderbolts at Metz. But the story of a captured German pilot shows how wrong they were.Oberfeldwebel (Master Sgt.) Stefan Kohl was confident the attack had succeeded. Never mind that his Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter had been shot out of the sky. He had begun the new year by parachuting into a cemetery near the Hell Hawks’ airfield at Metz, still under a pall from the fires of burning P-47s. The greasy smoke hung low over the field amid the January gloom and the dirty snow.Kohl was one of eight Luftwaffe pilots at Metz downed by the Army’s antiaircraft defenses. Yet he obviously believed that his side had inflicted a major blow. Brooking, commander of the 386th squadron, encountered Kohl inside the Hell Hawks’ headquarters shack. The youthful German jerked his thumb out the window at the smoking Thunderbolts and said in excellent English: “What do you think of that?”Brooking stomped angrily out of the room; there was no denying the damage. But Kohl didn’t know that American industry had turned out nearly 100,000 warplanes in the calendar year that had just ended. In days, factory-fresh Thunderbolts — brought from a marshaling center near Paris — lined the ramp. Metz was in full operation again when Brooking went back to see the German.“I got him out of his little jail,” he says, and pointed out to him a row of gleaming new P-47s outside. Brooking coolly addressed the POW: “What do you think of that?”It was time for a little humility. Kohl took in the spanking-new aircraft, just arrived from a heartland that seemed capable of building an infinite number of them. “That is what is beating us,” he admitted.The Bodenplatte attack broke the back of the Luftwaffe. In the course of destroying 232 Allied aircraft on the ground, the Germans lost 280. While only a handful of Allied personnel lost their lives, no fewer than 213 irreplaceable German pilots were killed or captured. The rearmed Hell Hawks flew and fought on for four more months, winning a second Distinguished Unit Citation for their support of the Allies’ final thrusts into Germany.But the price they paid was steep. Whether grappled from the sky by intense flak, bounced by Nazi fighters, or claimed in tragic ground accidents, 69 Hell Hawks — pilots and enlisted ground crew — lost their lives during the war.Gordon Briggs, now 83, was one of those gathered in San Diego last fall. In the closing days of the war, then-First Lieutenant Briggs penned “Memories of a Fighter Pilot.” A few lines from his tribute suffice:How can we tell you how it wasTo fight the war up there?Knowing we could meet our deathAnytime. Anywhere...We learned to live with dangerYet somehow through it allThe comradeship we learned to shareIs what we most recall.

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Last edited by HGDan on Fri Jan 07, 2011 10:32 pm; edited 1 time in total 
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PostPosted: Fri Jan 07, 2011 10:27 pm Reply with quote Back to top

Beat me too it. You liked the link ah.

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