Captain Lee Rorex and my dad flew in the 389th Fighter Squadron, 366th Fighter Group, of the 9th United States Army Air Force in Europe during World War II. This is their stories. See intro to previous post for more. I dedicate this work to Maj. Dean Todd (ret.) and Capt. Lee Rorex, who were ordinary men who did a great job and are true heroes, though they would never call themselves that. — Gary Lee Todd
Imagine being twenty-one, a brand new 2nd Lieutenant searching for fighter pilot glory, and getting this announcement: “Lieutenant, you’ve been assigned to a P-47 Training Unit.” P-47! The Thunderbolt! 2,000 horse power radial engine, big as the side of a barn, slow as a truck! What happened to that sleek, pointed-nose P-51? Or that fighter pilot’s glorious dream the double pointed-nose P-38? F-O-U-L!!
“Men, welcome to the P-47 Training Unit. I’d ask how many of you volunteered for this Unit, except that all of us here are well aware that every one of you probably wanted to fly the P-51, right?”
Yeah, right! But, that’s the army for you! And, THIS IS the U.S. Army Air Corps, Feb. 1944. They say it, I do it! Me and this 12,000 pound aluminum wasp are stuck with each other!
So, here I sit in this bucket of bolts at the end of the runway. Ease the throttle forward, lock the tail wheel, now give her the gun. Whee-e-e doggie! The power pins me to the seat! In the air, Hey! It handles like a baby! Dive it; get maneuvering speed and pull it up into a loop. Man alive! It handles beautifully! And that power! Who wants to fly a P-51? Quickest first flight conversion ever performed!
And, it will carry more weight, deliver more fire power, take more punishment and still fly, than any airplane ever built! Yeah, and back home, I’ll bet you could plow with it!
“Well, boys, welcome to France and ground-support combat.” Listen now! This is me; the same guy with his nose stuck up in the air; only, eight months, twenty-three combat missions and a lot of smarts later. “Are you still sulking because you aren’t a P-51 glory boy?”
“Oh, sometimes I guess. But, Lee, will we NEVER get a chance at air-to-air combat? Will it always be just air-to-ground support?”
“Well, I’ll level with you; I flew my twenty-third mission yesterday and met enemy aircraft for the first time.”
“Oh, no!” “Hell!” “I was afraid of that!” (Lousy replacements! They never get here with an appreciation of the P-47 and close ground support!)
“Well, I sympathize with you, boys. But then, there’s Capt. Koff. He’s been over here a year and a half; he has 124 missions and 320 hours of combat time and has encountered enemy aircraft only once.” (Now listen to ‘em yell.)
“Oh, hell!” “What a way to go!”
Now it’s time to get them indoctrinated. “Let me tell you what it’s like over here. Every mission takes us to, and across, the Rhine River now. And, on every mission we take ground fire like you wouldn’t believe. And, we do get hit once in a while.”
“Yeah, with what?”
“Well, I could answer that; but, here’s somebody who can do a better job. This is Lt. Gordon who owes his life to the endurance of the P-47. Listen to his story.”
“Hi, fellows. It’s true, what Lee says. There were eight of us up around Dusseldorf, doing a bombing and strafing job on a railroad marshalling yard. Those transportation centers are guarded like they were oil wells. Every caliber gun you can name is in use when you go down on them. From a hand held Luger to a 180 Howitzer, they are shooting at you! Well, I took a hit in the left wing, just outside the wing root. It exploded what ammunition was left, and when the smoke cleared away I saw a hole three feet wide and running from the front wing spar to within four inches of the trailing edge. I’m telling you, any three of us could have stood inside that hole.” Gordon stopped and let this sink in.
Somebody said, “Geez!”
Gordon continued, “Well, my first impulse was to jump. But then, I saw I was still flying, and the wing was still on there. So, I brought her home.”
A new man gasped in amazement. “And landed? With a wing like that?” he asked.
“Yep,” Gordon replied, “and walked away and that wing was still on there. My life was spared because this old Thunderbolt could take it.”
Looks of wonder adorned those new faces and, while they were engaged in being dumbstruck, I called up another man to incite some more admiration.
“Boys, this is Lt. Crusan. He flew back from a mission with one cylinder shot completely away. Tell us about it, Charlie.”
The new men were really dumbstruck as Crusan began.
“It’s true; the cylinder at the one o’clock position was gone. The piston and push rod were gone, along with all the oil! It was all over the windshield! I hung my head out the side and landed that machine, taxied into the revetment and shut off the engine just like normal. Nobody watching could believe it. Well, as soon as that power was turned off, the old engine gave a loud groan and simply stopped. With all the oil gone, all the metal was so hot that every piece of that engine simply welded itself to whatever it was touching! The whole engine was a solid mass of fused metals. But you know, that didn’t happen until that old P-47 brought me home safely.”
Wish you could have seen the astounded looks on those faces.
And, with that kind of built-in reliability, we blow Hitler’s trucks, trains, guns, supplies and soldiers all to hell! We follow the American dogfaced soldiers as they mop up the Ruhr Valley, Germany’s most heavily industrialized area. We clear the way from the air so the ground soldier doesn’t get hung up. If there is such a thing as glory in an air war, this is certainly not it!
We seldom get into an air-to-air dogfight – the kind that produces ACES and instant HOMEFRONT BOND SALESMEN. We always leave home loaded with bombs, rockets, and enough fifty caliber shells to decorate Washington, D.C. at Christmastime. We fight dogfights when we get jumped by the Jerries, or when flying escort for our big, four-engine brothers. Although trained for aerial combat, we are not efficient at the task nor apt to get that way. The following accounts, then, must, of necessity, be accepted for exactly what they are – stories of dive bomber pilots fighting for their own lives under the stress of air-to-air combat – “when it was nose to nose, him or me, live or die.” If you can discount the fact that in many of these cases pilots die, friends are lost, we extract the humor where it is to be found.
Today my friend Russell took his first step toward becoming an Ace. He shot down an enemy plane in mortal combat. Four more and he’ll join the magic circle.
Russ was flying Trombetta’s wing on a regular dive bombing mission. From out of nowhere the Germans swarmed in. The P-47 boys jumped into the fray. Trombetta, the leader, went after an ME-109. Russell, his wingman and tail protector, hung back. The 109, followed by two P-47s, racked into a tight left turn, drawing all three into a left circle. Suddenly, coming in from the right, another ME-109 slid into the circle between Trombetta and Russell. Why he chose to latch onto the front man instead of the last man no one knows. But, his choice sealed his doom! Russell opened up with his eight fifty caliber machine guns and blew the errant German Airman out of the sky. Russ called it, “fortuitous ace-making.”
And sometimes there is just no humor to be extracted. McCauley, from Florida, has been in the outfit for maybe a week. He tends to be quiet and, with his hands in his pockets, he listens a lot. Since he had only his training time behind him, he’ll have maybe two-hundred and fifty hours total flying time. Perhaps I’ve seen this man a half dozen times. His personality appeals to me and, I think I may have found a new friend. But, find in vain! Today, Mac flew his first combat mission in the European Theater of Operations, was shot down by a German flyer, and died. Tonight I’m looking for another new friend! That’s the way it is.
And Struth. He came in about the same time as Mac, but he was different. He had remained in the States as an instructor pilot after getting his wings. His total hours may run up as high as three or four thousand, with about fifty in the P-47. Today, Struth flew his first combat mission in the European Theater of Operations, was shot down by a German flier, and died. I never had a chance to learn his first name!
And then, sometimes, there is just the opposite: instant hero.
This one’s name is Driesler; Dries for short. Fresh in the outfit from Kentucky, with a crooked Dick Tracy nose, and a smile as big as his home state. On this day Dries flew his first combat mission and shot down a Focke-Wulf 190. He knocked the German off his leader’s tail, just as Russell did a few days before.
So, we tease Dries, accusing him of taking the easiest way into making friends in the outfit. For sure, he has one lifetime friend – his leader on that mission.
Pilot Log Entry: 3/2/45 South of Bahn. Strafed motor transport. Met ME-262.
We are on a regular bombing mission today. We’re loaded down and struggling out to the target at 150 miles an hour. Someone calls in, “Bogies, two o’clock high.”
We look and, sure enough, there they are: black, sleek and fast, with that big Swastika flashing the danger signal. There are only two of them and, since we are a twelve ship squadron, we figure they’ll stay away. So, we watch as they circle.
“Hey, Slipshod Red Leader,” comes a call, “do you identify those Bogies? Over.”
“Hey, Red, I believe they’re jets. Over.”
“Yeah, the brand new ones, the ME-262. Over.”
“Red Leader, Blue Leader here. He’s right. That’s the 262, alright. Over.”
In our powerful P-47s we are King of Air-To-Ground. But, facing aerial combat with the new German jet? Well, that’s an equine of a different hue! Of course, we’ve only heard the stories: 600, 700 miles an hour; more maneuverable than a P-51; and nobody, but nobody, could ever hit one in flight! As we look, we know fear.
Sure enough, the two sharks high above dip and start a run on us. They are going to take on all twelve of us at the same time. With twelve ships to shoot at, how can they miss?
Our Red Leader today is Kelly. Long and lanky, an easy smile, and with an air of confidence.
As the Germans turn in and down, Kelly’s confident voice comes over our radios: “Slipshod, Red Leader here. Now, listen up! Do exactly what I do, nothing else! Don’t jettison any bombs or rockets. We’ll beat this one.” Smooth and confident. He obviously has a plan, and, you can bet every one of us is ready to follow it.
The Germans, taking advantage of altitude and speed, are dropping in on our tails. Different pilots keep reporting their exact position as the angle changes. When Peterson calls in, “Bogies high, six o’clock, dead on,” (directly on our tails), comes the still confident voice of our leader: “O.K., Slipshod, do a tight turn left, NOW!”
And, we do. We stand those air-ground tanks up on their wingtips, pull back on the stick and advance the throttle. Those heavy old Thunderbolts respond with a slowdown and a very small diameter turn. Immediately, every pilot grins, or laughs out loud. The German Jets, positively rocketing in at 600 or 700 miles an hour, can never hope to turn inside of us; and this they must do in order to hit us in the air. It’s called curve of pursuit. With guns throwing bullets ‘way off into space, the Jets slide right on past us like someone grasping for the brass ring in a merry-go-round. Totally ineffective.
We watch as they pull up, and up, and finally just perch up there, looking. At which point comes Kelly’s voice over the radio again: “Slipshod, Red Leader here, you got the picture. These boys can’t stay here more than three or four minutes; they don’t carry enough fuel.” Ah, ha! A leader who has done his homework!
And, here they come again! Same speed, same direction. They can’t be very experienced. We watch, turn, avoid and laugh as the highly touted, newly developed German Jets slide away and disappear. And, twelve pilots of the heavy, waddling old P-47, the overweight aluminum wasp, breathe a thankful prayer, realizing we are alive to be a little smarter.
Our twelve planes, rockets and bombs still ready, guns still heavy with unwasted ammo, go our lumbering way and blow up two truck convoys, along with multiple tons of supplies and equipment, and send along a few hundred Germans to their everlasting, freedom-destroying rewards. The highly advanced technology of their air wing did them no good this day.
And, I’ve racked up another forty or fifty German-type humans, dead under my guns.
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Jan. 1, 1945, a memorable day for everyone, more memorable for some. This day the German Air Force makes a glorious, all-out effort and hits Allied Lines north and south, clear across Belgium and Germany. Allied estimates put the figure at 10,000 planes launched by the Germans today, most probably flown by teen-age boys for lack of properly trained pilots. One can only guess that their intent is to scare us out of the war.
But, cunning is the German mind. Last night, New Year’s Eve, he kept all of his pilots cold sober. Meanwhile, at least every other Allied pilot, mechanic, dog-face, paddlefoot and cook was smashed to the gills!! Came daylight, this A.M., a slight inequity in manpower stability existed.
My group is based on Location Y-29 near Watershei, Belgium. Muddleheaded and still celebrating, a bunch of us are sitting at breakfast swilling large amounts of black coffee. From far off, it seems, we hear what could be the bark of machine guns. But, we don’t really pay much attention.
Suddenly, someone bursts into the mess tent. “Hit the deck,” he yells, “we’re under air attack!”
Air attack? Impossible! That’s something we do to them. So, do us cocky and confident American pilots hit the deck? Hell no! We amble out for a look.
Outside, we look. There are a few planes around. But, man, that’s what an airfield is all about. P-51s, P-47s, a few Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts, and — A FEW FOCKE WULF’S AND MESSERSCHMITTS!!
“HIT THE DECK! HERE THEY COME AGAIN!” and, sure enough, here they come! An FW-190 is flaggin’ it low right over our heads, machine guns chattering. With this added persuasion, us cocky and confident American pilots dive into holes, under tarps, trailers, or whatever! The bastards are actually strafing our field!
I raise my head and look up just as a P-47 is rolling for his takeoff. As his wheels break ground, about midpoint on the runway, the pilot opens up with his eight fifty caliber machine guns and blasts a low flying ME-109 right out of the air. My vision registers a pilot and plane, an explosion, bits and pieces. It will do things to you, friend.
“Here they come again!” comes the cry. We dive again, but can’t resist another look. Here comes another ME-109, low, fast and blazing away at anything and everything. The pilot is either dedicated or dumb! On his tail are two P-47s, blazing away at him, and kicking up the dirt all around us!
ZOOM-M-M, they go over. WHOOM-M-M, the 109 disintegrates, not over 100 feet off the ground!
“Anything else comin’ in?”
We stand up. I see two P-51s latch onto a German plane in the air. In about fifteen seconds his goose is cooked. The leader shoots the German in a left turn; the wingman shoots him in a right turn; and POW! Gone.
Our Group manages to get up maybe a dozen P-47s. A P-51 Group, billeted across the field, gets up a few, no one knows how many. Together, they go up against an estimated 100 Germans intent upon wiping our field off the face of the earth. Result? No American losses. Germans? 22 planes shot down, with three possible but not verified.
For the next fifteen minutes, we on the ground are treated to the doggondest airshow ever staged as each victorious pilot roars in low and up with his victory roll.
In the midst of all the celebration a P-47 lands and the pilot jumps out of his plane, yelling at the top of his voice, “I got the bastard with my air-to-ground rockets!”
Sure enough, out of ammo and still up there with all the action, he’d seen a 190 crossing his path in front and out of range. So, in his own words, “I just pulled my nose in front of him, lifted it up until it blanked him out, and let go my rockets. I let the nose down just in time to see that son-of-a-bitch blow into a million pieces!” Air-to-ground rockets? No aerodynamic qualities, no control, designed to do only one thing and that’s FALL, STRAIGHT DOWN! And half the time miss! Well, heroes are born, not made.
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The Battle of the Bulge is in progress. Based at Liege, Belgium, we’re only minutes away. We sit here under a solid blanket of fog, unable to move.
Day after day we have waited. Some days we have even gone out to our planes, climbed in and just sat! Just so we could be ready if that fog lifted! But, no luck.
Today things broke up a bit, but only a bit. The overhead ceiling is three to four hundred feet. Above that is maybe six tenths cloud cover (meaning that the holes cover only four tenths of the sky). The weather is good only for desperation effort; and, in this weather we have gotten off two missions. I’ve drawn the third one and we’re ready to go.
PILOT LOG ENTRY: 12/27/44 Malmedy. Jumped by 190s and 109s. Got one twenty MM in left gun bay.
We are down around Bastogne, at about a thousand feet, dodging clouds and looking for Germans on the ground. This is a helluva way to go! All of a sudden, rat-a-tat-tat-tat! Machine gun fire, and I can hear it! Inside my heavy, loud, noisy P-47, I can hear it! And, I know why! In the air, a pilot can hear machine guns only if they are being shot from directly behind him. Old TAIL END CHARLIE has had it again!
A look back confirms the worst. A huge white and black propeller spinner is parked right on my tail, and, by deductive reasoning, I arrive at the conclusion that the rest of that FW-190 is right behind. The logic of my reasoning process is proved immediately. Bullets by the hundred start streaming past my cockpit and I can see the every fifth one which is a tracer, red and fiery. There is a pilot on that trigger and he is bent on my doom!
In addition to saving my life here, I have a duty to my fellow flyers; so, I push the mic button, scream, “BREAK, SLIPSHOD, BREAK!” like any good Tail End Charlie should, at the same time racking into a tight right turn, the German’s bullets flashing to my side.
Now, it’s just him or me, nose to nose, live or die. And, at the moment, he’s got the upper hand! I go up; he goes up. I sweat. I chop the throttle and skid left; he stays right behind, still shooting. I sweat! Having started at only a thousand feet, I am suddenly down to treetop level. I dive into a small valley and pray he has a thing about valleys. He obviously doesn’t; he’s still shooting and I’m still sweating.
Contour flying now, I pull up and over a small hill and down into another valley. My adversary is still blasting away but it is a fact that I have awareness enough to observe a jeep apparently stalled in the middle of a small river. There are four soldiers out in the water, perhaps trying to push it. As we scream overhead, I hope that the bullets miraculously missing me don’t hit them. I am still sweating, the German still shooting; by all rights, he should have had me by now.
I am forced to pull up for another hill, and do so reluctantly. The higher I get, the less he has to worry about the ground. But, where are the bullets? I look back and, thank God, there is the full belly silhouette of the German plane as he pulls up and does a turnaround. He is breaking off! He is quitting! In seconds we are far apart. The death threat is gone!
More an automaton than a person, I reach out to the throttle and slow that overheated and pounding engine. Reality creeps in on my consciousness; I’m not going to die! Not going to die! My breath is coming in labored gasps. My eyes blur and I actually black out for a brief instant.
Another reality creeps in. My stomach and thighs are wet, oppressively wet. Oh, no! Wounded and didn’t know it! Damn! I look down, expecting to see blood all over, but there is none. Just wet. But, in my fear, had I simply urinated all over myself? But then, awareness; there on my stomach hangs the loose end of my oxygen hose, dangling from my face mask. When not in use for oxygen, it simply dangles, serving no purpose, except to conduct all the sweat from my face and dump it in my lap! I burst out in a laugh, one third amusement, two thirds sheer mental and physical relief. More relaxed now, I wonder, for the first time, what kept my mother’s little boy alive this day.
Out of chaos, humor. In reliving this incident many times over the last forty years, a pertinent factor stands out in my mind. Sometime during this gut-wrenching ordeal, while death lurked only one explosive bullet away, I had felt the need to communicate my plight to my flight leader, miles away and probably engaged in a fight for his own life. At this juncture, I had pressed my mic button and yelled, “Slipshod Red Leader, this is Yellow four. I’m on the deck, headed west with an FW-190 on my tail!” My death scream.
From out of nowhere had come faithful Red Leader’s reply. “Stay with him, big boy!”
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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 the Universal Spiritual Soul which all of us share. Martin Buber called it THEOPHANY – the meeting between man and God.