Monday, August 16, 2010

From the Pages - Hell Hawks!

As gifted as the pilots of the 365th Fighter Group were in air-to-air combat, these aviators were perhaps best known for pioneering many air-to-ground combat techniques. From Normandy to Germany, the men known as the "Hell Hawks" would wreak insurmountable havoc upon German troops, armor, airfields, and supply lines. In the following excerpt from Hell Hawks! The Untold Story of the American Fliers Who Savaged Hitler's Wehrmacht, authors Robert F. Dorr and Thomas D. Jones describe several of the Hell Hawks' harrowing experiences attacking the retreating German troops across France in September 1944.

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As the German army fled to the relative safety of their own frontier, scourged by flights of merciless Thunderbolts, Lightnings, and Typhoons, the Hell Hawks raced into the arms of newly liberated Paris. Trucked to the base of the Eiffel Tower, the first wave of men found the streets full of women eager to please Americans. Wrote Johnson, “It was impossible to go more than a block without being propositioned several times. Few of the men spent much time on their feet while in Paris.”

A 386th intelligence officer later wrote of the experience: “Beautiful, friendly Paris, with its lovely and fascinating, and wicked women, was the downfall of practically the entire squadron, officers and men alike. Only by tremendous efforts of willpower were most of us able to drag our frayed and worn out bodies homeward long enough to make a half-hearted attempt to carry on the war—and to recuperate for yet another orgy.”

Enough of the 386th survived the ordeal to mount a series of combat sorties on September 9, directly supporting the advancing First Army. The 386th had a dozen planes up over Belgium when Porter raised the forward air controller working with Combat Command B (CCB) of the 5th Armored Division. BURNER (the controller’s call sign) was confronting German armor in the town of Arlons, Belgium, and Porter sent four Thunderbolts to the attack. Each had a pair of five-hundred-pound bombs; whistling down in a thirty-degree dive at over four hundred miles per hour, the pilots released a bare thousand feet above the target, pulling out in a face-sagging, high-g recovery just above treetop level.

The eight bombs burst in pairs amid the tanks, tossing them onto their sides and tumbling bricks and collapsed walls on top. Spotting more traffic, the Hell Hawks strafed and destroyed eight trucks and twenty-five horse-drawn transports. The hedge-hopping Thunderbolts next spotted a one-hundred-vehicle troop column near Mamer, Luxembourg. Eight Jugs roared down in line-abreast formation, spreading the flak tracers whipping up from the enemy column. Each pilot picked a target and at a range of under a thousand yards squeezed the control-stick trigger and began shooting. Troops jumped from the trucks, scattering like ants until the whirlwind of .50-caliber slugs caught them. Several passes over the burning column destroyed thirty-three trucks, probably claimed another fifteen, and damaged ten. Turning for Br├ętigny, the squadron wrecked a lone locomotive as the capstone to their afternoon’s work.

Flying a silver P-47D emblazoned with the big red letters Hot Fat II that afternoon was Capt. George R. “Bob” Brooking, an experienced pilot with hundreds of hours in fighters, but all of it on uneventful Aleutian patrols in the Bell P-39 Airacobra. “I had just joined the 386th as a high-time captain, pretty senior for the group, but had never fired a gun in anger.” Since his arrival, in fact, Brooking had only managed his obligatory three familiarization rides in the P-47.

Bob Brooking—a Bozeman, Montana, native—was the “new boy,” one of the Hell Hawks’ first replacement pilots, but he had nearly three years of flying under his belt in C-47s and P-39 fighters when he arrived in Normandy to join the Group. He had chosen P-47s instead of Mustangs because the P-51’s five-hour-plus escort missions were longer than he cared for: the Thunderbolt had a more comfortable seat, said Brooking. “I had a skinny butt; I couldn’t sit that long.” Now over Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Reich frontier, he was seeing real combat for the first time.

On the 9th of September, Brooking was flying wing on Capt. Robert E. Young, the mission leader, as the squadron wheeled into a strafing run on a German train near the transportation hub of Trier, Germany. Young told Brooking to stay high, at eight thousand feet, out of trouble.

“I wasn’t mad at anybody,” said Brooking; he was just out to do a good job in front of the experienced Jug hands. From a mile and a half up he watched the squadron work over the train, but he grew impatient waiting, and dove to give strafing a try. On his first pass, he peppered the train with his fifties and came around again to finish the job.

The second pass was a mistake. The flak gunners watched his orbit and were ready. Screaming down on the train, Brooking was bracketed by heavy flak; Hot Fat II lurched, and his view forward instantly disappeared behind a spray of slick black oil. A shell burst had severed the quarter-inch oil supply line to his propeller controller. From the size of the leak spraying over his canopy, he knew he had only a few minutes before the eighteen-cylinder R-2800 melted its red-hot bearings and seized.

Turning west alone, Brooking tried to judge his position relative to the front lines, all the while pondering what he should do if the engine quit. There wouldn’t be time to decide later: “The P-47 was not a good glider,” he said. He knew German troops had been reported killing U.S. pilots as they parachuted to earth, so Brooking decided on a belly landing. Ten minutes after being hit, the Thunderbolt’s engine shuddered to a halt.

Below him were piles of slag and the smokestacks of an industrial town, Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg. Brooking managed to clear the steelworks in his path and belly into a grassy pasture, Hot Fat II crumpling under his seat but protecting him from anything worse than a good bruising from his harness.

The captain was down, having been shot out of the sky on his first combat sortie. Brooking jumped from the cockpit, waved at his squadron mates, and did a quick head-swivel to clear his surroundings. No enemies were in view, but a civilian caught his attention, waving him over. “I knew there were Germans closing in, so I did the hundred yards to that guy in about nine seconds flat,” said Brooking. The stranger hustled him to the loft of a nearby barn, gesturing for him to stay put.

“I heard Germans on the nearby road, and then gunfire. I found out later that the Germans had thrown a hand grenade into the cockpit of the plane,” said Brooking. “When they questioned my rescuer, he pointed to some willows down by the creek.” Having diverted the enemy squad, Brooking’s host left, leaving the pilot’s imagination beset by every worst-case scenario he could imagine. “I burrowed down into the hay and sweated it out for over two hours. But I still wasn’t mad at anyone.”

After dark his contact, Fred, returned with some friends and a coat, hat, and walking stick for Brooking. Dressed as a local, Brooking strode under escort to town, another man on a bicycle riding point to ensure the way was clear. “German soldiers were all over the place,” Brooking said. Safely making it the two miles to Esch-sur-Alzette, he was escorted down steps into a large, dark cellar. When a candle lit the space, he was surprised to see thirty or forty townsmen gathered. “I was the first customer of the Luxembourg underground. The whole organization was there—and they were delighted to see me. Needless to say I was doubly delighted to see all of them.” Brooking recalled.

Fred was the local butcher, and the pilot had landed in his pasture. The hospitality continued: the butcher’s wife, Mrs. Keup, promptly fixed him a meal of steak and French-fried potatoes while her English-speaking daughter translated the candlelit conversation.

Next morning, Brooking ate breakfast while the locals watched—and applauded—through the kitchen windows. Brooking asked a World War I vet and resistance member named Joe why he merited all this attention. “He answered, ‘Today you are the king.’ It was my uniform and country they were thanking.”

After another night with the Keups, Brooking woke to find the Germans were gone. He heard tanks in the distance—American, he hoped. The townspeople had hung white sheets and American flags from the windows in anticipation of the GIs’ arrival, but the residents couldn’t wait for the army. “The civilians carried me into the main square like a conquering hero, where Hot Fat II’s cowling was enshrined in the city hall,” said Brooking. He spent the morning amid the throngs of happy Luxembourgers, singing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and enjoying gifts of wine and flowers. “All of the happy faces came close to bringing tears to my eyes. This was a picture of liberation that I wish everyone could have seen.”

Soon a flower-filled jeep from the 5th Armored Division pulled into the square, and Brooking said good-bye amid a blizzard of kisses, handshakes, and good wishes. Riding shotgun with two Wehrmacht prisoners perched on the hood, Brooking thought about his good fortune on the ride out of Esch-sur-Alzette: “The faces of those people told me more about the war than anything I had heard or read before.”

An L-5 Sentinel spotter pilot flew him out to the new Hell Hawks field at Juvincourt, France, where he found the base practically deserted. “I heard some commotion over a nearby rise and walked over the crest. Everyone was sitting on the hillside below watching Dinah Shore and her USO troupe put on a show.” No one noticed his arrival.

In the crowd was the 386th commanding officer, Bill Ritchie, whom Brooking was due to eventually replace. “He’d thought my shoot-down meant his ticket stateside had just been cancelled,” said Brooking, “and he’d be stuck for another tour. When Ritchie laid eyes on me, he grinned and hugged me like a long-lost brother!” After his interrogation by the intel boys, Brooking got a night off in Paris. Next day he was back on the flight schedule. “That got me mad,” said the now-seasoned Jug pilot. His promotion to major came through just after his arrival, and “that went over big, as you might imagine,” among some of the more cynical Hell Hawks, said Brooking.

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