In early July 1943, I, along with 20,000 other young men, set sail aboard the Queen Elizabeth bound for war-torn England. After five quick days of zigzagging across the Atlantic avoiding stealthy German U-boats, we arrived at our new home. The 352nd Fighter Group was assigned to Bodney, a huge grass field with no runways. Cross-wind landings were a thing of the past, as we could now take off and land into the wind every time.
Our P-47s began to trickle in and arrive at Bodney, and soon all aircraft were present and accounted for. It felt good to get back into the ‘Jug’, putting it through its paces over England in preparation for the combat missions that were soon to follow. Acclimatising ourselves in formation, gunnery, navigation and instrument flying was the order of the day. But most important was learning where your airfield was located in the event of an emergency or foul weather, both of which were encountered all too often.
Our primary mission in the P-47 was bomber escort, either on the way to the targets, or offering withdrawal support to returning bombers. Usually the number of returning bombers was less than had gone out due to the lack of fighter protection over the target area. The early P-47s had limited mission range. Later, with the addition of drop tanks, our range and area of coverage increased. We could now bring the fight to the enemy. And, early on, the enemy was always itching to fight.
I never thought myself a good pilot. My wingmen and others in my flight were hotter pilots than I was. The attributes I had going for me were three-fold. One, I had better eyesight than most of the pilots in my squadron. Two, I was a flight leader and was afforded more opportunities. And three, my crew chief on the P-47D had the ability and talent to turn a ‘soup can’ into a rocket!
I had shared a kill in late January 1943 of an Fwl90 near Frankfurt. We came at each other head-on, and I ducked down behind that ‘steel’ out in front of me and opened fire on him. I saw some hits, we rattled around for a bit, and finally the guy baled out. The fight had started up high, above 20,000ft. This is where the P-47 reigned supreme over the Bfl09s and Fwl90s, but once you went below 18,000ft things changed in a hurry, and these were not favourable changes. The 109s and 190s could out-perform the P-47s at these lower altitudes. The Luftwaffe still had highly skilled and motivated pilots who knew how to exploit their strengths and our weaknesses.
A few months later in January 1944 I was still hard at it with the P-47. Shortly after one rendezvous with a bomber formation I saw two aircraft firing on a lone Flying Fortress. I called my number three man to take the one
Fwl90s with belly tanks. I closed to about 250 or 300 yards and took a 20-degree deflection shot at him. I saw I wasn’t hitting him, so I closed to dead astern and at about 200 yards opened up again. I saw many strikes and set the belly tank afire. I was closing to about 50ft yet was able to keep behind him. While still shooting I ran out of ammunition. He was smoking very badly but I hadn’t set him on fire. As I pulled away from him I saw that the pilot’s head was hanging over the side of the ship. He was quite dead. My number two and three men attacked the other ship but I didn’t see any of the combat. Seeing that the ‘Fort’ was in no immediate danger, I was joined by my number two man and we returned home.
I flew over 50 combat missions in the P-47. I was credited with 4.33 enemy aircraft destroyed (out of 13.33 total), and flew two combat tours in the ETO, my second being in the P-51, flying with most of the same ‘Blue-Nosed Bastards’ I flew with in the ‘Jug’. Without a doubt, the P-47 was the best ground support airplane in the world until the A-10 ‘Warthog’ came along. I often wonder what my crew chief could have done with one of those!