Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Beyond the Book - Q & A with Col. Steve Pisanos, 4th Fighter Group

Retired Colonel Steve N. Pisanos was born in Athens, Greece, and came to America in 1938. Prior to the United States' entry into World War II, Pisanos flew P-51s and Spitfires with the Royal Air Force. He would eventually become an ace while piloting a P-47 with the 4th Fighter Group.

When forced to crash-land in enemy territory in 1944 (while flying a Mustang), he spend six months evading the Germans and fighting with the French Resistance and American Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

In the following interview with Cory Graff, author of P-47 Thunderbolt at War, Pisanos discussed the Thunderbolt.
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GRAFF: I understand the 4th Fighter Group was a bit reluctant to transfer over to the P-47 Thunderbolt after flying the Spitfire in combat. What would you say was the general consensus and mood of your comrades about the switch?

PISANOS: When it was announced that the 4th Fighter Group was going to be re-equipped with the P-47 Thunderbolt, some pilots at Debden Aerodrome felt that maybe we made a mistake leaving the Royal Air Force. But as the days went by, we began to think about the pay in Uncle Sam’s air force, which was mighty good.

And when the P-47s began to arrive and we started to fly the clumsy seven-ton monster, the negative attitude many of us had formed about the Jug began to disappear. Even though the P-47 was twice as heavy as the Spit, and it couldn’t turn or climb as well as the Spit, it could out dive any German or British fighter. It could also fly farther than the Spit.

After we had completed our training (twenty-five to thirty flying hours per pilot to become operational), we had surprisingly discovered that the seven-ton battlewagon of war could fight well against Germany’s fighters at high altitudes, because of the highly effective turbo supercharger. We also learned that we could bounce anything below from our high altitude and get away by zooming up to infinity. We learned to avoid getting mixed up with the German fighters below eighteen thousand feet.

On April 15, 1943, Major Don Blakeslee of the 4th Fighter Group shot down a Fw-190 during a fighter sweep across the Channel, the first enemy aircraft to be shot down by a P-47 Thunderbolt. We hated to see our beloved Spitfires go, but we had now fallen in love with another fighter aircraft, the P-47, which could take us deeper into enemy territory.

GRAFF: Before Spitfires, you had flown P-51As in England. Do you suppose your experiences with an American plane made your outlook on what to expect from the Thunderbolt any different that of your squadron mates?

PISANOS: In a way, yes. The P-51A wasn’t a high-altitude fighter. Its Allison engine had no supercharger, and above ten thousand feet the aircraft became sluggish. That is why the RAF used it for low-level operations over Holland.

But I was certainly impressed with the cockpit arrangement of the American machine of war, in comparison to the Spitfire’s cockpit. When I first got into the cockpit of the Thunderbolt to familiarize myself with the many gadgets, I certainly felt like I was at home.

GRAFF: Did the pilots of the 4th Fighter Group discuss how they were going to change their tactics to accommodate the very different type of fighter?

PISANOS: During training, all of us were involved in mock dogfights, among ourselves and frequently getting mixed up with friendly Spitfires, Typhoons, and Hurricanes. We used mostly our bounce technique, dive and zoom up. This type of involvement gave us not only confidence, but we learned what to expect when we were to be confronted with Luftwaffe fighters.

Also, every night before dinner at the bar and after, still drinking, there was talk such as how to attack Jerry from above, or get away from one you had spotted on your tail, and how to recover from a dive. Recovering from a dive was very important to us because during training, we had a pilot who went into almost a vertical dive and crashed straight in. Although investigators couldn’t find a reason for the crash, it was assumed that the pilot had perhaps blacked out in his attempt to recover.

As for myself, I did considerable dogfighting, tail chasing, and everything you could expect in a mix-up with an adversary. I accomplished most of this part of our training with my roommate, Don Gentile. We would take off and rendezvous at a prearranged places, climb to altitude in formation, then break up and try and get on each other’s tail. This, to me and to my close friend, was the most valuable part of our training with the Jug.

GRAFF: I understand that you became a U.S. citizen while you were in the USAAF, flying in England. Your P-47 was named Miss Plainfield. This is for your adopted home in the United States?

PISANOS: Yes, Plainfield, New Jersey, was my adopted town in the U.S. That was the place I worked and lived and the place from where I joined the RAF in the latter part of 1941.

When I was assigned my own P-47 (QP-D), my crew chief, Sgt. Paul Fox, said to me one day, “Lieutenant, aren’t we going to paint something on the cowling of our Jug? Your friend has already painted Miss Dallas on his Jug and it looks real good.”

I decided to name my P-47 Miss Plainfield for a girl from that city, who had started to send me letters, praising me for being in the war from Plainfield, as the local newspaper continued to write articles about my activities while I was overseas. I never met this young lady.

GRAFF: Tell me about your first combat mission in the P-47.

PISANOS: On May 21, 1943, the 4th Fighter Group was dispatched on a fighter sweep over Belgium. I was wingman to Capt. Tommy Andrews of White Section. Just as we crossed the enemy coast at thirty-one thousand feet, Corby Control advised us about some twelve bandits approaching from nine o’clock, angels twenty-seven.

Upon sighting them, Captain Andrews immediately broke away from group formation, turned left, and went into a shallow dive. The Germans broke up formation, and the twelve or so Fw 190s scattered all over the sky. Tommy cut onto the radio and said, “White Section, two 190s, twelve o’clock below, let’s go get them.”

As we were closing in fast on the two Germans from behind and a little bit above, they broke up their element, turning in opposite directions. On Tommy’s orders, [Gordon] Whitlow and [Leland] “Mack” [MacFarlane] followed the guy to the right, and Tommy said, “Follow me Spiro (using my Greek name). We’ll go after the guy on the left.”

Both of us were barreling down at high speed, but as Tommy got within range of his prey, the German snapped his aircraft to the left in a very steep turn, forcing Tommy to overshoot the 190 by a big margin. The German must have been a clever guy, I thought.

Having gone by the 190, Tommy made an extremely steep left turn that scared the heck out of me, forcing me to pull up in a sort of left wingover, with my eyes still glued on the 190 that had passed under my aircraft.

Tommy’s turn was so steep that he must have experienced a high-speed stall, as his aircraft flipped over on its back and went into what appeared to be a flat spin. “Tommy,” I screamed into the radio, “are you okay?” “I’m okay,” he said and added, “Dammit, I screwed up. Go get that bastard, Spiro, and I’ll catch up with you.”

Immediately, I took my eyes away from Tommy’s Jug and turned around toward the fleeing 190. I put my aircraft into a dive with full power, and that helped me catch up with the guy. I must have been about four hundred yards out when the German evidently spotted me as he started to turn left—my favorite turn with the Jug.

I tightened my turn as he did his, but I was able to slide inside his turn, and that put me some 250 to 300 yards behind him in a perfect position for a deflection shot. I pressed the trigger and gave him a short burst, remembering my old friend Deacon Hively. You start with a short burst to make sure you are getting hits, as you don’t want to waste any ammo. But dammit, every one of my bullets from the eight .50s went to the right of the steeply turning 190.

I tightened my turn some more and fired again—a long burst and bang, black smoke began to pour from the 190. The smoke was getting heavier, and suddenly the German aircraft stopped turning, and I had him now in the center of my gun sight. I gave him another burst, and still the only thing I saw was more black smoke and no fire of any kind.

“Atta boy, you nailed him,” Tommy Andrews said on the radio. He had caught up with me after his ordeal. “I am behind you White Two, go on and finish the bastard.” The 190 slowed, and I had to cut my speed and pull up to the right to get out of the heavy smoke. I looked at the 190 and the cockpit was totally covered in smoke, and I couldn’t see the pilot.

“Why on earth was the pilot not jumping?” I asked myself. Then all of a sudden the canopy blew off, and I thought the pilot was going to jump, but nothing happened. “He must have been injured,” I thought.

It was then that I decided to turn away and go home, as I had spent considerable time in the area. Tommy must have been thinking the same thing, as he cut into the radio and said, “Let’s turn around Spiro, the guy is done. He has to jump now.”

Since I had not seen the pilot jump or the plane crash, I could only claim one Fw 190 probably destroyed, based on the rules of combat. Later, Fighter Command upgraded the claim to one Fw 190 destroyed, based on a report of a pilot who saw two parachutes floating in the area of operation—one a P-47 pilot and the other from my Fw 190. 

GRAFF: Was the P-47 well-suited for the type of work done in the Eighth Air Force, bomber escort business?

PISANOS: The Thunderbolt was the most suitable aircraft for escort duty at the time, even though it wasn’t the ideal aircraft for individual combat at low altitudes unless the adversary you were after happened to be an inexperienced pilot.

At high altitude, however, the Jug was as good as or better than the 109 or the 190, and this was the way we used to fly escort missions with the B-17s and B-24s: We would position one squadron at least a few thousand feet above the bomber formation, and if any enemy aircraft attempted to attack the bombers, we would merely dive with the intention of cutting them off and maneuver, using our speed for an advantageous position to fire our guns.

Some attacking Germans would dive away. Others would stay around to fight. Of course, those who had elected to dive were asking for trouble, because they could never out-dive the Jug.

GRAFF: How did the 4th Fighter Group take to losing their P-47s? Where you sorry to see them go?

PISANOS: Don Blakeslee, who commanded the 4th Fighter Group, insisted all along that his pilots be given a fighter that could provide escort all the way to targets deep inside Germany. In fact, when he saw the P-51B groups arriving in England, and 8th Fighter Command used him a few times to lead these groups into combat, he realized that the Mustang was the answer to long-distance escort.

He begged Gen. Bill Kepner, the chief of the 8th Fighter Command, to give the 4th Fighter Group the Mustang, and the general’s reply was that he couldn’t take the 4th off operations for the transition to train pilots. Blakeslee countered the general’s remark by saying, “General, we don’t need any training, we flew Spitfires. You give me the Mustangs and I’ll be ready to go in twenty-four hours.”

It worked. A few days later, Kepner called and asked, “Don, is that twenty-four hours you had told me about, is it still on?”

“Yes, sir,” Blakeslee told him. On February 28 [1944], the 4th flew its first mission with Mustangs. We were out on the 29th and on March 2. But on March 3, we made history by escorting the B-17s to Berlin the first time.

As to whether the 4th Fighter Group pilots were sorry to see our faithful P-47s go, it’s hard to tell. Some pilots loved the machine because of its ruggedness. But Don Blakeslee, our industrious leader, had other ideas. He wanted to go to Berlin, and the Thunderbolt was not suitable for the accomplishment of that mission. Going to Berlin with the Mustang was the ultimate warning to the Luftwaffe that the USAAF meant business now.

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