My dad was a writer, too. He was aviation and business editor of the Rockford Register Republic from 1954 until he retired in 1981. He edited and actually did much of the writing of Fish Hassell’s autobiography, A Viking with Wings. But so far as I know, he never wrote about his own experiences as a P-47 pilot with the 9th AAF. Lee Rorex did, 40 years after the war was over. He told me my dad – Dean Todd – was with him on most or all of the missions he wrote about. So this is my dad’s story as well as Capt. Lee’s. —Gary Lee Todd
The location is Laon-Couvron, France. It is northeast of Paris. Funny, I have never seen the town, just the patched up runway. It has been filled and refilled while serving as a German air field. But, patched or not, we now have a runway for the first time in my seventeen missions. Heretofore, we’ve used a steel mat rolled out over the dirt for our takeoffs and landings.
We moved up closer to the front lines three weeks ago. Our daily flight missions take us up to and across the beautiful Rhine River. We’ll move up again soon in order to give close support to the dogface soldiers.
Of necessity, we fly low and slow. Low because we knock out ground targets; and slow because we’re always loaded to the gills with bombs and rockets and machine gun ammo. We work from a thousand feet, fly in all kinds of nasty weather and do our best to help those mud-sloggin’, bullet-dodgin’ G.I.s on the ground. Sometimes a different kind of thing comes along.
Pilot’s Log Entry: 11/9/44. Rhine River. Dive bombed oil dump. 20-40-50-88 Flak. Most flak I ever saw.
All days are memorable, after they are over. From the time I got up at six this morning, this one has had memorable written all over it. The clouds, solid and a little black, are hanging low and ominous. I recognize this as a sign; not one learned from my old country grandpa and his trick knee, but one learned from the Colonel which he very carefully threw out at our mission briefing last night.
“Boys, we’ve got a chance at a big one tomorrow. An oil dump, right here,” stabbing the wall map with a finger. The thump of his finger hitting the wall caused some pilot-type muscles to jump reflexively. Any sound that comes suddenly and with a thump does that to us. We’re flak-happy from being shot at day after day; losing buddies; telling unfunny jokes to take up the slack in dead conversations.
“Boys, we’re being given this mission because there is no Heavy Bomber Group available right now. If we take out one of Hitler’s main oil supply stations we’ll shorten this war, and how!”
Yeah, and how! We’re ready for it to be shortened, like yesterday! And then came that omen, that sign marked memorable, remember?
“Boys,” he always calls us boys – Lt. Colonel Harvey W.C. Shelton, 7th, the old man – he’s twenty-four years old. “Boys, this one is so big, we’re taking a thirty-six ship group. We’ll go, no matter what. The weather doesn’t look good, but it’ll take a hurricane to keep us on the ground.”
As I look this morning, those clouds not only are NOT hurricanes, they have left a gap of maybe five hundred feet between them and the ground. Plenty of room for a fighter-bomber pilot! Right? Yeah, an ominous day.
The 390th Squadron fires up first. They are leading the group and the rest of us watch as they put twelve ships into the air. I can’t help a wry laugh as I watch twelve ships take off, and suddenly disappear into those ominous clouds.
The 391st Squadron goes next; fire up, take off, disappear. Funny how those ominous clouds can swallow up group after group and never even seem to get a full stomach. So, there they are, waiting.
So, here goes the fightin’ 389th, old Slipshod by radio code, anything but slipshod in its gory work. Fire up, take off, disappear into those ominous clouds. We pray it will be a short instrument climb.
On the radio: “Cougar Red Leader, Slipshod here. Are you out of the soup yet? Over.”
“Negative, Slipshod, and I’m at 9,000 feet. Cougar out.”
Nine thousand feet! We haven’t been this high in our last five missions all added together! Who we gonna bomb, anyway?
On the radio: “Slipshod, this is Red Leader. Better slip into some of that oxygen. We’re going through 10,000 feet.”
Ten thousand feet! Has the world gone mad? Not only ten thousand feet up, but we’re still in those ominous, kinda black clouds, remember?
“Cougar Leader to group. We’re out on top at 17,500 feet. Cougar out.” His voice holds a slight touch of disbelief, with just a snitch of humor. He knows what all of us are thinking. Why, man! We have started bombing and strafing runs from a thousand feet! Most of the time! And now, 17,500!
It always happens all of a sudden. Old Slipshod bursts out of those ominous, kinda black clouds. Just as in the movies, in the blink of an eye we are in a world of sparkly bright sunshine. Below are those now fairy-like clouds, bubbling, pushing up in beautiful, convoluted, rolling patterns; reflecting the sun back in priceless sparkles of gold, magenta, blue and white. It is a wonderland, the proportions and color of which Disney never could have matched. A description of my feelings at this point is impossible.
I check my altimeter. Sure enough, 17,500 feet above terra firma. And out there, all over it seems, are little black specks struggling along with two five hundred pound bombs under the wings, four air-to-ground rockets alongside, and a huge gasoline belly tank slung underneath to get home on. Thirty-six of us in all. Today I’m number thirty from the front.
“Cougar Leader, Slipshod Red Leader here. Who we gonna bomb from way up here, anyway. Over.”
“Cougar Leader here. I don’t know unless they come up here with us.” We hear him laugh.
“Cougar Leader, Indian Red Leader here. There at about two o’clock is a pretty good hole. It might help us. Over.”
“Roger, Indian. We’ll have a look at it. Cougar out.”
It is all sorta like a dream play. For old number thirty up here, way back from the front end of the line, I am immersed in a powerful drama consisting of romancing a responsive P-47 Fighter/Bomber up through 17,000 feet of solid clouds, zooming around startlingly beautiful cumulus formations, and, at age twenty-two, observing more natural beauty than most people are permitted to see in a life time. To a romantic like this, war and life-threatening danger are a world away.
“Cougar Leader here, listen up.” We listen. “You’ll find this hard to believe, but it’s true. This damn hole is a couple of miles across, and it sits right on top of our oil dump! So help me God!” we can hear his amazement.
“Cougar, Slipshod here. What’s the plan? Over.”
“Well boys, just like we planned. Cougar will go in by flights; Indian will follow, and Slipshod last. Everything’s the same except that we’re starting a bomb run at 17,000 feet. Good luck. Cougar out.”
That didn’t sound so bad, did it? But, think of falling from 17,000 feet and those ground gunners have all that time to blast away at you! Normally we start from about a thousand, or so. Makes a difference. Yeah, ominous.
Old number thirty sitting up here with his rose-colored glasses on, hypnotized by the romantic beauty of it all, watches as Cougar Red Leader peels off and down, followed by his three chicks. Then Yellow Flight peels off and down, and old number thirty comes out of his romance trance. Coming up are black puffs, and more black puffs. Some red streaks appear, fade and reappear. It’s a little like the 4th of July, except that these fireworks are of a different nature and spell death, no matter what color!
Cougar Blue Flight peels off and down. I have trouble following them through the smoke. Indian Squadron starts their bomb runs and I can see multiple red flashes on the ground as Cougar’s bombs begin to burst. I see Indian Blue Flight go down and disappear into the smoke. Damn, it’s black down there! And the air is filled with millions of pieces of shattered iron, just waiting for a plane to run through.
By now, rising from the ground are a succession of smoke plumes. Black and angry and filled with burning oil, flak and all kinds of ground debris, they rise three thousand, five thousand feet into the air. Cougar and Indian are doing their jobs, and how!
I have now counted twenty-four of those seemingly tiny black bugs as they dropped off into the black hole in pursuit of death and destruction. Of a sudden, a thought hits me: all those Germans on the ground have to do is to take a gun, any gun, point it up into that hole and pull the trigger. No aiming necessary! How could you miss? And, how many Germans guard an important oil dump? 1,000? 5,000? Maybe. And every kind of gun from a Luger to a 105 howitzer! That’s one thing it means to be number thirty from the front!
I watch, now, as Slipshod Red Flight peels off and down. By now the sky is so black as to appear solid. I’d swear that a man could land his plane at 10,000 feet and just get out and walk away!
Number 25, 26, 27, and 28. Slipshod is on its way down.
Slipshod Yellow Leader peels off and down. Being right behind him, I have the best seat and, so help me, my leader momentarily disappears in the black smoke! So help me!
I am peeling off and down. The black envelops me, then breaks. I immediately see a horrible thing one doesn’t usually live to tell about. At ground level, I see a huge shell leave its gun barrel and traject an upward path. I am well aware that to see this I must be sitting precisely on its trajectory path. In other words, I’M DEAD! “Dear God, save me today,” is the prayer which parts my lips.
My plane is now screaming down at 350 miles an hour. Zig-zag so as not to be hit, you hope. Press off a few rounds so as to keep those German heads down. The shell hasn’t hit me; exploded below me, obviously. My eye lines up what looks like an oil tank grouping. Switch on, bombs armed. Living a life often charmed. Air black, filled with flack. 10,000, 5,000, altimeter spinning, death grinning. Noise, ringing, sweat, fear. Can’t hear. Press that bomb release! Pitch! Pull up, SON-OF-A-BITCH! Don’t get hit now!
And then, amidst all that hell and indiscriminate death, a miracle of humor, perhaps the only way to stay alive in times like this!
It lasts only a few seconds, much less time than it takes to tell. Just as I release my bombs, I look to the right; why, I don’t know. There, in plain sight, is another P-47. An eighth of a mile over, it flies a path similar to mine. It pulls up, it zigs and zags. But, all this without the benefit of a fighter pilot. I’ll swear I can’t see him! Just the plane!
And then, as we come up, and up, and away from the indiscriminate death and destruction, it happens. I know who’s in that plane, old number thirty-one, Pinkerton. As I watch, spellbound, amidst all the black, and horror, and terror, and fear and death, a leather covered head appears above the bottom window sill, followed by a pair of goggles. They pause, look. I burst out into uncontrollable laughter and shout, “Peek-a-boo, Pinkerton.”
The man has found his own way of coping with death. I wish I had thought of it.
Thirty-six planes dived into that black hole filled with sudden, bloody death. Thirty-six planes pulled up, flew home and deposited thirty-six fighter-bomber pilots alive, happy and thankful. Why? How? Huh! You TELL ME!
The oil supply station? It simply ceased to exist. The German ground gunners? Them, too. I was told they were my enemies.
********** ********** **********
Just an ordinary guy doing a job. But then, all jobs that big are done by ordinary guys. And each one, like the pilot, expending that Universal Spiritual Soul which all of us share. Martin Buber called it THEOPHANY – the meeting between man and God.