Let me start with a warning and a bit of good advice. The warning is: NEVER tell Charles Dills the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt was a better ground attack airplane than the North American A-36 Apache. The good advice is to go to Charles’ web site at charlies-web.com/WWII_med/index.html and there get an intensive, extensive understanding of what the term “the greatest generation» really means. It is his life story, well written and filled with details of his comrades in arms and of a life in America that we may never see again.
Ground pounders compared
Dills is quick to react to an unfavorable comparison of his second favorite airplane, the A-36, to the P-47. He flew both aircraft in combat and can prove to his own satisfaction that the relatively unknown Apache (as it was rarely called) was superior in every respect to the larger, and much more famous Thunderbolt. His favorite airplane is the P-5 ID, an airplane that might very well never existed had it not been for an earlier, almost offhahd, order for 500 of the A-36 as a sort of «gap-filler» in British procurement.
Born to be a pilot
Dill was born in the town of LaMoure, North Dakota (population 800) on April 20, 1922. Sadly, his father died when he was 8 and his mother when he was 4. His uncle John, a partner with his father in the Dills Brothers Drugstore, became his guardian.
After two years in the North Dakota Agricultural College, where in the fall of 1941 he participated in the important for the time Civilian Pilot Training program. Flying was heaven for him and he soloed in a Piper J-4 Cub Coupe on November 18, 1941. J. He nostalgically recalls that, «I can still see the shadow of the airplane receding to my right as 1 left the ground. It was afternoon, and I was singing a popular tune of the time. «I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire» at the top of my lungs!»
Dills enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in June 1942 and graduated as a pilot in May 1943. Sent to North Africa in August, he spent several months flying war-weary Curtiss P-40s at an «African warehouse» before joining the 27th Fighter Bomber Group in Italy in October 1943.
In Italy he spent the next four months flying 39 missions in his second favorite fighter, the A-36. The mission in Italy was tough as Dills and his fellow A-36 pilots had received little specialized training in dive-bombing. He was given a cursory cockpit check-out and then turned loose to fly it. After basic flying school, he had flown P-40s at his Replacement Training Unit in Sarasota, Florida. There they taught what was essentially glide-bombing, approaching at a 60-degree angle. They noted that what worked in Florida did not work when people began shooting at you. Dills says that «vertical dives worked so well in the A-36» that they later did the same thing in the P-40, which of course, had no dive brakes.
His A-36 experience was followed by 40 missions in war-weary P-40Fs and a short tour of duty as a courier pilot in a Cessna UC-78. Dills then flew 15 missions in the Republic P-47D from May to August, before being returned to the U.S. He served initially as an instructor pilot in P-40Ns before branching out to fly Boeing B-17s and North American P-51Ds before his discharge.
In the beginning there was the A-36
The story of North American Aircraft’s reaction to a 1940 request from the British Purchasing Commission to build Curtiss P-40s is well known. Yet, in today’s world, where fighter procurement is measured in decades, it is refreshing to recall just how swift the process was. North American, confident from the success of the trainers it had built, was already contemplating a fighter. Lee Atwood had designed a modern-looking fighter in 1935 and the NA Model -53 work was intended to compete with the Curtiss P-36. As a result, NA president Dutch Kindleberger was spring-loaded to respond to the Purchasing Commission’s request to build P-40s with a proposal for an improved fighter that his designers had prepared for him. To their great credit, the Purchasing Commission agreed to purchase the new North American fighter on April 10, 1940.
There were many considerations involved in this decision, the most important of which was the fact that the British considered the P-40 to be generally inferior to their own Spitfire and Hurricane. But the war was not going well for Great Britain, and they also had to consider that the North American aircraft was going to have to use the same engine as that installed in the P-40. This created two problems for the Purchasing Commission, The first was to avoid an engine shortage for the P-40s already on order. The second was to believe that a brand-new design equipped with the same engine, would exceed the P-40 in performance.
The initial agreement was followed a month later for a tentative order for 320 aircraft, depending upon the performance of the prototype. The kicker was that the prototype had to be delivered in 120 days. Working under the guidance of Ed Schmued, Ed Horkey and Ray Rice, North American succeeded, rolling out the sleek prototype in just 117 days.
It was not all gravy, however, for there was no engine ready for installation, and considerable ground testing had to take place. Nonetheless, the great Vance Breese test flew the prototype for the first time on October 26, 1940, setting in mo-tion a long line of superb North American fighters, one of which was the A-36.
Maj. Gen. Oliver P. Echols: The Mustang’s Savior?
Charles Dills remains loyal to the Apache, especially since he knows that its very existence was just the byproduct of an improvised funding decision. This was made by one of the unsung heroes of World War II,
Maj. Gen. Oliver P. Echols.
Echols, whose fine hand could be found in most key USAAF decisions, knew that production of the North American P-51 was about to shut down as the company transitioned the aircraft’s engine change.
To switch production of the P-51 A and its Allison engine to the P-5 IB and its Merlin was not a simple case of bolt out, bolt in— much of the forward part of the aircraft had to be modified.
A consummate insider, Echols knew where the money was buried in the huge— but overburdened—USAAF budget. A sum had been set aside for attack aircraft, a lingering legacy from the days when the world had been stunned by the effectiveness of the German Junkers Ju 87 and everyone wanted a dive-bomber.
Using the indirect manner in which many military procurement goals are accomplished, Echols corresponded with «Dutch» Kindelberger, suggesting that with modification, the P-51 could be modified for the attack role, thus keeping the production lines going.
Kindelberger was delighted with the idea, and he suggested to Lt. Gen. Henry H. «Hap» Arnold,
Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Forces that the P-51 could be easily converted to the attack role. Arnold was still a confirmed believer in attack aircraft. He approved of Kindelberger’s suggestion, and North American went to work on the A-36, a much easier conversion than the shift from P-51A to P-51B and one that would keep the program’s production lines, part suppliers, training, logistics, everything, moving smoothly in the interim.
The early P-51 design was modified to dive-bomber work with relative ease. The basic structure was strengthened and two dive brakes were added on each wing. Armament was reduced to two .50 caliber machine guns in each wing complemented by two more in the nose.
Echols administrative ploy probably came at the last possible moment, for Arnold was one of the few remaining in the Army who still believed in dive-bombers. The mediocre performance of the Douglas A-24 and the Vultee A-31 had convinced most Army commanders that their low top speeds and diving characteristics wete unsuitable for land-warfare. This, of course, was in spite of the fact that the A-24’s counterpart, the SBD, did yeoman service for the Navy and the Marines.
As a result of Echols intervention, the first of 500 A-36s flew on September 21, 1942. The initial tests seemed to bear out the Army’s reluctance to embrace dive-bombing as a technique. Tests at the Eglin ranges indicated that the 350mph dive speed of the A-36 made pull-outs difficult, and that it was better suited as a low-level attack aircraft than as a dive-bomber.
Dills finds a favorite
Dills, a staunch defender of the A-36, takes umbrage with criticisms that the A-36 did not perform well at higher altitudes. He notes that the aircraft was designed from the start to fly at low altitudes. Operating from bases in Italy, Dills flew both strafing and dive-bombing missions and soon became expert in both. He considers that strafing was far more dangerous than dive-bombing, and that dive-bombing at 90 degrees was easy and effective. (There are some authorities who believe that 90-degree dives, especially in the P-40, were improbable.)
On strafing missions his formation of eight to 12 A-36s would enter enemy territory in a loose V formation at an altitude of 200 or 300 feet, gaining the element of surprise. Anything that moved was a target, but Dills insists that they avoided attacking a farmhouse unless one had been designated specifically as a target in their briefing. He preferred targets such as one at the famous Anzio beachhead where his squadron was assigned the task of attacking an «implement factory.» The problem was that it was almost surrounded by American troops entrenched only 500 yards away. Only the maneuverability and the diving capability of the A-36 allowed them to make successful attacks without any fratricide.
Dills recalls having trouble on his third mission. There had been a lot of flak, and everyone else in his formation had released their bombs earlier than he had. He suddenly found himself alone, in enemy territory, still being shot at. Glancing up, he saw two P-51 As passing by at a higher altitude. They banked to get a better look at him and he saw that they were the 111th Photo Recon Squadron.
Dills pushed over with full power on and flashed over a small town at 460mph and as he notes, «if they had had TV, I would taken out all the antennae.» When he crossed the bomb line, he throttled back to 350mph, low over the Mediterranean, on his way back to his home base. A few miles out from the runway, his engine quit, and he switched tanks—the engine caught and he landed, having flown the entire mission on one wing tank. He is pleased to note that no other airplane, with the exception of the P-5 ID, could have turned in a similar performance.
And then there was the dive-bombing
Dills’ tone changes slightly when discussing the dive-bombing attacks, especially to the charge that it contributed to the A-36’s high accident rate. He states that dive-bombing attacks were usually made from an altitude of about 14,000 feet. The gaggle of eight to 12 A-36s maintained a closer formation than on a strafing attack, going in to trail formation on flight leader’s signal. The aircraft would open their dive brakes and roll upside down, until they were directly over the target. Then they would dive as close to 90 degrees as possible, releasing the bombs at about 5,000 feet. Flak was usually not hazardous as the speed of the A-36 gave the German gunners tracking problems. Dill notes that the famous 88mm antiaircraft guns could not be elevated high enough to be able to track them that in the almost vertical dives. Then at bomb release, when the A-36 leveled out, it was traveling at close to 450mph, changing course ever few seconds, and almost impossible to hit.
He is quick to point out that the P-47 could not match the vertical dive of the A-36, and suffered casualties because of this. Dills notes that some authors have written that the A-36’s dive brakes were sometimes wired shut. He denies this, saying further that the noise given off by the air whistling through the dive brakes even on a strafing run were a psychological problem for the enemy. Although it may be anecdotal, Dill maintains that the Germans called the A-36s «The Screaming Devils.»
As if flak wasn’t enough…
Combat involved other hazards, including the possibility of mid-air collisions. Dills remembers an attack on some docks on the Italian waterfront. As he dove down, he saw two bombs falling about 40 feet in front of him, dropped by the plane behind him. They were so close that Dills could read the standard stencil on the falling bomb that read «Five hundred thirty six pounds GP.»
After a dive-bombing run, the A-36s usually continued on at low altitude, strafing targets of opportunity. Dills candidly admits that the A-36 pilots did not seek out air to air combat on the way into a target, when the bombs would have to be jettisoned. Fortunately, the Luftwaffe had largely abandoned the Italian front and he recalls encountering an enemy only once.
The rare air-to-air
Dills was part of an eight-ship formation flying in under a 700-foot cloud ceiling through mountainous country. Flying on the left wing of the flight leader, Maj. Kelly, he began having trouble maintaining position as speed increased and changes in direction were made. Finally, he realized that Kelly had seen a German Heinkel He 111 ahead of them at about 500 feet. Kelly’s first shots set the Heinkel on fire, and Dill took a snap shot at the bomber as they hurtled past. The two lead A-36s were followed in by the remainder of each of the flight, each one determined to hose the Heinkel.
Dills saw that the enemy plane was on a fire, dropping toward the earth in a 45-degree bank. The bomber cartwheeled after its left wing struck the ground, breaking off and giving Dills a flash of its wing insignia as it turned. The fuselage smeared across the field in flames.
The area where the Heinkel crashed was captured soon thereafter, and Dills’ Operations Officer investigated the crash site. According to the local people, the He 111 had been carrying personnel, and a total of 15 pilots had been killed. Dills later argued the Heinkel should have counted as multiple victories, given the number of pilots who died in the crash.
The guys with the wrenches deserve credit
Looking back over the years, Dills is quick to emphasize the superb job the ground crews did keeping their airplanes flying, working with inadequate tools under primitive conditions. He realized that his crew chief regarded the airplane as «his” and that while pilots would come and go, he was responsible for the aircraft all the time.
The 500 production limit on the A-36 meant that there were no replacements as numbers dwindled because of attrition from accidents and combat damage. By 1944, there were so few A-36s available that Dills was transferred first to P-40s before flying 15 missions in the P-47. Yet the A-36 had fulfilled its intended purpose, filling the North American production line gap until succeeded by the Merlin-powered Mustangs.
There’s always a last flight
Dill remembers his last flight in the A-36: His crew chief, Sergeant Tiny Hunter had been working on the aircraft for days, and finally indicated it was ready for a test flight. Dill took it to 15,000 feet and all seemed to be well. He then put it into a dive-bombing run and the canopy came off, hitting him in the head and dazing him. He vaguely recalls becoming aware that he was flying straight and level, near his home base. He made a straight in approach, lowering his gear. Still dazed, he did not round out. He flew into the ground, bouncing forty feet into the air. The aircraft stalled and came down on the left wing tip. It slewed around, breaking off the right landing gear. The propeller nicked the ground and broke off, bounding away across the field. Still only semi-conscious, he ground to a halt, switched off the magneto, and eased out of his seat belt and shoulder straps, thinking, «I’ll never be able to tell them where that the canopy went.» Looking back at the accident, he doesn’t believe he could have survived in any other aircraft.