Birds of a feather

Too tall, too determined

By the time I made it to basic training, I knew I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I had one small problem that stood in my way; how was I going to cut two inches off my 6’2″ frame to meet the legal limit? The answer came in the form of my instructor and partner in crime, Frank “Mickey» Spillane.

It would be many years later that Mickey would become a famous author and beer commercial star, but in 1943, he ignored my height as we conspired a devious plan to get me into fighters. He had me bend my knees when I got measured! He also called me «Li’l Abner» because my flight suit would only reach to the top of my boots.

Mickey was a good instructor and with enough fear of his students, he soloed us quickly, thus sparing himself the unnecessary anguish of continued dual instruction! He kicked me out of the nest early and sent me on my way. Because of him, I eventually made it to England in June of 1944 and joined the 353rd Fighter Group, 352nd Fighter Squadron, where I would fly my own «birds of prey.»

First it was the Jug, then the ‘Stang

At that stage of the war, our group, like most others in England were flying the P-47 Thunderbolt. The P-47, or Jug as we all referred to it, was a mammoth airplane and I named mine Anne after a girl I had feelings for back in the States. The Jug had eight .50-caliber machine guns and was a nice, stable gun platform. In some respects, it was also an odd bird. During a stall, the nose became very light, but when you pushed it over into a dive, the nose was like a grand piano; very heavy! But boy, oh boy, the Jug had lots of power and could turn on a dime, a fact I would soon appreciate against the Luftwaffe. I got almost a handful of victories in the Thunderbolt by late September of 1944, before we turned them in for a new, sleeker bird; the P-51 Mustang.

The Mustang was everything the Jug wasn’t. I was a little apprehensive at first of this new bird until I flew her. It was faster, had much more range and was a better dog fighter than the Jug. To me, it flew like an AT 6 but with a lot more pep. The P-51 was very maneuverable and predictable in flight. It was the ultimate prop fighter, in my opinion. We could not turn as tight as a Spitfire, but we could sure manhandle a Me 109 or Fw 190 in a turning battle. Although the Mustang carried six .50 caliber machine guns compared to the Jug’s eight, I thought the P-47 was indestructible. I didn’t quite feel that way about the P-51, especially at low level.

The only thing that concerned me was the coolant system and all that plumbing that ran from its Rolls-Royce Merlin inline engine to its belly. One little nick and you were out of the fight. The Mustang on the other hand, had better cruising speed and sipped fuel compared to the P-47—that meant we could fly farther with the bombers than we ever could before. A good pilot could milk almost eight hours out of a Mustang; as long as you didn’t have to strip your tanks too soon.

Most pilots in the Eighth Air Force had pet names for their airplanes. Some chose to have cartoon characters painted on their noses while others used their hometowns or sweetheart’s name to adorn their bird. I named my P-51 Upupa Epops! I was always tickled by the European bird of bizarre appearance, weak flight and untidy nesting habits called the Hoopoe bird and I had cooled off on Anne by then! I flew 12 more missions in this Mustang, mainly bomber escorts and ground support, before I rotated home at the end of my first tour.

Second time around and the Jets

I returned for my second tour with the same squadron in early March of 1945. I was given a brand-new P-5 ID and gave it the same unique name as my first Mustang. Our black and yellow-checkered P-5 Is flew deeper and deeper into Germany as Hitler’s once vast empire shrunk before his eyes. He still threw his wonder weapons at us, but it was too little and way too late.

March 31, 1945. «Sly Bird,» our call sign for the 353rd Fighter Group, was escorting B-17s and B-24s over central Germany and I was leading the second flight in Jockey squadron of eight P-5 Is. About 20 minutes before target time, six Me 262s appeared above us as all eyes locked onto them. We had been well versed on their tactics and tricks. The 262s wanted us to strip our drop tanks and leave the bombers unprotected as we gave chase. That’s when their unseen buddies would swoop down and peck away at the unprotected B-17s and B-24s. The Luftwaffe jets were high-priority targets, but were almost impossible to catch; we stayed put with the bombers.

About 15 minutes later, while at 23,000 feet, I looked down to my left and saw two more of the swept-wing 262s passing under us at nine o’clock low. Now with an altitude advantage, I called my flight and told them to strip tanks and bounce them. I rolled the Mustang over and dove nearly straight down under full power.

By the time I approached their altitude (16,000 feet), my P-51 was bucking like a wild horse on the verge of compressibility. I must have been going well over 500 miles an hour, and yet, as 1 leveled out 600 yards behind them, 1 was going no faster or slower than they were.

I cranked in «Me 262» on my computing gunsight, turned the handle on the throttle to close the ring of diamonds down to just the wingtips of the enemy jet. The diamond rings wouldn’t close down which meant essentially, «You’re out of range, sucker!» I was too far behind them.

I held the trigger down as I aimed at the Me 262 on the left. I pumped the stick a little bit, kicked the rudder back and forth and using my time-tested battle-proven theories of aerial gunnery, I sprayed bullets all over the place! I obtained my usual fine results; one API strike on the left jet engine. And this after firing only 1,545 rounds!

I had burned my guns out in the process, but decided to stay with the jets to see where they were going. For the next eight minutes, I chased them with my throttle wide open. A thin stream of vapor started coming out of the left jet engine on the jet I had hit. The 262s were now almost two miles ahead of me as they approached an aerodrome. That’s when the one with two good engines decided to cut loose and split up from the cripple.

The rest of my flight chased the faster 262 as I stayed with the wounded one. The 262 I had hit pulled into a 60-degree climb as the vapor trail turned into thick, black smoke. He slowed way down as I caught up to him and cut him off. I thought he was going to do an Immelmann but at that moment, a great glob of fire came out of his stricken engine. I was 200 feet behind him when his canopy came off.

I was going nearly straight up behind the 262 when the pilot ejected and shot back over the top of me. The 262 stalled out and dove straight into the ground as I skidded away from it and claimed one Me 262 destroyed by one-.50 caliber bullet.

I would not have had a chance against these jets, had it not been for the altitude advantage. Had I reacted a second or two earlier, I’d probably had a chance at both of them since the 262’s only advantage over a P-51 was raw speed. The Luftwaffe pilots knew this and avoided turning fights with us at all costs. Their very limited fuel range at regular power, made them vulnerable to our fighters. Our tactics were to simply wait for them to run low on gas and pounce of them as they returned to land at their bases. The Me 262 was a great technological achievement. We were lucky it came so late in the war when fuel was scarce and the sky over Germany was alive with P-5 Is that could afford to be patient. I proved this theory against a Bf 109 on April 7.

Me 109 Sunday driver

By this time in the war, the Germans were in pretty desperate shape. On April 7, 1945, our group was on a bomber escort mission over northern Germany when I spotted a lone 109 and called it out to the flight. He was a token of German resistance and had no business being up here with the big boys. To put it bluntly, he was inept.

A flight of four other Mustangs beat me to him at first and made a firing pass on him. For a little while, he held the other Mustangs at bay with a seldom-used tactic. As he flew straight and level, the flight of four P-5 Is all missed him as they over-ran the slow-moving 109. The guy never flinched and continued on his merry way.

I realized what was happening and pulled off to the right and below him instead of going around in a big circle watching him over my shoulder. I chopped my throttle way back, dumped some flaps and slowed down. If this guy would have had anything on the ball and been a good pilot, he would have had me for lunch! It was my turn to pick up the check as I pushed my throttle forward. I was confident he didn’t know what he was doing. I poured the coal to the Mustang, drove forward at him straight and level and opened up on him at close range.

As I closed up on him, I covered the 109 with hits. I shredded the 109, but stopped firing when his canopy came off. The pilot stepped out onto what was left of his wing and floated back to the fatherland below. That was the last time I saw a German aircraft in the sky during the war.

I saw lots of German airplanes on the ground and on April 17, 1945, most of them were on fire, compliments of the 353rd Fighter Group. I destroyed a Bf 109; a Do 217 and half a Ju 88 on the field at Bad Aibling Aerodrome as our group strafed the heck out of the Luftwaffe. Although the field was packed with a variety of fighters and bombers, it was also well defended with accurate flak gunners. This is where the Mustang was out classed by the Thunderbolt. Thankfully, I made it through the wall of flak as I zoomed over many burning German airplanes. It was also my last flight in Upupa Epops and one of the last times I ever piloted an airplane.

My old friend

My Mustang and I parted ways in the summer of 1945. I returned to the United States and continued where I left off in college. My bird, I mean the Army Air Forces, stayed in Germany with the occupation forces before being sold to the Swedish Airforce in April of 1947. In October of 1952, she was sold to the Dominican Airforce where she proudly served until her return to the United States in May of 1984.

Eventually, Upupa Epops landed in the hands of the Seattle-based Flying Heritage Collection. In 2003, I was invited out to see my old friend. Driving across the field in a World War II jeep, we pulled into a wooded glade and there before my old, watery fighter pilot eyes she stood just like I had left her almost 60 years ago.

There was no sensation to compare with this. I touched her and caressed her aluminum skins in suspended bliss. The Mustang was beautiful and it looked a heck of a lot cleaner than when I flew it. It was everything a Hoopoe Bird wasn’t!

I climbed back into the cockpit and looking at the instruments, I realized I had come back home. I got a good feel for it again. Tempting as it was to crank her up and take it around the patch, I knew better and remembered back to my last aerial victory on what happens to inept pilots. Now over 80 years old, I was content to just sit and reminisce with an old friend.

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